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Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1005 No. 6

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Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, and thank her for being here. This item is being taken earlier than was scheduled and people's diaries and business may have been interrupted, but it is what it is. We are happy to hear a statement from the Minister of State under Standing Order 55. She has 15 minutes, after which we will go through other contributions in the normal way.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Anne Rabbitte): Information on Anne Rabbitte Zoom on Anne Rabbitte I feel and understand the heartache, worry and disgust raised by the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on Thursday last. As any parent knows, we would go to any lengths to protect our child's rights. That is why it was like a kick in the stomach to learn that a Government body appears to be impeding this process of parents fighting for their children. I was alarmed and outraged, as so many Deputies were. Since Thursday's broadcast, families have been left to question whether they have been impacted. Work is continuing in the Department to assess all files and to see what contact may be needed so that families can be informed.

I have been in government as Minister of State with responsibility for disability in the Department since last July and this is not a process I was aware of, nor had I been informed that a senior counsel had investigated the matters raised by the whistleblower, Shane Corr. I thank Shane for bringing this to the public's attention. It was a very brave and courageous thing to do. I have not spoken to Shane but I am sure he felt this was in the public interest and needed to be reported, and I agree.

The Taoiseach's announcement on Friday last that a multidisciplinary team will conduct a policy review is the correct way forward. This will allow us all to understand the legal basis used to underscore this system and what alternative is needed. I know that no malice was intended on the part of the Department but the public needs to be able to trust the systems in place because they are in place to protect the rights of the people, particularly our most vulnerable.

I understand that the Department and, indeed, other Departments and State agencies need to have policies and procedures to manage litigation and I think the public understands this. The reality is the Minister for Health, the Minister for Education and the HSE are named from time to time as defendants in cases taken against the State in respect of special educational needs. It is the role of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor to provide litigation services to Departments under the direction of the Office of the Attorney General and on a regular basis it jointly represents State defendants in litigation.

The Department has told me that in these circumstances, it is normal practice for defendants to litigation to co-operate and share appropriate information with one another where they have a common interest. The Department of Health is clear that it does not seek clinical reports on plaintiffs from clinicians. Service updates are required, however, to inform the potential settlement of cases. I have been told it has always been understood by the Department that it had a clear legal basis for obtaining, sharing and retaining this information. Indeed, legal advice supports this view. The Department's view is that the legal approach has always been to settle cases on the best terms possible. I am also told that sensitive information relating to cases also comes directly from plaintiffs as part of the advancement of their cases and that this information is provided by their solicitors on their behalf with their consent.

We must acknowledge, however, that while what happened may have been lawful, that does not mean it was right. Driving without a seat belt, as I said in the Seanad on Monday, used to be lawful but that does not mean it was ever right. My personal view is that this system lacks transparency. It appears suspect even if that is not the case. The State should never even give the impression of operating in any kind of cloak and dagger way. I simply cannot stand over this system. It needs to stop now, and a new, more transparent method of managing such legal cases needs to be developed. Only then will trust be restored.

I will conclude by stressing that very serious allegations have been made against the Department and a review is under way, directed by the Secretary General, which will provide the factual detail on these matters. As I mentioned earlier, a multidisciplinary team will investigate these matters further and develop a more appropriate policy framework going forward. We must ensure that this system is transparent and patient focused and advocates for what is best for the child and the family. I have seen at first hand the Trojan work of the staff in the Department of Health and how child-centred they are. Every day I meet several officials who ensure that the rights of the child are the focal point of our work. Even in the midst of a global public health crisis, they are always working towards a more equitable provision of healthcare. My fear, however, is that this will have dented the great work being done throughout the health service.

I remind Members that this item of business was brought forward and I have not had a full briefing on it. I had anticipated having that at 2 p.m. but that did not happen, so I may not be able to answer all the questions that arise.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl I thank the Minister of State. We appreciate the challenges that these changes in schedule impose on everyone.

Deputy David Cullinane: Information on David Cullinane Zoom on David Cullinane I am sharing time with Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

I commend the whistleblower, Shane Corr, on coming forward and "RTÉ Investigates" on airing the programme, bringing very distressing information into the public domain and making us aware of a practice that has scandalised and horrified the family members of children with autism and special needs. When I watched the programme last week, I was not surprised but I was sickened. I was not surprised because the engagement between this State and the parents of children with special needs has far too often been too adversarial, and that has to stop.

It is completely unacceptable that because the State refuses to provide the services that children with special needs need, their families have to take the State to court and involve themselves in litigation to get their children the services they need. That adversarial approach simply has to stop. Even the response from the Department was adversarial. It cannot hide behind legal issues here. We will debate whether any of this was legal, a matter for legal experts, but there are moral, ethical and trust issues, as well as issues relating to patient-doctor confidentiality, that need to be seriously addressed.

The trust issue is very important because families of children with special needs will find it very difficult to send their child for therapy, psychiatric evaluations or psychological assessments if trust is breached and if the families feel that the results of those examinations will end up on some database somewhere in the Department of Health for many people to see. Some of the graphic information that was held is absolutely outrageous. There can be no justification for it.

There are ethical and cultural issues in respect of how the Department and the State engage with vulnerable citizens.

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