Friday 19 January 2018

Health officials escape sanction

Foreign trips were worthwhile, says boss

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

THE Department of Health is taking no disciplinary action against senior staff who approved funding used for foreign trips -- and then went along themselves.

It emerged that some of their trips to Europe and the US were also approved by the department's secretary general Michael Scanlan.

He admitted yesterday that he had not asked questions about where the necessary funding was coming from.

Mr Scanlan said it was not appropriate for staff to be taking part in these foreign trips which were funded by trade union officials.

But he said the conduct of the officials did not warrant disciplinary action because the purpose of the trips was "worthwhile" and they had done nothing improper.

The four Department of Health officials involved were: Tony Morris, Frank Ahern (now retired), Denis O'Sullivan and Bernard Carey.

All provided sanctions for funding to be given to a "SIPTU" account which funded their travel with union officials to the US and elsewhere.

The Public Accounts Committee heard about a bewildering array of foreign trips taken with funds intended to boost the "partnership process".

There were another 16 foreign trips funded by the HSE's Health Services National Partnership Forum. These "study tour" trips cost more than €100,000 and included visits to Boston, New York, Stockholm, Moscow, and Lyon.

An internal audit by the HSE found that this HSE partnership forum also paid for:

  • A dinner in New York at cost of $2,027 (€1,533);
  • A dinner for a visiting Australian delegation at a cost of €1,940;
  • The forum's credit card was used between 2003-2009 to pay for €40,000 worth of hotel accommodation, €10,000 in hotel/pub/restaurant bills and €2,171 worth of gifts.

HSE chief executive Cathal Magee said there were many control and governance issues in the Health Services National Partnership Forum, which operated like a "satellite" outside of the HSE's control.

He said it had now been subsumed into the HSE and its bank accounts had been shut.

Committee chairman Bernard Allen said the revelations cast some public officials in a very poor light and cast a shadow over social partnership.

"There is no established democracy in this world where the likes of this could happen, except here," he said.

One senior Department of Finance official Tom Dowling, who has since retired, went on 16 foreign trips.

Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath said the itinerary for one of these trips -- a 2004 visit to New York for St Patrick's Day -- sounded like RTE's 'No Frontiers' travel programme. He also said it was not good enough that Department of Health staff involved in approving and travelling on the trips would not face disciplinary action.

He said it seemed like the price of industrial peace was that funds had to be provided by the taxpayer for "jollies" to many of the people involved in the social partnership process.

Around 40 foreign trips were funded from a controversial account operated by two SIPTU officials, Matt Merrigan and Jack Kelly. These officials have commissioned an analysis of the "SIPTU" account -- which the trade union SIPTU said it has no knowledge of.

Irish Independent

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