Thursday, 1 April 2021
Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements
Róisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
It is important to remember that at the heart of this issue is that the State has been quite happy, down through the years and continuing to today, to fight children who have special needs and their families. This is about a denial of basic rights to people with special needs. If successive Governments had not pursued that policy, this would not have arisen. Despite the 2004 Act, the 2005 Act and the UN convention, the State is still fighting children and their families. Families still need to fight for basic services, including education and health services. That is ethically and morally wrong and it should not be allowed to continue. That policy needs to change. We need to introduce a rights-based approach to children with special needs.
At the start of her contribution, the Minister of State said she did not know about this before the programme aired and I accept her bona fides in that. The point is that she has known about it for the past week. Her senior officials knew about it long before the programme aired. Why is more information not available? Why has the Department not responded in an adequate way to this issue? Why was she not properly briefed on this? It is not just about the last hour or two; she should have been briefed and a brief should have been prepared at least over the past week.
The Minister of State raised the question about the legal basis. I will go into the legal basis in a few moments. However, why was this policy being pursued in the Department? These were dormant cases, most of them going back to before 2005. It is not as if these were active cases where the defence was being prepared actively. These were long dormant cases. Why were these cases being kept active with information continuing to be gathered? It seems that the main purpose of that was to profile the families involved. That is clearly what the Department was doing. It was profiling families even though these were dormant cases. How was that being done?
How many staff in the Department were involved in this? It is not as if nothing has been done for ages. These were cases that were being actively examined with work being done on them. There was a flurry of activity in 2015 and again in 2017 and 2019. Someone at a senior level in the Department was instructing staff to profile these families. We need to know the reason for that.
Many issues arise as a result of this on which we need answers. There were breaches of data protection law. I welcome the Data Protection Commission's statutory investigation in that regard. However, there are serious questions for the Department. Were doctors and other health professionals required to breach patient confidentiality without doing what they should have done, which is obtaining consent from the families? It seems that that did not happen. According to families involved, their consent was not obtained. Therefore, there are major issues relating to breach of confidentiality.
There was the abuse of the HSE's power as an employer to pressurise doctors to share information. How was this sensitive information stored? It seems that several people in the Department of Health had access to that information, which was inappropriate. The Department of Education had a role in sharing sensitive information about students, including school reports. There are questions for the individual schools. Of course, there are also questions for the individual professionals who engaged in this and who complied with those requests.
There are also issues regarding the treatment of the whistleblower. We need that senior counsel report but that is not all because we need to see what the brief was. The senior counsel made it clear that he did not have access to the legal advice. At a minimum, that should be made available now, but that is only the first step.