Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Looking at the newspapers here and in the UK, there is a huge contrast in how the draft withdrawal agreement is being received. It is 585 pages and it outlines in detail 45 years of deep integration, protecting certain rights, defining outstanding obligations and sets out a transition period in which both the EU and the UK can adjust. Commitments in the document go up to 2030 and beyond. It sets out how the rights of EU citizens who live in the UK can be catered for and how UK citizens will be catered for within the EU. One of the protocols in the draft agreement makes unique arrangements for Northern Ireland. This includes protection of rights, security co-operation and the continuation of the common travel area. The Good Friday Agreement remains intact. This protocol also outlines the backstop arrangements and how these would remain in place unless a separate EU-UK deal replaces them.

This draft agreement allows the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, which is only 165 days' time. It is a draft treaty until the EU negotiators meet on 26 November and, more importantly, until the UK parliament votes on it before Christmas. Our party gave a cautious welcome to the draft withdrawal agreement that has taken thousands of hours of negotiations and meetings and compromises from all sides. It is obviously in Ireland's, the UK's and the EU's interest to have a Brexit deal. The alternative does not bear thinking about because it will have huge economic and other ramifications for Ireland, the UK and the EU. However, the alternative no-deal crash out may become a reality and we will have to plan accordingly given what is happening this morning and continues to happen as I stand here. The Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, has, unfortunately, said it will not be voting for the agreement, even before having read it. The Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, resigned his post and two other junior ministers have also resigned.

A Deputy

Three.

It is three now. That shows how quickly things are moving. We do not know if there will be any more as the day goes on and, while it is a matter for the UK, it has serious consequences for Ireland and the rest of the EU. Does the Tánaiste accept that these resignations are giving very negative indications for the ability of the UK Parliament to vote for the draft withdrawal agreement particularly as the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said this morning that the draft agreement is "ill defined" and that he would prefer no deal to a bad deal? Have the Tánaiste or Taoiseach met, or are they planning to meet, with Mr. Corbyn to discuss the draft withdrawal agreement before a vote takes place? As the EU Council is meeting on Sunday week, 26 November, does the Tánaiste expect changes to the current draft after that Council meeting? Can he confirm that the Government is increasing its preparedness for a no-deal Brexit as advised by the European Commission?

I thank all parties in this House for their cautious welcome for the draft text of the withdrawal treaty that was supported last night by the British Cabinet and that we suspect will be supported also by the European Council. This has been a long and at times a very difficult negotiation and I want to pay tribute to the Irish teams of negotiators, and diplomats in particular, who have done an extraordinary job in building and maintaining EU unity around many of the Irish vulnerabilities and questions. I also thank Michel Barnier for his extraordinary capacity to understand the detail of the multiple concerns and questions that have come from this island in the context of Brexit and its potential fallout, and for accommodating all the commitments that have been made to Ireland and to the EU by the British Prime Minister and her government during the negotiations to date in the legal text that was delivered last night. There were many commitments made in a political statement last December. Those commitments were added to in March and many people were sceptical about whether they could be translated into a legal text that could be sold on both sides of the Irish Sea in a way that protected this island, the relations on it, North and South, in a way that did not in any way undermine the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, but provided pragmatic solutions that ensured we did not face the prospect of physical Border infrastructure or related checks or controls between the two jurisdictions on this island. That is what this agreement does. It involves compromise and flexibility on both sides. It has involved a response from the EU side to the British Prime Minister's demands that Northern Ireland could not be separated from the rest of the United Kingdom in the context of a customs territory and that issue has been resolved.

We have a deal and a text that follows through on the commitments that have been made and does so in a way that protects Ireland's core interests now and into the future in a way that we can all stand over, I hope. Of course there are challenges to selling any package in the United Kingdom and in Westminster. Many people would say there is no majority for any way forward in the House of Commons. The British Prime Minister said last night that she faces difficult days ahead and I am sure she does but she is resilient, she has shown a remarkable capacity to get things done in very difficult circumstances and certainly we want to work with her and support her in the future relationship negotiations that need to happen to ensure that the backstop that is now catered for in this agreement never gets used. I hope we will have the opportunity to do that.

