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.
Prime Time Investigates Programme on Department of Health: Statements
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.
I thank the Minister of State. We appreciate the challenges that these changes in schedule impose on everyone.
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.
We are again seeing a drip feed of information such as we saw in respect of CervicalCheck and the tracker mortgage scandal. For the love of God, can we have full and open disclosure on this matter once and for all? Family members have not been notified of the files the Department has on them at this point in time. Yesterday, the Taoiseach disputed whether they were dossiers. Whatever they are called - databases, spreadsheets or dossiers - information is being held on those families and they are not aware. The State must make them aware now. It must not hide behind any review. We need full and open disclosure now. Those families need supports. Let us not push back against them. Let us make sure that phone lines and other arrangements are put in place so that, if they have any questions, they will be given the information they seek without any legal pushback or any other kind of pushback.
In the case of litigation, there is typically disclosure. All the cards are on the table. All the cards were not on the table in this case. Cards were under the table or being pulled out of the sleeves of the Department of Health, which was keeping secret dossiers on these families' children and on very sensitive information regarding the relationships within those families. It is appalling. The Minister of State needs to make sure this practice is stopped. There needs to be full and open disclosure. We need to know that all of these families will be supported. Is it the case that 400 families are involved? What is the number? Can that be confirmed? Will all of those families be notified? Is it the case that senior counsel was not given the legal advice furnished to the Department after a medically qualified person had raised concerns with regard to patient confidentiality?
I tell the Minister of State very directly that rights must be put in place very quickly. There must be full and open disclosure and there has to be proper engagement with those families. I ask the Minister of State to put a stop to this pushing back against children with special needs and their families who are looking for supports. If the State spent a fraction of its time putting supports in place rather than acting against the interests of these children with special needs and their families, we would all be in a much better place. In fact, we would not be here today having this discussion and debate.
I listened to the Minister of State. She spoke with some feeling, compassion and empathy. From my experience of her, I believe that to be sincere. This debate may be an opportunity to show sympathy and to ensure that people feel heard but it must be a hundred times more than that. The Minister of State has a responsibility to put pressure on her colleagues to end this practice, ensure it never resumes and there is an independent investigation of the kind we have outlined and, most of all, radically transform the culture in the Departments of Health and Education as it relates to these issues.
I watched the programme on Thursday night as, I am sure, did many others. My blood was boiling. It was an outright disgrace. The anger that I and many others, I am sure, felt cannot be compared to the anger felt by the parents of children with special educational needs, especially the unfortunate hundreds, and perhaps thousands, who have had to take the Departments of Health and Education to court to vindicate basic fundamental rights to education. In the context of something as basic as the right to an education to allow one's child to progress and thrive, imagine the courage required to take a case to secure an assessment of need, a school place or a place on a bus. Imagine a person having to take on the HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Education only to find out that they have been going behind that person's back to try to gather dirt and have been treating the person in question as an object of suspicion and threat or as someone who has motives other than the best interests of his or her children. As we have said, this may have been legal but, my God, it is not right. It is profoundly wrong and must end.
I hear the Minister of State and she speaks with sympathy but there are senior civil servants and senior Government representatives who are still trying to defend this. A commitment must be given to end this practice and that it will never resume. We need an independent investigation to find out who is responsible and how this came about. We also need to ensure that all the families directly affected are informed. Those who potentially could have been affected should also be informed because they will be asking whether they are affected. There also needs to be a dedicated helpline.
The last thing I will say before allowing the Minister of State a minute to respond is that this illustrates a whole culture in respect of education and children with special educational needs. We talk a great deal about these children being a priority but the front-loading model is causing serious issues, progressive disability therapists are being lost to schools and all sorts of targets for assessments of need are not being met. There are crises everywhere, including in Cork city, with regard to places in secondary schools and in special schools generally, which are leading to children being educated at home by parents who do not have the ability to do so and cannot find a tutor. It is just wrong. Education is a right. It is enumerated as a right in the Constitution. We need to start honouring that.
I thank the Deputies for the questions they have posed to me. Deputy Cullinane talked about issues of morality, trust, ethics and culture. That is a conversation that needs to be had out in the open. I do not deny that one bit. The word I keep coming back to is "transparency". That is what everyone is looking for, a conversation in respect of transparency. Deputy Ó Laoghaire is right; I am very sympathetic. I have a clear knowledge of this. There is an opportunity to reset how things have gone on but there is also an opportunity to have more meaningful conversations about how we progress disability-related issues and put them front and centre. Parents should not find themselves having to engage in litigation in order to access their rights. The approach in future needs to be based on rights. That is what I want to do.
I agree with others that the Minister of State's presentation showed empathy and an understanding of the issue. The speeches of Ministers sometimes read like national car test reports but the Minister of State's did not. I am, however, stunned that there is no representative from the Department of Education present to hear this debate.
In a properly functioning democracy, families of children with additional needs would not feel as if they are on their own or that they must not only deal with a challenging diagnosis, but also become full-time campaigners at the same time and wage war on the State to ensure basic provisions for their children. In a fully functioning democracy, such families would feel an envelope of care from their schools, the HSE and every Department, all of which would work to lift and empower children in a country which puts children at the centre of everything it does. What we actually have in this country are thousands of families who are completely exhausted because, in addition to dealing with what they have to deal with at home, they also have to campaign for the most basic provision for their children. The waiting lists for interventions and assessments are years long. There is also the absolutely pathetic sight of parents trying to get access to school places for their children only for the special educational needs organiser, SENO, to hand them a list of schools and wish them the best of luck.
The "Prime Time Investigates" programme and the exemplary work of the whistleblower, Shane Corr, expose the contempt the State has for families who are dealing with difficult and challenging diagnoses. There is no envelope of care. We are not all in this together. The child is not at the centre of the conversation. Families will say that it is as if the State is asking them to please go private or to please be quiet and leave it alone. There is no representative of the Department of Education present.
