Surveillance of ten hospital consultants taking legal action against the State by a private investigator was approved by the Departments of Health, Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform as well as the HSE - according to Minister for Health Simon Harris. 

The confirmation came in response to a parliamentary question submitted by Fianna Fáil Finance Spokesperson Michael McGrath.

He had asked the minister about the role of the Department of Health in sanctioning the use of private investigators to monitor the work of hospital consultants during their recent breach of contract case. 

Mr McGrath said the Minister's response begged the question of whether the State commonly uses private investigators and for what purpose. 

Deputy McGrath had also submitted queries about the nature, extent and duration of the surveillance, the number of consultants involved, and what role other government departments or State agencies had played in deciding  to undertake such surveillance. 

In 2008 the Government negotiated a new consultant contract, under which consultants would receive pay rises depending on the extent to which they reduced or eliminated their private practice work. 

However in 2009, then Health Minister Mary Harney withheld the second phase of the pay rises due to the economic crisis.

Earlier this month, TEN consultants who took breach of contract cases to the High Court settled their claims, but because of the implications for thousands more consultants, the settlement will cost ultimately the State almost €200m in back money, and add €60m to the annual pay bill for consultants going forward. 

In his response to Michael McGrath, Minister Harris noted the Department of Health had been criticised for approving the use of private investigators as part of their defence in the consultants' legal case.

He said the Government had decided to mount a vigorous defence of the cases, and the use of such surveillance was not unusual where evidence was being gathered for legal proceedings. 

He said the examination of possible non-compliance with the terms of the plaintiff consultants' 2008 contract - particularly in relation to the level of private practice undertaken - was part of the state's defence strategy.

The Minister said that gathering data in relation of "off-site" private practice was more difficult than for on-site practice - adding that doing so in a thorough manner required the services of a private investigator to establish if excessive off-site work was being undertaken by the consultants.

He confirmed to Michael McGrath that no consultants outside the lead court cases had been subjected to surveillance by a private investigator.

Minister Harris said the HSE had instructed private investigators to gather evidence to support its counter-claim in relation to non-compliant consultants.

He also confirmed that that approach was approved by the Departments of Health, Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. 

He went on to state that the approach was further re-affirmed as appropriate by those Departments - in conjunction with the State's legal advisors - in the lead up to the hearing date. 

He concluded by noting that the recent settlement agreement reached between the State and the hospital consultants provides that by accepting the settlement, the doctors are accepting the terms of the 2008 consultants' contract.

He said this was a positive commitment that the HSE and the Department of Health can use to strengthen monitoring of compliance and will send a strong signal that that there is renewed commitment by all sides to ensuring adherence to public-private practice ratios as set out in the contract.

Michael McGrath said Minister Harris's response confirmed that Government departments were not just aware of, but fully approved of the HSE's use of private investigators. 

Deputy McGrath said it it would be difficult to believe that the Ministers at the head of those departments were not briefed and therefore they must have given their consent. 

He said many public sector employees and citizens would have concerns that the State was willing to adopt the approach of essentially spying on them if the need arises. 

Mr McGrath noted that the fact that the HSE needed to rely on private investigators did not say much for the governance and management controls in place to monitor how consultants perform their contractual duties across the public health service.