Leaders' Questions

Yesterday, I asked the Taoiseach a number of questions about the inquiry into the sale of Siteserv and other State-owned assets by IBRC. He did not answer the very basic question I put to him, namely, why the Department of Finance refused to waive its rights regarding the documents it sent to the commission of investigation. I asked the Taoiseach if it was his position that no officials in government knew anything about this until last week. He stonewalled and did not answer the question. We have learned from the judge's statement published yesterday that the Department of Finance knew about this matter long before last week. In fact, the Department of Finance sent legal submissions to the commission of investigation citing and claiming confidentiality over the majority of its documentation. The Department of Finance was also aware of the position of the special liquidator, KPMG, in asserting confidentiality rights over all of the documents requested by the commission regarding Siteserv. According to page 13 of the judge's report, the special liquidator has asserted a duty of confidentiality over all of the documents. The report was sent to the Department of Finance by the judge.

When can we get a bit of truth and simple honesty on this? When did the Minister for Finance find out about this? Is it the position of the Taoiseach that Department of Finance officials knew about this matter since August and September? It appears from the judge's document that they knew about it definitively by early October, but told nobody in government. The Department of Finance said it got legal advice. Could the Taoiseach tell me who gave it that advice? Was it the Attorney General or external legal advisers?

I refer to the role of the special liquidator, KPMG. It was originally the adviser to the sale of Siteserv.

We are over time.

Incredibly, it was also originally asked by the Minister for Finance to lead the investigation. Is the Taoiseach not now thoroughly embarrassed by the decision to ask it to investigate, given that it has emerged as the main obstacle in the progression of the investigation and has claimed that the public interest does not override the necessity of the utilisation of these documents by the commission?

It seems to me as though Deputy Martin deliberately wants to confuse the situation. His party and everybody else in the House welcomed the setting up of the commission of investigation. Its purpose was to examine all cases in which there was a write-off of over €10 million to determine whether they were done in accordance with appropriate procedures. That was and remains the objective of the commission of investigation.

Yesterday, I pointed out to the Deputy that I received a letter from the judge on Friday which pointed out to me what the Deputy just said, namely, that all of the documentation received from the special liquidator had an assertion of confidentiality over all of the documents that it submitted. He made the point that, in addition, it has asserted legal advice privilege over all of the documents containing legal advice. It is simple honesty. That is a fact, as stated to me formally in writing by the judge.

He made the point that his commission had determined that a duty of confidentiality applies to all of those documents, something I told the Deputy yesterday. Furthermore, I told him that the judge pointed out that the commission had determined that the special liquidator is entitled to claim privilege over any documentation containing such legal advice. That is the truth from the judge. He also went on to say that the Department of Finance had made a similar claim of confidentiality and privilege over some of the documentation provided by it and he pointed out that the commission, under his direction, was in the course of preparing a similar determination in respect of that. Both of those determinations were made available publicly by Mr. Justice Cregan yesterday. That is a fact and, as I said to the Deputy yesterday, I am not hiding anything. The judge went on to say that because of these determinations he was not able to proceed.

The Deputy is asking me about a commission of investigation which was established by the Oireachtas-----

No; I am asking about the Department of Finance's knowledge.

Yes, the Deputy is, and I am not in a position to answer questions about what the Department of Finance has said or sent to the commission of investigation because that is a matter between it and the Department, which is a party to the commission of investigation in the first place. I am not entitled or authorised by law to investigate, comment or hold discussions with the Department. That is the law and the Deputy knows that because he was here when the Act was passed in 2004.

When he asks whether Government officials knew about this, I can tell him that Government officials in the Department of Finance have been in consultation and contact with the commission of investigation because that is part of the work that the commission of investigation has to do.

Was the Minister kept informed?

The Department I represent and the ministry that I hold is only the receiving and sponsoring Department. The cost of this comes from a Vote of the Department of the Taoiseach. I am not entitled, under the law on the establishment of commissions of investigations, to answer the Deputy's questions.

What law? Which section sets that out?

I do not know what contact existed, and with whom in the Department of Finance the commission of investigation was involved, nor am I entitled to know.

Can the Taoiseach point to the particular provision in law that prevents him from speaking?

It sent material to the commission with a recommendation in respect of confidentiality. In the past, as I have pointed out, judges have overruled that in the public interest.