We have heard speeches about how the Minister of Education and the Ministers of State in the Department of Education will choose the side of the children with additional needs in any debate between teachers, SNAs and families with children who have additional needs. They have made such statements but in recent weeks I am pretty sure the only thing I have heard from the Minister of State at the Department of Education with responsibility for special education and inclusion is how strongly she feels about The Kerryman newspaper. However, she is not here.
This is a classic example of the cultural problem we have in this country when it comes to putting children at the centre of anything. The children and the families are considered to be the problem. If they decide to take on the State, by God the State will find out what it needs to find out about them. How often does this happen? I cannot believe the Department of Education and the Department of Health have said that this is common practice but the Minister of State has said that it is not good enough to say it is illegal if it is wrong.
There are so many people and interest groups pulling and dragging all the time when it comes to debates on education or health. At the centre of all of this should be the children and the State should flip over until it snaps in order to ensure that children can be empowered and uplifted and can fulfil their potential. That never happens in these debates, however. This is not necessarily just a political issue, it is a cultural issue as well. What happens is that the children and the families are made out to be problematic and the State seeks to make sure that no other families will decide to go down a particular road again.
I appreciate the Minister of State attending this debate and I appreciate her empathy. It is a disgusting disgrace, however, that no Minister or Minister of State from the Department of Education bothered to be here to listen to this debate.
I will ask the Minister of State a few questions and she might come back to me. April is Autism Awareness Month and I am so sad that we are here discussing the revelations revealed about how families with autistic children were treated so terribly. I want to take this opportunity to thank Shane Corr for highlighting these practices. I appreciate that these revelations came as a surprise or even a shock to people.
I appreciate that the Minister of State has only been in her position a short time and that she is doing her best but trust has been broken here and we have to fix that. I welcome that there will be an investigation and that the Data Protection Commission has launched an inquiry into the processing of this personal data, but I want to know if there will be accountability. What happened was wrong. There was an admission that this system was operated under the law. The law they were operating under was an old law and was superseded by EU law. This highlights again how the general data protection regulation, GDPR, is often misunderstood, misused and incorrectly applied.
There is a legacy of a lack of communication and that has to change as a matter of urgency. Good people try to do their best but if there was any misunderstanding of what was permissible, then we need to find out what that was and address it. We need to trust in the system because without it we lose the people. We need the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We must have that in order to rebuild trust.
Is this a practice which crosses Departments? So many of us agree that this breach of confidentiality between doctors and patients is wrong but is it a widespread issue? We all have to ask if these are the only kind of files being kept. Is this a system where all litigation means a file is kept? Why do doctors and professionals feel they cannot refuse when asked to send such records? That is a question we must ask. A citizen struggles to get his or her information from doctors if he or she is changing doctors, for example. Those people are not handed their information. They have to apply for their information. Why was it so acceptable, therefore, for doctors and health professionals in schools to just hand over this private information? One constituent who is entering the system to query autism for their child told me this week that he or she does not trust the professionals who are there to protect or do right by the child. Is that not just so sad? This will be a major problem.
We need to rebuild trust between the public and the State agencies and not break it down. We must do everything in our power to protect and fight for our children. We must not rob them of privacy or gather secret files on them. We must open up and be kind and warm. We must find a way to help every one of them. We have to have a culture shift. These families are looking for the right to have their children educated, supported or cared for. They are not the enemy and that should never have been the case. The Minister of State might come back to me with some answers.
The Deputy has raised many issues on which I do not disagree with her. The most important matter here is the breakdown of trust. Unfortunately, that is what the "RTÉ Investigates" programme showed. It showed that there has been a breach of that trust and families need to be communicated with clearly and openly so that we can rebuild same. I am putting myself into that role and I will seek out the full and comprehensive review that is required in the Department so we can build that trust between the various parties involved. Most importantly, I will ensure that the private patient confidentiality trust that is required and that families so depend on is kept intact. The outcome of the review that will take place on the files is what we need transparency on.
I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for sharing time and I thank the Minister of State for attending and for her contribution. It is a unique set of circumstances whereby a Member of the Legislature can say with authority - and this reflects the contributions of other Members as well - that she does not really care about what the law is but that we care about what is right and wrong. As a member of a Government party, I have been disappointed with the response from Government so far in not initially coming out and saying that this was wrong, that it will stop now and that the matter will be investigated.
All of us instinctively know that the most challenging encounters we have in our constituency offices are with the parents of children with disability or of adult sons and daughters with disability. The battles and scars they have had from the duration of their parenthood of those children are etched on their faces because everything they have wrought for their children from the State has been hard-won. Nobody takes on litigation against the State, not least parents of children with disability, without the fear of God in them that they could lose everything they have because the costs are astronomical. To find out that this challenge is more significant and that the odds are more stacked against them by virtue of this approach is really disappointing.
This reflects the view of all Members. I appreciate the empathy the Minister of State displayed during her contribution. What we would like to hear is that practice has stopped, that it is not happening anymore and that we will have a report on it what was involved. We would also like to definitively hear that the consultations that parents have with their doctors and consultants are entirely private to those parties and that the State has no reach into the consultation room in defending any actions taken by parents on behalf of their children with disability. They are the issues that are of most concern.
I would like to acknowledge the whistleblower and I would equally like to express concern that the most senior official in the Department of Health saw fit to try to gag the national broadcaster in terms of trying to stop this story going on air.
That was a gross abuse of position and it should not happen again. I would like to hear the Minister for Health specifically saying that he has spoken to the acting Secretary General in the Department of Health on the matter. It was an outrageous attempt to gag the national broadcaster, which is entirely unacceptable.
I thank the Deputy for his comments. As Minister of State in the Department of Health and in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, I have explained the legal piece in this. While that is the law, I do not accept the transparency piece, as I outlined earlier. I hear what the Deputy is saying about the families. We need to reassure them and build trust. That is the purpose of this review. When it is done, it will be made available and we will be transparent so that we can explain the whole process. If the State has made a mistake, we need to tell the people that it has. At all stages, it is important to reassure people that the review to be undertaken will be open and transparent. I have asked that the senior counsel report, which the Department of Health commissioned and published last November without me knowing one bit about it, be published and made available for everybody, including the whistleblower, Shane Corr, who is also looking for it. It is important that everybody can see the contents and what was looked at. That is the start of our first step in being open and transparent and rebuilding trust.
