Priority Questions

We begin our new Question Time system. The overall time limit for Question Time remains the same, one hour and 15 minutes, with 30 minutes for Priority Questions and the remaining time for Ordinary Questions. For each question, the individual time limit remains the same, with the addition of 30 seconds for a brief introduction to each question or group of questions. There are six minutes in total. The new innovation is that the Deputy who tabled the question is entitled, if he or she so wishes, to have 30 seconds for a brief introduction of the question. Where questions are grouped for reply, the Deputy whose question is first in the group may introduce the group of questions. These are the rules and it is my job to apply them. They are not necessarily my ideas but what the House has decided. I know I can depend on Members’ co-operation.

Defence Forces Family Clinics

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

1. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence if he will reconsider his decision to close the Curragh Families Clinic; his views on whether the proposal to close it is contrary to the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46964/13]

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

2. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Defence if he will overturn the decision to close the families clinic in the Curragh Camp at the end of 2013.. [46846/13]

I do not know about the 30 second rule as it does not allow us to do very much. Some weeks ago it was announced that the Department of Defence was to close the Curragh families clinic, which supplies primary care facilities for 480 families. The decision has caused shock in the community and will cause enormous hardship for the 480 families affected. It is a serious breach of the terms of the Haddington Road agreement.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

I have no plans to change the decision to discontinue the services provided at the Curragh families clinic. The clinic provides free GP and pharmacy services for the families of enlisted military personnel resident within the Curragh Camp and surrounding areas. The service dates back to a time when the provision of medical services for all families of enlisted personnel was included in Defence Forces regulations. Following the introduction of free public hospital care for all citizens in the 1970s, the entitlement to medical services for military families was formally removed from regulations in 1987. Accordingly, the family section of the Curragh Military Hospital closed at that time. However, the Curragh families clinic was retained because of the difficulty in obtaining doctor and pharmacy services in the Curragh area at the time. This is no longer the case.

The service is an anomaly in that it is a benefit which is only available to a relatively small number of families resident within the Curragh Camp and surrounding areas. Similar services are not provided for the families of enlisted military personnel at any other location in the State. A further anomaly arises in that new personnel deployed to the Curragh Camp in recent times do not receive the benefit of free family care.

Several reviews undertaken since 1990 have recommended that the clinic be closed. The decision to discontinue the operation of the clinic has been made having regard to these reviews, equity considerations and the cost of the service. The families affected will have the same rights of access to public health services as other families of enlisted personnel. Also, existing services are being maintained until 31 December 2013 to allow families to make arrangements to transfer to local general practitioners, GPs, and apply for medical cards or GP visit cards, if required. If any patient requires assistance in finding a new GP or applying for a medical or GP visit card, this can be provided by staff in the clinic during the transition period.

As the Curragh families clinic is a facility that is neither provided for members of the Defence Forces nor encompassed by the conciliation and arbitration schemes for the Defence Forces, its closure is not an issue that comes within the scope of the Haddington Road agreement. The Deputy is incorrect in that allegation.

Viewed as a desktop exercise, what the Minister said is probably correct. However, his response shows an ignorance of what is, in fact, the community dynamic at the Curragh Camp where primary care facilities have been available since prior to the foundation of the State. The British army was able to provide services for the communities on the Curragh. The Minister is correct that previous reports suggested the facilities should have been withdrawn. However, his predecessors had the wisdom and knowledge of the circumstances to refuse to take that initiative. If the Minister proceeds to close this facility, he will further impoverish those families who live on the Curragh. He will force them out into a primary care sector in the greater Kildare area where the numbers involved cannot be accommodated. The families affected have already surveyed GP services available in the wider community and know that no existing service has the capacity to take on the 480 families in question, or over 1,000 people.

I am afraid the Deputy is mistaken in much of what he is saying. I have full knowledge of the position on the Curragh and the families there. This matter was given careful consideration. It is particularly anomalous that some families of military personnel based in the Curragh can avail of this service, while others there cannot. It is an additional anomaly that no such service is available to other military personnel in other parts of the country. Before making these decisions, the issue of the capacity of GPs in the surrounding areas to take on and provide appropriate medical care for the families in question was carefully examined.