I asked the Tánaiste whether he had met the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, or had any plans to do so. He might answer that question when he responds. We all acknowledge that there are serious and deep concerns in the UK. There is no triumph in negotiating something which cannot be delivered so we all need to be mature about this. The time for victory and celebration is when this draft agreement is accepted and ratified by all. The Tánaiste and the Ministers should be acutely aware of the impact of comments made here in Ireland during what is a very sensitive and volatile time in the UK. I ask the Tánaiste and his colleagues in government to try, from today, to resist the temptation to brief the press with victorious statements, such as we have seen in some of the Irish newspapers today. That is irresponsible and they should desist from that. They should put the national interest first in this instance. Much time and effort has been put in by the Government, with the support of the Opposition.

Every statement being made in Ireland is being scrutinised, and we should be aware of that. Silence from the Government worked on Monday and Tuesday. I ask the Government to return to being silent for the next day or two and to allow the process to move through Westminster. We have to be conscious of that.

With regard to contingency planning, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, stated earlier that a lot of detailed work has been done. Will the Government publish the sectoral contingency plans on the basis of a no-deal scenario and let the sectors see our current level of preparedness?

We speak to all political parties in the UK all the time. I have got to know Mr. Keir Starmer, the Labour spokesperson on Brexit, well. He is a very fine person and is on top of the detail. We will continue to have conversations with all political parties. The Government needs to be careful not to pretend it can influence British politics, and it should not try to do so publicly because we might well find it could have the opposite effect to that desired. The British political system needs to tease through the detail of the text. That will happen in the coming days and weeks, and there will be a vote at the end. We will also have a detailed debate. I assure the Deputy that neither the Taoiseach, the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, or other Minister, including me, will claim victories or anything like that. That has not been happening. Yesterday we were very careful not to comment when it was not helpful to do so.

There are interesting headlines in the papers today.

We have an obligation to explain to the Irish people what has been agreed. We also have an obligation to reassure people that the agreement deals with core Irish concerns because many people were sceptical that it would be possible to get this deal done.

It is the role of the Government to explain to people in appropriate language why this deal is no threat to nationalism or unionism in Northern Ireland or to the sovereign integrity of the United Kingdom. This is a practical compromise by all sides to allow for a managed, sensible Brexit to move forward in a way that protects core Irish interests and ensures we are not the collateral damage from an unmanaged Brexit deal that does not take into account the interests of Britain's neighbours as well as Britain itself.

Since the referendum result became clear, Sinn Féin has been unequivocal in stating Brexit presents the most serious social, political and economic threat to our island in a generation. We have been crystal clear in stating the Government's approach to the negotiations had to be guided by an appreciation of the fact that the majority in the North voted to remain in the EU. That view must be recognised and needs to be respected. We put the case for special status that takes cognisance of the unique circumstances that present themselves on our island. As has been well rehearsed, that means no return to a hard border, the protection of citizens' rights and the protection and upholding of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.

Yesterday's deal is not perfect. It is not even a good one if one accepts that Brexit, in whatever guise, is bad. It is bad for everyone. It is bad for Ireland, Britain and the EU, and we accept that. There is no such thing as a good Brexit. Brexit is bad for our island, whatever the circumstances or deal on the table. Having said that, I acknowledge that the deal agreed and approved by the British Cabinet yesterday is one that mitigates the worst aspects of Brexit.

There are issues we need to iron out in the time ahead and that need to be clarified. Some of those can be addressed by the Government and Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly the issues of rights and representation. We will return to these in due course. I believe some of these concerns were raised with the Tánaiste this morning by my party's vice president, Ms Michelle O'Neill, as part of a delegation of parties presenting the pro-remain majority in the North. I do not want to labour this point but it is worth saying that the four parties the Taoiseach and Tánaiste met this morning represent the majority view of citizens in the North; the DUP does not. Over the past 48 hours, DUP representatives have been using the most incendiary, brash and ostentatious rhetoric, which is not helpful. It is absolutely reckless and irresponsible.

