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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 11 Jul 2013

Vol. 810 No. 3

Leaders' Questions

Last night's sitting of the House was shambolic and lamentable. It undermined respect for Parliament and how we conduct ourselves. The Government's approach was revealing in its absolute contempt for this institution. Initially we were to conclude at 10 p.m. but the debate was extended to midnight.

We did not guillotine it.

Without warning, the Chief Whip texted the Opposition Whips at 9.57 p.m. to announce that we were to sit until 5 a.m. If he had properly organised the schedule for this Bill we could have been here at 9 a.m. and could have debated it until midnight. We could have done the sensible thing. It seems that the internal difficulties of the Fine Gael Party, in particular, were the ultimate determinant in how the House ordered its business and its votes.

Perhaps the mask slipped yesterday. The genesis might be found during yesterday's Order of Business, when the Taoiseach said he wanted to get rid of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill last night, come what may. Despite all the commitments given in the programme for Government on Dáil reform, changing the way we do things in this House and having meaningful debates, can anyone on the Government side seriously suggest that going until 5 a.m. represents a sea change or a democratic revolution in how we do our business, as the Government proclaimed two and a half years ago? Throughout yesterday we witnessed intense pressure being exerted on certain Deputies. It was not pretty to see the pressure that Deputies Mulherin and O'Mahony came under. Ministers are entitled to intimidate and bully their own Members but they should not extend that instinct to the rest of the Parliament. They should show respect for this institution.

It reveals an instinct and it warns the public about the approach the Government will take if the State is left with a unicameral system by the end of this year, courtesy of our referendum.

Deputy Martin does not need any assistance.

The Deputy opposite has, like me, been in this House a long time. Late night sittings are nothing new. They are much less frequent now than during the earlier years of our membership of this House. We already had one late night sitting.

It is not normal to sit until 5 a.m.

I do not need the help of the columnist from the Sunday Independent. It is a normal part of Parliament. Other parliaments sit late to debate issues. The commitment of the Government on this important and sensitive legislation is to allow it the maximum time possible for debate. It has been unprecedented for two different sets of committee hearings to take place, to have an open ended debate on Committee Stage and for Report Stage to be given 13 hours thus far, with a further seven hours allocated today. Every Member with strong views on this matter, from various perspectives, can be heard and have their views recorded. The Deputy opposite would have something else to say if we foreshortened the debate.


Hear, hear.

In regard to his comments on internal difficulties and Whips, we operate a whip system. That is normally the basis of how the Deputy's party operates.

We meet to reach consensus within our parties after robust debate and then we act as a unit. That is the norm. It is rare that a leader cannot bring his own troops with him and then makes a virtue of necessity by pretending that somehow it is virtuous to allow people to express whatever views they like on an issue of this importance. Normally a party takes a collective view on these matters.

I sat through much of last night's debate and I watched it on the monitor when I could not be in the Chamber. The debate was sincere and robust. It is true that it was repetitive at times but it allowed every Deputy the opportunity to express his or her views on this important issue.

It is not normal to sit until 5 a.m. on a Bill such as this.

I did not say it was normal.

The Minister said it was normal. The public do not think it is normal. It reflects badly on the Parliament and what happened last night was lamentable and shambolic. The least the Government should do when it extends the time of sittings is consult the Ceann Comhairle. At least tell him and the Opposition Whips. A text sent at 9.57 p.m., just before the Chief Whip arrived into the Chamber, shows nothing but contempt for the Parliament.

Is that not what happened on the night of the bank guarantee?

It shows no respect for the Parliament. The Minister should accept it was wrong. There should be legitimate engagement with the Opposition in ordering business.

How this was organised was shambolic from day one. Remember, until we raised the matter, the proposition yesterday was to guillotine it. The Taoiseach said he wanted to "get rid of it". I put it to the Minister that he should read the programme for Government and what it has to say about the promised democratic revolution - Dáil reform and so forth. Over 50% of all Bills have been rushed through the House without any serious debate and guillotined. The Government has been far more regressive in terms of parliamentary reform than any of its predecessors. I put it to the Minister that this bodes ill in terms of the future of this House if the Government gets its way and tries to force through a referendum to have a unicameral system in this country.

