The Secretary General of the Department of Health has told the Oireachtas Health Committee that allegations made during an RTÉ Investigates programme were not true.
Robert Watt said that there is no evidence that the Department conducted "a covert campaign to have secret dossiers prying on families" or carried out "private investigations".
"The practices that are alleged aren't ethical. And they didn’t take place", Mr Watt said, adding that a review of the protected disclosure carried out by Conleth Bradley SC found that "there was no basis behind the allegations. There was no evidence or wrongdoing in respect of any of the allegations, of which there are many".
RTÉ said today that it is glad the Department of Health has confirmed to the committee "that it did hold confidential medical and educational information on children with autism that families were not aware of", adding that this was "contrary to their previous stated position".
In a statement, the broadcaster said it "stands by its journalism in this report" and rejected suggestions that the Department of Health was not invited to participate in the programme. RTÉ wrote to the department "two full weeks ahead of broadcast, to put the allegations to them".
Mr Watt told the committee that when he called RTÉ Director General Dee Forbes on the day the programme was broadcast, he told her that the allegations were extremely serious, and that the Department did not believe that they were true.
He said he now regrets "that we weren’t more forceful in responding to RTÉ before the programme... obviously we are concerned about the impact it’s had."
He also told the Committee that he was disappointed that the Children's Ombudsman commented on allegations made during the RTÉ Investigates programme.
Labour Party Senator Annie Hoey questioned whether the department acted ethically, saying that "vulnerable families and children have been mucked about under the watch of the Department of Health."
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Mr Watt defended sharing information, saying that it is seen as "an efficient way for co-defendants" to manage cases, and that it is based on "administrative efficiency".
"Can we share that better and be more secure about it? Yes of course. We're looking at that", he added.
There is never "absolute certainty" where complex policy and legal issues are involved, he said, adding that "there are always difficulties, there are always trade-offs. We are not suggesting that mistakes haven’t been made."
Mr Watt said that if a body, such as the Medical Council, has ethical concerns then the Department would be happy to engage with them.
Asked by Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway if there a section within the Department of Health that identifies potential litigation and is compiling information as part of its defence, Mr Watt said "absolutely not" and told the Committee chair that he would not respond to allegations made during a private session of the Committee a number of weeks ago, which the Department was not invited to.
During that hearing the Committee heard from whistleblower Shane Corr.
Mr Watt said any information the Department holds on patients is provided by the plaintiff.
Earlier Assistant Secretary, Social Care, at the Department of Health Dr Kathleen MacLellan said there was one case, as referred to in the programme, where inadvertently some clinical information was provided by an individual clinician and that was held on a file.
She said the Department had not sought the information. Mr Watt added that information was also obtained through "service updates" from the Health Service Executive.
Sinn Féin Health Spokesperson David Cullinane said there was a perception that the Department was gathering information to be used against families in legal disputes.
Mr Watt said that service updates were an attempt to bring cases to a "finality".
Mr Cullinane told Mr Watt that full open disclosure is required. He said that Mr Watt was telling the Committee that what happened was "standard practice", but people are reasonably asking the question, 'is it right that this is standard practice'."
Mr Watt said that a number of families have put in data requests, to identify what type of information was held by the Department.
He said there was a suggestion that there is "something untoward here or underhand or inappropriate here - there's not".
Mr Watt said that there are 25 people who have access to the sensitive files in question.
When asked why extra security features were added after the initial allegations were made, he said that no system is 100% secure and that there is always a need to review security around data management.
The Data Protection Commission is currently carrying out a review on the matter.
Mr Watt also told the Committee that "in the overwhelming number of cases" taken by citizens seeking access to educational services, a settlement is reached.
Dr MacLellan said "the overall strategy has been to settle cases" where that is possible, or to provide the services which are sought.
Fianna Fáil TD John Lahart asked how plaintiffs provided "the vast majority of evidence", as Mr Watt claimed they did. Mr Watt said "in the main" it came through their legal representatives, where documentation was either provided, or sought.
Dr MacLellan said that the Prime Time programme had referred to video recordings kept by the department. She said that "a single video recording" was identified, and that it was "provided by a plaintiff".
Mr Watt said a review process in the department was "very professionally undertaken" and that it led to a comprehensive review, as you would expect of a government department.
Mr Watt also said in a conversation prior to the broadcast he had wanted to convey to RTÉ the "profound nature of the allegations" contained in the Prime Time programme, and said that they "weren’t true".
He said: "RTÉ need to reach their own conclusions on their report. And maybe they need to defend their report based on the evidence that’s been out there. They haven’t – since we published these reports - made any comment that I am aware of. They haven’t produced any evidence to support their allegations."
Social Democrats TD Roisin Shortall said it was "very unsatisfactory" that the health committee has not received information requested either from Robert Watt or the Minister for Health.
Mr Watt said the department did not seek clinical reports or information on children either directly or indirectly.
Referring to a letter sent to HSE managers – which he acknowledged "could have been worded better than it is" – Mr Watt said: "So in effect what we are saying here is; 'We are not asking you to go to the plaintiffs'. .. we are asking for an update from the manager'
"It is not - as was interpreted – misinterpreted perhaps by RTÉ – an attempt to seek information without the consent of parents".
Ms Shortall expressed concern about dormant cases, noting that there had been no movement on many of them since 2005.
Asked why there was a recent "flurry of activity", Mr Watt said the department was keen to close the cases and settle, and that this was motivated by the "best intentions".
Mr Watt said he did not have information concerning legal costs.