Leaders' Questions

I want to raise with the Tánaiste some comments by the outgoing Financial Regulator which I believe have not got the attention they deserve so far. During a recent appearance before the Committee of Public Accounts, Matthew Elderfield called for a review of Ireland's regime for dealing with white collar crime. I fully support that call. To be clear, I am not looking for a response on any specific investigation. I am highlighting the need to improve our system. Mr. Elderfield said he believes our system for dealing with white collar crime in Ireland is not working sufficiently well and he advocated that a review would be carried out by someone such as a retired judge, a former Attorney General or perhaps by the Committee of Public Accounts. This is an important intervention from someone who is respected and who has seen at close quarters the inadequacies of our existing system here.

There is a sense that if one is an ordinary Joe in Ireland and one transgresses the law by not paying the television licence or the property tax, or by engaging in petty theft, the wheels of justice move fairly efficiently and there is a good chance one will be caught and punished. However, if one is involved in white collar crime the wheels of justice move extremely slowly and very often come to a grinding halt. Official figures from the Central Statistics Office back that up in that recorded white collar offences are increasing but conviction rates are plummeting.

As in the case of a burglary or an assault, there are real victims in the case of white collar crime too. In many cases victims of such crimes have had their lives destroyed, especially financially, not to mention the damage done to our economy and to this country's reputation as a place to do business.

A comprehensive review of the way we deal with white collar crime in this country is needed now. It would need to examine, for example, the effectiveness of existing laws, the way we investigate white collar crime, the powers and expertise available to the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation and the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the issue of penalties and possibly the issue of specialist juries also.

I believe that all the justifiable anger about recent revelations must be converted into something positive. Will the Government consider appointing a qualified and experienced person to carry out a review of our regime dealing with white collar crime to see how it can be improved?

I agree that we need to examine the way we deal with white collar crime in this country. It is fair to say that many people are very frustrated at how slowly the wheels of justice turn in many areas of white collar crime. Some of that is understandable because often what is being investigated in white collar crime involves files, records and all kinds of complex documentation which must be examined and a case made ready for prosecution. However, there is a well-founded view among the public that if one commits a white collar crime, one is not as susceptible to justice as someone who commits what is often referred to as ordinary crime.

The Government will consider what the outgoing Financial Regulator has to say on this matter and will respond to it but that should not be and is not a substitute for dealing with the issues of white collar crime currently under investigation and which have to be brought to justice. I do not want anybody to have the idea that we will have some kind of large overall examination of white collar crime and that this is something for the long distant future. There are issues under investigation. There are some issues that are before the court that I do not want to comment on for obvious reasons. An examination of the way we deal with white collar crime in this country and of getting a regime that operates more quickly and delivers justice and fairness in a more effective and transparent way is something we need to address, but that examination and consideration of the overall question of white collar crime must not be seen as a substitute or replacement for what is also required, which is the pursuit and the prosecution of white collar criminality currently under investigation.

I thank the Tánaiste for his reply, which I largely welcome. I was clear that my comments were not directed in any way at the current investigations. The Tánaiste is correct in saying there is already a substantial body of law in place. Investigations are under way and offences will have to be dealt with through the criminal justice system. That is taken as a given. The issue I raise follows on from the significant intervention by the outgoing Financial Regulator, Matthew Elderfield, who has a lot of experience of dealing with this in Ireland in recent years, and he has pointed to the inadequacies of our existing system.

I welcome that the Tánaiste will take up the issue and I ask him to elaborate on that. How will that happen? Will this issue be discussed by Government, and will a structure be put in place whereby the entire regime, in all its facets, can be examined properly and quickly and recommendations made that the Government and this House can consider? As I said earlier, the bottom line is that white collar crimes are not victimless crimes by any means. They might not be as obvious to the eye as some of the ordinary crimes the Tánaiste described but there are real consequences for ordinary people and for people directed by white collar crimes, and we must bear that in mind. If our system is inadequate, as in the view of the outgoing Financial Regulator and Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, we need to sit up and take notice of that. Will this issue be discussed by Government quickly and in what format? What does the Tánaiste envisage will be the outcome of that discussion? Will it be to have a specific review of all the aspects we have discussed here this morning?

We need to take into account that the Government has been taking action in this area. When this Government came to office in 2011, we inherited what was known as the light touch regulation regime. That was the regime which applied under the previous Government. Members of that Government boasted at various times that there was light touch regulation. That has been greatly changed. A Bill before the Dáil this morning, the Central Bank (Supervision and Enforcement) Bill, is about tightening the regulatory regime that applies, for example, in respect of financial institutions.

The first point which must be acknowledged is that the Government has already tightened and strengthened the regulatory regime in the financial services sector.

That is regulation.

