The Irish Times view on parliamentary scrutiny: Striking the balance

Ministers and their officials corrode the system every time they sidestep a question

The apology delivered to the Dáil on Tuesday by Minister for Health Simon Harris for the partial and misleading answers he gave concerning ballooning costs at the National Children’s Hospital was absolutely necessary. Photograph: Tom Honan

The apology delivered to the Dáil on Tuesday by Minister for Health Simon Harris for the partial and misleading answers he gave concerning ballooning costs at the National Children’s Hospital was absolutely necessary. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

The apology delivered to the Dáil yesterday by Minister for Health Simon Harris for the partial and misleading answers he gave concerning ballooning costs at the National Children’s Hospital was absolutely necessary.

It may not derail Sinn Féin’s vote of no confidence in him, or reduce the damage caused to the Government’s carefully cultivated image of fiscal responsibility. But it may encourage other politicians to be less selective in their answers.

The Department of Health, along with the Health Service Executive, has a reputation for withholding information. This was exposed in dramatic fashion during the controversy over CervicalCheck screening.

A complex system and a lack of transparency was exacerbated by the behaviour of some medical practitioners. Those developments brought on a feeding frenzy involving politicians, along with elements of the media and the legal profession.

Any functioning democratic system, founded on the principles of openness and accountability, requires a robust system of parliamentary scrutiny

Gabriel Scally, who produced a critical report for Government on CervicalCheck, complained last week that the HSE has not yet ensured that patients are told when medical mistakes are made.

He went on to describe a “bullying culture” at the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as “just incredible”. Sections of the media published wrong information concerning CervicalCheck, he said, and needed to “back off”, while the actions of some lawyers had not been in the best interests of their clients.

Earlier, former HSE director Tony O’Brien said sections of the media had joined with politicians in scare mongering and he accused PAC members of chasing every controversy for publicity, without adding any value.

Any functioning democratic system, founded on the principles of openness and accountability, requires a robust system of parliamentary scrutiny. Shouting insults and feigning outrage doesn’t cut it.

At the same time, ministers and their officials, who complain about parliamentary and media over-reach, should remember that they also corrode the system every time they sidestep a question or offer partial or misleading answers.

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