Questions remain on deaths in care: early start of inquiry now crucial

May 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

I welcome the belated clarification from the HSE regarding the number of children who died while directly in their care over the past decade. Even though the figure is considerably smaller than some speculation, it is still deeply disturbing that so many children died while in the direct care of the state.

It is also clear that this death toll represents only one part of the picture. There appear to have been a significant number of deaths of children who at one stage or another had come to the attention of the HSE, or who had just recently left formal care, and this may have led to the higher figure. This broader information must now be compiled and provided without further delay.

The manner in which this affair has been handled by the government and the HSE has been quite chaotic, and damaging to public confidence in the system. The confusion over the number of deaths, the ongoing failure to provide definitive figures, the refusal of the HSE to hand over files and the failure of the government to get a grip on the situation has led people to ask ‘who exactly is in charge?’.

It is now essential that we get final figures from the HSE on the full number of deaths; that the government introduces the promised legislation to allow for the urgent transfer of files; that the Gibbons/Shannon Inquiry is allowed to get under way; that we learn the lessons from these tragic deaths; and that children who end up in the care of the state are given the level of care and protection that they need.

It is vital too that we move beyond this week’s controversy about numbers and get on with dealing with the tragic human stories behind these statistics.

Why must Ministers seek legal advice to deal with the HSE?

May 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

It is true that the accountability issue has been raised again in sharp relief in the investigations into the deaths of children in care. Given how often we are told that there is such a large amount of public resources devoted to the health services administered by the HSE, the blockage between those of us elected to these Houses and the people providing the services, which means it is not possible to establish precisely what is occurring, is incredible. Not even the Minister of State appears to be in a position to establish what is occurring.

The matter of different bodies arranging legal advice between themselves to establish their positions and whether they can move an issue forward is an extraordinary spectacle. Is it €16 billion per annum for the health Vote?

Members and, judging by what he has stated, the Minister of State cannot establish basic information without there being a competition between us and the HSE about legal advice. It is incredible that any democratic country is unable to have a proper debate or to establish information directly in the Houses. The HSE might have the best will in the world, but the manner in which it is configured and organised means it operates as a block to true democratic accountability in respect of child care and health services.

This matter is raised repeatedly in the House. How many more times will it be raised by practising, concerned politicians without anything seeming to happen? That people need to seek legal advice to establish whether they can do the jobs they are there to do is a spectacle.

HSE may not be fit-for-purpose to provide care to children

May 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The inability of the HSE to clarify just how many children have died in their care in the last ten years is profoundly worrying.

The HSE was asked some months ago to compile figures on how many children in their care had passed away, but have STILL not been able to come up with a definitive number. This defies belief.

I appreciate that a portion of the period involved predates the establishment of the HSE. However, in a matter of such seriousness it is simply incredible that detailed records of the deaths of these children are not available, or that at the very least, that the number of such children is not known by senior HSE officials.

According to the CSO, excluding neo-natal deaths a total of about 300 children die each year, and the notion that as many as 20 of them are under HSE care hardly bears thinking about.

The further revelation today that the independent panel set up to look into the deaths of children in HSE care has still not received a single file on the individuals involved only adds to the picture of dysfunctionality and incompetence in the HSE.

Last week, the remains of Daniel McAnaspie were discovered in a field in Co Meath. The shocking murder of Daniel at a time when he was living in the care of the HSE is but the latest in a litany of scandals to beset the the organisation.

We now must ask the question as to whether the HSE is indeed fit-for-purpose when it comes to providing and managing child-care services.

Greek crisis shows need to reform elements of EU mechanisms

May 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Some two weeks ago when the Euro loan facility was first introduced, it was suggested it was a godsend that the Government could lend to Greece at a higher rate than the rate it would have to borrow the money. I was glad this argument did not feature in the Dáil. I was beginning to wonder if that were the case, why were we not borrowing money from the international markets to lend to countries in difficulty all the time and, accordingly, solving many of our own problems. I am glad this argument was abandoned, as no one in his or her right mind would argue this is some process in which we want to be involved.

This loan facility is about showing solidarity among members of the eurozone. It is not the solidarity we had in mind when we joined the euro or the European Union. None of us expected solidarity would require us to dig deep in our own pockets for others. However, that is what has occurred. This solidarity is predicated mainly on a sense of “There but for the grace of God go we”. There is a certain vested interest in this solidarity, as we might face the same fate as the Greeks in the future.