The revelations on the "Prime Time Investigates" programme were shocking. The collection of information, especially medical and treatment information on vulnerable children and their families, was despicable. None of us would like to think that our personal information, which we had shared with a professional, was there for all members of a certain section in the Department of Health to see.
In the first instance, no families should be required to take the State to court over the right to a proper education. Second, the State should not be defending these cases in court and spending millions of euro of taxpayers' money defending the indefensible. Money can seemingly be found to defend the State in court but cannot be made available to ensure that all of our children are cherished equally and their educational needs met. Unfortunately, families are still being forced to revert to the legal avenue to get help for their children.
Since 2018, HSE-appointed solicitors and counsel have cost the taxpayer in excess of €700,000. This waste of money must stop and instead be invested in services and schools to provide assistance to children with special needs and their families. It abhors me that officials in the Departments of Health and Education would compile these dossiers and share this information, and none of them would question whether it is unethical and possibly unlawful. Did individual schools participate in this practice and share confidential information about students' ability in school? It does not make sense to compile a secret dossier on students in cases where it has been ten years since they engaged in any sort of legal action.
It is very possible that there has been a breach of data protection rules. I welcome the statutory inquiry that has been instigated by the Data Protection Commissioner. However, this practice is in direct contravention of several articles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 22 states, "States Parties shall protect the privacy of personal, health and rehabilitation information of persons with disabilities on an equal basis with others." The Government signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities three years ago and this practice is in direct contravention of the convention.
We need clear information on this debacle. When did this practice begin? How many people were involved? Has it stopped and, if so, when? What exactly was the expert senior counsel asked to review? What was the brief and what questions were asked? If one asks a question in a certain way, one will get the answer one wants. I do not believe a cross-departmental review is enough. We need an independent inquiry into this issue immediately. The Government has responsibility to rebuild trust in the Departments that serve us. Enough is enough. Treatment of people with disabilities as second-class citizens must end.
It is two years since Deputy Funchion received overwhelming support for the establishment of an autism committee which is now needed more than ever. I hope that can be progressed.
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.
The next slot is being shared by Deputies Lahart and Niamh Smyth.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on this issue. I wish to put on record that the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is blameless in regard to this matter. It is important to state that.
I thank the Minister of State for being here. She has come to this place after only eight months in office. The question for me is how did we get here. I am sure that for people who might not have a vested interest or who are not stakeholders in the special education piece, it is mind-boggling how this information ended up on spreadsheets in secret files in the Department of Health. How is it that parents of children with special needs and children with special needs ended up in this situation of secret files being compiled on them in a Department of State?
How did we get here? Let us go back to the beginning of the trail. Taking my constituency as an example, I know of parents who rise at 6 a.m. to bring one child with special needs from the Rathfarnham-Knocklyon area to the border with Kildare to a school that has a special educational needs unit and who then make the journey back across the Dublin Mountains to the border with Wicklow where there is another school that has a special educational needs unit and they do that twice a day, Monday to Friday.
As for how did we get here, again, let us take my constituency as an example. Nationally, the ratio of autism spectrum disorder, ASD, places is 94:1. In other words, for every 94 mainstream school places, there is one special class place. In my constituency of Dublin South-West, as well as that of Dublin Bay South, which encompasses Dublin 4, 6 and 6W, and parts of Dublin 16 because there are schools there that have ASD units, the ratio is as high as 650:1. How did we get here? There are, as I learned recently, 130 post-primary schools inside and east of the M50, not including the 30 private fee-paying post-primary schools. Of those 130 post-primary schools, 23 have ASD units and all but two of those ASD units are in DEIS schools. How did we get here? The Department of Health is the second last staging post, before the courts, in this battle. How did we get here? It starts much earlier. How do we stop parents and their children ending up in this space? It starts before preschool. It is an exhausting, never-ending journey for parents, for whom the education of their children is only one of the challenges they face. We know the amazing impact that preschool education has on every child, never mind the impact it has on those children with special needs and the difference it makes to their lives. The struggle for places continues at primary school level, when parents are told that school X might be a better fit for their child than a particular school. We have not yet discovered the challenge that faces them at post-primary level. It is only beginning to emerge.
This is a societal issue. It ends in court. As I said, the second last staging post is the Department of Health, but this concerns patron bodies, boards of management and every stakeholder in education in this country, some of whom, not all - there are fantastic exceptions - connive silently and invisibly to exclude children from schools that are not State-run but are State-funded from start to finish.
I thank the Minister of State for coming here for this important debate. I will begin by referring to a sentence from her opening statement, in which she stated, "I know that no malice was intended on the part of the Department." I fundamentally disagree with that line. All of us, including the Minister of State who, as has been stated is blameless in all of this, know from our constituency work that the parents who come through our doors seeking basic supports and assistance for their children, be that an educational, health or other need, come to us exasperated, having tried to do it on their own. They have tried to rail against the system to give voice to their children who have no voice and to give a face to their children who appear to be faceless within the system.
In the previous Dáil, I brought the Minister of State's predecessor, Finian McGrath, to visit the Holy Family Special School, which does enormous service for children with disabilities, intellectual and physical, at primary and second levels across Cavan-Monaghan. It is one of the most inspiring, exhilarating schools in terms of the work done by the teachers, parents, SNAs and the medical staff there. They are totally reliant on that community of people to look after them.. When engaging with the parents, none of them will say it has been easy or that they have felt the State was in their corner. I do not like the use of the word "State" because, for me, that lets people off the hook, as it does in the case of the officials responsible for this sneaky, conceited eliciting of information from GPs. In terms of our constituency work, none of us would consult with a Department without the authority of a constituent. What was done by these officials is disgraceful.
