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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Vol. 983 No. 2

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

The depth of anger, frustration, despair and sense of betrayal within our military families and communities is at an extraordinary level. Families who for generations have contributed so much to our democracy, along with our peacekeeping overseas, and who have such pride in the history of our Defence Forces cannot comprehend what is happening to them. A former head of the Army Ranger Wing, Commandant Cathal Berry, who subsequently headed up the health service in the military, said:

The sense of absolute betrayal is palpable. It is visceral. I have not seen anything even remotely like it in 23 years’ service.

On the Government, the previous Government, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, he said: "To reduce a highly effective and proud organisation to an utterly demoralised outfit over an eight-year period is some achievement."

This level of criticism is unprecedented from a former head of the Army Ranger Wing. It should not be surprising, however, to the Taoiseach and the Government. The lack of morale, along with the retention crisis within the Army, Naval Service and Air Corps, has reduced the capacity and strength of the Defence Forces to an all-time low. The Taoiseach has been alerted to this time and again in the House and outside it. I attended a protest march in Cork last month led by retired former Army, Naval Service and Air Corps personnel. Their language, commentary and speeches at that meeting were on a par with what Commandant Berry has said. Former Army officers warned about the dismantling of our Defence Forces, the haemorrhaging of experienced personnel, the reduction of their capacity and the length of time it will take to repair and recover from this damage.

Naval ships have been unable to sail because of a lack of crew. Up to 50 sailors are sleeping on board naval ships because they cannot afford soaring rents when off-duty. The Taoiseach is aware of the University of Limerick’s research into the conditions of many Army officers. There are significant safety issues in the Air Corps. Commandant Berry recalled how a recent recruit who had been in the Army for 12 weeks and was in line for the best soldier award had to go back to his old job working in a meat factory with twice the pay for half the hours. He said he was not leaving because he hates the Army but because he loves it. He said he cannot sit back any more and watch the Defence Forces being completely dismantled and demoralised before his eyes. He spoke about the humiliation and suffocation of the Defence Forces.

Does the Taoiseach feel ashamed of the manner in which he, the Government and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, have demoralised and dismantled our Defence Forces? Does he understand the level of anger within Defence Force families and personnel about this continuing neglect? When is the Government going to finally respond to this crisis in an effective and comprehensive manner?

I heard former Commandant Berry’s interview yesterday when I was on my way to Brussels. It was a stinging criticism. Sometimes the Government needs to hear criticism and sometimes it needs to take it on board. I am very much aware of the anger among Defence Forces families and members about the current situation.

When it comes to recruitment, it is actually going very well. We are recruiting hundreds of new people into our Defence Forces every year-----

However, the Defence Forces are not retaining them.

-----but we have a real problem with retention in that more people are leaving than are coming in. I have acknowledged that in the House in the past.

This year, for example, we are investing an extra €50 million in our Defence Forces. There is a suggestion that this money is handed back. It is not.

It is handed back every year. It comes to €20 million.

Up to €50 million extra is being invested in our Defence Forces this year. It is going into new vessels, new aircraft, new equipment, better and improved barracks, as well as improved pay and pensions for members and retired members of the Defence Forces.

The Defence Forces are covered by the public sector pay agreement. We have a pay agreement across the entire public service which provides for full restoration of pay for almost all public servants, including soldiers and Air Corps and Naval Service personnel by October next year. That is happening in phases and is already well under way.

Separate from that, the Public Service Pay Commission has been asked by the Government to consider issues which are unique to the Defence Forces. It has done that work and received submissions from the Departments of Defence, Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as the Chief of Staff, senior personnel in the Army and the representative groups like PDFORRA and RACO. There was a suggestion that this report was to be published yesterday and it had something to do with elections. That is not correct. The report was only received recently and has not yet been shared with the Cabinet. It will be in the next couple of weeks and will be responded to.

