Officials at the Department of Health told to stop redacting the names of public servants from records they released under FOI

One of the single-biggest issues affecting Freedom of Information in Ireland is the frequent redaction of the names of officials from records.

Right to Know has highlighted this repeatedly over the past year as every other week we receive records where names have been removed, often making the records hard to follow or borderline incomprehensible.

We have raised this issue with the Department of Public Expenditure and the Information Commissioner but it appears that confusion persists.

Twice in recent months, the Department of Health released records to us with the names of staff members redacted.

However, internal emails detail how the advice given by the department’s FOI office should have left little doubt about how to handle this type of information.

One email said: “Regardless of grade, any and all civil servants named in their official capacity, should not be redacted from documents released under FOI. So, our names, our grades, our units, our office addresses, are all releasable. None of those details is private.”

It added: “Personal information relates only to actual personal matters, (such as names on a HR document that was sensitive in nature – e.g. sick leave issue). But if documents are just naming us because that’s where we work or we wrote the letter or email in question, then we have no right to redaction.”

If you’re involved in making FOI decisions in any public body, these records are worth a few minutes of your time.

Delays to pilot study of Covid-19 antigen testing and a copy of a report into the scheme

Rollout of a Covid-19 antigen test pilot scheme took almost four months amid concerns over liability if something went wrong and the cost of a wider testing programme.

The Department of Children raised multiple issues over plans for rapid testing in childcare and educational settings wondering if the initial pilot test was of too small a scale to even be useful.

In a briefing for Minister Roderic O’Gorman, officials also queried how affordable a major testing scheme would be with around 30,000 people in childcare to be tested twice every week.

It said: “If the approach were to be rolled out nationally, the potential cost of the test kits alone is up to €240,000 per week.”

Testing ended up taking place across fourteen sites in higher education and early learning and childcare from late July to mid-September in 2021.

A copy of the report explained how 225 participants were asked to take two tests per week at home for four weeks, prior to attending work or college.

Over eight weeks of testing, 1,595 antigen tests were completed with two positive results, both of which were later confirmed through PCR testing.

According to the report, participants felt the regular antigen testing gave “peace of mind and feelings of safety and confidence”.

Most people who were signed up said they would be happy to continue with free antigen testing if it was available to them.

Others were reluctant to engage however, with some being nervous and uncomfortable about testing and others simply not wishing to get involved.

The report also cautioned that large scale rollout of antigen testing would require “significant planning and resources”.

Other pitfalls included the possibility of “dishonesty” when people were self-reporting results as well as the large amount of waste being created.

A copy of the Department of Children submission is below (including a number of other unrelated submissions on domestic violence and the children of Catholic priests):

And a copy of the report from the pilot study:

Hate crime, non-wearing of face masks, ‘soiling’, and lewd behaviour among anti-social and assault incidents logged by Irish Rail last year

Irish Rail recorded more than 2,500 incidents of anti-social activity, lewd behaviour, hate crime, and violations of Covid-19 restrictions last year.

A log of incidents provided by the railway operator detail a catalogue of cases, with 549 of the incidents categorised as “reportable” criminal and anti-social behaviour.

An analysis of data showed 66 cases of assault last year on rail services or in stations, with 11 assaults on contractors, 37 on customers, 10 on Irish Rail employees, and 8 on other members of the public.

Five instances of hate crime were also recorded, two of them on DART services, one in Limerick, one on a mainline service, and one other with an unspecified location according to the figures.

There were 105 instances of individuals flouting Covid-19 restrictions around the wearing of face masks or other public health measures.

A copy of the database is available.

You can also see the records in PDF below.

Justice Minister Helen McEntee told to provide more detail on corporate donations “in the interests of transparency”

Justice Minister Helen McEntee was told to provide more detail on €4,200 in corporate donations from Tayto Park boss Ray Coyle, most of which she had to refund.

Records from the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) also reveal how SIPO at one stage mistakenly thought that the three donations had been received by Ms McEntee from three different people in her extended family.

