Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Across Dublin today parents, students and teachers are being left in abeyance in relation to information on the ongoing fire and safety checks in a number of schools. Ardgillan community college in Balbriggan had to close 18 classrooms and send its transition year students home for this week. St. Luke's national school in Tyrrelstown in west Dublin, which is in the Taoiseach's constituency, has been closed due to safety concerns. Again, students have been told to stay at home and enjoy an extended break. The safety concerns are understandable and that is the proper way to proceed but the difficulty for parents, students and teachers is that the information is being fed to them on a drip feed basis. They are not getting the information they need to be able to plan their lives and the lives of the students.

I understand the assessments will involve up to 30 schools and while these schools seem to have passed fire and safety checks issues are now arising with regard to the quality of the work done. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, provided information to various people this morning and I understand a group was meeting in the Department on addressing a number of the issues.

We want to be absolutely clear that we support the highest possible standards for health and safety within these schools. While causing huge disruption, this work is absolutely necessary. As we are midway through this week and as next week is the mid-term, what will parents face on Monday week when the students are due to return to the schools? The schools we know about are Ardgillan community college in Balbriggan and St. Luke's in Tyrrelstown. How many other schools will not be in a position to open their doors, or to open their doors fully, on Monday week after the mid-term? Are sufficient alternative accommodations being put in place for these students and when will this information be notified to parents and to the school communities? At what stage can we get a full assessment as to the health and safety status and the quality of the 30 or so school builds around Dublin - perhaps the Taoiseach could clarify the number - that are currently being assessed by the Department of Education and Skills?

I thank Deputy Calleary for raising this very important issue, which I know is of great concern to parents in various parts of Dublin at the moment. Unfortunately, up to 40 schools around the country, and not just in Dublin, could be affected. The safety of students and staff has to be our paramount consideration and I know that everyone in this House will agree. We are also deeply conscious of the disruption and inconvenience that is being caused to staff, children and parents as a result of some of these school closures. We very much appreciate people's understanding in that regard. I thank the school principals and the boards of management of the three schools affected at the moment. They are being regularly updated as inspection schedules are confirmed and as issues are identified. We appreciate their patience and understanding also. A dedicated contact person has been appointed within the Department who is the contact person for the school principals and the boards of management.

I appreciate that there is an information deficit. Deputy Calleary is right to bring that to our attention. There is an information deficit for a reason. The reason is we do not have all the information. The situation is still evolving and will evolve over the next two to three weeks.

Significant structural issues were discovered at Ardgillan community college by a structural engineer on 19 October. The issues relate to phase 1 of the school building that was built in 2009 by Western Building Systems under a design and build contract on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills. Phase 2, which was built at a later date in 2015, is unaffected. Having considered the engineer's advice, and in the interest of health and safety of the students and staff at the school, the Dublin-Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board made the decision to close phase 1 of the school immediately. Structural assessments were also carried out yesterday on 23 October at Tyrrelstown Educate Together and the adjoining St. Luke's national school, which were built by the same company. Similar structural issues to those identified at Ardgillan were also identified in those schools. While no imminent danger was identified, both schools are being closed as a precautionary measure to allow for further detailed investigations. The target is to have interim accommodation in place for when pupils return to school after the mid-term break next week. We intend to use the next couple of days and the opportunity of the mid-term break to check the various schools involved. We will not know the scale of the problem, probably until the end of next week or the week after. We need to assess if this only affects schools built in that 2008-2014 period, or if it also affects schools built in more recent years. An examination of a school in Firhouse is happening at the moment to see if the structural flaws may also affect schools built in the last couple of years. The schools that have been closed are all three storey schools. We do not know yet if these structural flaws apply to single storey or second storey schools. It will take all of next week, and perhaps the week after, for us to establish the extent of this problem.

