Commencement Matters

Regional Airports

On the first matter, I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Paschal Donohoe.

It is nice to be making history today with the first Commencement matter. I welcome the new changes. I also welcome the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe. We were going to discuss this issue before Christmas, but the Minister had other arrangements on the day I tabled the motion. I thank him for coming to the House to discuss it on our first day back.

I support regional airports because they are very important for local and regional economies, especially in the south east. Waterford Airport which serves the entire south-east region, not just Waterford, is important for business, enterprise, tourism and the economy generally in the south east. It has been providing air transport services for the region for the past 30 years. It currently provides a number of scheduled services. The Minister will be aware that Flybe is withdrawing all of its services in the first quarter of this year. This will create a difficulty for the management and the board of the airport. They are actively seeking alternative carriers.

Waterford Airport is a base for search and rescue operations. The Irish Coast Guard's Sikorsky S92 which is based at the airport provides emergency rescue cover for the entire south and east of Ireland, including medical evacuation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The airport also has an aero club with between 80 and 100 members. Obviously, corporate jets use the airport for the purposes of doing business with enterprise in the region. Genzyme, Sanofi, Audi, NuVasive and West Pharma are among the companies that have used the airport for these purposes. It is a hugely important regional airport for the south east.

Passenger traffic at the airport for the full calendar year of 2014 increased by 17.9% by comparison with the 2013 figure. This shows that the airport is serving its catchment area. There is certainly potential at the airport and people want to use it. I met representatives of the airport's management, including its chief executive officer and its general manager, last week. They are very grateful for the operational expenditure subvention they receive from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the capital expenditure subvention they also get. They have not received any capital expenditure investment for infrastructural development since 2007.

Everybody accepts that we are in straitened times. Everybody accepts that the capital funding of all sorts of project was put on hold and frozen because of the economic situation in which we found ourselves. In 2007, a previous Minister for Transport promised under Transport 21 that €22.3 million would be provided for the airport. This funding was to be used to extend the runway to 2,300 m, which would allow much bigger aircraft to use the airport. I think the airport accepts that such an extension is not possible at this time. It has, therefore, opted for a slimmed-down version. I understand it has received planning permission for an extension of up to 350 m. That will make it somewhat easier for the airport to get alternative carriers with different types of aircraft to use the airport.

Can the Minister remind us of what funding has gone into the airport from the State? Can he give us his own views on regional airports and Waterford Airport, in particular? Is he aware of the issues with scheduled services at the airport that I have mentioned? What level of funding, if any, is he prepared to put in place at the airport?

I thank the Senator for raising this difficult issue. I am pleased to be here for the first execution of the new Commencement debate in the Seanad. If we had dealt with this matter under the previous system on the date the Senator had hoped to have such a discussion, I think the debate would have happened at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. This is a better way for the him and me to handle the matter.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has been informed by Waterford Airport that Flybe will be withdrawing its services with effect from the end of March 2015. Flybe is the only commercial operator using the airport. It operates services on the Manchester and Birmingham routes. It is understood the withdrawal of Flybe services is not limited to Waterford Airport, as at least four other European airports are similarly affected. This withdrawal comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Waterford Airport.

The load factors on the two Flybe routes have seen a significant improvement last year with passenger numbers up almost 18% compared to 2013. Therefore, the news of the withdrawal of these services was most unexpected for the airport.

Plans to address the reduction of services or introduce new routes are entirely commercial in nature and matters for the board and management at the airport. Therefore, I do not have a role in such matters. However, I understand that the airport is moving to identify a replacement carrier to continue the routes after March next year. I am aware of the challenges facing the airport arising from these developments in addition to Aer Arann, now Stobart Air, withdrawing its London-Luton route in 2013.

In recognition of Waterford Airport's contribution to balanced regional development, the Exchequer has provided support for the airport under the regional airports programme 2011-14, through the CAPEX and OPEX schemes. The OPEX scheme which deals with operating expenditure provides compensation for subventible losses; in other words, the costs incurred in providing core airport services in so far as these costs cannot be fully met by prudent commercial management. Waterford Airport received more than €1 million in funding under this scheme in 2014. This brings the total OPEX funding granted to the airport since 2006 under this programme and the previous programme to €11.3 million.