We are serious about responding to the retention difficulties we have in the Defence Forces. At the same time, however, we have to bear in mind that anything which happens with public sector pay has a knock-on effect. Deputy Micheál Martin’s spokesperson, Deputy Michael McGrath, asked me questions last week about where I was going to find extra money for broadband and the national children’s hospital. That was a fair question. It must be borne in mind that a 2% increase in public sector pay costs about €400 million a year alone. That is much more than the extra money we need to find for broadband or the national children’s hospital. It is not once-off. It is recurring. I have to bear that in mind.

Magic money. Ask Freddie Mercury over there.

This issue is far deeper than just a referral to the Public Service Pay Commission for consideration. The Army goes to the heart of our democracy. Does the Taoiseach understand that? We need a strong, proud, healthy and dynamic Defence Forces where morale is high and to which personnel are attracted to stay and develop. Our Army withstood subversion in the State for over 30 years. It raised our international reputation by bravely serving in many dangerous overseas missions. It will protect our citizens again into the future and our democracy against future threats.

The bottom line, however, is that Commandant Berry was the head of the military medical school. He met many of those contemplating leaving the Army. What struck home was the sense that they were being discriminated against not by colour or creed but by the uniform they wear. That is the overwhelming sense of many within our Defence Forces. That is why they are leaving in their droves. It is at a dangerous level. I have met officers and people across the board. They are at pains to point out how dangerous this is for our society and democracy and for the health of that democracy.

The Taoiseach needs to get that point and stop the codology that has been going on for the past two years of burying his head in the sand. There was a suggestion from Commandant Berry, which most people in the Army, whether rightly or wrongly, believe given everything else that has been announced in the past number of weeks, including €3 billion and billions more for this, that and the other. However, one thing was not announced. The Taoiseach has seen the report according to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, as has the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. However, it was not published in advance of the local elections. Whether that is right or wrong, that is the sense out there among members of the Defence Forces. When will the Taoiseach comprehensively respond to the wider issue and the lack of morale in our Defence Forces and the danger to our democracy as a result?

I thank the Deputy for his question. We have a strong and proud Defence Forces in this State, ensuring the security of our State, protecting our democracy, asserting our sovereignty, dealing with subversive threats, participating in peacekeeping missions for the UN and the EU - for example, we recently extended the mission in Lebanon - and also providing essential aid to the civil power, particularly the Garda when it comes to dealing with organised crime. It is not the case, however, that members of our Defence Forces are discriminated against because of their uniform. In fact, they are tied into the public sector pay agreement so any pay increases that are secured by trade unions, which can go and have gone on strike, also apply to the Defence Forces. They are part of the public sector pay deal. That means full restoration of pay for almost everyone in the Defence Forces by October next year, which is already happening in phases. To give the Deputy an example, the average gross earnings, excluding overseas allowances, for a three star private has gone up to €37,529; for a corporal, it has gone up to €41,000; for a lieutenant, it has gone up to €42,000; for a captain, it has gone up to €56,000; and for a commandant, it has gone up to €66,000. That is up on where it was a few years ago and it will continue to increase until we have pay restoration by October 2020, as agreed. The Public Service Pay Commission is examining issues that are particular to the Defence Forces. We accept there are issues that are particular to the Defence Forces and that is why it has been tasked with that job.

Yesterday afternoon, a man was shot dead in broad daylight on Kilbarron Avenue in Coolock in Dublin. Last week, a man was shot in broad daylight in Darndale in a laneway adjacent to a primary school. These murders follow on from a spate of other shootings and killings in recent weeks and months in Dublin, Drogheda and other parts of the country, with numerous people dead and seriously injured as a result of criminal feuds. People in those communities are living in fear. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that these are great communities. Darndale, Coolock and Drogheda are great communities but people are living in fear and they deserve better.

While I acknowledge the complexity of gang feuds and dealing with them, as well as the enormous challenge of tackling gangs which cannot be understated, the reality is that this Government is not doing enough. The response, to say the least, has been lacklustre. The Garda has done some good work in recent times. We have seen drug seizures and arrests but the Garda is operating with one hand tied behind its back. It is confined by a lack of resources and personnel. The figures speak for themselves. We have fewer gardaí now than we had ten years ago. This is not only an urban issue. People in rural Ireland are also fearful of crime. We have had an increase in burglaries and break-ins to people's homes. People need protection. Many Garda stations across rural Ireland have fewer gardaí and resources now than they had ten years ago. Many communities, towns and villages have no Garda stations because they were closed by the Taoiseach's Government and Fianna Fáil.

