This was a largely tetchy affair. Tony O’Brien, the HSE’s Director General was yesterday called back before the Public Accounts Committee (not for the first time) to correct the record in relation to evidence given to the committee at a previous meeting in February last year. The HSE had originally appeared before the Committee to answer questions about taxpayers’ money being spent on two reports into the ‘Grace’ foster home scandal – both of which, at that point, were unpublished. There then followed another appearance to explain the genesis of the mishandling of an apology to ‘Grace’ and her birth mother.
At yesterday’s hearing - during which tempers at times became frayed – allegations of “cover-up” and “stonewalling” repeatedly echoed around the committee room.
This was an appearance that once again was characterised by another HSE apology – this time Mr O’Brien apologised to the committee for providing it with incorrect information in February 2016. This included an apology for failing to tell them that one of the HSE staff involved in the ‘Grace’ case is still employed by TUSLA, the Child & Family Agency on a part-time basis. Mr O’Brien said the information had only come to his attention on Wednesday after an examination he had initiated. He had previously told the committee last year that this individual no longer worked in the public service. In an unusual exchange with Labour TD Alan Kelly, Mr O’Brien said the discovery had provoked a personal reaction akin to some media portrayals of Mr Kelly himself – a comparison one can only presume meant the news was not received well by Mr O’Brien.
HSE Director General Tony O’Brien: "In light of information that I now have, I wish to correct the record of my information to the Committee dated February 2nd 2016… H3, while retired from the HSE, is currently in public service on a part-time basis in TUSLA. I wish to apologise to the Committee for not being in a position to have had more complete information at the time in February 2016."
"The three persons to whom I referred (H7, H3 and H12 as per the Devine Report) had all retired from the HSE on the date that I made this statement (2 February, 2016).”
"The HSE payroll system indicates that all three are in receipt of full HSE pensions. This indicates that all three are retired from the public service. It was on this basis that I stated, and believed, that the three persons (H7, H3 and H12) were no longer in the public service."
In an exchange with Independent TD Catherine Connolly, Mr O’Brien further confirmed that another individual referred to in the Conal Devine report (H6), also still works in the public service. Much to the annoyance of committee members, Mr O’Brien would not clarify that person’s exact status or if he/she has been promoted within the organisation he/she currently works but Mr O’Brien did confirm the person no longer works for the HSE.
Questioned by Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane, Mr O’Brien denied “actively” misleading the Public Accounts Committee and said the issue of a “cover-up” would be determined by the Commission of Investigation into the ‘Grace’ case which is due to get underway shortly.
Mr O’Brien also referred to HSE contact with An Garda Síochána the day after two whistleblowers made protected disclosures to the Public Accounts Committee in March 2015, as nothing more than a “co-incidence”, adding that there are only so many days in the year. He was answering questions from Fine Gael TD Josepha Madigan.
Mr O’Brien was questioned on why he was not accompanied on this occasion by his HSE colleague Mr Pat Healy who had attended the Committee in February 2016. It emerged the Committee, by way of a phone call to the HSE on Wednesday, had requested Mr Healy’s presence. However, Mr O’Brien said he took it to be his personal evidence that needed to be clarified and he would not expect anyone to attend at “15 hours notice”.
The Committee also heard that the HSE has commissioned an independent external review of funding to the voluntary provider who took over the care of ‘Grace’ following her removal from the foster home in the South East in 2009. This development followed disagreement on the levels of funding provided to the voluntary provider as set out in Mr O’Brien’s statement to the Public Accounts Committee last year. Mr O’Brien said the review – by the Deloitte firm – is nearing completion, saying he expects to have it “in a week or so”. He confirmed the HSE has not to date seen any draft version of this review but further questions on when exactly the review began and how much it will cost could not be answered and are to be provided in written responses to the Committee in the coming days.
After some 4 hours of questioning the latest HSE appearance at a Committee hearing concluded.