People in the private sector argue about Chinese walls, and that is the KPMG argument. It claims it can be adviser to and investigate the sale, as well as taking steps legally to say the investigation cannot go ahead under a different aegis. It is incredible that the Taoiseach of the day would claim there is a Chinese wall syndrome at the heart of Government in regard to an investigation into the sale of a company which involved the write-off of €119 million. Taxpayers lost €119 million on that particular sale and there are many issues pertaining to it.

The Taoiseach said in the House that the utilisation of privilege is a matter for one Government Department and not the entire Government. The Government stated that it established the inquiry in order to vindicate the public interest, yet a Department of that Government, which is the key Department, has stated that it took legal advice and laid claim to confidentiality over documents that are of central importance to the commission. It is an extraordinary assertion by the Taoiseach which does not hold water.

When I was Minister for Health, I waived legal privilege and took a decision-----


-----on the workings of the Lindsay tribunal. Many people will remember that well, because we were asked to waive legal privilege, something that many people, including those in the Law Library, did not like. Many people did not want it to happen, but I took the decision. It is inconceivable that the Department of Finance would lay claim to confidentiality without the Minister for Finance knowing, without the issue being discussed by the Government and without a wider knowledge in government that the issue was a problem three months ago, not last Thursday.

The impression the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have been giving-----

-----is that this was all a big surprise to them last Thursday-----

Sorry, Deputy, please respect the Chair.

-----when the judge formally wrote to them.

We are fed up. We had it with the Fennelly inquiry, and we are fed up with not getting straight answers on Leaders' Questions at the beginning of a process.

You have a short memory.

There is all this obstruction and obfuscation going on time and again.

Please respect the Chair, thank you.

This House is being dismissed on an ongoing basis by that type of obfuscation and it is not good enough. I said at the outset I want the simple truth. When did the Department of Finance know?

I asked the Taoiseach this yesterday and he could not tell me and he refused to tell me.

The Taoiseach would not tell me yesterday.

I have to come in again today to ask him and, of course, he then says it knew but there were Chinese walls and they cannot even dare talk about it.

Deputy Martin should have done Mr. Angry in government.

Where is the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan?

Deputy Martin is a party to the Oireachtas which set up the Commission of Investigation Act and I support it. I cannot believe he came in here this morning to invite me in my capacity as Taoiseach to break the law. This is what he wants me to do.

Which law? What section?

Deputy O'Dea should know.

The law of the establishment.

He is making it up again.

Please allow a reply to the question.

One would need the Army to protect that law.

He is asking me to engage with the Department of Finance to find out the answers to the questions he is asking me. This is prohibited under the Commission of Investigation Act. He can talk all he likes about Chinese walls-----

The claiming of privilege by the Department of Finance is not-----

Which section?

-----but I am prohibited by law from inquiring about it.

The Taoiseach is answering questions he has not been asked and this is his classic trick. He answers questions he was never asked.

Deputy Martin should please allow a reply to his question.

If I were to engage with Department of Finance senior officials or even the Minister for Finance about the engagement-----

The Taoiseach was going to get the Army to protect them at one time.

-----between the Department of Finance and the commission of investigation he would be the first person to stand up and say I was deliberately interfering in the process, because of some other side analysis or allegation.

Yes, he would.

We want the investigation but we are second-guessing now what we might-----

He wanted simple honesty-----

Yes, but the Taoiseach could not tell me yesterday.

-----and the facts and the truth. They are published here-----

The officials knew but they did not know.

-----under the signature of Mr. Justice Cregan, who wrote to me formally setting out the position.

Thank you, Taoiseach, we are over time.

Yes, the Deputy did waive legal responsibility and legal right, and he waived legal responsibility and every other kind of responsibility when he was in the Ministry of health, and it ill behoves him-----

Come on. Is that the best the Taoiseach can do? Answer the question.

-----to come in as the leader of his party and suggest to me that I should deliberately break the law in respect of the Commission of Investigation Act.

That is what he said.

Waiving privilege is not breaking the law.

The Taoiseach is now hiding behind an omnibus.

Please settle down. I call Deputy Adams.

Deputy O'Dea should know better.

Deputy Kehoe should at least be in a position to tell the Taoiseach what law he is breaking.

He cannot find the section. It does not exist.

It would be very useful to know what law prevents the Taoiseach from commenting on these issues, and I sincerely hope he is authorised to speak on the issue I will raise with him. Last month was the worst October on record for the number of citizens on trolleys in our hospitals. The number was almost 8,000 people including, infamously, a 91-year-old patient who spent 29 hours on a trolley. In the first ten months of this year, almost 80,000 people, which is the population of a small town, were on trolleys, which is the highest ever figure for the first ten months of any year since trolley watch began. According to the INMO, for the 15th month in a row, October 2015 saw an increase in the level of overcrowding in emergency departments.

