Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements

 

3:10 pm

Neasa Hourigan (Dublin Central, Green Party)

I echo what many Deputies have said by acknowledging that the Minister of State strikes me as a person who is dedicated to providing suitable services for children with disability.

The enormity of what the "RTÉ Investigates" programme has brought to light was somewhat overshadowed by the issue that arose in the Beacon Hospital last week. I expect that we will still be talking about the programme long after the Beacon issue has gone because it speaks to the culture and ethics of Departments, in particular, an Roinn Sláinte. It speaks to the treatment by the State of people’s personal data. It also speaks to the attitude of civil servants to legal proceedings involving people who are resident in the State.

I listened to the Minister of State’s opening statement. I take issue with the idea that this is normal practice. I hope it is not normal practice. During legal proceedings, it may be permissible to share information with co-defendants but we are talking here about dormant files dating back to 2007 and people suddenly taking it upon themselves in 2017 or 2018 to create a dossier relating to those files and perhaps to then reproach families. We know this is not normal because the Department took it upon itself to have a report compiled by a senior counsel. The Department must also recognise that it was not normal. RTÉ has recognised that it was not normal because it got a television programme out of it. The families who are flooding my inbox with questions about this recognise that it is not normal because their reasonable expectation of privacy has been breached.

Unlike some other speakers, I do not accept that this practice was legal because we have not seen the senior counsel’s report and I am not assured that the senior counsel would have been in possession of all of the facts because those facts would have been provided to him by the Department.

The emails I am receiving from families, who are quite distressed, ask a series of questions. To what other cohorts is this practice applied? Does it apply to children or children with autism only or does it apply in cases of mental illness? On how many groups are dossiers being compiled? Is this a constrained issue and how widespread is it? What was the interaction between teachers, GPs, therapists and speech and language therapists? Did anybody say "No" and, if so, what happened then? What has been the interaction of Tusla in this? Did it get legal advice? In cases where the children on whom the dossiers were compiled are now aged 18 or over and there is obviously a capacity issue, can the families access their files? I am not going to ask the Minister of State these questions because I have no notion that she would be able to answer all of them, given that this practice dates back over a decade and relates to the operation and management by civil servants of the business of the Department.

This is a test for the Department and the Government. Will the two Departments in question and their staff be held to account? What value is placed on ethics and medical ethics in the Department of Health? Doctors and nurses get training on ethics. Are civil servants getting such training? It certainly seems like they need it.

Most important, this will be a test in respect of whistleblower legislation. This country has failed that test over and over again. In the coming months, what I do not wish to hear in the public realm or coming from the Department or civil servants is that the whistleblower was confused, had a grudge against the Department, had a fight with his boss or that his personal life influenced things. We need to get it right this time. This is about the trust between parents of children with disabilities - I am such a parent - and the State. We should not let the message be that this is normal practice.

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