A former government minister has accused secretary general of the Department of Health Robert Watt of a “gross abuse of position” in attempting to “gag” RTÉ over its Prime Time Investigates documentary.
Fine Gael TD Michael Creed said it was "entirely unacceptable" that the most senior official in the department contacted the national broadcaster about the programme which highlighted a policy to create and maintain dossiers of sensitive information about children with special needs and their families involved in now dormant legal action against the State.
Mr Watt phoned director general of RTÉ Dee Forbes to express concern about the programme before it was broadcast last week and Mr Creed described it as an “outrageous attempt to gag the national broadcaster”.
He was speaking during a Dáil debate on the programme, which highlighted a long-term departmental practice to collect personal information about children and issues within the family including addiction and relationship matters.
Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness said that if a politician had made the call to RTÉ “we’d be asking them to resign”. He questioned the integrity of the internal departmental investigation into the issue. It is to be directed by Mr Watt “to ‘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?” he asked.
Minister of State for Health Anne Rabbitte apologised to families who watched the programme, "for any upset that was caused". She said 270 cases were involved in the controversy but she did not know how far they went back and that "four dozen cases are live".
She said affected families will be contacted and a liaison person put in place for them, with an email facility for families who “may not, thankfully, get a phone call because they are not impacted but may be upset”.
The Minister told Independent TD Peter Fitzpatrick that three barristers are involved in the review and “they are going through all of the files to ensure that the process and that trust is not broken”.
Ms Rabbitte said: “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” but this was disputed by numerous TDs including Mr Fitzpatrick.
He said: “If no malice was intended by the department then why was it using this confidential and personal information to approach families with a view to the settling or withdrawing of their legal cases.”
The department is due to publish the €10,000 independent review by a senior counsel who had not identified any breaches of data protection laws.
Ms Rabbitte, who has responsibility for disability, reiterated her comments in a Seanad debate on the issue earlier this week that it must be acknowledged “while what happened may have been lawful, that does not mean it was right”.
A number of TDs questioned how she could say it was lawful and Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the latest revelation was of a memo "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".
Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said these were dormant cases most of them going back before 2005 but information continued to be gathered and “the main purpose of that was to profile the families involved”.
Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan asked: "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,” she said.
The day after broadcast of the documentary, Mr Watt said he wanted to reassure all parents, families and interested parties that the department has never unlawfully held sensitive medical and educational information of children involved in dormant court cases.
“We take the allegations made last night extremely seriously and the Taoiseach has today announced that a multi-disciplinary team will now be formed to consider the issues raised with the aim of understanding fully what happened here,” Mr Watt said.