The CAPEX scheme provides for funding for safety and security projects at the regional airports to ensure tour airports comply with the necessary domestic and international regulations. In 2014 alone, more than €500,000 was paid to the airport for safety and security related projects, bringing the total capital funding paid to it since 2006 under this and the previous programme to €6.4 million.

In November 2011 funds were allocated under the CAPEX scheme for the construction of a runway end safety area, RESA, which involves the purchase of land at the southern end of the airport to facilitate this work. The work is regarded as essential for safety purposes by the Irish Aviation Authority, IAA, to ensure compliance with safety regulations. However, the CPO process for the land purchase was referred for arbitration and the hearing has now been delayed until April 2015. The exact amount to be paid for the lands will be determined through the arbitration process.

I should point out that the CAPEX scheme does not cover developmental projects at the airport such as the proposed runway expansion. I understand the airport board is committed to raising the necessary funds with assistance from local businesses and local authorities in the region for the project. The loss of Flybe's services, with the need to replace the key London-Luton route, means that the airport is facing a very challenging future. I urge all concerned to work together to arrive at a successful outcome for the airport which, in turn, will benefit the business and tourism sectors in the region.

I welcome the Minister's response and acknowledge the subvention paid by the State to the airport for many years. Perhaps I might take the Minister back to the point I made about the promises made under Transport 21 and figure of the €22.5 million. Everybody accepts at this point that is not attainable, but an application has been made to the new Waterford City and County Council to extend the runway by 350 m. It is a live application. It will help the airport to position itself to attract larger aircraft and make it easier to get new routes which is what we want to achieve, something of which the Minister is supportive. We are aware of media reports whereby Knock Airport has been promised 90% infrastructural funding. If it is good enough for Knock Airport, it should be good enough for Waterford Airport. I impress on the Minister the importance of regional airports, in particular the importance of Waterford Airport to the economy not only of Waterford but the entire south east.

I am absolutely aware of the importance of regional airports to national economic development and also, more particularly, to regional economic development. I have an appreciation of the role the airport has played not only in tourism in the area but also for the business community. The Senator named some of the companies that make great use of it.

On the specific question the Senator put to me on the status of the proposed extension to the runway and any commitment in respect of it from my Department, I confirm that €405,000 has been approved under the capital expenditure scheme I outlined, the CAPEX programme, for the purchase of land for it. The reason that authorisation was made was in appreciation of some of the points the Senator was making.

Having regard to the limitations of the scheme and broader European Union law, I am not able to invest in some of the infrastructure works required. However, this is the reason local authorities and local businesses in the area are working to find funding.

On the Senator's particular comment on my support for the runway, as I have stated, my Department has provided €400,000 for the land purchase. For the Senator's information, if one looks at operational expenditure in 2014 alone and the amount of funding made available, over €1 million was made available to Waterford Airport to meet the needs in that respect. In total, since 2011, €4.6 million has been made available to the airport to meet operational expenditure. That is funding it needed and for which it met the criteria. Where possible, we provided support for all of the work being advanced. I am aware of the challenges being faced, given the loss of Flybe and Stobart services. However, I do know that the board is responding to try to find a replacement service.

Health Services Provision

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar. I understand Senator Thomas Byrne is sharing time with Senator John Whelan.

I thank the Minister for coming to the Seanad and wish him the best. I will speak about a young man, Mr. John Duggan-----

I ask the Senator to refrain from naming people in the House.

The gentleman in question is here in the first seat beside the door on the front row of the Visitors Gallery. He is a young man from Bellewstown, County Meath and deserves the chance of a normal life; indeed, the chance of life. He was diagnosed with paroxysmal nocturnal haemoglobinuria, PHN, in 2010. It is an extremely rare blood disorder which is characterised by the breakdown of red blood cells, as I am sure the Minister will know only too well being a doctor. I understand about one third of patients with PHN die within five years. In John's case, PHN is resulting in him having blood transfusions every six weeks or so. He is lethargic and greatly fears blood clots. He describes his prognosis in his own words:

I am getting worse and worse. There is every chance I will have a heart attack or kidney failure. A blood clot is definitely coming and this is not a time for messing around.

