Topical Issue Debate

Health Services Provision

I wish to take this opportunity to wish all Members of the House a very happy new year.

I also hope it will be a happy new year, with good news for those who suffer with Alzheimer's disease, their carers and their family members in south Kildare. The clock is ticking for these people and the consequences of any decision regarding services could have far-reaching consequences. Currently an Alzheimer's day care centre serving people in south Kildare is located in Moore Abbey in Monasterevin. The centre is actually in the Laois constituency and my party colleague, Deputy Sean Fleming shares my concern about what is happening. I was scheduled to speak on this matter before Christmas and the matter is now even more urgent as another month has passed.

Last summer I was contacted by Ms Martina Foster whose father avails of the services of the day care centre in Moore Abbey. She and other service users had received correspondence to the effect that the unit was being relocated and that the days on which services would be provided would be reduced. Martina and her mother look after Martin's father, Peter and their lives are arranged around doing everything they can for him. Continuity of care and the maintenance of routine is of critical importance for Peter. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of Martina and other family members, we were able to extend the provision of services at Moore Abbey until April 2017. I wish to put on record my thanks to the staff at Moore Abbey in that regard.

The most pressing issue now is the location of the service from April 2017 onwards. This morning I spoke to the husband of a woman who attends Moore Abbey. He called me to express his gratitude for the fact that the service is continuing. However, he is obviously very concerned about what will happen when the location changes. He does not have any family living in Ireland and told me that the facility at Moore Abbey that his wife attends makes his life "almost bearable". They are shocking words for any person to utter about his or her loved one.

I have asked the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, about the plans for a property on Drogheda Street in Monasterevin, where the Alzheimer's day centre was initially located. The day care centre that was in that property has been moved out to Ballykelly Gaelic Football Club which is several miles outside Monasterevin. The unit on Drogheda Street is now empty and I understand that the HSE intends to refurbish the property and the refurbishment project will be going to design stage before the end of this month. This is the perfect time to include the Alzheimer's centre, currently based in Moore Abbey, in the plans for this property to give the centre a permanent home. If the centre is not included, where will the service users go? How can their families survive in the absence of an adequate service in south Kildare? Carers and family members are engaged in a constant battle to retain services. At present, they have to do without transport to and from the centre at Moore Abbey. Transport services were withdrawn in the last few months for a variety of reasons. The lack of transport is skewing the numbers presenting for the service because demand is based on having access to transport.

The carers of the people who attend the day care centre have had to contend with far too much. Their loved ones deserve this service and deserve transport to it. People who have dementia and Alzheimer's disease matter to the end of their lives. It is our duty to assist them in living until they pass away.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin for raising this very important issue. She is a strong advocate for people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease and our senior citizens generally.

Approximately 55,000 people in Ireland today have dementia. The number is expected to increase to more than 130,000 by 2041 as the number of older people in Ireland increases. To respond to the increased prevalence of dementia and the challenges this poses, the Government published the Irish national dementia strategy in December 2014. The strategy emphasises that with the right supports, people with dementia can continue to live well and participate in their communities for a very long time. As part of the national dementia strategy implementation programme co-funded by the HSE and The Atlantic Philanthropies, dementia specific intensive home care packages are being rolled out in a number of acute hospitals and surrounding communities countrywide, and are targeted at people at risk of acute hospital admission and people who have finished the acute phase of their treatment. By the end of 2016, approximately 175 people will have received a dementia-specific intensive home care package.

Other elements of the national dementia strategy implementation programme include an information and awareness campaign, Understand Together, which was launched on Monday 24 October, and a programme to upskill GPs and primary care teams in dementia diagnosis and management, which is being led by the PREPARED team based in UCC. Social care services, including home care, day care and respite care, are an important component of enabling people with dementia to remain living at home and participating in their homes and communities. They also provide valuable supports to carers.

