Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 22 Jan 2014

Vol. 827 No. 2

Topical Issue Debate

Post Office Banking Services

I ask the Minister for Finance to clarify his plans to move towards processing most of the State's business electronically. This issue arose previously in the context of social welfare payments. It will not be possible to achieve this aim unless all citizens have what is known as a standard bank account. This will only be feasible if An Post establishes a banking system. I have asked An Post to examine this issue but I am somewhat concerned because it has not yet responded to me. The traditional banks are not interested in setting up standard bank accounts and I expect that many of these banks will pull out of rural Ireland over the next several years. With developments in information technology and electronic banking, we will have less access to face-to-face services. We need to have a conversation on who will operate the standard banking system. Given that issues arise in regard to fraud in social welfare and tracing payments, I would like everyone to have a standard bank account through which payments would be processed.

In the context of banks gradually withdrawing services from smaller towns and rural areas, standard accounts are targeted at people who have traditionally dealt in cash and who do most of their business through the post office network. If the Minister is to be successful with his reform package, An Post will have to get its banking act together and facilitate these customers by developing a structure for opening standard bank accounts. This would also make rural post offices more viable and give them a chance to maintain their central role in small towns and rural communities. These post offices are much more than a place to conduct transactions. They are meeting places and focal points for the communities they serve. This is not solely a rural issue, however, because a considerable number of citizens in urban areas are also reluctant to engage with a banking system that is growing ever more aloof.

An Post has not yet replied to my inquiry as to the progress it is making on establishing a banking system. The Government has an opportunity to advance this reform package, while at the same time strengthening the role of post offices in rural Ireland. It is vital that we develop a plan which offers people a lead-in time to become aware of their options. Furthermore, if we do not have as many rural banks, issues will arise in respect of access for older people. If older people are able to lodge or withdraw money through An Post, it would be beneficial to them. It is important that we plan for this before it is forced on us.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Finance, who is unavailable to respond to the Topical Issue raised by Deputy Áine Collins. The Deputy's suggestion may arise from the recent publication by the Minister of the report on the standard bank account pilot project. That report noted that the view of the stakeholders was that one of the key elements that will have to be part of the preparations for a successful national roll-out of a standard bank account is greater involvement by An Post and the credit unions. The report also noted that An Post and the credit unions are the best possible channel for reaching the target cohorts but pointed out that barriers of existing infrastructure had prohibited this to date.

The financial inclusion working group, which is chaired by the Department of Finance, includes An Post and stakeholders from other Departments, the Central Bank, retail banks, the National Consumer Agency and voluntary sector organisations. The members of the group will work closely together on the finalisation of preparations for the standard bank account, which is expected to be rolled out during 2014.

The role of An Post is one of the issues which will be dealt with in the preparations for the roll-out of the standard bank account. The Deputy will be aware that while An Post is not part of the clearing system operated by the retail banks it none the less provides a range of banking services to those who do not have a bank account, including facilities for paying bills and operating savings accounts. An Post is also the main outlet for the State's various savings schemes, such as post office bonds and savings certificates and the national solidarity bond. The Deputy will also be aware that in order to mitigate certain AIB branch closures, AIB intends to strengthen its long-standing relationship with An Post and at the same time is also launching a new mobile banking service to provide certain banking services to customers in remote locations.

The mobile service will allow customers to make lodgments and withdrawals, pay bills and order foreign exchange.

AIB banking services are available in more than 1,100 An Post outlets nationwide. The current services at any An Post outlet allow AIB customers to make cash lodgments for personal and business customers, avail of cash withdrawals up to a certain limit per day, pay their credit cards bills and use any of An Post's own brand services, including bill payments, postal drafts and foreign currency. In addition, AIB plans to build on this successful relationship with An Post and has arranged for additional banking facilitates to be available in more than 90 selected outlets. AIB and An Post management are working together at local, regional and national level to ensure the successful launch of this enhanced service. An Post staff will be fully trained to offer this new service in advance of the branch closure dates.

I am satisfied that An Post is providing a valuable service for its customers in the financial services area. However, I am sure it can make an even greater contribution in its involvement in the financial services working group. I hope this involvement will assist in the roll-out of the standard bank account and thus expand the banking services offered by An Post, especially to those with limited access to banking services.

