I spoke in the Seanad yesterday regarding amendments to the Health Identifiers Bill 2013. The Health Identifiers Bill 2013 is a crucial step in modernising and transforming our health services. In fact, it’s a key component of the Government’s eHealth Strategy. With this legislation, every single patient and health service provider will be given their own unique health identifier/number that will work across the health service, both public and private.
It is telling that there are no voices calling for retention of the Senate in its current form. Even those who say we should keep the Senate appear to accept that it is fundamentally flawed, forcing them to ground their campaign on contradictory, and largely unworkable proposals for “reform”.
Labour Party TD for Dublin South and Minister of State for Primary Care, Alex White, will be Labour’s Director of Elections for the two upcoming referenda to abolish Seanad Eireann and to establish a Civil Court of Appeal.
I am afraid it is not credible to say that by his statement at the weekend the Taoiseach has got himself into the driving seat. The Taoiseach has been in the driving seat for 18 months in this country.
Prior to that, he was in the seat beside the driver as he was in the Department of Finance for an extended period. I am not prepared to go along with the notion that the Taoiseach now has credibility on public sector reform. He just does not have that credibility. There is a cabinet sub-committee that is supposed to be meeting on this issue for the last year and a half, but the Taoiseach could not even answer the question yesterday on whether that committee had met. I understood from his response that it has not met. It is no use saying the Taoiseach has now put himself into the driving seat. The Taoiseach has had every opportunity for 18 months and more to address these issues, but he has failed to do so, along with his Government.
It is perfectly legitimate for people to criticise the public service and to call for reform, as I have. The problem is that the debate has become suffused with anecdote, prejudice and worse. Everybody has their story about the public service and what should happen. However, the Government gets to do more than what we get to do, which is to come in here and call for things to happen. It is ludicrous for RTE to report the Taoiseach as “calling” for public service reform. That is what we do in here. We call for things but unfortunately we have little or no power to deliver them. The Taoiseach does not get to call for things. He gets to do things. That is why he is the Taoiseach.
We should forget about calling for things and expressing wishes. Let us have a balanced review of the problems that exist and of the issues in the public service that require reform. That can be done in a relatively short period. Let us then have some action on the issue. People who are marching on the streets are being told they are the problem, but they are not the problem. Cuts do not amount to reform. If people are serious about reform, let us have a balanced assessment on what needs to be done and then let us have some action.
Yesterday, the Seanad met for the first time since Fine Gael Leader Enda Kenny proposed the abolition of the Upper House. Unfortunately, due to a prior commitment, I only got to put forward my view at this morning’s Order of Business. Below is a transcript of my contribution:
Senator Alex White: I wish to comment briefly on the issues which exercised Members yesterday. I listened to the proceedings on the radio in my car and what I heard was quite bleak. It pains me to say it.
Senator David Norris: We missed the Senator.
Senator Alex White: Over and over again, Members were exploding with indignation. I include in that the Senator who has just—–
Senator Paschal Donohoe: Exploded.
Senator Alex White: Yes.
Senator David Norris: If that was an explosion—–
An Cathaoirleach: Members should cease interrupting. There should not be a repeat of what occurred yesterday.
Senator Alex White: There is a serious point to be made in respect of this matter. It was stated on the radio a few moments ago that in the eyes of many members of the public, the show was over for the Seanad.
It may seem I am adopting a holier-than-thou attitude. However, I accept that I am sometimes not behind the door in interrupting other Members.
Senator Terry Leyden: Why was the Senator not present yesterday?
Senator Alex White: Members of Parliament should have a better sense of what—–
Senator Terry Leyden: The Senator should have been here.
Senator Alex White: This is another example of that to which I am referring.
An Cathaoirleach: Senator Leyden should not interrupt. This type of behaviour marked yesterday’s proceedings.
Senator Alex White: People who have been Members of Parliament for 20 years or more do not appear to be able to act with a basic level of decorum.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: At least we were here.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Yes, we were.
A Senator: Please allow the Senator to finish.
Senator Alex White: During yesterday’s proceedings Senator Regan took the opportunity to misquote me. I never stated this House served no useful purpose. I am not a supporter or member of the Fine Gael Party. However, for Senator O’Toole to describe what seems to be a genuine proposal that we consider the concept of institutional reform – including as it relates to this House – as harking back to the 1930s is so absurd as to draw the level of debate so far down that said debate is almost not worth having.
Are we wasting our breath asking the Leader of the Seanad to arrange a debate on the economy? We keep doing so but, as a child might say, “It keeps not happening.” Is there any point in our seeking it?
I have just come from addressing a group of school students on the south side of the city. They all want to talk about the economy and the recession and what Governments and politicians are doing about it, yet we cannot have a debate thereon in the House. We were supposed to have a rolling debate? What is a rolling debate? In any event, it is what we were promised two or three weeks ago. It certainly has not started rolling yet.
Today the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance are to announce a programme of significant public sector reform. I welcome the programme for two reasons, the first of which is that no reasonable person could object to a serious programme of reform in the public sector. The second reason I welcome it is that I hope it will put an end to the phoney debate on the public service.
Very often people make statements about the public service that are long on rhetoric and short on specifics. This will give us the opportunity and will provide the context for Members on both sides of the House to explain what they mean by public service reform. Public service reform is a fantastic phrase, like motherhood and apple pie. What do people mean by it? Where do they wish to see the cuts and the redundancies? Do they wish to see redundancies?
We might consider any particular service that is provided for the people. In the Seanad, Members are constantly calling for improvements and expansions to services and opposing the abolition of different agencies and services. As politicians, we must face up to the fact that if staff numbers are reduced efficiencies can, of course, be brought about and it is good that such might be done. However, very often, when staff is reduced the service is reduced. It is not as simple as that but that is very often the outcome. Fewer staff means a service that is not as good for the public. Let us face up to that and let us all, on both sides of the House, face up to the fact that it is not good enough to come in here and make rhetorical snipes at the public service and public servants without being specific, by which I mean giving examples.
I welcome another aspect of the announcement that apparently will be made today, namely, that the Government feels it must take time to see which posts can be amalgamated, which ones should be abolished and, as a consequence, which services must be removed. It will take time. In the event of such a debate, I call on all my colleagues to be specific about what they mean, to be clear and to face up to the fact that if staff numbers are reduced very often service is lost.