I agree with Deputy Creed's remarks in regard to the official who contacted the national broadcaster, RTÉ, in an attempt to gag it exposing something so important. Let us be honest, we have known that this was happening. We have known that people and parents have always felt that the State has railed against them. The sneaky, conceited way the information was elicited for the purposes of litigation is unforgivable.
The Minister of State has done tremendous work in the very short time she has held her current position. Parents and I want to know that this will stop. It is cultural thing. It is the idea that we are bigger and more powerful than the law and the country, that we will put these people in their box and take them on. What chance do people have? Following on from Mr. Corr's brave and courageous stance, I want to know that officials, not the State, will be held accountable for what they did.
Without rehashing what has been already said, I wish to make the point that the actions of the Department of Health in compiling dossiers and information about children with disabilities was vile and obscene. It is unfortunate - I am being mild in my use of the word "unfortunate" - that there is not a single member of Cabinet here for this debate. I stand corrected, I note the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is here, but the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, are not present.
The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, said that she was not aware of this practice. I would like clarification as to whether the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, was made aware of this practice and if the Minister of State is aware of any previous Minister for Health having been made aware of it. If it is the case that all respond that they were not aware of it, there are fundamental questions that need to be answered in regard to how this could happen. How could a practice that crosses so many elements of government carry on without Ministers not being aware of it? Does the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, accept that this goes to the heart of what I will call "the State" and how it operates? We know that if a Minister signed off on this or it was proven that he or she had given the go-ahead to officials to fulfil this practice, there would be a motion of no confidence before the Dáil and it is quite likely that before that motion reached the House, such a Minister would be asked to fall on his or her sword for political expediency.
It would be quite proper for that to happen.
It is fair to say that the one thing we can know for sure about this issue is that, by the end of the process, there will not be a single civil servant made accountable for his or her actions in regard to these despicable events. We must ask why that is the case. The HSE was set up by the then Minister for Health, now Taoiseach, in part to allow political responsibility to be avoided. It allows the Government to say that a particular issue is nothing to do with it and is a matter for the HSE. In this instance, we are told it is nothing to do with the Government; it was done by civil servants in the Department of Health. Why is that being allowed to happen? Will the Minister of State ensure that somebody is at least named and shamed, if not made accountable for his or her actions?
As I want to give the Minister of State time to answer, I will ask just one more question. There is a great deal of talk about working out when we can engage with the families. Will she ensure that, from today, all of the families that are affected are contacted and are told, at the very least, that their information was part of this and they will be contacted again with further details? It is not something that should take a long time to do. I would hazard a guess that the information is in the Department right now and I ask that the Minister of State release it to the families concerned. It is the very least they should expect.
In the few seconds left to me, I will respond to the Deputy's final question on whether the families can be contacted. I have requested that this should be done and it is going to happen. They will be contacted and a liaison person will be put in place. For anybody among the wider public who has a concern, there will be an email facility put in place to facilitate contact with the Department.
I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett. I do not doubt the bona fides of the Minister of State on this issue. In the time I have known her, I have found her to be a genuine person. However, the RTÉ programme last week holds ups very serious questions in regard to trust and confidentiality for the children and families trying to access special needs provision. At this point in time, there are families taking the State to the High Court in regard to the Disability Act. That legislation is breached every second of every day and families have to go through the ringer trying to get the most basic of needs met. It is pretty damning of our society that this is happening.
The questions thrown up by the RTÉ programme concern accountability, particularly around the Secretary General and his predecessors. The current Secretary General, Mr. Robert Watt, is very well paid for his job. Why is he not being brought before the health committee? He has said he will do so at a future date but he should be there next week. There is a running for cover on this issue. To give the game away, there was a press release a number of days ago by the Department of Health in regard to the RTÉ report. It stated that the expert review by senior counsel had found the practice in question to be "entirely lawful, proper and appropriate". It might be appropriate and lawful but surely it is not ethical. Can the Minister of State stand over the press release and say what happened was lawful, putting aside the question of whether it was ethical? Was it ethical to build up a dossier on children and parents in a way that sought to undermine them? That goes against absolutely everything for which those children and families are fighting. Does the Minister of State stand over the press release? Does she agree that what was done may be lawful but it is also unethical?
I thank the Deputy for his very direct questions. In regard to the expert review, my understanding is that barristers were brought in over the weekend and are still working through all of the files in order to present us with the information that is needed. The Deputy asked a very clear question about the difference between ethical and lawful. The whole thrust of my opening statement was that what was done might have been lawful but we need to consider whether it was ethical and moral and whether the culture needs to change. I full-heartedly believe that it absolutely does need to change.
It is sinister to keep files on vulnerable children and their families while the State tools itself up to protect against legal action by the families who are simply trying to assert their legal right and entitlement to equality. That is what we are talking about. It is their right to equality under the law to get the assessments, services, supports and so on to which they are entitled. Rather than the State vindicating those rights and providing those assessments and supports, it looked for ways to trash them legally.
Why are all the senior Ministers not in here telling us what they knew and did not know? There has been a concerted effort to turn this debate into a damp squib and make what was done a non-issue that can be floated off into questions of legality. We need to know whether any of the sitting Cabinet members who are former Ministers for Health knew anything at all about this or approved it. I am not talking about the Minister of State when I ask whether this is linked to politics. There is, in my mind, a connection between the refusal of the Government to ratify the optional protocol of the UN's Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, CRPD, which would have ensured legal accountability in terms of the vindication of equal rights for people with special needs and disability, and what has happened in this case. Does the Minister of State agree there is a connection between those two issues?
I am joined by the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, in which Department I am also Minister of State. I would like people to understand that what I am tasked with doing as we move forward is to take disability provision out of the Department of Health and apply to it a more person-centred and rights-based approach under the remit of the new Department. I hope that will set us on course for the cultural shift, ethical change and person-based approach that I, and all Members of the Oireachtas, would like to see.
I am sharing time with Deputy Michael Moynihan. This is yet another scandal involving a whistleblower and a report being commissioned by a multidisciplinary team. The same old worn path is being followed by the State. It starts with mutterings from the Taoiseach and Ministers in this House suggesting that there is another side to the story. Like all other whistleblowers, I am sure Shane Corr will no longer enjoy his employment, in this case with the Department of Health. That happens with every whistleblower who ever comes to the fore.
