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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 1025 No. 4

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Last year, the parents of 18 babies born at Cork University Maternity Hospital were informed that their children's organs were sent to Belgium for incineration, without their knowledge or consent. This happened on two occasions between March and April 2020. The bereaved parents had believed that the organs of their babies, who had been subject to autopsy, would be cremated or buried in a sensitive and dignified manner and that they would be contacted before this happened. As we now know, none of that happened. These revelations were met with understandable public outrage and we can only ever imagine the extreme hurt and distress that these families have experienced.

A review of practices at Cork University Maternity Hospital was commenced at that time and a HSE internal audit to establish the organ-retention and disposal practices at public hospitals across the board. That audit, according to media reports, reveals that the inappropriate disposal of organs was still in use at that time, at University Hospital Limerick and our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Incredibly, the same month that the review got under way into the scandal at Cork University Maternity Hospital, the organs of two babies born in University Hospital Limerick were sent for incineration, again to Belgium.

The investigation has also uncovered that multiple public hospitals across the State have retained organs from children for more than the one year specified by HSE policy. This happened in hospitals in Dublin, Tullamore, Limerick, Waterford and Port Laoise. At Crumlin children's hospital, the organs of one child were kept, it seems, for more than 20 years. The breaches of care and dignity with regard to the treatment of organs are widespread and these revelations have emerged when the families affected by the initial scandal at Cork University Maternity Hospital are still waiting for answers.

These parents have been told on four separate occasions that there will be a delay in giving them the report of the review team despite the fact that the review is complete. These are parents who lost their babies in tragic circumstances and had to endure the heartache of hearing that their child's organs were disposed of, alongside medical waste. Ms Katie Quilligan is one of those. Her son, James, was one of the 18 babies and she says:

we are still waiting for answers... I don’t think I’ll be able to fully accept or process what happened until we get those answers. Waiting is like going through the grieving process all over again ... the HSE is letting us down.

I am sure that the Taoiseach agrees that all of this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that these parents are still kept in the dark. They were also promised the speedy delivery of legislation to protect the legal guidelines around the retention and disposal of human organs and tissue. The human tissue Bill was due to be published by the end of last year, but this too has been delayed and has caused stress and frustration. Tá teaghlaigh ag streachailt agus tá an Stát ag teip go dona orthu. Tá freagraí ag teastáil ó na teaghlaigh seo agus caithfidh an Rialtas reachtaíocht a chur i bhfeidhm atá ag teastáil chun a chinntiú nach féidir lena leithéid tarlú arís.

I am certain that everyone in this Dáil wants to make this right. I am certain that we need absolute assurances that these practices have ceased and that this is not currently happening in our hospitals. When will the parents affected by the scandal at Cork University Maternity Hospital be given the review report, which is now complete? When will that wider audit of hospitals beyond Cork be published?

I express my deepest sympathies to the families involved who, having experienced the tragedy of losing a beloved child or loved one, have that grief compounded by the wrong and inappropriate disposal of organs. It is unacceptable and very distressing for the families concerned. In many respects, it is incomprehensible given that there was a major inquiry nearly 20 years ago which covered every single hospital in the country in terms of post-mortem practice. Guidelines were established.

It is difficult to comprehend that hospitals are still, albeit not the same scale as prior to that inquiry, nonetheless engaging in practices such as incineration or retaining organs beyond the timelines that they are required to retain organs and that in certain instances, again, there was no proper consultation or engagement with parents or family members. This is unacceptable. The HSE did the audit. At least I take something from that in that it did a robust audit and has revealed the latest incidence with regard to hospitals in Limerick, Drogheda and elsewhere. That should be published without delay.

On the review in Cork, the need of the family for transparency should be absolutely prioritised by the HSE. I understand the review team is currently engaging legal opinion on the draft report before sending it to participants, in accordance with factual accuracy checking and fair procedures, and I am told the final draft will be shared with the families for input on factual accuracy checking and so on. That needs to be accelerated because much grief and stress has been caused to the parents in Cork University Maternity Hospital case. This should not be happening in today's world. Arising out of the audit, a variety of work is under way on the national women's and infants' health programme. It is leading a review of the provision of perinatal pathology services. A post mortem examination services group has been established to review and update the current standards by December 2022 and a project group has been established to monitor the implementation of this audit's recommendations.

The human tissue Bill needs to be published. I spoke to the Minister this morning and I have spoken to the Attorney General. I made it clear I want that legislation published in September. There are complexities applying to this legislation but the general scheme was published a number of years ago. It has been ongoing now for a long time. There are implications for transplantation because of significant new policies in respect of facilitating the retrieval of organs in respect of transplants and we want that to be a positive dimension to this. That said, the Bill must be published and needs to be debated in this House. We need, with the co-operation of all Members of this House, to get that Bill enacted. That is a commitment I am making. I spoke to the Minister for Health this morning and I have spoken to the Attorney General as well about it being all hands on deck now to get this done once and for all.