With regard to the specific issue of the Alzheimer’s disease day care unit in south Kildare, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland receives funding on an annual basis from the HSE to provide services and supports in the Kildare area to people with dementia, their families and carers. These services are in addition to supports provided directly by the HSE. The Alzheimer Society of Ireland operates a day care service three days each week from Moore Abbey in Monasterevin and a home care service which assists families to care for people with dementia in their homes. The HSE has undertaken an extensive review of the day care service provided in Monasterevin to analyse uptake of the service provided, the cost of providing that service and the facilities that are available to the society. The review has identified that attendances at the day care centre reach only 50% of capacity on some days of the week. The HSE recently met the Alzheimer Society of Ireland to consider the results of the review. Following on from these discussions it has been agreed to continue the service on a three day a week basis in Monasterevin and to promote the service locally to see if other clients can be encouraged to attend, thereby increasing attendance rates and the viability of the service. The HSE and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland have agreed to monitor attendances over the next four months while also seeking a new location for the service from April 2017, when the Moore Abbey premises will no longer be available.

I am not very happy with the response. I already addressed the issue of why there is not 100% take-up of the places, which is because of the transport issues. I wish to point out a daily payment is made by users of the facility. It is not that I want to bring money or commerce into the scenario. I attended the opening of the service more than a year ago and the joy of the users and family members was very evident. I pay tribute to the excellent staff.

Only a few short months ago, less than a year since the facility was opened, I found families there in the midst of huge distress because the location of the unit is totally uncertain after April. There is no mention in the response whatsoever of the unit in Drogheda Street, which will be refurbished. It makes complete sense to have it there. I ask the Minister of State to ask his colleague about this, and impress on him the importance of relocating the unit back to Drogheda Street.

I know I do not have to tell the Minister of State, but I want to re-emphasise the fact these illnesses have a very far-reaching effect on more than just the sufferer. These diseases are absolutely relentless. They may be gradual but they are absolutely relentless. The families of the patients and the carers have their lives changed beyond all recognition. The victims of this silent disease are on many occasions unable to make their voices heard. Often their carers and families are far too busy caring to be able to take up the issue and to lobby and start a campaign to make their lives a little more bearable.

As I stated, Martina Foster was the first person to contact me. Since she did, the number of people who have contacted me who are outraged at the reduction in services has been constant. Families of the individuals are contacting me looking for support and asking to plead their case. On their behalf I plead with the Minister of State and the Government to assist the Alzheimer Society of Ireland to locate a suitable premises. As I stated, the unit in Drogheda Street in Monasterevin is absolutely the place to be. This is an essential service and it is imperative we are able to ascertain this is the place to have a service beyond April 2017.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin for raising the issues. I meant to state earlier the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, sends his apologies, He is out of the country at a very important conference. I take the Deputy's point on the money issue. When we look at the details, the Alzheimer Society of Ireland receives funding from the HSE of €212,347 per annum to provide services in the Kildare area to people with dementia. These services must be expanded and developed and it is being worked on. The society also provides additional supports to the supports provided by the HSE.

Historically, the day service was provided from the old GP surgery in Drogheda Street, Monasterevin for the Kildare area as this was the only accommodation available. The service was provided three days per week, but the building was inadequate and did not provide a safe environment. Due to the building being unsafe the HSE had to restrict access to the building for the safety of staff and clients. At that time, as the Deputy mentioned, services moved to the GAA club outside Monasterevin, but this site was not suitable for a number of reasons, as many would expect.

I take the Deputy's point on transport and the reduction of 50%. Attendances at the day centre on average were 50% of capacity on Sundays, but the Deputy made the point this is due to weakness in the transport system. I notice that in the recent update from the Alzheimer Society of Ireland, five to eight clients attend the service on Fridays and there is been no increase on Thursdays. The HSE and the Alzheimer Society of Ireland have agreed to monitor attendance over the next four months while also seeking new premises for the service from April 2017. Of course, I will bring back to the Minister, Deputy Harris, the issues raised by the Deputy and push them further.

