Topical Issue Debate

Penalty Points System

As the Minister knows, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported on his findings in regard to the fixed charge notice system. The outcome is absolutely shocking. What he has revealed is that because of clearly widespread maladministration and very poor procedures, one in five motorists facing fixed charge notices are getting off. We are talking about 42,000 cases a year, and half of the summonses that were issued by the courts in regard to these were not served.

This is a crisis. It is not good enough for the Minister to issue circulars. We need to see how the hell this happened. The Minister knows that two Garda whistleblowers brought this wider issue into the public domain last year. He and the Garda Commissioner, I believe, sought to undermine their credibility and talked down the numbers that were involved, and we now see very clearly that they have been vindicated. What is the Minister going to do about this? It is a massive crisis of confidence for the public. The 71% of people who pay their fine, take it on the chin and accept they did break the speed limit, or whatever they had done to break the traffic laws, need to know that the system applies to everybody.

Will the Minister now apologise to the two Garda whistleblowers for the attempts by himself and the Garda Commissioner at that time to discredit them and to undermine the scope of what they were bringing into the public domain? Will he acknowledge they were right that there was a widespread problem with the system of penalty points in this State and that it has to be sorted out?

The problem is that there is a huge contradiction between the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the report of the Garda into the penalty points issue. The Comptroller and Auditor General found 600 repeat offenders with three or four terminations; the Garda report found a few. The Comptroller and Auditor General found 3,000 statute-barred points cases; there was no mention of these in the Garda report. Thousands of fixed penalty notices went missing and were unaccounted for according to the Comptroller and Auditor General; there is no mention of this in the Garda report. The Comptroller and Auditor General said large volumes of notices were terminated by gardaí from outside their areas; the Garda report said there were three. The Comptroller and Auditor General said there were thousands of notices whose cancellation contravened the rules and regulations; the Garda report said it was 600. The Comptroller and Auditor General said €1.2 million had been lost; the Garda report said it was a few thousand euro. Can the Minister explain?

Is it not the case that the whistleblowers are exonerated as truthful and honest in light of this revelation? One person has left and another member is subject to sanctions. Will the Minister see that justice now prevails here?

Finally, another victim of the penalty points debacle, Gemma O'Doherty, a leading investigative journalist with Independent Newspapers, was sacked because she uncovered a story that the Garda Commissioner was a beneficiary of the cancellation of penalty points. According to the Irish Post, the editor of the Irish Independent who sacked her was also a beneficiary of cancellation. Is that not outrageous and does it not smack of a grotesque abuse of power? Will the Minister speak out on this also?

I will respond to both Deputies but, on the last issue raised by the Deputy who just spoke, I am not privy to the background circumstances of the termination of anyone's employment with Independent Newspapers and I am certainly not going to comment in any way on that issue.

The 71% of citizens who paid their fine and took their penalty points on the chin must be appalled to discover that up to one in five of those facing the same sanction managed to get away with it. It is clear, given the massive scale of such practices, that they arose largely due to maladministration. However, there are cases which give cause for serious concern. We have had allegations, for instance, that judges, serving gardaí, State solicitors and others have had points written off repeatedly. We were recently informed that several senior journalists - who are supposed to be working to hold gardaí to account - have had the same write-off. It has been further alleged that one journalist, Ms Gemma O'Doherty, lost her job because of the investigative work she was doing in this area.

Will the Minister undertake to investigate why at least two senior journalists at the publication mentioned in the Guardian and the Irish Post had penalty points written off? Such an investigation is necessary to ascertain whether those write-offs arose from genuine circumstances, as they may well have done. The public has a right to know in either case. We must have the answers in the interests of democracy and if public confidence in the system is to be restored. As I said, the larger problem was clearly one of major maladministration, but there are also cases where very powerful and connected people apparently had their points written off simply because of who they knew. That is totally wrong and the Minister must investigate the extent and circumstances of that alleged practice.

