Leaders' Questions

I am sure the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, will agree with me that over the past number of weeks the whole country has been saddened and shocked at the continuous stream of revelations emerging from the national suicide charity, Console, and how it was being run by its former CEO.

The interim CEO, Mr. David Hall, has described what was going on as a tactical and considered web of deceit and a prolonged abuse of public trust and public moneys. It is indeed a betrayal of the trust of those who volunteered their time to raise money for Console, those who donated to it and the staff who provided essential services. Most of all it is a betrayal of the trust of those who depend on the vital services that Console has been providing. The real risk is that people will get tired of the ongoing stream of revelations from the charitable sector, with an inevitable impact on donations. That would be the real tragedy.

In the case of Console, as I understand it, the staff are owed €86,000. This morning's Irish Examiner reports David Hall as saying: "The HSE haven't met with me in the two weeks since this happened. A meeting has been promised with Ministers Harris and McEntee but nothing happened, no meeting, no solutions, nothing." It is now two weeks after the RTE Investigates programme on Console. I understand that, following Mr. Hall essentially putting a bomb under the HSE and the Department last night, a meeting has taken place this morning with the chief financial officer of the HSE, Department of Health officials, ministerial advisers and the charities regulator. He has put a proposal to protect the services that Console is providing.

Let us remember that this is all about a helpline for people who are going through a very difficult time in their lives and may have suicidal tendencies. It is about providing counselling services for those who have been bereaved when a loved one has taken their own life through suicide. It is also about protecting outreach supports. Last year alone, over 5,500 individual counselling sessions were provided by staff members of Console.

Will the Minister give a commitment that the essential services Console has been providing, and continues to provide under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, will be protected and will continue to be provided? Can the Minister give an assurance that the 12 full-time staff and 60 part-time staff who are collectively owed €86,000 will also be protected?

I want to know where this goes from here. There has been a lack of political leadership on this issue. Not a single Government Minister has picked up the phone to ring David Hall or speak to Console's staff in the past two weeks since these astounding revelations were aired by RTE. That is despite the fact that the Minister would have had these revelations for a number of months in the form of the HSE audit report.

I share Deputy Michael McGrath's concern that there would be an impact on many people who are in a vulnerable position. Our primary objective now must be to protect the valuable services which have been delivered with great commitment by people in Console. This has come as a huge shock to those working within the sector as well as those supporting it.

The way this matter came to light was through enhanced governance oversight by the HSE leading to an audit by the HSE of what was going on within Console. The system has been working. We can all say it might have worked faster and can all point to reforms we would like to see concerning the charities regulator. Those points are validly made.

I can assure the Deputy, however, that there has been a meeting with Console. The primary motivation behind that meeting is to protect services, as the Deputy said, to ensure that Console's workers are treated properly and that the services continue to be delivered.

I can assure the Deputy that the Minister for Justice and Equality has signed the order to equip the Charities Regulatory Authority with the necessary investigative powers under Part 4 of Charities Act 2009 and the staffing to pursue that. It is up to this House to take up this issue. I know the Committee of Public Accounts is assessing it. It has been suggested that we need to further amend some of the legislation in this sphere. The Government is open to making such changes if that proves possible and necessary. This is being dealt with as a priority. Real action is being taken to make sure services are protected and governance and oversight are tightened in all these areas. The charities and voluntary sector is an enormously important part of service delivery. No Government or public body can match the reach that can be achieved by the committed and dedicated members of the community who have been involved in so many areas. We have to provide a regulatory framework in which the public can have confidence. We are determined to do so.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to protecting services. The single most important issue here is the need for support to be provided to those who are feeling suicidal and those who have been bereaved through the suicide of a family member. They need to have someone they can call. The staff of Console have continued to maintain such services in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. We need to know whether there is a future for a reformed Console, or whether the services currently provided by Console will be subsumed into another organisation or charity involved in the provision of mental health services. I have not been impressed by the lack of direct political involvement in dealing with this issue. Even though it has probably been the single biggest domestic news story of recent weeks, not a single Minister with direct line responsibility has taken the initiative to talk to the staff of Console or to the interim chief executive officer, who has had to go to incredible lengths to deal with the issues flowing from the revelations about how this organisation is being run. Does Console have a future? Is the Government giving a guarantee that the services on which people rely will be continued and protected? If so, in what form will they be provided? Given the sensitive and personal nature of the services involved here, which can and do save lives, there can be no gap in their provision. We all need to remember that 5,500 individual counselling sessions were provided last year. That is what we are seeking to protect here, despite the appalling betrayal of trust that was perpetrated by those involved in running Console.