Hospital Accommodation Provision

I am glad to have an opportunity to raise this issue because it is very important to the people of Carlow and Kilkenny. The management of St Luke's General Hospital Kilkenny, which services counties Carlow and Kilkenny, has proposed to cut the number of maternity and gynaecology beds by up to 15%, which is the equivalent of four beds. I ask the Minister of State for clarification on the issue. I am sure he can understand it is causing a lot of distress and concern for patients, staff and anyone who expects to use the maternity unit in the near future. I have made several attempts to get clarification from management at St Luke's General Hospital but unfortunately to date I have not been able to receive a response.

I wrote to them about the issue and asked for a meeting with me and my Oireachtas colleagues but I have had no response and this is a concern.

There is a proposal to use beds from both maternity and gynaecology wards to facilitate the overflow from the current overcrowding situation. The two wards are on the one corridor and run into each other and such a move would see beds taken from this unit. It is unbelievable that anyone could think this was a possible solution to overcrowding because it would put patients, including newborn babies, at risk of infection. There would also be safety and privacy concerns for both women and their babies if an overflow was going to be allowed on these wards. I feel, and more importantly the staff, doctors and specialists at St. Luke’s believe that if this is to implemented it would be a reckless move and would show no regard for the health and well-being of female patients and newborn babies in the gynaecology and maternity wards.

The recent national maternity strategy and the recently published HIQA national standards for safer better maternity services set out clearly what needs to happen to deal with deficiencies in our services and how to improve maternity and neonatal care overall nationally. We need care that is safe, standardised, of high quality and offers a better experience and more choice to women and their families. Having general patients with varying conditions and illnesses located on the same corridor, sharing the same facilities as pregnant women, newborn babies and women who could be in a vulnerable condition, completely contravenes the standards which the national maternity strategy and national standards document set out.

The staff at St. Luke's have stated that if a 15% reduction in current bed capacity goes ahead, the quality and safety of care provided will be greatly compromised with women allocated to beds on corridors. This is ludicrous and I hope the Minister can intervene in this matter. There is an increased risk of cross-contamination from general patients, especially with higher-risk clientele such as premature or newborn babies and woman who are readmitted for various conditions. It will cause mayhem for them. If we are serious about protecting our women and their health we cannot allow a move like this to go ahead in our constituency. The hospital serves both counties of Carlow and Kilkenny so a huge amount of people use the wards

I apologise on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Harris, who cannot be here. I thank Deputy Funchion for raising this matter and giving me the opportunity to update the House on the position in relation to maternity beds at St Luke’s Hospital Kilkenny. First, I assure the Deputy that over the past two years there have been significant improvements to the maternity services at St. Luke’s General Hospital. These include the appointment of additional midwives, a bereavement support midwife counsellor, a clinical practice facilitator, 24-7 shift leaders for the delivery suites, a lactation nurse specialist, an advanced midwife practitioner and a fourth consultant obstetrician. In line with the national trend, the number of births at the maternity unit at St Luke’s has decreased by 9% over the past four years.

We are all aware of the challenges for hospitals, including St Luke’s Hospital, in managing emergency demand and high trolley numbers during the first few weeks of January. These can be attributed to high demand for emergency care, bed capacity restraints and increased incidences of flu in the country. St. Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny had a 6% increase in overall admissions for medicine and surgery to the hospital during 2016. It is a site of concern today with 29 patients waiting on trolleys this morning at 8 a.m. and 24 patients at 2 p.m. and I agree with the Deputy that this is totally unacceptable and we have to act on the matter.

The HSE escalation framework sets out the process and procedures which define how hospitals should react and deal with emergency department overcrowding. This can include the appropriate use of all other empty inpatient beds for a surge in emergency department capacity in order to ensure patients do not have to spend a night on a trolley when other hospital beds are available. I understand from the HSE that St. Luke’s Hospital is actively managing emergency department demand. This includes consideration of the use of part of the maternity service bed capacity as surge capacity when not being utilised for maternity patients. The layout of the hospital's maternity facilities ensures that any space used for emergency department referrals would be in an enclosed four-bed bay and not part of a larger maternity ward, thus ensuring the privacy, dignity and clinical well-being of all maternity and emergency department patients. The hospital is also focusing on discharging patients and maximising community supports to support discharges.

