Colette Browne: If Healy-Rae wanted to help, he could have gone into government
The revelation that Michael Healy-Rae submitted 115 parliamentary questions in one day will do nothing to hurt his political career. That, not him, is an indictment of our political system.
The Independent Kerry TD was in bullish form yesterday when asked to defend submitting such an astonishing number of questions, most of which related to constituents' hospital appointments, in a single day.
"If you think I'll come on your radio programme and make an apology for doing my job, you've another thing coming . . . if sick people come to me, I won't be found wanting to do my job," he said in an interview with Newstalk.
The problem with Healy-Rae's trenchant defence of his behaviour is that inundating government departments with queries relating to individual constituents does nothing to help them.
In reality, the only person it helps is the TD posing the questions, who earns the undeserved reputation of having the ability to move people up waiting lists or secure them benefits such as a medical card or rent allowance.
Having repeatedly asked Minister for Health Simon Harris to confirm the status of a hospital appointment or operation for scores of individuals, Healy-Rae was given the same identikit reply on each occasion. It is illegal for the Minister to meddle in any way with waiting lists and the query had been forwarded to the HSE, with a reply mandated from that organisation within 15 working days. Mostly, this reply will simply be a confirmation of what the constituent already knows - the date of their appointment.
Healy-Rae, as a seasoned politician, knows this and understands that the Minister is powerless to help the constituents on whose behalf he tables so many questions. Despite this, he continually submits the same kind of queries, creating a mountain of work for civil servants within the Department.
In 2014, the Department of Health estimated the average cost of each written question it received from TDs was €77, exclusive of costs incurred by the HSE when those same questions are invariably transferred to it. This means that Healy-Rae's one-day of questioning cost the State thousands of euro, money that could be put to better use in the actual health service ensuring patients are treated in a timely manner.
Healy-Rae's one-day marathon of questioning was not confined to querying the date of hospital appointments. He also asked the relevant Minister for updates on the status of applications for medical equipment, wheelchairs, carer's allowance, disability allowance, medical cards and rent allowance.
In one instance, an application for carer's benefit had been submitted only on June 21, hardly an inordinate waiting period when one considers the paperwork involved in each case.
On other occasions, when Healy-Rae posed questions about delays in processing an individual's carer's allowance, the payment had been authorised and paid between the time he put down the question and received the reply.
It is possible that the recipients of these payments will credit Healy-Rae's assistance with their successful application - when in reality they are entitled to the payment and would have received it in due course anyway.
Getting help to access public services, which citizens are entitled to without any such intervention, is the hallmark of Irish parish pump politics and is the reason politicians such as Healy-Rae are so successful.
These TDs build careers on the basis that they, and not the State, have the ability to bestow benefits on people - that their help confers some kind of advantage unavailable to those who navigate State bureaucracy alone.
Yesterday, Healy-Rae said he didn't care how much parliamentary questions cost, he would continue to "fight" for his constituents and "highlight" their cases, a message that will no doubt play well in Kerry. But if he was really determined to fight for his constituents, why didn't he enter government with other Independents and make his support contingent on improvements to waiting times for services?
There are now nearly 500,000 people on waiting lists for medical treatment in Ireland; 410,000 of these are waiting for outpatient appointments. This is an outrage that requires the attention of every TD in the Dáil.
However, continually asking about individual patients' appointments does nothing to improve the health service or reduce overall waiting times. It just generates paperwork.
Healy-Rae is not alone in his devotion to the parish pump. In 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, Fine Gael's Kildare North TD Bernard Durkan was revealed as asking the most parliamentary questions - 3,000 in that year alone, nearly 10 times the average.
The scandal of this kind of incessant questioning is that much of the information sought by TDs is available from State agencies, but they prefer that civil servants within government departments wade through their queries.
Even when specific channels are set up to reduce these inquiries, they are ignored. For instance, the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service has set up a special email service that TDs can use to ask about the status of individual immigration cases. Despite this, TDs ignore this email service and persist in posing questions directly to the Department of Justice, which has no means of accessing the information.
Why do they do this? Because they will be able to point to an official record of the question having been asked and some kind of ministerial reply, usually that another agency will deal with the query, having been received. This allows TDs to build up a reputation as an industrious local representative, willing to try their best to secure services for their constituents in the face of State intransigence.
Ultimately, when we elect national politicians with the expectation they devote the majority of their time to local issues, this kind of waste will be the result. TDs such as Healy-Rae and Durkan are not the problem. A system that rewards their behaviour is what really needs to be changed.