All that is demanded is that any of us who have incurred penalty points are treated in the same way, regardless of whether one is a public figure or private citizen. The Minister indicated that the conclusions of the Comptroller and Auditor General are in line with the findings of the report by Assistant Commissioner O'Mahoney. That is clearly not the case, as is easily documented. I invite the Minister to get his officials to go through the records with a fine tooth comb to revise his view on that.

The Minister further stated that it is only fair to acknowledge that these reports and their findings and recommendations come in response to allegations by whistleblowers, as I would describe them. I am asking the Minister to go the extra mile and be generous here. Perhaps these individuals did not get everything absolutely right, but the vast substance of what they said has proved to be absolutely honest and true. Yet they have been victimised. The Minister must stand up and champion the right of people in vulnerable positions to come out for the public good. I am asking him to do so today and to apologise for the inaccurate comments he has made castigating these people.

Deputy Higgins should be assured that nobody has been victimised.

The individuals in question were victimised.

There is no basis for alleging that anybody has been victimised. The allegations that were made were taken very seriously. They included claims that a number of road accidents in which people lost their lives were a consequence of fixed-notice charges being cancelled. That was established, on a very detailed basis, to be untrue. Those allegations could have caused a great deal of distress to families already distressed as a consequence of losing a loved one. Despite the very detailed addressing of these matters in a report that is before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and was published by me, the individuals who raised these issues are adamantly insisting that they disagree with the contents of the report.

The allegations alleged widespread corruption and conspiracy in An Garda Síochána. There is absolutely no doubt that there have been administrative and bureaucratic failings. It is also clear that a number of fixed-notice charge cancellations were, based on the background circumstances as detailed in the report, absolutely justified. Anybody would stand by them. There were some decisions which I have described as "exotic" and are certainly open to question. That is one of the reasons the Garda Commissioner, having made an initial statement when the original reports were published, went on to oversee the provision of detailed new guidelines providing for greater oversight. It was suggested earlier today in this House that these new guidelines simply reproduce the ones that went before. That is not the case. The new guidelines address matters in such a way as to ensure there is proper oversight, cancellation decisions are made only where appropriate and everybody is treated equally and transparently. In fact, it could be said there is some disadvantage under the new system for people who are in prominent positions, such as Members of this House.

Community Welfare Services

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this issue with Deputies Seán Kyne and Thomas Pringle.

In the past week it has been brought to my knowledge that the Department plans to withdraw the community welfare service offices serving Ballyhaunis and Claremorris in County Mayo and transfer them to Castlebar. I sought clarification from the Minister's office, but I have not received it. I assume the move is going ahead. A number of rural community welfare offices in County Mayo have been closed in recent years, but they had the benefit of far greater proximity to the towns in which the service is now based. On this occasion, the entire service is delivered out of east Mayo and two towns with a particular need for it. This raises the need for a full-time community welfare service to be based in rural areas.

One of the difficulties people will not understand by looking at a map is the lack of public transport. People do not have the opportunities available in urban areas in terms of bus and rail transport. The clients who use the community welfare service have serious financial issues and do not have the cash for taxis. They may not have their own resources for transport and we will leave them in a serious position.

The broader issue is the withdrawal of Government services from rural areas and the need to examine this issue in an audit. The area in question has suffered in recent years from the withdrawal of services, including under the previous Government. Departments reorganising services need to come together to ensure they are not targeting specific areas for the withdrawal of services in order that the burden can be shared.

I would like to know what the position is on the offices in Claremorris and Ballyhaunis. I spoke to the Minister over the summer about delays in respect of domiciliary care allowances. She indicated that she would act and there has been a transformation in the delivery of the service since we spoke, which I acknowledge.

I join Deputy Dara Calleary in thanking the Ceann Comhairle for allowing this issue to be raised.

As of yesterday, clinics have been closed in County Donegal. Some 12 clinics have been closed and clients are being asked to make their way to larger towns to avail of community welfare services. This does not recognise the geography of rural Ireland and counties and the difficulties many of the clients of the Department face in accessing services. The 12 clinics are in outlying areas where there is no transport link to get people to larger towns to access the clinics. It does not recognise that these are the most vulnerable people in society and, through their need to access services, they must have a lot of contact with community welfare officers. Many will be reviewed for rent supplement and must access the service on that basis. Others may be looking for exceptional needs payment and simply cannot afford to travel across the county to access these services.