I assure the Deputy that the relevant Ministers have been directly involved in these meetings and are not dealing with this matter on a hands-off basis. Their priority is to ensure the continued delivery of these services. There is no Member of this House who has not been touched by some family that has suffered as a result of suicide, which has a dramatic impact on everyone around it. The support services provided by organisations like Console are absolutely central in this respect. The Deputy asked whether these services will be protected within Console or within some other organisation. I cannot give him an authoritative answer to that question, which is the subject of discussion. The core commitment and objective is to do as the Deputy has asked by making sure services are protected, continuing to support those who depend on such services and supporting the workers in this organisation, who have been very dedicated and for whom this has come as a total surprise. That is the objective for the Government, as it is for Deputy McGrath.

I am sure the Minister will recall the case of Louise O'Keeffe, who was only eight years old when she was abused by her primary school teacher in County Cork in the 1970s. As the Minister knows, she sought justice against the State and against the Department of Education and Skills. Her case was relentlessly contested by the State. She was pursued at every step. The State won in the domestic courts. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the State, the State Claims Agency wrote to other victims to tell them that if they continued with their cases, the State would pursue them for costs.

Not surprisingly, faced with the prospect of huge legal bills of hundreds of thousands of euro and a Supreme Court ruling against them, 210 out of 250 victims dropped their cases. The Minister knows all of this. John Allen was one of those victims. Just like Louise O'Keeffe, he was sexually abused in his school. His abuser was tried and convicted yet there has been no justice for him. After years of injustice, Louise O'Keeffe did eventually obtain a judgment in her favour in the European Court of Human Rights. This judgment found the State to be in breach of its obligation to protect schoolchildren from sexual abuse and to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. The State's response to that judgment has been extremely revealing, namely, a continued obsession with avoiding liability.

John Allen is now one of five victims who wish to re-open their cases against the State. They have sought to have their notice of discontinuance set aside in the High Court in the aftermath of the O'Keeffe judgment. However, the State continues to prevent Mr. Allen and other victims from pursuing justice and it contested his case and again succeeded. However, it should note the commentary of Mr. Justice Barrett ruling in the State's favour when he wondered whether victims would ever see the day when such injustice as may have been done to them was finally righted by a foot-dragging State.

When does the Government propose to stop dragging its feet? John Allen is back in the High Court today on a matter of costs. I want the Minister to give an absolute commitment to the Dáil that the State will not pursue Mr. Allen or other victims for costs in cases such as these. I also want him to tell us when the State will facilitate rather than frustrate victims from pursuing their just cases through our courts.

I understand that in respect of the cases that have arisen, the State has offered an ex gratia payment to those who suffered in this way. This payment is available to people and, as the Deputy recognised, many people have accepted it, which has allowed them to get some satisfaction without pursuing a lengthy, costly and difficult court case.

If people choose to pursue a continued case in the courts against the State, the State must assess the case being made. The State will not automatically concede in every case where this issue is being pursued in a legal way because there will be issues around the extent of State culpability which the State would be defending. I cannot give a blanket assurance relating to any court case that may be taken as to what position the State will take because the State must appraise on an individual basis the case that is being made, the extent to which it is culpable and the extent to which it should defend that case. The State must always take the details into account but it has recognised that injustice has been suffered here and while not acknowledging direct responsibility, it has recognised that the State ought to recognise that injustice and make a payment to the people affected. That is the position as I understand it.

I can get additional briefing for the Deputy but that is the general position that has been adopted. Ex gratia payments are being made recognising the very difficult circumstances people suffered but if the issue of where liability and responsibility lie is being contested in the courts, each individual case must be assessed by the legal advisers and this will remain the case.

I am not seeking additional briefing. I am seeking answers.

I am asking the State to change its course of action. The Government has an ex gratia scheme. It is instructive that it is ex gratia because, as the Minister concedes, it is a matter of denying liability.