There is a treatment available for PHN, as the Minister will know. It is an expensive treatment - I acknowledge it is expensive - called Soliris. The chemical name is eculizumab which has been shown to normalise life expectancy for those receiving it. As I understand it - this is part of the crux of the matter - ten patients in Ireland have already been prescribed Soliris, funded by the HSE, and I understand from contacts Mr. Duggan has had with some of them that it is working very well. Mr. Duggan and one other patient of whom I am aware - I am sure it is a person of whom Senator John Whelan is aware - have been refused it.

This strikes me as fundamentally wrong, unethical and unfair. How can the State arbitrarily decide that Mr. Duggan is different from those already being given the medicine by it? How are these decisions made?

May I quote Mr. Duggan's GP, Dr. Oliver Lynn?

I ask the Senator to refrain from naming people in the House because they are not here to defend themselves.

His name has already been mentioned. He said he would urge the HSE to consider providing for this young man the correct treatment before he reached catastrophic thrombosis. I will not name his consultant haematologists but will quote them. His consultant said that, given the overwhelming evidence that eculizumab was the only effective therapy for PHN and that the HSE already funded eculizumab therapy for ten patients, they believed there was a very strong moral and ethical argument the HSE should agree to fund eculizumab. I ask the Minister, his officials, the relevant body and the HSE to please reconsider the decision. Please give this man and the other person whom I know is affected the chance of life. Please do not tell him and his wife, Aileen, that there is no hope for them.

I am particularly heartened to see the Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar. I am grateful to him for taking these questions from me and Senator Thomas Byrne. It is not unfair to say the Minister is regarded as one of the most forthright, upstanding and decent politicians of all time. His reputation and credibility precede him. I am not saying this, in any way, as a charm offensive, but I know that he is a straight-talker who will do anything that can, and should, be done. In that regard, we appeal for fairness, natural justice and basic equity of medical provision for the handful of people in the country who have been diagnosed with the rare blood disorder PNH, including Ms Mary Gorman from Ballinakill in my neighbourhood.

I have already explained the position to Senator Thomas Byrne. I ask the Senator to refrain from naming people in the House.

I respect that but Ms Gorman has travelled here today from County Laois to be with us. She has gone public having suffered in silence for the past two years in what has turned out to be the vain hope the HSE would address her medication and treatment, as recommended by her consultant team and haematology team at St. James's Hospital, the reputation of which is second-to-none in the world, as is the work being carried out there. It does not lightly prescribe and recommend this treatment which first became available to ten patients in this country, as Senator Thomas Byrne said, as far back as 2010. It is proving to be technically excellent and a life-saving intervention. There is no other way to put it. It is beyond me how we can continue to stand over making fish of one and flesh of another. There is no equity to it. Notwithstanding the moral bankruptcy of the exorbitant fees the pharmaceutical company which manufactures Soliris charges, the State has to intervene and make the best possible treatment available to Ms Mary Gorman and the handful of people who have this rare condition. We appeal to the Minister. One word from him to the HSE could resolve this issue. That is what we appeal for.

I thank the Senators for raising this important issue. As they will know, I cannot comment on individual cases and make no decisions on individual patients. As there are no patients' charts on my desk, my remarks relate to the issue at hand, not any individual patient.

The HSE has statutory responsibility for the decisions on pricing and reimbursement of medicinal products under the community drugs scheme in accordance with the provisions of the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013. This requires consideration of a range of statutory criteria to reimbursing any medicine, including clinical need, effectiveness, costs and the resources available to the HSE. The decisions on which medicines are reimbursed by the taxpayer are made on objective, scientific and economic grounds by the HSE on the advice of the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics in St. James's Hospital. They are not political or ministerial decisions, nor should they be.

The drug eculizumab, or Soliris to give it its brand name, is indicated for the treatment of patients with paroxysmal nocturnal haemoglobinuria. It is one of the most expensive drugs in the world.

I understand that in 2010 the HSE entered into an interim access with evidence development agreement, a sort of trial, between the company Alexion Pharma and St. James's Hospital to treat ten patients with this drug. The interim agreement was put in place with the expectation that evidence would emerge which would assist with the future decision on making this drug available.

