Leaders' Questions

The Taoiseach confirmed in the Dáil yesterday that no one from the Government, including the Minister for Health, had made personal contact with the Halappanavar family or with Praveen Halappanavar. I find this inexplicable and beyond acceptable. There should have been contact, and personal contact, from the very beginning.

This failure has been compounded by the added failure from the outset to establish a proper and fully independent inquiry that would command the confidence not only of the Halappanavar family, but of the wider public in regard to the full circumstances surrounding Savita's tragic death in Galway University Hospital. The whole process of establishing the inquiry unfortunately has been a sorry saga and somewhat of a shambles. That cannot be easy for anybody, particularly the Halappanavar family, or for the staff in the hospital. A coroner's inquiry is already under way and the Garda has taken statements. Irrespective of all that has happened and despite the fact that the three members of staff of the hospital have been taken off the inquiry team, the Minister is ploughing ahead with his plans to have the kind of inquiry he envisages, which is not a truly independent one, because of a duty to care to women. I argue it is that very duty of care to women which should cause the Government to stand back and reflect on this afresh. There is no point in proceeding and ploughing ahead with an inquiry that nobody has any confidence in from the very beginning.

The Commissions of Investigation Act 2004 was passed by this House to allow for a speedier method of investigating matters of urgent public concern. Within that legislation there is a vehicle for the Minister and the Government to establish an independent inquiry that would be speedy, comprehensive and voluntarily could seek the co-operation of all involved but crucially would also have power in respect of the compellability of witnesses and documents, if that was required. I ask the Taoiseach to give serious consideration to doing that. I am sure the House would approve because, under that Act, it would have to come before the House. I have no doubt that there would be support across the House for such an inquiry. We need the truth and we need it in a way that commands the wider confidence of the public and also the confidence of the Halappanavar family.

Savita Halappanavar died in Galway University Hospital. The family has suffered all of that trauma and continues to suffer that grief and loss. There is clearly a need to find out the truth of the circumstances that applied in this case, what happened and what were the circumstances surrounding her death. It is imperative this be determined accurately, truthfully, fully and comprehensively in this nation's interest, the people's interest and the family's interest and, in particular, in respect of understanding, security, comfort and reassurance for women who will give birth to children in Galway hospital.

There is a lot of confusion around what is happening here. I read the statements attributed to Praveen Halappanavar. I have never met the man. I understand he is a very decent understanding individual. His comments in the national newspapers were that he did not want anybody from Galway hospital associated with this investigation. Regard and respect for that is taken into account here. There is an eminent international chairperson of this investigation. Other persons of eminence, competence and experience, not associated with Galway hospital in any way, will be added to the investigation team.

The fact is that I have had no contact with anybody associated with the family or with Galway hospital about this, and the Minister for Health has not either in respect of the family, because were that to happen, a different construction would be put upon it.

No, there would not.

Yes, there would. The fact of the matter is that the legal team operating now for Praveen Halappanavar has requested that the HSE would conduct all business through its legal team. I heard the solicitor speak about this on the national airwaves this morning. I would appeal directly to Praveen Halappanavar, who is a decent man, to meet the chairperson of the investigation team, without prejudice, because it is very necessary that the truth of these circumstances be found out - all of the documentation and all of the contracts in this public hospital are within the structure of the HSE. The eminence and integrity of the chairman of the investigation team will be added to by persons of competence and experience from outside Galway University Hospital, who have nothing to do with the hospital, to determine what happened in the lead-up to the unfortunate and tragic death of Savita Halappanavar. I think that is in the interests of everybody.

I heard the legal advice this morning that a public sworn inquiry would be conducted inside seven days. From our experience in this country, this is clearly not the case.

I appeal to Mr. Halappanavar to meet the chairman of the investigation team without any prejudice to his views or future feelings towards it. Comments attributed to the man in the national newspapers are very different from what I see emanating from his legal team. We need to find out what happened here. It is essential. There is a difference because what was attributed to him was that what he wanted was no person from Galway University Hospital associated with the investigation team and this will be the case. It is very important that the truth and the circumstances leading to the death of Savita Halappanavar be found out in the family's interest, in the country's interest and in respect of reassuring and giving confidence to women in particular that the highest standards of professionalism, competence and service are available in the maternity hospitals of the country.