Let me tell the Minister about his scheme. Of the 210 victims the State bullied into dropping their cases of abuse, 15 have applied to the scheme and have been determined. Of that 15, eight have failed. That is now the compassionate response to these victims. Not only did the Minister initially bully these individuals into not pursuing the State with threats of massive bills, but now he actually prevents them from reopening their cases and pursuing their very just cause through a court of law. I do not know how the Minister defends that. I certainly do not know how the Government talks about new politics when surely the acid test of new politics in the State is that the Government does not browbeat and ballyrag victims who were failed by the State.

I did not ask the Minister generally about costs but very specifically about John Allen who will be in the High Court. I want the Minister to give an assurance that this man, who was failed and bullied by the State and prevented from a remedy through the court------

The Deputy's point is made.

-----by the State will not now be fleeced for costs. I want the Minister to give that assurance now to the House and to John Allen.

The courts have to decide who is responsible for abuses and to what extent that responsibility is shared by those who are in a position of trust. That cannot be decided by the Oireachtas; it has to be decided by the courts. The State has recognised that people have been extremely damaged and hurt and in respect of that we have made payments and we will continue to make payments under an ex gratia scheme. I am not in a position to assign responsibility. That is a matter only for the courts. Where cases are being pursued by individuals, it is for the courts to determine. It is not for the Oireachtas to make those decisions. The same is true of costs; the issue of costs will have to be decided on the individual merits of the case. I am not privy to the merits of the case the Deputy mentioned and the case that will be made in the courts regarding costs. It is not up to me to offer any blanket view in the House as to how the State will deal with cases that are being brought against it.

The Minister is in charge of the Department and he is blocking people from taking their cases.

Courts decide these issues. The issues of responsibility that the Deputy has raised-----

Governments legislate.

The issue the Deputy is raising is that people have been damaged and where the responsibility for that lies. Obviously that lies-----

That matter is settled at European level.

-----in the primary instance with the individuals involved. Then the question is: does that extend to others? It is for the courts to decide where those responsibilities lie but the State has recognised that such people need to be supported.

I am delighted to get this opportunity to raise the matter of the proposed Macroom-Ballyvourney bypass which will run from the west of Ballyvourney to Coolcower in the east of Macroom bypassing Ballyvourney, Coolavokig and all those treacherous bends and beyond Macroom town where people are delayed in traffic for 30, 40 or 45 minutes. This project is of paramount strategic importance to all the people of Kerry, all those who travel to Cork and back every day for work and the many hundreds of people from Kerry who have to travel to consultants and doctors in Cork University Hospital, Mercy University Hospital and South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital. For people who have to go for radiotherapy to survive and for a chance to live their full lives, this is the only avenue they have to go to get that treatment. This is the place they have to go. People have to travel from as far away as Cahirciveen, Dingle and Fenit and are held up for 30 to 45 minutes going through Macroom.

As the Minister will be aware, we are surrounded to the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and the N22 route, to Cork city and to the motorway to Dublin, is a heavily trafficked route. Kerry County Council has come as far as it can to the top of the county bounds. Surely it cannot be asked to come further over into the heart of the county of Cork to make a road into Cork city to which it is very much entitled. The lack of this basic infrastructure is denying Kerry employment opportunities and is prohibiting any investment coming into our county. I understand it was one of the key reasons the Kerry Group set up its global technology innovation centre in County Kildare and cost Kerry up to 900 jobs, which, had it set up in Farranfore as was expected, would have been a massive boost to our county.

This project has been sought for more than 30 years and has been firmly on the agenda for the past 20 years. However, it has been held up by environmentalists and others who thought up ridiculous reasons, such as snails and other species. To rub salt into our wounds, they described them as the Kerry snail. Did they put a Kerry jersey on him or how did they decide he was a Kerry snail? There was plenty of money around ten years ago but these people held up this project for those unreasonable reasons.

I thank Deputy Danny Healy-Rae for raising this. Coming from my previous job where we were concerned to speed up the development of the south west, I am in no doubt that infrastructure such as this is very important. I understand the project has a strong cost-benefit ratio and that reflects its strategic importance. It is one of the projects that have been singled out in the transport plan as a priority area.

