Leaders' Questions

Last night on the "Claire Byrne Live" television show, a whistleblower gave her account of how she believed an intellectually disabled child called Grace was left in a foster home, in which she was constantly and consistently abused, until 2009. It is known that this foster home or household to which children were sent for summer respite services was so engaged from 1983 to approximately 1996, when it ceased taking new placements, but that Grace was left there until 2009 and that another person, Ann, was left there until 2013. The abuse has been described as quite shocking - it genuinely would shock any person - and it is incomprehensible that a child would be left for so long in such a dangerous household. I have been watching the proceedings of the Committee of Public Accounts this morning and the various questioning to and fro there. My first point is that the whistleblowers are clear that serious abuse was perpetrated on those children in the 1990s and, if I understand the matter correctly, even though files were sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, for some reason no prosecutions took place. Therefore, the first question I ask of the Taoiseach is whether there may be mechanisms whereby the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions could be asked to give a report explaining why these cases did not materialise into prosecutions on foot of the files that were sent. I understand from one report this morning that five files were sent to the DPP during that period. My second point is that approximately 47 children or adults were involved in this scandal.

A question please.

They were placed there by the South Eastern Health Board, by the Brothers of Charity and by private families. The Government and the Minister have indicated they are to recommend a commission of investigation into this entire scandal. Has the Taoiseach taken legal advice and is he satisfied that a commission of investigation can run in parallel to the Garda investigation that currently is under way in respect of reckless endangerment by officials?

I thank the Deputy.

I ask this because it is clear from the proceedings of the Committee of Public Accounts that the Health Service Executive, HSE, is stating it cannot publish the Devine and Resilience Ireland reports because of that selfsame Garda inquiry. The point I make to the Taoiseach is Members must be clear in this House that a robust mechanism is available to have a comprehensive inquiry into this matter both on the health side and, I suggest, on the criminal justice side. Given the experience in respect of Siteserv and even the experience of the banking inquiry, would a commission of investigation have the capacity to conduct a comprehensive inquiry of the type that is absolutely required to deal with this horrendous story?

I thank the Deputy.

Finally, in respect of any civil cases-----

Sorry, we are way over time.

-----that may arise, my understanding is the State will not defend them. Has the Government given consideration to a redress scheme or some system of compensation for the families involved? The bottom line is that 47 children or adults - highly vulnerable adults with intellectual disabilities - were left in a home about which many people had huge issues-----

Sorry, but will the Deputy conclude?

-----and the whistleblowers are clear that serious abuse was carried out on a number of children in that home.

I thank Deputy Martin for raising what is another serious legacy issue that does no reflection upon this nation or upon the institutions involved, in particular because of the case of the person known as Grace who because of her condition was silent but who by her treatment and her abandonment was silenced. It is important to understand that a great deal of allegations have been made surrounding this and other issues in regard to this particular premises. Clearly, the safety and the protection of vulnerable people has to be of paramount importance to the State. It is not that the system has failed; it is that the people in charge of the system have not measured up. The Deputy has pointed out a number of important issues. The specific case is complicated by the fact that a Garda investigation is ongoing which has precluded the HSE from publishing two separate reports, namely, the Devine report and the Resilience Ireland report, into the matter pending completion of Garda inquiries. Obviously, we need to be very focused and precise about the questions that need to be followed through on. As I understand it, it is possible for a commission of investigation to proceed in parallel to the Garda inquiry though it might mean that when the commission report is completed, it might not be possible to publish it in full pending elements of whatever might emerge from the aforementioned Garda inquiry.

I can confirm to Deputy Martin that the Government discussed this matter today and had briefings from both the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and agreed on the establishment of a statutory commission of investigation, subject to terms of reference and approval by the Oireachtas. That will be the next Oireachtas, whoever the people elect. The work that is under way, which was commissioned by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, with Mr. Conor Dignam, SC, will be expected to form part of the drafting of the terms of reference for a commission of investigation. Additional resources have been made available for the senior counsel to allow him to accelerate completion of his report, which now is due by the end of April. I might note that both the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, have requested copies of both the Devine and the Resilience Ireland report from the HSE under section 40C of the Health Act 2004. Both Ministers believe direct access to these reports will assist their understanding of the relevant facts that are needed about the disturbing allegations that have been made. As the Deputy is aware, officials from the HSE are engaged with the Committee of Public Accounts at present. It speaks for itself that it is a committee of this House charged with dealing with monetary matters which has brought this matter to light here.

