I wish to share time with Deputy Sargent.
Private Members' Business. - Hepatitis C: Motion.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
This has been one of the longest running sagas in which many of us in politics have participated. I have spoken previously on the tragic loss of Mrs. Brigid McCole. I accept that every effort is being made to address what may be the greatest medical tragedy with which we will have to deal. However, it is difficult to understand why, when the Irish Haemophilia Society had gone to such lengths to get legal representation when the tribunal was set up, it had to leave on 15 January when it transpired that the issues of concern to it were not being addressed specifically by the tribunal.
The Minister indicated that he considered the possibilities of extending the remit of the tribunal or setting up a new tribunal. I cannot understand why the terms of reference of the existing tribunal cannot be extended to deal specifically with the hepatitis C infection issue. I thank the Minister for his proposal to set up a new tribunal to commence when the existing tribunal has completed its task. However, the issue of hepatitis C should be dealt with specifically in all its aspects. All those who have been involved in this tragedy should have their questions answered. Therefore, I ask the Minister to reconsider our proposal to extend the terms of reference of the existing tribunal to deal specifically with the circumstances of infection of all victims, including the haemophiliacs.
I sympathise with those who, through no fault of their own, have this terrible condition, one with which they must live all their lives and which makes them totally dependent on multiple transfusions and medical interventions. There are almost 500 haemophiliacs in the country; they should have a voice and their concerns should be addressed specifically by the tribunal.
I agree with the Minister that it is important that people give blood. I gave blood because my father always donated blood and I started when I was in college. It is very important that young people in particular are encouraged to give blood. The momentum in this regard may have been lost in universities and colleges and the Minister should consider a promotion campaign in these institutions to encourage healthy young people to give blood. It is also important that those who are going for elective surgery should give blood prior to doing so.
There has been a tradition that people give blood willingly and freely. Many people are very concerned about the BTSB and about giving and taking blood. However, it is important that extra efforts are made to ensure we do not have to delay surgery or import blood stocks. I commend the motion to the House.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le mo chomhleacaí, an Teachta Coughlan, as ucht a cuid ama a roinnt. Chomh maith le sin ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Teachta Geoghegan-Quinn as ucht an rún seo a chur os ár gcomhair. Is mór an cailliúint don Teach go mbeidh sí ag imeacht uainn. Thar ceann an Chomhaontais Ghlas ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil brón orainn go mbeidh sí ag fágáil saol na polaitíochta.
Maidir leis an rún atá os ár gcomhair, I was keen to wait until the Government amendment was moved before commenting. The Green Party welcomes the Government's plan to establish a new tribunal of inquiry. The existing tribunal could have dealt with a number of the issues had it been given an extra week or so and had it been given the terms of reference to do so. It is regrettable that we are once again fragmenting our efforts.
I welcome the Minister's verbal assurance that he will take on issues of concern to the Irish Haemophilia Society. It is a pity these assurances were not given more formally. This view has been expressed to me by the Irish Haemophilia Society which had felt that it was going to have its concerns addressed but was disappointed. It is important to re-establish the confidence of the society in the Department of Health.
Consideration should be given to setting up a Europe-wide inspection service for blood transfusion service organisations. Such a move was perhaps an opportunity lost during our Presidency of the EU. The haemophilia society would like to see an inspection service which could operate without having to give prior notice of inspection. There are a couple of organisations which could take on the task — the Europlasma Fractionation Association or the European Medicines Evaluation Agency.
The Green Party has proposed that the positions of responsibility in the BTSB should be rotated on a two or three year basis. This might ensure that unacceptable practices would not arise. I join with other Deputies in appealing to people to be generous in giving blood to the Blood Transfusion Service. The public must be made aware that there are no inherent risks involved in giving blood. It is important, for the benefit of the Irish Haemophilia Society and society in general, to maintain a safe and plentiful supply of blood. We do not want to see the service collapse, whatever may be our concerns about public confidence.
I would like to share time with Deputies Browne, Creed and Lynch.
I am sure it is in order to do so. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate on hepatitis C. However, the circumstances surrounding this debate are sad and upsetting. Almost by definition, tribunals and court cases give rise to complex legal arguments. While the substance of these arguments is often reported in the newspapers, many members of the public find such debates impenetrable. The essence of a very distressing and human story is often lost in the technicalities which embody legal debate. Therefore, it is important to remember that, at the core of this debate, there are 400 people whose lives fundamentally depend on the quality of our blood supply — past, present and future.
I would like to place on record my personal sympathy for the Irish Haemophilia Society and its members. It is not often in human affairs that one comes across a group of people who are in no way responsible for the problems which have befallen them. The Irish haemophilia community is one such group. Our task, as public representatives, is to get to the bottom of their concerns — be these in respect of HIV, hepatitis C or, as is often the case, a combination of both. I welcome the decision of the Minister and the Government to establish a new tribunal. It is unfortunate and disappointing that the existing tribunal on hepatitis C has been unable to satisfy the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society. However, I recognise that the issues involved are complex and are, in part, outside the remit of the Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan.
The tribunal under Justice Finlay has worked well and speedily. Its interim report has already been placed in the public domain and I look forward to the emergence of the final report. While I am aware that, in pure legal terms, a decision could have been taken to expand or change the scope of the interim report on its presentation, I understand the problem faced by the Minister when such an extension was not explicitly sought by the tribunal. Unfortunately, this issue has become a political football. In that context, it is not difficult to imagine the wrath of the party opposite if the Minister were seen to intervene personally in the workings of the tribunal. While I recognise that it is crucial to understand the background to the difficulties experienced by the Irish Haemophilia Society in respect of the existing tribunal, we should not allow this history to distract us from the core problem which must be addressed. Whether the issues in question are to be addressed by the existing tribunal or a new tribunal is of secondary importance. Our foremost concern is that we must get to the bottom of the issues at stake.