I ask that the report the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications launched in October 2012 also be looked at. It dealt with the future of the post office network across the country and indicated some obvious ways in which the network could be used.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. It is welcome that the standard bank account will be available in 2014. If we are to be more IT friendly and include rural areas in the process, that is an important step forward. An Post has an important role to play for many reasons. As the Minister of State said, we want to have the standard bank account, the service available in the community and to keep post offices open. The post office is probably one of the last links in rural areas and it is important that we keep them open and make them viable. I am delighted to hear that AIB is strengthening its relationship with An Post. I ask about the other pillar bank in the State. Will there be engagement between An Post and the other banks or will it be left to AIB? Will An Post be part of the clearing system? Is this seen as the way forward to enable it to operate bank accounts or can it operate as it is whereby an AIB customer can use An Post to carry out some of his or her transactions, as the Minister of State mentioned?

The Deputy has made some valuable points. On the issue of the consequences of many shops and Garda stations closing in rural areas, we must look at a model that will keep rural areas alive. The post office network contributes a great deal in that regard and will play a strong role in the future. As I said, in the document the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications published some two years ago on the future of the network, it was indicated An Post would need additional services, of which banking would be part. One needs banks and people need to be able to access money. This impacts on rural areas, whether it be tourism, agriculture or people bringing their children to school. The Deputy's points are well made. I agree that we need such infrastructure. There is no point in allowing the post office network to close down. We must give them something to do and offering banking and financial services would be really good for them. I take the Deputy's point on AIB. I am not aware of the position on other banks. There should be some communication with the banks that are working with businesses in Ireland and such banks should not forget rural areas in this context. If they close down some of their branches in rural areas, like AIB, they should provide services for customers to make them more amenable. On the point made about the clearing system, I will certainly have the issue raised with the officials.

Accident and Emergency Department Waiting Times

I raise this issue because of a letter written by the Irish Emergency Medicine Trainees Association to HIQA and the HSE. By any stretch of the imagination, it is extraordinary that people would go to these lengths to highlight difficulties in emergency departments. We have a situation where up to 400 patients can be waiting on trolleys at certain times in emergency departments throughout the country and the Irish Emergency Medicine Trainees Association has highlighted that this is an unsafe practice. The Minister has made great claims about the success achieved in dealing with the numbers of patients in emergency departments, but there is still a problem with overcrowding in emergency departments throughout the country. It is simply not the case that there has been a significant decrease in the number of patients on trolleys. There are still up to 400 patients at some times waiting to be transferred from the emergency department to a proper ward in the acute hospital setting or referred on to somewhere else.

One of the Minister's stated claims in his "FairCare" document was that the abolition of long waiting times on trolleys, how we dealt with emergency medicine and how we provided safe treatments in emergency departments throughout the country would be a central tenet of his policy. Even though, as I accept, there has been a reduction, after three years of the Minister's administration, it is the case that there are escalating trolley counts in emergency departments throughout the country. In addition, we now have the most senior clinicians in the country stating there are unsafe practices which pose a threat to patient safety in emergency departments throughout the country. Only before Christmas the CEOs of major tertiary hospitals were highlighting the fact that they were in the position where they could no longer guarantee patient safety. The Minister has put great store in the fact that he is a GP, but he should be conscious of the fact that senior clinicians have highlighted issues about patient safety and the transfer of infectious diseases and viral infections because of overcrowding and the fact that staff are under such pressure that it is, to quote the letter, "unequivocally dangerous for patients and staff". At some stage he must accept this fact. He is the last person in denial about this issue. He established the special delivery unit which was going to solve all of the problems in emergency departments throughout the country. There was going to be a sustainable and dramatic decrease in the numbers of patients waiting on trolleys. What we have found out since is that while it made inroads at the start, it is falling back quite rapidly to a point where this month there have been spikes of up to 400 patients a day in emergency departments throughout the country.

If one couples this with the Minister's other claims about outpatient and inpatient appointments, by any stretch of the imagination, these do not meet the aims of his document, to which I referred, which states:

ACCESS is a right - not a privilege

In health, delayed treatment can lead to pain, complications and even death. More than 150,000 people are currently waiting for an outpatient appointment...

Some 340,000 people are now waiting for an outpatient appointment.