The approach to tackling violent crime has been, for the most part, a reactionary one on the part of the Government. We need more gardaí on the beat and more resources for An Garda Síochána so they can put these people behind bars. We also need to do more to divert young people from crime. That means more resources for those who work in the field of tackling drugs and making sure that people have alternatives. All the drug task forces, which have also been decimated by Government funding cuts under the Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil, are now coming home to roost and are biting. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that these killings are unacceptable and the people in the affected communities deserve better. What is the Government going to do about them?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. I want to share with the House our collective revulsion at the killings that have happened in different parts of Dublin and Drogheda in recent weeks and to express solidarity with the communities in which these killings have happened. This is a matter which Cabinet discussed on Monday night at the specific request of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, who represents Darndale and Coolock which are part of the constituency, and also the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. The Minister for Justice and Equality spoke with the Garda Commissioner about the matter today and intends to visit the area. I will do the same as soon as I can find a little time. The people who live in the north-east inner city, Darndale and Drogheda and in Corduff in my constituency are good, hardworking people. They have a right to feel safe in their homes and communities. We all share in that sentiment.

In terms of what the Government is doing, after many years of retrenchment and cutbacks as a consequence of a financial crash, which this Government did not cause, we have now fixed the economy and because of that we have been in a position in recent years to provide unprecedented resources to the Garda. The Garda budget has increased to €1.76 billion for this year, the highest allocation ever. The total number of gardaí is now back up to 14,000 and the figure reaches 17,000 if we include civilian staff. There is now an armed support unit in every Garda region and a 24-7 armed support unit in the Dublin area. There are 600 gardaí entering training this year. That does not mean a 600 increase in Garda numbers because there will be retirements but there will be a further increase in the number of gardaí this year. New headquarters have been established in Kevin Street, Galway and Wexford because it makes sense to have new modern Garda stations, not small ones based on an old fashioned policing model that dates back long before mobile phones and Garda cars. An additional €10 million has been allocated for the purchase and fit-out of Garda vehicles. Therefore, action is being taken.

The Garda has made a lot of progress in tackling the threat of organised crime. It behoves us to thank gardaí for that and offer our further support. The Garda is also working closely with colleagues in other jurisdictions in investigating the supply of drugs and guns. Intelligence-led policing, involving many Garda units around the country, is yielding significant results. I commend gardaí on their tireless efforts in continuing to tackle organised crime. They have had huge success in doing that in the north-east inner city, as they had prior to that in Limerick, and I every confidence they will do so again.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. Unfortunately, the increase that he spoke about has simply not been enough. Senior gardaí in the affected communities have said that. We have heard them say it in Drogheda, Dundalk, Dublin and rural parts of Ireland where they simply do not have the required resources. In 2009, we had 14,547 gardaí. We now have 14,160, which is 387 fewer and the population has increased. The Taoiseach referred to the number of Garda recruits. That number was meant to be 800 but a decision was made to reduce it to 600. Can the Taoiseach stand over that decision, given what has happened? He acknowledged these are very serious crimes which are having a big impact on the affected communities. How can he stand over reducing the number of new recruits from 800 to 600?

Can the Taoiseach give a commitment that the drug task forces, whose funding have been decimated year on year since 2009, will have their funding restored to 2009 levels? That is a clear challenge I put to the Taoiseach. I and the people living in these communities want to hear a clear response to that from the Government. If the Taoiseach increased the number of new recruits from 600 to 800 and ensured the number of gardaí was restored to at least the number we had ten years ago and funding to the drug taskforces was also restored, people would see more of an effort was being made by the Government. However, the Government is falling short and that is having an impact in all those communities.