I take this opportunity to extend my good wishes to Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn. It is unfortunate to lose any Member of the House in circumstances such as those surrounding her impending retirement from politics. Last evening, she raised a number of issues which should be addressed. Rightly or wrongly, the Irish Haemophilia Society must have its confidence in this process restored. In a matter as sensitive as this, it is important that justice is seen to be done. As such, it is important not that the specific concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society are included in the Government amendment, as alluded to by Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, but that they are included in the terms of reference of the new tribunal when the Minister brings them before the House in a number of weeks. I welcome the assurances the Minister gave in this regard during his contribution.
Second, the question of time arises. While it is understandable that the Minister would seek to wait to receive the report of the existing tribunal before initiating an inquiry which will examine issues arising from that report, the issue of time is crucial. I urge the Minister to approach this issue with all haste and, based on his assurances, I am confident he will do so.
Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn also referred to the case of a haemophiliac which is being prepared for the courts at present. Everyone is aware that the State was not covered in glory by its handling of the case of the late Brigid McCole. It is crucial that we learn from such mistakes and ensure that the State does not place obstacles in the way of this legal claim and accords full co-operation to the individual involved.
As I stated earlier, the Minister is to be commended for his decision to establish the tribunal. Tribunals involve delays which can exacerbate problems, particularly when human life is involved. To be anything other than complete and thorough in our investigation would be an insult to those affected by this problem. I hope and am confident that the tribunal will close the book on this sorry saga. It is essential that it does so. The integrity of the blood supply and the Blood Transfusion Service Board is too critical a matter to be left in doubt.
(Carlow-Kilkenny): Is cúis bhróin dom go bhfuil gá le díospóireacht den sórt seo ach is mar sin atá an scéal agus is dócha go gcaithfimid déileáil leis.
For those who received contaminated blood in the past, this matter is an undoubted disaster. Many of their lives have been ruined and all we can do is to try to help to the best of our ability.
I welcome the amendment tabled by the Minister. I also welcome the fact that, in subsection (ii) of the amendment, he acknowledges the concerns expressed by the Irish Haemophilia Society. I am aware that such an acknowledgement will not make everyone happy but it is important that the Government do so. The amendment also stresses that such further matters in respect of blood and blood products as may require investigation in the light of the report of the hepatitis C tribunal will be examined as part of the inquiry. I know that the Irish Haemophilia Society would like a specific commitment on its concerns mentioned in that section. The terms of reference will be drawn up fully at a later date and in view of the fact that the Minister has agreed to meet the Irish Haemophilia Society to discuss its concerns, I understand why it wants to have an input on this issue and is seeking to ensure that its concerns will be written into the terms of reference.
The Minister has delivered much in respect of those unfortunate enough to be contaminated by infected blood. He was unlucky to inherit a situation of this kind, for which he had no responsibility. The Minister has changed the management of the BTSB and established the tribunal of inquiry and I am sure he will fulfil his promise to establish a new tribunal to deal with the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society and other issues.
I could argue for a further ten minutes about whether the existing tribunal should have dealt with this problem or whether there was a need to do so. There seems to be a conflict of ideas in this regard. If the deliberations of that tribunal are to end, it might be just as well because we can have a clear run at the problem. During his contribution the Minister stated:
In finalising the terms of reference, account will be taken of such further matters in respect of blood and blood products as may require investigation in light of the report of the hepatitis C tribunal. Particular attention will be paid to the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society.
It is my hope that the terms of reference for the new inquiry, which will address specific questions, will be drawn up and brought before the Dáil as soon as possible. Every inquiry has specific terms of reference which ensure some focus on the matter before it. The terms of reference of the proposed tribunal will be brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas and we will have an input at that stage if we are not happy with the position. I have no doubt, however, that everything will be in order.
Those of us who have received blood transfusions will realise the importance of safety with regard to blood and blood products, which are vital for people such as haemophiliacs. Deputy Coughlan referred to blood donors. I gave my first blood donation while in college and was delighted that I had a rare blood group, O negative. Unfortunately, I contracted hepatitis a and had to stop giving blood, which I very much regret. For those who are able to give blood, there is no difficulty in doing so. It is very important that the present problem does not affect the supply of blood. As the Minister said, in advertising for blood donors it is important to state that it is safe to give blood. People are afraid to give blood because they believe it is not safe. The giving of blood saves lives and it is important that people be assured of the safety aspect. I have every sympathy for the people who have been infected with bad blood — I am a very good friend of one such person — and I have the utmost confidence that the Minister will deliver on this tribunal.
Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn has just arrived in the House and I join with other Deputies in wishing her well in the future. At least she is not going out with a whimper, she is going out with a bang.
Go raibh maith agat.
As well as debating the tribunal for haemophiliacs we are also dealing with the supply of blood. I reiterate the comments made already, particularly by Deputy Sargent, that there is no risk in giving blood. The message has become blurred and people are not giving blood. It is vitally important that the blood supply is built up and maintained. People are not adequately assured that there never was a problem in giving blood and, given all the safeguards that have been put in place, there definitely is no problem now. None of us knows when we or members of our family will need a blood transfusion and the message must be sent out clearly that it is safe to give blood.
The Government's decision to establish a new tribunal to inquire into blood product infection, following the report of the current tribunal, is not only politically expedient, it is the correct decision — sometimes the two are not exclusive. That will be borne out in the long-term. In providing for the establishment of the tribunal after the current tribunal has reported, the Government is ensuring that the tribunal will be able to inquire into all relevant matters which may emerge from the hepatitis C tribunal. As Deputy Browne rightly pointed out, the tribunal must have very clear terms of reference and a stated aim. The reason the tribunal on hepatitis C has been so successful is that the terms of reference are very clear. That inquiry is progressing speedily and, after a long drawn out process, is getting the necessary information. If we are to do justice to haemophiliacs, who have suffered as much as people infected by hepatitis C, a clear agenda will be necessary for the tribunal which will inquire into their plight.