There are 13 GPs working in eight clinics in Newbridge and five GPs working in two clinics in Kildare town listed on the HSE website. All the clinics were contacted to see what, if any, spare capacity they had to take on additional private or medical card patients, and five responded, indicating that there is ample GP capacity in Newbridge and Kildare town to cater to the clients of the Curragh families clinic. Arrangements will be put in place when families transfer to ensure medical records are made available to the GPs who will provide the service.

On the face of it, the Minister's argument that he cannot provide services to one set of families and not others is fair. However, the families insist they were not consulted and were first made aware of this very significant change by letter. They also referred to the wider issue of the changes in the camp, which, many years ago, was a very different place. They use words such as "depressing", they feel isolated and they feel people are being pushed away from the camp. In the context of that view of the families, to whom this State owes a debt, can the Minister outline the consultation with them and whether they are wrong in what they say?

There is no reason any family or individual should feel isolated. They were provided with all the relevant information to assist those families who are entitled to free medical care, be it through a full medical card or a GP card, to make the necessary applications. They have been offered any assistance they require in completing applications. It is important that we put this in context. The military authorities advise me that there are 289 enlisted personnel whose families are not entitled to attend the Curragh families clinic. I note what Deputy Ó Fearghaíl had to say about my predecessors; however, no new families have been accepted into the clinic since 2008, so a decision was made by a predecessor of the Deputy's party to stop families using the clinic. The fact that my predecessor did not deal with each family equally has given rise to this issue.

A full analysis of the service provided at the Curragh families clinic was undertaken before the decision to discontinue the service. The analysis concluded that the service provided by the Curragh families clinic is an anomaly in that it is a benefit that is available to only a relatively small number of families of enlisted personnel resident in the Curragh camp and surrounding areas in circumstances in which no such service is available to any other enlisted personnel and in which it is not available to any personnel attached to the Curragh camp since 2008. It is entirely unfair to maintain a service that can be properly provided by local GPs.

The Minister's predecessors made decisions about the orderly wind-down of this service. A survey by local people of the GP services, many of which I know, indicate that they cannot accommodate the number of people involved, which is more than 1,000. The Minister's decision is wrong. A duty of care rests with the GP who provides the service in the Curragh and the Defence Forces. The Minister's plan to wind down the service within three months does not have proper regard to that duty of care because a primary care service of this type cannot be wound down in three months. Neither can the medical cards he mentioned be provided to people with certainty should they require them. Nor can alternative GP services be secured within the timeframe.

I defer to my colleague's local knowledge of the realities on the ground. The Minister did not answer my very simple question on what consultation was undertaken with the families who are already, as we can see, very concerned about the changed circumstances in the camp. Why was it not put to them that the Department had done a survey of local GPs and clinics in nearby towns and found that there was plenty of availability? Did those conversations take place? Was it argued that the service could not be sustained while it was not available to others? Was the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, involved in these discussions or deliberations? It is important. I appreciate that the Minister must take decisions and will always find a rationale for those decisions, but what about the consultation with the very people we need to engage with?

The families are well aware of the circumstances surrounding the decision that has been made and the anomalous nature of the service. Deputy Ó Fearghaíl acknowledges that around 2008 the former Minister for Defence Deputy O'Dea made a decision that further families who locate in the Curragh cannot avail of these services. As the Deputy so eloquently put it, he made a decision for the orderly winding down. At what stage does an orderly winding down require that one make a decision to wind up the service?

The Minister is unilaterally withdrawing it.

The stage has come when we have so many personnel based in the Curragh, as I detailed, and their families who cannot avail of this service. Having checked the position carefully, I consider it clear that local GPs have the capacity to take on the families. If any family has a difficulty being taken on by a local GP I can ask the military or officials from my Department to provide the assistance necessary to identify an appropriate GP who has availability. All of the information I have indicates that there is more than adequate availability among qualified GPs who are not only providing medical care to the local community but to the families of all the other personnel located in the Curragh who are excluded from this scheme. I assume the Deputy is not impugning the medical care provided by the local GPs to the families excluded from availing of this scheme.

The Minister presumes correctly. Nor did I suggest it.

