Leaders' Questions (Resumed)

We will now move on.

I am going to speak now.

It is not possible to put into words the sheer horror of the inferno that engulfed the lives of maybe as many as 80 innocent people in the Grenfell Tower in London. It is emerging now that not only were people burned alive in that inferno but many of them were poisoned by cyanide released from the combustible material that was used to clad that building. What is now becoming increasingly apparent is that this is not simply a huge humanitarian and personal tragedy but it is an absolute scandal and outrage. It is not an exaggeration to say that what happened in Grenfell was murder by negligence, murder by austerity, murder by cutbacks, murder by inequality and murder resulting from utter contempt for the well-being of the less well off in British society.

The Grenfell Action Group, the residents association, warned several times in the two years preceding this tragedy that the tower was an accident waiting to happen.

In November last year, in prophetic words, they said, "It is a truly terrifying thought, but the Grenfell action group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord", the housing association managed by Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council. As well as extending our solidarity to people, the question for us is could Grenfell happen here and are we prepared to ensure that it does not? We have had warnings from Kevin Hollingsworth, quantity surveyor and expert in this area, from Dublin Fire Brigade and other fire experts, all saying categorically that Grenfell could happen here.

Kevin Hollingsworth has said that 40% of the multi-occupancy units built during the period of the Celtic tiger are fire hazards. Fire expert, Noel Manning, says that the building regulations which were updated this year have completely ignored the warnings of fire consultants, that the regulations themselves are defective and can produce the sort of chimney effect that we saw in Grenfell because they do not have proper fire resistance because they do not provide for proper fire resistance between units in multiple-occupancy buildings. We have the scandal of self-certification when buildings are being designed and constructed and we have no inspection whatsoever of buildings that may be unsafe. What is the Government going to do about this to ensure we do not have a repeat of the utter tragedy and outrage of Grenfell?

No words can adequately deal with the horror that unfolded in London with this horrific and tragic fire which saw the loss of so many lives. It undoubtedly raises questions in the UK regarding the kind of issues that the Deputy mentioned, but every country will want to examine whether their own fire safety measures are good enough, if materials are being used in cladding such as the ones used in the UK, and to review fire safety. The Minister has already started to do all that. Of course a tragedy like that raises question and means that we have to review everything. I want to assure the House that is being done. That process was started immediately by the Minister, Deputy Murphy.

I will make some points on fire fatalities in this country. While each fire death is one too many, the annual fire death rate per million people in Ireland has been almost halved over the past 15 years from on average 11.9 fire fatalities per million population for the years 2001 to 2003 to 6.9 in 2014 to 2016. It is important to note that because we do not want people to become unduly anxious about this issue here, although questions arise. Our country is among those with the lowest incidence of loss of life in fire, which is an important context in which to consider this matter. Nevertheless, we need to examine recent builds and I take the point that the Deputy makes. We need to be sure that our building regulations are up to the task, that we have the personnel in force to supervise them, that the local authorities have the staff they need to continuously monitor the situation.

At present, there is a report into the fire in Newbridge, which I expect the Minister will discuss in the House once it is available. Following the introduction of the building control amendment regulation 2014 there is a requirement on the owner of a building to assign a competent professional to act as an assigned certifier in relation to individual projects, and to lodge a statutory certificate of compliance on completion with the local building control authority. We have been taking increased action to ensure that the building regulations are adequate to deal with the task that the Deputy outlined. Again, part B of the building regulations set the minimum standards for fire safety in the new buildings and in buildings that are undergoing material change, which is also important. That is now captured in our building regulation.

One can never be vigilant enough, but, as I said, the Minister has started a review and is examining the overall position. I have no doubt that if extra precautions and further initiatives are needed, they will be taken.

