Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Ceisteanna (6, 7)

Micheál Martin

Ceist:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of whistleblower complaints in his Department since the legislation was introduced in 2015. [25603/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of whistleblower complaints in his Department to date. [28114/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (16 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.

The Protected Disclosures Act 2014 provides a robust statutory framework which aims to provide protections to whistleblowers who raise concerns regarding potential wrongdoing in their workplace. These protections apply to workers in all sectors of the economy, both public and private. They protect whistleblowers from being penalised by their employer for reporting wrongdoing in the workplace or suffering any detriment for doing so.

The Act requires every public body to establish and maintain procedures for dealing with protected disclosures and to provide written information relating to these procedures to their employees. In line with the Act, my Department has a policy on protected disclosures, which sets out the procedure by which an employee can make a disclosure, what will happen when a disclosure is made and what my Department will do to protect a discloser.

My Department is committed to fostering an appropriate environment for dealing with concerns and assisting staff in "speaking up" regarding potential wrongdoing in the workplace and to providing the necessary assistance for staff who raise genuine concerns. To date, no disclosures have been received from employees or former employees of my Department.

The Protected Disclosures Act 2014 is one of many reforms implemented by the Government in recent years and is putting Ireland ahead of many other countries in changing how politics works and how whistleblowers are protected.

The high-profile whistleblower, the former Sergeant Maurice McCabe, exposed many wrongdoings. This is, therefore, important legislation and should hopefully lead to significant cultural change. I asked the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, last month how many protected disclosures he and his Department had received. He informed me that 52 protected disclosures had been received. That included protected disclosures directed to the Minister from workers in An Garda Síochána and the Irish Prison Service. In addition, the Irish Prison Service, the Legal Aid Board, the National Disability Authority, the Courts Service, An Garda Síochána, and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, all have their own protected disclosures policies in place and report separately on disclosures received. That is a significant number overall and there is a need for resources to be provided. Has the Government undertaken a review of how the Act is working, how effective it is and the level of resources required to deal with the numbers of disclosures? Does the Taoiseach believe there are sufficient protective measures in place to protect whistleblowers who have tried to do the right thing in the Irish Prison Service, An Garda Síochána or other agencies?

Last year saw a doubling in the number of cases reported to GSOC. That clearly shows that the culture in respect of people being prepared to utilise the whistleblowers' protection Bill is leading to a rise in complaints. There is, however, a question concerning whether there is sufficient funding to allow for adequate follow-up on protected disclosures. We cannot allow a perception to the contrary to develop among the public, especially among potential whistleblowers. That is because they and their families risk much personally, as we have heard repeatedly. Were those people to feel their claims will not be properly acted upon, it would discourage everyone, except the very brave, from making such disclosures.

It is very worrying that the watchdog has repeatedly raised concerns about a lack of resources to investigate what are often complicated and time-consuming cases. Will the Taoiseach provide an update on the number of protected disclosure cases currently outstanding, and the staffing and funding that will be allocated to GSOC to investigate these claims in a way that will make the legislation and will raise the confidence of those who are making disclosures that it is the good and right thing to do where they have seen something wrong within their particular experience?

In late 2015 and early 2016, three whistleblowers made protected disclosures to the Department of Defence outlining concerns on a lack of training and protection from the chemicals used in Casement Aerodrome at Baldonnel. Informal research by one of the whistleblowers raised questions over a number of deaths of former Air Corps personnel with 73 deaths occurring amongst former personnel aged under 66 years, with the average age of 50 years. This led to an independent investigation and in response to a parliamentary question on this last year in his capacity as the Minister for Defence, the Taoiseach stated he had "sent the report of the independent third party to those who had made disclosures for their views" and, having received those views and in the context of ongoing litigation, the Taoiseach was considering the next steps in the process. I understand that the whistleblowers concerned, as well as the Defence Forces, have had this report since 2017 and that nothing has been done since. What does the Taoiseach propose to do now with this report and what are the next steps he is considering?

As I said earlier in relation to my Department, there are no protected disclosures on hand at present. With regard to GSOC, I do not have that information to hand but I will inform GSOC that Deputy Burton has raised these questions here and I will ask GSOC to provide a reply to her.