When was that statement made?

This is in the Minister's FairCare document before the last election.

Correct. The Deputy has had three years available but the Deputy's party would not count it. It is unbelievable.

He has had three years to resolve this issue. It is also stated in his FairCare document that accountability will be transferred to the Minister. I am asking the Minister to be accountable at this stage. At least address the issue in our emergency departments and accept that the recommendations in the Tallaght hospital report should be implemented in our emergency departments throughout this country.

I call the Minister to reply.

On my way down here from my office, I thought that we might have a discussion on this issue in a level-headed way but we are back to Deputy Kelleher's favourite phrase "by any stretch of the imagination". I can tell him one thing, his stretching of the imagination has been extraordinary. If anyone is in denial, it is the Deputy and the party he seeks to represent.

I do not seek to represent it; I do represent it.

After the period of time his party was in power and had boundless amount of money which quadrupled the spending in health, it still managed the extraordinary feat, after 14 years of unfettered access to money-----

The Deputy is the Minister in charge now.

Allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

-----of ending up with 569 people on trolleys on a Wednesday three years ago - the first Wednesday of 2011 - before we came into power. What is the number of patients on trolleys on the first Wednesday of this year? It is 269.

The Taoiseach said it could not be-----

The Minister to continue without interruption.

Deputy Mattie McGrath can have his chat when it is his turn. I am dealing with the spokesman opposite who has raised this issue.

Give us the facts.

I am giving facts unlike the Deputy who is into hyperbole - unintelligible hyperbole.

I ask Deputy Mattie McGrath to allow the debate to continue.

There has been no spike of up to 400 people on trolleys in emergency departments this year. The Deputy opposite should get his facts right. What has happened here includes ward watch figures, which we accept and acknowledge, where people are on trolleys elsewhere up through the hospital, but there has never been 400. The Deputy should get that right.

Ward watch came in during the course of last year. Therefore, it is very difficult to compare what is happening this year with last year and certainly impossible to compare what is happening this year with what happened in 2011 when we know there were 569 people on trolleys in one day and that was in the emergency departments. That did not include ward watch or how many people were inappropriately placed throughout the system. There has been a massive improvement.

I have always regarded trolley waits to be an unacceptable feature of the Irish health system, which is the reason I set up the special delivery unit in 2011. Since then we have a 33.8% reduction in the number of patients waiting on trolleys, that is, 29,200 fewer people waiting. While such improvements are significant, I accept the challenges continue, particularly in the early part of the year.

It is more than unfortunate but not unanticipated that a number of our hospitals have been experiencing pressures since last week. Many hospitals are coping well with the demands arising from emergency department pressures and the main difficulties are concentrated in a relatively small number of hospitals and I will outline those in the course of my response.

The trolley counts of the last few days are disappointing and both I and the HSE acknowledge the distress and discomfort for patients so affected. This is, in part, as a result of the seasonal flux in hospital activity that traditionally takes place after Christmas and the new year. A similar pattern has been occurring in emergency departments across Northern Ireland and England, with a large surge in activity and waiting times since the start of the year.

Many of our hospitals are reporting increased admission rates with higher acuity of presentations noted, particularly among the frail elderly. In response, there has been an intensive engagement between the special delivery unit and the hospitals affected, concentrating on those with the most pressures particularly in recent days. Hospitals are working with the special delivery unit to ensure they balance the demand for scheduled and unscheduled care, maximise discharge planning and take additional measures to relieve pressures as required.

Additional funding has been provided for enhanced home and community care packages. Funding has also been targeted to address areas of acute services which are likely to experience increased service demand.

In regard to the implementation of the HIQA report on Tallaght hospital, work is well under way to implement all of the recommendations in hospitals. In line with established HSE policy on the implementation of major reports, the HSE established an implementation oversight group to progress the report's recommendations, which reports to HIQA on its progress regularly. Updates on progress are available publicly on the HSE website.

In all there are 17 recommendations which relate to unscheduled care of the 33 total recommendations in the HIQA Tallaght report. In general terms, there is strong evidence of progress in key areas such as the completion of early morning ward rounds, the application of the Manchester triage system and the robust review of waiting lists. This progress is indicative of the strong national leadership and levels of local engagement around these critical issues. The implementation of the national early warning score and maternity early warning score have also added significantly to the care of patients.