A safe blood supply is a fundamental public health matter. In the past that safety has been undermined by what appears to be bureaucratic bungling on a monumental scale. The task facing us is not to cast stones but to ensure that the mistakes of the past are never repeated. I fully understand the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society. The new tribunal proposed by the Government will prove in the long-term to be the best way to address those concerns, which are many and which have existed for a number of years. I know two people who were infected with bad blood and the symptoms of haemophiliacs appeared much sooner than was the case with hepatitis C. I am sure the tribunal will inquire into the reason for that. It is necessary to restore public confidence in the blood supply, not only among patients and potential patients but also donors. I reiterate there is no risk to donors.
I am extremely concerned at recent reports that the level of blood donation has fallen. Although that may be partly due to seasonal factors, it is clear that many potential donors are wary of giving blood following the recent controversy, and who can blame them? The message is not being sent out clearly enough that donors were never at risk. Despite what has happened in the past, the fears are not justified. The Government has acted swiftly and decisively to guarantee the integrity of the blood supply and the safety of patients and donors.
The conclusions of the current hepatitis C tribunal and the tribunal to be established will not only provide clarity for victims of infected blood supply but will indicate ways in which a recurrence of the problem can be prevented. No tribunal, regardless of how clear its findings, can undo the grave damage that has been done, and nobody suggested it could. No tribunal can restore the health of those infected or the peace of mind of those who fear they may be infected. No tribunal can repair the pain inflicted on the families of victims or potential victims. We can ensure, however, that in future no one will have to suffer, through the fault of the State or its agencies, as Mrs. Brigid McCole suffered and as others are now suffering. At the end of the day we are all concerned about the welfare of those for whom we have responsibility. Regardless of how painful it might be, we must find out what happened. By doing that we can ensure that what happened in the past will not happen in the future.
I take this opportunity to say, as I have said publicly outside the House since Monday, that there are so few women in politics that when one decides not to run again it causes ripples. Despite the fact that the men who decided not to stand in the next election are equally capable and articulate, the ripples caused by their announcements were not as far flung or as deeply felt. That is because there are always more men to take the place of men in public life. One seldom finds women of the calibre of Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn. She will be missed by women all over the country but particularly by her female colleagues in this House. I wish her all the best.
I welcome the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly, on this motion. If my memory serves me right, this is the third or fourth time this matter has been before the House by way of substantial motion. That is understandable because, to borrow a word used by Deputy Lynch, the ripple effect of the consequences of contaminated blood have been enormous. Fortunately, neither I nor my family have been directly affected by it but, through constituency work, I have come in contact with people who have been and whose family members have been directly affected by it. It has had a devastating effect on their quality of life and their outlook. It is appropriate that it has consumed a considerable amount of time and thought in the national Legislature.
It is also important to put in context the fact that we are not alone in facing this problem. It has affected a number of other countries. Some of us will be familiar with what happened in France, the UK and Canada, to mention but a few countries. Standing back from the immediate crisis of contaminated blood products and the haemophilia issue, by and large the manner in which the Government reacted and the measures it took hold up very well to any international comparison. I am informed we are the only country that has put in place a compensation tribunal to deal with the victims.
I do not want to dwell on old debates because there are specific issues before us tonight. We have put in place health care packages for those affected. In many ways I feel sorry for the Minister and the Minister of State because they have been running extremely hard on this issue merely to hold their ground. Much unfair criticism has been levelled at them. By any international comparison their response has been reasonable.
When the Minister came into office the first steps he took indicated he immediately grasped the gravity of the situation because he appointed Bain and Company, consultants, to investigate the ongoing day-to-day operations of the BTSB and put a new management structure in place. The track record of the Minister can give us confidence that when the tribunal reports he will act with due propriety in implementing its findings. When the issue of HIV became contentious and it became clear that a health worker in County Kilkenny had contracted HIV through contaminated blood products, the Minister moved again, with considerable speed and due diligence, in indicating prior to Christmas that he would have the matter investigated.
The Minister's amendment is proof positive of his commitment to act. The terms of reference of the Government amendment are also proof. The Government amendment states that Dáil Éireann welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Health that the Government has agreed to establish a tribunal of inquiry to examine specific urgent matters of public importance, namely, the HIV infection of blood and blood products manufactured and distributed by the BTSB and, secondly, in regard to dealing with the haemophilia issue, such matters in respect of blood and blood products as may require investigation in the light of the report of the hepatitis C tribunal.
I understand the Irish Haemophilia Society is not altogether satisfied with the Minister's response. In a sense this is not the forum to discuss that. We have a clear commitment, in principle, by the Minister to establish that tribunal after the present tribunal has made its recommendations. In view of the concerns expressed by the Irish Haemophilia Society, the critical issue will be the terms of reference of the tribunal to be established. Many of the concerns expressed, particularly by the Opposition, are legitimate in the context of debating the terms of reference that will apply to the tribunal to be established, but we are not doing that. The Minister said the tribunal will be established, that its terms of reference will cover HIV infection of blood and blood products and such matters in respect of blood and blood products as may require investigation in light of the report of the hepatitis C tribunal.
To a certain extent we are somewhat premature in the lines of demarcation we are drawing here between the Government and the Opposition. We will arrive at that debate in a more informed fashion when the tribunal that is sitting has reported. It will be clear then what exactly were its shortcomings in the context of the haemophilia issue. Then we can have a reasonable and informed debate as to what those terms of reference should be.