The HSE received an application for the inclusion of eculizumab in the general medical services, GMS, and community drugs schemes. In accordance with agreed procedures, the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics conducted a pharmacoeconomic evaluation of eculizumab. I have that evaluation from October 2013. It concludes that there is evidence that the medicine is a treatment for adults and patients with paroxysmal nocturnal haemoglobinuriam, that it reduces transfusion requirements and that there is weaker evidence that it reduces the risk of thrombosis, renal failure and mortality. Furthermore, evidence of clinical benefit in the treatment of patients with PNH is limited to patients with a history of transfusions. It also concluded that the total cost per patient per year of €437,247 would have a cumulative gross budget impact over five years estimated at €33 million. In addition, the manufacturer did not include an economic model as part of its submission and failed to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of the therapy. Consequently, the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics was unable to recommend reimbursement of the product under the community drugs scheme.

The HSE has been engaging with the company for some time to arrive at a price that would assist it in its desire to fund this medicine for as many patients as possible within available resources. I am informed that engagement with the company has been concluded and the HSE is considering the outcome of that engagement. It is regrettable that to date the company has not been able to provide this drug at a more sustainable price for the HSE to reflect the clinical evidence. Nonetheless, the door is not closed to a new medicine and it remains open to the company to come back with new evidence, a new price, or both.

The HSE and I fully understand the concerns of patients about the availability of this drug and every effort is being made to achieve a satisfactory outcome. While I appreciate that some may take the view that the taxpayer should reimburse every licensed medicine for whatever the price the drug company demands, the better interests of the health service, the entire body of patients in the country and the taxpayer require that we only reimburse the most effective medicines and only do so at a fair price.

A brief question, please.

I will make a brief comment. There are significant differences between what the Minister read and what is contained in his script. He completely changed the meaning of one sentence and read out additional information. I am not complaining to him, but if one only had the script-----

I think it may state "now", but it should read "not".

Yes. The Minister also read another paragraph which put a bit more meat on the bones. I appreciate that he does not deal with individual cases, but there are so few such cases that they must come under consideration. If he is looking for evidence of a history of transfusions in a case, that is certainly the position in the case of the person about whom I spoke. The Minister stated the HSE was considering the outcome of the engagement. Does that mean that people should be awaiting a decision or has a decision been made? That is my follow-up question. I appeal to the Minister is the nicest possible way because I do not want to be political, critical or anything like that on an issue such as this that affects people's lives. I ask him to please look at it. There is a fundamental unfairness in that ten people have been given this drug. I do not know the terms of the agreement with the company for them, but they have been given the drug. They have the chance of life. I ask the Minister to, please, give it to the others who badly need it.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I was glad to hear him say the door was not closed. However, time is of the essence. The conduct of the pharmaceutical company is despicable in this regard. I urge the Minister to use his good offices to ask the HSE to engage with urgency on this and come to a positive conclusion with urgency. People's lives are at risk and we must help them if we can.

The HSE national drugs committee and the HSE as a body corporate are always open to pharmaceutical companies to make new or revised applications. Members may be interested to know that Alexion as a company has a revenue of €1.15 billion, had profits of €253 million and equity of €2.4 billion. Its chief executive officer is paid €12 million a year. In Belgium in 2011 government and opposition politicians alike alleged that the company was guilty of moral blackmail when it was discovered by De Standaard, a newspaper in that country, that it had hired a PR company to help a nine-year old child who had been denied the drug by the Belgian authorities.

The parents of the boy believed they were being helped by a patients' organisation and were not told that a PR company was behind it. That is the kind of thing we are dealing with in these cases.

There is no PR company in this case - none whatsoever.

There may not be, but there was in Belgium.

I do not suggest there is in this case. This is a company that is very aggressive in the way it prices its medicines. The door is never closed to a new medicine. The company can present new evidence, a better price, or both. I call on the Seanad to stand behind the taxpayer in the interests of patients as a whole and support the HSE national drugs committee in its efforts to ensure a fair price for this medicine. Even though I have no direct role in this matter and do not make decisions under legislation, I am, of course, happy to discuss the matter in the Seanad and there will be a similar question in the Dáil tomorrow. However, I suggest to Senators that the Joint Committee on Health and Children might call in representatives of Alexion to help in a way that might be most effective by putting pressure on the company to do right by taxpayers and patients.

