Monday, 10 June 2013

Kids, Bees and Migrant workers - and the Herald draws a blank

The big FOI story of recent days was the shocking revelations in RTE's Prime Time about conditions in some crèches in Dublin. Using Freedom of Information requests, the programme makers found that 75% of pre-schools and creches breached HSE regulations in 2012, but with few consequences.

Several newspapers picked up the story. "Details of 4,000 creche inspection reports dating back to 2011 make for deeply disturbing reading," wrote Miriam Donohue in the Irish Independent. Shane Phelan pointed out that records obtained by the paper, which showed issues cropping up as far back as 2008 in in crèches all around the country, were only obtainable through Freedom of Information requests, making it difficult for parents to judge how suitable their childcare arrangements actually were. Referring to another, different scandal, Kim Bielenberg observed that "It is no exaggeration to suggest that the state seems to be more efficient at inspecting meat plants than the places where we house small kids during the day."

The Irish Times, meanwhile, extended concerns to other age groups. FOI requests by the paper showed problems in care for elderly people in their own homes. Citing cases of misconduct in an area where there is no statutory inspection programme, the report added: "there is undoubtedly also a cohort of clients availing of home help and home care services who, because of their advanced age, do not have the capacity to complain. This means there could be examples of bad practice which are simply not on the HSE’s radar."

The Irish Examiner reported on the priorities of the Department of Health, which has recently disclosed spending of €111,022 sending officials to study negotiation skills at the prestigious Said School of Business at Oxford University since 2006.

Health, in the opinion of Information Commissioner Emily O'Reilly, is one of the two worst performing departments on Freedom of Information, the other being Justice. In a story reported on by the Independent, Evening Herald and Examiner, she told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that there was a culture within the two departments that made them the worst offenders for disclosing data. Over the past five years, she said, Government departments and bodies had cited 230 enactments containing non-disclosure provisions for not handing over information.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter, in the news recently for disclosing police information on a political opponent, and then coming under attack for failing to take a breathalyser test when stopped (he claimed inability due to asthma, and the Gardai have no record of the incident), was defended by a former minister, Liz O'Donnell in the Irish Independent: "Someone is out to get Alan Shatter". But she admitted the department's very poor record on transparency. "The concept of freedom of information is anathema to the Department of Justice," she wrote, adding that as opposition justice spokesperson, she experienced huge frustration in extracting information in parliamentary questions. "Replies to questions were minimalist, bordering on the misleading."

There were more excellent cases of how Freedom of Information can be used to discover solid, old-fashioned reporting. The Irish Times, covering Environment Minister Coveney's vote against an EU ban on insecticides, revealed that his department had received “information and/or correspondence” from insecticide manufacturer Bayer.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish News obtained details of fines for employing illegal migrants: Penalties of over £427,000 have been imposed on traders since 2010, and a total of 50 businesses were penalised between 2010 and March this year.

Finally, Dublin's Evening Herald has been on the case of Derek Keating, Fine Gael TD for Dublin West, who came in for criticism when he claimed credit for helping to secure an extension to a local non-sectarian school, the Educate Together school in Griffeen Valley. After a local free newspaper reported the school principal's claim that the TD had had no part whatsoever in winning the extension, one of his election workers was pictured on CCTV disposing of hundreds of copies of the paper. Keating insisted that he had been in contact with the Department of Education. But when the Herald used an FOI request to see the correspondence, they found that the TD had made representations on behalf of two other schools - but none in connection with Griffeen Valley.

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