I thank the Taoiseach for the response, but I am struggling because this issue has been in the ether since 2015. The first reports were published in the Irish Examiner, and audits have been ongoing in a number of schools since then. We seem to be struggling to catch up with the issue this week. The Taoiseach has said there are other schools to be reviewed and he mentioned a school in Firhouse. Are these purely schools built by Western Building Systems or are they schools built by other contractors also going to be audited?

The Taoiseach said that a contact person has been appointed in the Department for all school principals. What information is flowing from the Department to the affected schools? Is every school to be audited aware that it is to be audited? Has the Department identified every school that may potentially have to take action? Has this information been communicated to school principals?

The Taoiseach mentioned a school in Firhouse. What plans are in place in the event of something happening or something being found? Will alternative accommodation be in place for schools given the accommodation pressures in the city? What plans are in place for the Department to communicate with parents, families and school principals?

The number of schools that need to be checked is 40. All of the principals in those schools have been informed. The principals will inform the parents in the normal way that schools inform parents. About 40 schools will be affected and they are all schools that were constructed by Western Building Systems.

A fire audit of other schools was announced last year.

In respect of this particular structural issue, as opposed to-----

The fire issue.

-----the fire issue, I am advised that 40 schools are involved in total. A separate issue has been going on for quite some time in respect of fire safety. This relates to structural issues. Obviously everything will be done to find alternative accommodation for schools but it is going to be difficult. It is not easy to find 25 classrooms. I know people have talked about sports clubs and so on but I do not know of any sports club that has 25 classrooms, so it is going to be difficult. Everything will be done to find interim and alternative accommodation nearby. In respect of Tyrrelstown Educate Together and St. Luke's national school, the secondary school has some vacant classrooms which it will make available. This is going to be difficult but the first thing we need to do is to put safety first and to make sure that children and staff are not put at risk. The second thing we need to do is to carry out the necessary structural investigations so that we can get a full idea or full understanding of the scale of the problem. Of course we also need to put together alternative accommodation if it is needed so that children's education is not adversely affected.

It is almost two years since the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes outlined details of excavations carried out at the site of the former mother and baby home in Tuam, County Galway, which discovered a significant quantity of human remains. From what we know, the bodies buried there are those of children and babies aged up to the three years old who were unceremoniously buried without anything to identify them or their last resting place. It is a cause of national shame.

Yesterday the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, announced that a forensic excavation of the site will now take place. I commend the Minister and the Government on that decision because it is significant and to be welcomed. I acknowledge today the tireless work of Catherine Corless, of the survivors, of their families and loved ones, of all of those who care for those who were buried on the site, and of the campaigners who have supported them in their long pursuit of justice. Without them yesterday's decision would not have been taken.

I have a number of questions relating to what was announced yesterday which I wish to put to the Taoiseach. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has said that specific legislation will be required before the excavation can commence but, as of yet, she has not given any timeframe for when that legislation might be considered. Will the Taoiseach clarify for the Dáil when that legislation will come before us? We also require clarity in respect of costs. The cost of the forensic excavation has been estimated at between €6 million and €13 million. Catherine Corless said this morning that it is in fact likely to cost significantly more than that. From where did the announced estimate come? How will the excavation be funded?

It was announced yesterday that the religious order which ran the mother and baby home in Tuam, the Bon Secours Sisters, will contribute €2.5 million to the cost of the excavation. I put it to the Taoiseach that the order bears at least an equal responsibility to that of the State in respect of this scandal and should pay significantly more on that basis.

I commend the Minister for taking the right decision but there are significant issues relating to the announcement that need clarification and explanation. It is important that time is provided in the Dáil for the Minister to make a statement and to take questions from Members. As the Taoiseach knows, the home at Tuam was just one of a network of institutions which systematically violated the rights of women and children. I hope that yesterday's decision is the beginning of a process that will see similar steps taken to investigate, locate and recover remains from other such sites in a timely manner. What is being considered in respect of other former mother and baby homes, other sites that are out there and known to us all?

