Topical Issue Debate

HSE Investigations

Sunbeam House Services provides vital services to adults with intellectual disabilities in Wicklow with full-time residential, day services and respite care. There are hundreds of service users and their families requiring the services of Sunbeam House Services throughout Wicklow but particularly in facilities in Bray, Wicklow and Arklow. Needless to say, any organisation providing such services needs to be fully transparent and provide a service that has the full confidence of the service users, their families, the front-line staff and the State agencies that act on behalf of the taxpayer who fund these services.

Recent and routine HIQA inspections have found failings in the operations at Sunbeam House Services which, along with family and staff complaints, have led to a recent assurance review by the HSE that again has found failings in the operations of Sunbeam House Services. The report refers to 284 separate complaints being registered against Sunbeam House Services between January 2013 and September 2016. Concerned family members have been in contact with me since July 2016 about their serious complaints and concerns. I have attempted to get answers to very serious allegations including the mistreatment of service users and serious failings in management at Sunbeam House Services. I have been attempting to do this without increasing further the anxiety to the family members of service users and to the service users of other Wicklow based organisations that may be involved in a proposed merger with Sunbeam House Services. Information supplied to me by concerned families suggests that long-serving social workers and a senior medical doctor involved with Sunbeam House Services have serious concerns about the procedures, care services and management at Sunbeam.

The removal of the assurance report from the HSE website has convinced me that I needed to bring these issues directly to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and for a publicly accountable response on the floor of the Dáil. I am also concerned about the apparent lack of a protected disclosures policy at Sunbeam House Services. Given the responsibility of care given to any organisation providing services to adults with intellectual disabilities, the absence of such a policy is, quite simply, disgraceful. The families need to know if protected disclosures have been made to the HSE or to Sunbeam House Services, the number and gravity of such disclosures and the response to such disclosures, including reporting to the Garda where required.

Transparency and accountability in the provision of care services should be front and centre in every organisation providing such services to the most vulnerable members of our community. I am shocked about what is contained in the reports and how the reports have been removed from the website. From my contact with some families I know they have been very reluctant to go public because of a deep seated fear that their loved ones' level of service may be affected. The fact that family members of service users are living in fear is enough of a disgrace to warrant a serious, rapid and public response from the HSE and from the Minister.

I thank the Deputy sincerely for raising this important issue. I know it is of great concern to the families affected, many of whom I have had an opportunity to meet, correspond and talk with - as the Deputy has.

I would like to begin by reiterating that the Government's ongoing priority is the safeguarding of vulnerable people who are in the care of the health service, and I appreciate that the Deputy has outlined this also as his ongoing priority. This includes those people who avail of services provided by voluntary organisations such as the service provider in question.

As the Deputy will be aware from his work in Wicklow, Sunbeam House Services is a voluntary organisation providing a wide range of services across east Wicklow and south County Dublin to adults with intellectual disabilities. It is supported financially by the Health Service Executive and received core funding of €24.1 million in 2016. I am very aware of the broad range of supports that Sunbeam House Services has been providing to date for people who have a disability. These services include residential places to those with intellectual disabilities, rehabilitation training places, day services to over 300 clients and home support services to a cohort of 42 adults. It also supports nine respite beds, providing more than 800 places to 51 service users each quarter of each year.

Unfortunately I am also aware that a number of serious issues of concern have been raised by families of service users attending Sunbeam House Services. On foot of these concerns, an externaI assurance review of the systems of governance and management in Sunbeam House Services was recently commissioned by the chief officer of the HSE community health care organisation, CHO 6. I very much welcome that this was an external review because this was important for providing reassurance to families that this would be an external review; someone from outside to look at these issues. The review focused on Sunbeam House Services governance and management structures in respect of the management of complaints, the management of incidents, the management of protected disclosures and the implementation of the HSE’s national safeguarding of vulnerable adults policy.

As part of this process, a review was undertaken of the independent regulator HIQA’s inspection reports on Sunbeam House Services disability residential centres. I understand that in addition the review process involved interviews with families who had raised complaints and concerns. There was also a consultation with service users, because it is important that the voice of the service user is heard in this process, and meetings with staff focus groups.

