Taoiseach: ‘Unethical’ to ask medics for data on individual children

Martin accepts that RTÉ Investigates gleaned evidence of unauthorised ‘collection of data’

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said ‘it was not a practice when I was minister for health of deliberately going out either to authorise the collection of data in respect of individual children or families’. File photograph: The Irish Times

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said ‘it was not a practice when I was minister for health of deliberately going out either to authorise the collection of data in respect of individual children or families’. File photograph: The Irish Times

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said it was not the practice when he was minister for health to “deliberately go out and authorise the collection of data” on individual children.

He said it would be “wrong and unethical” for any official to ask a doctor or consultant for such information. But he acknowledged that the RTÉ Investigates team had evidence that this happened “in respect of one case”.

The programme alleged the Department of Health compiled secret dossiers including sensitive personal information on children with autism involved in legal action against the State.

“No department official or anyone in government should ever seek to approach clinicians” seeking the files of children involved illegal cases, Mr Martin said.

“I am not clear yet as to whether that happened in any systemic way,” in the department.

The Taoiseach also said Lexi Ford, the seven-year-old child with special needs whose parents were told she would have to wait until 2026 for school supports, would not have to wait for such services.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the parents “have been left crying and literally begging for services for their daughter” whose case was highlighted in the media.

She said the case came on the back of “shocking revelations” about the department setting out to gather information to “ exert pressure, damage reputations, stall and silence these families” who were taking legal action because of the State’s failure to provide vital services and therapies.

Mr Martin said Lexi “ will not have to wait until 2026. We will make sure that is the case. No child should have to wait that length of time.”

Speaking about the RTÉ Investigates programme the Taoiseach said the department did not accept the allegations and “is conducting a rigorous review”.

But he told Ms McDonald “any breach of patient-client confidentiality or any attempt by any official or anybody to ring up a doctor or consultant, as happened – they had documentation in respect of one case – would be totally wrong and unethical”.

A number of TDs have demanded that all current Ministers who previously held the portfolio should attend before the Oireachtas health committee to answer questions on the controversy.

‘State does not fight fair’

Ms McDonald asked if it was the practice in Mr Martin’s time in the role.

He replied that “it was not a practice when I was minister for health of deliberately going out either to authorise the collection of data in respect of individual children or families.

“I would not, in any set circumstances, support any department seeking, for example, to breach patient-client confidentiality. That would be intolerable, unacceptable and unethical.”

Earlier Sinn Féin health spokesman David Cullinane said carers have been wrongly forced by successive governments to fight for their children’s basic rights and the “abhorrent practices” uncovered by RTÉ demonstrated “the State does not fight fair”.

The Seanad on Monday debated the issue when Minister of State at the Department of Children Anne Rabbitte thanked the whistleblower who made a protected disclosure and said she could not stand over the system which “needs to stop now” and a new more transparent system put in place to manage such legal cases.

Ms Rabbitte also said interim secretary general of the Department of Health Robert Watt had informed her “it is the intention” to publish the €10,000 independent review by a senior counsel which had not identified any breaches of the data protection laws.

The department is getting legal advice about publication of the report. Ms Rabbitte said “we must acknowledge that while what happened may have been lawful, does not mean it was right. Driving without a seat belt used to be lawful, it doesn’t mean it was ever right.”