We are told that the departmental officials and their families have to be considered. There are decent officials in the Department doing decent work. However, we must consider the facts. This was an attempt by officials to put together dossiers on every single relevant case. That was done and we cannot ignore it. When it comes to investigating what happened, what are we offered? An investigation is to be directed by the Secretary General which, the Minister of State has told us, will "provide the factual detail on these matters". How can the Secretary General who tried to gag RTÉ and "Prime Time" be appointed to investigate the matter? If it was a politician who made that call, we would be asking him or her to resign. That is a fact.
The efforts being made smack of a cover-up and the same old, same old all over again. I point to the example of the case known as the Grace case that went on for a decade and involved a whistleblower. The Minister of State should ask the Department where that whistleblower is now. That person is out of a job and tied up in court. The employer, funded by the HSE, let that person go. The way we treat whistleblowers is an absolute disgrace and scandal. Did Tusla ever rectify its files on Maurice McCabe?
There is also Noel McGree, another man who is out of a job. I am pointing to these as examples of decent people who came forward and tried to do some service for the State. They end up being the victims, left out of a job and being spoken about badly in the House, as happened previously and, no doubt, will happen again. How many live cases are there in the Department in respect of this issue? How much have the senior counsel and all of the reports cost? Will the Minister of State implement a different type of review that is independent and not headed by the Department?
Earlier, the Minister of State said, "The Department's view is that the legal approach has always been to settle cases on the best terms possible." That is a lie because the Department has a record of fighting every single case right to the end. In spite of what we say in this House those in the Civil Service will continue doing what they have done over the years. What of all the Ministers for Health we have had? Did they not know about this? If they did not know about it, what kind of job were they doing?
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I watched the programme at 11 p.m. on Thursday last when I got home Dublin. I was absolutely horrified and disgusted by what I saw. We have had many platitudes and heard talk about trying to ensure that every citizen gets the best possible start in life and the best from the State.
Let us consider this arm of the State. The issue I have is that the arm of the State had endless resources in terms of correlating and putting together a file or legal case against one family. No more than any other public representative in sight, I have been engaging with families and communities all my political life in order to get services for people with special needs. I will continue to do so for as long as that honour is given to me.
I have reflected on the cases I have dealt with over the years and the associated funding and the stop on funding. I will not get started on where we are now in terms of the assessment of needs for those with disability. No services are available from the public sector at the moment for children who need occupational or speech therapy. The services are simply not available.
I have had many discussions with the Minister of State. I admire her tenacity and courage in the way she is tackling this Department. I wish her continuing good luck in it. How much money have the Department of Health and the Department of Education used to challenge the parents of children with disabilities in respect of the services they need? How much money have they taken from the State? Could that money have been used to ensure the best possible services were available? I have no doubt that a future Taoiseach will come before the Dáil to apologise for the way services for people with special needs have been delivered.
This is the challenge I have. It is okay for senior civil servants to sit in their offices and say they will take on the case of A, B or C. I have been dealing with a case relating to school transport. The child concerned needed to move from one school to another. The case for the transport grant was not approved because of some box that needed to be ticked at the start of the exercise. To this day, the Departments are willing to fight these cases. It is unfair and unjust. The senior people in Departments are able to make decisions about commencing court cases against families and children. What if they showed the same courage in tacking the legislation in place to give a fair crack of the whip to those who have changed school or circumstances? If they showed the same courage in accommodating those families as they do in expending state money on legal cases, we would have a far better system.
I know this is an issue in which the Minister of State has taken a serious interest. I am going to say as much as I can in the time available.
I could stand here and talk about how outraged, upset and angry I was. I imagine the Minister of State would share many of those feelings - I genuinely do. I will read out what a mother in my community has said. She represents the voices of the families who have been devastated by this. I pay tribute to Shane Corr. I hope that the Government will stand by him and does not allow his life to be destroyed. That is what has happened to other whistleblowers. This man deserves protection.
These are the words of one mother:
My son is 8 now, was diagnosed just before his 3rd birthday and has only ever received 4 speech and occupational therapy sessions for early intervention, and we had to fight for a suitable school place for him for years. I dread to think that while I was processing my son's diagnosis, doing my best to learn how to help him, searching for school places while trying to keep my own head above water, that all our personal and confidential information could have been used against us, including details of my own mental health. In claiming D.C.A. you fill out a form, but you are advised to also send in a "family impact statement" and a description of a typical day. That form is everything negative about your child, and it is heart wrenching to fill in and write about how your child's diagnosis negatively impacts on your family. To think that so many people would have access to that very personal information is sickening ... There needs to be more transparency and openness on what information families provide will be shared and with whom, and consent given.
I know this is not lost on the Minister of State but many of these families were litigating for basic services. They were seeking services that a developed society would regard as the basic minimum.
I realise that the Minister of State does not sit at the Cabinet table but she is close to those who do. Aside from the current Minister for Health, there are three former Ministers with responsibility for health who sit at the Cabinet table. My question to the Minister of State is simple. The Minister of State said we needed to have a conversation about disability, and we do. It cannot always be a negative one. Some day we must have the opportunity to come to the House and celebrate those in our community with special or additional needs. However, it is always negative for these families. They have always been made to feel they are a burden by successive Governments and that is not right. I wish to ask the Minister of State one simple question given that there are three former Ministers with responsibility for health as well as one serving Minister for Health sitting at the Cabinet table. Will the Minister of State commit to asking them to share what they know about this disgusting practice? It might be legal but, by Jesus, it is not right. Will the Minister of State commit to asking them to share that information? Will the Minister of State ask them to go some way towards addressing the concerns and the real hurt these families have experienced?