I will give other information in the follow-up.

If the Minister was being honest then all he had to say at the end of his reply was that the prince and princess got married and they all lived happily every after because it is fairytale stuff.

It is real but the Deputy does not want to accept it.

The fact of the matter is that the Minister only had to go on to the IMO website and check the trolley watch; what he is doing is playing with figures.

The simple fact is that 467 people were on trolleys in Irish hospitals-----

-----on the 8th. The bottom line-----

Not in emergency departments, which is what the Deputy said.

We know why they are on trolleys. They are on them because they have been transferred from the emergency departments up the wards but they are still on trolleys. That is the reason the Minister agreed that at least there would be a ward trolley count as well. What has happened is that the trolleys are being moved.

Unlike the Deputy, we have transparency.

The Minister can reply in a moment.

They were being counted in our time too. The Minister used to come in every day of the week and-----

The Deputy's party never counted the trolleys on the wards.

-----the first thing he would raise was the trolley count, the point being that the Minister is manipulating the figures.

I am saying that in January of this year, by any stretch of the imagination, it has not been a good year in terms of the number of people who are on trolleys, particularly given that it was a central plank in the Minister's policies to drive down the number of people waiting on trolleys in emergency departments. We had a case of 426 people on trolleys on the 6th, 461 on the 7th and 467 on the 8th. Whether they are in the emergency department or in a ward, the fact remains that they are on trolleys and it is not considered good medical practice to have people parked up on corridors throughout a hospital.

The Taoiseach said it could not be-----

That is simply unacceptable. There was a case recently of ambulances waiting outside CUH in Cork because they were unable to discharge patients due to the emergency department being overcrowded. Ambulances that were required elsewhere were waiting because the hospital could not discharge the patients. The Minister is trying to tell me that after three years he has achieved an awful lot in terms of addressing the trolley counts, but that is simply not credible. The letter from the Irish Emergency Medicine Trainees Association highlights the fact that after two years the HIQA report into Tallaght hospital, which made recommendations, has not been acted upon. The Minister blames the HSE-----

The letter report does not state that.

I ask Deputy Kelleher to conclude to allow time for the Minister's response.

The Deputy has to correct the record, we cannot have this carry on every day with the Deputy coming in here making statements that are untrue.

They have not been implemented.

The letter does not state that.

Deputy Kelleher's time is concluded.

I am saying that they have not been implemented and it is quite clear that there is a long way to go to ensure that we have safe practice in our emergency departments throughout the country, and that is not taking from the excellence of staff who work under extraordinary pressure day in day out.

The contribution from Deputy Kelleher is extraordinary.

The Minister does of course.

First, he tries to attribute it to the Irish Association of Emergency Medicine Specialists that no action has been taken on the HIQA report when it is very clear that many actions have been taken and that there is regular updates.

The Minister to continue without interruption.

Instead of spinning, if the Minister cared to visit the HSE website, he would note it puts up its progress reports on a regular basis.

Will the Minister visit South Tipperary hospital?

This is not Deputy McGrath's matter.

Correct. This is not Deputy McGrath's time.

It is Deputy Kelleher's matter.

The Minister will not visit any hospital. He ran out of Clonmel the last time he was there.

I can tell the Deputy that South Tipperary hospital had 24 people on trolleys yesterday morning.

Yes, it is shameful.

What is the number of patients on trolleys in that hospital this morning? The Deputy who is from south Tipperary and should be interested should be able to tell me what the number was this morning.

What was the number last Sunday and Monday?

The Deputy does not know.

That is his level of interest but he can come in here and make noise. What is the figure?

The Minister is the one making the noise.

What is the figure?

The Deputy does not know. Deputy Kelleher is better informed than Deputy McGrath.

There were 47 people on trolleys in Galway University hospital yesterday morning. This is utterly unacceptable but we get surges of activity and we take action. Today that number has fallen to 30 and it will fall further as we open more beds in the Merlin Park hospital and take other actions as well.