Defence Forces Accommodation

Mick Wallace

Question:

3. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Defence his long-term plan for accommodation in the Curragh camp; if he intends to have the homes of all of the ex-servicemen and their families vacated; the timeframe for the same; and the alternative affordable accommodation that is being offered to families and persons being requested to leave. [46845/13]

Over the past three years the Department of Defence has been sending out letters to retired soldiers still living in Army residences demanding that they vacate the premises. Some of the residents have been in a position to leave and have done so, while others find themselves in a situation in which they have nowhere else to go and cannot afford private rented accommodation but do not qualify for council houses as they are deemed to be housed and are in receipt of an Army pension. Some of the residents pay between €200 and €500 per month in rent as well as the usual utilities.

In February 1997 the then Minister for Defence set out policy on married quarters on the basis that they were largely an anachronism and that they should be discontinued in a managed and orderly way. Since then my Department has discontinued the practice of providing such accommodation. In addition, given the age of the housing stock, it has been found that over time the properties require a significant and disproportionate investment in order to ensure compliance with regulations regarding rental properties. In recent years much of the stock has become unsuitable for habitation and has had to be taken out of use. Consequently, there has been a sharp decline in the number of married quarters in use, with only 25 serving personnel currently occupying married quarters in the Curragh.

Where properties are located outside barracks, they are made available for purchase by tenants. For security reasons, properties located within barracks cannot be sold and are removed from the stock of available housing when they become vacant. There are no habitable residential properties - former married quarters - vacant in the Curragh camp. From time to time the overall stock of housing within the camp is reviewed and vacant uninhabitable properties are demolished where it is found to be necessary due to health and safety concerns, to make way for other facilities or to improve the layout of the camp generally.

Personnel are obliged, under Defence Forces regulations, to vacate married quarters within a specified period of being discharged from the Permanent Defence Force. The term "overholder" is used to describe former members of the Defence Forces and their families who have refused to leave married quarters within 21 days of leaving the Defence Forces.

My Department is, in accordance with normal procedure, seeking vacant possession of overheld married quarters. The situation of overholders continuing to occupy married quarters is not sustainable. As the Department is no longer in a position to subsidise housing for those who are not entitled to it, the Department has had to take necessary action. Each overholder is being dealt with on an individual basis.

The issue of overholders is being addressed in a number of ways. With the assistance of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor, formal procedures have been put in place to obtain vacant possession of the properties. In the first instance, overholders of married quarters are reminded of their responsibilities to vacate properties under Defence Force regulations and are asked to vacate. Where the properties are not vacated, legal proceedings are initiated to obtain vacant possession of the properties. It is not possible to give a definitive timeframe for the procedure as the process is different for each individual case.

This treatment of families who gave loyal service to the State for many years is hardly fitting or fair. There is a serious level of inconsistency in regard to how the Department is dealing with the issue, with some people receiving letters and others not. I presume some properties were deemed more unsuitable than others. There is serious concern about this issue and people are very worried. Many of them have nowhere else to go. It seems callous that there would not be some investment made on the part of the State to sort out the problems with their houses. These people have lived in these houses for most of their lives and want to stay in them. I do not understand why the Department cannot arrive at a better arrangement to allow people live where they want to live.

In the context of their serving in the Defence Forces, those provided with accommodation knew that upon their ceasing to serve, the accommodation had to be vacated. However, they did not vacate it. For many years, this matter has been dealt with as carefully and sensitively as possible.

The Department does not have a role in the provision of housing accommodation for the general public and the securing of alternative housing for the individuals concerned in the first instance. If individuals are not in a position to secure housing in their own right, it may be the case that they qualify for social housing or for some level of housing. In that context, assistance can be, and has been, provided. Officials in my Department have met with Kildare County Council officials regarding overholders and they are aware of the situation and will advise overholders of procedures and requirements when making applications for social housing.

In so far as the Deputy might suggest that individuals have been put under any unfair pressure, these individuals are aware of their circumstances and obligations in this area. There are currently 29 married quarters being occupied by overholders in the Curragh camp and a further 14 overholders in the Dublin area. The duration of overholding ranges from between 44 years to six weeks.

The Minister says the Department of Defence does not have an obligation to the general public to provide housing and I understand that. However, these people have worked for the Defence Forces for much of their lives and there is a duty owed to them. The Minister has said alternatives are being offered to them at local level, but some of the people to whom we have spoken say they have nowhere to go and that they cannot afford what is being offered. Is it possible the State will make these people homeless? Will the Minister affirm there will be alternative, affordable accommodation available to them and that if they cannot afford it, the State will facilitate an arrangement?