Ordinary citizens in the North, be they republican, nationalist, unionist or otherwise, recognise Brexit is not good, and they want a deal that protects their livelihoods and futures. This is not an orange or green issue. When we speak, we speak for the majority on a cross-community basis, not for narrow, ill-founded interests. We made that point to the British Prime Minister last night during the course of a telephone call with her. During that conversation, she said the advice of the British Attorney General in respect of the withdrawal agreement would be made available to the House of Commons before the so-called meaningful vote. I presume the Tánaiste will have access to advice on the Irish protocol, whether from our own Attorney General or the European Commission. Will he publish that or a summary of what it would be appropriate to publish so Members of this House can have the fullest possible picture and legal certainty regarding what is on the table prior to any vote?

I remind the House, as the Deputy has, that Brexit is not Ireland's policy. We do not agree with it. We believe it is a mistake but, at the same time, we must respect the decision of the UK as a whole, which has voted to leave the European Union. We also have an obligation to ensure that, because Ireland is uniquely exposed and vulnerable to the politics of Brexit, we remain very much part of the negotiations to ensure we are protecting the core interests of Irish people, North and South, and many British people living on this island who may be negatively affected by unintended consequences from the fallout of Brexit, consequences that were not discussed during the Brexit referendum campaign for the most part and whose complexity was not understood when many people voted to leave the EU. Perhaps they understand it now. What the UK Prime Minister, the Irish Government and Mr. Michel Barnier and his team have had to do was deal with the complexity to ensure we turn a decision by a majority in the UK to leave the EU into a practical set of legal commitments in a treaty, which can organise and manage the arrangement to limit the fallout, protect vulnerable communities and people and ensure we have the closest possible future relationship between the United Kingdom and the EU in the future to allow for trade, political co-operation and so much more besides. That is what the past 12 months of intensive negotiations on the text of this treaty, on which we signed off last night, have been about.

I hope it will not be a question of a majority versus a minority in Northern Ireland trying to win the argument against each other in the weeks ahead. We need to ensure that minorities, in addition to majorities, in Northern Ireland are reassured that any wording of a legal treaty related to Brexit is not a threat to them and that we can try to protect, where possible, the status quo on this island so neighbours and people with very different backgrounds ideas and dreams for the future of their country can live together, understanding that we are protecting the core interests of everybody. That is what we are trying to do.

The taking of absolutist positions has been, and continues to be, unhelpful in trying to find a way forward. There are certain things everybody wants from this treaty. One is no return to a physical hard border on this island. We now have guarantees that prevent that. We want to ensure the common travel area between Britain and Ireland remains intact. That is in the agreement and catered for. We wanted to make sure the land bridge that is Britain, which allows us to get goods to and from this island, can continue to be used efficiently. In this regard, there is strong wording in the text.

The Good Friday Agreement is 20 years old this year. It is the foundation for allowing people to live in the absence of violence, by and large. It was not possible before the agreement. It was a matter of ensuring that this agreement would be protected in all its parts. That is in the interest of Britain as well as that of Ireland. That is why the UK Prime Minister, to her credit, has faced people down when necessary to ensure the importance of the Good Friday Agreement to the United Kingdom and Ireland would be factored in during the negotiations.

Anybody who takes the time to read the document will see very clearly in the text that there should be no threat or perceived threat, real or otherwise, in regard to the unionist community in the North.

The interpretation of this text will be crucial. The question I put to the Tánaiste was, following the conversation with Theresa May and her agreement to publish the legal documents relating to the withdrawal agreement prior to a vote in the House of Commons, whether the Government thinks it is appropriate to do that here. I listened to the comments of Theresa May in the House of Commons just before I came to the Chamber. She addressed the Irish protocol and said that it is not legally acceptable under Article 50 to establish a set of permanent relationships in the withdrawal agreement. That calls into question the permanency of all this. I understand that Theresa May must do what she has to do, and she has a difficult task in the time ahead. We also must do what we need to do. Brexit is not fleeting. It is here and it is real. The House shares an understanding of the impact Brexit can have, so it is important that the legal advice on the permanency and certainty of the Irish protocol would be provided to the House in whatever form is suitable. That should be taken into consideration by the Tánaiste and the Cabinet and it should happen before a vote in this House.