It is the same in Cork. The system experiences surges in different parts of the country at different times and I have already pointed out that this happens in the North of Ireland and England. We take action to address it. Deputy Kelleher mentioned my raising the figure of 56,000 people waiting for outpatient services. The Government of which he was part never bothered to count the number of people waiting for outpatient services. We were the first Government to do so and tomorrow we will release figures showing a massive improvement in the number of people who have had to wait over one year. It is well over 100,000 people; that is the legacy left by Deputy Kelleher's Government. I am reminded of the words of Bill Clinton when he said that what was really annoying people was that it was taking him so long to clean up their mess.

The bottom line is that there have been 29,200 fewer people on trolleys in the past 12 months since we took over. That is progress and is attributable to the men and women who work in our health service. I want to commend them at every opportunity. Despite the January we have had, the figures are still lower this year than this time last year. No amount of finger-wagging and head-shaking from Deputy Kelleher-----

I am not here to listen to the rubbish that comes out of Deputy Kelleher, because he is hell-bent on painting a picture that bears no resemblance to the truth. We cannot compare a figure that takes Trolley Watch, a figure agreed by the Department, the INMO, the HSE and the special delivery unit from this year, and compare it to last year by adding in Ward Watch when Ward Watch did not exist last year. That is simply not logical-----

The reason Ward Watch is in place is that trolleys were being hidden in hospitals.

It is not credible.

What about the Tallaght report?

Further action will be taken. The people on emergency unit trolleys are those who are most acutely ill and those most seriously in need of help.

Health and safety.

They are going to get help and it is improving. We are not where we need to be by a long shot. Given the financial disaster we were left with, the moneys we have, the 20% reduction in the budget, the 10% reduction in staff and the 8% reduction in the growth of the population, Deputy Kelleher's shaking his head will not cure it.

The Minister has forgotten what he said.

Foreshore Licence Applications

The Minister of State is familiar with this case through parliamentary questions she has answered. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, have also responded. During the Fianna Fáil Administration, Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív responded to parliamentary questions on it. The story originates in 2003 and has gone on for over a decade. Donegal County Council was charged with dredging the channel at the harbour at Burtonport in 2003. The council ran into difficulties regarding the disposal of the spoil, the dredged material. It reached an agreement with a local family, the Boyle family, to use some of the Boyle lands, comprising a small number of islands adjacent to the harbour, as a solution to the dumping problem in removing the silt. It was agreed to use the rock contained on the small islands owned by the Boyle family as a bund and to store the dredged material within the bunded area. The result from the point of view of the council is a saving of over €500,000. I have access to letters from council officials to this effect. That was the value of the quarried rock at the time.

The result of this work was a new plot of land consisting of Mr. Boyle's original islands and the new reclaimed foreshore. The agreement with the family was that the new piece of land, the reclaimed foreshore, and the original land owned by the family would be transferred to him by the council as part of the original agreement. The intention of the family was to build commercial, community and retail units and a marina that would create dozens of jobs and kick-start the local economy, not to mention bringing in taxes to the local exchequer and rates to Donegal County Council. Part of the agreement was that the Boyle family would transfer to the council part of the land to assist the council with car parking. What has happened in the past ten years? The harbour has been dredged, the infill has happened and the rock owned by the Boyle family was used by Donegal County Council, saving the council over €500,000. However, the transfer never took place because it was caught up in some legal wrangle, according to answers to parliamentary questions from Deputy Coveney, Deputy Hogan and Deputy Ó Cuív. It is now over four years since Donegal County Council paid €130,000 as the agreed fee for the transfer of the foreshore licence. The Boyle family was chosen as the preferred partner to develop the marina project and a grant of €465,000 was allocated for the project. Unfortunately, the grant was lost and it is claimed it was lost because of the delays in the project. As entrepreneurs, the Boyle family have come up with another proposal to develop the area to enhance it in respect of tourism. This is all dependent on the transfer of the foreshore licence.

I ask the Minister of State to outline why agreement was reached between the local authority, the State and the family. The family lived up to its agreement and there was a huge benefit to Donegal County Council. However, 11 years on, the State has not lived up to its part of the agreement. How are we supposed to create employment? I invite the Minister of State to visit Burtonport and see what was once a thriving fishing community on its knees. When local people come up with initiatives and want to create employment and enhance the community, red tape at official level stalls the process. How has it taken 11 years when a foreshore licence agreement has not been implemented, despite the fee having been paid over four years ago by the local authority?

