A former secretary general of the Department of Health could have been sacked three months before he was finally removed, Tánaiste Mary Harney revealed today.
Michael Kelly was transferred to chairman of the Higher Education Authority in March after the Travers Report criticised department officials over the illegal nursing homes charges scandal.
However Ms Harney admitted today to the Oireachtas Health Committee that she had wanted to sack him in mid-December after he submitted a “grossly inaccurate” report to the Government.
“I was very tempted to take the action on the 15th or 16th of December, I can tell you, when I became aware I wasn’t given all the information in that report.” she said.
But she said she decided to hold back until a fair and objective report was compiled.
“Would anybody of you work in that environment if you couldn’t trust what you were being told? At the end of the day I had to pay the price if I acted on the basis of advice,” she added.
“This is not about mistakes. This is about not putting information which is readily available in a report to go to the Government that’s about to make a big decision.”
“Without sounding too arrogant, I acted on the issue within a month of becoming minister. It had gone on for 29 years.
“How any government could preside over that for 29 years is quite incredible.”
Labour health spokesperson Liz McManus told Ms Harney that her “straight” reputation was under threat from the way she is “obsessing about a civil servant and your refusal to deal with the fact that your Cabinet colleague was negligent in relation to his responsibilities“.
Ms McManus called for Ceann Comhairle and former minister for health Rory O’Hanlon to be called before the Committee.
Mr O’Hanlon, who served in office from 1987 to 1991, has so far declined to be drawn into the affair or answer questions in the Dáil as his office is entirely independent of parliamentary matters.
But Ms McManus said: “When he was minister for health, the decision was made to abandon a Government decision to deal with this issue that John Boland had brought to cabinet.
“Had that government dealt with it, there wouldn’t be a problem now.”
Ms Harney said the Ceann Comhairle’s attendance was a matter for him.
Fianna Fáil senator Geraldine Feeney called for Labour health ministers like Brendan Corish and Barry Desmond to attend the hearings.
John Gormley of the Greens asked Ms Harney if she was satisfied there was a better filing system within the department.
He referred to a file requesting legal opinion from the Attorney General which went missing only for an official to spot it in the minister’s outer office.
Ms Harney added that an electronic tracking system was in operation. She told committee members that there were up to 60 paper files on her own desk this morning.
Committee members visited the department yesterday as part of their research for a report to be compiled for the Government next month.
The committee began hearings into the issue last month and has already questioned former ministers and officials at the department.
Last week the Government announced the set-up of a repayment scheme to refund over 70,000 pensioners and their families illegally overcharged for long-term care.