I join with the Deputy is recognising the work of Catherine Corless, the local historian whose painstaking research over a number of years helped to bring many of the issues at Tuam to the attention of the Government and the public. I also recognise the various campaigners involved. I thank the Deputy for commending the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and the Government on the decision we made yesterday. The Government decision is to implement the multidisciplinary framework known as humanitarian forensic action. That is the appropriate response to the discovery of remains interred at the Tuam site. The actions being taken are as follows: a phased approach to the forensic excavation and recovery of the juvenile human remains insofar as is possible; the use of systemic on-site ground truthing and test excavations around the playground and the green areas to see if there are other potential burial sites; the forensic analysis of any recovered remains and, where possible, their individualisation and identification using DNA; thereafter, arrangements for respectful reburial and memorialisation of those remains. The Government's decision was informed by detailed technical advice on international best practice and, most importantly, by compassion and respect for the right to dignity of the children interred at the former mother and baby home.

The commission of investigation is separately continuing its work on investigating the mother and baby homes and a number of county homes. That work is continuing and we expect to receive the commission's report in the first quarter of next year. The facts which it establishes will further assist us in making decisions as to what we do into the future. I have had a chance to visit the site and to meet with Catherine Corless and some of the survivors. We made this decision yesterday. I am not entirely sure if anyone fully knows what we are getting into, but I am absolutely sure that we have made the right decision. If we stumbled upon a mass grave tomorrow, we would carry out an investigation and excavation. That is what we are doing but we are going to do it on a phased basis because we honestly do not know for sure what we are getting into, although we do know it is right thing to do.

It does require legislation. The advice of the Attorney General is that in order for us to excavate a mass grave in this way, which has never been done before in Ireland, we require new bespoke primary legislation. We expect to have that in the first quarter of next year. The estimate comes from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is estimated that this will cost between €6 million and €12 million but again, as this has not been done before, we do not know for sure if that will be the cost. The Bon Secours Sisters, following an approach from the Minister, Deputy Zappone, has agreed to make a contribution of €2.5 million toward the cost. This is a contribution, not a settlement. The order has not been given an indemnity.

Many people whom I spoke to about this issue know and understand that Ireland has had a very dark past. At one stage up to 10% of our entire population was living in institutions of some sort. That was quite common across northern Europe. Whether in convents, seminaries, county homes, psychiatric institutions, mother and baby homes, or laundries, at one stage about 10% of our population lived in institutions.

Now they live on the streets.

Many terrible things may have happened in those institutions. I know that some people may take the view that we should treat this as something in the past and not dredge up old issues. Some people have told me to let sleeping dogs lie. We have decided that is not the right approach. We need to understand our past, to know what happened, to come to terms with it, and to try to put things right. This is a step in that direction.

There is absolutely no doubt that the Taoiseach has decided on the right course of action. There is also no doubt that it is of immense importance to the survivors and their families, in the first instance, that the right thing is done but more broadly it is of immense importance for us as a society to consciously do the right thing in respect of these women and the children who were born into these institutions, those who spent time in them, those who survived them and, most particularly, those who perished. I will repeat that, as the Taoiseach knows, the home at Tuam is not unique by any stretch. There are many other mother and baby homes. There are many sites where families will stand - and I have stood with them - and speculate as to whether a child, a brother or a sister who was lost is buried there and precisely where. This is uncharted territory for us, but we need to get it right. I urge the Taoiseach to ensure that the legislation comes forward in a timely fashion. I will return to, and ask the Taoiseach about, the issue of costs.

It seems to me that €2.5 million from the Bon Secours is an entirely inadequate contribution to the excavation. I ask that the Government goes and seeks a higher contribution from the Bon Secours. It strikes me that at least 50% of the costs incurred would rightfully fall to them. Is there any sign that there will also be a contribution from the Vatican because that issue was also raised?

