Republic of Ireland news

‘No evidence' Republic's Department of Health compiling dossiers on children with autism

“The Department of Health has never gathered sensitive medical and educational information on children involved in court cases in the manner portrayed by RTÉ”
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 RTE or to take any other action.

“All those things are still possibilities.”

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.

Mr Watt told Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan he regretted that the Department had not been "more forceful" with RTÉ given it believed "there wasn't sufficient evidence to justify them being broadcast".

"I regret now that we weren't more forceful in responding to RTÉ before the programme," he said.

"Because I really don't believe that the programme can stand up. And obviously we're concerned about the impact it's having...and the implications for trust".

Mr Watt also told TDs and senators that a total of 230 cases relating to special educational needs had been taken against the State since the early 1990s, and that 29 of them remain open.

He said he understood that the claims in the programme had caused "distress" to the 29 families and that an independent liaison officer had been appointed to each family.

"I have personally written to each of these families through their solicitor on file, offering the opportunity to engage," he said.

He also said a number of the families had put in data requests to determine what information the Department has on file of them.

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