The review team has now finalised its formal written report in line with its terms of reference. I wish to be clear that I consider the issues to be extremely serious and I have engaged closely with senior management of the HSE regarding the review report. I have stressed the need to ensure that an appropriate implementation plan is put in place as a matter of priority and I understand this is currently being finalised. I will be meeting with HSE management to focus specifically on this issue and I intend to meet tomorrow with representatives of families who have raised concerns. I have been, and will continue to be, very clear that I want to see all recommendations of the report acted upon quickly and any further actions that may be required to be followed up without delay.

In conclusion I wish to assure Deputy Casey that I and my Department will continue to maintain close contact with the HSE with a view to ensuring that all necessary service improvements across the range of services provided by Sunbeam House Services are instigated as soon as possible. I also want to thank the families for coming forward and highlighting these very important issues. If it was not for the families then we would not have the body of knowledge which merited the external review. My assurance to them today on the floor of the Dáil is that each and every one of the recommendations in the report must be implemented by the HSE and by Sunbeam House Services. I expect the HSE to get on with ensuring the implementation plan is in place as a matter of urgency.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House to answer the question himself. I thank him for his response and for his confirmation that he is meeting immediately with the HSE on this matter. I am also delighted to see that he is meeting formally with the families tomorrow. This is what is needed. Now that action is being taken a public response is needed that all service users, the families of service users and front-line staff can take confidence in. There needs to be a rapid, time-bound approach to every single recommendation contained within the reports into Sunbeam House Services. I accept that due process is important but these concerns have been investigated for a long time now. Families have stressed to me how the vanishing of reports from the website has further contributed to the concerns of families.

Reports appeared on the website and were taken down the next minute.

The Minister will be aware of the proposed merger involving Sunbeam House Services, KARE and St. Catherine's, which would, in effect, bring the entire service offered to those with intellectual disabilities in Wicklow under one managing entity. It is my information that the insurance report recommends this merger be put on hold until such time as the issue in respect of Sunbeam House Services has been resolved. If the Minister is not aware of that, I would ask that he come back to me on it. I also ask that he ensure that, at a minimum, this recommendation is followed.

I fully agree with everything Deputy Casey said. I have been involved with advocating for people with disabilities in County Wicklow since my teenage years. I have absolutely no intention of allowing a report that has been commissioned and that has made very clear and stark recommendations to sit on a shelf. It is my absolute determination that the HSE will deliver what Deputy Casey rightfully calls for, namely, a very public response in terms of an implementation plan that shows exactly how we are going to deliver on all of the improvements the report seeks in respect of Sunbeam House Services.

For quite a period, parents have been highlighting concerns about a number of issues at Sunbeam House Services. It is my absolute view that the report vindicates those concerns. I understand the HSE published the report online and that it was subsequently taken down, and that there is some legal or administrative reason for this. The main comfort I take is that the parents have the report. It has been circulated because many parents got it from the website and they have seen it. I am sure Deputy Casey has seen it. I have seen it. There is no doubt about the body of work that needs to be done. I agree with the Deputy about the need to hold off on any merger until all of these issues have been fully resolved.

Many of the staff in Sunbeam House Services have been doing Trojan work at different levels and in a variety of roles. There is a clear need for improvement and things have gone wrong. The report leaves us in no doubt of that. However, for the people who work in Sunbeam House Services and do their very best to provide a good service, for the parents who advocate on behalf of their service users and for the families, I really believe that by working together we can make this an organisation that delivers the type of service we want to see in Wicklow and south Dublin, and one of which everybody can be proud. The report is the beginning of that process and stands as an important roadmap for the improvements we need to see. Now the HSE and Sunbeam need to get on with delivering it.

Mental Health Services Provision

I understand Deputy Buckley wants to accommodate Deputy Ó Laoghaire and that Deputy Kelleher has no difficulty with that.

Last Monday, it was reported in the press that there were no child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, available in emergency departments in Cork. The HSE said that the recruitment difficulties had affected the CAMHS service in Cork, particularly since the start of the year. Since January, it has been particularly difficult to maintain the non-consultant hospital doctors' on-call rota for the two Cork city emergency departments due to a combination of vacancies, sick leave and other factors. However, further resignations - I stress, resignations - and sick leave have compounded the service difficulties. The HSE said that, since 25 March, it has not been possible to guarantee as responsive a service to the emergency departments as it would like. To put the question simply, why is this happening?

The news that broke on Tuesday was of extreme concern to the people of Cork. There was nobody available from the CAMHS teams to see anyone who presented in Cork city last Monday. If a child presented as self-harming or suicidal at the accident and emergency departments of either the Mercy hospital or Cork University Hospital, there was no psychiatrist there to see them. That situation beggars belief.

I know the Minister of State visited Cork a number of months ago and heard about the situation and the services that were available. While there is credit due to her for coming down, it also means she is familiar with the situation. At that time, responding in Leaders' Questions in respect of the issue, the Taoiseach led us to believe that no stone would be left unturned and that every effort would be made to ensure that all resources would be provided to resolve the crisis. Nonetheless, we see a situation in which one of the most fundamental and crucial mental health services for children and adolescents in Cork has been found wanting and left short.

I will read an extract from a letter that was circulated to general practitioners from the mental health Cork and Kerry HSE offices:

In recent weeks, it has been increasingly difficult to maintain out-of-hours, on-call services at the two Cork city emergency departments along with the out-of-hours service to Éist Linn, the CAMHS in-patient unit. The difficult decision has now been taken to prioritise out-of-hours cover to Éist Linn and to postpone out-of-hours on-call cover in the emergency departments until staffing levels improve.

That information was circulated to general practitioners on 7 April in the Cork-Kerry area. Some of the replies I have got back to recent parliamentary questions are quite alarming in terms of the length of time people are waiting for services from CAMHS in the region. Beyond that, it is also a major national problem. I know there is extreme difficulty in recruiting at non-consultant hospital doctor and consultant level. I accept that. However, this has been on the cards for some time. We have been raising the matter for a number of years. We knew there were going to be huge difficulties because of the slow recruitment process. Now that is evidenced on a daily basis in Cork and Kerry and throughout the country.

A general practitioner said he had an extremely vulnerable 14 year old and a 15 year old whom he could not refer to the emergency department as there was no CAMHS support available. While I acknowledge the Minister of State's commitment to this area, we need to expedite the recruitment of clinical personnel to ensure we do not have a situation in which vulnerable children are waiting up to a year for assessment and supports. It simply is not good enough.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I share their concerns, as do the people who are providing the service. They understand the difficulty they are facing and the impact it is having on the young people in the area.

It is the policy of the HSE, under its annual service plan, to provide an age-appropriate mental health service for those under the age of 18. Mental health remains a key care programme priority for this Government, reflected by the fact that the HSE mental health budget increased from around €826 million in 2016 to approximately €853 million this year. The HSE service plan for 2017 commits to further development of child and adolescent mental health services, including better out-of-hours liaison and seven-day response services. This is a strategic priority action in the plan, against a background where the population of children is expected to increase by over 8,500 in the period 2016 to 2017, thereby creating additional demand on CAMHS. Approximately 18,500 referrals are expected to HSE CAMHS this year alone.

CAMHS has been prioritised in new funding made available by the Government since 2012. Additional resources and facilities mean there are now 67 CAMHS teams and three paediatric liaison teams, supported by 66 operational CAMHS beds nationally with further beds planned to come on stream in the near future. CAMHS services in Cork have eight community-based teams. Two of the teams have consultant vacancies, namely team C - Western Road, and North Lee North. Team C has had a vacant psychology post since Christmas 2016, but the executive recently secured a person to fill this post. There have been widely acknowledged difficulties in recruiting and retaining specialist CAMHS staff, particularly consultant psychiatrists, which all of the Deputies have recognised. Recruitment efforts have been ongoing including local and international advertising for a locum consultant in Cork, which have not yielded any success. Unfortunately, there is currently a serious shortage of suitably qualified CAMHS consultants at both national and European level.