The letter issued in County Donegal states that it is due to the roll-out of the Intreo programme and a one-stop shop for employment services. However, I fail to see what the community welfare offices will bring to the roll-out of the Intreo service when they need to be kept in place to provide the services which are vital to those using them. The Department has not taken account of the difficulties of people in rural areas in accessing services. In recent years we have seen the closure of post offices and Garda stations and threats to rural schools. People see these public services being withdrawn and it leads to a huge amount of concern and difficulties in our communities. I, therefore, ask the Minister to reverse the decision, on which there was no consultation. Some of the clinics being closed are the busiest.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this Topical Issue debate.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister and her Department in ensuring the continued provision of services, despite the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges we face. The economic crisis has put extra strain on Departments' budgets, particularly that of the Department of Social Protection, and I appreciate the need to minimise administration costs. I understand the rationale behind Intreo offices and the provision of one-stop shops. I also acknowledge the support and advice I have received from the staff within the Minister's office. In the Galway office Mr. Eoin Brown has provided great information on the issue. However, the new rationalisation measure to centralise community welfare offices has been ill-thought out. The community welfare services are required by people in a vulnerable state and experiencing financial difficulties through job losses or another traumatic event. I tabled a number of questions to the Minister last week. The replies inform me that the criteria on which the reorganisation is made include the distance between clinics, the available transport, the number of customers, as well as the time and duration of clinics. I find it hard to believe these criteria were applied to the office in Galway, which I am sure is similar to that in County Mayo and County Donegal. My fear is that the decision was taken without an understanding of the large geographical area which it serves. Ó inniu ar aghaidh, beidh ar dhaoine i gConamara a dteastaíonn seirbhís ón oifig leasa shóisialaigh uathu taisteal go Gaillimh nó An Clochán chun seirbhís a fháil. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil plean d'oifig taistil ag teastáil agus go mbeidh seirbhís trí Ghaeilge ar fáil, ach tá faitíos ar an phobal faoi an athrú seo. I understand the rationale and have seen it explained, but I am concerned about the distances people will be required to travel. They must access services in Galway and from tomorrow new services in Clifden. This is causing undue hardship for the most vulnerable of people.

I thank Deputies Dara Calleary, Seán Kyne and Thomas Pringle for raising this issue.

The Department is examining the operation of all its services, including the community welfare service, in the context of the Pathways to Work commitments and the development of Intreo services nationally. The Pathways to Work programme represents a significant reform in the social welfare system and highlights the need for the Department to focus its resources on the provision of opportunities, supports and assistance for unemployed persons.

The difficulty continues to centre on a number of issues such as access on a geographical basis. I note the Department will put telephone arrangements in place. There is a fantastic community welfare system, with front-line community welfare officers who work incredibly hard. Their personal knowledge of clients is essential in serving not only the clients but also the Department. They know the real circumstances of the clients. By moving to a telephone service, the Department will lose that.

The location of the Intreo offices - an important service whose roll-out I welcome - will be away from clients. The three Deputies who raised this issue all share the view that this seems to be missing in the consideration of the Department. The Minister is forcing those who do not have resources to use the telephone. The possibility of engaging in human interaction about what they are seeking is not available, based on what she is saying.

While there may be a telephone service available, it will be interesting to see how that will work where there are application forms to be filled out or paperwork to be sent in to the community welfare officer for a decision. I do not know how that will work out in practice. I ask the Minister to keep this under review with a view to reopening the clinics if necessary if the service fails the clients who deserve it.