On the permanence or otherwise of a backstop, that is there as a fallback position if nothing else can be agreed to resolve the Border issue through a future relationship agreement during a transition or extended transition period. It states that the objective of the withdrawal agreement is not to establish a permanent relationship between the Union and the UK. It also states that the provisions of the protocol shall apply unless and until they are superseded in whole or in part by a subsequent agreement. The definition of temporary is "unless and until" something else can be agreed. The key issue there is that, first, nobody wants to use the backstop. It is only triggered if it has to be used in the absence of anything else that can do the same job. Even if it is triggered there are review mechanisms, which clearly suggests that the intention here is that this is temporary until we can put another agreement in place that everyone can sign. However, that other agreement to solve the problem must be agreed by both sides, and that language is clear to reassure people. If the backstop is used - and I hope it will not - it will be temporary until we can secure a comprehensive future relationship agreement which will be permanent and fundamentally solve the Border question. That is what we are all trying to do, and we will work with the British Prime Minister on that.

Regarding legal advice, this text has been agreed between the EU collectively and the UK through the British Government. From an Irish perspective, the legal advice on this text is EU legal advice. The Attorney General might well have his view on it but the legal advice comes from the extensive legal team available to Michel Barnier and his task force.

Growing old in modern Ireland and particularly in west Cork is extremely difficult, to say the least, with people on massive waiting lists even though many are only seeking minor procedures. Many thousands more are waiting months for carer's allowance for caring for a loved one or a neighbour. Tens of thousands are waiting for eye surgery, mainly cataract surgery, which is a 15-minute procedure, but cannot have it carried out in the Republic before they go blind. However, this is not the subject of my question.

The home help service has saved the State millions of euro in the past. The workers, mainly women, have been the most unrecognised heroines of our time. Every Member of the Dáil knows they go far beyond the call of duty for the people to whom they are assigned. They do this without a second thought. The State must examine how it has treated the home help women. Time after time, we hear in the Dáil that home helps cannot be found to carry out the work and that new home helps are being sought. These statements are completely misleading the people. Many elderly people desperately need extra hours. Some have a home help service for a half hour in the morning five days per week, but people in west Cork are told that they will not get extra hours on Saturdays and Sundays as the service cannot get the workers. We know differently. All the workers who have done such an excellent job through the years are desperately seeking extra hours, but they are not given them. Either we are being misled in the Dáil or the home help service is being run shambolically and requires urgent change to ensure the millions of euro will be allocated to the elderly and the home helps who provide the service.

The insulting way the Government has treated the elderly and the home help women is enough to prompt a national inquiry, and I shudder to think what the conclusion of that inquiry would be. Time and again we have been given different spins in the Dáil about the home help service, but Deputies know what is happening on the ground. Home help workers who have done their best for the State for many years are being starved of home help hours and the elderly and others who need extra hours in many cases are being left home alone from Friday morning until Monday morning. This is scandalous, to say the least. Last Tuesday, the Taoiseach spoke about the home help service in reply to questions. He said the Government cannot keep pouring extra money into the service without reviewing where it is going. The public, the home help women and the elderly would like to ask the Government where the money has gone because it did not get to the people concerned. How can a Taoiseach state that millions of euro in additional funding is being put into the service when the people on the ground are not getting a proper service and the home helps are not being allocated extra hours?

It is time to stop the spin on this issue. For once, instead of listening to spin doctors, will the Tánaiste listen to the elderly and the people working on the front line on how they have been treated? Will a proper home help service be rolled out to those who need and deliver the service in the way it should be, to stop millions of euro being squandered needlessly and not getting to those who desperately need the service? Will the Tánaiste request that a survey be carried out of home help workers to ask them how many hours they are working and whether they will accept extra hours if they are offered? Those are serious questions that must be asked of every person who delivers a brilliant service.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. We all share the common objective of improving the quality of life of older people. The home help support is a core service for older people and is highly valued by the service users, their families and the Health Service Executive, HSE, which provides the service. It provides supports that assist older people to live independently in their homes for longer and enables larger numbers of people to return home following acute hospital admission who otherwise would remain in hospital or potentially would be admitted to long-stay residential care.

