Not so funny, Fergus... the health of the nation is a serious business

IN his column on the Department of Health and Children (July 6), Fergus Finlay knocks great fun out of questioning the role and function of the department and its ministers.

Whatever about the humour of the piece, it contains a number of factual inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

First the easy bit. Mr Finlay wonders what the department does.

Well, he might look at our website where he can see an outline of its role and functions.

He comments on the 79 people employed in the department’s parliamentary and corporate affairs unit, and a recent parliamentary question (PQ) which stated that the minister was not in position to say how many people were employed in her department because of industrial action.

The industrial action in recent months across the civil service meant replies to PQs were not being prepared by the officials who normally did this work. If other officials had prepared and issued them, it would have been seen by their colleagues as a form of “strike breaking” with attendant consequences that Mr Finlay would be aware of.

In relation to the 79 people in the parliamentary and corporate affairs unit, he might have informed your readers that apart from oversight of PQs, this unit’s duties also include:

Managing the delivery of the department’s internal human resource function.

Staff training and development.

Providing freedom of information services on behalf of the department.

Providing ICT and records management services to the department, including management of the department’s file and print infrastructure, web services and application development programme.

Responsibility for data protection and ICT security.

Providing objective legal advice to the ministers and the department.

Providing support to the minister, ministers of state and secretary general for their attendance at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health, select committees and the Committee of Public Accounts, as well as informing the media (including Mr Finlay) about developments in health policy and coordinating the press and communications function of the department.

The Department of Health and Children receives more PQs than any other government department and in 2009 replies were prepared for 5,797 PQs. This is apart from the 243 responses prepared for Dáil adjournments and 90 for Seanad adjournments

Mr Finlay refers to several press releases issued by the department and while he questions, inter alia, two press releases on sunbed legislation, he fails to mention the importance of this as part of the cancer control programme. He also ignores the fact that in the month the sunbed legislation was announced by press release, other statements dealt with significant policy developments such as the report on the proposed model for the substitution of interchangeable (generic) medicines and reference pricing, the launch of the report on cardiovascular health policy and a statement by the minister on the ban on head shop products.

If these do not qualify in Mr Finlay’s book as “the really important stuff” that he says he never hears about from the department, then it’s hard to know what would qualify.

He also dismisses Minister for Older People Áine Brady’s ‘‘face-to-face meetings with – guess who? – older people in all sorts of places”. These meetings form part of the consultative process that is underway in the formulation of a national positive ageing strategy. The press releases relating to these meetings were to alert local people to them and indeed many have attended them to give their views on what they want to see in the national strategy.

Mr Finlay also refers to the Minister for Disability and Mental Health John Moloney’s response to the annual report of the independent monitoring group on a Vision for Change, which he describes as “tatty and meaningless”. However, he doesn’t say the report acknowledges progress in some areas, including the development of child and adolescent services, the appointment of the assistant national director for mental health and executive clinical directors and the gradual movement towards the creation of catchment areas.

Minister Moloney has acknowledged publicly that progress in some areas is too slow. However, in many parts of the country services are pressing ahead with the implementation of A Vision for Change and a significant amount of preparatory work and planning has been taking place which will show tangible progress this year and next.

Incidentally, the web address of the Department of Health and Children is and while you will not find material from the office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on that site, on the home page you will find a direct link to the site where the material can be accessed.

The department appreciates that Mr Finlay has to find material for his regular column so he too can earn a living, but this should not be at the expense of the dedicated staff in the department.

Róisín Heuston

Press and Communications Office

Department of Health and Children

Hawkins House

Dublin 2

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