Whether we move to a unicameral system is a matter for the people. We will put it to them and will hear and respect their view on the matter. With regard to last night's debate being characterised by Deputy Martin as shambolic, I reject that.


Hear, hear.

It was a proper debate in this House for those participating in it and it was passionate and real. What is shambolic is what occurred in the dying days of the Fianna Fáil Government, when it was left with just seven Ministers.

That is your only defence. Defend your own.

That was barely constitutional. The Opposition can shout us down if it wants, but if it wants a yardstick for a shambolic exit, that was it.


Hear, hear.


If Fianna Fáil wants a yardstick for a shambolic end to a Government, it is when Ministers resign with such alacrity that Government is barely constitutional at the end.

The Minister should watch what is happening in his own party.

At the time, the then Government was looking at the prospect of reappointing Ministers who had resigned. That is a shambles.

What has this got to do with last night's debate?

We are now dealing with a difficult, sensitive and important piece of legislation. I know Deputy O'Dea has more views on this than Boris Karloff had faces.

The Minister should stick to the question he was asked.

We are over time on this.

This is an important issue for people and we are allowing the fullest possible debate. We are respecting the views of all and affording the opportunity for their views to be heard.

The Government will not change anything.

The Minister said in advance there would be no change to anything and that no amendments would be accepted other than his own.

Please settle down. There are a lot of tired bodies in this Chamber, including mine, and my tolerance level is decreasing by the second listening to you lot shouting and roaring across the Chamber. Please allow Deputy McDonald to contribute without interruption. She does not need help from anybody.

Indeed I do not. I want to raise the issue of medical cards. In budget 2013, the Government signalled that a further €750 million would be cut from the health budget for the year. The Minister may recall that where precisely those cuts were to be made was about as clear as mud. We were informed that medical card entitlements would be targeted, but we were not given the specifics.

Like many other Deputies, my constituency office has since that time been inundated with people who bear the brunt of these cuts and by citizens who have had their medical card entitlements removed. In many cases, these are people from households suffering mortgage distress or people who have difficulty trying to make ends meet as a result of the extra taxes the Government has introduced. I find it particularly reprehensible that cancer patients are now to be denied medical cards. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, is the Minister responsible for cuts and austerity and he bears much of the responsibility for this decision, which prevents seriously ill people from getting the care and treatment they need. This is a shameful situation. Removing medical cards from cancer patients makes a mockery of any claim to be reforming the health care service or providing free primary care for all.

Does the Minister have any inkling of or interest in the impact this cut to medical cards for cancer patients will have? Will he intervene with the Minister for Health and will he say something to those people who are battling cancer and serious disease who now find the Government is to remove their entitlement to a medical card?

As normal, the Deputy opposite never lets the truth of a situation get in the way of a line. Normally she is wrong. Let me give the facts. Some 43% of the population now have medical cards, the highest number ever.

The Minister does not understand the issue.

The Minister without interruption.

Last year, 1.854 million people were covered by medical cards. This year it is planned to extend that to 1.9 million people. Therefore, the numbers covered by medical cards are increasing and the funding provided for them is increasing. There are decisions being made about medical cards - for example, with regard to automatic provision of medical cards in some categories - because discretionary medical cards are very important in allowing the HSE, under the Health Act, to make provision on a case-by-case basis for people who need them. Rather than allowing a category of people who may suffer from an illness but are not in difficulty with regard to paying to be automatically covered, we are providing the flexibility to deal with everybody on a case by case basis, so that those in greatest need can be guaranteed they will have the medical cover they require. That is a more sensible and rational way of dealing with the issue, rather than, as happened in the past, automatically granting medical cards to entire categories of people regardless of financial means, as happened in the case of people over the age of 70. In times of scarce resources, as now, it is important to make rational decisions. The decision is that anybody who would have undue hardship in providing medical cover, whatever his or her illness, will be entitled to a medical card. This will remain the case.

