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Reilly's Dail replies raise new issues
[Posted: Thu 31/01/2013 by Niall Hunter, Editor www.irishhealth.com]
The Ceann Comhairle upheld a complaint from a second TD last October against Health Minister James Reilly for not fully answering a parliamentary question in relation to the controversial selection of primary care centres, it has emerged.
Meanwhile, documentation released under FOI also shows that the Minister's press adviser queried with a senior Department official shortly afterwards the content of a written Ministerial response to another PQ relating to primary care centres. The content for written Dail responses is usually provided for Ministers by civil servants.
This Dail PQ had asked if Minister Reilly had discussed a primary care centre site in Balbriggan, Co. Dublin with NAMA. The Minister revealed in the response that he had met with NAMA but while primary care centre locations, including Balbriggan, were discussed, no specific addresses for sites were mentioned.
Press adviser Mark Costigan told irishhealth.com he felt more information could have been provided in the response put on the Dail record in order to convey the fact that primary care centres had only been referred to 'in passing' at this particular meeting.
In the correspondence with the Minister's press adviser, Mark Costigan, the official, Bairbre Nic Aongusa, refers to the fact that the Department had been found in breach of Dail procedure twice in the previous few weeks for not providing full information in Dail PQs on primary care centres.
Minister Reilly's list of 35 priority primary care centre sites, published last July, has caused much controversy since it emerged that he added two locations in his constituency, at Balbriggan and Swords, to the list.
The Ceann Comhairle on October 10 last upheld a complaint from Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O'Caolain that Minister Reilly had not fully answered a question from the Deputy in relation to information about the final list of 35 centres.
Now it has emerged that the Ceann Comhairle nine days later also upheld a complaint from a second TD, Robert Dowds of Labour, relating to the Minister's reply to a PQ from the Deputy relating to another centre on the list of 35.
In both cases, the Ceann Comhairle ruled that the Health Minister was in breach of Dail standing orders by not fully answering questions put to him.
Deputy Dowds had asked the reason the centre earmarked for Rowlagh, in Co. Dublin, originally due to be built under the capital programme, was switched to a public-private partnership (PPP) development, who made this decision and the criteria used for the decision.
Dr Reilly responded that the delivery of health capital infrastructure was a service matter and the question had been referred to the HSE for reply directly to the Deputy.
The Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, ruled that the requests for information contained in Deputy Dowds' question were not addressed by the Minister, and ordered Dr Reilly to provide the information.
The Minister replied to the Ceann Comhairle that while 'it was unfortunate' that the detailed information the Deputy requested was not furnished by his Department at the time, it was not in a position to do so based on the information on its files and therefore it referred the matter to the HSE for answer.
The Minister then provided follow-up information to the Ceann Comhairle, which stated the selection of a delivery mechanism (PPP or otherwise) was based on suitability and funding availability. For example, the Minister said, larger centres were more attractive to PPP bidders.
He said the HSE advised changing the Rowlagh project to PPP as this was felt to be the best method for delivering it quickly. The Minister said there had been no intention on his part of avoiding a response to the question raised by Deputy O'Dowd.
The follow-up response provided by Minister Reilly to Deputy O'Caolain's PQ was deemed at the time by the Ceann Comhairle to have fulfilled the Minister's obligations under Dail procedures. However, Deputy O'Caolain complained that the follow-up response simply comprised a previous press release and claimed Dr Reilly was showing 'contempt' for Dail rules.
The Ceann Comhairle ruled in Deputy Dowds' case too that the subsequent response from Dr Reilly fullfilled requirements under Dail standing orders.
Deputy Dowds told irishhealth.com that he was still awaiting clarification about the follow-up response by the Minister.
Meanwhile, it has also emerged under correspondence released through FOI that an answer by Minister Reilly to another PQ reply about primary care centres given last October 23 led to an exchange between the Minister's press adviser, Mark Costigan, and Department Assistant Secretary General Bairbre Nic Aongusa.
The correspondence between the two related to information provided by Department officials for a Ministerial response to Deputy Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein, who asked if Minister Reilly had had contact with NAMA about a property in Dublin Street, Balbriggan, in the Minister's constituency, which was earmarked for a primary care centre site.
The Minister's PQ response revealed that he and his officials had met with NAMA last April. He said in the context of NAMA being open to proposals for sites which could be of interest to the health services, a number of primary care centre locations were discussed at the meeting, including Balbriggan, although Dr Reilly said no specific address was mentioned.
Ms Nic Aongusa, in an email to Mr Costigan the following day clarifying the response, said while NAMA was precluded by legislation from discussing matters in relation to debtors and properties under its control, the Department of Health on the other hand, 'is obliged to answer parliamentary questions submitted to the Minister.'
The reply in question, she said, did not contain any information that would identify a debtor or a property under the control of NAMA.
Ms Nic Aongusa continued: "'I am very conscious that, on two occasions in the last few weeks, the Department has been found by the Ceann Comhairle to be in breach of Dail Standing Orders for not answering PQs that were put to the Minister", in relation to primary care centres.
She added:'it was in this context that I was particularly insistent last Tuesday that the reply given should answer the question asked." She was responding to a previous email and phone conversation with Dr Reilly's press adviser.
Details of the specific issues raised by Mr Costigan in relation to the PQ were not included in the FOI documentation released to irishhealth.com
Asked to clarify the context of his exchange with the senior civil servant, Mr Costigan said the view he had conveyed was that more information could have been given in the PQ response that gave a fuller picture of the tenor of the meeting with NAMA.
He told irishhealth.com that at this meeting, a wide range of of potential health projects had been discussed, including a new site for the National Maternity Hospital and the national children's hospital.
While there had been a reference at the meeting to primary care centres, his view was that more information could have been provided in the parliamentary response that would have explained that the primary care component of the meeting was 'relatively inconsequential'.
He said there had been 'passing reference' to primary care centres, five towns had been mentioned, and one of those had been Balbriggan, but there had been no specific addresses mentioned.
The Balbriggan primary care site referred to in the Dail PQ and included on the Minister's list of 35 sites last July was originally owned by a local Fine Gael supporter. However, it emerged the site is now owned by NAMA and the original owner would not benefit from its sale.
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