The Taoiseach stated the Minister had no contact with Praveen Halappanavar. He should have had contact with him and no one would have cast any aspersions on such contact. The Taoiseach's explanation this morning is incredible, and I find it very difficult to understand and comprehend. It is natural to make contact in a situation were a husband has lost his wife through very tragic and rare circumstances, and these circumstances are very rare in Irish maternity hospitals. I reckon if such contact had been made we might not be where we are now in terms of the progression of the issue. Neither do I think it appropriate to make public appeals to Praveen Halappanavar given the circumstances and the fact he is grieving the loss of his wife. There should be far more direct contact. It is also not appropriate that we split hairs between what the solicitor says and what the Taoiseach adjudges Praveen Halappanavar to be saying via the media. The Taoiseach is putting forward an extraordinary position that he is being manipulated by his legal representatives. Is this the suggestion the Taoiseach is making? I genuinely hope not. A suggestion was made that we are hearing different stories. What I am hearing loud and clear is that, without casting aspersions on the personnel there, the HSE being all over the inquiry does not convey the sense of independence or objectivity the Halappanavar family wants or, I suggests, what the wider public wants.

As the Minister, Deputy Howlin, said this morning and Senator Ivana Bacik said yesterday, there are precedents for the establishment of independent inquiries outside of agencies and at one remove from institutions. We have had quite a number of them in the past. It can be done. I have suggested another method, which is the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. I am trying to be constructive. This could be a potential vehicle for getting under way a speedy and comprehensive inquiry which would be independent and objective. Otherwise, the Taoiseach is facing the prospect of a long drawn out legal quagmire which will not satisfy anybody in a situation where the public is crying out for truth in an objective and independent way.

Deputy Martin made the case. I believe it is in everybody's interest that the chairman of the investigation team should have a meeting with the husband of the deceased woman. I do not think there is anything wrong with this and the meeting should take place without any prejudice to Mr. Halappanavar. I do not suggest any manipulation. If I were to meet Praveen Halappanavar privately, I am quite sure somebody would ask what I said to him and ask what the discussion was about. The instruction from his legal team was that communication must be made through the HSE. This is legal advice given to him. I make no apology for saying I think a meeting without prejudice could take place. Deputy Martin has changed his tune because in his interview he called for an independent inquiry from his experience as a former Minister for Health. He stated he would have preferred a three member independent panel outside the HSE which would call witnesses, access the records and conduct an independent inquiry. He stated that we know from previous experience inquiries can vary between independent panel inquiries and internal inquiries.

That is what I just said.

Deputy Martin went on to say he would have reservations about a full open tribunal because we know in Ireland it can lead to longevity and other issues pertaining to this.

That is the tribunal of inquiries legislation. That is the old Act.

A total of 3,000 babies were born in the hospital this year. This is a tragic incident and we need to determine the circumstances, facts and truth of what happened in this case. The investigation, being led by an eminent person of international repute to be added to now by people of competence and experience with no association whatsoever with the hospital, is in a position to determine the facts and circumstances. I hope the investigation will get the support of Mr. Halappanavar. We must conduct this investigation and determine the basic facts and the truth about the circumstances. This is in everybody's interest. The case notes are there, the personnel are there and their contracts are with the HSE. This is a public hospital in our country and we need to find out what happened. This investigation can do this job quickly, efficiently and effectively. I hope everybody can co-operate in this regard in respect of the safety standards, competence, reassurance and professionalism that apply in Irish maternity hospitals. If there is something wrong then this investigation is in a position to actually determine this. They can be helped by the legal team allowing Mr. Halappanavar to have a meeting without prejudice with the chairman of the investigation, who is a person of absolute international reputation and integrity. I hope this can happen quickly.

