Irish Water refund fears cost the government €70 million

By Ken Foxe

THE government took a €70 million hit on water charges because they feared legal issues over trying to recoup the water conservation grant.

The €100 grant had been paid to householders on a universal basis and many who claimed it never actually paid any water charges.

A briefing note prepared for the Department of Housing shows how three options were given on how to refund households that had paid their water bills.

The document was only released after nearly year-long battle with the Department during which they repeatedly refused to make it public.

The then minister Simon Coveney was told the cheapest option would be to refund customers while taking account of payment of the €100 conservation grant.

That would have cost €100 million for the refunds and an estimated €9 to €11 million in administrative costs in sifting out who was owed what.

The document was only made public after almost a year of effort to have it released under either FOI or EU regulations covering access to information on the environment.

Its release had been the subject of a review by the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information since last November.

However, the Department decided they would release it without being forced to saying they “no longer [had] any reason to withhold the note”.

Read the document below.

Oireachtas travel costs exceed €120,000 over past seven months

By Ken Foxe

TDs and Senators have run up an overseas travel bill of more than €120,000 during the past seven months.

Politicians jetted off to the four corners of the globe clocking up hundreds of thousands of air miles on trips to Iran, Russia, Canada, the United States, and Mozambique.

One senator Ronan Mullen made three expense claims totalling almost €1,800 on three separate one-night trips to France, according to the records, and despite the fact hotels and flights on the trip were paid directly by the Oireachtas.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl was away on separate trips to St Petersburg, Helsinki, and Washington DC. His counterpart in the Seanad, Cathaoirleach Denis O’Donovan, jetted off three times to Iran, Georgia, and the USA.

Just over €9,100 was spent on flights to bring five parliamentarians to Iran for a “bi-lateral” visit last October.

Read the expenses document below.

Records on decision by Dublin City Council to cancel Repeal book event in run-up to referendum vote

DUBLIN City Council knew their decision to cancel a Repeal book event would cause a public furore but felt they had no choice but to pull the plug on it.

Records released following an FOI request show how the council believed they would be breaking the law because they were directly funding the event.

Concerns were first raised on April 17 when the council press office suggested “there may be questions” about a publicly funded event having “one side of a referendum argument”.

They said they were would need to check with the office of Chief Executive Owen Keegan on whether they could be associated with it.

An email sent later that evening said: “The inclusion of this event is bound to draw comment given that it is the week of the referendum itself.

“This festival appears from the website to be largely DCC [Dublin City Council] funded. All the funders are public bodies. We are bound to get queries on the appropriateness of the inclusion.”

Read the rest of the documents below.

Broadcasting Authority documents on why guidelines giving “greater certainty” were needed in run-up to vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment

A FRESH set of guidelines for what broadcasters can and can’t do during a referendum campaign was needed to provide “greater certainty” over what’s allowed in the run-up to the vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

Internal records from the Broadcasting Authority said that with four separate votes to come over the next two years, a clearer set of rules was urgently needed with some people up to now having a “weak or incorrect” understanding of what is allowed.

They explain how there was confusion over “artificial balance” governing how much airtime each side should get and how broadcasters could be encouraged to focus on “issues” rather than purely adversarial debates.

The new guidelines also clarified that broadcasters did not need to axe prominent campaign figures if they were appearing in programmes totally unrelated to a referendum.

Late last year, Minister Katherine Zappone was dropped from TV3 cooking show The Restaurant because the station feared complaints if they broadcast the episode in which she featured during a referendum campaign.

Road Safety Authority abandons plan to demand public services card for driving licences over concerns about its legality

The Road Safety Authority (RSA) was forced to abandon plan to tie the public services card to driving licences applications amid concerns from the Attorney General about its legality.

These are the sometimes very frosty to and fro correspondence between the RSA and the Department of Transport about the aborted plan.

Department of Justice says keeping archives of Kerry Babies Tribunal hidden from public is “right thing” to do

THE head of the Department of Justice said a decision to withhold archives from the Kerry Babies case could be “misrepresented” but that the department had to do the “right thing” to protect the woman at the centre of the case.

The Department is keeping the records secret even though they should have gone to the National Archives because thirty years have passed since their creation.

Internal records have shown that the Department of Justice had originally planned handing over transcripts of the Kerry Babies tribunal and other documents so that they could be studied by academics, journalists, and members of the public.

