Michael Clifford: Laws be damned, the ruling class does what it wants

Michael Clifford: Laws be damned, the ruling class does what it wants

Laws, it appears, are often only for the little people. 

Those who matter, those who run the country, have their own way of doing things, their own laws. 

Apart from obvious issues around inequity, this system has long term consequences. But that’s somebody else’s problem. 

By the time consequences are felt, today’s decision-makers will have left the stage, most likely to enjoy inflated pensions. Three examples from across public life this week illustrate how the system works.

On Monday, the Irish Examiner reported that Robert Watt had been confirmed as the new Secretary General of the Department of Health. 

His appointment was a ready-up. He was given the job on an interim basis in January, along with the announcement that the salary for the job would increase from €211,000 to €292,000.

The job was then advertised in what was cast as a global hunt for the best candidate. Anybody of the required calibre who may have been interested would be forgiven for believing the position was already filled.

The reasoning for the 45% increase in salary came from the Department of Public Enterprise, which holds the purse strings for the public sector. 

It stated that the new salary is “deemed to be commensurate with the scale of the responsibilities, including the vaccine rollout in the immediate term and the challenges of implementing the government’s ambition for the rollout of Sláintecare and the budget of €21bn”.

Mr Watt was head of that department for the last 10 years but had no role in determining the enhanced salary. The only new element to the reasoning for the big pay hike is the vaccine rollout, which started before Mr Watt’s appointment and should be completed in the next nine months.

Is this the manner by which the biggest public sector jobs in the state are to be filled? 

Or it is a case of somebody in government deciding Mr Watt was your only man and a sham process should be constructed around his appointment? 

Robert Watt's confirmation as the new Secretary General of the Department of Health was a ready-up, says Michael Clifford.
Robert Watt's confirmation as the new Secretary General of the Department of Health was a ready-up, says Michael Clifford.

The Irish Examiner’s political editor Danny McConnell put it as follows in Monday’s paper: “It is not hard to be cynical about politics and government affairs when those in charge of the running of our country continue to treat the public as idiots.” 

Once the pandemic subsides, the biggest political issue will once again be housing. 

Next Tuesday, the Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien is expected to bring a proposal to cabinet to increase the provision for public and affordable housing on new developments from 10% to 20%. 

In theory, this means that on every new development, a fifth of the homes have to be handed over to the local authority at cost price for public housing (Mr O’Brien also wants to include an element for affordable housing which will play to his party’s constituency but do little to alleviate housing waiting lists).

This provision is known as Part V and was originally included in the Planning and Development Act 2000. It has, for the greater part, been a shambles, largely because the government put the concerns of developers over those in need of public housing.

The provision was brought in by the minister of the day, Noel Dempsey, in 2000. 

By then, local authorities had, to a large extent, stopped building. While that turned out to be a hugely retrograde step, the new provision made some effort to fill the gap. At the time, developers were opposed to this innovation. Socially mixed developments might be good for society but would also be a drag on house prices.

Mr Dempsey was moved on soon afterwards. He was replaced by Martin Cullen, a man with whom the construction industry could do business. 

Pretty soon, the law changed. Developers were permitted to pay local authorities rather than hand over the completed homes. 

In terms of providing public housing that was a disaster that resonates right through till today. 

In 2015, the government reduced the Part V provision to 10% and now Mr O’Brien is increasing it again. 

It won’t really make any difference to the long waiting list for public housing. The priorities of government in the early 2000s, placing the interests of developers above those needing a home, haven’t changed that much since.

Another example of refashioning the law to sort out a vested interest concerns the treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in the state. 

The 2005 Disability Act recognised the importance of an early diagnosis for children with additional needs. The earlier the diagnosis, the better the chance of a child fulfilling his or her potential. The nature of many forms of disability is that in the absence of treatment, regression is often inevitable.

With that in mind, the law included a provision that an assessment of needs must be provided within three months of an application and completed within another three months. This was a progressive measure, one that ostensibly portrayed the country as cherishing all of its children equally.

In reality, the resources required to comply with the law were never provided. 

Parents, worried, harassed and exhausted from battling on behalf of their children, went to court to assert their rights. A whole slew of legal actions were initiated.

The response from the HSE was to effectively change the law without recourse to the lawmakers. 

In 2019, the assessment of needs was replaced with a new “preliminary” assessment, after which the child is referred on for another, more complete assessment. 

This meant that the time limits were being met in theory, and asses are legally covered. Meanwhile, the spirit of the law is being trampled underfoot. The needs of children are now relegated below the needs of the HSE and its political masters.

Two years ago, the Irish Examiner reported on unease among all health professionals at the proposed introduction of this new system. This week the Irish Times reported on a survey conducted by the Psychological Society of Ireland among its members about the operation of it.

The response from 89% of psychologists was that the new system did not assist children in having their needs met in a timely manner, while 95% said it was not fit for purpose. The law, as originally designed to cater for the most vulnerable, has been turned on its head.

In time, there will be huge consequences for treating those with additional needs. But, as with much in this area, the suffering will be endured behind closed doors by those living in quiet desperation.

The three examples above all have one common theme. If the law doesn’t suit those who matter, change it. Do so with minimum fuss, as far from scrutiny as possible, and pay no notice to the consequences. They will be somebody else’s problem.

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