The "Prime Time" investigation was shocking. What was uncovered has truly angered people throughout the country. The programme has shown that the Department of Health secretly gathered information from private medical consultations to create files on children with autism who were involved in legal actions against the State. The files, which include sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in long-dormant court cases, were compiled and maintained by the Department of Health over several years without the knowledge or consent of the parents. This detailed and sensitive information is understood to have come directly from confidential consultations that the children and their families had with doctors and other professionals.
Furthermore, the Department instructed the doctors and others not to tell the parents. This is truly shocking and disgraceful behaviour by a public body.
I understand this information was compiled and shared so that the Department of Health could formulate a legal strategy in the cases brought by the children and their families. Even more disturbingly, this information was then used to determine when was a good time to approach parents to settle or withdraw their cases. This is shameful.
I also understand this information is being retained indefinitely on a searchable database. According to "RTÉ Investigates", doctors, consultants and psychiatrists shared the private and confidential information of parents with a public body. It is clear that the families affected by this have been treated with contempt, a lack of respect and with a complete lack of compassion by the State. I am completely disgusted and embarrassed by the actions of the Department of Health in this instance. There is no doubt the Government will say that what was done was not illegal. This is not the point. The actions of the Department in this regard are morally wrong. To treat families in this manner, especially those who are fighting for their autistic children, is completely wrong. Regardless of whether any laws have been broken, this should never have happened.
The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, made a statement in the Dáil this week. What struck me most was that not once did she or the Government apologise to the families themselves for this appalling behaviour by a public body. In her statement the Minister of State even tried to defend the Department by stating she was sure it intended no malice in its actions. If no malice was intended by the Department, why was it using this confidential and personal information to approach families with a view to settling or withdrawing their legal cases against the Department? The bottom line is that the State, through its public bodies, has acted in a most deceitful and underhand manner against the families of autistic children. There are many questions that need answers and I ask the Minister of State to answer them. How many cases are involved? Have the affected families been contacted subsequently? If not, why not? When did this practice start? Who sanctioned this approach? How often was this confidential information sought? How many cases were withdrawn as a result of the use of confidential patient information?
I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach that a multidisciplinary team is to be set up to investigate the issues raised. The Taoiseach, however, needs to reassure all those affected by this that the investigation will be open and transparent and will not leave the families with more questions than answers. What the State has done, through the Department of Health in its dealings with families of autistic children, is both shocking and disgraceful. Answers are needed and there has to be consequences.
Of all of the people with special needs who come to my office, those with autism have the greatest needs. No matter when they look for services, they can never find them. They have to beg and borrow, if not steal, to get their children seen because when they look for services in the system, they are not available and they then have to arrange private consultations. That is wrong.
In future, when parents visit doctors, consultants and psychiatrists, will they be able to trust them? When I visit a doctor or consultant and ask questions I hope the consultation is in confidence and the doctor will try to help me. Doctors have told the Department everything, and it has ruined families. I would appreciate a response to those questions.
I thank Deputy Fitzpatrick for his comments and questions. Perhaps I should have started by apologising but I will certainly do so in my concluding remarks. The Deputy asked some very direct questions. For example, he asked how many live cases there are. There are four dozen live cases. This is a clear answer.
My concluding statement sets out a list of questions that I have asked, no more than the Deputy has, and I have not received answers to all of them. That is not to say they have not been asked. I am awaiting responses to them. Three independent barristers are involved in the review that is under way. They are going through all of the files to ensure the process and trust are not broken in order to give us the answers to all of those questions. I have requested a support liaison for the families impacted by this and that is being put in place. I have also requested that an email address be provided for families who may not, thankfully, get a phone call because they have not been impacted but who may be upset. These are families like those who visit the Deputy’s office, my office or the Minister's office. There will be somebody available to give them a response in order that their voice will not go unheard.
The most important task here is to rebuild trust, not only in physicians but also in the HSE and the Department. Families also need to have trust in public representatives and that we will stand by them and stay in their corner. If something is wrong or not transparent, it is our job to ensure transparency and trust in the system. I plan to rebuild that trust but it not just me who needs to rebuild it. It needs to come from the Secretary General of the Department down. He needs to appear before the Joint Committee on Health or another committee.
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.
I will begin with the point on which Deputy Hourigan finished. This is a test for us. Nothing in what I say is addressed to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, or the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who are present. Rather, my remarks are addressed to those who decided to take the actions that have been uncovered. It is important to note that we only have the claims of a whistleblower before us, but we need to believe those claims and to put in place the mechanism to investigate them. I understand we will do so. I hear the Taoiseach when he says that if client confidentiality was breached, that would be intolerable, unacceptable and unethical. We will hold the Government to account in respect of those words. I believe the Ministers and the Government are on the same side as many others in the House on this issue.
The test in this situation, which I address to the most senior people in the Department of Health, is to determine the motivation for the decisions that were taken. What was the motivation for preparing legal briefs on parents who were seeking services for their children? The only motivation I can see is that a legal argument was going to be presented that these children were "not bad enough" to get the services which they were claiming. That is the only motivation there could have been. The reality is that there is not enough we could do to support the parents of these children.
The culture of rights-based disability services has changed over multiple decades and we are in a very different space even in terms of the services that are provided. However, the culture of limiting people's rights, challenging them in courts and ensuring that people are "not bad enough" to get their services has to be on trial here too. It has to be at the core of what is addressed in this process. I look forward to the investigation by the Department of Health. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I, along with other members of the committee, will be seeking the costs associated with this issue.
However, the test here relates to the people at the very top of the Department of Health. Either they provide a process that delivers justice on this issue or they go. Either they provide a process that means parents have trust as we go forward or they go. Either they expose the decisions of their predecessors that were wrong or they go. This House must send a signal that this culture was wrong because these children are my son, my brother or my cousin's sons. They are all of our children. Forty years ago, when my mother was knocking on doors looking for services, she got a "No", but parents nowadays must not get a "No". The system needs to know that Members of this House we are fighting for those services. There may be resource implications and organisational challenges but we are not saying "No" because people are "not bad enough". We have had enough. Enough is enough.