The work on this project is well advanced. It has full statutory approval. I understand the notice to treat has gone out to landowners on the route and that land acquisition is under way. Already significant money has been expended on the scheme in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and this is getting high priority within the transport programme. Of course, the transport programme proceeds on the basis of the capital available each year but a €6 billion road capital programme has been put in place. A project such as this will have high priority within the roll-out of this programme and all the due preparatory work is being put in place to deliver it.

On the Kerry Group issue, I was directly involved in that project. While I know there would have been a great desire to see that in Kerry, the truth was that it was competing with the Netherlands and the UK. There was a really difficult competition to win to get that project for Ireland at all and the project was, of its nature, one that would have to be located close to deep skill pools that were demanded by it. There are significant opportunities in the south west to build, particularly on the assets of Kerry as a location for enterprise. It is very much our desire, both through our regional enterprise strategy but also through the infrastructure programmes such as this, to give priority to such opportunities.

The previous Government announced that this project was on the six-year investment programme. In which of the six years will that project be delivered? Will this project be in next year's Book of Estimates and, if not, will the Government bring it forward because we in Kerry have waited long enough?

All the jobs being announced at present are for the eastern side of the county and we feel the fact this project has not yet got the go-ahead is one of the biggest reasons Kerry is getting no investment. If we continue in the present vein, I fear that Ireland will topple into the Irish Sea because all the investment is coming to the east of the country, and especially Dublin. I do not begrudge them but we are entitled to live in Kerry also. I ask the Government, as a matter of priority, to ensure this project gets the go-ahead next year.

I am not in a position to identify what will be in the 2017 Estimates.

I can give the Deputy some reassurance that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform recently announced to the House, as the Deputy knows, that the capital envelope is being increased and the specific commitment to a €4 billion fund that was in the programme for Government will be raised to €5 billion. The prospects are that our capital programme over the next number of years will increase significantly at over 10% per annum, as outlined in the Minister's statement. I am thankful that due to the improved economic performance, we are in a position to increase investment compared with what was previously planned. I do not know where this project lies in the framing of next year's Estimates but I will certainly convey the Deputy's concern to the two Ministers involved.

Post the envelope to Kerry.

Sarah and Dominic live in Kilkenny with their two kids and they bought their home in 2007. The shop in which Sarah worked in Kilkenny closed and the couple were unable to service their mortgage fully, although they are getting back on their feet. Two years ago, the Minister's Government sold Sarah and Dominic's mortgage to a US investment firm, which is now evicting Sarah, Dominic and their two children. Last week, the journalist Mr. Niall Brady reported that the Government sold Sarah's mortgage and that of thousands of others to the US investment firm at a 58% discount. That would have brought Sarah's €350,000 mortgage to approximately €140,000, which is approximately the value of the property and a mortgage that Sarah and Dominic can afford. The firm is Oaktree Capital and Sarah and Dominic know them as Mars Capital, which is the company that Oaktree set up to buy thousands of mortgages in Ireland.

At the time of the sale, the Government refused to allow Sarah and Dominic, or any of the Irish mortgage holders, to bid on their own mortgages. Instead, it sold them to Mars Capital with a discount of 58%. Mars Capital structured the deal in such a way that the real discount it got was closer to 70%, which would have brought Sarah's mortgage down from €350,000 to approximately €100,000. She cannot service the €350,000 so she is being evicted, which is bad news for her, Dominic and the kids but very good news for Oaktree Capital. Its accounts indicate that for its €80 million investment, it will get a return of €400 million.

It gets worse. An examination of Mars Capital's accounts is a masterclass in tax avoidance. The accounts indicate that the interest income minus the interest costs for the year come to €4,559,904. Astoundingly, the figure for administrative expenses against that is €4,558,904, leaving exactly €1,000 in taxable profit. The company has three shares issued to three different charitable trusts. The finances are also structured to ensure all interest payments and mortgage payments from Sarah and Dominic and everybody else, as well as all capital gains, can be offset against costs, ensuring there are no taxes owed.