I wish to refer to two points that have been covered by virtually all the previous speakers. One is the difficulty the Blood Transfusion Service Board appears to have encountered in recent days in the context of the supply of blood and blood products. It would be unfortunate if we were not to have an adequate supply of blood in our blood bank and had to import blood products. I do not want to cast aspersions on the quality of blood products that would be imported. Having taken so many positive and necessary steps to ensure adequate safety measures are in place in the blood bank, it would be unfortunate if the public were to walk away from donating blood and we were left with a shortfall. I urge the public to respond generously by donating blood to address the current shortfall.
I add my voice to that of practically all speakers in this debate by expressing regret at Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn's decision to retire from politics. I have been an observer of her outside and, in latter years, inside the House. She has been a great servant to her party and to the nation in the very many positions of responsibility she has held and in which she acquitted herself with distinction. It is unusual to throw bouquets at someone while he or she is still alive but I am sure the Deputy will acquit herself with distinction in whatever career she chooses to follow outside politics. I wish her well.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Batt O'Keeffe and O'Donnell.
That is in order and agreed.
This is the second or third time I have spoken about this matter which continues to be a source of serious concern to the people directly affected and those who assist and support them. It beggars belief that what Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn has proposed is not acceptable. It was reported that the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, had indicated in the negotiations on the formation of the Government that he was not anxious to return to the Department of Health. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the reasons. When this matter was first brought to his attention it was, to say the least, handled in an inept way which displayed a lack of competence.
The poison chalice was passed to the Minister for Health. As the matter was debated, it seemed that his desire to become embroiled in complex legal activity leading to settlements in the High Court took precedence over practical common sense. I do not want, however, to criticise him or the former Minister, Deputy Howlin, unfairly as I recognise the problem had arisen many years earlier in the Blood Transfusion Service Board.
We are confronted with a dilemma. It appears that the tribunal of inquiry, which is chaired by an eminent judge and which everybody agrees, given past experience, is being run efficiently and with competence, will not be allowed to finish the job it started. The Minister is demanding its report on the current phase of its investigation. It is not beyond its competence to report within four weeks while at the same time extending its terms of reference. Given that they now possess a knowledge and understanding of what is a complex medical matter, it makes sense to ask the judge, his advisers and those who represent the various interests involved to look in great detail at the plight of those affected. When the judge informed them that the matter fell outside the tribunal of inquiry's terms of reference they walked out.
The Minister tried to convince the House that the motion should not be accepted. Paragraph (iii) (b) of the amendment in his name reads: "such further matters in respect of blood and blood products as may require investigation in the light of the report of the hepatitis C tribunal". Paragraph (ii) reads: "acknowledges the concerns expressed by the Irish Haemophilia Society". Why does it not go on to state that these will be addressed by the tribunal of inquiry or the proposed new tribunal?
The extension of the tribunal of inquiry's terms of reference should not result in its report on the current phase of its investigation being delayed. Up to 200 people are affected. Although there is a wealth of information available provided by experts from abroad, among others, on scientific advances in the testing of blood products and so on, we intend to start again at a new tribunal. This beggars belief and displays a lack of humanity and concern for those affected. They should have adequate representation at the tribunal of inquiry.
For whatever reason, the Government is dragging its feet. It appears that it does not want the matter addressed this side of a general election but what difference would another three or four weeks make if the tribunal of inquiry gets to the bottom of the matter and makes recommendations to ensure that those affected are adequately compensated?
It is a pity that the former Minister did not accept the advice of a particular civil servant when he brought the matter to his attention. He has informed us that there was no compelling reason to set up a tribunal of inquiry but he did not have the political gumption to face up to the difficult dilemma confronting him and to insist that the matter be clarified. My party's spokesperson on health has raised it time and again. She was eventually accused — this was the former Minister's only defence — of playing politics. Following the withdrawal of the Irish Haemophilia Society from the tribunal of inquiry yet another Private Members' motion has been tabled and a further step is to be taken. Two people given responsibility for the running of the health service have displayed gross incompetence. Their performance, to say the least, has been pathetic.
It appears the fear that Ministers will be shafted takes precedence over the legitimate concerns of haemophiliacs. That is sad but true. Instead there is consideration of what the ramifications will be for Ministers, how this will affect the Department of Health and how one can ensure that senior civil servants will not discommode Ministers. The needs of the individual Ministers, whether because of their egos or their efforts at self-preservation, take on an all-embracing importance. They exclaim about setting up a review while privately saying it will lead nowhere. They bring out advisers, get the spindoctors to work and blame the Opposition because, as in the past, the more muck thrown, the less blemish there will be upon this Minister or the previous one.
This, by any standards, is a self-serving Government based on pious platitudes and impersonal concepts. It has not once focused on the real needs and concerns of the people and the implications involved. How galling it must be for victims to have to listen to lectures on openness, accountability and transparency, given that everything they have achieved to date, with Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, has been achieved through a thick fog that has made progress almost impossible.
The Minister should accept this Government did not take into account the desire, commitment and sheer will of the victims or their tenacity in winkling out the truth. To her eternal credit, Deputy Geogheagan-Quinn has been their saviour. Even at a time of personal trauma, this principled woman was in the House last night and is here tonight to finish off something she set out to achieve which is to ensure that truth wins out at the end of the day. She is trying to pin the Minister to the wall to make sure he is accountable on this issue.
The simple and straightforward answer to this issue is to extend the remit of the tribunal. Haemophiliacs were told by this Minister that all of the difficulties they were experiencing would be accommodated by the tribunal. Unfortunately they now, once again, feel they have been abandoned. They have not elicited the information and truth for which they were searching. They are not being accommodated in the tribunal whose terms of reference will not change before the final report is produced. Not even one single line appeared on this issue in the interim report.
The Minister should stand back from his amendment and ask himself what it will do? It will serve, once again, to put the investigation on the long finger. It will certainly not deal with the immediacy of the problem. We on this side of the House are not playing politics with the issue. We are dealing with it in the most humane way in trying to get at the truth despite the major cover-up that has been perpetrated up to now.