While I thank the Taoiseach for his reply, my core point is on the capacity of a commission of investigation to credibly carry out its work while the Garda investigation is under way. Presumably, a presiding judge might be highly wary of undermining the Garda inquiry. This was the very basis on which the HSE officials appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts have stated that, much as they would wish to so do, they cannot publish the Devine or Resilience Ireland reports because of the possibility of endangering the criminal inquiry. Has the Taoiseach received strong and robust legal advice from the Attorney General to state that a commission of investigation can conduct an inquiry? The Taoiseach has confirmed it cannot publish the results of the inquiry until after the Garda investigation is complete but can it actually conduct an inquiry? For example, the witnesses to such an inquiry may very well plead that they are involved in a criminal case and that they could be questioned by the Garda and so on. Will they be under an obligation, in a parallel mechanism, to give evidence to the judge? It is a serious issue in itself because the robustness of the Commissions of Investigation Act has been called into question because of the Siteserv experience. Likewise, Members had another experience in a separate inquiry, the banking inquiry, in which banking officials could not be brought forward because of criminal proceedings in the courts. Members must be clear and honest as to what are the prospects in this regard.

If he has the legal advice on that, could he share it?

Will Ministers come before the Dáil to answer questions about this from Deputies? It was normally the case in a controversy of this magnitude and scale that Ministers would come before either the health committee or a plenary session of the Dáil through a special notice arrangement to answer questions. It would be fitting and appropriate in a case such as this.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is taking a Topical Issues debate on this later. Ministers do not have a difficulty dealing with this. Obviously, this goes back over quite a long number of years and, clearly, there has been a deal of correspondence. The precedent is the Ryan report into institutional abuse and while it may not be possible to publish all of the report, pending the outcome of Garda inquiries, that is the precedent that stands up-----

Ryan was not a commission of investigation; it was separate legislation. I set it up in the first place.

-----where the commission was able to do its best and all that. Given the nature and scale of allegations of abuse, which appear to be horrendous in this particular case, the decision by Government is to have a commission of investigation and to allow senior counsel Dignam to complete his work as a scoping exercise for the drafting of appropriate terms of reference. The Resilience Ireland and Devine reports, obviously, will form the basis of what needs to be put in place, focusing on the precise and individual questions. Why was the home in question to be cleared of all foster children and yet a decision made that this should not be so? It is important to note that most of the children who attended the home were there for respite purposes for a week or a short period and it has been quite a number of years since there was any public placement by the State.

I am informed by the Minister that there is a Topical Issue in this House and a Commencement matter in the Seanad on this matter today. Members will have the right to ask questions.

That is only five minutes, for God's sake.

The Minister of State is in the Seanad at the moment. The HSE is answering questions, I understand, before the Committee of Public Accounts.

I thank the Taoiseach. We are way over time.

But the Ministers will not answer questions in the plenary session. That is what should happen.

To answer the Deputy's final question, there was no discussion about a redress scheme this morning. It is important that we focus on completing the work of Dignam and publishing and addressing the issues in the Resilience Ireland and Devine reports in order that when the Department drafts the terms of reference for the commission for investigation, they will be appropriate and focused precisely on what needs to be dealt with.

The Taoiseach went into government on the back of what he called "a democratic revolution". Contrary to that, he is now finishing five years of conservative politics with all the hallmarks of Fianna Fáil in office. He has led a Government acting for the elite and completely out of touch with the needs of ordinary citizens. He has arrogant Ministers who refuse to resolve the problems for which they are responsible and there has been a complete failure to fulfil the promises he made to the electorate at the last election.

I refer to the Taoiseach's record on health. In opposition, he promised a new health service and yet in office, he has broken every single one of the pledges he made. His promise of universal health insurance has been broken; his promise to abolish the HSE has been broken; his promise to deliver a more competitive insurance market has been broken; and his promise to reduce hospital waiting lists and accident and emergency department trolley waits has been broken. Just yesterday, the Minister for Health, Deputy Varadkar, announced that yet another promise to provide GP care for all would be reneged on as well. The Taoiseach's refusal to address what was a crisis in the health service has reduced it to chaos and that surely must rank as the defining failure of his term in office, although there have been many failures on housing, delivery for rural Ireland and child care among others.