On 5 January 2017, the HSE announced a series of enhanced measures as part of the existing winter initiative plan. These measures focus particularly on augmenting the supports for primary and community care and targeting of acute capacity, and are designed to alleviate the current significant demands on emergency departments. The enhanced measures under the winter initiative include the opening of 63 new acute hospital beds nationally, in addition to the 35 beds already opened this winter. Approximately 40 of these beds have already opened and, under this funding, work is under way to open eight new emergency department beds in St. Luke’s as soon as possible. The money is there to open these new beds.

Under the winter initiative, St. Luke’s in Kilkenny was selected as a pilot site to develop an integrated case management approach, between acute hospitals and the community organisations, to the provision of health care services to our frail and elderly population. The Ireland East Hospital Group has advised that it is continuing to work closely with St. Luke’s Hospital Kilkenny to support it in managing the situation and to improve the experience for patients and staff attending the hospital.

I agree with some of what the Minister said on the excellent service in the maternity unit. I have been a patient there on two occasions so I know exactly how good the staff are and that is why the current system should not change. If one knew the layout of the hospital one would know that it is not possible to use four beds in isolation. The corridor, the maternity ward and the gynaecological ward run right next to each other and the people in those four beds would be sharing toilets and showering facilities with other patients so there is no way one can say there is no risk of cross-contamination and other general infection. It is ludicrous to put people from the general population of the hospital in with newborn babies, premature babies and women who are in hospital because of the loss of a pregnancy as this just puts them at greater risk of infection.

The Minister said there was a decrease in births but the 2016 census indicated an increase of 4.1% in the population of Carlow and 3.9% on Kilkenny. The projected requirement for maternity services for childbearing women aged 25-44 will increase the need for services in the next number of years. The maternity ward is very good for women in a difficult situation, such as the loss of a baby or a pregnancy loss. The hospital gives them privacy and, often, their own room but that would be completely taken away and we have to look at that from the point of view of mental health. Using the maternity and gynaecology wards to deal with overcrowding and putting a woman who has had a pregnancy loss in the same place as somebody who has just had a baby will have negative repercussions from which we will not be able to row back. The ward runs really well at the moment even though, like all other hospitals, they are under pressure. I urge the Minister to get onto the management of St. Luke's Hospital Kilkenny and ask it not to go ahead with this as a solution for overcrowding. It will cause a lot of problems for women and newborn babies, which we do not want.

I take the Deputy's point on the practical effects on patients of the conditions and will bring it back to the Minister, Deputy Harris. Eight new beds will be opened and that is an important step in the right direction. We must ensure that we are able to deal with the bed capacity issue. On 9 September last, when the Minister and the Government introduced the winter initiative plan 2016-17. we managed to get €40 million of additional funding. That is from where the funding for the eight beds in the hospital to which the Deputy refers came. The initiative has developed and has managed to deal with the winter surge, which gave rise to major difficulties. St. Luke's Hospital also announced a number of enhanced measures, particularly targeting acute capacity in primary and community care. These are designed to alleviate the significant demands involved.

According to the figures I have been given for the area, some 1,586 babies were born in 2015, while the figure for 2016 was 1,467. As Deputy Funchion said, however, there has been a recent increase in the population in Carlow-Kilkenny. We must adapt services for those changing circumstances. I take that point on board.

I will bring the issue raised by Deputy Funchion back to the Minister. I will also make representations to the hospital management to see exactly what is going on there. As we all know, health services have suffered from underfunding for many years. We also know, however, that we have started this year with a major investment of €500 million for services. That is a start and it is also part of a catching-up process. That reality must be faced, so I will be pushing that initiative. I will bring all the Deputy's concerns to the attention of the Minister.

Workplace Discrimination

This matter arises from a discussion on Wired FM in Limerick last year. A number of volunteers came together to run a radio show for the over-55s. We often debate health issues concerning the elderly, which is both warranted and welcome. The other side, however, concerns the employment of healthy elderly people and how they can contribute more to the economy and society in general.