I thank Deputy Pearse Doherty for raising the matter. I know of his interest in it. He referred to a number of parliamentary questions on it. Proposals for activity and development on the foreshore vary greatly in terms of their nature, scale and complexity, and the time required to determine applications varies accordingly. There is a long and complicated history to this.

The Burtonport foreshore consent application on hand with my Department has two aspects. First, it involves an application for a lease for an area of reclaimed foreshore at Burtonport Harbour by Donegal County Council. Secondly, it involves a proposal by Donegal County Council to sublease a portion of the reclaimed foreshore concerned to a third party. There is a long and complex history to this particular case.

At the time of the original application, Donegal County Council wanted to purchase the foreshore in question. However, the position of the then Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was that a lease should instead be granted for the maximum term of 99 years. As a matter of routine, sanction from the Department of Finance, now the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, is required for lease terms in excess of 35 years. Sanction was secured in October 2007, subject among other things to a valuation being obtained and agreed by the council. After a series of negotiations, the valuation was finally agreed with the council in October 2010. The council elected to lodge payment in respect of the leasehold premium in October 2010, in advance of any request for payment from my Department or any lease agreement being in place.

Over time, the nature of the proposal for which the council had originally intended to make the third party sublease changed substantially. This gave rise to a number of legal issues, on which my Department needed to seek legal clarification. My Department has been engaging with the Chief State Solicitor's office on this case since November 2010. The present position is that legal advice is awaited from the Attorney General's office and, until this advice is received, it is not possible to indicate when this matter will be concluded. My Department's legal advisers have been appraised of the pressing need to resolve legal matters relating to the case. My Department is in regular contact with the county council to ensure it is aware of the position, with the most recent contact taking place in December 2013.

I realise it has been going on for a long time and we will seek to expedite the issue.

I welcome the Minister of State's final comments, although I was aware of the earlier issues mentioned. My colleague in the local authority, Councillor Marie Therese Gallagher, has been pursuing the issue at a local level with the local authority for many years. I should reiterate that this started in 2003; we have had a boom and bust since then, along with a banking expansion and collapse. We also had the imposition of a troika agreement, which we have since exited. Banks have been nationalised and liquidated. We have had all of these issues, which I am sure are more complex than fulfilling a legal agreement between a local authority and a person who wants to create jobs in an area of significant deprivation.

I have dealt with four Ministers on this issue and I have spoken with the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. It is simply not acceptable that 11 years later the best legal brains in the country cannot come up with a solution or draw a line under this project one way or another. How can it take years for the Chief State Solicitor or the Attorney General to give advice on the issue? My view is that because the project is located in Burtonport, it is not a priority. There is no way legal teams are sitting around in the offices of the Chief State Solicitor or the Attorney General with the Burtonport file day in and day out; it is simply not happening. The issue is at the bottom of a pile because it has not been prioritised. It should be prioritised, as this is about creating jobs, but it is also a breach of an agreement which was of significant benefit to the State. The Boyle family have been penalised and have lost nearly €500,000 in grant aid to build a marina that would have been successful at the time. Yet they have not sat back; they have decided to look at a tourism-oriented caravan project that will bring people to an area in west Donegal to experience the rich culture and beauty of the area, with Arranmore and other islands just off Burtonport. That would bring some tourism potential to an area that is screaming out for it.

I appreciate the Minister of State's final comments, but something must be done. A Minister must see that enough is enough, as this family has been treated shabbily for one reason or another. It should not have taken 11 years for this to be dealt with, so a deadline should be set so that the issue can be resolved.

Officials from my Department intend to meet representatives of the offices of the Chief State Solicitor and the Attorney General in the near future. I will check that the issue is followed up as quickly as possible.

I appreciate that.

Stardust Fire

Today, I raise the issue of new and important evidence relating to the Stardust fire tragedy. It is important to remember what happened in the early hours of 14 February 1981, when a catastrophic fire swept through the Stardust disco in Artane, which is in my constituency. There were 850 people present and most were between the ages of 18 and 25. Sadly, 48 people died and 128 people were seriously injured. The nightmare continues today for the families affected, who seek the truth, facts and, above all, justice. We should remember that the Stardust fire remains the greatest disaster to have occurred in the history of the State, so these families deserve our support, compassion and, above all, justice.

