FERGUS FINLAY: The Department of Health (Doh!) – Homer Simpson put it very well

YOU know that noise Homer Simpson makes?

When he’s been caught out or realises what a fool he’s been?

I can’t do it very well, but I’m pretty sure it’s spelled “Doh!” In fact, it’s in the Oxford English Dictionary now, thanks to Homer.

The online version defines Doh as an exclamation, “used to comment on a foolish or stupid action, especially one’s own”.

But you can google the word Doh, especially in an Irish context. Go on, try it – just type “Doh Ireland” into your favourite search engine. The first website that pops up says “Welcome to the Department of Health and Children”.

Homer, I suspect, would be delighted.

What exactly is the Department of Health for? What does it stand for, what does it do? The questions are prompted by two press releases they issued this week – and you’ll have to bear with me, because I’ve written about these things before.

Before I go on, let me tell you a little (in so far as I can) about what the Department of Health actually is. It’s called the Department of Health and Children (don’t get me started on the Children aspect of its name), and it’s one of the 15 major departments of state allowed for by our constitution. It has no less than four ministers – a full cabinet minister, a junior minister who sits at cabinet and two other junior ministers. There’s no other government department that provides employment to more politicians. You’d imagine, wouldn’t you, that a government department that has four ministers would be pretty crucial? Back in March the Minister for Health was asked in a parliamentary question how many people the department employed. She replied that because of industrial action, she wasn’t able to say. Which is odd, because if she had looked at the final book of estimates (which outlines how much money each government department is allowed to spend), she’d have discovered that her department employs 462 people.

In fact, 79 of them are employed on what they call “parliamentary and corporate affairs”, so it’s even odder that they couldn’t answer a parliamentary question about the number employed in the Department. Or perhaps not so odd.

I looked at the parliamentary questions asked of the Minister for Health on one random day recently. She was asked 110 questions for written answer on the day in question. In respect of more than 100 of the 110 questions, the answer was exactly the same: “I regret that due to industrial action I am not in a position to provide a substantive response to your parliamentary question. If this matter remains of continuing concern to you, however, I would invite you to raise it with me again in due course”.

You’d wonder how it needs 79 people (who aren’t on industrial action, as far as I know) to keep repeating that. But presumably those 79 people include the ones who provide the department’s public relations services – or maybe they’re among the 50 people who are employed in ‘Finance, Performance Evaluation, Information and Research’.

Wherever they’re employed, they somehow manage to generate some of the most fatuous and useless press releases I have ever come across, anywhere. I’m sure they must put them out without even consulting the unfortunate ministers whose names are on them.

For example, how about this for a press release from a government minister: “Minister calls on smokers to TRY (their capitals) to quit smoking”. Or this one: “Minister renews advice to women not to drink alcohol in pregnancy”. Which was followed up within a couple of months by “Minister says Department’s advice on drinking alcohol in pregnancy is unchanged” (it would have been real news if it had changed). Back in January last the department “reminded” people to be “extra vigilant during the cold spell”.

We have a Minister for Older People, a very nice woman, no doubt, so I won’t embarrass her by adding her name to the press releases the department ploughs out for her. Every couple of weeks, according to the press releases, she has “face-to-face meetings” with – guess who? – older people in all sorts of places – the midlands, Dublin, the north-west. And according to one recent press release, she thinks the increase in the number of older people “should be seen as an opportunity for Irish society” (again, wouldn’t it be really newsworthy if she announced that older people were a liability?).

For me though, the press release that really takes the biscuit is the annual one, released without fail every year. Nothing ever changes about this press release except the name of the minister on the top.

And there it was again last Thursday – “Minister Moloney welcomes the Fourth Annual Report of the Independent Monitoring Group on A Vision for Change”. On April 20, 2009 he “welcomed” the third report; on June 27, 2008 he “welcomed” the second report and, on May 31, 2007 his predecessor, Tim O’Malley, effusively “welcomed” the first report.

But every one of these reports, year after year, contains scathing criticism of government failure. A Vision for Change is the government’s mental health policy, and the independent monitoring group on that policy has had to report its disappointment at the lack of progress the Government has made in implementing its own policy and in keeping its own promises.

And it was the same again this year – “little substantial progress”; “lack of clarity”; “revenue allocation not delivered”; “services not received the priority and urgent attention they require” – these are just some of the phrases that leap off the pages of the report.

BUT the department’s response never varies – they just issue a tatty, meaningless statement and move on.

I have to subject myself to these awful press releases because I’ve been waiting for the Department of Health to say something meaningful about really important stuff. For a long time now, for example, they have been promising to put Ireland’s child protection guidelines on a statutory basis and the first time we’ll know it’s actually going to happen will be in one of those press releases.

But you know what? You can search back for the past five years and you won’t find one single press release with child protection in the headline. Yes, the Minister for Children, Barry Andrews, has a separate website and there’s lots of talk there about child protection. But visit the parent department – the department where, ultimately, delivery comes from – and you won’t find anything.

In fact, and this is where the second press release I mentioned at the start comes in, if you were to judge by what they say, the current Minister for Health attaches more priority to regulating sunbeds than to anything else. Two press releases on that subject in June, the most recent last week – and apparently government time devoted to developing legislation on the subject. The legislation is designed to prevent children using sunbeds and to ensure adults know that excessive use of sunbeds is dangerous. I can think of more urgent ways of protecting children, but maybe that’s why I’m not in the Department of Health.

I still think Homer said it best. Doh!


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