I very much welcome that. I think we are of one mind across the Dáil that all this is completely unacceptable. As the Taoiseach has described, the families have been through losing a precious child, a loved one, and then experienced the horror of discovering that their organs were disposed of in this manner, alongside, as I said, medical waste. This can never, ever happen again. We need to have an assurance here in the Oireachtas, and in turn to reassure the public, that this is not current practice in any hospital in the State. People deserve that reassurance.

For the purposes of clarity, the Taoiseach is calling for the report of the review to be shared with the families without further delay, for the publication of the audit by the HSE without delay and for the publication of the legislation by September. All of that is very welcome. By the way, we are aware of the complexities around transplantation and the absolute necessity of getting the law right. The Taoiseach will, I am sure, have the full co-operation of the entire House but we need speed now. We need to sort this out for those families.

Aontaím leis an Teachta. Tá sé dochreidte go bhfuil sé seo fós ag tarlú sa lá atá inniu ann. Déanaim comhbhrón arís leis na teaghlaigh go léir atá ag fulaingt de dheasca an mhéid a tharla. Caithfimid dul i ngleic leis seo agus an scéal a réiteach.

On the review being shared with the families in Cork, I have asked that be done as quickly as possible and that the audit by the HSE be published. I understand it has been released via freedom of information requests. That is one understanding I had this morning. I can confirm that or clarify that, but it should be published in full. The Minister is very anxious the human tissue Bill is published, notwithstanding the complexities and so on, and that we get this done this autumn.

This week we are seeing a new low when it comes to rushed, reckless, haphazard and confused legislation from the Government. Last September the housing committee was asked to do pre-legislative scrutiny of the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2022. It ran to 18 pages. More than ten months later, late last Thursday, an amended version of the Bill was circulated by Government. It ran to 60 pages, with the addition of 48 pages of amendments. The Bill, which the Government has sat on for almost an entire year, had mysteriously tripled in size.

Some of the proposed amendments on challenging decisions of An Bord Pleanála in the courts were extremely far-reaching. For example, one provision would allow An Bord Pleanála to change retrospectively decisions that were wrong in fact or in law after the court challenge to the decision had been lodged. A person or group would take a High Court challenge, which is a highly onerous and expensive undertaking, and discover mid-proceedings that An Bord Pleanála had changed the decision on which the entire proceedings were based. The Irish Examiner informed us this morning that particular provision has been withdrawn. The Government did not bother telling the Opposition that. My colleague, Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, had to prise that information from the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, in the House this morning.

Other changes to the manner in which the courts deal with planning challenges remain in the Bill, along with a host of other problematic amendments. The fact the Government would try to shoehorn these kinds of planning amendments into a Bill that is supposed to deal with non-consequential issues when there are three separate investigations under way into An Bord Pleanála really beggars belief. The controversy swirling around An Bord Pleanála has already resulted in the resignation of the deputy chair, Mr. Paul Hyde, late last Friday. While he is a central figure to the three current investigations, his resignation will not end the problems of An Bord Pleanála, some of which have their origins in the bypassing of the planning authorities, thereby changing the nature of the planning appeals board. That change also happened before a recess in December 2016, when the then Minister, Deputy Coveney, introduced strategic housing developments, SHDs, which were an idea brought to him by the construction industry. The industry commented afterwards that he had introduced their ideas lock, stock and barrel.

Why is the Government ramming this legislation through the Dáil when its own review into the planning laws has not yet been completed. Will he tell us why the Government sat on this Bill for an entire year and only brought forward the 48 pages of amendments this week, just before the recess? Given the scandal that has consumed An Bord Pleanála, does the Taoiseach think it is wise to progress these changes before the reviews into its operation have been completed?

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. There are two separate issues here but I accept there is a connection in terms of overall planning. On the amendments coming forward to the Planning and Development Act, four sets of amendments were initially considered for inclusion by Government in the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. All four sets of amendments were identified by Government for inclusion in the next available planning Bill, which was the Planning and Development (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, and these amendments were flagged in the Minister's Second Stage speech on the Bill in Seanad Éireann on 6 April. The legal drafting of the specific amendments was not ready for inclusion in the Bill when it was before Seanad Éireann and therefore the amendments are being introduced on Committee Stages in Dáil Éireann.