I know that we had a break and the nomination of the Taoiseach and so on, but even at this late stage it might be useful, if there is agreement, to have a minute's silence before the Order of Business in memory of the Grenfell Tower residents. A strong statement needs to go out from all of us in this House expressing our solidarity in the matter. It is welcome that building standards have improved and that the number of fire fatalities is low, but I am not satisfied with the Government's response to date. I have been told that, despite seeking submissions on the new building regulations and meeting some of the fire experts, the Government has ignored requests to update the fire regulations to ensure fire resistance and structural integrity between units is at the level it should be. The fire in Newbridge proved this. The buildings had been signed off on and certified as safe, yet the fire spread through eight units in 28 minutes. It should have taken 420. What we are being told by fire experts is that a huge percentage of buildings in this country are not safe because the regulations are defective and local authorities have been gutted of their ability to inspect them.

Lastly, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle-----

A minute is a minute, not a minute and a half.

The self-certification process is not acceptable.

As I said, this area is being reviewed by the Minister who took action immediately. He requested all local authorities to review their multistorey social housing units to ensure all early warning systems, including alarm and detection systems; emergency lighting; means of escape - a big issue in the Grenfell Tower fire; and corridors, stairways and emergency exits, were in place and fully functional. I agree with the Deputy that safety must be our first concern. A meeting of the management board of the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management also took place. It was convened by the Minister on Tuesday, 20 June, to assess the readiness of fire authorities to respond to emergencies.

On raising awareness among landlords, including landlords of households in receipt of social housing supports and rental assistance payments, the Minister asked the Residential Tenancies Board to notify all landlords immediately of their responsibilities and obligations to ensure their properties were fully compliant. A business control management system alert was issued to all registered users to remind those involved in works in existing or new buildings of the need to remain vigilant to ensure their compliance.

The Deputy has raised very relevant issues, as I said, not just in the United Kingdom and Ireland. I am sure that what happened in Grenfell Tower will prompt a re-evaluation internationally of the approach to fire safety, particularly in high rise buildings. Ireland should and will be no different. If what the Deputy says is true, if some people are concerned about specific issues, I hope they will bring them to the attention of the Minister immediately in order that they can form part of the review and the response to ensure extra measures will be taken, if necessary.

The Tánaiste has taken two minutes. Deputy Mattie McGrath has three.

South Tipperary General Hospital is about to enter its 19th month of being forced to operate under the HSE's full capacity protocol. According to Paud O'Regan, a consultant who has been working at the hospital for a long time, the 79-bed medical department has been working at 150% capacity for a dangerously long period. Given that the new Taoiseach was Minister for Health, visited the hospital at the time and introduced the full capacity protocol, he will be aware that it was issued in spite of overwhelming objections from the INMO and all nurse and other trade union representative organisations. It results in the placing of additional patients in inappropriate areas of hospitals, leading to overcrowding on wards, not just emergency departments. It creates overcrowding problems in two areas of the hospital, instead of one. Organisations such as the INMO and emergency medicine practitioners regularly damn the protocol because, in their view, the care of all patients is compromised by this practice which creates a loss of dignity for patients and an increased risk of cross-infection. There are 19 patients on trolleys today in South Tipperary General Hospital, STGH, in this fine high summer weather.

The longest day of the year was only yesterday.

With regard to providing additional support to STGH in the short term, I was advised by the Minister for Health that the HSE is working towards additional surge capacity - these are wonderful words - through the fit-out of additional space on the first floor of the hospital to alleviate pressure on the accident and emergency department under the national framework for alternative accommodation on hospital sites. All we get is words, analogies and acronyms. This additional capacity was expected to be available from May and could be used to accommodate up to 11 trolley bays on a corridor. Yesterday, the Minister told me that he has not even begun recruiting to staff this accommodation.

We have been recruiting.

It is almost certain that the so-called modular patient unit designed and created by my colleague, which was supposed to be delivered last October at the latest, will not be in place this year, not to mind next year. How can any hospital be expected to cope under such conditions? We have years of acknowledgement of the capacity issues in the hospital but there has been almost zero impact in reducing numbers of patients on trolleys. I would like to praise the consultants and all the front-line staff who try to deal with patients under those conditions. They have been working for 19 months under a full capacity protocol, FCP, which is another great acronym drawn up by the HSE. What does that mean?