The HSE is working to provide the best possible service within available staffing resources. A key focus is on managing clinical risks and prioritising referrals accordingly. All efforts are being made to support teams with additional therapy and administrative resources, notwithstanding the consultant vacancy, to ensure that the best possible service is provided. The rest of the multidisciplinary team associated with team C continues to provide a service to those deemed within their scope of practice. Unfortunately, however, those requiring consultant or psychologist review are currently on a waiting list. The HSE acknowledges that the lack of consultant cover is having a considerable impact on access to the service locally. It is working to explore all avenues for the recruitment of qualified staff to fill vacancies and to replace staff retiring or resigning, particularly in areas such as consultant, psychologist and nursing posts.

I have spoken to Ms Sinead Glennon, head of mental health services in the Cork-Kerry area. I absolutely believe that every stone is being turned and every possible avenue is being looked at to try to fill these posts and cover weekends or various parts of the day. Bearing in mind all of the circumstances, I am satisfied the HSE is making every effort to address this, including the prioritising of cases based on assessed professional need. In other words, I am assured that urgent cases are being prioritised and seen within the recommended level of time. I will continue to monitor this closely in conjunction with the HSE.

Two minutes is 120 seconds. If we divide it by three, speakers have 40 seconds each. You each have time for a supplementary question.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am also satisfied that the HSE is making every effort to address this important issue. This is not a personal attack on the Minister of State but I am somewhat aggrieved. I have some experience of working within the system. I listen to people on a daily basis who are qualified for these jobs. It seems to me that there is no will to hire these people. I urge the Minister of State to approach the HSE and stress this point. The Minister of State stated the HSE was experiencing significant shortages in child and adolescent mental health services personnel. I do not believe that.

I recognise it is likely that every effort is being made to ensure that priorities are being well managed. However, the reality is that we are dealing with an inadequately resourced service. Consequently, as much as the HSE can try to manage priorities, the position is that staff are being stretched too thin. I am particularly concerned about the implications if this arises in an accident and emergency department. Again, children could end up in the accident and emergency department of Cork University Hospital or Mercy University Hospital and not have any psychiatrist available to see them.

I urge the Minister of State to ensure that she keeps on top of this and liaises with the local office and with Ms Sinead Glennon to ensure that recruitment is expedited. If we have to be imaginative in how we recruit, then so be it. We have to bring forward solutions to the problems in the emergency departments where we simply have no resources available for vulnerable children and adolescents, as explained in the letter circulated to GPs. Moreover, in letters GPs have forwarded to local Deputies, GPs have expressed legitimate concerns about their patients being put at risk because of the dearth of supports.

It is absolutely unacceptable that a young person would not be able to receive the level of support needed. Again, we are doing everything we can and not only through the recruitment process. We are trying to improve the environment, facilities and technology to make our mental health services facilities places in which people want to come and work. The fact of the matter is that within the CAMHS teams, a high level of intensity is involved in the work. It means there is a high level of turnover and burnout, especially given the difficult in recruiting consultant psychiatrists. In cases where they leave after a short period, we have to try to recruit again.

I believe every effort is being made. Let us consider the teams and how they can be utilised best. I note we are introducing the new well-being programme in our schools. Before the summer is out, the task force will make known its actions and recommendations to the committee and the Dáil. Many other things are being done to try to stop the number of young people needing services in the first place. This is and will continue to be a priority for me. I will keep the House updated with any development in these areas.

I thank the Deputies and the Minister of State sincerely for their co-operation.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone. I appeal for the co-operation of Deputies. As we have three contributors to the debate, they have approximately 80 seconds each initially. Deputy Burton, you are first.

The reaction of the Government yesterday to the publication of the second interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes came as a slap in the face to many of the people affected by the issues being examined. The ruling out of redress was stupid and foolish on the part of the Government in respect of a report that made no findings of fact.

I wish to highlight the remarks of the unnamed Minister referenced on the front page of The Irish Times today. The Minister in question said that if the Government were to accept the redress recommendations from the commission, then the sky would be the limit for potential future liabilities. I do not think the Minister in question can have read the report because there are no findings of fact in it. Whoever that Minister is, he or she should out him or herself. It is absolutely disgraceful.