During the last election campaign, he made promises that he knew he would never honour, all to get into office. I am sure we can expect the same from him over the coming weeks. However, on this, one of his last days in office and on the eve of yet another election, does he not think it would be opportune to apologise for his broken promises, particularly, but not exclusively, his broken promises in respect of the health services?

It seems to me the Deputy was part of an anti-democratic revolution. In any event, I do not accept his version of events at all. He will be aware the unemployment rate is down to 8.6%. The continued strength of our economy allows for investment in services, people and facilities. The Deputy should apologise as he comes in here with no plan for jobs and no plan for anything to do with the development of our economy.

We are talking about health.

Deputy Adams spends his time talking about how money should be spent and invested but he has no clue, no plan or no proposal to make anything happen other than give everybody everything for free.

Or go to America to hospital.

He will have the opportunity shortly to spell out how he will make that stand up around the country.

What about the trolleys?

Deputy Adams has the gall to come into the House and say to Government that nothing that has happened over the past five years has been for the benefit of the nation. We cannot deal with the many problems we still have to deal with unless there is the capacity in the economy to do that. It is very much heading in the right direction with unemployment decreasing and employment rising and, clearly, the potential existing in the economy to continue that for the future. The Deputy does not believe in keeping the recovery going and he has a different version of economics. I reject his proposition and assertion and I look forward to dealing with what he has to say in the period ahead.

The Taoiseach might answer the questions in the period ahead.

The people are the masters here. They will make their choice and I do not think they will follow the fantasy economics of the Sinn Féin party-----

Maybe the Taoiseach will debate them.

Deputy Ellis should not blow a fuse.

-----that espouses giving everybody everything for nothing. The party has voted against every proposition over the past five years that has helped our country to develop.

In respect of health, the first steps have been taken on universal health insurance with the provision of free GP care for those under six and over 70. Obviously, the break-up of the HSE has been under way for some time. Hospital groups have been set up and they will evolve into hospital trusts in due course. Community health care organisations are well under way, as is the provision of primary care centres. This is where we need to be in order that people do not have to go to hospital in the first place by having minor ailments and issues dealt with in primary care centres. That is based on a strong community-based proposition in respect of health.

The health insurance market has been made much more competitive than it was through young adult discounts and lifetime community rating and there has been a 100% increase in the numbers with health insurance over the past two years. These are all positive issues, whether the Deputy likes it or whether he does not.

I look forward to the people having their say on all these matters. Sinn Féin has put forward costed, practical proposals for dealing with housing, health and child care. The Taoiseach should know that because I sent them to him and, unlike Fine Gael's, the Sinn Féin sums add up.

At a cost of €12 billion.

Where is Sinn Féin going to get the money?

Fine Gael's sums do not add up.

The Taoiseach did not deal with the questions I put to him, which is not surprising. Regarding the health service, he said: "The inefficient two-tier health system will be eliminated". He has made it worse and he has no plan for health. He has no strategy to invest in the most basic services, which citizens should be accorded by right in a republic. He wants to scrap another 50,000 medical cards and he wants to sacrifice patient care for US-style tax cuts for himself and his friends.

Is the Deputy talking about US hospitals?

Why will the Taoiseach not admit that it is the ultimate aim of Fine Gael to wind down the health service in order to privatise it and auction it off to the highest bidder? Would it not be better to seek a mandate for that by saying to the people, "We want to privatise the health service because we believe in that and we do not believe in a public health service"? Would that not treat the people as intelligent instead of treating them as fools?

I ask the Taoiseach to go to the people with Fine Gael policy and give them the chance to vote on it as opposed to what he did the last time making promises he had no intention whatsoever of keeping.

I know that is another try on by Deputy Gerry Adams. He does not believe what he is saying.

He is aware of the €3 billion capital plan for health in the next six years. He understands well the scale of development in primary care centres and community facilities, the opportunities for people to be looked after in their own homes and in the community before the necessity of having to go to hospital as a last resort, the development of the national children's hospital and the progress made there, the many issues that have been addressed by the Minister in respect of the new ways of treating patients, the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire with which the Deputy is well acquainted over the years and the developments taking place there that are of enormous importance and consequence for people and the development of the cystic fibrosis units around the country and the comfort and consolation they give to cystic fibrosis users with isolation rooms and proper facilities for treatment. These are all part and parcel of the development of a comprehensive health system which will do away with the unfair two-tier system and bring in a universal health care system which will be funded, in due course, by a universal health insurance scheme.