I have supported these families for many years and now they want the truth, so surely they are not asking for too much. I urge the Minister seriously to consider the new evidence put together by Robin Knox & Associates, fire and building regulation consultants, and the legal team for the Stardust families. I raised the issue with the Minister for Justice and Equality on 10 December 2013 and in response the Minister indicated that no new grounds were put forward. He also stated that there were no plans to reopen the inquiry.

Today I ask the Minister to examine the new facts and evidence. The transcripts of the 122 days of evidence to the 1981 Keane inquiry referred to over 500 photographs of the incident scene. The photographer selected and presented approximately 100 prints to the inquiry. There were no photographs of the kitchen, the remains of the first floor store, the lamp room, the purported basement, the cold room, the ground floor stores or the ground exit passage to the door below the first floor exit and the external escape stairway. This is new evidence not considered by Keane.

Researchers asked in 2006 for a photograph of the firefighting water-filled basement that Mr. John Gallagher, senior counsel for the independent examination, and later Mr. Paul Coffey, senior counsel, were offered. The families knew at the time that there was no basement, and that is also new evidence. Both of the Coffey independent examination reports from 10 December 2008 and 7 January 2009 include the first and second floor plans prepared by the researchers at the request of Mr. Gallagher, which also show new evidence. The plans were prepared by the families from facts garnered in their own investigation and knowledge, and without the advantage of the 1981 transcripts of evidence. The Coffey reports do not mention the basement, and this is new evidence. The Coffey reports mention a cold room that was not mentioned by the Keane inquiry, and this is new evidence. At the European Court of Human Rights, an observation relating to the Stardust families was that the "applicants noted in their observation that they did not receive a copy of the letter of 14 February 2008", which was after the Coffey review. However, the applicants did not indicate how this letter, which explains some of the reasons the police did not pursue prosecutions in 1982, could constitute "new, relevant evidence".

I call on the coroner to revisit the issue and reopen the incomplete inquest into the cause of death for each victim. We should hear the new and truthful facts.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The Minister regrets that he is unable to be present due to other business this afternoon.

The Minister would like to again emphasise that irrespective of any differences of opinion, nobody disputes the magnitude of the tragedy or the impact it had on the families concerned and on the wider community. We are all conscious that the anniversary of the fire is approaching and that this must be a particularly difficult time of year for all affected. The Minister has previously set out the background to the examination of the issues surrounding the Stardust fire, but it is necessary to summarise them again here so as to respond properly to the Deputy. As he will be aware, following a long campaign on the part of the victims, Mr. Paul Coffey, senior counsel, was appointed in 2008 by the then Government, with the agreement of the victims' committee, to review the case made by the committee for a new inquiry into the fire. The committee argued the original tribunal was flawed and that it had new evidence concerning the fire, which supported an alternative explanation for its cause.

Mr. Coffey publicly invited submissions from all interested parties and the committee gave extensive oral evidence and made written submissions as to the case for a new inquiry. Funding was provided to assist the committee with the legal and expert costs of participation in this process. Mr. Coffey's report was published in January 2009. He concluded that the original tribunal finding of arson was hypothetical only and that nobody present on the night could be held responsible.

He further concluded that in the absence of any identified evidence as to the cause of the fire, the most another inquiry could achieve would be another set of hypothetical findings which would not be in the public interest. The new and other evidence relied on by the committee, according to Mr. Coffey's analysis, at its highest merely established that the cause of the fire was unknown, a finding already made but not properly acknowledged by the original tribunal. The then Government accepted Mr. Coffey's findings and introduced motions in the Oireachtas in 2009 endorsing his conclusions and expressing sympathy with the affected families. These motions were passed in both Houses. By endorsing Mr. Coffey's conclusion that the finding of arson was hypothetical only and that no one present could be held responsible, the motions also addressed a long-standing stigma of suggested criminality which some of the victims and bereaved felt hung over all who had been in attendance on the night.

Mr. Coffey's findings were widely welcomed and many Deputies and Senators spoke in support of the motions to which I have referred. Over time, however, there has continued to be dissatisfaction which has given rise to extensive correspondence from the committee and its representatives to the Minister's Department and various agencies, including correspondence referring to possible legal action. Throughout this correspondence, the committee continued to argue for the validity of its alternative hypothesis as to cause of the fire.