The other coverage on the matter is all about fear, including the fear of the mothers and children who were in mother and baby homes. This runs absolutely counter to how to deal with people with sensitivity and care and consideration. I exempt the Minister present from my comments but the stuff in the newspapers from her Government is an absolute disgrace.

Thank you, Deputy. You have to give your colleagues a fair crack of the whip.

I welcome that the interim report is recommending further investigation into addressing the inclusion of those who have been excluded. I welcome that redress has been mentioned. This is obviously the reason we have had to wait seven months for it to be published.

I am concerned by the response of the Minister to the report and her claims that the focus of the report is on children who were unaccompanied by their mothers into the mother and baby homes and county homes. I do not believe that is the case. The report raises far more significant points. The Government's announcement of its unwillingness to examine the issue of redress is an appalling slur on the victims. Again, in the seven months the Government has waited to publish the report, probably many of these people have already died.

Redress was never at the heart of this issue. Over and over again, we never asked about redress. It was always about stolen identity, stolen lives and broken families. No amount of money can compensate for these things. The people concerned want an acknowledgement of what was done to them with the knowledge of the State. The report clearly states that the facts relating to financing gave the State the ultimate regulatory power, that is, the power to close the institutions. The State is responsible and we have to deal with it.

I hesitate to say it but the Minister has added to the abuse of the survivors and what they have suffered. There was no reason for the delay in the report. The Minister has given no proper reason for its delay. It should have been published last September.

Last Friday, the Minister attended a meeting at which she was not asked about redress. She was asked to give a report on the work of the commission and why there was a delay. Pressure was put on the Minister to publish a report and to give maximum information. We asked the Minister whether she knew about briefing documents at the highest level. We asked factual questions relating to the site in Tuam being a crime scene.

The Minister has come back and talked about waffly consultation. We do not know where it will start or who the stakeholders are. The Minister is not giving us a date for the scoping exercise to extend the terms of reference. The Minister has put in transitional justice that no one has sought. The Minister is talking about Caranua version two when Caranua itself is in serious trouble. Reference has been made to the most appalling distinction between accompanied mothers and unaccompanied mothers. Shame on this Government.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter and providing me with an opportunity to discuss the publication of the second interim report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

The commission was set up to inquire into the conditions in mother and baby homes and county homes in the period between 1922 and 1998. Following a short first interim report last July, the commission submitted a second interim report in September 2016. This report deals with a number of issues that had come to its attention during its work and analysis based on information collected up to August 2016.

Yesterday, I published the second interim report of the commission. It is now available on my Department's website. I have been mindful of the time it has taken to publish this report. It has, however, been necessary for me to engage with Cabinet colleagues on issues in the report that extend beyond my remit as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

The focus in this report is on children who were unaccompanied by their mothers in mother and baby homes and county homes. In its interim report published yesterday, the commission suggests that the exclusion of children who were resident in mother and baby homes and in county homes without their mothers from the residential institutions redress scheme, which was established in 2002, should be re-examined. The report states that the commission is satisfied that the institutions it is investigating are unquestionably the main such homes that existed during the 20th century. It does not currently recommend that other institutions be investigated. The commission is not recommending changes to its terms of reference at this time. It may recommend further investigations when its current investigation is completed. It has not made findings to date that abuse occurred in these institutions but notes that its work is not yet complete.

The commission also recognises that people whose births were falsely registered have a need to establish their identities but that the false registration of births is a very difficult issue to investigate because of a lack of accurate records.

The Government has carefully examined the commission’s recommendation regarding redress, and has concluded that it is not possible to implement it. As Deputies will be aware, the residential institutions redress scheme has been closed since 2010. Following the publication of the Ryan report in May 2009, there was a range of requests and calls for the redress scheme to be extended. The then Government took a decision in 2010 not to extend the scheme. The Government in 2013 also decided not to extend the scheme. The then Minister for Education, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, said he found no basis to revisit the decision.

This Government is conscious that the commission has made no findings to date regarding abuse or neglect and believes it would not be appropriate to deal with the question of redress in advance of any conclusion on this issue by the commission. The challenges for Government in considering the recommendations of the commission at this interim stage of its work are clear from the findings of this report.