Tá a fhios ag an Taoiseach go bhfuil a lán daoine míshásta leis an slí ina bhfuil an Rialtas ag déileáil le bás Savita Halappanavar. Go háirithe, tá a fear céile agus a teaghlach an-mhíshásta. Leis an bhfreagra a thug an Taoiseach nóiméad ó shin rinne sé meancóg eile sa chás brónach seo. I regret to say the Government handling of the inquiry into the death of Ms Savita Halappanavar has been ill-judged and mismanaged. As we now know, Savita died following a miscarriage at Galway University Hospital on 20 October. However this was not made public until Wednesday, 14 November when her husband Praveen spoke to the media. He made it clear he wanted a full inquiry into Savita's death. Last Friday, according to the media, the Minister for Health indicated the family was being consulted on the terms of reference of the inquiry, but this morning the solicitor for Praveen stated the initial investigation team, including three members from Galway University Hospital was put in place without consultation with the family. I simply do not understand why the Taoiseach signed off on an inquiry without the consent of Savita's family, particularly when the Minister for Health stated they were being consulted.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach accepted the Government had made a serious error of judgment by reversing the decision to involve three people from the hospital where Savita died. I know this casts no aspersions on those people. Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach to ensure there was prior consultation with the family. I spelled out this, and the logic behind it, in some detail. However, it is now obvious there was no prior consultation or proper consultation. It seems very obvious that if Praveen continues to refuse to co-operate with what he believes is the HSE investigating itself, the investigation cannot with credibility produce a report. Let us not heap another bad decision on top of previous ones. Let us call a halt now and establish a fully independent public inquiry. As the Taoiseach stated, the Irish people, not least Irish women, want to know the full facts. I am sure as certain that if the family continues with its decision, then none of this will become clear. Will the Taoiseach consult and agree with Savita's family the terms of reference for an independent sworn inquiry as they have requested?

I do not think anybody disagrees with the eminence, reputation and integrity of the chairman of the investigation team.

It is in everybody's interest, taking into account the sensitivity of what is involved here and the necessity to find out the truth, that he should be enabled to have a meeting with Mr. Halappanavar without prejudice to the man's feelings or his attitude towards the investigation. That is only right and proper.

The feelings of Mr. Halappanavar were taken into account here because he stated that nobody from the hospital should be associated with this investigation and nobody from the hospital will be associated with it. Anybody from the hospital who is spoken to in the context of this investigation will be spoken to as a witness to determine the circumstances, the facts and the truth of what happened, and this is in everybody's interest. As I stated in response to Deputy Martin, 3,000 babies were born in the hospital this year and this is a tragic incident that we need to find out about in everybody's interest.

All of the documentation, all of the case notes and all of the contracts belong in this public hospital under the structure of the Health Service Executive. This is an investigation being conducted by an international chairman of repute, added to by persons of competence and experience with no association with this hospital. That is all about finding out the circumstances in which Ms Halappanavar died. I would suggest, if Deputy Adams can give any assistance in this matter, that it is in everybody's interest that Mr. Halappanavar should be able to sit down with the chairman of the investigation and talk about it without prejudice to his feelings or his attitude towards the investigation. It is most necessary in everybody's interest that we find out what happened here and I hope people can come around to that view.

As I stated, Deputy Adams called for a full public inquiry. I saw the letter from the legal team looking for an independent tribunal with full legal procedures being adopted and representation by Mr. Halappanavar's legal team so that all evidence can be gathered, examined and tested and a proper hearing be conducted in accordance with his natural and constitutional rights. I heard the legal adviser today state that this could be concluded within seven days. It is necessary to find out what happened in this public hospital. I would expect, if we allow this investigation to do its job, it would be helpful if the legal firm would say to Mr. Halappanavar to sit down with this eminent chairman, discuss this matter with him and, in the interests of his family's tragedy, we will find out what happened here. There is no point in going down a long road, with all of the legal complications that come from that, with no answer. We need an answer expeditiously in everybody's interest.

