#Open journalism No news is bad news

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support The Journal
Dublin: 19°C Thursday 24 June 2021

Robert Watt says 'no evidence' Department of Health was 'prying on families'

RTÉ said the Department of Health was invited by RTÉ Investigates to participate in the programme, contrary to claims made by Watt.

Image: Oireachtas TV

Updated May 5th 2021, 2:16 PM

SECRETARY GENERAL AT the Department of Health, Robert Watt, has told an Oireachtas committee that the Department has never gathered sensitive information on children with autism involved in legal cases against the State as “in the manner portrayed by RTÉ”.

Watt said there is “no evidence” the department was “secretly compiling dossiers” on children with autism or “prying on families”.

A statutory inquiry was launched by the Data Protection Commission into the Department of Health’s processing of personal data following allegations made in an RTÉ Investigates programme about the Department gathering dossiers on children with special educational needs and their families.

The programme claimed that the Department continued to gather information about children with special educational needs and their families who were involved in legal actions against the State, long after their cases were dormant.

Watt said that an internal review found “no basis for reasonable belief of wrongdoing” in the gathering and sharing of information. 

He added that most of the information on file is supplied by plaintiffs during the course of their proceedings against the State.

Asked whether he would welcome an independent investigation, Watt said he didn’t believe there’s sufficient evidence, “but that’s not for me to say”. 

“The Department of Health has never gathered sensitive medical and educational information on children involved in court cases in the manner portrayed by RTE,” Watt told the committee this morning. 

“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.”

Watt said that as a co-defendant in litigation cases, the department “may have documents on file that form part of the proceedings”.

He said most of the information kept on file “was the type of information that you would expect to see in cases such as this”. 

“Such files contain information arising in the course of the proceedings, including the pleadings and correspondence received from all parties including plaintiffs,” he said.

“There is no evidence that the Department of Health is prying on families.”

‘The truth matters’

Watt told the joint committee that he rang Director General of RTÉ Dee Forbes on the day the show aired in March, and that it “was a bit of a surprise” to see that “private conversation” reported in the media.

He said he wanted to ensure Forbes “understood the gravity of the allegations”.

“I wanted to basically say to her that we didn’t believe the allegations were correct, and I didn’t think it was appropriate for RTÉ to make serious allegations of that nature,” said Watt.

“I wanted to make sure that the director general understood the seriousness of the allegations, which I think, after the conversation she did.”

Watt said the Department has not “waived our rights” about the programme and 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,” he said, adding later in the committee that he believed allegations made in the programme had done reputational damage. 

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”.

He also alleged that RTÉ did not invite the Department to appear on the programme. 

#Open journalism No news is bad news Support The Journal

Your contributions will help us continue to deliver the stories that are important to you

Support us now

“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”.

RTÉ released a statement following Watt’s appearance at today’s committee saying it stands by its journalism in the report and that it is untrue to suggest that the Department of Health was not invited to participate.

“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,” RTÉ said in a statement. 

“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 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.

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.

-Additional reporting from PA


About the author:

Adam Daly

Read next:


This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel