Seanad debates

Monday, 29 March 2021

Reports on Department of Health Policy in RTÉ Investigates Programme: Statements


10:30 am

Mary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for taking this debate at such short notice. We really appreciate it. I also thank Senator Ruane. Her comments were very powerful. I pay tribute to the whistleblower, Shane Corr, for his bravery and integrity in pursuing this matter. I also pay tribute to Conor Ryan of RTÉ. This was an example of public broadcasting, the fourth pillar of our democracy, at its best.

I do not have to imagine the horror and sense of betrayal families who have children with autism felt last Thursday because I received telephone calls and text messages throughout the programme. Let us be clear that parents should not have to sue the State to vindicate the rights of their children. I appreciate that the State must strike a delicate balance between providing what is wanted and doing what is possible and I appreciate that, in this instance, the gathering of data may well have been carried out without malign intentions. That is not, however, an excuse for excessive monitoring and intrusion into the very private and vulnerable places of these families without their knowledge or consent.

I have questions on this matter. Why was the normal process of discovery within the courts system circumvented? I presume this was done to avoid reactivating cases or alerting litigants to the fact they were being monitored. How dare they circumvent that process? What information was gathered? Was it ever used and, if so, for what purpose? How widespread is this practice? Do other Departments have a similar culture of overreach in the face of, for example, personal injuries claims? This is all before I even start into the area of the general data protection regulation, GDPR, which is my thing. My reply to Senator Garvey's comments is that all those involved should put in data subject access requests because, regardless of whether litigation is involved and whether such litigation is dormant or active, these people are still entitled to their files, saving where records are legally privileged.

We have seen information being gathered without consent or transparency and we have seen the appalling treatment of this information. It is alleged that everybody in the unit in question had access to the information. What an appalling lack of confidentiality that represents. It ignores the very principle behind the GDPR, which relates to integrity in the storage of data. I look forward to seeing the advice of senior counsel. I am very curious as to how these actions will be justified. What does this say about the attitude held towards the real people behind this information and the consideration of them as real people with real lives?

I welcome the Taoiseach's statement that this situation merits further examination and that he is speaking with the Minister of State and other Ministers with a view to setting up a multidisciplinary team to consider the issue but, at the very least, it must have an independent chairperson. I would venture to say that we need a review across all Departments to be sure that this culture is not subscribed to elsewhere. Let us pour ourselves into resolving this issue.

Let us not waste any more precious and finite resources in denying or staving off what is patently and constitutionally owed to the most vulnerable in our society, our children. The Disability Federation of Ireland questions our commitment to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and it is quite right to do so. Let us show it our commitment in our actions and responses because these children deserve our determination to advancing their lives.


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