Two further amendments were more recently identified for inclusion where the Government is anxious to introduce new regulatory rules on short-term letting and a number of streamlining-type amendments to judicial review provisions in the planning Act as soon as possible. There is a current supply shortage in the private rental sector. Many people in the House have raised the issue of short-term lettings and the need to tighten that up to create a greater availability of supply in the rental sector, specifically in rent pressure zones, which are the areas of highest housing demand, thereby delivering increased units to the sector and stabilising rents. There is also a need to improve efficiencies in terms of the way in which judicial review cases are handled in the courts.

There will be a more comprehensive planning Bill in the autumn, but the consistent call in this House has been for rapid action on housing to enable greater supply in the housing market. Department officials briefed Members of the Seanad on the proposed amendments, except for the short-term letting one, on 25 May and latterly briefed the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on the proposed amendments on 11 July in advance of Committee Stage in the Dáil set to take place today.

The issue relating to An Bord Pleanála is serious but we must allow for due process in that regard. The Minister has commissioned a review by Mr. Remy Farrell, senior counsel, into certain allegations made against an individual in respect of his previous role as deputy chairperson of the board. The senior counsel is now due to report to the Minister by 29 July 2022. As the Deputy knows, An Bord Pleanála is also undertaking its own internal review, and the Office of the Planning Regulator has announced it is commencing a review into An Bord Pleanála's systems and procedures. We are going to consider legislation in respect of how ordinary members are recruited into An Bord Pleanála.

The Taoiseach talks about due process in An Bord Pleanála. Regarding the amendment the Government has now withdrawn under pressure, and it is not the only one, why would the Government even think of bringing that forward? It beggars belief when the Taoiseach is talking about due process. This is not the proper way to deal with legislation. We have a Second Stage, a Committee Stage and a Report Stage for very good reason. The idea that a Bill would triple in size after Second Stage and we get very late-stage amendments is absolutely outrageous. There is permission for 70,000 units under strategic housing development plan, only 13,000 of which have commenced. The CSO figures for 2005 show that 86,000 dwelling units were delivered that year. That did not require strategic housing developments. The cutting out of the citizens from a process or restricting their access to that process is highly problematic. It is a part of the reason some of the judicial reviews are happening. This is no way to deal with the issue. Will the Government withdraw the more offensive amendments, particularly amendment No. 26?

Many of these amendments are not offensive and are quite pragmatic. We should always work to streamline our planning system and make it more efficient. Most people are saying it takes too long to get anything through the planning system. Judicial reviews need streamlining. That does not stop anybody having the right to go to judicial review. We need to examine the system because everybody in the House is talking about supply. Everyone wants projects built quickly, including the Deputy, when it suits.

That is true of affordable hosing.

The Deputy is the first person in the House to ask why this and that have not been done. Any State agency asked about the vital infrastructure that is needed in the country will say planning delays are the most significant ones. It can take two or three years. In maritime area planning, it will take eight to ten years to get an offshore wind energy project done. That is too long. Collectively, we need to work our way through this because projects are taking too long. We have changed the strategic development provisions. The Minister has changed how that works and we learn lessons as we go on. Let us not escape the reality of how lengthy our planning process has turned out to be.

Over the weekend, I met with members of the Kerry wing of the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, Mr. Kenny Jones, chairman, Ms Mary Fleming and Mr. Darren Sheehy, to discuss the sector emission ceilings for the agricultural sector. Irish agriculture is one of the most sustainable in the world despite media commentary suggesting otherwise. Irish farmers produce food of the highest quality with a low environmental footprint. Farming and the wider agrifood sector are the backbone of economic activity in rural Ireland. It is Ireland's largest indigenous sector, providing employment to more than 300,000 people, directly and indirectly. Despite wider economic challenges, exports from the agrifood sector were €14.5 billion in 2019.

The Government has indicated the sectoral emissions ceiling range for agriculture will be the equivalent to a percentage emissions reduction of between 22% and 30% compared with 2018. Achieving a reduction of 22% will be extremely challenging for the sector but any higher than 22% is likely to have a devastating economic and social impact on rural Ireland. The IFA is adamant that the ceiling for agriculture should be set no higher than an equivalent of a reduction in emissions of 22% compared with 2018 levels. The climate action plan provides a pathway to achieve a 22% emissions reduction through improved efficiencies and the adoption of new technologies and new practices. There is no pathway to a 30% emissions reduction that does not result in a significant reduction in cattle numbers at the level of individual farms. A 22% emissions reduction would recognise the technical challenges associated with the monitoring, reporting and verifying of emission reductions in agriculture, the timeframe required for the wide-scale adoption of new technologies, and the unique ability of the sector to sequester carbon and offset emissions through on-farm renewables that would support other sectors to meet their emissions reduction ceilings. The IFA report shows that an emission reduction of 22% could have very significant consequences for the sector with a need to reduce the numbers of livestock, even if the mitigation measures set out in the climate action plan are adopted. However, the consequences of a 30% reduction would be devastating, with a 12% reduction in livestock numbers, a drop of €3.8 million in output and a loss of more than 56,000 jobs, predominantly rural-based.