One of the clinics closing in Donegal is in Pettigo, and an offer has been made to clients to use the clinic either in Ballyshannon or Donegal town. There is one bus service a week to Donegal town from Pettigo and there is none to Ballyshannon. For those in Gaoth Dobhair, where the service is closing, there are two clinics: one in Dungloe, which is 15 miles away, and one in Falcarragh, which is also approximately 15 miles away. One cannot get a bus to Dungloe. If one gets a bus to Falcarragh, one arrives at half past ten in the morning and cannot get a bus back again until half past five in the evening. This is the type of service that these clients must access and it is simply not the best way of dealing with them. The Minister at least should be willing to keep this under review over the next number of months and, if it is not working, to reinstate these services.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I concur with Deputies Calleary and Pringle regarding keeping this matter under review.

There is a concern that the Minister is taking the community out of community welfare provision. While telephone, e-mail, letters, etc., are fine, some living in parts of my area who must see a community welfare officer may have to travel 60 km one way for a service, and, as Deputy Pringle outlined, using an infrequent public transport system. It would be like sending somebody from Blanchardstown to Drogheda or from Clonsilla nearly to Mullingar to avail of a service, and if the person had to go to those places, he or she would have a much better public transport system than we have in Connemara and the other regions mentioned. Where it is vital that a service is provided, we need to ensure that we provide it. I again ask that this matter be kept under review.

I have spoken to officials in Galway to see whether a service can be provided on a half-day-a-week basis, concentrated, for example, in An Cheathrú Rua, where the Minister was present for the opening of the MABS office. The Minister will appreciate the distance even from An Cheathrú Rua to Galway city. The Minister might be able to keep that under review.

I thank the Deputies.

Let me explain a little of the background. Some 1,000 staff transferred from the HSE to the Department of Social Protection in October 2011. At that time, my Department took over 900 clinics, many of which were situated at crossroads and in hotels, as the Deputies will be aware, for an hour, a half-hour or even, in some cases, ten minutes.

Previously, a large part of the work of a community welfare officer was providing supplementary welfare payments. With the transformation of the service, when somebody goes into the new Intreo office and identifies what he or she wants to claim - for instance, jobseeker's allowance - by and large, the person will get it within a week.

The following may be of some reassurance to the Deputies, because I understand why they are concerned about it. To date, we have closed 268 clinics, and to be perfectly honest, we really have not received the kind of negative feedback about which the Deputies are apprehensive. Of course, I will bear in mind Deputy Pringle's request that we keep the situation under review.

Apprenticeship Programmes

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this topic for discussion. I also thank the Minister for Education and Skills for his reforming work in his Department.

It is agreed by everyone that gas and electrical installations must be installed by a qualified technician because the safety and lives of people depend on such work being done properly. The same does not pertain in the motor industry, even though the work is related to safety and the preservation of life. Courses are available in all areas of car maintenance such as body repair, tyres, engine and windscreen maintenance. While many workers in this sector are qualified, I understand there is no recognised national regulatory system or national professional register of qualified personnel, despite the fact that the work done in the motor industry is so important for our safety.

Other advantages of a good regulatory system and a professional register of qualified personnel would include a guarantee for customers that the work is undertaken by qualified individuals. It would give trainee mechanics and others working on cars a recognised qualification; it would help to eliminate fly-by-night car repairers who give the business a bad name; it would guarantee that waste products were disposed of safely. It could even be a requirement of the NCT to have fully traceable documented and accredited repairs and it would also lead to higher levels of tax compliance in the car industry. We should aim to have EU-wide recognition for all motor qualifications. This would guarantee standards across a wide range of countries, meaning that a person with recognised skills could move to work elsewhere in times of work shortages.

I ask the Minister to sort out this regime in order to help strengthen road safety and reward those who are playing by the book. I ask if there could be links with other countries in order that qualifications acquired here would be recognised in Britain, France or Germany, for example.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Economic recovery will depend significantly on the quality of skills available in the workforce. A clear link has been demonstrated internationally between skills and qualification levels, on the one hand, and productivity and income growth within the economy, on the other. It is important that those who exit the education and training system have relevant and up-to-date competencies required by the 21st century labour market. In that context, my Department is undertaking a review of apprenticeship to ensure the model of apprenticeship which has been in place in Ireland up to now is fit for purpose in producing individuals whose qualifications address the needs of the economy. Obviously, as well as trades such as electrician, plumber and bricklayer, the review will look at the apprenticeship model which has applied in the motor industry. Certain trades within the motor industry already attract a nationally recognised qualification.