I worked as a recruitment consultant for many years and it was articulated to me by many potential candidates that they saw age as a barrier to a number of positions. I wanted, therefore, to highlight that issue in the light of some of the evidence from my researches. The Positive Ageing 2016 national report shows that for those in the 50-plus age category, the employment rate is 63%. The employment rate is continuing to rise, which is very welcome. We are currently 2% to 3% away from full employment at this stage.

A total of 2.3% of people in the 55 to 64 year age group are in formal education, while the figure for the 50-plus group is 8%. Of the 50-plus bracket, 7.1% see themselves as being lonely. The report also indicates that 45% of that cohort - almost half - feel they are discriminated against in the workforce. In 2004, 33% of the 50-plus age group felt they were discriminated against in the workplace, while 82% felt they were discriminated against in seeking work. In 2014, the corresponding figures were 33% and 87% of those seeking work. While there may not be overt discrimination, there is a feeling of covert discrimination against the aged whether it is in seeking work or those who are already in the workforce. This matter needs to be debated more widely and brought out in the open.

The 65 plus age group in Ireland is rising faster than anywhere else in the European Union. By 2041, 1.3 million to 1.4 million people in this country will be over 65 years of age, which will be 20% to 25% of the total population. The over-80s will increase fourfold to 440,000 so this is an immediate issue.

Loneliness can also have a negative impact on mental health for the elderly and increase their risk of depression. We need to start formulating policies and examining procedures in order to involve the elderly more in the workforce. The number of elderly people in education and training should be increased. We should also examine intergenerational procedures by means which elderly people can give their experience back to others. People are often forced to leave the workforce, yet they do not want to do so. They leave with knowledge, skills and life experience that could be passed to a younger generation. There should be a formal process to allow that to happen. I am asking the Minister to explore such initiatives, as well as opening up the debate on perceived discrimination against elderly people in the workforce. Given that our age demographic is increasing, how will we combat discrimination in order to increase the economic productivity of the elderly. That would give something back to society while creating new economic opportunities.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. He should note that policy responsibility for equality legislation, which covers discrimination on various grounds including age, rests with my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality.

We have robust equality legislation in Ireland which protects people from discrimination on a range of grounds, including age. The relevant Acts protect prospective employees at the recruitment stage. Both direct and indirect discrimination are prohibited throughout employment. Ireland’s body of employment and equality legislation, including the Employment Equality Acts 1998 to 2011, protects all persons legally employed in Ireland on an employer-employee basis, and provides robust safeguards for employees. Under the terms of the Workplace Relations Act 2015, the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, is mandated to mediate and adjudicate on cases taken by complainants to enforce their rights under employment, equality and industrial relations legislation. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which comes within the remit of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, can provide advice and assistance to individuals who consider that they have been discriminated against, including on the age ground. The commission can also provide practical assistance and advice on how to take a claim under the Employment Equality Acts.

On training and upskilling in the context of employment, the Department of Education and Skills and its further education and training authority, Solas, aim to ensure further education and training is inclusive and recognises that all citizens have the potential to develop their skill sets if afforded the opportunity and support to do so. Furthermore, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform produced a report in August 2016, Fuller Working Lives, which identifies a set of framework principles to underpin policy in this area and which makes various recommendations which will be implemented by the relevant Departments. My Department has asked the WRC to prepare a draft code of practice to set out best industrial relations practice in managing the engagement between employers and employees in the run-up to retirement.

I thank the Minister for her reply. In my opinion, there needs to be a cultural shift in respect of employing senior citizens, including those with experience who have been obliged to leave the workforce. Sometimes contracts are not renewed at the age of 65 years and pensions do not start until age 66; therefore, what can people do for that year? We should promote a positive perception and image of older people in the workforce. I welcome the Minister's answer in that regard.

As highlighted in the national positive ageing strategy, flexible retirement arrangements in the work environment can be adapted to the needs of all generations. Continuous education and training are important, as is the promotion of positive images of older people showing that they can contribute.