The decision by the Irish Haemophilia Society to withdraw was not taken lightly. It was born out of devastation because their case was not being heard and they were not given adequate assurances. Why can the Minister not show some concern and humanity and go along with the demands of haemophiliacs? They do not believe this amendment will ameliorate their situation. There have been 70 deaths, four of them from hepatitis C and 66 from a combination of HIV and hepatitis C. Time is definitely not on their side. Assurances were given in the Dáil and on television but they have now come to nought. Deputy Moynihan-Cronin said that delays exacerbate problems. I agree with her. This is exactly what is happening — delays are further exacerbating the problem.
We do not need further procrastination. We must expand the remit of the tribunal and get down to the business of seeking the truth. I and the Minister know the assurances given were not soundly based, whether it was because the Attorney General or staff within the Department who did not give the proper advice. Surely on the basis of these assurances, there is an onus on the Minister to admit he has been wrong. He has not deliberately misled the House or the society but the tribunal is not as all-embracing as it was portrayed to be. The ready made answer is to extend the remit of the tribunal and to let them get on with the excellent job they have done to date. This seems to be quite reasonable and logical.
I take this opportunity to convey my dismay and sorrow that Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn will not be a Member of the next Dáil, which will be substantially diminished by her absence.
While there has been a general welcome across the political divide and among the public for the work of the current tribunal of inquiry and its speed, efficiency and competence, it is extremely regrettable and a source of genuine concern to Members of the House that, in the midst of all this success, there remains a group of people who feel and are excluded from the parameters of the tribunal. Their concerns are not being addressed. It is surprising to Members that the chairman of the tribunal has determined that the terms of reference of his tribunal do not embrace the concerns of haemophiliacs infected with hepatitis C from blood products supplied by the BTSB. This is contrary to what was envisaged when the tribunal was established.
Last year, following a long battle, more than 20 debates in this House, the Trojan efforts of the victims of infected anti-D, their representatives and Members of this House — particularly Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn — and in the wake of public outrage following the death of Mrs. Brigid McCole, what was once out of the question was suddenly public policy and a tribunal was established to get to the truth of the anti-D and hepatitis C scandal.
In this affair, it appears that as soon as one door closes so does another. Yet again we are seeing people being obstructed in their quest for the truth. All of the evidence is that haemophiliacs infected with hepatitis C are more susceptible than others to developing cirrhosis of the liver which is more likely to be fatal in their case. We know that almost half of the 500 haemophiliacs in Ireland have been infected with hepatitis C. Some have died of their infection and others will.
The Minister in his speech last night said he was disappointed that the Irish Haemophilia Society withdrew from the tribunal but he accepted it would not be practical to extend the current tribunal's terms of reference to embrace that group of haemophiliacs. He also accepts, as if he was a cool observer of the process, that the tribunal team feel the task of dealing with haemophiliacs is "neither necessary or appropriate." This cool distance as regards the tribunal is not necessary. A public inquiry, as established under the Health (Amendment) Act, 1996, is not a court of law but a creature of politics. It is a body established to report to this Chamber and our supervision and consideration is highly appropriate at all stages. It is within the power of this House to amend the tribunal's terms of reference. The very fact that haemophiliacs had to seek a judicial review to win limited representation represented another unnecessary obstruction to sick and dying victims. This sort of obstruction is familiar to those of us who have watched the manner in which women affected by anti-D, including the late Mrs. Brigid McCole, were treated by the State. It was a feature of the strategy adopted by the State and the BTSB.
Once again, another category of victim is experiencing the same cold, clinical, obstructionist approach from the State. Is this in the public interest? That must always be bottom line in this House. We must leave aside the legal contingencies and self-preservation instincts of Ministers and think about the public interest. I wonder what the team representing the public interest at the tribunal had to say about the manner in which this category of victim was being excluded. They had to fight to get limited representation and felt their concerns were not being addressed, so they withdrew.
If the Minister was proposing by way of response to Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn's motion that he would establish a new tribunal to deal with the concerns of haemophiliacs, I would say that was going a long way, but the Minister's amendment does nothing of the sort. All it does is acknowledge the concerns. With the greatest respect, the 200 or more infected people who are involved deserve more than a recognition of their concerns.
The amendment is a mixture of political cuteness and evasion. It seeks to distract and deflect political criticism of the omission to deal with haemophiliacs with a weak promise to look at their concerns in the context of another tribunal which specifically deals with HIV infection. It conveniently skirts the main objective of the Fianna Fáil motion before the House. It indecently lumps in as an afterthought, by way of a general clause, the concerns of haemophiliacs. There is no tenable explanation for this lesser status being applied to haemophiliacs anywhere in the Minister's speech. Notably, there is an absence of compassion or any feeling of remorse, empathy or apology. This is familiar to those of us who have watched carefully the manner in which previous Ministers and the current Minister have dealt with the women who received anti-D.
To apologise or empathise smacks of liability so the Minister's speech is carefully crafted to avoid any recognition of possible liability in relation to this category of victim. It deliberately rules out any question of investigation by the future tribunal, or by this tribunal, of the tough legal strategy applied to the late Brigid McCole's case. We know this legal strategy was part and parcel of the cover-up which is being exposed at the tribunal. Yet, this is specifically excluded from the terms of reference of the current tribunal, and was ruled out entirely by the Minister last night for any future tribunal.
This is the same cold face of the State to which the anti-D victims have become accustomed. The same emotional bankruptcy was evident in the Minister's speech last night in relation to haemophiliacs as was a feature of his response to the women who received anti-D during the years he has been dealing with that matter.
We must consider, as other Deputies have said, the human position of these victims. We are talking about seriously ill and dying people. It is worth remembering that it was only because of the death of Mrs. Brigid McCole, and the circumstances of her infection by the BTSB, that the State was shamed into holding a tribunal at all. We have learned from the tribunal thus far, and evidence from the Minister and his predecessor, that there was a determination at all times not to have a tribunal of inquiry. It is easy to see now why there was such resistance to a tribunal. The preference was for an expert group, but it was misled, rendering its report without credibility, and a compensation tribunal, which was an elaborate exercise of accounting without responsibility and without the truth coming out.