Over the past number of years, improving access to home support has been a priority for the Government. This can be seen in the way the home support budget has increased from a base of €306 million in 2015 to the expected expenditure of almost €420 million in 2018. Overall, the HSE national service plan provided for more than 17 million home support hours to be delivered to 50,500 people. In addition, a further 156,000 hours relating to adverse weather funding were provided from spring 2018. Intensive home care packages will be delivered to approximately 235 people at any time and will deliver a further approximately 360,000 hours in a full year. Despite this significant level of service provision, demand continues to rise. All those waiting are assessed and provided with a service, if appropriate, as soon as possible having regard to their needs. People being discharged from an acute hospital who are in a position to return home with supports are prioritised. At the end of August, preliminary figures indicate that 6,269 people approved for new or additional home supports were waiting for funding to be made available.

There is a constant increase in demand in this area for understandable reasons. We have an ageing population and there has been a significant increase in the population over the age of 70 years. That trend will continue. We want people to live in their own homes for as long as possible and to give them the supports that allow them to do that. We are putting in place a new statutory scheme for home support. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Jim Daly, is working on that. A great deal is happening in this space but I accept that there is much more to be done.

The Tánaiste keeps spinning figures and statements at us when we raise this issue. The reality in the community is very different. When did the Tánaiste last speak to a home help woman who delivers the service? When did he last speak to an elderly person who requires the service and cannot get it? I have been doing both throughout west Cork for a lengthy period.

The results of my consultation with both demonstrates the shocking way in which they have been treated. Only a few weeks ago one home help woman who has spent many years delivering home help services told me no home help personnel would vote in the presidential election. I asked why and she told me it was because the political system had let them down year after year so badly. In the programme for Government discussions nearly three years ago, we spoke about having home help services on a Saturday and Sunday. A promise to deliver this was made but in west Cork, like the rest of the country, it is almost impossible to get a proper weekday service, never mind a service on Saturday and Sunday.

Will the Tánaiste promise the Dáil to work on taking the roll-out of this home help service out of the hands who have failed to deliver to the elderly and start getting the service delivered by those who can do it? I previously asked him to order a survey of home help personnel to give us feedback on how they are treated.

It is important to note it is wrong to say people are not being given home help support. We know many more such supports are being given but the demand is increasing with that. It is like so many areas across the health sector, where we are dramatically increasing funding and improving the quality of services while trying to deal with a significant increase in demand at the same time. It is happening in the disability sector, and although there are more disability services in Ireland than ever, there is also more demand. It is the same with hospital care and elderly care. Through the HSE service plans we must provide increased resources year after year to improve the quality of services, recognising the growth in demand that is there. Of course, we are trying to move away from acute care by investing more money in home care and primary healthcare services. This will allow people to get the supports they need while living in their communities in places like west Cork. We do not want families to have to travel many miles to visit loved ones in acute care, residential care or hospitals. We want them at home with the necessary supports provided by the HSE.

Give them the help then.

It is what we are trying to achieve and we are investing significantly more money to do that.

What about the survey?

I realise today's Brexit events are understandably overshadowing everything else. However, today women at the centre of the CervicalCheck controversy and their families still find themselves fighting against the HSE and the State just to get access to their own medical information. They are living in fear, with some in the midst of very aggressive forms of cancer treatment. Others are still dealing with side effects of those treatments. These people should not have to battle for anything else right now; their entire focus should be on staying as well as possible. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

I draw attention to the contradictions that exist between the information being put forward by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, HSE officials and CervicalCheck and the lived reality for the involved women and their families. Yesterday I spoke to Mr. Cian O'Carroll, the solicitor representing many of the impacted women, and he informed me he is still chasing slides from as far back as April or May. The HSE put a protocol in place in August, following which Mr. O'Carroll engaged with staff to try to improve it. However, since 10 September, when he provided suggested improvements, he has had no engagement with the HSE. That is more than two months ago.

