Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 8 Dec 1999

Vol. 512 No. 4

Priority Questions. - Hearing Impairment Claims.

Frances Fitzgerald


25 Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Defence the compensation scheme, if any, he will establish to deal with deafness compensation claims from Army personnel; the timeframe in this regard; if he has the support of the representative associations; the criteria to be used; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26443/99]

As Deputies will be aware, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment in the case of Hanley v. Minister for Defence yesterday.

It will take time to evaluate the implications of this important judgment for Defence Forces hearing loss claims. However, I am confident from a preliminary examination that the tariff laid down by the Supreme Court should form a basis for the introduction of a compensation scheme. I hope such a scheme can be established as speedily as is possible, subject to the approval of the Government. This scheme will be based on the hearing disability assessment system contained in the Green Book. I would prefer such a scheme to be administratively straightforward and provide a speedy process for dealing with claims. In this regard, I would anticipate that once an individual has had his or her hearing tested and the Green Book disability assessed, his or her entitlement to compensation under the scheme can be determined and paid to him or her within a reasonable period.

I know that the representative associations share my determination to remove these claims from the courts and I look forward to their continued support in this.

I welcome the Supreme Court judgment which provides a basis for taking the issue out of the courts, as the Minister said. When does the Minister intend to establish the scheme? What type of scheme will be put in place? Will it be early settlement of cases or does he intend to establish a tribunal type compensation scheme? Will it be independent? Can the Minister and his Department be both defender and adjudicator in this process or does he agree there must be some objectivity in terms of the scheme that will be established so that claimants wanting to have their cases settled can have full confidence in it? It is likely that disputes may arise about ongoing medical and legal costs. If such disputes arise, how will they be resolved? Can some independence and objectivity be built into the scheme to ensure it will have the confidence of both the claimants and the taxpayers? This has been a difficult saga for members of the Defence Forces and from the point of view of the State and the taxpayer, and it is in everyone's interest that it should be resolved as speedily as possible. The way the scheme is set up will be important in determining that.

Naturally I welcome the Supreme Court decision made by those eminent judges. I want to establish an administratively straightforward compensation scheme which can deal with cases speedily while being fair both to the taxpayer and to the genuine claimants. The judgment needs to be considered by the Department of Finance, the Attorney General and officials in my own Department before proceeding further, but I look forward to being in a position early in the new year to come back to the House with the terms of a new scheme.

On the question of independence, I take this opportunity to say a special word of thanks to the senior staff in my Department, all of the staff in Coláiste Caoimhín, the soldiers and members of the Medical Corps and staff in the Chief State Solicitor's office for their work, dedication and commitment in recent years in dealing with an unprecedented deluge of claims, unique in the world, in a comprehensive way, checking records, audiograms and preparing for court. I know Deputy Fitzgerald does not intend any slight on their work when she calls for an independent assessment of these cases. Obviously during that time we built up a great deal of expertise, and establishing an independent way of proceeding would also raise the question as to what would happen to those staff when these cases were dealt with in the coming years. There are many considerations but I pay a special tribute to the staff in my Department whose work and commitment have assisted us so far in bringing some degree of sanity and fair play to this issue. That will enable fairly substantial savings to be made while still being fair to claimants.

With respect, the Minister is missing the point I am making. I would not for a moment call into question the work done by the staff to date; I am aware of the demands on them. Following the Supreme Court judgment, and in the interests of setting up a successful scheme, some element of independence should be built into the scheme, perhaps in the form of an independent chairperson. This could be done in a variety of ways but it is something the Minister should consider. I want to ask another question.

We are rapidly running out of time.

I will be brief. An underlying issue remains to be resolved about compensation in the Defence Forces. If new cases were to arise—

I ask the Deputy to put a very brief question because I would like to give the Minister time to reply.

Does the Minister intend to establish a way of dealing with new compensation cases that may arise in the Defence Forces, for example, in relation to post traumatic stress disorder, as has arisen in other defence forces throughout the world? Does he intend to set up a system whereby members can get whatever recompense is due in a scheme established in the Defence Forces?

I ask the Minister to give a brief reply because we have gone over time on this question.

The scheme I have in mind, for the time being at least, is peculiar to the Army deafness claims because that is where the volume is in this respect. Obviously the board that will be established will call in independent people but it is important to realise that the bulk of the work has to be done by my staff, the officers and NCOs who dig up the records, etc. The most independent decision of all, made by the Supreme Court, is available to us in terms of the value of these claims and that is the determining factor in the way we go forward from here.