The truth is that Mrs. McCole need not have died because knowledge of a link between anti-D and hepatitis was reported to the BTSB by consultants before she was given the deadly infection by the BTSB product. The cover-up heaps wrong upon wrong. It is bad enough to have had this negligence without also having an administrative and political cover-up at the highest level. We are only now seeing it unravel before our eyes, and it really is of breathtaking proportions. There must be full accounting for that scandal, which goes beyond compensation.
I wonder when the Minister realised that the tribunal for which we fought for so long and which was passed through this House as a final vehicle to purge the truth of this scandal, was inadequate to deal with haemophiliacs? Why is the Minister playing careful and cute in relation to this category of victim? I urge him to accede to the request of the Irish Haemophilia Society to include its concerns in the terms of reference either of the current tribunal or of the new one.
What the Minister said last night about the new tribunal does not meet its needs. At one stage he said he was concerned that the circumstances of the infection of all blood products should be fully and properly investigated, but in the same sentence he narrowed that by saying the work of the new tribunal would be "primarily in relation to the HIV infection of blood and blood products manufactured and distributed by the BTSB". In other words, the new tribunal will not address the issue of hepatitis C or other viral infections. Elsewhere in his speech it appeared the Minister might limit the new tribunal to blood transfusions which would exclude products manufactured from blood such as the clotting factor used by haemophiliacs.
Haemophiliacs and their families are entitled to learn the truth about the circumstances in which they contracted any infection through the use of any blood product; to an examination of how the threat of particular types of infection were dealt with when they became apparent; to an investigation which will make recommendations to ensure the risk of infection is entirely eliminated or — if that is not scientifically possible — to ensure that such risk is reduced to an absolute minimum. They are entitled to have full confidence in blood products supplied to them on which they rely for life itself, and to have confidence in those charged with supervising the supply of blood products. This will not be achieved by a tribunal which is confined to considering HIV infection.
It is worth bearing in mind that a number of haemophiliacs who contracted HIV instituted proceedings against the BTSB but, with echoes of the late Brigid McCole case, they knew they had a greatly shortened life expectancy and settled their cases with the result that the actions of the BTSB were not subjected to any scrutiny.
We know that several children with haemophilia became infected between 1985 and 1990 at a time when no infection should have occurred due to viral inactivation of blood products. Children as young as six were infected with hepatitis C. We are talking about over 200 people with haemophilia who have been infected. Three have already died as a result of hepatitis C, and 34 have died from a co-infection with hepatitis C and HIV. The majority have chronic liver disease. This significant group of individuals deserves the best possible response from the State, not the minimalist, obstructionist response which has been forthcoming to date.
The next speaker will only have five minutes so we must not have an incursion on his time. Perhaps the Deputy could conclude.
The Minister cannot blame us for being suspicious, we have good cause to be.
I also wish to express my regret at the decision of Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn to retire from public life, and the circumstances which gave rise to that. I acknowledge her considerable contribution to public life over a long period. I wish her every happiness and fulfilment in the next phase of her career, which I have no doubt will be equally successful as her time in politics.
I will re-emphasise for the House tonight the reasons the Government's proposals on how to deal with the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society are the best way to proceed.
It is of prime importance that the final report of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the hepatitis C infection is published as soon as possible. The interim report of the tribunal indicated that the extensive preparatory work done before the hearing of oral evidence commenced, contributed greatly to the expeditious manner in which the oral hearings were conducted. Any extension of the terms of reference at this stage would, of necessity, require further preparatory work which would delay proceedings considerably and would lead to a lengthy gap between the giving of evidence and the publication of the tribunal's conclusions. The sooner the final report is published, the fairer it will be for all parties concerned.
The tribunal does not consider that an extension of its terms of reference is practical at this stage. The inquiry has been run efficiently and effectively by the Chairman, Mr. Justice Finlay. The example of specific terms of reference which have contributed so much to the efficiency of the inquiry will be followed to produce, it is hoped, an equally efficient tribunal on the lines proposed by the Government.
I too am anxious that the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society be taken into account. Haemophiliacs are completely reliant on blood products and are usually the first people to suffer from any new infection of the blood supply. They are, therefore, entitled to an expectation that the blood supply be free of those viral infections which are currently identifiable and for which reliable tests are available. This expectation applies equally to all users of blood and blood products. The Minister for Health announced last night that particular attention will be paid to the concerns of the Irish Haemophilia Society when the terms of reference of the new inquiry are being drafted. The Minister has asked me to assure the House that he will meet the Irish Haemophilia Society in the near future to discuss their concerns. He has also indicated that the society will be consulted when the terms of reference are being drawn up. I am confident, therefore, that the society's concerns will be addressed.
The Government has decided that the proposed tribunal, as well as examining the HIV infection of blood and blood products, will also examine such further matters in respect of blood and blood products as may require investigation in the light of the report of the hepatitis C tribunal. The Minister for Health told the House last night the terms of reference for the proposed inquiry cannot be drafted until after the final report of the hepatitis C tribunal has been examined. The reason for this is that it would not be in anybody's interest for a new tribunal to go over any of the ground already examined by the present inquiry, and it will not be possible to establish what issues remain unaddressed until the final report of the current tribunal has been examined. I am sure the House will agree that the Minister for Health should follow the most prudent course and the relatively short waiting time involved should not be regarded by the Opposition as a reason for criticising the Government's proposed course of action.