The "RTÉ Investigates" programme claimed the Department of Health has been secretly using information from private doctor consultations to create dossiers on children with autism who are involved in legal actions against the State and without the knowledge of their parents. As the programme outlined, the information accumulated over time from the private clinical consultations of families who were preparing legal action against the State in respect of the insufficient educational support provided for their children. Highly sensitive data pertaining to these children's medical and educational records informed the content of these dossiers and those data were gathered without the families' knowledge or consent. Instead of helping these families, the Department was doing the very opposite. What was going on beggars belief. All the while, the families thought the consultations were under the protection of doctor-patient privilege. What happened was a total abuse of power and those held responsible must be dealt with in the appropriate manner.
Where has GDPR gone? It seems to me that it goes out the window when it suits. These revelations involve a gross breach of trust. There is a sense of shock and devastation among parents of autistic children and, indeed, the rest of the public. This shocking news while we are all going through this pandemic deals us all another blow. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Health, the Ministers of State at the Department of Health and all those at the Department need to explain how this was allowed to happen.
In fairness, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is present, was not in her current position when these events occurred, so I cannot understand why she was asked to come to the House to answer questions on the matter. The former Ministers for Health and current Minister for Health should be before the House. I mean no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. She has been sent out to answer questions. It is clear from some of her replies that she does not have the answers to some of the questions asked by Deputies. I understand why that is the case, given that she was not in her current role at the time in question. I ask her to reply to the few questions I have.
Was what went on here a widespread practice? Was it standard practice? Other Deputies have asked whether the current Minister for Health or his predecessors knew anything about this matter If they did not, why not? Does it extend beyond the Department of Health?
My remarks are not directed at the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, because I know she is a good person. However, there comes a time that there has to be accountability for the actions of people within the Department of Health. This issue affects the most vulnerable people in society. I refer to the money being spent on legal challenges and investigations in respect of people who are the most vulnerable in society.
In the 12 months since I was elected, we have even seen the Government taking and losing a High Court challenge relating to cars for drivers or passengers with disabilities. The Government has tied that issue up in litigation again. It has not been dealt with since the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, fought a legal battle and lost.
In this case, the costs involved are outweighed. It involves the most vulnerable people in society, those with special needs or disabilities. Our job as public representatives, as people within our parishes and as mothers and fathers is to look after the most vulnerable.
If we take anything from this debate, it is that we have to make sure that whoever is responsible for these actions is held accountable. They cannot be protected. We are not being protected, so why should they? Everyone that is involved should stand up and make a full apology. It does not have to come from the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. It should come from the people who gathered this information. It should come from those people who were responsible for the information that was gathered. They should be held accountable in front of the House and be made to go on the airwaves to apologise to the most vulnerable in our society and state that this will never happen again. This cannot go on. We need to make sure that everyone who was involved in these actions, whether within the Department or across the board, is held accountable for what was done. As I stated, the Minister of State is a good person. She does an awful lot in these areas. However, we have to make sure that everyone responsible is held accountable.
It disgusts me that somebody could do such a thing to the most vulnerable of people.
Yesterday evening, I received a reply to a parliamentary question I asked of the Minister for Health on the way in which a compilation of a dossier on children with autism was permitted. Part of the reply states:
The allegations which were the subject of the RTÉ Prime Time programme on March 25th were brought to the Department's attention last year. The Department took the matters raised very seriously and commissioned an independent, expert review by an external Senior Counsel. This review was completed in November 2020.
That means the former Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the current Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, knew about this long before it appeared on "RTÉ Investigates". The Department stated that it took the issue very seriously and I presume that very serious issues are brought to the attention of the Minister and if that is not the case, it raises other questions. Why were we not told about this? Why are those Ministers not here today to account for themselves?
The illegal activities exposed by Shane Corr are inexcusable. There is no way to defend the clandestine gathering of highly sensitive and personal data in order to inform cases in possible continuing litigation. Of course, it is not only the Department of Health spying on citizens. I have never noticed in job advertisements for the public service that the Government is looking for people with investigative backgrounds, detectives in the making, candidates who enjoyed "Inspector Gadget" in their early years. Is there somewhere else that the Government advertises for people with spying experience?
The Department of Justice has people monitoring tweets from those who are critical of direct provision, both former asylum seekers and members of the public. The Department of Social Protection sends people out to go through lone parents' underwear drawers and sit outside people’s homes to check whether they are going to work. There is something wrong here and it applies to the Government across the board.
I thank Shane Corr for having the bravery and integrity to have seen something fundamentally wrong and to have highlighted it. Instead of staying quietly in his job in the Department of Health, Mr. Corr knew that he needed to go public with what he had found.
I have been asking many questions about the treatment of children with additional needs. I have asked whether a grant or other funding is available for parents of children with autism who seek to avail of early intervention services privately. I have asked about the numbers of children awaiting initial assessment of needs, the length of time waiting, by community healthcare organisation, CHO, and about the process of getting on the list for assessment. The Government recently moved the goalposts. As the HSE was consistently missing its statutory timeframe for completion of assessment of needs, instead of the Government and the HSE addressing the inadequacies of the service, they introduced a new standard operating procedure, SOP, that removed the need for it. The new SOP has been operational since January 2020. It is supposedly now allowing for a shorter assessment in order that the HSE can say it is meeting its statutory targets. That is sad.
The best way for us to show our respect and gratitude to the whistleblower, Shane Corr, is to stand with him and ensure that he does not suffer. We must also change the procedures after we find out what was done. While the Minister of State is praising a review, I do not accept it whatsoever because it is not independent. We must bear in mind that the latest revelation this morning was a memorandum praising someone who followed up, hunted down, chased up and followed up again on information that was going to be used to do down a family. I have the greatest of respect for the Minister of State but this is not about her or me. She has talked about her alarm and outrage, and praised the whistleblower. However, she went on to tell us there was no malice intended when she could not possibly know that. She also told us that it may have been lawful and there is a narrative that it was probably lawful in the contributions of many of the speakers. In my experience as a psychologist and barrister, limited as it is, I do not think there is any legal basis for the manner in which the Department has acted like a private investigator. There are rules and regulations in place even for private investigators. The exchange of medical reports and information in any legal case is determined by rules that are open and transparent. None of this makes sense and to say it may be legal is unnecessary at this point.