It is important to remember that the commission’s investigations are ongoing. The Commission’s final report is due in February next year. Its conclusions on this and all matters regarding the treatment of former residents will be studied very carefully at that point. My focus now is on assisting those who were unaccompanied as children in mother and baby homes and county homes, with a view to offering supports that will be of genuine and practical value to them. With this in mind, I will consult with them regarding the nature and type of services and supports in the area of health and well-being that they consider would be helpful to them at this stage. I will conclude this consultation by the end of June, and bring proposals to Government before the summer break, so that we can have appropriate supports in place as quickly as possible.

My Department is working with Tusla to support the provision of information to assist former residents who may wish to establish when they resided in a mother and baby home. I have asked Dr. James Gallen of the school of law and government, Dublin City University, to assist by mapping out a model of transitional justice. This would be a means of giving a voice to former residents of mother and baby homes and county homes. Dr. Gallen’s expertise in transitional justice will help to develop an approach.

I am also carrying out a scoping exercise to examine the possibility of broadening the commission’s terms of reference. This report is very helpful in focusing us on what may possibly emerge in the final report from the commission of investigation.

The Minister must have had a very bad day at Cabinet yesterday because of the briefing around the story and the unnamed coward of a Minister who would not actually put his or her name to what he or she said on the front page of a national newspaper. If that person feels that strongly about this and is a member of the Government, he or she should come out and identify him or herself.

With regard to the mother and baby home redress fears, I think the Minister's intentions are very good. Yesterday, she did a tremendous amount of damage to people who had been in such situations and who were above all else entitled to be treated as free and equal citizens of this Republic, not as victims or survivors. The Minister should have been able to tell us that, even though the decision may not have been made yet and we know there are no findings of fact here, the commission would be widened to all institutions and would include the situation of birth mothers where their consent was not properly forthcoming. We know of many of those cases. It should also include the falsification of records and American adoptions. If the Minister is intent on looking at scoping exercises, can we see scoping exercises that are of meaning and value to people affected by this?

What the survivors have always wanted is acknowledgement, apology and inclusion. The interim report goes some way to saying it warrants further investigation into including those who have been excluded. The decision on which institutions to include and exclude was very inconsistent. That needs to be addressed. There is an urgent need for the Minister to meet with representatives of the survivor groups. They are not happy with the Minister's response and the response of Government. There are things they have consistently asked for that are not being addressed. I know that people like Mr. Paul Redmond and others from the Coalition of Mother and Baby Home Survivors are really keen to have this urgently addressed. The Minister would get the response right if she engaged with them. Time is running out. I urge that this be done as an immediate matter.

When the Minister delayed the report until yesterday, she failed to go back to the commission and ask them to update the report. Events overtook that report and what was discovered in Tuam shocked the Government. The Minister failed to go back to outline the significance of what has happened and to say where we are going with this. The Minister has left it up to a local busy GP who happens to be the coroner to look after the Tuam site. What was the last figure for the number of babies discovered with six mothers on the Tuam site? Can she recall? She is leaving that to a local busy GP. She is going all over the place with consultation, scoping, transitional justice and Caranua. The survivor groups that have spoken to me do not want any of that. They want her to report back on what happened in Tuam over the past six to nine months. Where is that at? How is that influencing the commission? What terms need to be changed? What access to records is there?

Mr. Peter Mulryan, who has given me permission to use his name, is in the High Court trying to get access to his records. It is time for the Minister to stop nodding.

It is time to actually listen. I will finish now-----

The Deputy is way over time.

I am, Chairman. I agree with that. Ms Anna Corrigan from the survivors organisation gave the Minister a list of very practical things last Friday. I ask the Minister to please respond to those.

I appreciate the additional comments of the Deputies. In response to Deputy Burton with regard to stories on the front page and what they say, I do not have any information on that. I know that oftentimes things-----

The Minister's Government agreed it. That briefing was agreed by her Government.