Why did the Government sell an asset that required just €80 million to buy and that one of the leading hedge funds in the world believes is worth approximately €400 million? What does the Minister and his Government say to Sarah, Dominic, their children and the many others being evicted by these foreign firms or struggling to pay their taxes? Does the Minister accept the State will receive almost no benefit in taxes, either on profits or capital gains from these companies? Will the Government launch an investigation into the tax affairs of all these funds that purchase these mortgages in Ireland to ensure not just tax compliance - as tax avoidance is legal - but that the real profits and capital gains that these funds make will be declared properly in Ireland and taxed accordingly?

The tax affairs of any company are open to pursuit by the Revenue Commissioners and if the Deputy has information that he needs to bring to the attention of the Revenue Commissioners, I recommend that he do so. There is no doubt that the Revenue Commissioners have enhanced powers - every year we enhance their powers - and they will pursue any company that is abusing its position. The wider issue of people with mortgage difficulties has been very much on the Government agenda and a great deal of work has been put in, both legislatively and otherwise, to seek to protect people and give them the option of remaining in their homes even though they are in very difficult financial situations. This week, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Social Protection have brought further proposals to Government to enhance and integrate that service so that the services of MABS, the Insolvency Service of Ireland, the legal advice scheme that was set up in the past and the various codes of practice would be delivered in a more effective way to clients who need that support.

The sad situation is that many people who could access these supports have not come forward to do that, whether for reasons of fear or not knowing what is available. In order to deal with that, there has been an effort by Government to ensure that, for example, at repossession cases, the Insolvency Service and MABS would be represented so that they could intervene to support people who are at risk and have not had access to the support services that are available.

Further, one of the issues we have sought to develop has been the mortgage to rent scheme as an alternative for people who might be at risk. That, as many would recognise, has not been the success that it ought to have been and that again is being looked at afresh by the Minister for housing, planning and local government, Deputy Coveney, in the context of an action plan for housing.

The Government is acutely conscious of the needs of vulnerable people who are in this situation and we are seeking to develop more effective services, both legal and otherwise. As Deputies know, under the insolvency courts, financial institutions can no longer block an agreement that has been developed by a practitioner in this sphere. The courts can be used to overturn resistance by a lender to giving approval to a reasonable deal.

With respect, my question was not about the crash mats the Government is putting in place for people it has pushed off the wall. My question is about tax. Tax avoidance is not an issue for the Revenue Commissioners because it is legal. It would appear that this Government is guilty of facilitating wholesale tax avoidance by international investment firms making windfall profits in Ireland off the backs of ordinary, decent people trying to pay their mortgages, like Sarah and Dominic. We do not know where Mars Capital is sending this money. They are called "notes". We do not know where they are going, but what we do know is that Oaktree Capital, if one looks at the SEC filings, holds multiple investment firms in the Cayman Islands.

The Deputy is just out of time.

Thank you, Ceann Comhairle. Let me ask the following questions. Was the Department of Finance, directly or indirectly, shown the tax avoidance structures that these firms, like Mars Capital, were going to use? Why was it not made part of any sale that all profits and capital gains accruing to these firms would be-----

The Deputy is now out of time. The clock applies to him-----

-----in the same way as it applies to everybody else.

The time has elapsed, so will the Deputy resume his seat?

Thank you, Ceann Comhairle. Can I ask the Minister-----

No. I am not speaking for the sake of speaking. It is my job to enforce the Standing Orders. The time has elapsed. Will the Deputy resume his seat?

To reiterate the question, will the Minister consider an investigation and report back to the House on the extent of the tax avoidance we are seeing here?

The Finance Acts provide for anti-avoidance measures and the Revenue Commissioners execute those. They have the powers to deal with them effectively. Those powers have been enhanced every year, in every Finance Bill over the years. If additional reform to the Finance Acts is necessary, it is open to the Deputy to bring forward such amendments, but in respect of the existing Revenue arrangements, they will enforce those.

If the Deputy has details of some new avoidance mechanisms that ought to be scrutinised by the Revenue Commissioners they will be more than pleased to consider them and bring forward to the House measures to protect against them in time for the next Finance Bill. I do not have access to the information the Deputy has about the specific avoidance structures he describes but the Revenue Commissioners are there to enforce the rules. There are general anti-avoidance provisions in the Finance Acts and they are overseen and executed by Revenue.