By Michelle Devane, PA
The Department of Health has never gathered sensitive information on children with autism involved in legal cases against the State, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Secretary general at the Department of Health Robert Watt told the Health Committee there is “no evidence” the department was “secretly compiling dossiers” on children with autism or “prying on families” as in the manner portrayed by a programme aired on RTÉ.
The Prime Time Investigates programme, aired in March, claimed the department had been secretly using information from private doctor consultations to create dossiers on children with autism who were involved in legal actions against the State, without their parents’ knowledge.
“The Department of Health has never gathered sensitive medical and educational information on children involved in court cases in the manner portrayed by RTÉ,” Mr Watt said.
“There is no evidence that the Department of Health was secretly compiling dossiers on children with autism involved in special educational needs litigation as alleged.”
Mr Watt said that as a co-defendant in litigation cases, the department “may have documents on file that form part of the proceedings”.
“Such files contain information arising in the course of the proceedings, including the pleadings and correspondence received from all parities including plaintiffs,” he said.
“There is no evidence that the Department of Health is prying on families,” he added.
The Department of Health conducted a review of all cases where information on children with autism who were involved in legal actions against the State were kept following the programme being aired.
Mr Watt told the committee that the Department of Health has not “waived our rights” about the programme.
He added that it reserves its right to take further action.
“We’re reflecting on what we’ll do now vis a vis the programme,” he said.
“We haven’t waived any of our rights to challenge the programme. We haven’t waived our rights to make a formal complaint against RTÉ or to take any other action.
“All those things are still possibilities.”
Robert Watt confirms to the Health Committer this morning in responding to questions from me that he did make contact with the Director General of @rte on the day the @RTE_PrimeTime program was to be broadcast to point out the gravity of the allegations @RTENewsPaulC
— Martin Conway (@conwayforclare) May 5, 2021
Mr Watt also told the committee he had called the director-general of RTÉ, Dee Forbes, due to the “gravity” of the allegations prior to the programme being aired.
“There were two things we were conscious of: first of all the allegations were extremely serious and would cause distress to families if those allegations were made publicly, and secondly we didn’t believe the allegations to be true,” he said.
“I wanted to be sure the director-general in her role understood the gravity of the allegations, that these were as serious as it could be, to suggest that officials of a Government department are prying on citizens or engaged in covert operation and secret dossiers and so on.”
The secretary general added that the call was a “private conversation” that he was “not in the practice of disclosing the contents of private conversations”, but that it was a “bit of a surprise” to see it reported in the papers.
RTÉ said it “stands by its journalism” in a statement issued in response to today's Oireachtas committee.
A statement from the national broadcaster read: “RTÉ is glad that, contrary to their previous stated position, the Department of Health has confirmed that it did hold confidential medical and educational information on children with autism that families were not aware of, under questioning by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health. At no point has RTÉ Investigates suggested this was illegal, nor did it claim that the Department of Health had only obtained this material directly.
“RTÉ stands by its journalism in this report. It’s untrue to suggest that the Department of Health was not invited to participate by RTÉ Investigates. RTÉ wrote to the Department of Health on the 11th of March, two full weeks ahead of broadcast, to put the allegations to them. It’s also 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. Today’s session at the Oireachtas Health Committee proves that the Department of Health did hold medical and educational information on children which families were not aware of.”