Door left open for public cancer inquiry; Inquiries cost State €500m

The Government is “open to” changing legislation to guarantee any investigation into the cervical screening scandal is carried out in public.

Vicky Phelan.

Terminally-ill mother Vicky Phelan is demanding that any inquiry into cervical screening is not held be behind closed doors and should compel people to attend.

While the possibility of a full-blown tribunal to examine the failures in the system is still an option, it is more likely that legislation will now be changed to introduce a “bespoke” commission of inquiry to be held in public as this would be the shorter option.

Health Minister Simon Harris is also working with patient groups on new accountability laws that would see managers sacked for their role in scandals.

In another fast-moving day on the issue:

  • Calls were yet again made for the resignation of HSE director general Tony O’Brien;
  • Mr O’Brien confirmed he is to take a leave of absence from the board of a US healthcare company to focus on the cancer scandal;
  • It was revealed that 8,000 women have contacted a special helpline set up in the wake of the screening controversy;
  • Tánaiste Simon Coveney confirmed that Ms Phelan’s court case was not on a list of sensitive legal actions that is presented to the Cabinet on a regular basis;
  • The finance committee and Public Accounts Committee both said they intend to call in the State Claims Agency and the HSE to answer questions on the matter next week.

Mr Harris and opposition parties have agreed that a non-statutory scoping exercise should first be carried out into the scandal which involves hundreds of women who developed cancer but were not told that their original clear smear tests were incorrect.

This scoping exercise will be followed by a statutory inquiry, however, commissions of investigation do not have to be held in public. Mr Harris is now open to looking at changing this to insure any inquiry will not be in private.

Health Misister Simon Harris.

“It was suggested that we should amend legislation to allow for the creation of a bespoke inquiry,” said Sinn Féin’s health spokeswoman Louise O’Reilly.

Speaking on behalf of Ms Phelan, solicitor Cian O’Carroll said any investigation should be open and transparent.

If that means that there is no alternative to a tribunal in order to ensure a public investigation of these matters well then that’s what it has to be, he told the Irish Examiner.

“If it can be done through some other channel such as a modified commission of investigation or some other type of statutory inquiry then so be it.

“It seems that it should be a statutory inquiry with powers of compellability.”

Meanwhile, Mr Harris is considering drawing up new laws to force HSE managers to be made accountable for tragic deaths and scandals under their watch.

Mr Harris said he is in favour of new statutory accountability laws being developed based on existing legislation in other countries due to serious concerns senior officials are failing to take responsibility or lose their jobs for crises.

During an hour-long meeting with Irish Patients Association (IPA) chairman Stephen McMahon, Mr Harris said he is open to examining the issue as the failure to hold people accountable is undermining trust in the public service.

He asked the IPA — which has long called for the law — to propose “appropriate” draft bill in the coming weeks on how such a legal change could be introduced.

Speaking in the Seanad, Mr Harris said: “We also have to ask ourselves a broader question about the culture of disclosure and candour in our health service.

“We cannot have a paternalistic culture in the health service.”

€500m inquiries

Tribunals and commissions of inquiry have cost the State up to €500m to date.

Speaking at a PAC meeting, the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach, Martin Fraser, said he fully understands the anger over the cervical cancer scandal.

However, sounding a note of caution, he said that tribunals and commissions of investigation have already cost the State €500m in recent decades.

He said this includes the 2011 Moriarty Tribunal, which is continuing to cost up to €800,000 a year and whose total cost exceeds €65m.

While supporting plans for a full-scale investigation, he said the proposed scoping exercise made sense.

“I think it’s a very good idea to think very carefully about this so we get the right combination of speed, transparency and to make sure the women are at the centre of this,” Mr Fraser told PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming.


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