The outgoing Financial Regulator, who is greatly respected by the Government, has worked to strengthen the regulatory regime in that sector. What he has said in a wider sense - both about regulation and about white collar crime - is something which the Government takes seriously. In the first instance, we will consider both what he has said and the recommendations he has made. We may perhaps choose to progress this matter through a discussion at an Oireachtas committee in order to refine some of the ideas he has put forward. That is an issue to which we will be obliged to give some consideration. I assure the Deputy that this Government believes in strong and appropriate regulation of the financial services sector. It also believes that fairness must apply within our judicial system. There cannot be a perception that a slow track exists in the context of the way that system deals with white collar crime as opposed to other forms of criminality. This is a matter in respect of which we have already taken some steps. We will certainly take on board what the outgoing Financial Regulator has had to say about it.

This morning, on foot of parliamentary questions tabled by my colleague, Deputy Pearse Doherty, further revelations have emerged about the Anglo tape controversy. We know that in 2010 the Garda seized significant quantities of electronic and hard-copy documents and recordings in respect of 18 employees of the former Anglo Irish Bank whose telephone conversations were recorded. The Central Bank was unaware of the existence of these tapes as was the Government, which has been in office for almost two and a half years. The public was also unaware of their existence until the tapes were leaked by the media. Several parties seem to have had access to the tapes. It appears that we are to remain in the dark until further tapes are leaked to and reported on by the media.

I am of the view that it is inconceivable that senior management at the former Anglo Irish Bank did not know about these tapes, particularly in light of the fact that the Garda sought and secured court orders in respect of them in 2010. It must be remembered that Alan Dukes was appointed to the bank as a public interest director as long ago as December 2008. By 2010 he was being paid the handsome sum of €127,000 per year for his troubles. As the Tánaiste is aware, he became chairperson of the bank in that year. Of course, he was not the only political appointee to the board of the bank. The former Fianna Fáil Senator Aidan Eames was appointed to the board in June 2010 by the previous Fianna Fáil Government. Now that it knows about the tapes, the Central Bank views them as serious and is investigating matters in order to assess whether regulatory breaches occurred. One of the public interest directors, Alan Dukes, did not inform the Central Bank of the existence of the tapes. It also seems that neither he nor Aidan Eames informed the Government of their existence. These individuals were supposedly appointed to protect and defend the public interest. It is not clear whether the tapes were provided to the Nyberg banking commission when it was investigating matters. Will the Tánaiste clarify whether the tapes were provided to the Nyberg banking commission? In the context of the public interest directors who were politically appointed to the board of the bank and who did not inform the Central Bank about the existence of the tapes for over three years, will the Tánaiste outline the questions the Government has put to these individuals and indicate how it proposes to proceed in respect of this matter?

We are all shocked and disgusted - that has certainly been my reaction - by the content of the Anglo tapes. The arrogance, contempt and sheer greed of those recorded on those tapes is disgusting. In light of what we know about the damage that was done to our country as a result of the actions of these individuals, most people have been sickened by what they have heard. As indicated earlier, people are also frustrated by the fact that it has taken so long for the full facts to emerge and for those responsible to be held to account. It is difficult for citizens to understand why the wheels of justice have moved so slowly or why a full public inquiry into what happened, particularly on the night of the blanket bank guarantee, has not yet taken place.

I share people's frustration. It must be accepted, however, that complex and difficult investigations are under way. In 2009 the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement seized 3 million electronic documents and more than 5,000 original hard-copy documents. In addition, the Financial Regulator compelled the production of approximately 45,000 hard-copy documents and approximately 9 million electronic documents. Regardless of how frustrating it may be, there are good reasons why the criminal justice system is independent of politics and why the Government cannot control or influence the work of the Garda or the Director of Public Prosecutions in these matters. As the Minister for Finance informed the House yesterday, a number of civil and criminal cases are currently under way. In that context, the leaking of the tapes is viewed by the special liquidator as a serious matter. Accordingly, the special liquidator is investigating how they came to be leaked. Given the serious cases that are under way, we must be careful with regard to what we say in order to avoid prejudicing any criminal or civil proceedings.

What the Government and the Oireachtas must do is ensure that there is a proper inquiry into both the public policy issues involved and the disastrous decision to provide the former Anglo Irish Bank with a blanket guarantee or bailout. It was in this context that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, brought forward the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Bill 2013 in order provide a solid basis for Oireachtas inquiries. It will be a matter for the Oireachtas to constitute an inquiry as soon as possible after that legislation has been passed. That inquiry is the forum at which the relevant questions must be put to directors, including the public interest directors, of the former Anglo Irish Bank. Those questions must be posed in public and the inquiry must operate in accordance with the provisions contained in the legislation introduced by the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy Howlin, and currently before the House. I hope that latter will be passed by this and the Upper House during the current session in order that we might proceed with establishing the inquiry as quickly as possible.