Medical Card Eligibility

I welcome the Minister. The matter I raise relates to Huntington's disease. A presentation was made to the Joint Committee on Health and Children last Thursday by Dr. Niall Pender, principal clinical neuropsychologist at Beaumont Hospital. Huntington's disease is an inherited, progressive degenerative brain disease, for which there is no cure. In Ireland approximately 700 families are affected by the disease and they have no access to special services. The neurological consequences of Huntington's disease make those affected extremely vulnerable. Behavioural and psychiatric changes lead to fracturing of normal family supports and those affected are at increased risk of serious injury, homelessness, suicide, drug and alcohol misuse and exploitation. There is no known treatment to slow down or cure the pace of neurodegeneration which generally leads to death over a 20-year period after clinical diagnosis. The clinical manifestations of the disease vary widely, but they generally include dysfunction in cognition, mood and voluntary motor control. There is no dedicated treatment team for patients with Huntington's disease in Ireland and it is in that context that I have raised the matter.

Last Saturday I spent some time with a family filling in an application form for a medical card. The wife must provide full-time care for her husband who has Huntington's disease. On the basis of income, it seems they will not qualify for a medical card, yet it is clear that they need it on the basis of what they have to go through. For instance, the clinic they use is located in Dublin, which necessitates travel there every so often. Another issue is access to medication. The wife is not looking for carer's allowance; all she asks is that they be given a medical card. Their only source of income is a pension. Given the small number of people affected, when dealing with medical card applications the Health Service Executive must take the disease into account when assessing entitlement. I accept that people might not fulfil the qualifying criteria financially, but the disease will not go away and there is no cure, although doctors might be able to stabilise the condition for a period. I have asked the Joint Committee on Health and Children to correspond with the HSE's medical card application office to ask that Huntington's disease be recognised and that when applications for medical cards are made people not be put through the appeals process or made to go back to the drawing board if they are unsuccessful. I urge the Minister to make the HSE aware that this condition should be given serious recognition when applications are made for medical cards.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

Under the Health Act 1970, as amended, eligibility for health services is based primarily on residency and means. The Senator will be aware of the publication of the report of the expert panel on medical need for medical card eligibility and the medical card process review in November 2014. A key recommendation of the expert panel was that a means test should remain the main qualifier for a medical card. The panel concluded that it would not be feasible, desirable, ethical or just to list medical conditions in order of priority as a means of determining medical card eligibility.

Discretion continues to be an integral part of the medical card assessment process. If an applicant's means are above the financial thresholds as set out in the national guidelines, the HSE routinely examines for indications of medical or social circumstances which might result in undue financial hardship in arranging medical services and, exercising discretion, may grant eligibility for a medical card on that basis.

The Senator will no doubt be aware that the temporary reinstatement of discretionary medical cards has been extended and holders of discretionary medical cards, including the terminally ill, are no longer included in random reviews. The Senator may be interested to know that the number of discretionary medical cards in circulation has increased from about 50,000 to 75,000, in part due to the reforms announced by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I last year, although the implementation of the ten actions remains a work in progress.

I am aware that the HSE has developed more integrated and sensitive processing of applications, involving greater exchange of information between the central assessment office and the local health offices in relation to people's medical circumstances and needs. I can also advise the Senator that the HSE funds a range of community services and supports for persons with Huntington's disease. The HSE's role is to apply a multidisciplinary team approach which includes the provision of health and personal supports and incorporates hospital and primary care and community services. In this context, people with Huntington's disease receive interventions from a wide range of services and facilities, either directly from the HSE or through a range of voluntary service providers. One such voluntary service provider is the Huntington's Disease Association of Ireland,which works in partnership with the HSE to ensure all of the resources available for people with disabilities are used in the most effective manner possible.

The HSE provides assisted living services, including personal assistant services, and therapeutic assistance, including physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, as well as a range of medical interventions. People with Huntington's disease may be eligible for assistive devices such as medical or surgical aids and appliances that facilitate or maintain mobility or functional independence and assessments are carried out by a range of multidisciplinary staff.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am raising this matter in the context of what has occurred in recent weeks. Applications were made to the HSE's medical card office by people with serious illnesses, yet discretionary cards were not granted, on which there has been quite a lot of media comment. I fully accept what the Minister said about Huntington's disease because I have dealt with another family on this matter. When the health and social services did become involved, they provided a comprehensive package which was extremely beneficial for the family.