Apprenticeship is the recognised means by which people are trained to become craftspeople in certain designated trades in Ireland. It is a programme which is driven by employer demand, aimed at developing the skills of the apprentice to meet the needs of industry and the labour market. The designated trades include several in the motor industry such as heavy vehicle mechanics; motor mechanics and vehicle body repairs. While FÁS has responsibility for promoting and overseeing the training and education of these apprentice trades, the curriculum for all trades is validated by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, as an NFQ level 6 advanced certificate - craft.

The review of the apprenticeship system in Ireland which is under way will address a number of themes: consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the current model of apprenticeship and what improvements can be made to its current structure; an examination of the alternative methods of work-based training in Ireland; consideration of the structural mechanisms and criteria under which collaboration with industry-employers can be pursued into the future, either through improved, alternative or complementary models of work-based training. It is in this context that the needs of the motor industry and the individuals who wish to work in that sector will be examined. I am aware that the Society of the Irish Motor Industry, SIMI, has provided a submission for the review and that it will be examined, together with the submissions of the other relevant stakeholders.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I ask him to indicate whether a professional register which is fully recognised nationally will be provided. I also ask if moves are afoot - if not, I encourage him to do so - to ensure qualifications acquired in Ireland in this area will be recognised in Britain, France and Germany and, similarly, that qualifications earned in these countries are recognised here. Fixing a car in Ireland or Germany is the same job and cultural issues do not impede the work involved.

I thank the Deputy for his supplementary comments and questions. The answer to the second question is that we are moving within the European labour market towards having a set of recognised standards applicable and recognised across all 28 member states. The Irish ten point national framework administered through QQI, Quality and Qualifications Ireland, is replicated in similar forms across the European Union. In tandem with the apprenticeship review, it is my intention to return to a much more healthy, balanced supply of trained individuals in the workforce with recognised qualifications for which there is a demand. The model that failed during the height of the Celtic tiger madness was completely driven by employers. When the construction boom ended, many young people who were halfway through their training process were left high and dry and unable to complete their training.

Is there a timescale for the review?

I expect to have the apprenticeship review at the end of the year. I would like to see something emerge in the next 18 months.

Long-Term Illness Scheme Coverage

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue. It has been well publicised in recent years that the incidence of chronic illnesses such as Crohn's disease has significantly increased, yet the long-term illness scheme has not been updated since 1970. It is time for it to reflect this increase and I ask the Minister to relay to his colleague the need to provide some assistance for people suffering this blight on their health. It is a very unpleasant condition.

Crohn's is a serious, chronic inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract that affects approximately 5,000 people in Ireland. There is no medical or surgical cure for it and there are few treatment options for patients suffering with this chronic condition. Crohn's disease affects people of all ages, but it is primarily diagnosed in adolescents and young adults, with onset typically between the ages of 15 and 40 years. It can have a devastating impact on the day-to-day lives of people and commonly occurs during a time of life when people are most active such as when they are in school, going to college or having a family. It can limit personal choices, resulting in many dropping out of third level education, working part-time rather than full-time, or working closer to home to reduce travel time. Many opt for low stress lifestyles and less pressurised careers. The condition poses challenges for those who wish to travel and some are also fearful of starting a relationship or family. It varies in an acute or chronic form and can be characterised by flare-ups and periods of remission. The severity of symptoms, the times without illness and the length of flare-up vary from person to person and there is no identified cause for its occurrence and little public understanding of the pain and chronic suffering with which patients cope every day.

People with long-term illnesses have a heavy load to bear in terms of the cost of treatment, the effect on their lives and their ability to and availability for work. The costs incurred in having an inflammatory bowel disease can have a huge effect on family finances. With Crohn's disease, the issue is not just medication, there is also the matter of consultant fees, the cost of GP blood tests and other procedures that mount up. Sufferers face a lifetime of medication, GP sessions, blood tests, endoscopy and regular consultant visits. As such, a Crohn’s disease patient may spend thousands of euro per year in managing the condition, with little potential for State support via the provision of tax relief at the standard rate.