Issues have been raised by members of the committee about the Coffey report. There has been an entirely unfounded suggestion that attempts were made to influence its drafting or conclusions. The Minister has previously made it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that no such influence was brought to bear. Unwarranted significance has been attributed to changes between a draft report and the final report. Of course, the nature of draft reports is such that they do change and the Government must rely on the final report submitted by Mr. Coffey. Mr. Coffey's conclusions and advice were entirely independent and, as I have said, widely welcomed on publication.

The Minister has the greatest sympathy for all those affected by the fire and understands those involved in the committee remain convinced that their explanation for what happened on the night represents what did occur. Nothing he has seen in the extensive correspondence to date, however, would be grounds for his taking a different view from the conclusions set out in Mr. Coffey's findings and endorsed in both Houses. The Minister is aware from recent reported statements that the committee intends to present a submission on the cause of the fire on the occasion of the forthcoming anniversary. At that or another time, he will, of course, arrange for the examination, as appropriate, of any such submission and for a response to be issued to the committee in due course. He feels, however, that it would be unfair to those who have suffered so much to raise unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved or to suggest what Mr. Coffey found can be set aside simply on the basis that his conclusions are not accepted by some. It is right, of course, that concerns about this dreadful and tragic event should be raised in this House and I thank the Deputy for raising the matter at this time.

I thank the Minister of State for responding on this issue. I wish to focus on a number of points he made. The families' position is quite clear. They are seeking an independent expert to examine the new facts I have presented to the House today. They do not want a lengthy tribunal – I accept that this is not what they are seeking – and would prefer to have somebody who would go through the new evidence, link it with the previous reports and deal with particular issues that arise.

It is important that we take cognisance of the fact that 48 young people died in this horrific tragedy and that 128 were injured, many of whom are still suffering today. There is much hurt and sadness. I appreciate the Minister of State's sympathy for the families, but I feel very strongly that we need more than sympathy. We need to be compassionate, but we also need to be open to the idea of getting the truth and the facts.

I welcome the Minister of State's comment that no one present on the night can be held responsible. This is one point we got out of the way earlier. There is one chink of light in the Minister of State's response, namely, his statement that the Minister is aware from recent reported statements that the committee intends to present a submission. He said, "he will, of course, arrange for the examination, as appropriate, of any such submission and for a response to be issued to the committee in due course". That is the chink of light I would like to see. I would like to see the Minister examine the report which we have sent in. I have also sent in some of the evidence to the Minister in the past week because I met the families on a number of occasions recently. He should examine carefully what he sees in front of him. Of course, he should respond, but the bottom line is that the families are seeking a quick independent re-examination of the evidence. Even if the concerns of only a few families are at stake, we owe this to them. As I stated before, this was the worst tragedy in the history of the State. A total of 48 young people between the ages of 18 and 25 years died and 128 were injured. Many of the survivors still have the scars today. The State could be a little more flexible. I, therefore, urge the Minister to reconsider his position.

I certainly agree with the Deputy that there was a national tragedy. We all recall it so vividly, even after so many years, and I thank the Deputy for raising the matter again. I assure him that the points he has made will be brought to the attention of the Minister who is aware that there is dissatisfaction that it has not been possible to determine the true cause of the fire with certainty. He entirely sympathises with the frustration of the victims' committee in this regard. He sympathises with all those who continue to be affected by the tragedy. However, the position is that an independent examination by Mr. Coffey was carried out to assess the committee's case and substantial assistance was provided for the committee to participate in the process. Mr. Coffey's conclusions led to a motion of great significance being passed by both Houses clarifying the record as to the cause of the fire. Mr. Coffey also concluded that there remained no actual identified evidence as to the cause of the fire. In that context, in line with the motions, the best another inquiry could produce would be another set of hypothetical findings which would not be in the public interest. However, as I have said on behalf of the Minister, if a submission is made, it will be examined, but nothing raised in the correspondence to date would be grounds for him taking a different view from that set out in Mr. Coffey's findings. I again thank the Deputy for his continued interest in this terrible tragedy.

Sitting suspended at 2.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.10 p.m.