-----are reported that may or may not have happened. I accept and hear what the Deputy is saying, but I just do not have any comment on that. I wish to say very clearly that in terms of the Government's response, it does not mean we have closed off redress for those who have been in mother and baby homes. When the commission finishes its investigations, social history and confidential committee of hearing evidence and makes recommendation to Government, it is then we will have the opportunity to consider redress for those people in those institutions, irrespective of whether that is a part of the recommendations. It is at that stage the commission will have the opportunity to identify whether there are any findings of abuse in the formal process that has been put in place.

I hear what Deputy Daly is saying about the extension of the terms of reference. I committed to looking at that and I am doing so. Deputy Daly talked about listening to survivors, or residents. Some of the people with whom I have spoken to prefer to call themselves residents as distinct from survivors. The Deputy said that what they wanted was an apology. I spoke with a survivor or resident yesterday who did not want an apology. Instead, what she wants is the Head of State to ask for their forgiveness. She sees that as different from an apology. Therefore, I understand that there are lots of different issues that people are seeking to be addressed. Part of the reason for establishing an approach to take a look at the wider ways of listening to what people want, which is part of what is transitional justice, is because of that diversity and the importance of trying to identify it.

In response to Deputy Connolly, I listened very carefully in terms of the meetings on Tuam that were requested. I have received many submissions and have already written letters that are being sent back on how we will progress the different issues that arose. As the Deputy knows, one of the aspects specifically has to do with access to information. That is something about which I spoke in my response to the interim report.

Fire Service Staff

I thank the Acting Chairman for giving me the opportunity to raise what I believe is a very important issue. With the increasing numbers of older people in the country, a demand for long-serving staff naturally increases. We need as many of our most experienced staff to stay in practice as long as possible. Surely, what we should be doing is incentivising them to work for longer.

People are living longer, as can be seen in the changes in the population aged over 65, which has increased by 19.1% since 2011. Every year in Ireland older workers are forced out of their jobs for no other reason than that they reach a certain age.

Some two thirds of firefighters in Ireland are retained firefighters who are not full-time but who are fully trained and paid on a per call basis. Most firefighters in small towns and villages would work in that retained system. The normal retirement age is 55, but firefighters who are physically capable of working beyond the preferred age of 55 have an extended optional period in which to exit the service, subject to certain conditions. Such firefighters have the option to continue working for a defined limited period, subject to compulsory annual medical assessment measured against agreed standards. The extended optional period is up to 58 years. There are retained firefighters throughout the country who would like to see this period extended to 60, and I believe they should have that option.

I appreciate that an agreement was reached between the Local Government Management Services Board and the trade unions involved, SIPTU and the ATGWU, in November 2002, but that is 15 years ago. From that process, an expert group's report on retirement age recommended that the retirement age for the retained firefighters should remain at 55, with provision for an annual extension, subject to medical assessment, up to 58 years of age.

Firefighters, like members of the Garda, should have the option to continue to serve until they reach 60 years of age. Mandatory retirement ages, set arbitrarily on the basis of the worker having lived for a set number of years and not on his or her capability to do the job, constitute a kind of barrier to an age-friendly society. There is evidence that longer working lives have beneficial effects on individuals' physical and psychological well-being. Evidence also shows that workers' productivity does not necessarily decline with age and any decline in physical capacity is easily compensated by qualities and skills acquired through many years of experience.

Mandatory retirement ages take out a significant amount of fire service expertise and leave fire departments that struggle with recruitment and retention. I recognise the rigours of the job and I support the health and safety aspect of legislation, but all firefighters should be treated equally in terms of health and safety, regardless of age. Retained firefighters who are physically capable of working beyond the age of 55 should have the option to continue working until 60, subject to compulsory annual medical assessment.

I thank Deputy Scanlon for raising this important issue and I understand his reasons for bringing it forward. Fire services, in all their facets, are delivered by people. On behalf of the Government, I want to recognise the contribution that all staff in the fire services, both the retained services and the full-time services in Dublin city, make in protecting our communities. I talk to them a lot and I understand the work they do, which they take very seriously at all levels. The Deputy is right that they are constantly updating their skills and trying to push themselves to new levels of expertise. They are genuine in their work and always want to help and serve, which is what they are there for. Over the years, fire services have evolved to give us the quality services we have today, which continue to drive down the annual toll of fire related deaths, injuries and damage.