This so-called bailout for Greece could be transformative for the entire eurozone. However, we should rise above that particular level of discussion and argument, true and all as it may be, and start to contemplate and consider the real transformation this will likely bring, ultimately, to the whole nature of the European project, to the eurozone and to the mechanisms that have been deployed to date through the Stability and Growth Pact and elsewhere. It appears as if the Stability and Growth Pact is finished as a real mechanism or as a mechanism with credibility in any sense or one which can be restored to any level of credibility. A more complex set of measures must be agreed and imposed throughout the eurozone to achieve the type of convergence and economic co-operation or cohabitation among different economies within what is, essentially, a single currency, but also a unified economic system. There is no doubt that the mechanisms put in place at the beginning have been found wanting and that they appear to have collapsed. A meeting tomorrow of the ECOFIN Ministers takes place today to examine the implications for the future of what has occurred and to begin to ask questions about what new mechanisms should be put in place. This must be considered. It should lead to a broader political debate in this country as well regarding what we can expect in future.

Last week, there was a skirmish about sovereignty. People got very excited on the Government side at the point made by the leader of the Fine Gael Party to the effect that there was a threat to Irish sovereignty in respect of several instruments such as corporation tax. We must see beyond a reactive debate when someone makes such a remark. We must all understand there is no question but that the character of the relationship between an individual country and the eurozone will change and there will be a great political battle about this in the coming years. « Read the rest of this entry »

Time to admit ‘implementation difficulties’ in children’s services are actually failings

May 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Politics enters the equation when we come to discuss the requirement to allocate resources, expand provision and fund changes and improvements to children’s services. At its heart, politics relates to the allocation of public resources and the setting of priorities. As stated on previous occasions, I have never perceived debates of this nature as occasions on which to engage in party political contests. I certainly did not perceive the two to two and a half years the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children spent discussing this matter as an opportunity to engage in such a contest. However, that is not to state that politics does not enter the equation. As already indicated, it enters the equation in the most general sense when we discuss the level of priority we ascribe to this subject and the level of priority we are prepared to attach in respect of the requirement relating to the provision of additional resources.

We have debated matters of this nature with the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, on several occasions. I have no doubt that he is obliged to watch his p’s and q’s. I am not stating that he might misrepresent the position but he is obliged to defend the Government. He is not going to inform us that he is pressing for additional resources but that his requests have so far been refused. Nor is he going to state that attempts to employ the additional 265 social workers that are required will be accelerated or that these people should be recruited forthwith. I would be surprised if I was wrong in thinking that if it were left to the Minister of State, the recruitment of these social workers would be completed very quickly. However, action in this regard has been no more forthcoming than that required, in the context of additional funding and resources, in the area of child protection. Politics, therefore, enters the equation in that sense.

Opposition politicians are not only entitled to criticise the Government but are under a duty to do so, particularly where it makes commitments on which it fails to deliver. We would not be doing our job if we failed to engage in such a critique of the Government. However, I am not, as already stated, seeking to obtain a party political advantage in respect of this issue. I disagree with those who attempted to take such an approach to this matter in the past.

The debate on the report of the Ombudsman for Children provides us with a good opportunity to reflect on what we are doing. I accept we would not have time to do so but I believe we would be better served if we were to examine the report on a line-by-line basis. « Read the rest of this entry »

Ministers need to withstand “fierce pressure” from developers

May 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

It is interesting to note that last week the Taoiseach – to the extent that he did so, I welcome it – appeared to move from the narrative of “we are where we are” and made an attempt to recognise the significant contribution he himself and Governments of which he had been a member had made to the situation at which we had arrived, where we were close to the verge of bankruptcy.

In order that we are clear on what I am saying, I merely refer to his contribution and role, as people get carried away by what they believe are exaggerated criticisms of the Taoiseach; I am not saying he was entirely responsible. He played a significant role, for which he must answer. I, therefore, would like to know when the Honohan report will be published and whether we can have a debate on it in the Seanad.

We should include in that debate the remarkable statement made last week by the Taoiseach’s immediate predecessor, Deputy Bertie Ahern. It was truly remarkable, but it did not receive much attention. When talking about tax incentives, he agreed that they should have been got rid of much sooner. He went on to state, “there were always fierce pressures … there was endless pressure to extend them.” He stated the pressure had come from developers, the owners of sites, areas that had not seen development, community councils, politicians and civic society. That is an extraordinary statement that should be subject to scrutiny.

When we talk about having debates about politicians and the noble profession of politics, as I believe it is, we also must look at the responsibilities of a Government and politicians in government. The people are entitled to expect more of a Taoiseach or Minister that, when he or she is put under pressure, whether it be “fierce pressure” or “endless pressure”, by developers or the owners of sites, he or she will withstand it, when it is appropriate to do so. We need developers and builders and while I am prepared to accept and have no difficulty in accepting that they are perfectly entitled to meet Ministers, officially and formally, I expect more of Ministers, that they will not roll over and do the bidding of such individuals when they seek to apply pressure, whether it be “fierce pressure” or “endless pressure”, which words are not mine but those of the former Taoiseach.