The legislation to which the Tánaiste refers was actually passed by the House last night. Whatever about his claim of complexity in respect of this matter, for many people it is not complex at all. For those who are in the Shelbourne Hotel this morning to attend an auction - a fire sale - of properties, both residential and commercial, and who suffered the brunt of malpractice in the system, it is not complex at all. In fact, it is terribly simple for them - some people won while they lost.

I put to the Tánaiste a number of very straightforward questions which do not require the establishment of an inquiry in order to be answered. I want to know why there was no report to the Central Bank - the appropriate regulatory authority - in respect of these tapes, the existence of which had to be known to management at the bank. Above all, I want the Tánaiste to discover what Alan Dukes, one of the public interest directors, was doing. Why did he sing dumb? I do not believe this matter can wait and the position in respect of it must be established now. Without infringing on the prerogatives of any other body, it would be entirely appropriate for the Government of the day to put that straight question to Mr. Alan Dukes and obtain from him a straight response. We also want to know whether the Nyberg banking commission had access to these tapes. The answer to the question in this regard is a simple "Yes" or "No". Either they were or they were not; we do not need a banking inquiry to establish that.

When people who are at just a slight remove from this hot-house look in and observe what has happened over the past week or so, what they will see is the following: the macho antics, which the Tánaiste rightly described and condemned, of the moolah men in the bank and which were bad, but they also see a political system which is prepared to kick the can down the road again. Fianna Fáil clearly does not want to make a simple statement and reveal which bankers met which Fianna Fáil Ministers. It could do that without any inquiry. Today, the people hear that the public interest director, there to defend their interests and stake, sang dumb on the matter of these tapes. Why was that?

Deputy McDonald, you are over time.

Can the Tánaiste answer my questions in regard to Mr. Alan Dukes? I believe the former Senator, Mr. Aidan Eames, would have something to say on this matter also and perhaps Fianna Fáil could help us out there. Will the Tánaiste simply tell us whether the Nyberg inquiry had these tapes?

What I know, which I have indicated, is that there was a significant amount of material which was obtained from Anglo Irish Bank-----

If it is okay, I will answer the question.

Answer the question.

A substantial amount of material was obtained from Anglo Irish Bank. Some of it was obtained in the form of court order while some of it was seized by the Garda. I understand some of that material - I do not know which particular pieces - was provided to the Nyberg inquiry and other investigations which were conducted.

The questions about who knew what and what they did about it, whether they were directors of or senior managers in the bank, are fair questions. Those questions need to be asked and put to the people concerned in a public forum and that is why an inquiry along the lines proposed in the legislation introduced by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is the place-----

(Interruptions).

That is where those questions need to be put and answered.

Four or five months down the road.

Deputy McDonald is right that these are, in many respects, very straightforward questions and that they need to be put to the people who can answer them directly. This is not something for in here, it is not an inside-the-bubble issue. What happened in that bank has had consequences for families all over this country and they are still suffering from it. The people who suffered those consequences and those stuck with big mortgages and with businesses which went down the tubes because of the collapse in the economy are entitled to hear directly from those who were involved in answer to those questions. That is why our duty as legislators and as Members of this House - it is something we should all share - is not to go around political point scoring-----

(Interruptions).

I will do that if those in Fianna Fáil want.

(Interruptions).

If those in Fianna Fáil invite me to do that, I will remind them that they were the people who gave the bailout to that bank.

What about the bondholders?

(Interruptions).

What we now need to do is to establish an inquiry which gets the answers for the people of this country who have suffered far too much from the consequences of those actions. That vehicle is provided for in the legislation the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has brought before us.

Another shocking but all too familiar report on children at risk of neglect was published this week. The audit of the management of neglect cases in three parts of the country, including my own area of Waterford, covered the period 2005 to 2010 and highlighted what most Deputies working in their constituencies are already aware of, namely, the systematic and ongoing impact staffing embargoes and lost posts in the HSE are having on children at risk.

This report is a damning indictment of the previous Government. It told of vulnerable children left without an allocated social worker, despite receiving as many as 30 referrals from separate agencies, of chronic understaffing in the psychological services - for instance, in Roscommon - which left 180 children waiting up to two years to be seen, and of caseloads often double the recommended number for a social workers. The suggestion was made that some professionals were not focused on the children's harsh everyday lives because they simply used the word "unhygienic" to describe situations such as beds saturated in urine, a complete absence of heat in houses, sometimes no food in houses and dog excrement on sitting room floors. These inherently unsafe arrangements still prevail around the country despite what the HSE might tell the Tánaiste or me. I spoke to a social worker at 8 o'clock this morning who told me what is happening in parts of the country. I also spoke to two social workers yesterday.

Figures show that more than 80 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect are being reported every day to social services. An investigation by the Ombudsman for Children found that social services failed to properly assess or follow-up hundreds of reports of children at risk, abuse or neglect in a timely manner. The Ombudsman cited one case where it took four months to organise a home visit to a seven year old who was witnessing domestic violence and another case where it took three months to organise a home visit to 16 year old girl where there were concerns that she was being savagely sexually abused.