It is not an acronym.

That protocol is for an emergency, not a 19-month period. This is not acceptable. Cashel hospital is lying idle up the road and we have brought the Minister to see it. Yesterday, the Taoiseach quoted John F. Kennedy but I have another quote from him from 1962: "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic". It is not acceptable that we have to put up with this. Deputy Kelleher outlined earlier what happened down the road in Waterford. We are not second-class citizens in Tipperary or Waterford and we need this hospital to be included in the new capital programme this year.

The Deputy did not mention The Who.

The Deputy tabled a parliamentary question on this yesterday. He and Deputy Lowry have continually raised this issue and both Deputies have had continual discussions with the Minister. They invited the Minister to Tipperary and he visited the hospital.

I was there as well.

Local public representatives were recently in the hospital to see the progress and to be brought up to date on the plans and the actions the Minister has taken in respect of the capacity issues the Deputy has raised. The Minister recognises that action needs to be taken and the Deputy will acknowledge that he has taken action. He outlined to the Deputy yesterday the provision of 11 new trolley bays on the first floor of the hospital, which are being put in place to alleviate pressure on the accident and emergency department. The recruitment process has been undertaken to provide the staff to support this.

There are no staff.

The process is under way and the unit is expected to open in September 2017. The Minister is also examining the additional supports that can be put in place for Our Lady's Hospital Cashel, because, as the Deputy rightly said, that could also help to alleviate pressures on the accident and emergency department of STGH. There has been progress. The Minister is examining the provision of additional modular units across the country and Tipperary could benefit from that as well.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul.

A master plan is being put in place, for which procurement has commenced, to ensure development can take place on the STGH campus. The Minister is keenly aware of the issues raised by the Deputy and Deputy Lowry. His plan is being implemented and he has taken action. That will begin to deal with the issues the Deputy has outlined relating to the capacity of the hospital.

The myth has been peddled by the Government and the previous Government that the trolley crisis is getting better but we all know it is not. Deputy Barry mentioned The Who. I quoted lyrics from the band last week: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss". Now meet the new Tánaiste and the new Minister for Health; they are the same as the old Tánaiste and the old Minister for Health

With regard to temporary patient accommodation solutions for STGH, the Minister confirmed in reply to a parliamentary question I tabled only eight weeks ago that the mini-tender procurement process for the hospital had still not even been finalised 18 months later.

The Minister in his reply also made it clear that decisions will be made based only on the outcome of that mini-tender procurement process.

It is all baloney. This is an indictment of the lack of HSE will to escalate this issue, particularly since there is, at least on paper, an explicit acceptance from the HSE and the Department that South Tipperary General Hospital has specific challenges in regard to capacity. That is not acceptable. We have to be included in the mid-term review of the investment programme. We have been neglected for too long. All the platitudes, mini-tenders and hotel accommodation in the world are no good for the sick people of Tipperary or the staff at South Tipperary General Hospital, who work so hard. We need new ideas. It cannot be the same old boss, old Tánaiste and old Minister.

The Deputy has to recognise, first, that this issue is being taken extremely seriously. As I said, Deputy McGrath and Deputy Lowry have raised it continuously, as has Deputy Healy.

I thank the Tánaiste.

The Deputy is welcome. It is on the priority list. It is clear that the initiatives that require capital investment are regarded as a priority by the Minister.

In terms of the mid-term review of capital projects, that clearly will be there on the list, although there have been no decisions yet in regard to it. There is a plan for the 11 extra beds to deal with the demands on the emergency department and a masterplan for the entire hospital, as well as a plan for the campus. The hospital will also benefit from the review in regard to the modular units on which the Minister is working.

It is recognised. It is wrong of the Deputy to say it has not been seen as a priority. Action is being taken. Everything I have outlined to the Deputy-----

Show me the money.

-----shows him that plans are underway and that capacity will come on stream in the time ahead. I recognise the Deputy's passion in this regard and his wish to see action. The Minister is responding to that.