The head of the Department of Health has said his IT department is now involved in preventing the “unacceptable” recording of internal discussions after details of private meetings were released to the media.
Robert Watt told the Public Accounts Committee on Thursday he thinks it is “unacceptable to record private conversations in any setting”, referring to the actions of departmental whistleblower Shane Corr in releasing transcripts of budget meetings in February of this year.
Those recordings had suggested a deal of strain in the relationship between the HSE and the department, most especially in terms of financial and budgetary matters.
Mr Watt said that “there has been follow-on” within the department in terms of Mr Corr’s actions, but did not elaborate given the matter is a “HR issue”.
“Our IT people are involved now in terms of future meetings,” he said, adding “our staff have been reminded of their obligations, we all have to be in a position to have private conversations, it’s very important to have that challenge function in any organisation”.
Asked by Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy whether he would be concerned about the substance of the recordings, Mr Watt conceded that he would be “concerned about the nature of engagements, that they are respectful”.
“I would want to see that those concerns are addressed and that if there are issues with the HSE that we address those,” he said.
“I take the substantive comments as important, and that we should learn from them. There are significant learnings from the nature of the labour market in which the HSE operates,” he added, in reference to the fact the HSE had only been able to fill 5,000 positions of the 10,000 job recruitment target it had budgeted for in 2021.
Mr Watt said a potentially “better solution” to the issue of recruitment targets within the HSE, described as being “batshit” within the leaked recordings, would be to take a “multi-annual approach” so that any budget unspent at the end of one year could be allocated to the next.
It emerged at the meeting, meanwhile, that the HSE is to adjust its financial accounts for 2021 by €71.4m with regard to ‘accruals’, or unpaid debts accumulated at the end of 2020.
The HSE’s chief financial officer Stephen Mulvany revealed the figure, which was first alluded to in Mr Corr’s released recordings as potentially being to the tune of “hundreds of millions”.
In February, on the back of Mr Corr’s recordings coming to light, the Minister for Health was informed by his officials that the HSE had run up unpaid debts across the 12 months of 2020 of €1bn, leading to an overall total creditor figure of €2.517bn.
Stephen Donnelly was also told that, despite receiving €2.5bn in supplementary funding from the exchequer in 2020 due to the Covid crisis, the HSE had €812m in cash in its coffers at the end of the year.
He was further informed that the ‘prior year adjustment’ which the HSE has now made — which essentially see a previous year’s accounts restated to correctly reflect when a sum of money has been spent — “are not common in financial reporting”.
At the PAC, Mr Mulvany said that figure represents just two weeks of overall budget for the health service. He added the same figure for 2021 was €608m, which had likewise been rolled over into the cashflow for 2022.