‘No evidence’ of secret dossiers compiled on children with autism

Department of Health Secretary General Robert Watt to speak at Oireachtas Committee

Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Health, set up a team in the department to examine the issues raised by the programme, which was supported by three independent barristers.  File photograph: Collins Photos

Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Health, set up a team in the department to examine the issues raised by the programme, which was supported by three independent barristers. File photograph: Collins Photos

 

There is “no evidence” the Department of Health was “secretly compiling dossiers” on children with autism or “prying” on families who were involved in legal actions against the State, an Oireachtas committee will be told on Wednesday.

Robert Watt, the Secretary General of the Department of Health, will tell the committee that his department “has never gathered sensitive medical and educational information on children involved in court cases” in the manner portrayed in an RTÉ documentary on the subject screened earlier this year.

The RTÉ programme alleged the department was using information from private doctor consultations to build and maintain dossiers on the children, including sensitive medical and educational information involved in dormant court actions, without the knowledge or consent of parents.

A departmental whistleblower raised concerns about the alleged practices last year, and was later interviewed for the RTÉ programme. Mr Watt will tell the committee that 230 cases involving special educational needs have been taken since the early 1990s, with 29 of them remaining open.

He will say that a senior counsel report commissioned in February 2020 following the concerns raised in a protected disclosure by the whistleblower found “there was no basis for a reasonable belief of wrongdoing as this term is defined in the Protected Disclosures Act 2014”.

Mr Watt set up a team in the department to examine the issues raised by the programme, which was supported by three independent barristers.

A report by that team was published on April 21st. The committee will hear from Mr Watt that the department “has never gathered sensitive medical and educational information on children involved in court cases” in the manner suggested, and “there is no evidence that the Department of Health was secretly compiling dossiers on children with autism involved in Special Needs litigation as alleged”.

The department may have documents on file that form part of proceedings containing information arising in the course of proceedings, he will say, but “there is no evidence that the Department of Health is prying on families” and he will argue there is no evidence it gathered information beyond instructions as part of the “normal defence of a litigation case”.

“There is no evidence that the department sought clinical reports on plaintiffs directly from clinicians,” the committee will hear.

The department has appointed a support liaison officer to engage with the 29 families involved, while Mr Watt will tell the committee he welcomes an inquiry from the Data Protection Commission on data collection practices on the cases.