I asked specifically about cancer patients. All of us are aware of the physical and mental trauma a cancer diagnosis brings to an individual and his or her family. Whatever the Minister may say about discretion or automatic provision, no rational or fair person would be of any other view but that a person suffering from cancer should be automatically entitled to medical card coverage. This should be automatic, such is the gravity of the illness and the position in which the person finds himself or herself.

Has the Deputy a question for the Minister?

The Minister trots out figures and gives the impression that the Government is one of largesse and generosity. He tells us repeatedly that it is a government that wants to provide full health care for all. Yet in this specific instance and in these specific cases, it demonstrates a mean-spiritedness with regard to people who are very ill. Anybody who suffers from cancer and is asked to bear the full cost of his or her treatment can tell us how very expensive it is. The cost is ruinous in many cases.

Thank you, Deputy.

This is happening against a backdrop of many people falling out of the private health care system, for reasons with which we are all too familiar.

The Minister has not given me an answer in explanation for this mean-spirited and despicable decision because, really, he cannot. Is that not the truth?

Thank you, Deputy.

The Minister cannot stand over stripping medical card cover from cancer patients, or can he? Is the Government now-----

Sorry, Deputy. You are way over time. Would you please listen to the Chair?

-----so depraved and at such a level that it will even stand over that?

There is no question but that we in this House understand the gravity for any individual or family touched by cancer. Most of us have friends or family members who have endured that. There are a variety of very serious illnesses that equally strike terror into people. The principles underscoring the provision of a medical card as set out in the Health Act 1970 are that we provide comprehensive free medical cover to anybody who cannot, without undue hardship, arrange for GP services and full health services for themselves. It is a rational, reasonable and sensible way of providing such cover that we would look at each individual case. In a time of absolute plenty, yes, everybody should be entitled to a medical card, but in times of scarcer resources, those who demonstrably are financially in a position to pay for their own medical care should be required to carry that burden.

I did not ask about that.

We make rational decisions on the basis of the determinant laid out in the law. If there is hardship involved in the provision of proper and robust medical cover, then a medical card should be provided, regardless of the illness.

I begin by commending all Members of this House on voting to their own best judgment and for voting according to their conscience on the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill last night. These are difficult and, indeed, emotional times for many Members of this House, and we all struggle to find a way forward toward realising a deep and passionate commitment to protect the lives of both mother and child when a crisis in pregnancy occurs. I do not believe that, despite the very heated exchanges we have had in the House, anyone here wants to see a situation where threats to the life of the mother or child will increase in our country.

That being said, there are a few fundamental issues I feel obliged to return to today. I refer in particular to the constant assertion of the Taoiseach that this Bill, part of which was voted on last night, is fully in line with the Constitution. In fact, only last week the Taoiseach stated that the Government is not able to unpick the Supreme Court decision and, therefore, to attempt to do so would render the Bill unconstitutional. This week, however, one of the Supreme Court judges who decided the X case has said the judgment is moot and is not binding on Government. He also said that the X case itself was moot because the 14 year old girl at the centre of it miscarried and did not have an abortion. The case was, he said “peculiar to its own particular facts”. Mr. Justice O’Flaherty could hardly have made the issue any clearer for us.

This is a speech.

It has also been brought to my attention that the Oireachtas has no right to vote on a Bill that contains provisions that have been put to the Irish people in a referendum and which they, in a sovereign exercise, rejected. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill 2013 contains two provisions which were put to the Irish people in a referendum in 2002 and which they rejected. These provisions, which stand rejected by the Irish people in a referendum, cannot be included in the proposed legislation and voted on by the Oireachtas, I believe.

One moment, please.

Will you put your question, please? Your time is up.

Let him just publish the speech.

The Irish electorate voted "No" in the 2002 referendum to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The proposal to delete sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act-----

Sorry, Deputy. What is your question?

I have a question.

Please put it.

Yes. The electorate voted "No" in 2002 to the referendum specifying that life would only be protected from implantation, yet this Bill presumes now to legislate for protection starting at the stage of human life.