It is the strong belief of this Government that the establishment of a new tribunal of inquiry is the correct way to proceed. In attempting to solve everything at once we do not want to end up solving nothing effectively. The new tribunal will not be an open-ended inquiry. Specific terms of reference for the new inquiry will be brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas as soon as possible after the report of the current tribunal has been examined and after consultation with the Irish Haemophilia Society. Once these terms of reference are approved by the Oireachtas we will have a tribunal which will, it is hoped, get to the truth reasonably quickly.
I express my gratitude to the large number of blood donors who have responded so magnificently to the current shortage over the past few days. I appeal — I am sure the other Deputies in the House would wish to be associated with this — for this response to continue. I am confident that it will.
The final point made by the Minister of State has been echoed by all Members who have spoken in this House and outside. I too appeal to all blood donors to come forward to give blood. There is an emergency, a great need, and nobody should be afraid to give blood. I echo what Deputy Mary Coughlan said earlier. It is time for the Department and for the BTSB to look at the possibility of introducing an education programme in the schools which would involve young people in donating blood at an early age, particularly in third level colleges.
For the past 60 hours and some 15 minutes I have been reading my own obituary in the national newspapers. I almost believed I had died and had gone to heaven. Let me hurriedly assure everybody that I am not a candidate for sainthood. I wish my successor success in this job and the same job satisfaction I have got from a position which was so generously bestowed on me by my party leader two years ago. Although many plaudits have been handed to me for various things, particularly in relation to the handling of the hepatitis C scandal, those plaudits are only deserved in a very small degree, because it would not have been possible for me, on my own, to do the research or put in the work to get the information that was required without the help of somebody else. I know it is not something we are supposed to do, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, but I cannot let the occasion pass without expressing my very deep debt of gratitude to the researcher I share with four others, namely, Jackie Gallagher, for his outstanding work, his commitment to me and his dedication to this issue. I am truly in admiration of his sheer professionalism. I thank Positive Action, Transfusion Positive, the Irish Haemophilia Society and the Irish Kidney Association for their support, for the information they gave and for their steely determination in ensuring that all of the issues in this greatest health scandal of our time were brought to the forefront. I thank all the Members of the House for their messages, cards, and letters, and their words of good wishes to me. I thank my two wonderful spokespersons in the Dáil, Deputies Tom Moffatt and Séamus Hughes and, in the Seanad, Senator Mícheál Finneran, for their continued support and co-operation.
When the Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, was at the hepatitis C tribunal last week he said he believed he deserved credit for all he had done for the victims of this State scandal. He went even further, saying that whatever he did wrong was far outweighed by what he did right. I hope the Minister for Health and all of us never forget the evidence which was given by Mrs. McCole's daughter. The young woman, Bríd McCole, spoke of the nightmare that hepatitis C has been for her family. Their mother is the woman that has blown open this nightmare of hepatitis C. Her legal action in pursuit of the truth has put the brightest spotlight ever on the workings of our State institutions and the cultures that operated in the BTSB and the Department of Health. She is also the woman who exposed the Minister for Health, Deputy Noonan, and the fact that he deserves no credit and why his predecessor is also culpable in this affair. Both of these Ministers failed Mrs. McCole by not making the public interest the number one priority.
The former Minister for Health, Deputy Howlin, as we can see from today's media reports, failed adjectly on a number of counts in relation to the public interest. I sat a couple of chairs away from the former Minister, Deputy Howlin. I was one of his admirers in Government. I felt he was a sure-footed Minister who was always strong in his defence of the Government and of the health policy of that Government. I felt he was a safe pair of hands, and a hands-on Minister. Instead, I read in the papers today that he knew the Blood Transfusion Service Board was not co-operating with the expert group and did nothing. I also read, to my utter amazement, that he was making "top of the head" decisions, to use his own words, in relation to a killing disease, in relation to human misery inflicted on men, women and children by an agency of the State. I could not have been more shocked than I was when I read that. Miriam Lord most definitely has a point that deserves to be answered by the Minister, Deputy Howlin. What was he doing in his big office in the Custom House? Was he writing health strategy for a PR exercise to be published, or was he in Hawkins House? It is not good enough for the Minister to say that he cannot recall. He should have been ensuring that victims of hepatitis C, the greatest health scandal in the history of this State, got their rights. He has major questions to answer and I look forward to my successor getting those answers from him in this House.
Like his predecessor, the present Minister for Health appears to have no regard for the public interest. He particularly displayed this the way he has treated this House and how he behaved in relation to Mrs McCole's legal action. In this House, he has been pathetic in relation to the report of the expert group and the new file that was discovered on the diagnosis of infective hepatitis. He maintained a desperate farce, and I am sorry to say he was aided and abetted by the Minister of State, Deputy O'Shea. He and the Deputy consistently said that the file changed nothing when every other quarter accepted that the file, which was not shown to the expert group, indicated that the BTSB knew what they were doing in 1976-77. In fact, had they acted on the diagnosis of infective hepatitis and the calls they received from GPs in the summer of 1977, Mrs. Brigid McCole might never have been infected with hepatitis C.
The Minister's endorsement of the legal strategy in the McCole case was his greatest failing in regard to the public interest. He knew that the BTSB had no defence in the legal actions that were threatened yet he allowed jackboot tactics to be used at every turn. He allowed every trick in the lawbook to be employed to frustrate her case. This was definitely not in the public interest and I believe it was deliberately done to stop the truth emerging.
I believe it is also deliberate that the terms of reference of the tribunal do not include the need to examine who authorised this legal strategy. In this motion Fianna Fáil is making one final appeal to the Minister to address the specific question of how Mrs. McCole was denied her anonymity in legal action and who authorised the tactics which included a challenge to an appeal for and early trial of a woman who was desperately ill.
