I acknowledge the work that Deputy O'Connell has done in bringing this Bill to Second Stage. I remember bringing my own first Private Members' Bill to the House in 2011. It is a great honour for those of us who are not Ministers and are not used to bringing legislation forward, as the Minister of State here is, to be able to come into the national Parliament and introduce one's own legislation.
The short answer is Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill through Second Stage but we have a number of serious issues with the Bill as drafted. That is the short version of the speech.
This is the slightly longer version. I want to decouple the intent of the Bill and the reality of the Bill as drafted. I strongly support the intent of the Bill, not all parts but most parts, and the core piece which is essentially to protect patients. That is my understanding of what Deputy O'Connell has just outlined and what is in her briefing notes. This is about protecting vulnerable people and their families from charlatans. It is the case that the organisations which support those patients and families are reporting growing incidents of charlatans targeting vulnerable people and trying to extract as much money out of them as possible.
Arguably, much more worrying in some reported cases, patients are encouraged to stop with their medical treatment. There should be the strongest possible sanctions for anyone who would encourage and succeed in stopping a patient who was being treated for cancer from medical treatment for the disease. We are moving into a new world of social media where regulation and we as legislators lag behind most of the time.
Pre-social media, it would be quite difficult for the snake oil salesman or woman to find and target these people. An ad might possibly be placed outside a local cancer support centre or in a newspaper to get to people but one would be shooting in the dark to a considerable extent. That is no longer the case. An online company can now be paid to identify and find people to a high degree of accuracy who are using keywords like "cancer" and "radiotherapy", people who either have cancer or are doing some research for friends of theirs who have cancer. One can advertise directly to them, to their screen at work or directly into their hand on a smart phone. We are in a completely new world. It is probably appropriate that we take a look at protecting people in that world.
Fianna Fáil will be supporting this Bill through Second Stage because we greatly support the intent of the Bill.
There are several issues I would like to raise for consideration by both the Minister of State and Deputy O'Connell in the current drafting of the Bill between now and the next Stage. The first is that the approach of criminalisation is not my understanding of how one tends to deal with these matters. The idea that someone might advertise something and not be able to meet a certain burden of proof, and potentially to be faced with five years in prison as a result of that, is not typically how these things work. False advertising and targeting in such ways are dealt with in a different way.
For example, the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute took a complaint two years ago to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland in relation to exactly what Deputy O'Connell is trying to stamp out. A nutritional therapist was providing nutritional advice on a website and falsely claiming that it could cure cancer. The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland ruled against the therapist and it was shutdown. The legal advice I have on the Bill is that approach - to begin with everything as a criminal offence but that there are exceptions to that criminal offence - is not how one approaches this type of enforcement or legislation. Perhaps the Government might consider making the approach more parallel to how similar activity is dealt with by the State.
One question I have is why just cancer. If this is where we are going, the Bill needs to be pulled back quite considerably in certain ways but potentially expanded in other ways. Who else is being targeted? Are people with all sorts of other diseases being targeted? If we are doing this, then maybe we should consider doing it as a principle, rather than just for a specific disease, awful, obviously, as that disease is.
I would also like some consideration to be given to how genuine innovation is not deterred. There is the potential, because of the way this Bill is laid out and the provision for a criminal offence with up to five years in prison except in certain circumstances, for a chilling effect on innovation.
This has nothing to do with cancer, but as an example, I was talking to a GP this week who had a patient who had ulcers going down to the bone and who was facing double amputation of his legs. He had tried everything and nothing worked. There is apparently a very clever engineer in Ireland who has invented a type of hyperbaric chamber, the type of chamber that divers are put into for the bends. The idea here is that the person is infused with pressurised, highly oxygenated air. The person sits in the chamber for however long and goes through several sessions. In fairness to the HSE, it funded the treatment and now Laya Healthcare has taken it on. Incredibly, the guy's skin began to grow again.
Super-oxygenated blood got pushed to where it needed to be and the man did not need amputation. That was an engineer doing something clever. It was not about cancer but we need to ensure that, whatever we do in making things illegal, we leave room for people to innovate and do amazing things and be able to talk about what they have done.
One matter I would like to be considered is the idea that people can only advertise to medical professionals. I think I understand why this is proposed. It provides a level of expertise and an expert filter for advertisements but I do not think patients need to be protected in that way. If advertisements are false, then they are false. The idea that someone could advertise to medical professionals but not to the public and that the public are incapable of absorbing this information or doing their own research is not the right way to go. If people are found to be falsely targeting vulnerable people, it does not matter to whom they are advertising. They simply need to be found, stopped and prosecuted for doing so.
There are other questions, including in respect of the prevalence of this issue. Perhaps Deputy O'Connell has provided this information in a briefing note. I have read what I understand to be the briefing note from her but I have not seen research suggesting that 100, 1,000 or 10,000 people are being targeted in this way in Ireland. Such information would be useful.
I have a basic question - I apologise if it a stupid one. Why is this needed relative to the law that is already in place? We have laws in respect of false advertising. I gave an example of the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland using existing legislation to stop someone selling false hope to cancer patients. I am not stating that the Bill is not required but I would like to know what the difference would be, particularly as we already have laws to prevent false advertising.
My understanding is that the Minister of State has laid out how the Department will take the Bill away and do some work on it. Is there a case for a report to come to the joint committee on the matter? There is a rich vein of thinking behind the Bill and perhaps we could go beyond cancer and apply the principle right across healthcare. I am unsure whether this is a matter for pre-legislative scrutiny. That would normally happen before Second Stage or between Second Stage and Committee Stage. That is normally when the committee would engage in pre-legislative scrutiny. If that is not suitable, then certainly an expert report from the Department to committee would be useful. Then perhaps we could discuss the Bill at the joint committee or informally among health spokespeople before Committee Stage. Otherwise we will simply be tabling amendments in the dark. If the Government is coming forward with major changes anyway, there is little point in those of us in opposition proposing amendments to what we can see now because it will all change in any event.
I acknowledge the work of Deputy O'Connell - well done to her. This is important work and I know it is not easy to get a Bill before the House. We support the intent behind the Bill. It sounds as if everyone is open to working together to figure out how to make it work. I have outlined some of my concerns and those of Fianna Fáil, as well as some ideas regarding how to pull some things back and perhaps be more optimistic or forthright in other areas in to expand what is proposed.