Monday, 29 March 2021
Reports on Department of Health Policy in RTÉ Investigates Programme: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I too thank her for being honest and up front about her horror at the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. The findings of that programme were extraordinary in that at the same time as families of children with autism are fighting to ensure their children get proper access to services to which they should be entitled, the Department of Health is gathering information to be used against them.
We know from the documentary that the information gathered, as others have said, was of the utmost sensitivity. It included school reports, details of psychiatric consultations with a child and videos of a child in a very distressed state. It was completely inappropriate for the Department of Health to have this information. It was a monumental breach of trust and also appears to be a breach of medical ethics. The whistleblower, Mr. Shane Corr, put it best when he said families had put their faith in the State when they brought their children to see psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors. However, that faith was not rewarded; it was used against them instead.
The way the information was handled just added insult to injury. It was and, perhaps, still is stored on a drive available to an entire division within the Department. As far as the families were concerned, their cases were dormant but the Department continued to collect information about them. Today, inThe Irish Times, we heard from one of the fathers involved, Mr. Cian Ó Cuanacháin, who said that the dossiers were "sickening and retraumatising", but "not surprising to anyone who ever openly challenged the Department of Education or HSE in the courts." It is not surprising to anyone who has openly challenged any Department within this State because the experience of people, even within my own family, is that when the Department is challenged the State circles the wagons.It tries to avoid at all costs any form of accountability and rather than finding a solution or supporting its citizens in finding a solution, it instead brings its entire might down on them. From the "Prime Time Investigates" documentary, it seems there is no level too low to which it will sink.
Sinn Féin is calling for the establishment of an independent, non-statutory investigation into the ethical and legal rationale for this. The review within the Department, as announced late last week, should happen without delay but there also needs to be an independent review of these practices. Is it enough for the Department to investigate its own conduct, especially considering it had commissioned a review, which found the practices to be lawful, proper and appropriate? We want to see an investigation similar in scope and duration to the Scally inquiry into the CervicalCheck screening programme. It should be undertaken urgently and not drag on. We need to know what went on, who took the decisions, and how long it went on for. Several steps could be taken immediately before an investigation is conducted. The practice needs to stop immediately. We need reassurances this is not happening in other Departments. It was a monumental breach of trust, immoral and unethical. Families need to be supported in finding out that information and told exactly what information is being held about them. Files held by the Department of Health need to be removed immediately and stored safely until this situation is resolved.
I have a number of questions I hope the Minister of State can answer. She has said it is the intention of the Government to publish the senior counsel report. We welcome that and hope it happens but we need to know whether the initiation of this information gathering process was sanctioned by the Minister of the day. Who was the Minister, and did he or she know about it and approve of it? We know the whistleblower raised concerns with his bosses in the Department of Health last year. Who was Minister at that time? Was it Deputy Simon Harris or Deputy Stephen Donnelly? Were they informed of the fact a protected disclosure was made by the whistleblower?
I thank the Minister of State for her honest and frank statements. I hope she is in a position to address some of the questions I asked and that the Government will support our call to establish an independent inquiry.