As regards discretionary medical cards, there is a lack of understanding within the HSE of particular medical conditions. It is making a judgment on a financial basis rather than based on medical conditions. For instance, if a person only submits a GP report for assessment, in nine out of ten cases his or her application for a discretionary card will be refused. However, if a medical consultant's report is submitted, the applicant has a greater chance of obtaining a medical card. That is one of the issues I have noticed.

Because such a small number of people suffer from Huntington's disease, the HSE should highlight the issue with staff in order that they will be aware of the condition. In that way, they would apply discretion rather than forcing people through the appeals process.

I studied this matter a lot last year and have considered it repeatedly since. The conclusion I have come to - I still take this view - is that until we have universal health care and everyone is entitled to health care, one will always have anomalies and injustices. There will always be somebody who is just above the threshold and does not meet the assessment criteria.

However, we are trying to improve the system. That is what the ten actions the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, and I announced last year were all about. Among these actions was the establishment of a clinical advisory group which will give the HSE new and revised guidelines on discretion. It is intended that the group will be appointed in the next couple of weeks. I hope the guidelines it will give will make it easier for HSE staff and medical officers to assess such cases, although it will never be perfect until there is universal health care.

Courts Service

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

I also welcome the Minister of State. It is welcome that my Commencement matter was one of the ones chosen on the first day of the new procedure. I very much welcome the change we have made which will streamline Seanad procedures and make them more effective. I am grateful to the Minister of State for coming into the House to answer the question.

My question is simply about the need to inform the House as to whether maternity, adoptive and parental leave are available for members of the Judiciary. I will explain briefly to the Minister why I ask this question. In 2003, with two colleagues in Trinity College Dublin, I conducted a survey of gender discrimination in the legal profession. It was published as "Gender in Justice", the first ever examination of gender discrimination in the legal profession, including among members of the Judiciary. At the time, we made 50 recommendations on how to improve the position for lawyers, particularly female lawyers, because we found evidence of significant discrimination at various levels. Among the 50 recommendations - one I am glad to see was implemented - was that solicitors' firms pay full maternity pay to their employees on maternity leave, which had not previously been the case, as they were only in receipt of statutory pay.

We revisited the study in 2013 to look at various figures. At that point I was interested to note that the proportion of female members of the Judiciary had increased from 21% in 2003 to 28% in 2013. In particular, in December 2013, 30% of Supreme Court judges, 42% of Circuit Court judges and 27% of District Court were women. In fact, significant numbers of the Judiciary are women.

The Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, of which I am a member, has been looking at the issue of judicial appointments. Recently, we sent some material to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on the workings of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, which she is reviewing. I am conscious that within the past ten years there have been significant moves in the promotion of many women in senior levels of the legal professions. The Chief Justice, the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Chief State Solicitor and the Garda Commissioner are all female. Significant progress has been made. On foot of all of these changes, it occurred to me that in 2003 we had not considered the issue of child care, particularly maternity, adoptive and parental leave, for members of the Judiciary. It was not raised with us, although many other issues were. We conducted an extensive survey of lawyers, judges, legal academics, etc., and the issue of child care generally was raised universally by working lawyers, but it was not raised with us as an issue for members of the Judiciary. It struck me that, as we see increasing numbers of women entering the Judiciary, this should become more of an issue. Of course, it should also be an issue for men who are fathers and members of the Judiciary too, but generally it has been raised with us by women as an issue. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chathaoirleach agus leis an Seanadóir. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, wishes to thank the Senator for raising the matter and regrets that she is unable to be present for this discussion. As the Senator may be aware, members of the Judiciary are office holders, not employees; therefore, the provisions of the current statutory employment legislation do not apply to them. As such, they have no statutory entitlement to the categories of leave to which contractual employees are entitled such as maternity, adoptive and parental leave.

Senators will be aware that, under the Constitution, judges are appointed by the President on the advice of the Government. The current process for the appointment of judges is set out in sections 12 to 17, inclusive, of the Courts and Courts Officers Act 1995.