Deputy McDonald raises some issues about particular protected disclosures. I am conscious that protected disclosures are protected and there are limitations on what can be said about them. Where litigation is under way it further complicates matters. I will ask the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, to correspond with the Deputy to give her an update and some answers to her particular questions.

I was asked if there has been a review of the Act. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform published a statutory review of the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 in July 2018. That followed on from a public consultation. This solicited 25 submissions from a variety of public bodies, interest groups and members of the public. The review considered international developments, including comparative analysis, with legislation in other countries. It also detailed some early results of the implementation of the Act across 212 public sector bodies.

A total of 370 protected disclosures were received by the end of 2016. The review shows the Act is viewed as setting a positive example internationally and has had a broadly positive outcome. It highlights some implementation issues, which are being considered by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. These include: providing absolute confidentiality to disclosers while balancing fair procedures for others concerned, including those against whom allegations have been made; the interaction of the Act with the GDPR legislation and other employment policies; and disclosures made through multiple channels and anonymous disclosures.

Following the publication of the review, the Government decided to set up an interdepartmental committee to capture views regarding the operation of the Protected Disclosures Act. The committee was composed of officials with responsibility for the handling of protected disclosures. Representatives were drawn from all Departments and key stakeholders, including local authorities, the HSE and An Garda Síochána. Six meetings of the committee were held between October 2018 and March 2019. Topics considered by the committee included confidentially and record-keeping, data protection and freedom of information and the operation of disclosure channels following upon protected disclosure, interactions with other workplace policies and reporting obligations. Arising from these discussions, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will, in the coming months, issue a number of guidance notes, to assist public bodies in dealing with certain common issues that have arisen in dealing with protected disclosures. Priority will be given to guidance dealing with disclosures concerning misconduct by a head of an organisation, balancing the obligation of confidentiality with effective follow-up of a disclosure and reporting obligations under the Act. In addition, and as highlighted in the statutory review, there is a need to update the list of competent authorities designated to receive protected disclosures under section 7 of the 2014 Act, and work on a drafting order is currently being advanced.

I would add that European legislation is now being developed on protected disclosures and we are very much involved in that and are monitoring it closely. We may need to make amendments to our domestic legislation depending on how that EU legislation lands and how it might require us to change ours.

At six minutes, we have only a short while left. The next grouping of questions is quite big from No. 8 to No. 19, inclusive. We will not get through that.

I believe it is just three questions.

Generally it is just three questions.

Okay. I had thought we might get on to it, but that is it.

That next group is very long.

Yes, we would not have completed it.

No. In that case, can I ask another supplementary question?

There is no provision for a supplementary but we have a few minutes. With the agreement of the House we can, if we finish on time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I believe the Taoiseach is unintentionally brushing me off slightly with the response he gave. I am looking at a question that was put to the Taoiseach by my colleague, Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh, for a written response on 22 February 2018. The Taoiseach responded as the line Minister, where he set out that he had appointed an independent third party to review the allegations made. The Taoiseach also said that he had sent the report of the independent third party to those who had made disclosures, for their views, and that the Taoiseach as the relevant party - not the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe - was considering the next steps in the process, having received those views. Almost one and a half years have passed and it is not really sufficient for the Taoiseach to say to me that he will get someone else to write to me with an update. I want to know from the Taoiseach - as the responsible party - what he going to do next on these serious allegations.

As the Taoiseach is the Minister for Defence, this is specifically his responsibility. It is not really something that can be handled by his Minster of State. We have seen a lot of comment about the Minister of State, which would indicate a striking lack of confidence by key people within the Defence Forces regarding his capacity to deal with very difficult issues. I ask the Taoiseach, in his capacity as Minister for Defence, to take it upon himself to address these complaints because it is absolutely part of the destruction of the morale in the Defence Forces, which are so important to everybody in Ireland.

I am the Minister for Defence but the Government has delegated responsibility for defence and almost all of the associated functions to the Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe. I will get an update on those particular matters from the Minister of State and I will respond, in my name, to the Deputies' queries.