Harney must be held accountable

Mary Harney is to blame for the failure of the health regulatory system to monitor what was going on in Leas Cross and other nursing homes over the last several years. Her predecessors, Micheál Martin and Brian Cowen, are also to blame for these egregious failures, but for now it is Mary Harney's head that should be on the block.

The Department of Health and Children has a direct responsibility for monitoring conditions and practices in nursing homes. The department acts as guarantor of dignified and proper care for of people. But it goes beyond that.

The policy pursued by Mary Harney and her predecessor has been to get the "bed blockers" out of hospitals and into nursing homes to relieve pressure on hospitals and, particularly, on A&E departments. That degrading characterisation of old, infirm people as "bed blockers" was a cover for the ditching of vulnerable people into nursing homes where they would be forgotten, at least by the Department of Health and Children. And the driving force behind that policy was cost-savings – keeping expenditure on health as low as possible. That is the agenda of the PDs and the agenda of the current government.

They wanted to privatise old people and their problems and this is what that has led to.

But it goes beyond that.

The problems at Leas Cross (ie the institutional abuse of old people) were greatly exacerbated by the discharge from St Ita's psychiatric hospital at Portrane of a large number of longterm psychiatric patients. This was a further example of the privatisation of the vulnerable – mentally ill people being disgorged onto private nursing homes that the department of which Mary Harney is head could not be bothered inspecting in any meaningful way.

Why were these people removed from St Ita's? Whose decision was that? What was the policy behind it and whose policy was it?

As of now there is no effective inspection system in place and no meaningful guidelines for the inspectors and owners/managers of nursing homes. The department of which Mary Harney is head couldn't even be bothered to get around to that in the year or so since we have known of Leas Cross. Yes, this may be the primary responsibility of the HSE, but is the Department and the Minister helpless in looking after the welfare of the vulnerable people in our society? Are they to acquiesce in the face of gross – perhaps even criminal – neglect of old people? Indeed are they themselves liable to a charge of criminal neglect?

When does a gross neglect of primary responsibility on behalf of a minister become an issue even of accountability for such minister? What would Mary Harney have to do or have not to do to be accountable in any meaningful sense? For the familiar torrent of evasive verbiage to be an inadequate response – the stuff about the multiple of expenditure on health since this government came to office, the vast improvements that have been made somewhere or other and the rest?

Mary Harney professed to have special concern for the welfare of old people when she became minister. In what way has anything she has done been reflective of that special concern? Did she, for instance, take personal responsibility for policy on the care of old people, instead of shunting this across to an anonymous minister for state? And yes we know the senior minister cannot take personal responsibility for all aspects of health policy – this is why we have junior ministers (or so the line goes). But if the minister at the outset of her tenure expresses a "special" concern?

Where, incidentally, was that special concern when in the first crisis of her tenure in Health she confronted the issue of residential charge for old people? It was found – actually it had been known for years but, apparently, not by Mary Harney – that such charges were illegal. That deductions from the social welfare and pension benefits of old people were unlawful and, by definition, criminal, since those who did this knew it was unlawful. What did Mary Harney do? She sought to make these criminal acts lawful retrospectively! That is, she sought to legitimise the theft of old people's money! And it was only because of a Supreme Court decision that that ruse was halted.

There is something skewed about our system of government that the minister with ultimate responsibility for the care of old people in nursing homes should escape all accountability and maybe even escape the electoral consequences that such neglect deserves.

Vincent Browne