The Taoiseach agreed with me in the Chamber last week that there should be no further or undue delays. Before that, he told the House that no woman should have to go to court. However, I am told there will be an appeal to the High Court to force the release of the slides for these women and their families. They will be put through unnecessary torture as a result. Seven women from the 221+ group have come to me indicating they are waiting an inordinate time for access to the slides, yet this jars with what HSE representatives told the Committee of Public Accounts last week. They said the average waiting time for women who requested the slides was 22 days and the HSE had put a specific unit in place to deal with the matter. These women have said that is not the reality.

I understand the national screening service ordered Quest Diagnostics to stop releasing slides in August. I also understand that where previously it was the norm to include the accompanying laboratory reports with slides, they are not now being released. It is clear from the experiences related to me that the HSE has become far more focused on legal issues and less focused on patients affected by this matter. The goalposts are moving for these women and their families. We cannot continue to treat them like this. Will the Tánaiste outline the process and timeline whereby these women will be given access to the slides and associated reports?

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter again as I know she raised it with the Taoiseach last week. I was present when she did so. I have received a note from the Minister for Health, who I know is probably anxious to respond to the Deputy on the matter. Maybe I can ask him to speak to the Deputy afterwards.

The HSE is focused on responding to all requests for records as soon as possible. To aid this process, external legal advisers are liaising with women and their solicitors on the release of slides. The protocol in place ensures the integrity and traceability of slides being transferred. Under the protocol, solicitors are required to provide specific information about a chosen laboratory before slides can be released. This ensures the integrity of the slide is protected and that all slides can be traced when they leave a current location. Where any delays arise, the cases are being escalated as a priority.

My understanding is representatives of the HSE attended meetings of both the Joint Committee on Health yesterday and the Committee of Public Accounts last week to answer specific questions from Deputies on this. They provided average waiting times and talked through how the process works. I do not have information on individual cases but I assure the Deputy that the Department of Health, the HSE and the Government want to ensure we treat families as quickly as possible while protecting the integrity of the process. This is to ensure families, loved ones and women can get access to their own slides and medical records as quickly as possible without any undue delay.

As the Deputy will be aware, there will also be a report from Mr. Justice Meehan on alternative mechanisms to avoid adversarial court proceedings for women and their families affected by CervicalCheck issues. That report will come back to the Government. We do not any woman or family to have to go to court to access slides that they should be entitled to access quickly and without any undue delay. We want to focus on the procedures being put in place to ensure that happens.

I would love to believe what I am being told but seven people have contacted me who are caught up in this and who have been directly impacted. Why would they contact me if this was working? The Tánaiste should ask himself that question. I have been told the HSE has been put on notice that there will be a case in the High Court to demand these slides. Why would that happen if this process was working satisfactorily? It is not working satisfactorily and it is unacceptable that people should be forced to go to court just to get their medical information. Will the Tánaiste review this today? I do not want to have to raise this matter and I would prefer it if the process was working for those women. I am sure the Tánaiste would prefer that as well but I do not believe I am being told the truth.

I will ask the Minister to speak to the Deputy afterwards to get the detail of the case as it is hard for me to respond on a case that may have-----

There are seven cases.

Okay, it is a number of cases. There may be reasons, legal or otherwise, as to why the delays have happened. We need to understand the detail of those cases and what the blockage is so we can act to remove the blockage as quickly as possible. The only motivation of the Government, the Minister, the HSE and all involved in the lessons learned from the CervicalCheck issue is to try to treat women and their families with the respect they deserve. We are trying to ensure we can give them full access to information as quickly as possible.

We also have to protect the integrity of the process. We cannot ignore the legal advice on this but I assure the Deputy that the priority is to try to give people the respect they deserve and the access to the information that is their right as quickly as possible.