In Dundalk, 25 year old Dualtagh Donnelly bled to death while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, despite the fact that his family home is only five minutes from the Dundalk ambulance station and five minutes from Louth County Hospital where the accident and emergency department was closed. His mother, Oonagh, said she felt her son died because of politicians' promises. Does the Taoiseach agree with the president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association, Dr. Gerard Crotty, who said the cause of accident and emergency overcrowding is a lack of capacity because not enough money has been allocated to deal with it? Will he acknowledge that the public health system requires much greater investment by the Government to deal with the crisis?

The public health system also requires much greater levels of management and the use of resources of taxpayers' money. This morning's count at 8 a.m. saw 300 patients waiting on trolleys, according to the report from TrolleyGAR, which does this every day. Last night at 8 p.m. some 152 patients were waiting on trolleys and at 8 a.m. yesterday morning, Tuesday, 10 November, 320 people were waiting on trolleys. As the Deputy knows, the number always declines during the course of the day.

The Minister for Health convened the emergency department task force in December last year to provide a real focus and momentum in dealing with the challenges presented by emergency department overcrowding, for which there are many reasons. Good progress was made in the implementation of this task force's recommendations. Delayed discharges have reduced steadily, from 830 last December to 567 on 3 November this year, which frees up approximately 265 beds to be used by acutely ill patients every day. The average number of patients waiting for greater than nine hours on trolleys in October was 115, down from 173 in February before that.

Waiting times for nursing home support scheme funding has reduced from 11 weeks to three to four weeks. As the Deputy will recall, we were told before that if we put money into this it would alleviate the problem. It has not done so despite a serious reduction in the waiting time. Transitional care funding has continued to support 3,000 approvals, which is very much above the original target of 500, some 1,200 additional home care packages will have been provided by the end of this year, and 173 additional nursing home beds and 65 short stay beds are now open. In addition to this, €117 million extra has been provided in 2015 to help relieve pressure on acute hospitals.

I would be the first to say this is not the way I would like it to be, but clearly the request for resources, extra capacity and extra staff have all been met in part by the Minister, the Department and the HSE. In April this year, €74 million was allocated to reduce delayed discharges and lower the waiting times for the fair deal scheme as well as providing additional transitional beds, and €18 million has been allocated to support acute hospital systems over the winter by providing additional bed capacity to deal with these very problems. This additional funding has come on top of measures already taken when the Government provided the €5 million to deal with these acute hospitals. For the winter capacity, the hospital groups have all provided particular plans for each of the hospitals in the groups in respect of what they propose to do and how they propose to implement an integrated approach across primary, community, social and acute services to manage winter pressures, the scale of which we do not know yet because of what may occur with the weather and particular 'flus.

I asked the Taoiseach to acknowledge that the public health system requires much greater investment. He ignored this. His response was peppered with saying this is not the way he would want it to be, that the Minister has dealt with these demands in part and that we need much greater levels of management. Then, without a sense of shame or embarrassment, he announced that today 300 citizens of the State are on trolleys. What sort of a Taoiseach is he that he can stand there like a commentator and give us this figure? It is the case that 300 citizens are on trolleys as a direct result of Government policy. It is not an accident, but a direct result of what the Government is doing.

Last week, the Minister of Health said that CEOs of hospital groups should be allowed to transfer moneys from hospitals to private providers. He went on to say that hospital groups should be able to conduct business in the manner of semi-State companies "outside the constraints of public service rules". These are shocking and revealing comments, which highlight the ideological position of the Government which seeks ultimately to privatise our health services and leave patients at the mercy of a profit margin.

The silence of the Labour Party in the wake of the Thatcherite proposals from the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, is notable.

Do you have a question, please?

I am almost finished.

Do not say anything about-----

There is Eric the red.

I have never heard as much-----

Deputy Byrne, please.

Deputy Byrne comes in from the side all the time.

Eric the red has been very quiet.

Please proceed. We are over time.

He has no shame whatever about the record of his party.

They are still looking for the bodies.

Deputy Byrne, please.

Will the Taoiseach accept that the comments of his Minister for Health, along with the policy of the Government, have fundamentally undermined the public health system? Is it not time for the Taoiseach to stand up and admit that the Minister let the cat out of the bag and that the long-term plan of the Government is to abandon the public ownership model of health care?