Public Representatives need to be careful not to politicise pay deal

May 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

There was a debate on the Croke Park Pay Deal in the Seanad this afternoon. This was my contribution.

I listened carefully to what Senator Martin Brady said. I have rarely heard a more balanced and fair-minded treatment of the current situation in regard to industrial relations and the Croke Park deal throughout any of the debate in recent weeks. What he said is right and fair. It evinces an experience he clearly has had, as I have had over quite a number of years as a trade unionist and as someone who worked within trade unions and understands the complexity of the situation. People are faced with a proposal which possibly could be characterised as trying to make a decision between something that is deeply unpalatable on the one hand or catastrophic on the other hand. People are trying to make a decision based on two options that are presented to them, neither of which is palatable and neither of which they wish to take. However, there are being asked to take one or other option and that is what they will do.

I endorse what my party leader, Deputy Gilmore, said, on the publication of this agreement – when he welcomed and commended Mr. Mulvey on the work he had done and the parties who took part in the negotiations – that it will need to be considered by trade union members in a calm and rational way – as Senator Brady has said – taking into consideration all factors, including the need for public service reform, for which I agree there is a pressing need, the state of the national finances, the level of unemployment and conditions in the private sector. They are grave issues which must be taken into account and I have no doubt they will be by the many thousands of people who will vote on this agreement in the coming weeks.

My party was mentioned on a few occasions during the course of this debate, which is not entirely unexpected and perhaps not entirely unrelated to a certain recent opinion poll about which many people seem to be very excited. A question that arises is what is the role of public representatives in circumstances where a deal or a draft agreement such as this is being voted on. I am not aware in all my years of observing public affairs and trade union affairs of Opposition parties ever endorsing an agreement or a draft agreement or being asked to do so. What is behind this, far from being an attempt to pull back from politicising is in truth a lamentable attempt to politicise what is happening. People should be very careful and should pull back from doing so.

In this context I will refer to Jack O’Connor. He has been praised and it has been said that he is doing a very difficult job and so on. This is a man people were very happy to demonise up to a few weeks ago, and are now happy praise as someone who is at the heart of what needs to happen and people are being encouraged to go with what Jack O’Connor recommends. I have enormous respect for Jack O’Connor – he is somebody I know well.

What do we seek to achieve or what do we believe we can achieve in this debate? Is it that we believe that by taking a particular position we can encourage or change people’s minds as to how they will vote? I do not accept that people seriously believe that what is said in this Chamber, for which I have great respect, this afternoon or what is said by political leaders will be in any way decisive as to how people will vote on this agreement. People have to take into account what their union executives say, whether it is the CPSU or otherwise. They have to make a decision based on their and their family’s future and the situation they face on practical level every day.

It is noteworthy that people say that we should look to what Jack O’Connor is saying, and that he is the person on whose judgment we should be relying; I would have thought there would be a premium on his judgment in terms of how this deal can be got across the line. What individual in this country has the best judgment as to what is required in order to get this deal across the line? I believe it is Mr. O’Connor and Mr. Begg. What do they say in relation to public representatives and political parties on this issue? What Jack O’Connor in particular said is that he has appealed to politicians in all parties to refrain from commenting on the proposed Croke Park agreement in order to allow trade union members time to focus on the intrinsic merit, or otherwise, of the proposals during the balloting period. I will not be told, anymore than anybody else here will be, what to say or not to say or whether to speak or not to speak by Jack O’Connor but it is interesting that this is the person who people are now lauding as being the man who will get this deal across the line.

The Minister of State’s speech today was quite calm, he did not oversell, overtalk and over-extend himself. That is exactly the tone that should be adopted. I agree with very much of what is the agreement. It is a framework which presents a necessary agenda for public service reform. The Minister is correct in saying that it will go a long way towards ensuring the engagement of public service workers in their future, which is what we want to see happening. As I have stated previously in this House, one cannot impose change on people in terms of getting their co-operation. One can cut staff and move people around by stealth but at the end of the day if one wants a working professional loyal public service, the only way to achieve this is to allow people themselves to negotiate on all the issues of flexibility and change required, which I accept are required.

The best way forward in the circumstances is to allow the experienced trade union leaders and their members to carefully reflect on what is at stake. I do not believe it is a matter on which political parties should call for a vote one way or the other, although we have been called on to comment and have done so. Let us hope that we now have a real opportunity for public service reform, contrary to the dreadful crisis before Christmas when that attempt appeared to blow up in everybody’s face.

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