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Vicky Phelan: Taoiseach has agreed to hold CervicalCheck investigation in public

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Elaine Loughlin

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has agreed to hold all of the State cervical cancer investigation in public and to set up a redress scheme for victims after a lengthy meeting with campaigner Vicky Phelan.

Ms Phelan confirmed the dramatic Government u-turn almost four months after public demands for swift action on the scandal, saying it is now up to Mr Varadkar to finally deliver on his promises.

Speaking to reporters outside Government Buildings after a "brutally honest" two-and-a-half hour meeting with Mr Varadkar this evening, Ms Phelan said the Taoiseach has agreed to a series of demands issued by her and fellow campaigners including Stephen Teap.

    She said they include:

  • * a commitment to hold all of the planned State cervical cancer inquiry in public, with emergency legislation changing the existing commission of investigation act to allow for public hearings to be tabled in September
  • * plans to set up a Government redress scheme for victims, on the condition it will work more effectively than the controversial symphysiotomy and clerical abuse compensation systems
  • * and confirmation "letters of consent" are currently being drawn up before being sent to hundreds of women affected by the scandal so that their cases can be examined as part of an independent UK review

Ms Phelan - who is now taking time away from campaigning due to her own health condition - said "as everybody knows I want this [inquiry] public, no more than the rest of the families involved".

Ms Phelan said as such "the Taoiseach confirmed this will be the preferred option" and that "the Government and Opposition are in agreement".

She said while the decision will remain at inquiry chair judge Charles Meenan's "discretion", Mr Varadkar emphasised "if required, legislation will be brought forward to ensure this will be public".

Ms Phelan said she also raised a potential redress scheme or different form of mediation to avoid arduous court hearings during a "brutally honest" meeting, and that Mr Varadkar confirmed this is "being worked on".

While acknowledging "not all the women are going to get settlements as large as mine or Emma [Mhic Mhathuna]'s" and that people are not entitled "to automatic compensation", Mr Varadkar has confirmed a redress scheme under consideration.

The campaigner also said the Taoiseach told her "letters of consent" are being prepared to be sent out to hundreds of women whose cases will be reviewed by an independent UK team outside of any inquiry over the coming months.

Ms Phelan separately said she remains concerned about the limitations of the proposed patient safety bill which would limit actions against medics responsible for what happened to "joke" €5,000-7,000 fines, but that progress is finally being made.

"Does he [Mr Varadkar] have the power to make changes? That's what I put to him. It's a wait and see," she said.

Ms Phelan also said the Taoiseach gave her assurances in relation to the State Claims Agency and mediation.

She said: "The Taoiseach has promised that he meant what he said, the State is going to endeavour to settle all cases through mediation.

"Where mediation doesn't work and labs are contesting, an alternative dispute resolution mechanism will be sculpted out.

"Judge Meenan has been approached and will work on an alternative approach to what is currently happening in the case of Ruth Morrissey."

Later, the Taoiseach confirmed that Mr Justice Charles Meenan has been tasked with identifying further mechanisms to avoid adversarial court proceedings for the women and families affected by the CervicalCheck controversy.

Speaking after the meeting the Taoiseach said: “I want to thank Vicky Phelan for taking the time to meet with me today, Vicky and all those affected by the CervicalCheck controversy have made a deep impression on the Irish public and on me.”

He reiterated the Government's desire for cases arising from CervicalCheck audits to be resolved through mediation rather than seeing the affected women and their families having to go to court.

Mr Varadkar said: “Notwithstanding that parties always retain the right to go to court, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms must be found which avoid causing unnecessary distress for the women and their loved ones."

However, the Government acknowledged that mediation involving multiple parties and disputed facts has presented real difficulties in achieving successful resolution in some cases.

Mr Justice Meenan has been asked to make recommendations on how the current situation can be dealt with.

    Mr Justice Meenan has been asked to:

  • 1. ​Engage with the women, their families and their representatives to assess what, in their opinion, could be done to provide an alternative to court.
  • 2. ​Assess the management of cases, liability and quantum that arise, in conjunction with the State Claims Agency and other relevant bodies (State parties, laboratories, insurers, indemnifiers and affected parties).
  • 3. ​Have regard to the work of Dr Gabriel Scally’s Scoping Inquiry and the International Clinical Expert Panel Review led by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the British Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology.
  • 4. ​Report to the Minister for Health within two months. The report to recommend a way through which these cases can be resolved, in a sensitive and timely manner, that is appropriate to these cases involving complex liability issues and multiple parties, outside of adversarial court processes.

The Taoiseach said that the Government intends to act on Mr Justice Meenan’s recommendations as soon as they are available.

The Minister for Health Simon Harris said: “The cervical screening programme has reduced the incidences of women developing cervical cancer.

[quote]"There was a significant downward trend in the incidence of invasive cervical cancer between 2010 and 2015. [/quote]

"Screening remains an essential element in our fight against cancer. We must continue to promote screening programmes, to improve screening efficacy, build public understanding of the screening process and restore public confidence.”