However, the records describe how Joanne Hayes – the wrongly accused mother at the centre of the case – had strongly objected to their release.

Internal emails released under FOI show how the Department of Justice was aware that failure to disclose the documents could be seen as them trying to keep them hidden.

A message sent on January 20 by Acting Secretary General Oonagh McPhillips to colleagues said: “I understand the concern about the perception but in this instance we need to continue to do the right thing even if it’s misrepresented.”

She said it was a “tricky issue” but that there was already a vast amount of material relating to the tribunal in the public domain in books and newspaper archives.

Ms McPhillips was responding to an email from Sarah Kavanagh, a ministerial special adviser, who warned that the state could be criticised if the records were kept hidden.

Data on number of patients who abandon their visit to emergency departments without being formally discharged

THE number of patients walking out of emergency departments without ever being formally discharged has reached record levels.

More than 13,500 people simply abandoned their visit to the accident and emergency ward during January of this year and December last.

It means that nearly one in sixteen patients who arrived seeking emergency medical care left instead, either frustrated by lengthy queues, going elsewhere for treatment, or returning home.

The figures for January 2018 and December 2017 include 859 children, whose parents thought they were sick enough to bring to hospital but later left without officially being told they were healthy enough to go.

In a statement, the HSE said there were a variety of reasons why patients might leave an emergency department, not only wait times.

However, the numbers have been climbing during precisely the same period as waiting lists in Irish hospitals reached their highest levels yet.

In January, 6,499 people were classified as “did not waits” compared to 4,777 people in the same month in 2017.
The figure was actually even worse in December when 7,055 people – or 6.3% of all patients presenting – went home without formal discharge from hospital.

There has been a steady rise in the percentage of patients not waiting for emergency treatment, from 4.8% in January 2017 to 6% and above in the two most recent months for which figures are available.

Ministerial pre-budget submissions on generous tax incentive regimes for executives from multinational companies

THE Department of Finance rejected a proposal to double the length of time a generous tax incentive applies to executives from multinational companies.

Minister Paschal Donohoe was also discouraged from allowing extension of another tax relief scheme for top executives amid fears it could create a “significant loophole”.

In a budgetary submission, Minister Paschal Donohoe was briefed on a plan to allow senior personnel benefit from ten years of a special tax scheme instead of the five years currently available.

Under the arrangement – known as the special assignee relief (SARP) – 30% of income above €75,000 is exempt from income tax.

Those who benefit are also allowed a €5,000 per child tax-free allowance for school fees, if those fees are paid by their employer.

A budgetary submission explained how the Department of Business had asked for the extension of the scheme to “facilitate the attraction and embedding of mobile investment and high calibre individuals”.

The document explained how the SARP scheme was designed to ensure that Ireland remained competitive when vying with other countries for foreign investment.

Reports from Leo Varadkar’s Strategic Communications Unit on visits to government PR teams in London and the Netherlands

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar’s €5 million communications unit was warned of the dangers of getting caught in a “parliamentary bubble” in a special briefing from the UK government’s premiere public relations guru.

Two senior members of the Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) visited London in September for a high-level briefing with senior personnel in Britain’s Government Communication Service.

A report on the visit, obtained under FOI, reveals key parts of the advice that will shape Mr Varadkar’s controversial PR operation.

Among the findings brought back from the meeting were that there was “audacity in simplicity” and that “citizen needs are more important than government needs”.

The trip was undertaken by John Concannon, the director of the SCU, and Andrea Pappin, another of the leading officials from the unit.

A separate report from the Strategic Communications Unit warned that communications teams across government could suffer “the five stages of grief” if told they had to revamp their websites, PR and branding.

The advice came after two senior officials from the unit travelled to The Hague to meet communication experts in the Dutch government last September.

A report on the visit explained how some people would need to go through an “emotional journey” to let go of longstanding logos, branding, and internet home pages.

Correspondence between government and Facebook on controversial proposal to tie social media accounts to official identification documents

This is all correspondence between junior minister at the Department of Health Jim Daly and other organisations about his plan to link social media accounts to official forms of identity like passports or public services cards.

The plan has already been rejected by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar but Mr Daly does not appear to have given up on it.

The documents show that Minister Daly wrote personally to Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook about his idea for an “online verification code” and subsequently received a response from the company.

Facebook said it would raise “some very difficult privacy and data protection-related issues” but were happy to meet with him. That meeting took place on February 14, but the minutes of it would not have been subject to this FOI request.