Would you put your question, please?

In light of these facts, will the Government commit to holding off on the vote on this Bill until it has time to examine these issues I have raised?

A Deputy

I have already asked that question, for God's sake.

Will you please allow the Chair to do the job? I do not need your help at this stage. If I do, I will be the first to call on you.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath. I originally heard the speech yesterday and he has repeated it today. It is a well-known construction of law that laws passed by the Oireachtas are presumed to be constitutional until the contrary is established - that is the presumption of constitutionality that is assigned to every piece of legislation that is enacted until it is deemed to be unconstitutional by the only valid authority, which is the Supreme Court of Ireland, and there is a separation of powers. Additionally, Bills which have not yet received the signature of the President also enjoy that presumption of constitutionality. That is the way it has always been in the operation of this House. It is only upon the adjudication pursuant to Article 26 - an Article 26 referral in the case of a Bill - that such a presumption can be rebutted, not by a Deputy standing up in the House. It is only the courts, including the Supreme Court, that, in deference to the doctrine of the separation of powers, have the jurisdiction, the capacity and the authority to decide on the validity of any law, including a Bill, and the courts must do so having regard to the Constitution.

In regard to the power to repeal legislation, that of course rests here with the Legislature. This Legislature is gathered on the authority of the people at the last election and we have the authority, if we deem it, to repeal other enactments, including sections of the 1861 Act that the Deputy argues we have not got.

The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, wants it referred to the Supreme Court.

I wish to inform the Minister, as he mentioned the courts, that a court challenge is getting under way today. Indeed, a press conference will be held at 3 p.m. outside Leinster House to enlighten him further on that.

This was made explicitly clear in the Twenty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which provides for the operation of a mechanism whereby proposed changes to Article 40.3 of the Constitution, such as the text proposed for legislation on the Protection of Life in During Pregnancy Bill, will be put to the people in a referendum. What about all the promises in Lisbon that the people would be consulted? While that was not the Minister's Government, he was a supporter of it as well. Where did those promises go?

I want to put on the record of the House serious concerns about the heavy-handed way the whole debate has been carried out, especially last night, which was ridiculous. I know from talking to our Whip and the other Whips that they were not consulted in any way. I, as an employer, understand health and safety legislation.

Would you put your question, please? This is Leaders' Questions, not statements.

Yes, I am saying-----

What is your question?

My question is this. He and the other Ministers here, Deputy Bruton in particular, have respect for health and safety laws and employment legislation, which apply to everybody here, both Members and staff.

What do you know about employment law?

Excuse me. I am an employer. I would love to know how many you employ. You could not create a job if you were paid.

Through the Chair, please.

I am asking the Minister will he have respect for health and safety, the working time directive and everything else, and will he obey them in future?

It is a small contractual matter-----

He is one of your own, Timmy.

You lost one of yours last night.

Excuse me. The Deputy will get an answer from the Minister. The Dáil is in session, in case Members do not know.

I said in reply to Deputy Martin earlier that I respect the authority and the right of the elected Members of this House to act as a Parliament.

No, he does not respect that.

The Minister should proceed and ignore the side comments.

It is abundantly clear. I know there are people of such arrogance that they believe that if one does not agree with them-----

The Minister would know about that.

Please. It is not even your question.

He punched above his weight on that one.

-----one should be denied the right even to speak. Let me say this to Deputy Mattie McGrath. It is extraordinary that he would contemplate a court challenge when the deliberative process of the Oireachtas is still in mid-stream. That is extraordinary. I regard that as a contempt for the House. Everybody can-----

It is the right decision.

Everything we do is justiciable under the Constitution but the right to legislate is uniquely placed in the Oireachtas.

Then legislate for fatal foetal abnormalities.

The will of the people determines who sits in the Oireachtas. Let us at least carry out our constitutional duty in an open, clear and democratic fashion.

It is open to anybody, once that process is complete, to oversee, review or judicially challenge that decision. That is all well and good and in accordance with the Constitution. In the meantime, however, there must be respect for the authority and rights of the elected representatives of the people to do their job.