I accept the Taoiseach and the Government regret the circumstances of this unfortunate woman's death. I am sure he wants to get the facts and we are not at odds about that. However, it is not fair to put the onus on Mr. Halappanavar in these matters. The Taoiseach stated that he conceded to Mr. Halappanavar's wishes but that was all done through dealing with what has been said in the media. As I stated yesterday, nothing beats, at the appropriate level, direct prior consultation with this family. We and the Government must respect Mr. Halappanavar's decision if he decides not to meet anyone. He is not satisfied with the way this is being conducted and, because there has been no direct or prior consultation with him, we cannot blame him. I would also suggest - I am not authorised to speak for anybody except the Sinn Féin Party - that through the media is not the way to communicate with anybody in those circumstances.

Deputy Adams would know.

I ask the Taoiseach to reflect on what has occurred over the past week or so, and how all of this has emerged. This is the key point. If the Government does not have the support of the late Ms Halappanavar's family for the way it is proceeding, it should step back. There will be nothing lost if there is proper prior consultation with Mr. Halappanavar and if the Government can agree terms of reference for an independent public inquiry for which he has argued, and then the Government proceeds. The Government should show that it is prepared to deal properly with this issue and then the facts will emerge. It will not bring back the late Ms Halappanavar but it will at least engender public confidence. I appeal to the Taoiseach-----

Deputy Adams should take his own advice.

-----to stop it now, open up at that appropriate level consultation with Mr. Halappanavar or his representatives, do his utmost to agree terms of reference with him and then go on from there.

I cannot speak for them. It appears as if the legal team representing Mr. Halappanavar will not allow him to meet the chairman of the investigation team.

Find a way around it.

Deputy Adams suggests we consult with the family. That is exactly what is involved here.

There has been no consultation.

Does Deputy Adams understand me?

The chairman of the investigation team is not being allowed to sit down with Mr. Halappanavar because, apparently, his legal team is saying that it wants a full public sworn inquiry. We had another tragedy in this country a number of years ago with the unfortunate killing of Mr. John Carty and there was a public sworn inquiry into it which went on for years.

Deputy Adams well understands the situation down here. What we need to find out now is the truth, the facts and the circumstances that surrounded this unfortunate death in this public hospital in Galway. When he correctly states that people should be consulted, the chairman of the investigation team wishes to consult directly with the husband of the late Ms Halappanavar and his legal team is saying that it will not allow that to happen because it wants a full public sworn inquiry.

The Taoiseach is casting aspersions on the legal team.

We need to find out the facts and the circumstances now. This investigation, with an eminent chairman and with persons from outside Galway University Hospital is independent and will do nothing less than the highest level of investigation as to what happened here. Why should these persons put their integrity and their reputation on the line to do anything other than that? The Galway hospital staff, who have been working in delivering 3,000 babies this year, want their reputation and integrity maintained. Something happened in this case where, unfortunately, a woman tragically died and we need to find that out as quickly and as expeditiously as we can in the public, the family, the medical personnel and the nation's interest. If Deputy Adams has any influence on making the consultation to which he referred happen, he should make it happen and let this investigation get on with its fundamentally important work of finding out what happened in this case.

Last week, there was great fanfare about the appointment of Ireland to the United Nations Human Rights Council. It is ironic that this country should be appointed as an international guardian of human rights when in the week since that appointment the Government has failed so utterly to uphold the rights of vulnerable citizens and their families, both in this country and abroad. The Government has failed in its duty to uphold the rights of a young pregnant woman, the late Ms Halappanavar, to choose an abortion when she begged for one with tragic consequences. The Government has failed to provide the independent public inquiry for which her family has asked repeatedly to investigate her death. The Government has failed to speak out about the rights of young children and their families who are being massacred by Israeli missiles and artillery fire in Gaza as we speak.

The Government has failed to vindicate the rights of children with special needs and families affected by disability who are marching on the Dáil today. It has failed to protect the rights of the elderly-----

Is this a question?

It is on human rights.

-----whose representatives delivered a petition here yesterday begging for an end to the cuts being imposed on the vulnerable and elderly citizens.

It is a back-of-a-lorry speech.