We can facilitate people of great experience who have left the workforce and who may not be able to contribute to it directly but who may be able to contribute through training and handing over that experience to younger generations that would be able to compete. This is about giving people that better competitive advantage within the economy to compete for higher positions given their training at university or in their initial jobs. It is also about the fact that these people could hand over or disseminate some of their life experience to younger people and enhance that competitiveness. That is what we are looking for in our growing economy. I welcome the Minister's reply. I reiterate that this is a positive move on an issue that has arisen because of our ageing population. We are living longer. Obviously, the economy continues to improve on foot of the policies that have been implemented by the Government. I would like to see more done in this area.

I welcome this debate. I heard the Deputy very clearly when he spoke about those over 50, 45% of whom felt discriminated against. A worse statistic was the 87% of respondents in one of the reports the Deputy cited who were looking for work. The Deputy mentioned the word "covert" and I have heard about it myself. We need as a society to recognise the valuable contribution our mature students and citizens have and their depth of experience. In January 2016, the Government agreed to the establishment of a working group to consider policy around the retirement age. The establishment of the group came in light of the fact that people are now living longer, more active and healthier lives. Ireland should be a society which explores the opportunities associated with longer and fuller working lives. To that end, a shift in cultural norms around the retirement age is needed on all sides. In a positive ageing environment, workers should be facilitated to the greatest extent possible with the option to work beyond normal retirement age. The report recognises the fact that appropriate training and other supports for older workers may be needed to enable them to remain active participants in the labour market. The State, employers and workers themselves have responsibilities in this area. The group has identified a set of framework principles and made a set of recommendations. As a follow-on to this work, my Department has asked the Workplace Relations Commission to prepare that draft code of practice to which I referred.

Home Repossessions

In light of the recent High Court judgment delivered by Mr. Justice Barrett in AIB v. Counihan on 21 December 2016 as well as in the light of the serious concerns expressed recently by the Master of the High Court, what assurances can the Minister for Justice and Equality give to families facing the repossession of their homes that she has done all in her power to protect them properly? Can she assure people unambiguously that all persons with decision-making responsibility of such magnitude are fully informed of the very latest legal developments and properly trained in respect of their legal obligations under EU law? Will she assure the many hard-pressed borrowers who are often referred to as the forgotten, the so-called squeezed middle who never got any bailout, that the terms of the directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts will be applied in repossession proceedings for family homes in every appropriate case? In light of the expressed concerns of the Master of the High Court, Mr. Edmund Honohan, about what is reportedly and unlawfully happening, will the Minister consider taking appropriate steps to place a moratorium on all such proceedings until she is satisfied that EU law is being applied consistently throughout the State?

Is the Minister confident that all county registrars have the necessary legal training to apply EU law in home repossession cases? The Court of Justice of the European Union has held that where a consumer contract comes before a court, the court must satisfy itself that none of its terms is unfair, even when the consumer has not called upon it to do so. As a mortgage contract is a consumer contract where the property is a home, it is vital that county registrars, who in reality deal with the majority of repossession applications, are fully aware of the implications of these decisions. The Master of the High Court is of the opinion, however, that county registrars should not be dealing with these repossession cases at all. There is a real and justifiable concern that many repossession orders granted in the Circuit Court may be open to challenge as EU law was not applied. In such a scenario and leaving aside the lenders, it is the State that could conceivably be found liable. There is a potential financial risk for the State. Considering the inequality of arms between the thousands of ordinary, hard-working and decent borrowers on one side and lenders on the other side with bottomless funds, will the Minister assure families that the full range of protections available to persons are being implemented?

When homeowners are summonsed to appear before the courts, however reluctant or daunting that may be, they must at the very least be assured that decision-makers are fully resourced, updated and upskilled in all aspects of protections, including the very latest, available to those facing home repossession. For the administration of justice to operate most effectively in our country, it must enjoy the complete confidence of all the people. It is of concern that the Master of the High Court does not have that confidence.

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Tánaiste appreciates her interest in these current developments and is aware of the High Court decision referred to. She wishes to reassure the Deputy that this is being examined by the Department and the matter will be kept under review in terms of any definitive additional obligations which may arise and in terms of how the Department and the House may deal with them.