Even in a very wealthy country, and this is a wealthy country, there is only a certain amount of money. When we approach full employment, there is only a certain number of people who can possibly be recruited into the public workforce or the private workforce. Notwithstanding that, the Garda budget is at an all-time high of €1.7 billion and extra recruitment is happening every year. We reopened Templemore after it was closed by a previous Government and have been recruiting ever since. In fact, 200 more gardaí will come out of Templemore next week. We will continue to see an increase in the number of gardaí over the coming years.

The Garda Commissioner makes a decision on the balance of recruitment between sworn officers - gardaí - and civilian staff. He took the decision, instead of having 800 sworn officers, to have 600 sworn and 200 civilian staff because for the Garda Síochána to work as a modern organisation it also needs to take in civilian staff working in specialist areas. The increase is still the same but the balance is different. A modern police force probably needs to have more civilian staff so that it can free up gardaí to do police work.

My question today relates to child protection and the ongoing inadequacies in that area. We cannot reassure ourselves that children are protected. The Taoiseach will be aware that the national review panel report was published yesterday following a leak. Co-incidentally, on the same day, a report from HIQA confirmed ongoing inadequacies in child protection. The summary report is dated December 2018. I understand it was completed at the end of November. Why did it take so long to publish it and why did it have to be leaked?

The report acknowledges the grave and heinous sexual abuse perpetrated on the three children while they were in the care of the State. It refers to serious errors of judgment, flawed assessment and decision-making and lack of management oversight. The report found that sufficient evidence existed at the time to indicate that the children should be moved. The measures taken by the social work department were deficient, to say the least. There is a whole list of deficiencies, including a safety plan that was put in place but really not implemented, and rarely referred to in subsequent meetings. My time is limited so I will not go on. Has the Taoiseach read the report and what will he do about it?

On the terms of reference of that report, I have serious concerns as to how this was done from day one. The final disclosure was in 2011. The national review panel got its referral in April 2016. It is now May 2019. There was a slight delay, it would appear, because somebody somewhere asked it to delay it. The times are not given, nor who asked for it. On top of that, there was no publication date. Yesterday, I raised it with the Minister, Deputy Zappone, who told me it was always going to be yesterday. Significantly, over the course of a year, in a series of questions asking when this would be published, I got no indication that it would be yesterday.

I refer to the most grave and heinous abuse. The response from Tusla, I have to say, was not reassuring when it referred to a point in time because that point in time is ongoing.

The report from HIQA was co-incidentally published on the same day. It looked at six national standards and assessed the operation of foster homes in three counties under those headings. Four were non-compliant and one was "major non-compliant" in relation to child protection and issues in relation to safety plans were ongoing. A number of other issues were identified, plus an absence of staff and a number of children who do not have a social worker. Could the Taoiseach tell me, without jargon and without a reply from whoever writes the speeches, in the first instance, what is his response to that summary report? Can he confirm what actions the Government will take and explain how this report did not come back to a Minister, given the serious nature of this, and to the Dáil for discussion so that we all could take comfort from the reassurance that children are protected?

The report of the national review panel was published yesterday. I have not had a chance to read it yet but I have it and I will certainly read it before the end of the week. These terrible, tragic and appalling events which befell these young women are almost unspeakable and hard for us to even think about or speak about as human beings. They are events, though, that occurred in 2007 and the period before that, and much has happened when it comes to child protection since then. Child protection was not much of a priority for previous Governments. In fairness to my predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, he made it a priority by establishing a dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs and by taking Tusla out of the HSE and establishing it as a stand-alone agency when it was something of an afterthought in previous times.

Since then, much has been done. Tusla was established as a stand-alone agency separate from the HSE and a Department of Children and Youth Affairs was carved out of the Department of Health and given full Cabinet status. We have had a children's rights referendum and we have acted on that, with meaningful legislation and mandatory reporting brought in not too long ago so that people have to report child abuse when it occurs. That was not the case in the past. When it comes to foster care, and at the heart of this is a foster care case, there were only three social workers looking after the children in foster care in that region at the time. Since then resources have been increased fivefold, by 500%. There are now 15 social workers working with foster care families in that region, making sure that everyone in foster care is assigned to a social worker. Much progress has been made on child protection in recent years, spearheaded by the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the former Minister, now MEP Frances Fitzgerald, before that, but there is always more that needs to be done and we acknowledge that. That is why the recommendations of this report will be taken seriously and will be responded to.