Does the Tánaiste agree that the overburdened HSE staff are still working in a system which is leading to poor outcomes for some children? Can he explain why the HSE is still failing to implement the Children First guidelines, which were published more than ten years ago? Does he agree it is unacceptable that after 4 p.m. on a Friday in some parts of this country, there is no social worker available until 9 a.m. the following Monday, that gardaí are having to implement section 12 to take vulnerable children from their homes and be their social worker for a few hours until they get them to an adult psychiatric unit until they are seen on a Monday morning? Surely this is unacceptable in 2013.

This Government is acutely aware of the decades of neglect of Irish children and has sought to take real action to address the serious inadequacies which our care system has long had. The House needs no reminding of the horrific and systematic abuse which took place in a home in Roscommon. It shocked our nation and the Dáil and this country committed to ensuring that such abuse of innocent children should never happen again in this country. The Roscommon child care inquiry, which was published in October 2010, catalogued a number of concerns arising from the examination of the management of systematic and problematic neglect in a family known to the HSE's child protection services.

Since this Government came into office and Deputy Frances Fitzgerald took up her role as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2011, there has been a huge amount of change underway in children protection services. A new model for family-based multi-agency assessment and early intervention has already been trialled in two regions and is being mainstreamed as part of the establishment of the new Child and Family Agency. Last summer, shortly after the report was completed, HIQA published standards for inspection of the HSE's child and family services in respect of its child welfare and protection services. The Children First guidelines have been updated and the Minister is working to place those guidelines on a statutory basis and that legislation is to be published shortly. We have established the child and family agency, which will be a dedicated agency with dedicated staff to establish national standards.

In regard to the issue of social workers, the latest figures from the HSE indicate that there are currently 1,390 whole-time equivalent social workers in child and family services. This includes all 270 additional social workers recruited in line with the detailed recommendation of the Ryan report implementation plan of 2009. The recruitment of these posts was completed in full by this Government and these posts were not subject to the public service recruitment moratorium. Social work figures are consistently in flux, with vacancies arising due to various reasons such as leave, etc., but the Government is overseeing an ongoing programme of active recruitment to fill vacancies. Some 94 vacancies have recently been filled and further 81 are currently being filled.

The new programme of independent HIQA inspections is also under way in line with the first ever national standards for child protection services, which has been initiated by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald.

I am not one to lash out unfair criticism where it is unwarranted and I acknowledge the increase in the number of social workers since the Ryan report publication. The new care pathway system which involves multidisciplinary teams linking with community service looks good on paper but people are fed up of bureaucracy and guidelines, and they want front-line services.

All I can do is speak to people on the front line, as many of us do, asking them how the service is, whether it is working and if children are being affected. They acknowledge that there has been a dramatic difference, and I acknowledge the work of the Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs and Social Protection in that regard. Based on the report, the work of the ombudsman and accounts from people on the front line, it seems there is still a chronic and critical issue.

I ask the Tánaiste to address the unacceptable lack of service at weekends, when kids are most vulnerable to overdosing on drugs and alcohol or being victims to sexual abuse or even suicidal tendencies. Those on the front line have told me they need people to deal with such cases. I spoke to a member of the Garda this morning and they are not qualified to deal with cases where a child has been beaten up or allegedly sexually abused. They do not know what to do with such a child on a weekend. There are cases all over the country so the Tánaiste would be doing a great service to consider ensuring there is weekend cover by social workers.

I thank Deputy Halligan for acknowledging the work of both the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, in the area. I acknowledge that there are very real pressures on social work services and Deputy Halligan has referred to difficulties encountered on weekends. Some of the pressure on social work services arise from an increase in the numbers of child abuse and neglect referrals to the service. Abuse referrals have doubled nationally since 2005, and the recent pilot audit of neglect cases indicates that neglect referrals in two areas of the country, including Deputy Halligan's area, trebled between 2005 and 2009.

In response to those findings, there is a review of social work case loads, led by the HSE and involving staff input. That is nearing completion. That review of the case loads of social workers will inform future decision making in how the service is organised and operated. The challenge for social work services stemming from increased referrals will be further supported by the ongoing developments of new models for assessment and management of referrals. That work is being prioritised in tandem with the establishment of the new child and family agency.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, is aware of what the Deputy has drawn to the attention of the House this morning, and she has already taken action, with the review nearing completion. The child and family agency will have a role and the plan is for a different approach to be taken to the assessment and management of these services. Ultimately, we want a better outcome for children. I have given the figures to the House, with almost 1,400 social workers dedicated in the child and family area, and we want the best possible protection in place for children. We must respond in particular to the disturbing increase in the number of referrals coming forward.