I disagree completely with the last sentiment expressed by the Deputy. He asked what kind of Taoiseach I am. People will judge that in due course. I was given the responsibility and honour of leading a Government to take this country out of an economic mess we inherited, to restore our public finances and create an economic engine that can deal with the many issues-----

There are 300 people on trolleys today.

We would all be on trolleys if the Deputy's party was in there.

The Deputy made his point.

-----in the social area and the health area. At least Deputy Adams is getting the truth as of this morning, and I gave it to him yesterday morning and indicated the reduction in numbers yesterday evening. I pointed out to the Deputy the delayed discharges, the moneys allocated for fair deal, the extra numbers employed in the health service and the extra beds that have been opened. Clearly, the health situation-----

Not in Beaumont.

There is a long list.

What about those who do not even have a trolley?

-----in a country with an ageing population is always challenging.

There are thousands of people on waiting lists.

In excess of €13 billion of public money is going into the system. There are some very good things happening in health and some that are not so good.

What about the Minister for Health's remarks?

This is a real challenge every day and I commend those who work on the front line. Last week we had a question about a 91 year old who spent 29 hours on a trolley. That is unacceptable under any circumstances.

It is happening on the Taoiseach's watch.

It is happening every day.

Do something about it.

When I say this, I am told I am a commentator. We try to provide the resources for the professional staff to do their job, with extra staff, beds and public money, along with proper management of the systems. The chief executive of the HSE has visited all the hospitals with particular problems. I hope that the plan put in place by the Minister-----

It is not improving.

The Taoiseach should go to Beaumont.

-----will now bear fruit for the future.

What happens in America?

Deputy Adams will not be on a trolley anyway.

Drink and drug-driving prosecutions are perhaps the most challenged legislation in our courts. Just yesterday, the relevant Minister, Deputy Donohoe, acknowledged to the Road Safety Authority that the laws are full of loopholes. Of the motorists before the District Court for drink-driving - we should bear in mind this only happens after they are tested positive for being over the alcohol limit using breath, blood or urine tests - an estimated five out of ten people escape conviction. Even if a driver is convicted, there is only a one in five chance he or she will have the licence number recorded by the court, potentially allowing the person to continue driving when a court has ordered that he or she should not. I acknowledge that these figures may be an overestimation but the fact remains that some people believe that technicalities and loopholes in the law, as well as finite Garda resources, mean that drink and drug-driving convictions can be avoided and they are no big deal.

These convictions are a big deal to many families, some of whom are here today. Ms Christina Donnelly is in the Gallery today and for her and her son, these convictions would be a devastatingly big deal. Christina's son Brendan and his friend Lee lost their lives when the car in which they were travelling was struck by a drunk driver. The driver, who fled the scene, was subsequently found guilty of dangerous driving causing their deaths, and he served three years and eight months in prison. Brendan was 24 when he died. The lives of all his family were torn apart that day and they are struggling since to come to terms with the devastating loss. Kate Flynn, who was to be here today, suffers five epileptic fits per day as a result of that accident. She is now undergoing surgery. Otherwise she would have been here today. Deputy Finian McGrath told me of Lucy O'Farrell whose son was also killed by a drunk driver.

I know the Taoiseach is meeting the family later and we are very grateful for that. Christina Donnelly has dedicated her life to road safety and is here today seeking the Taoiseach's support for the implementation of Brendan's law. Under that law, drivers involved in fatal accidents who fail a breath test would have their licence automatically suspended until the court appearance. Christina also believes that people found guilty of causing death while drunk or on drugs should serve a six-year jail term, with no discounts for good behaviour and mandatory disqualification from driving for up to 25 years. What she is proposing is not unreasonable since in several other jurisdictions, a licence would be seized instantly if a motorist is found to be over the legal limit. If a drunk driver causes serious injury or death, the licence would sometimes be suspended for life in some jurisdictions. On Ms Donnelly's behalf and that of the many other families, some of whom could not be here today, I ask for the Taoiseach's support for Brendan's law. Many people are watching on televisions throughout the country.

I thank Deputy Halligan for his comment and question. I am very happy to say hello to Christina after these questions. We can all empathise when death comes to any family under any circumstances, but it can be particularly tragic when it is caused by road accidents and specifically drunk driving. The key to reducing injuries and fatalities on our roads is to continue to change driver behaviour. It has changed from what it was 15 or 20 years ago. To this day for this year, 132 fatalities on the road have been recorded. That number is down by 30 for the same date last year. This cannot bring anybody back and those deaths create great tragedy and stress for many families.

