RTÉ asks department to correct record after Oireachtas committee clash
Robert Watt claims broadcaster did not offer opportunity to respond to allegations
Robert Watt, secretary general of the Department of Health, appearing before an Oireachtas committee
It is understood the broadcaster has asked that the department amend statements made by its secretary general Robert Watt, when discussing RTÉ’s approach to inviting its participation prior to the broadcast of an episode of RTÉ Investigates in March.
The programme dealt with a series of allegations made by a whistleblower regarding record-keeping by the department in relation to children with special needs who were involved in litigation against the Department.
During the committee meeting, Mr Watt told Dublin South West TD John Lahart the department or other State agencies had not been given an opportunity to offer a view or to appear on the documentary to rebut the charges.
Following the committee meeting, which saw Mr Watt repeatedly criticise RTÉ’s report and describe the allegations as not true, the broadcaster released a statement saying it stands by the journalism in the report.
In the statement, RTÉ said it wrote to the Department of Health on March 11th, two weeks ahead of broadcast to put allegations to them.
Jon Williams, the RTÉ head of news, separately wrote on Twitter that the suggestion RTÉ had not invited the department to participate in the programme was “not true” and that the department “needs to correct [the] official record”.
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
During his committee appearance, Mr Watt repeatedly criticised the RTÉ programme and said the practices alleged “didn’t take place”.
He said the department had “comprehensively addressed” the allegations made as “not true”.
Mr Watt said although the department did not claim it had never made mistakes, there was “no basis” for the substantive allegations made in the RTÉ programme.
He said he regrets the department was not “more forceful” in its engagement with RTÉ before the broadcast.
“We should have been more forceful with them, because I really don’t believe that the programme could stand up.”
Asked about a phone call he made to RTÉ’s director general, Dee Forbes, before the programme aired, Mr Watt said he wanted to ensure she “understood the gravity of the allegations” and to make clear the department “didn’t believe the allegations were correct”.
He said the department was reflecting on what it would do now, and had not waived any of its rights, and said it was “up to RTÉ to reflect on the programme” once it read the reports commissioned by the Department.
RTÉ said it was “untrue to say there is no basis for what RTÉ Investigates reported. The truth matters. The point remains that the Department held sensitive information on vulnerable individuals that can only have originated in confidential consultations those individuals and their families had with medical professionals”
The station said the Department of Health confirmed it did hold such information during today’s session.
During the committee meeting, Mr Watt defended the practice of sharing information between departments who are jointly named as defendants in legal cases – one of the practices highlighted by the programme.
He said there are ways for “various information to be collated and shared” and defended it as a “long-standing practice” which makes “administrative sense” and is lawful. “It’s the only practical way in which I can see us managing these cases effectively.”
Both Mr Watt and other senior officials repeatedly stated that information kept on file that might be seen as sensitive was largely provided by plaintiffs themselves during the course of litigation.
However, it was acknowledged that in at least one instance, some information was provided by a HSE clinician to supply information that the department said it had not sought.
The secretary general defended the gathering of information using “service updates” – reports provided to the department by the HSE on engagement with and use of health services by individuals involved in litigation.
He said they were part of a process “to bring to finality cases that had not been closed and were dormant”.
He conceded that “there is information that could be deemed sensitive”on the files, but said: “There’s a suggestion here there’s something untoward, or inappropriate, or underhand going on here.. There’s not”. The service reports were also featured during the RTÉ programme.
Mr Watt told Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane: “If your characterisation of what was happening here was correct, it would trouble us. Of course it would, but it’s not”.
Mr Watt said it would be true to say the department did not seek information from clinicians or schools directly or indirectly but instead sought updates from HSE managers.
Asked by Mr Lahart if there was any evidence that the State through any of its agencies – rather than just the Department – gathered information that would be beyond the normal practice in the defence of a litigation case, Mr Watt said “no”.
Similarly, asked if there was evidence the State had sought updates from schools or the Department of Education, Dr McLellan said the Department of Health and HSE had not, but that they could not speak for other departments.
Finally, asked if the State or its agencies, rather than the Department, had sought clinical updates on litigants, Mr Watt again said there was not.
Asked by Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall about a template letter that went along with such requests, which explicitly stated families or solicitors should not be contacted about the request, he said “that probably should have been worded better than it is,” saying it is “not an attempt to seek information without the consent of parents”.
‘No basis for inquiry’
Mr Watt said there is no basis for an independent inquiry into how the Department of Health handled legal cases involving children with special needs.
He said he didn’t believe there was any “prima facie basis for an independent inquiry”, and he said there was “nothing untoward” in how the department had behaved.
“If Dáil committees want to investigate, that’s their business,” he said but added there was no grounds he could see for an inquiry “based on evidence that we have. If others have other evidence they want to bring to bear, that might change it”.
He said his view was there was no “basis for it under the various statutes that are there”.
Mr Watt acknowledged “there are issues around data protection which the various papers identify, and we welcome the inquiry by the data protection commissioner, which is currently investigating data collection practices in this area.” He said the department would co-operate with the investigation and its outcomes.
It is understood that the committee will meet in private next Tuesday to consider the next steps in its examination of the matter.
The Oireachtas committee last week heard evidence in private from whistleblower Shane Corr, a department official whose protected disclosure informed the programme broadcast in March.
Several times, Mr Watt said he could not address specific allegations made during that private session. “If you wanted us to be party to the discussion you had with the whistleblower last week, you should have invited us,” he said.
Senator Martin Conway asked whether there was a unit in the department “storing and preparing information for potential legal challenges”, while Gino Kenny TD asked if representations made by Ministers and TDs were kept in a database and “searched across Government departments”.