The Deputy always chooses to be selective in what he says and his presentation on this issue is consistent with that approach. He chooses to ignore entirely that each individual provided with such accommodation knew that on completion of his or her service with the Defence Forces, they were obliged to vacate the premises provided. Is the Deputy suggesting that the State should provide permanent housing for the families of every member of the Defence Forces in which they can remain for the rest of their lives, even after they have completed their service? If that is what he is saying, perhaps he will suggest how that could be financed and how the matter should be approached.

As I have already said, in so far as families have difficulties, arrangements are in place whereby families can engage with Kildare County Council if they are not in a financial position to get alternative housing. The length of time during which families or individuals have been allowed to reside in residential premises as overholders is extraordinary and indicates the extent to which the Defence Forces and the Department have tried to be as careful as possible to cause as little upset as possible.

Overseas Missions

Seán Ó Fearghaíl

Question:

4. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Defence if he will provide an update on the participation of the Defence Forces in the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [46965/13]

Last July, Fianna Fáil was happy to support the deployment of a contingent of Irish Defence Forces personnel to the Golan Heights in Syria, but that was done against the background of international concern and in a situation where the Austrian, Croatian and Japanese authorities had withdrawn their troops. What we seek today is an assurance of the continued safety of personnel serving in that location.

On 1 July 2013, Ireland received a request from the United Nations to consider contributing a mechanised infantry company to the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, UNDOF, on the Golan Heights in Syria for the tasks of a force mobile reserve. Following Government and Dáil approval on 17 and 18 July 2013 respectively, the deployment of the 43rd Infantry Group, comprising 115 personnel, to UNDOF was successfully completed on 28 September 2013. The 43rd Infantry Group consists of a force reserve company and support elements. The group achieved full operational capability on 2 October 2013, meaning that they were operationally capable of fulfilling all aspects of their role from this date onwards.

The Irish personnel are based in UNDOF headquarters in Camp Faouar on the Golan Heights. Their role includes the provision of a quick reaction force which is on stand-by to assist with ongoing operations within the UNDOF area of responsibility. The Irish Infantry Group also carries out patrols and convoy escorts as necessary. In addition to the 43rd Infantry Group, there are also four Defence Forces personnel based in UNDOF headquarters. UNDOF is assisted by the military observers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation’s, UNTSO, observer group Golan, which currently includes seven Irish officers. The deployment of the Irish Force reserve company to UNDOF helps to ensure that the mission can continue implementing its mandate. I believe the Defence Forces contingent can make an important contribution to the success of the UNDOF mission, as they have done throughout the world on so many occasions in the past. They have all the resources requested to enable them carry out this task.

I thank the Minister for his response and join him in wishing success to the troops. Our mutual concern is to ensure the success of the mission and the well-being of all involved. Any involvement in a UN mission axiomatically involves a degree of risk, but it is important that we are fully conscious of the particular situation that continues to exist in Syria generally and the Golan Heights in particular. Will the Minister assure us and is he is confident there is no uncontrollable or direct threat to our forces at that location?

As the Deputy knows, there is great volatility in the country of Syria and in that general area. The escalation of the conflict in Syria has affected the UNDOF area of operations significantly in recent months. The armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic have deployed and carried out military activities and security operations in the UNDOF area of operation. These activities are in violation of the 1974 disengagement agreement. Numerous clashes have also taken place between Syrian security forces and armed members of the opposition in the area of separation.

Given the evolving security situation, the mission has continued to reconfigure its operations with a view to ensuring the safety of the personnel while continuing to implement the mission's mandate. UNDOF has continued to concentrate on static activities in an effort to reduce the exposure of personnel to danger while focusing on enhancing situation analysis, reporting and liaising with the parties to prevent the situation from escalating. In the context of their engagement in the area, Irish troops have performed admirably. They have been successfully engaged in matters when appropriate and I can tell the Deputy all of our troops are carrying out their duties as expected and ensuring the mission can continue in the manner that is appropriate in an area of great volatility.

None of us can be sanguine in the context of the particular area. Not only are the forces of the official Syrian Government involved, but it is now reported that there are in the range of 2,000 different groups engaged in conflict in Syria. Not all of them understand fully the mission of the UN in the area and our troops and those engaged in the mission will have to continue to engage with care and competence and with the skill exhibited elsewhere in the past by our troops.