Even at this late stage in the controversy the Minister is still behaving in the same intransigent, belligerent fashion. The Minister for Health in his contribution last night tried to turn history on its head. He claimed that when the hepatitis C tribunal was first proposed its only intention was to investigate the anti-D scandal. Deputy O'Donnell and I had a very interesting meeting with the Minister in mid-October when the terms of reference for the tribunal were about to be published and both of us specifically asked if all infected victims, not just the women who received anti-D, haemophiliacs or kidney patients, would be covered and we were assured by him that there was no problem as his advice was that they would be covered.
As I said last night, the Minister said in a television interview on 8 October that the tribunal would inquire into all the circumstances of the infection since 1976, both of blood products and blood, and how so many persons, men and women, were infected. After the Minister's claim last night, I looked at my records and I have now discovered another host of episodes when the Minister said this tribunal would look into all the issues, not just anti-D. On 8 October, he told the Dáil that the tribunal would investigate the hepatitis C infection of blood and blood products manufactured by the BTSB. His comments that day did not indicate that it would be confined to anti-D. In a briefing to journalists on 15 October 1996, the Minister said the tribunal would investigate the infection of blood and blood products with hepatitis C and, again, he did not say that it would be confined to anti-D. This is the result of one of three issues; either Minister Noonan misled members of the Dáil, the media and the public, the Minister for Health was misinformed by the Attorney General and his Department of the Chairman of the tribunal is interpreting too narrowly the terms of reference. The Minister appears to blame the Attorney General. He said last night that he had to ask the Attorney General to ask the tribunal if it would be investigating haemophiliacs' issues relating to anti-D. Why did he not know whether this was the case? The Minister says the tribunal said it would not be appropriate for it to investigate the concerns of haemophiliacs. We all want the tribunal to be efficient and speedy but, as I said last night, we do not want that to be at the cost of victims. Lawyears and many others want this tribunal to be good public relations for future tribunals after the gross negative comment about the last one. However, victims cannot be forgotten and this House should be concerned that all the issues are investigated.
Rather than reinventing the facts, Minister Noonan might think of reinventing himself. He should, once and for all, do what is best in the interest of victims. I appeal to Deputies on that side of the House to accept our motion as the way forward. The Irish Haemophilia Society has said that it is most unhappy with the amendment. It was clear from the speech last night by the Minister, and by that of the Minister of State tonight, that the haemophiliacs are to be just an addition, as Deputy O'Donnell said, to the next tribunal. An inquiry into HIV was promised prior to Christmas and that is what the next tribunal will be about.
The Minister in his speech last night said a very contradictory thing. He said that the terms of reference for the new tribunal would be brought before the Díil as soon as possible. However, he then went on to define "as soon as possible" as after this tribunal had reported, which is at least a month away. I fail to see why the report of the tribunal is relevant given that it is only investigating anti-D issues. What will the tribunal say about haemophilia issues and HIV? The tribunal has looked at viral inactivation of blood products as it relates to anti-D. Does this mean the tribunal will report that it has considered viral inactivation and this will not be an issue for the next inquiry into hepatitis C? If this happens, it means that a huge issue of concern to haemophiliacs will not be addressed. It will also mean that BTSB documents relating to viral inactivation as they relate to other blood products apart from anti-D will never have been studied. I do not believe the Minister will include the concerns of Irish haemophiliacs in the next tribunal and I want a commitment from him that it will happen because Deputy O'Donnell and I were told one thing in mid-October and we are now being told something different.
In addition to losing sight of victims, this Government, not for the first time, was prepared to sacrifice public servants to justify its action or inaction. I speak of the Government rather than just the present Minister because I believe he is part of a wider mindset, to his personal detriment.
When the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Bertie Ahern, generously entrusted this portfolio to me he will recall one of the reservations I had about it was a sneaking admiration, which I can now admit in public because I am leaving, of the Minister. I expected him to be a good Minister. He was a clever politician and he had a safe pair of hands. As a result, one of the worst days as far as I am concerned in this scandal was the day he made comments about a victim and her legal advisers, for which, of course, we now know he had to quickly apologise. I sat here that night with a copy of his speech and I reached that page before he did. I waited for him to reach that page hoping against hope that he would not read it and, when he did, all of us around this House heard a hiss of disbelief. At that moment it was clear that what we had been watching for a year was a Minister in full retreat from the best of himself. The management of the health services needs the best capacities of the Minister and it needs him to stop retreating from them.
This Minister for Health does not lack courage and he has shown that many times in the past. I would wish at this point to put on record my absolute condemnation of the picketing of the Minister's home by Youth Defence. It has been widely assumed that the statement which I issued on Monday attacked the media for invading politicians' private lives. It did not; it drew attention to the changing context which regards a politician's family as fair game. Protesters setting up outside one's family home is precisely the kind of invasion I believe to be unacceptable. When I talk of the Minister's courage, therefore, I want to make it clear that I do not believe his family must show courage in the face of picketers outside their home because our families do not get elected, we do.
It is not just the BTSB which needs to be reestablished in the public mind. The entire health system is regarded with cynicism, mistrust and dissatisfaction by the public. If public faith is to be restored to the health service and if it is to withstand the challenges it faces in the short and longer term, it will be achieved only by a Minister who puts people first and makes systems serve people, and not the other way around.
Tá sórt cumann Gaelach againn sa Teach seo. Tá Teachtaí Dála ar chuile thaobh den Teach de gach páirtí a labhrann Gaaeilge go líofa. Tá sórt comrádaíochta eadrainn agus aireoidh mé uaim an chomradaíocht sin. Ba mhaith liom mo dhualgaisí mar urlabhraí Fhianna Fáil i gcúrsaí sláinte a chríochnú anocht le mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl dóibhsean ar fad sa Teach seo a thaispeáin cineáltas agus caradas dom le dhá bhliain is fiche. Tá mé ag fágail an Tí seo mar Theachta Dála ach tá súil agam go mbeidh deis agam teacht ar ais go minic mar chuairteoir agus gan imní orm, b'fhéidir, faoi na rudaí a deirim taobh amuigh de.
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