I am not one bit reassured by the Taoiseach's answer. It was not a point in time. It did not finish in 2007. It took until 2011 for a second child, who had been regularly raped, to come forward. The first child's allegation was deemed credible and the second child's allegation was deemed credible.

I know the Taoiseach is a busy man. Yesterday's report from HIQA in relation to Sligo, Leitrim and west Cavan confirmed that there are ongoing issues in relation to child protection. Perhaps somebody could read the report for the Taoiseach and point out the facts, including that the safety plan issue is still a problem and the allocation of social workers is still a problem.

On the review itself, the system - the social workers and management - failed to comply with their statutory obligations at the time. They have failed to comply with their statutory obligations on a repeated basis. Nobody has considered talking to the children who were in that family before these courageous children came forward and made their complaints. Did it occur to anyone to consider the children who were there previously to see if they were subjected to the same abuse?

On the terms of reference, has it occurred to the Government to ask how could a report of this significance take so long? How could a referral be made in April 2016 and how is it that we are talking about it in May 2019 as a result of a leak to RTÉ? RTÉ deserves "congratulations" from us, if that is an appropriate word. It was RTÉ's programme that led to a referral in the first place, not Tusla.

Finally, the Taoiseach might look at Charleton and other HIQA reports which state that Tusla is incapable of holding a mirror up for reflection. Charleton also pointed out that criminal prosecution should never be used as an excuse when there is a failure in child protection.

I am advised that the reviewers concluded that it was unlikely that the abuse could have been uncovered prior to the disclosures. Once the abuse was disclosed in 2007, there was sufficient evidence for the long-term foster children to have been removed from the family. This did not happen. It should have happened and the report calls out some poor decision-making in that regard. No abuse was found to have occurred after 2007. However, the reviewers highlighted that the safety plan was not effective and the main weaknesses related to the flaws in the management of the case. The complexity and seriousness of the credible allegation should have generated a high level co-ordinated and persistent response and the report refers to the prevalence of groupthink as a factor. The report is clear that social workers in the area were committed and often went above and beyond their brief to provide support.

The recommendations of the report are being closely examined and a number are already being implemented.

Changes have been made since 2007. Indeed, these events happened seven years before Tusla was established. I outlined in my previous reply what has happened since then.

It is important to be mindful, and I ask the House to pay attention to this, that a number of the young people involved in this case may still be extremely vulnerable. The past hurt and current well-being of all young women are a real concern. While one of the young people in this case has chosen to waive her anonymity, the others have not. There is legal protection of witnesses in such cases and it is understood that this remains in place as regards the other women involved. The summary report is understood not to compromise this legally protected anonymity. We need to ensure that none of us does that.

As far back as May 2017, this House voted to accept the motion that I and my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group brought forward, outlining the reforms needed to happen as regards the nursing home support scheme called fair deal. I thank Maura Canning from the IFA for all the support she gave us at that time and since then. Since then we have had numerous commitments from the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, who I accept is genuinely trying to progress the matter, that legislation to give effect to these changes is on the way.

However, other more serious matters have come to light during the intervening time. Analysis by Nursing Homes Ireland, NHI, revealed that the HSE is paying nursing homes up to seven times more than the fees being paid to private and voluntary counterparts which raises issues of competition and displacement of staff using state aid. This is totally unacceptable. This information only came to light after the HSE consistently refused to disclose and stonewalled as to the costs of care in its homes over a five-year period and would not give us answers. Now we know why. In the figures released, we see that the spend to provide care for 5,000 residents in nursing homes is approximately €366 million per annum whereas the equivalent spend to support 17,000 residents in private and voluntary nursing homes is just €600 million, which is not even double the earlier figure. There is something rotten here that has to be rooted out.

