Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill 2018: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide that certain persons shall be under a disability for the purpose of bringing actions relating to injuries suffered as a result of maternal ingestion of thalidomide, for that purpose to amend the Statute of Limitations, 1957, and to provide for matters connected therewith.

I thank the Bills Office for its assistance in the production of this Bill. The Bill will provide that people who suffered as a result of maternal ingestion of thalidomide are not excluded from pursuing their cases because of time limits in the Statute of Limitations Act 1957. The Bill will amend the Statute of Limitations Acts of 1957, 1991 and 2000. I am inserting into the Acts that: "A person shall, in respect of injuries suffered by that person as a result of the ingestion of thalidomide by that person's mother during the person's gestation period, be deemed to be under a disability."

The background to this is that the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and his Department have been trying to technically knock-out thalidomide victims and litigants and victims by using these limits in a case management action in the High Court. New thalidomide victims who have emerged since the 1960s, as well as those not acknowledged as survivors back then, remain unacknowledged by the HSE and the Minister for Health. They have never received any entitlements from the State associated with their injuries. They should have the right to make their case if they can, and should not be locked out by a timing or technical issue. The State, through the Irish Thalidomide Medical Assessment Board of the 1960s, failed to acknowledge many people who were injured by the ingestion of thalidomide by their mothers. Fifty years later, sufferers are still emerging as there is a degree of cover-up associated with the existence of records. The unfortunate situation is that my Bill is sadly too late to help two of these litigants, who have passed away since the action began four years ago. I hope the Government will take this legislation on board so that those who have survived can proceed with their cases. It is not right that they should be stopped from taking their cases because of the Statute of Limitations. They deserve the right to pursue their action. Even with my proposed change, those people will still have to prove their cases, which will not be easy, given the length of time involved.

Thalidomide survivors have been subjected to threats - by way of court applications - that their claims will be struck out on the grounds of timing and for the failure to provide medical records details. The State is being intransigent and difficult with thalidomide survivors, which is shameful given what befell those people. Furthermore, this House is being told that the reason the litigation is not resolved is that any payments of compensation would become deductible from German or Irish state pension entitlements. This statement is inaccurate. These litigants have never received a penny of compensation or of pension entitlement, or any thalidomide-related benefit at all from the State. A 2010 State Claims Agency report on the thalidomide controversy was fundamentally flawed, and the State has held on to an entrenched position because of that. The report did not acknowledge that thalidomide remained on the Irish market for several years after the date of the knowledge that it posed a risk. Like the cervical cancer cover-up of this century, in the previous century, pregnant women who ingested thalidomide were never told that their unborn babies could have been injured in utero. Why Ireland neglected to withdraw and recall thalidomide in a timely manner back in the 1960s has never been properly explained.

Unlike in the aftermath of the cervical cancer controversy though, no provision of funding has been delivered to the HSE by the Minister for Health or his Department to enable it to provide the necessary medical records to thalidomide litigants. The Minister of Health has a conflict in this matter. On one side, he underfunds the HSE's facilities for the provision of medical records, with the consequent effect that thalidomide litigants are placed in a vulnerable position in that their cases could be struck out for failure to provide medical records. On the other side, the Minister for Health is a defendant in the very same court proceedings. It is therefore within his remit and that of his Department to cure the issue upon which advantage is being sought in regard to litigation.

The Minister and his Department need to end the two-faced tactic of sympathising with victims on one hand and blocking their progress on the other. In this action by the thalidomide survivors, more than 1,100 court documents have had to be filed so far. Some 1,539 of the medical records have been sought by the defendants and the Minister from the survivors as well. The hospital system's ability to deliver the records is very limited, so the litigants are in a catch-22. It is important that the medical records are delivered to the litigants, and I would like to see collective agreement in this House so that this legislation can be progressed. I welcome the thalidomide survivors who are in the Gallery today and want to see political progress on this. This is something that we can do for them, to help them in their court action so that the matter is progressed. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to introduce the Bill. I would like to see it progressed quickly to Second Stage, Committee Stage and beyond.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

I ask Deputy Chambers to move that Second Stage be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.