Fire authorities are subject to legislation as employers in their statutory roles of providing fire services. It is expected that fire services in Ireland will facilitate and provide effective intervention in accordance with the dual statutory responsibilities of fire authorities to protect people and property from fire and also to protect their own employees. This objective presents the challenge of ensuring that personnel achieve and maintain the necessary competence for the range of roles and activities they may be designated to undertake. As I said, I have witnessed them involved in continuing training and education to enhance their skills.

International research indicates that a retirement age of 55 is the optimum age to ensure firefighters are capable of satisfactorily performing the tasks expected of them. The retirement age of 55 years was introduced because of health and safety considerations related to the job. Since the enactment of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 1989, and under subsequent legislation, each fire authority, as an employer, has a statutory duty to avoid placing employees at risk. A full-time firefighter is statutorily required to retire at age 55 under the Public Service Superannuation (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2004. This retirement age reflects the physically demanding nature of the firefighter role. The retirement age for retained firefighters is 55, with an extended period to age 58, subject to a formal application process, including a compulsory medical assessment.

A collective agreement was reached between the Local Government Management Services Board and the trade unions involved, SIPTU and the ATGWU, in November 2002. This collective agreement provided, inter alia, for the appointment of an expert group that in turn would advise as to the retirement age for retained firefighters. The expert group's report on retirement age recommended that the retirement age for retained firefighters remain at 55, with provision for an annual extension, subject to medical assessment, up to 58 years of age. Following the report of the expert group, published in April 2003, a circular was issued by the Department in November 2003 setting out the age requirements in regard to retained firefighters in line with the expert report.

In general, any change proposed by either management or unions is negotiated using the established industrial relations processes. Our fire services are evolving and remain an essential service which plays a vital role both in local communities and nationally. My Department wants to ensure that this service is provided efficiently, safely and with due regard given to the terms and conditions applying to fire authority employees.

I listened with interest to the Minister of State's response. What he said is fact but the case I am making is that these people are well qualified, well trained and keep themselves up to date on all the new ways of dealing with fire. Nobody truly appreciates the work they do until the fire service is needed. The efficient way they carry out their work deserves great credit.

The rules and regulations on retirement are 15 years old. We are told nowadays that 60 is the new 50, so these people are well capable of working for longer. If the same rules applied here in the Dáil, to myself in particular, there would be far fewer people around the Dáil. As it stands, however, nobody can say we do not do our jobs as best we can. These firefighters are fit to carry on their work, subject to medical examination, and this should be considered. At the time these regulations were brought in, such people could claim their pension at 65 years of age but some will now have to wait until they are 67, 68 or 69, so they will be ten years retired and still not able to get an old age pension. This is wrong and should be looked at. I ask the Minister of State to consult the Department to see if anything can be done in this regard.

I understand why the Deputy is raising the issue and I am conscious certain members of the service have been asking for this. However, it is not something that has been brought to my attention on a larger scale, either by the unions or management. It is an issue on which I can do a bit more digging. I recognise that the retirement age is a conversation that is happening in regard to many jobs, but there is an extra dimension to this job, given the physical demands on firefighters. That is why the expert panel relied on international best practice. It was not dreamed up and there was a sound basis to it. Nonetheless, I have no problem in digging a bit behind that because I am conscious that, as the Deputy said, it is 15 years since the decision was made. While there has not been a clamour for this to be looked at, as the Deputy has asked the question, I will ask around and see if there have been changes in other countries that we might need to follow. We relied on best practice at that time and I will make sure that has not changed in other countries.

In regard to pensions, I must check the point but I would imagine they are entitled to certain parts of their pensions related to their job, if not the State pension. That is also something we can look at. I understand the spirit in which the Deputy has raised the point and I will give due consideration to whether it is appropriate to look at this again and perhaps set up a new expert panel. If it is, we will do that, but it might not be appropriate just yet. We will look at what is happening in other countries and then come to a decision. I will consult the Deputy at a later stage.