The Taoiseach must accept that such overpricing is threatening the sustainability of the entire fair deal scheme. Can the Taoiseach clarify if this is the reason for the delay in introducing the reforms? Something is holding it up. Is the HSE resisting this obvious threat to its revenue generating activities? Goodness knows the HSE is holding up enough issues and is underperforming in so many areas. It is outrageous to have rural people - farmers and business people - discriminated against in this appalling fashion and it is by no means a recent problem.

As far back as 2015, I called on the then Minister for Health, tú féin, Taoiseach, to explain to the south Tipperary participants in the fair deal scheme why they are paying, on average, €26,000 extra per year to access the scheme compared to participants in north Tipperary, all of whom are in the same county. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. It is almost ten months since July 2018 when Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, announced that the Cabinet had approved a proposal to change the treatment of farms and businesses under the scheme and to extend a three-year cap to farms and businesses. The Minister of State said at the time that he was looking forward to progressing changes in the Oireachtas in the autumn session. Can the Taoiseach please confirm if we are any nearer to progressing this matter, given the considerable delays that farm families and many thousands of other families have already had to endure? The situation is totally unfair.

The fair deal, or nursing home support, scheme is a very good scheme that has worked well and stood the test of time. I want to recognise the former Minister for Health, Mary Harney, and the Government of which she was a member, for bringing that through. It gives fair access to nursing home support to people when they need it. We are working very hard at the moment to ensure that we keep the turnaround time down to between four and six weeks, which is being achieved. The budget for this is approximately €1 billion a year, which is a huge amount of money which is being invested in nursing home care for our elderly, when they need it.

The heads of the Bill being brought forward by the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, are expected to go to Cabinet in June. That will ensure that the fair deal becomes a fairer deal for people who own a small business and for farmers-----

It is not a fair deal.

-----when it comes to the way it is being assessed. That legislation is overdue but we expect the heads to be at Cabinet in June, and we will see that through.

The Deputy also asked about the difference in cost between public and private nursing homes. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, is doing an analysis of that at the moment. It is important to bear in mind that we are not necessarily comparing like with like when one compares a public nursing home or community hospital with a private nursing home. Very often the public nursing home takes in a different profile of resident - often those who have much greater needs and need much greater care and attention. Given their acuity and need for more care, this requires more staff and more cost comes with that. It is important to compare like with like and comparing public to private nursing homes is like comparing private and public hospitals. It is not the same thing. Those with the highest and most expensive care needs are the people who tend to be in the public facilities.

Fair deal is a lovely name but it should be called unfair deal. It is daylight robbery of families and it is totally and inherently unfair. The Taoiseach said the heads of the Bill will be brought to Cabinet in June. How long more will it take after that? Will we be out knocking on doors and will the Taoiseach's Government be gone, with the unfairness and the discrimination against rural, farm families and ordinary small businesses still there? They are entitled to the same care.

I accept part of the Taoiseach's answer that there may be different needs and care levels in public and private nursing homes, but I will not accept it in full. There could not be that much discrimination or extra cost. It is outrageous and people are being milked high and dry. Farmers and business people need their assets as going concerns in order to work, to be able to pay their taxes, to provide for their families and to pay their employees. We cannot attack and strip away the resource of those assets year-on-year. It is totally and inherently unfair and discriminatory against rural families. I hope somebody challenges this because it is totally illegal. We have had enough of this. We fought hard in the programme for Government to get this issue changed and it beggars belief that it would take so long. The heads of the Bill were supposed to go to Cabinet a long time ago. The Taoiseach said they are going in June but what progress will be made and what will be the process after the heads go to Cabinet? How long more will this be delayed? How long more will this discrimination against rural and farm families and businesses continue?

I accept this is long promised and long overdue. We will get it done and see it through. The Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, assured me the heads will be before Cabinet in the month of June. It is nearly June now. After that it usually takes a few months for legislation to be drafted. The Bill will then be published. After that it is in the Deputy's hands, because he is a member of the Business Committee.

We will not delay it.

I do not control how long it takes to get through this House and the Seanad-----

It is a supply chain here.

-----but we will certainly play our part.