I welcome the follow-up response from the Minister. It needs to be said that we cannot be distracted by the moves in Syria to deal with chemical weapons. There is still chaos there. Will the Minister assure us our troops have freedom of movement across the Golan Heights and in their area of responsibility?

A humanitarian tragedy is being played out in Syria and unfortunately, as I stated on a previous occasion, no solution is in sight to bring an end to the terrible conflict. We know there are now more than 2 million refugees located in countries outside Syria; there are in the region of 5 million displaced persons in Syria; and there are outbreaks of diseases in Syria. Forces on all sides have committed war crimes and atrocities and civilian populations have suffered hugely. Hundreds and thousands of individuals have been injured, some very seriously. All I can say is that our contingent is in a position to undertake the mission it has been requested to undertake and has been engaged successfully in this mission.

Defence Forces Medicinal Products

Pádraig MacLochlainn

Question:

5. Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn asked the Minister for Defence if he will reconsider his decision not to publish a report on the use of the controversial anti-malarial drug Lariam. [46847/13]

This question is with regard to the working group established in January 2011, which has apparently reported to the Minister, and why the Minister has not published the report. I am asking the Minister to reconsider this position.

This is an issue that the Deputy has raised with me previously. Having regard to current and potential litigation, the Department established a working group in January 2011 to examine the use of Lariam and other anti-malarial drugs in the Defence Forces. The group comprises representatives of the Defence Forces Medical Corps, the Defence Forces personnel policy branch and the Defence Forces human resources and litigation branch. The group also includes representatives from the State Claims Agency and the Chief State Solicitor's Office. The purpose of the group was to review issues arising in relation to the use of Lariam, particularly in the context of the current and potential litigation; to review and confirm the approach of the Defence Forces in relation to the use of malaria chemoprophylaxis in the Defence Forces; and to ensure that the procedures in relation thereto continue to be appropriate and in accordance with best medical practice as promulgated by the relevant medical authorities. The work of the group informs the defence organisation’s process of ongoing risk assessment and mitigation in the context of a proactive risk management strategy.

The group reported back to me in June this year. The report was produced in the context of current and potential litigation and is, therefore, legally privileged. I can confirm that the group investigated all the various allegations surrounding the use of Lariam and obtained advice from leading medical experts. These experts concur with the practices followed by the Defence Forces in prescribing Lariam.

It is very disappointing that the report has not been published. It has been raised on numerous occasions on this side of the House by various Opposition spokespersons. It is a matter of controversy. Cases are being taken by former members of the Defence Forces and possibly some serving members. It would have been in the public interest to redact whatever the Minister felt needed to be redacted in terms of legal privilege and to put the report out there. I again ask the Minister to reconsider this decision. Does he accept it would be in the public interest to put on the table the arguments he has made in the past when we have discussed this and he refuted the concerns raised? The report was quite a comprehensive undertaking, so why not put it in the public domain and let the people argue it back and forth?

As the Deputy is aware, in replying to various Dáil questions over the past two years I have very substantially put in the public domain all of the issues with regard to Lariam, its importance and the fact that no member of our Defence Forces has contracted malaria - a disease which kills hundreds of thousands of people annually - in the context of missions abroad. I am advised by the State Claims Agency and the Chief State Solicitor's Office that because of the circumstances that exist it would be completely inappropriate to publish this particular report. It is a matter that has been prepared in the context of litigation the State must deal with and address. Unfortunately I cannot accede to the Deputy's request.

Is the Minister concerned about an article in The Sunday Times which stated that one of the contributors to the report, Professor Patricia Schlagenhauf, availed of research funding from Roche, the manufacturer of Lariam? The newspaper report contains a quote from Dr. Remington Neven, a researcher in the United States, who stated it is akin to hiring a tobacco company scientist to consult on cancer prevention policies. Does the Minister feel this was an appropriate appointment? On the basis of this revelation by the journalist Mark Tighe in The Sunday Times, will the Minister review how these reports are carried out in future?

I will not go into the detail of the report beyond saying to the Deputy that, having read it very carefully, I know that the report addresses all of the issues with regard to Lariam and the various medical concerns that arise with regard to Lariam, malaria and the use of the available alternatives. I can say to the Deputy that the report confirms that the approach taken by our Defence Forces, in this context, in protecting the health of the members of our Defence Forces and in engaging with members of the Defence Forces prior to prescribing Lariam, is the correct one.