Symptoms which patients can experience include abdominal pain and cramps, diarrhoea and blood loss, exhaustion, loss of appetite, nausea, fever and weight loss. It is a horrible illness. Crohn's disease patients are often treated with immunosuppressant drugs, resulting in infections being contracted on a regular basis. As a result, expensive visits to the GP are a requirement. Furthermore, one of the common side effects of Crohn's disease is joint pain, which means a trip to the physiotherapist is also a necessity. There is also the cost of health insurance and the drugs which are not available on prescription but which are also a necessity for treatment. These include paracetamol, medication for heartburn, anti-inflammatory gels, vitamins, etc.

Many patients suffering from Crohn's disease are prescribed steroids in times of flare-up. These drugs are extremely harmful to bone density and often lead to the onset of another long-term illness, osteoporosis, which is not covered by the scheme either. Does the Minister agree that by including Crohn's disease in the long-term illness scheme, it would help keep patients well and manage their conditions? I am sure the Minister is well aware of the affliction I have described and people suffering from the condition. I would appreciate it if we could, in straitened economic times, spare a thought for those who must endure this severe illness on a daily basis and deal with the associated cost.

l am taking this issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, and thank the Deputy for raising it.

The long-term illness scheme is a non means-tested scheme introduced in 1971 which provides free medicines and medical appliances for people with specified conditions. The conditions covered by the scheme are mental handicap, mental illness for those under 16 years only, phenylketonuria, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, hydrocephalus, diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus, haemophilia, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, conditions attributable to the use of thalidomide, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophies, Parkinsonism and acute leukaemia. There are no plans to extend the list of conditions covered by the scheme.

People who cannot, without undue hardship, arrange for the provision of medical services for themselves and their dependants may be entitled to a medical card. In the assessment process the Health Service Executive can take into account medical costs incurred by an individual or a family. Those who are not eligible for a medical card may still he able to avail of a GP visit card which covers the cost of general practice consultation. Non-medical card holders and people whose illness is not covered by the long-term illness scheme can use the drug payment scheme which protects against excessive medicine costs. Under this scheme, no individual or family pays more than €144 per calendar month towards the cost of approved prescribed medicines. The scheme significantly reduces the cost burden for families and individuals incurring ongoing expenditure on medicines. In addition, non-reimbursed medical expenses can be offset against tax.

The Government is committed to a major reform programme for the health system, the aim of which is to deliver a single-tier health service, supported by universal health insurance, UHI, where access is based on need rather than income. Under UHI, everyone will be insured and have equal access to a standard package of primary and acute hospital services. An insurance fund will subsidise or pay insurance premiums for those who qualify for a subsidy. The Department is preparing a White Paper on universal health insurance which will provide further detail. The Government is also committed to introducing, on a phased based, a universal GP service without fees within its term of office, as set out in the programme for Government and the future health strategy framework. It has been agreed that a number of alternative options should be set out with regard to the phased implementation of a universal GP service without fees. A range of options are under consideration, with a view to bringing developed proposals to the Government shortly.

It is widely speculated that in the next budget the Government will extend free GP cover to those under five years, which would be a wonderful initiative that could reduce the increased burdens on families struggling to deal with the current economic recession. We should also bear in mind the people I have described. We owe it to such persons to consider them in what I know are very difficult economic circumstances. They are trying to survive and not blessed with good health; therefore, we must do our best to ensure any significant financial burden can be offset in as much as it can be, given the straitened economic times in which we live.

I understand the Deputy's concern about the matter. I also understand that not only are the physical consequences of the disease debilitating and very painful in some cases, but that they can also generate emotional turmoil because of a sense of helplessness. That is an additional burden that the people concerned and their immediate families must carry. I will convey the remarks made by the Deputy to the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White.