As set out in the Food Vision 2030 report, there must be a balance between economic, social and environmental sustainability. This is most important because we must ensure we protect our family farms and that, whatever happens, it will not lead to a reduction in our cattle numbers, because that would be devastating to the industry.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue and accept the sincerity of the case he is making in respect of the climate action plan and the need to reduce emission ceilings. I think the Deputy agrees there is an overall need to create emission ceilings and to reduce emissions in all sectors of the economy, including agriculture. It is important the Irish Government supports the Irish agricultural industry. We also need balance in the debate and should consider words such as "devastating", "catastrophic" and so on. The dairy industry has grown exponentially over the past decade or so. It has been going extremely well since the removal of the milk quota. This year will be significant for the dairy side of the industry, given the global situation. That is the reality of where we are coming from. That is the base.

We are providing substantial funding. We recently announced a new and pioneering €1.5 billion agri-climate rural environment scheme, ACRES, that will pay farmers up to €10,500 per farm, on average. There is funding for biodiversity, for example, and the introduction of results-based actions and the proposed ACRES will allow for qualitative payments for biodiversity, which is anticipated to reward high-quality habitats and support the delivery of improved outcomes from lower-quality habitats over time. The scheme will address water quality. There are farm sustainability planning processes. ACRES will target action in various areas, such as riparian margins, unharvested cereal margins, planting new hedgerows and trees, results-based low-input grassland, extensively grazed pasture and environmental management of arable fallow. It will also touch on climate measures around water quality and reducing chemical nitrogen usage. Actions to be taken through ACRES will include catch crops, low-input peat grassland and the planting of trees. All of that will make a significant contribution to the achievement of the agricultural measures under the land use change and forestry chapter of the climate action plan. A lot is being done and much investment is going into agriculture to assist the industry.

I agree with my colleague, Deputy Cahill, who has said we should have a specific technology fund to help agriculture, and farmers in particular, to adapt to new technologies that would also help in the reduction of emissions. That has to be worked out a bit more but it is an interesting idea that the Deputy has championed.

Deputy Healy-Rae is correct that there is work under way in respect of emission ceilings. In the coming weeks, sectoral emission ceilings will be established for the agricultural sector and all sectors, and that will give clarity to the sector. I understand where agricultural interests want the baseline to be and what level they want it set at. The Government's objective remains that, whatever the ceiling, it will allow for the sector to maintain food production in our beef, dairy, sheep and pig sectors.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, has been very consistent in this regard. I think the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, has approached this in a very balanced, effective way in terms of marrying the challenge of food security in the world with doing it as efficiently as we can from a carbon emissions perspective.

I also wish to point out that 2,000 ha of land was planted last year – it should have been 8,000 ha. There is over a two-year delay in getting planting permits due to a backlog in the felling licences being issued. Farm forestry nationally has collapsed. Recently, Deputy Cahill, who is an excellent Chairperson of the Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine, told members that the Government would be lucky if it hits 20% of its own planting targets. This is absolutely ironic, as the Green tail is shaking the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael dog to death.

The Deputy means "wagging".

Between all of them, they are doing nothing positive for the forestry sector.

I am delighted that the Taoiseach thinks it is funny. The foresters and the people who want to plant land in Ireland do not think it is one bit funny. They think the Taoiseach and the Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, Senator Hackett, are failures. They think they have done nothing positive for their sector, and they actually have not.

We are only two years in government. We inherited a massive backlog. Why? Be honest and tell the truth now and again and stop the political nonsense. There were individuals out in society that objected to every planning application on forestry, including felling, planting and harvesting. The Deputy knows that as well as I know that. He should not be trying to blame Government or politicians or scapegoating the Minister of State at the Department, which is a wrong thing to do. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is two years in office. Suddenly, certain people politically want to scapegoat her wrongly. We all know what happened.

We are in a democratic society and people can challenge every single application in the courts. What we did was we changed the legislation and the backlog has eased considerably. The Deputy is a reasonable man and should have acknowledged that the backlog has eased very significantly because of the measures we have taken. I acknowledge, that said, we have an awful lot more to do to get the planting up to where we want to get it to. However, one has to work with the basis one came in with. This Government is determined to do everything we can to increase afforestation dramatically and planting properly in terms of native tree woodlands and so on. We need more of that. However, people were literally objecting right, left and centre to every application for planting and that was wrong too.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, was the biggest one.