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Ó Caoláin welcomes judgment and urges speedy repayment

16 February, 2005


Speaking during statements on the Health (Amendment) [No.2] Bill 2004 today Sinn Féin Dáil group leader Caoimhghin Ó Caoláin welcomed without reservation the Supreme Court ruling. He said, "Elderly people have been unjustly and illegally charged" and must be "reimbursed with the minimum of delay."

"This ruling has exposed the Government's arrogance in its approach to legislation, "he said. "In ramming it through both the Seanad and the Dáil without sufficient debate or scrutiny the Minister‚s actions have resulted in a legal debacle for the Government.

"But, The Cavan/Monaghan TD said, "it is a welcome judgment for those thousands of elderly people on whom charges were wrongfully imposed.

Deputy Ó Caoláin was very critical of the "enormous confusion and worry" the Minister‚s actions had caused, especially amongst elderly people in residential care and their families.

He went on to say, "This whole issue has raised many questions about the way the State supports or does not support elderly people in long-term residential care. The State has failed to put in place the range of services that are needed for older people. Older people should be facilitated to remain in their family homes as long as they wish, but this is not happening."

He concluded by saying that "If today's Supreme Court judgment leads to a fundamental re-evaluation of the way in which this State cares for its older citizens then it will be a landmark judgment and a good day for Irish society."ENDS

Full text of Deputy Ó Caoláin's contribution to the debate

I welcome today's ruling by the Supreme Court. I say that without reservation. The bottom line is that elderly people have been unjustly and illegally charged. They must now be reimbursed with the minimum of delay and bureaucracy. The Government needs to start work right away on a scheme that will see these people reimbursed and without recourse to expensive legal proceedings.

The Health (Amendment) (No 2) Bill was rushed through this House on 16 December 2004, the last sitting day before the Christmas recess. Despite the warnings of members here and in the Seanad, the Government pushed on. They were cautioned against such a retrospective Bill. In concluding my brief remarks on Second Stage I appealed to the Minister to return to the principle that the State has a duty of care and a responsibility to ensure that the rights of the most vulnerable in our society are protected. I said the legislation did not measure up to that responsibility and should be withdrawn and redrafted or fundamentally changed. The Minister and the Government ploughed on regardless with the result we see today.

This ruling has exposed the Government‚s arrogance in its approach to legislation. In ramming it through both the Seanad and the Dáil without sufficient debate or scrutiny the Minister‚s actions have resulted in a legal debacle for the Government. But it is a welcome judgment for those thousands of elderly people on whom charges were wrongfully imposed.

Many are naturally concerned at the impact of this judgment on public finances. While the judgment must be studied closely it must be stressed that this repayment is now not only obligatory on the State it is also manageable. The Supreme Court judgment itself has put the sum involved at •500 million, dating back to 1999.

The tragedy is that the State's shabby treatment of older people - treatment carried on under successive governments - has caused such distress.

The Minister's actions have caused enormous confusion and worry, especially amongst elderly people in residential care and their families. This matter needs to be resolved as speedily as possible and proper and adequate information must be made public to ensure the confusion that is there is ended. Repayment of monies owed should now proceed with minimum bureaucracy and without thousands of people having to go to court.

This whole issue has raised many questions about the way the State supports or does not support elderly people in long-term residential care. For example how does the Minister justify the wide variation in subventions between the various regions? That has never been satisfactorily answered.I have had recent experience in the case of an elderly constituent. This woman devoted her life to rearing her family and looking after their modest home. In her twilight years she was widowed and her children had either emigrated or moved elsewhere in Ireland. She suffered ill-health and a long stay in hospital. Then she faced the prospect of being unable to return to her home. She needed long-term residential care. The State deemed that she did not qualify for a place in a State-run home and with subvention because she owned her small terraced house, valued at some •150,000. What did her children have to do? They have had to sell the family home and dispose of their mother's remaining possession in order to pay for long-term private residential care. It is as if she had died. Only when she is made virtually destitute will the State consider her for subvention. I can only describe this as a savage system. Her children have lost their home and had the link with the town and community in which they grew severed. Where will they gather and wake their mother when her time does come?

The State has failed to put in place the range of services that are needed for older people. Older people should be facilitated to remain in their family homes as long as they wish, but this is not happening.

Look at the disgraceful way in which Home Helps were treated for years until they took industrial action and the Government was forced to improve the pittance they had been paid. These were some of the few paltry supports offered to elderly people living alone.

It is well documented that children and the elderly are the most vulnerable and the most at risk of poverty in our society. If today‚s Supreme Court judgment leads to a fundamental re-evaluation of the way in which this State cares for its older citizens then it will be a landmark judgment and a good day for Irish society.

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