The Government, through the work of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, sought a higher contribution and a percentage contribution but this is what is forthcoming. The Deputy will know the Bon Secours Sisters are not under any obligation to make a contribution but they are making a contribution of €2.5 million. We are treating it as a contribution. I want to make it very clear to everyone in the House that this is not a settlement, this is not an indemnity; this is an initial contribution to the cost of carrying out these works. The first €2.5 million will come from the Bon Secours and the rest from the taxpayer. It will be a very difficult operation. One needs to see the photos to understand what will be attempted. It is a very old mass grave. There are the remains of children in there. Some were stillborn and some were older. There may also be adult remains because it was a workhouse prior to that. It was used during the famine period as well. There are also potentially adult remains and remains from a very long time ago. When one looks at the photographs, one can see that the remains are intermingled - "commingled" is the term they use - and a lot of them are decomposed. It will be slow and painstaking and, unfortunately, it will not be possible to identify all of the remains. It will not be possible to individualise them all but we will do our best. What we learn along the way will inform what we do with regard to other sites. I think we are doing the right thing but I also want to contain expectations. This will take time. We have not done this before in Ireland. We will have to build up the capacity to do it. As well as that, while we will do our utmost to carry out a forensic examination, individualisation and identification, in many and perhaps most cases, it will not yield a result or answers.

On Friday, the people will be asked to remove the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution as recommended by the Constitutional Convention. We should remove blasphemy from the Constitution. We should also strengthen the legislation to prohibit religious hatred. The Labour Party introduced the original equality legislation that outlawed discrimination on the basis of religion. We have seen a new wave of anti-Semitism in Europe and also the rise of Islamophobia. We should outlaw the spreading of hatred, including through social media, where toxic messages undermine social cohesion. Removing blasphemy from the Constitution is an important symbolic act. My main concern is not that scores of people will be accused of blasphemy in the near future but that, as a tolerant and diverse society, one thing we cannot tolerate is intolerance. Blasphemy is an offence that allows a group of people to be intolerant of simple difference. Blasphemy is not an offence against a person but an offence against a set of ideas. If Ireland wants to be taken seriously in the United Nations, it is timely to remove this anachronism. We should send a clear signal of personal freedom to those countries where blasphemy is still a very serious matter, in some cases a capital offence. All too often the offence of blasphemy is used as cover for persecution of religious minorities or non-believers.

Let us consider the case of Asia Bibi. According to the European Centre of Law and Justice, she is a Christian mother of five who was convicted of blasphemy for offering her co-workers a cup of water. Her co-workers said she had made the cup ceremoniously unclean by drinking from it and ordered her to convert to Islam. Asia refused and expressed her faith as a Christian. She was charged with blasphemy, convicted and sentenced to death. She has been in prison for the past nine years waiting for the Supreme Court of Pakistan to hear her appeal. Asia Bibi should be freed but the Pakistani authorities are in no hurry to do anything, as we understand it. There are security concerns as radicals have issued death threats not only against Asia and her family but against the judges who heard the case. She needs to be offered asylum. Has the Government had any recent contacts on her behalf with the authorities in Pakistan? Can the Government put pressure on the new Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, including at EU level, to secure her release? Will Ireland offer Asia Bibi asylum?

I thank the Deputy. The blasphemy referendum will happen on Friday at the same time as the presidential election. The Government is asking people to vote "Yes" in that referendum. We see it as part of an ongoing drive to modernise our Constitution to make it a 21st century Constitution for a 21st century republic following on from the decision to remove the constitutional ban on divorce, the decision to enshrine the marriage equality provision in our Constitution and the more recent decision to ensure that women have the right to choose when it comes to their reproductive health.