Strides have been taken to strengthen the law. The introduction of mandatory alcohol testing has been a very effective instrument in preventing people driving in the first place when alcohol is taken. The blood alcohol content limit has been reduced, with even lower levels for learner drivers. All drivers in road traffic collisions where a serious injury occurs are now obliged to provide a preliminary breath specimen. Under the most recent road traffic Act from 2014, further measures were taken to strengthen the law, including the provision of road impairment tests. These are non-technological tests for drunkenness or intoxication. There is also the testing for intoxicants in incapacitated drivers following road traffic collisions. Furthermore, all convictions for drink-driving offences in the District Court carry a mandatory disqualification for a minimum of six months. Apart from that mandatory disqualification applying under the administrative penalty system, which only applies to drink-drivers below a certain limit and those who have not received a drink-driving fixed penalty notice within the previous three years, it is a matter for the courts to make a disqualification order which can be of any length preventing a person from validly holding a driver's licence for a period. That is a matter for the judge.

Due to the nature of the road traffic legislation and the constantly shifting circumstances, road traffic legislation is always a work in progress. The Minister has stated that because the road traffic Acts go back for many years, with many of them quite complicated and some out of date, he proposes to codify and update the road traffic legislation. That will take the sections, bits and pieces from over the years and put them into a modern law.

The Deputy mentioned Brendan's law. I am aware of the death of Brendan and his friend, Lee, and the other driver in the accident having been jailed for five years but serving a shorter sentence. He has been banned from driving for 15 years. I know what Ms Christina Donnelly is indicating when she says she would like to see a minimum sentence of six years plus a 15-year driving ban for anybody convicted of drunk driving causing death. In her case, the death was of her 24 year old son Brendan.

What Deputy Halligan raises is perfectly valid.

However, I suggest that as the Minister is ordering a review of all traffic legislation, to codify and update it to give us modern legislation, the case for Brendan's law can be debated in that context regarding whether it should become part of a reviewed and updated legislation. It is a very valid point of view, one of many valid points of view that are brought forward when this kind of situation arises. I would be happy to have it considered and will discuss it with the Minister in the context of the review of the legislation that is taking place.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. As we know, one in three road crashes in this country is alcohol-related. The issue here is that the day after a crash, a drunk driver who was involved in that crash, even if it has resulted in the loss of life, is free to get behind the wheel again. I am not passing any comment on the individual case, but this individual was actually photographed in the paper a few weeks after that with the keys of a new car. This is the problem here. Any disqualification comes into effect 14 days from the date of the conviction. If the motorist, for instance, appeals that conviction, it will be adjourned until the appeal is heard and he can continue to drive in the interim.

I know the Government is acutely aware of the shortcomings of that particular Act, the 1961 Act and yesterday the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, acknowledged the increasing issue of drug driving and said new legislation was being drafted. We are asking the Taoiseach to commit to bringing consideration of the proposed Brendan's law, which simply put would mean that if a person is stopped for drunk driving or drug driving and is over the limit - all the indications are that many people who are stopped are not over the limit - they should not be allowed to drive until they come before the courts. Thousands of people around the country and around Europe have signed up to this. I am not passing any comments on sentencing, but such drivers should not be allowed drive before they come before the courts. One individual had 83 previous convictions. This Sunday is the UN World Day of Remembrance for road traffic victims. I know the Taoiseach is supporting this family and is going to meet them and his support today would send a clear message to motorists that the Government intends to come down hard on people who drink and drive and who use drugs and drive.

I share Deputy Halligan's view. There is no excuse for any person to sit behind the wheel of a car with alcohol taken. It is against the law and enforcement of the law is what people need to understand. I share the Deputy's view, because nothing can bring back the life of a person who is killed because of drunk driving. We had the recent powerful impact statement by a mother in respect of the loss of her young son. It is 54 years since the Road Traffic Act 1961 was introduced. Since then, 15 different traffic Acts have been introduced in this House. It is now past time to have that all codified and updated. The Deputy's request on behalf of Christina Donnelly regarding Brendan's law should be considered and that review is the time to do that. I would be happy to discuss that and that the Minister would consider it when the time comes. These laws are complex and they will not be reviewed overnight.

The Minister is now implementing drugs testing capacity on the roadside for drivers who have either drunk alcohol or engaged in substance abuse and sit behind the wheel of a car. The vast majority of people, particularly young people, understand this. One does not see the things we used to see years ago. There has been a big improvement, but any death is one too many. It is a point to be considered and I thank Deputy Halligan for raising it.