The Constitution also provides for aspects of the terms and conditions of judges, such as remuneration, pension and age of retirement, to be regulated by law. Senators will be aware that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is responsible for the pay and pensions of judges.

In respect of maternity leave, while recognising that judges as officeholders have no statutory entitlement to maternity leave, judges due to give birth while in office have been permitted to avail of the same period of maternity leave available to civil servants and contractual employees under the legislation in effect at the time. The decision to allow judges to avail of maternity leave was taken with a view to ensuring their terms and conditions during their terms in office were not inferior to those of employees or to the terms and conditions to which they may have been entitled at an earlier stage of their careers. In addition, it was considered that not allowing judges to avail of maternity leave could serve to discourage women from applying to the Bench.

The Minister has been informed that relatively few judges have availed of maternity leave in the past. She is pleased that the proportion of women in the Judiciary is increasing. Of the 81 judicial appointments made since the Government took office in March 2011, some 35 were female, or 43.2% of the total number of judges appointed. There are now 53 female judges, of a total of 161 judges, holding office in the State. This equates to 33% of all judges. As judges generally take up office at a later stage in their career, it is not anticipated that the number of judges availing of maternity leave will increase significantly. The Minister wishes to underline that it is intended that the established procedure of permitting judges to avail of paid maternity leave, in line with prevailing statutory entitlements, will continue.

Senators will be aware that the scheduling of court cases and the allocation of court business is a matter for the presidents of the courts and the presiding judges. Under the Constitution, they are independent in the exercise of their judicial functions. Issues which may arise in the management of the courts owing to the absence of a particular judge are matters for the president of the relevant court. As no procedures are in place to enable judges to avail of unpaid leave, the Minister is not in a position to comment on the unpaid aspects of the maternity and adoptive leave or unpaid parental leave. The Minister emphasises that every effort will be made to facilitate female members of the Judiciary in fulfilling their roles and that applications for unpaid leave will be considered on a case by case basis.

I again thank the Senator for raising this important issue. The Minister wishes to assure her that she will keep her updated on developments.

I thank the Minister of State for his full response. I am delighted to note that the proportion of women in the Judiciary has increased to 33%. I was conscious that there had been increases since we conducted our last survey in December 2013. While this increase is welcome, it must be noted that over 50% of those entering the Law Society as trainee solicitors are women. Two thirds of law students have been female for some decades now. It is certainly about catching up. It is very welcome. I note the Minister of State's comments about judges being officeholders, rather than employees. I had anticipated this. Similar issues apply to Members of the Oireachtas, of course. I speak as a Member of the Oireachtas who was pregnant and had a child while in office. I took some time off without having the benefit of any application of statutory maternity leave while in office. I am conscious of that aspect.

I am very grateful for the Minister of State's comments on allowing judges to avail of maternity leave on the same basis as civil servants and contractual employees. It is hugely important for it to be emphasised that judges should have such an entitlement on the same basis. The Minister of State's comment that not allowing judges to avail of maternity and other forms of parental leave "could serve to discourage women from applying to the Bench" is an important consideration when we are seeking to achieve greater diversity and, particularly, greater gender balance on the Bench. I ask the Minister of State to ensure this practice continues and that applications for unpaid leave such as parental leave will be considered favourably on a case by case basis. It is hugely important as a general issue in seeking to encourage more women and more younger people to enter the Judiciary.

I again thank the Senator. While this specific issue falls outside my area of responsibility, I do have responsibility for gender equality. Therefore, I have a keen issue in the issue raised by the Senator. I have explained that members of the Judiciary are not employees but are officeholders and as such do not fall within the statutory employment legislation. Having said that, the issue of paid maternity leave has been appropriately managed on a case by case basis by the Department in the small number of circumstances in which it has arisen. The independence of judges and their status as officeholders rather than employees is an important principle. The Minister considers it to be of paramount importance that women should not experience barriers to applying for and successfully taking up judicial appointments.

Senators will appreciate the important role carried out by members of the Judiciary. It is important that judges be able to carry out their duties in ensuring access to justice. However, this need will also be balanced with the needs of the individual judge to avail of appropriate leave such as maternity or adoptive leave. While these matters have not caused any particular issue to date, the Minister wishes to assure the Senator that the Department will keep the matter under review.

Sitting suspended at 3.20 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.