As the Deputy said, it can be seen as a signal to other countries that Ireland stands for freedom of speech, freedom of religion and for the freedom not to have a religion. On occasion, blasphemy rules are used against people who have no religion or who express agnostic or atheist views. That is the case, unfortunately, in some parts of the world. I also want to recognise the Deputy for raising the issue of the persecution of Christians which is a serious problem across the Arab and Muslim world and in some countries in Africa and Asia. It is important that we stand in solidarity with Christians who are being persecuted around the world. I am not aware of any contacts with the Pakistani authorities on that particular case. I have written to Prime Minister Imran Khan to congratulate him on his recent election but I am not aware of any particular contacts on that particular case. I will have to raise it with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and see if we can let our views be known on it.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. Everybody in the House recognises the importance of religious freedom. Everybody should have freedom of conscience to believe what they want and to express views on it as long as it does not incite hatred. We have laws about incitement to hatred, which can be strengthened, but we need to take the dated concept of blasphemy out of our fundamental law in the Constitution.

I acknowledge the Taoiseach's comment that he will raise the specific case of Asia Bibi. It would be a sign of our non-acceptance of intolerance that we would reach out to somebody like Asia. It would be an important sign to say we will provide asylum because she will not be able to live in Pakistan with the death threats she and her family have endured. Even if the authorities there release her, she should be offered asylum somewhere and why not offer her asylum here? Will the Taoiseach give some consideration to that proposal?

I will certainly give consideration to what the Deputy has to say on our incitement to hatred laws but we always need to be careful to get the balance right. I know the Deputy would want that too. In bringing in laws that restrict what people can say, we must ensure they do not go so far as to trammel free speech and that is a balance we always need to get right.

I am at a slight disadvantage. I have read a little bit about the case the Deputy has referred to in the newspapers but I have not been briefed on it and I do not know all the facts. I am not sure if we are in a position to offer asylum to somebody who has not sought it in Ireland. I will undertake to get a briefing on the case and discuss it with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The news broke earlier in the year of the CervicalCheck smear scandal and it is most unfortunate that, as a result of this, women have lost their lives. Emma Mhic Mhathúna - rest in peace - was one of those women who campaigned tirelessly until her death on 7 October. Her death is a result of both human error and lack of accountability by the laboratory, the HSE and the Department of Health, under the watchful eye of numerous Governments.

No one in the country will ever forget the interview Ms Mhic Mhatúna did last May on the "Morning Ireland" radio programme where she said she was dying when she did not need to die. This has now come to pass and along with other women, she has lost her life at 37 years of age due to human error. This is unforgivable and there is no accountability.

A number of questions remain unanswered in the midst of other distractions which need to be answered in detail. Earlier in the year it was reported that approximately 3,000 smear tests were to be rechecked. This was a matter of urgency but it has not been mentioned since the summer recess. What is the status of those approximately 3,000 smear tests, and will the Taoiseach make a statement on the matter? What are the details of these results, and have these women been contacted about same?

Over the past couple of weeks, news filtered through which suggested that a new contract was entered into with a US laboratory at the centre of the smear scandal, and clarification must be sought publicly as this is of huge importance for the health of the daughters of Ireland. Is it the case that a new contract was recently signed with the US laboratory, Quest Diagnostics? Who drew up this contract? Who advised on it? What involvement or role did the Taoiseach or Minister for Health have in this given the seriousness of this matter for the health of the women in Ireland? Is there any truth that the laboratory wanted an indemnity clause in the contract for fear of future cases, and will the Taoiseach give a clear, detailed statement on this? How could a contract be entered into with this laboratory given there are still cases pending in the courts and possibly more that have not yet come to light? Why are the Irish citizens being kept in the dark on this important matter? Will the Taoiseach make a statement taking into consideration the importance and seriousness of this issue?

First, I offer my condolences once again to the family and friends of Ms Emma Mhic Mhathúna at what is a difficult time for them, and also to the families of other women who lost their lives to cervical cancer. I assure everyone in this House that Government is deeply committed to ensuring cervical screening continues and provides Irish women with a high-quality service in which they can have confidence.