I would have liked senior Cabinet Ministers to have attended today. The Minister of State has been left absolutely in the lurch. The issue becomes about her or me, which is absurd because it is about a serious story where information has been gathered surreptitiously in a clandestine manner to be used to do down people and families with autism and special needs under the guise of saving the State money. Where is the senior counsel's report? Will it be published? Did the Department, or somebody on its behalf, threaten RTÉ under the Official Secrets Act? Did that happen? About how many files are we talking? What explorations has the Department done to find out? How many other areas does it affect? Does it, for example, affect the women with cervical cancer who came forward and took cases? How many other sectors has it affected? Let us have, at the very least, a full and frank discussion in the Dáil with senior Cabinet Ministers being held to account for a Department that is clearly out of control, and I say that reluctantly, because it has come forward and stated it has done nothing wrong. The Department is now going to investigate and confirm that it has done nothing wrong. The Government is asking us to think that is not nonsense.
As I said earlier, I want to apologise to the families who watched the "RTÉ Investigates" programme last week for any upset that was caused, and for any questions I could not answer today. It is my ambition to get those answers and to put them into the public domain because I believe that is how we will build trust and ensure there is transparency. I will start there.
I thank the Deputies who made contributions to the debate today. I agree that upholding the rights of the must vulnerable members of society is of the utmost importance and I am conscious of the upset that recent allegations have caused for the parents and families concerned. I firmly believe that the whistleblower has an important role in raising matters of public concern and I acknowledge the actions of many brave people in coming forward to raise their concerns.
I stress that serious allegations have been make against the Department and a review is under way, directed by the Secretary General, which will provide the factual detail related to these matters. It is important, however, to emphasise that allegations of a similar nature have already been examined by the independent senior counsel, which advice I am looking to publish and be made available to all. That was the case before the revelations on RTÉ radio this morning. In the future, consideration will need to be given across all parties as to how the transparency of the whole litigation process can be improved.
I wish to read into the record the questions that I asked my Department last Thursday evening before I watched the programme. It is important to put this in context. I asked how many open cases there are and how many families have been impacted and will need to be contacted. The answer I have is that there are four dozen open cases. That is to differentiate between open and dormant cases. I have been told that a support liaison person will be put in contact with those families to let them know they have been impacted.
I also asked how many closed cases there are and how many families have been impacted and will need to be contacted. I have been told that, in total, there are approximately 270 cases. I do not know how far back it goes. I asked was consent sought from all families and if it was not, why that was the case. Perhaps a review will show that consent was not sought. I also asked why did this particular practice of case tracking and file management start and when it started. I asked whether the Minister can be provided with a copy of the initial legal advice showing this is an acceptable management of litigation. When I asked these questions, I did not have sight of the senior counsel report that was published last November. I also asked was other legal advice about this practice sought from other senior counsel, data protection specialists or the Office of the Attorney General over the years and, if so, what was the content of the advice. That is important. I asked how regularly the Department sought updates on these cases from the local HSE community healthcare organisations, CHOs, and who sanctioned them on each occasion.
I asked how much of the material received came from the litigants for the child or family. That is important in terms of who presented it. I also asked was the material assessed by anyone in particular once received by the Department.
I asked why the Minister was not told last year that this was an issue that was being investigated by a senior counsel. When I talk about the Minister, I refer to myself. I also asked when the senior counsel was hired. We all know now it was this time last year. I further asked when the senior counsel's report was received by the Department. I now know it was received in November 2019. I asked why the Minister was not informed that this report had been received, or the findings in it. When I asked that question, I still did not have the report and I did not receive it until Saturday.
I asked who approved the terms of reference for the SC. I also asked who approved funding for the work and how much did it cost. It cost €10,000. I further asked if I could be provided with a copy of the report of the senior counsel and I am now in receipt of it.
I asked how many people had access to the information over the years. That is what is being sought as we speak.
I asked how many people and who currently has access to the spreadsheet. It is my understanding - it is important for Members to know as well - that the file was not held within the disability section, it was held in the social care section. Social care also includes mental health and older persons.
I asked what is the plan for the spreadsheet referenced going forward and if it is still being used. Yes, is the answer: it is still being used.
I asked if other concerns about this file management had been raised over the years. I am awaiting a response to that. I also asked if there are other similar file or case management protocols in place elsewhere in the Department. That was my last question up to the meeting with the Secretary General last Friday. Before I came into the House today, I was expecting a briefing, but proceedings ran ahead. Some of the script that I read out is from the Department but a lot of the information I presented this afternoon is my own. I hope it tackles some of the issues.
I agree with what was stated: this will be a test for us because there is a test of ethical and cultural change, a shift in mindset and transparency and in trust and engagement. That is where we need to get to. It must be a rights-based approach. It is unfortunate that legal cases continue to happen but we need to know the process. What is important is trust, transparency and the person at the centre. If my team and I manage to get to that space of understanding, sharing the information and ensuring a rights-based approach, it will ensure there is solid ground going forward. However, first I must sort out what the practice is and share it with Members in an open, transparent way to build the trust of the parents. The parents and the children must be at the centre of today's debate.
I say to anybody who watched the programme last week that the Government believes in being supportive of young people and their rights to education and health. We must ensure that we put them first, front and centre. We care 150% about them, but at this moment in time there are questions. There are doubts and there is a shadow, but we are going to clear that. When we clear it and I stand here and emphatically tell Members the process that happened, we then want them to continue to trust and believe in us, their physicians and in the process, because it is there to protect. That is what it was always about. When the Taoiseach stood here yesterday on the floor of the Dáil, he wholeheartedly spoke about the fact that he introduced special needs education and that it had not existed in the past. That just shows the low base we have come from. One has to wonder how high within the Departments we have risen, but we will question it and challenge it. I will push it and get the answers to ensure that trust and transparency are returned to the people who need it most, the most vulnerable in society.