I reiterate the programme for Government commitment to keep families in their homes and to avoid repossessions in so far as possible. In October 2016, the Government launched the new national mortgage arrears resolution service, Abhaile. I note that further aspects of the handling of repossession cases in the courts are being considered under the programme for Government. Subject only to the Constitution and the law, the courts are independent in the exercise of their judicial functions and in the management and conduct of the cases which come before them, and the Tánaiste has no role in that regard.

County registrars are officers of the court and independent also in the exercise of their functions and duties under statute and the rules of court and, as a matter of law, may only make orders for possession of any land in cases where no defence to an action for possession has been delivered by the defendant or, indeed, no appearance has been entered by the defendant. Therefore, the power of a county registrar to make possession orders is extremely limited. Where any defence is raised by the defendant, including any defence relating to the nature or terms of the mortgage contract between the borrower and the lender, the matter must be transferred by the county registrar to the judge's list at the first opportunity once it is in order for hearing. At that point, it is a matter for the judge to consider any issues raised, including, if applicable, issues relating to the European Union directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts, which was given effect in Ireland by regulations made in 1995, as amended in 2000 and 2013.

In addition, all orders of a county registrar are then subject to appeal to the Circuit Court. The directive and regulations relating to it are a matter for the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, but it is understood the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has a supervisory power to ensure that there is compliance with the legislation.

The raising of this issue in regard to matters for consideration by the court in a possession case underlines the critical importance of people who are in mortgage arrears and have been issued with legal proceedings engaging with lenders and court processes, and the entering of a defence for the consideration of the court where they feel they have such a defence.

I am glad to hear that this matter is under consideration, but justice delayed is justice denied. In some cases, delays are fatally dangerous because it is already too late and the clock can never be put back. For many others, time is of the essence.

I have asked a specific question, namely, whether the Government is satisfied that family homeowners who are doing their utmost to simply survive from day-to-day and week-to-week and are now facing a legal process and the prospect of potentially losing their homes will be given as much protection as is feasibly possible. If the answer is "Yes", can the Minister of State explain how he came to that conclusion?

The master of the High Court has expressed his concern that the Government is failing to properly protect people facing home repossessions, claiming that current procedures do not ensure EU consumer legislation is being applied. At least one county registrar has stopped processing such cases. Is the master, Mr. Honohan, right or wrong? The Green Party and many others believe the Government needs to address his genuine and serious concerns.

County registrars are effectively agents of the European Union. There is an obligation on them to examine contracts to determine whether they are fair. Does the Minister of State agree with the master of the High Court that the rules and procedures of these courts need to be updated to facilitate a hearing in every single repossession case with regard to EU legislation and unfair contract terms?

The law provides that a term which allows the commercial party to unilaterally change the contract is defined as unfair. What about the banks that arbitrarily increased interest rates, beggaring those with variable rate mortgages? What about those who were falsely sold interest-only mortgages and then had their loans switched to capital and interest loans just as the recession began to bite?

The Government should introduce a moratorium on all home repossessions until assurances can be given that adequate resources are in place to fulfil the legal obligations under EU law and legal clarity is restored in order that the Government can give assurances to all home owners facing home repossessions that the full range of protections available to them are being applied.

To be absolutely clear, we are discussing this in the light of a High Court decision of 21 December 2016. I wish to restate that the Tánaiste and the Department of Justice and Equality are aware of this decision and it is being examined by the Department. As I have said, the Government is making every effort and fully understands the difficulties families face with respect to trying to avoid repossession of their homes.

As I have explained and as we are all aware, the courts are independent in the exercise of their judicial functions and in the management and conduct of cases which come before them, as are county registrars. The power of a county registrar in making possession orders is, as I have said, extremely limited. It is, of course, up to a judge to consider all issues raised, including, as the Deputy said and if applicable, issues in regard to the European Union directive on unfair terms in consumer contracts.

The fundamental point is that the court case of 21 December is being reviewed by the Department, which is the first week that business has resumed in the Dáil. I have no doubt that, as the Deputy said, there will be a further update in the very near future with respect to development in the case.