As I have said before, I am determined that some good should come from all of this. We must make cervical cancer a rare disease in Ireland and we must build a more open and honest health service. We can do those things by continuing with cervical screening, improving the screening programme with new testing, bringing in the HPV vaccine for boys and encouraging parents to ensure their children have that vaccine, reforming our health service, changing our laws about open disclosure and, more important, bringing about a culture in our health service of honesty, openness and disclosure.

The issues the Deputy raised emerged at the outset of the CervicalCheck controversy. Many women were concerned and it is essential we give them the facts, which is why a scoping inquiry led by Dr. Scally and his expert team was established by the Government with the support of the Oireachtas. Dr. Scally provided the final report of his inquiry in September and he gave us a welcome reassurance of the quality and standards of the laboratories being used by CervicalCheck, which he and his team visited. He was satisfied with the quality management process in these laboratories. It is important to say he confirmed he found no reason that the existing contracts for the laboratories should not continue until our new HPV-testing system is in place.

Dr. Scally also said the continuation of screening in the coming months is of crucial importance, an assessment with which the Government fully agrees. Screening does not detect all cancers and pre-cancers but it detects most of them, which saves lives. As Dr. Scally points out in his report, if 1,000 women are screened for cervical cancer, approximately 20 will have pre-cancerous cells or cancer. Screening will pick up 15 of those 20 but it will miss five. It is a misunderstanding to say that missing five of those 20 is negligent. In some cases it may be but in the vast majority it is not. Those are the limitations of screening, unfortunately. CervicalCheck has been successful in reducing cervical cancer rates in Ireland. As stated in the Scally report, the lifetime risk of women developing cancer was one in 135 in 2015, whereas it had been one in 96, which is a substantial improvement, falling by approximately 7% a year.

I am happy to say that heads of an agreement have been signed with the contracted laboratories to extend their contracts pending introduction of the new HPV-testing programme, which allows for the continuation of the existing service without interruption. This follows on from detailed negotiations undertaken by the HSE. Agreement on the extension of these contracts was reached on 13 October but this is subject to formal conclusion of the contract, which has not yet taken place. In these negotiations, discussions focused on extending the capacity of the laboratories to deal with the backlog of smears, which arose as a result of significantly increased demand for repeat smear tests that was seen in recent months for understandable reasons. We must catch up on that backlog, notwithstanding the shortage of cytologists.

I expect to hear more detail because the Taoiseach should give more detail in response to the questions I asked. More than 20 women under the age of 25 have been diagnosed with cervical cancer since the screening programme began a decade ago. Are the Department of Health, the Taoiseach and his Government satisfied that the screening programme should be extended to ladies under the age of 25, in the interests of their health and safety? Do they see a benefit to that and would lives be saved in the future? Will the Taoiseach make a statement on that matter?

I may be a little out of date and out of practice, but the last time I checked the best scientific evidence was that extending cervical screening to women under the age of 25 would not be beneficial. In regard to screening, one must always bear in mind the whole problem of false negatives, with which people are now familiar and which can cause false reassurance. False positives can also be a big problem, where abnormalities are picked up which look like cancer but are not cancer, leading women to have unnecessary further tests, unnecessary procedures and, in some cases, unnecessary operations. When it comes to making a decision about screening, which is not diagnostic, one must weigh up the pros and cons, which there always are, and the best scientific evidence, as I understand it, is that by screening women under 25 the cons would outweigh the pros, which is why it is not being done.

The Deputy also asked about the review of the 3,000 women in his previous question. It is a review of 3,000 women who have been diagnosed with cervical cancer in the past ten years but only 1,850 of those attended CervicalCheck. Others did not participate in screening. Some 1,600 of the 1,850 women have been contacted with letters asking for their consent to look into their cases. It is important we get consent before we look into people's health issues, files and previous tests. Of the 813 consent forms that have been returned, some 97% of the women who have responded agreed to take part in the review.