In the 1970s, far-sighted senior engineers in Roscommon, including the county manager at the time, saw a niche in the market in Monksland near Athlone. They sought funding from central Government at the time but were refused. With whatever money they had, they developed an area in which multinationals or local businesses are located. Some 1,000 jobs have been created in that area. A medical centre for south Roscommon has been built there. Given the review by the boundary committee, this is in danger of being taken away from the people of Roscommon who put blood, sweat and tears into it.

Currently, €1 million in rates is taken from that area. Local business people who decided to set up businesses in Roscommon because they were from Roscommon are wondering what is going on and are very reluctant to expand until they see a politician giving a clear message that this will not go ahead.

I ask the Taoiseach if the Government will stop the review taking place in this area. Some 30,000 submissions have been submitted in the past week or two and, in fairness, some Fine Gael Deputies have said that what was is being attempted is lunacy. In the past few days, we have heard about bosses and so on but the Taoiseach is the leader of the country. Before he calls it a day, will he do the decent thing for the people of Roscommon and the Monksland and surrounding areas by stalling the review and making sure this does not go ahead?

I thank Deputy Fitzmaurice. I am well aware of the Monksland issue and of the administrative review taking place. These are statutory reviews which are carried out by independent groupings. There are four under way at present in different parts of the country. These reviews are not binding on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government of the day. Were they to become a reality, they would have pass through the Oireachtas. The first thing I want to say is that the review will go ahead but it is not binding. Those people who are scaremongering in Roscommon, in particular, would do well not to make comments as they have been doing, including that all the GAA clubs will be transferred to Westmeath, that 7,500 people will be moved to Westmeath and that all of the rates and so on will be sent to Westmeath. One could reflect on this in a different way and say there was a divide before, east and west of the Shannon. One could examine Athlone as being a municipal district, supported by Westmeath and Roscommon; or one could examine Athlone as being part of Roscommon. The issue being examined is Monksland being part of Westmeath. It is not a binding finding and I would not be too concerned about it from that point of view. I hope the Deputy can take that in the spirit in which I give it to him.

For the people who live in those areas, it is clear. It has been said openly that if this happens, the rates would go to Westmeath. When the British were in Ireland, one small chunk of the west of Ireland was put into Westmeath. There is poverty in that area because of the way Westmeath looked after it. I am worried because of the political connections of chief executive officers in some counties who have said in the newspapers that they want this. I am worried as to what will happen down the road. The Taoiseach has said it is a political decision. I accept that because at the end of the day, most things are political decisions. As a man who comes from the west of Ireland and who I have often heard say he is proud of the west of Ireland, will he please give an undertaking that if he is in the next Government and if the review is not finalised before then, he will make sure Monksland will stay in Roscommon and that the river Shannon will form the east and west divide?

That is the very point I am making to the Deputy. The statutory independent review looks at one element of this only. It is not a binding finding. I have said that one could have the Shannon as the east-west divide; one could have Athlone as a municipal area supported by both counties; or one could do the reverse of what is currently being examined and put Athlone into County Roscommon. Roscommon lost part of its county 100 years ago over the Gaelic Athletic Association when people from Ballaghaderreen played for the red and green instead of Roscommon but that is a different matter, as the Deputy is well aware. What I want - whoever the people decide to elect - is to keep the benefits of a rising economy being invested throughout the country. Roscommon is a county that has suffered much in recent years. Many elements of that were due to a lack of decisiveness about what actually needed to be done in Roscommon in terms of the major pieces of infrastructure, road routes and so on. Monksland is a developed and thriving area in terms of investment and the creation of jobs. I agree with the Deputy that people would be very upset were it to be shifted administratively to another district. I am very much a supporter of developing the county of Roscommon as an entity. Why would I not be? That is my strong belief. This report is not binding; it is an administrative report and will have to be dealt with politically afterwards. I will answer the Deputy's question in the affirmative by saying that if I have anything to do with it, that is my belief.