Will the Taoiseach do the job that he was appointed to do in the United Nations and vindicate the rights of women to choose their own fate? Will he vindicate the rights of children in Gaza not to be massacred by Israeli weapons? Will he vindicate the rights of the disabled, those with special needs and the elderly in our society so that we can truly deserve this appointment as a guardian of international human rights?

Now answer that, Taoiseach.

I am not sure what is the Deputy's question out of that international rant.

It is about human rights, very simple.

The decision of all the countries to vote for Ireland in this case was an important one and a significant appreciation of the different position in which Ireland is now seen internationally. There were five very strong candidates for three places. Our ambassador will represent us very well in that seat.

Deputy Boyd Barrett made comments in respect of the late Savita Halappanavar as statements of fact. The reason for having an investigation is to determine the circumstances, facts and truth of these matters. From that point of view, Deputy Boyd Barrett has joined a long litany of people who make statements of fact as if they were there. That is the reason for the investigation in the first place, to find that out. I am sure the Deputy shares that view. He talked about a range of other issues here that he has had an opportunity to raise at different times.

In so far as doing the job is concerned, the mandate given to this Government - comprised of the Fine Gael and Labour Parties - is to deal with the question of our public finances, restore our international reputation, and provide opportunities for jobs and growth-----

Taking the scenic route.

-----with an agenda whereby people can have the opportunity to live and work in this country if that is what they wish to do. In addition, the mandate is to retrieve and restore our economic independence and give our country back to our children. That is what we will do.

I only stated facts. There may be grey areas, including who's, why's and wherefores, concerning the death of Savita Halappanavar, but Praveen Halappanavar's word about one fact is good enough for me. For three days, Savita Halappanavar asked for an abortion and she was denied her right to that abortion. The word of families who are on the streets today with children with special needs or affected by disability is good enough for me.

We are not having comprehensive statements. The Deputy should put a supplementary question.

There is something wrong if their rights are not being vindicated. In addition, children have been massacred in Gaza, like the al-Dallu family whose four young children were killed during the week.

What is the Deputy's supplementary question?

What is the Taoiseach going to do to vindicate those rights? They are the rights of women, like Savita Halappanavar, to choose their own fate when they are pregnant, the rights of young children in Gaza not to be massacred by Israeli weapons, the rights of the elderly, the disabled and those with special needs to live a dignified existence and not have their lives degraded by brutal and unjust austerity cuts.

Before the Taoiseach replies, I wish to make it quite clear that the idea of Leaders' Questions was to provide an opportunity for leaders to ask a question. I was tolerant in respect of Deputy Boyd Barrett on the basis that I understood he was talking about human rights, but we are not going to have an umbrella of questions to the Taoiseach during Leaders' Questions. Let us understand that clearly for the future.

Deputy Boyd Barrett is opposed to any cuts and tax increases, and he assumes that this country can rectify itself by continuing on as it did in the past. That is not going to be the way.

The question was about human rights.

Please allow the Taoiseach to continue.

We have to deal with our domestic problems as fairly as we can. That is why the Government will continue to make its decisions in the fairest and most equitable way we can in order to sort out our own public finance problems here. We will continue to work with our colleagues in Europe to get the co-operation we need in respect of reducing and dealing with our debt sustainability.

Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned abortion, special needs, disability and Gaza.

The human rights of women and children.

On the latter, I might say that this was a focus of intense discussions this week by the Tánaiste representing the Government at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting. It will be discussed again on Thursday and Friday in Brussels as part of the European Council meeting there. We hope that the diplomatic initiative that is currently under way can bring a stop to this. Clearly, there are very complex issues involved.

In respect of the expert report group arising from the A, B, C case of the European Court, I outlined yesterday for Members of the House the opportunities that will present themselves for everybody to have their full say on this. To those who say that it took this unfortunate and tragic death for something to happen, I would remind Deputy Boyd Barrett that when the Government was established, part of the programme for Government was that an expert group would be commissioned to report into the options that arise from the decision of the court in the A, B, C case. That report was presented to the Minister last week. We will bring it before Government next week and it will be published. Discussions will take place here and everybody will have an open-ended opportunity to say as much as they want in respect of their views about the options that are presented in the report.