In the original return made to SIPO, Minister McEntee did not identify the companies involved but was later told to do so “in the interests of transparency”.

A copy of the minister’s original donation statement said: “This lodgement consisted of three cheques to the value of €1,400 each, total €4,200. They were corporate donations.

“Whilst compiling the returns we discovered that these amounts were accepted in error. We have since returned three cheques to the value of €1,200 to the three companies. Further proof of this is available if required.”

The SIPO records also reveal a considerable amount of correspondence over other money received by Ms McEntee and the amount of detail provided on them.

The Justice Minister had also declared three lodgements – one of €7,000, a second of €5,000, and a third of €3,279 – from fundraisers linked to Fine Gael.

In June, SIPO queried whether the donations had come directly from the party saying that because Fine Gael had not been registered as a corporate donor in 2020, they might also have to paid back.

A spokesman for the minister said: “Minister McEntee’s office was clear at all times, including in writing, that the donations in question were corporate donations. It was never suggested by the Minister’s office that they originated from any private individuals.

“The error regarding the allowable donation limits for unregistered companies was identified by the Minister’s office itself during the process of compiling annual returns for SIPO. The money to be refunded was lodged without delay at that point.

“Following further examination of these donations by the Minister’s office, a further €400 was identified and returned by the Minister’s office to ensure compliance with the letter and the spirit of the rules.

“The Minister’s office were happy to provide SIPO with all the information required. The issue of repayment of other donations did not arise and the Minister’s donation statement was approved by SIPO.”

Disquiet in government departments over senior judge’s “unfortunate” comments on judicial appointments and “implicit criticism” of government and Áras

Public comments by the President of the High Court about a shortage of judges and postponement of trials caused serious disquiet in government departments and were described as “most unfortunate” and an “implicit criticism” of the government and Áras an Uachtaráin by senior officials.

Ms Justice Mary Irvine had said the High Court would start the 2021 legal year with seven judges short of what they had been promised only months earlier by the Department of Justice.

Internal records reveal how the Department of Justice was taken aback by the comments and asked why they had not been given a “heads up” on what was coming.

In an email, Oonagh Buckley – a deputy secretary at the Department of Justice – wrote to the CEO of the Courts Service Angela Denning about the comments.

“It would have been useful to have received a heads up about the below as we discussed yesterday,” she told Angela Denning in an email on 1 October.

“As you will appreciate, the implicit criticism of the Aras and the Government is very unfortunate.”

Ms Denning responded to say that she herself had been given no advance notice, meaning she had not been in position to give them any warning.

She wrote: “It is my understanding from the Chief Justice that no criticism of Government or of your department was intended.

“I will speak to the [incoming] Chief Justice at out first meeting after his appointment to see if we can put an arrangement in place so that you at least know that something like this is coming.”

A datadump of more than 120 internal audits from the HSE detailing irregularities and conflict of interest risks

Every six months, the HSE releases internal audits covering all of its areas of operation.

This includes hospitals, Tusla services, charitable organisations in receipt of very significant state funding, and others.

The latest set of audits – numbering more than 120 – covers the period July to December of 2021.

Right to Know is going to publish these once we receive them on an ongoing basis from now on.

Members of the media whether print or broadcast, national or regional, can feel free to make use of them.

You can find them all at this link.

This is just one of the reports on the hiring of agency nursing staff:

Fáilte Ireland’s weather sponsorship a chance to tackle Ireland’s often inclement conditions “head-on” according to business case

Fáilte Ireland signed up to a multi-million RTÉ Weather sponsorship believing it was a “strong fit” despite inclement weather often proving a “barrier” to holidaying in Ireland.

According to an internal briefing, the deal was an opportunity to meet the challenges of the country’s notoriously changeable weather “head-on” and inspire Irish people to get away at home.

Fáilte Ireland had said one of their biggest challenges was convincing people to take short breaks within Ireland and that the weather sponsorship would keep this message “always on”.

An internal business case said: “We know our greatest barrier to driving penetration is that people don’t think of taking short breaks. It is not top of mind as something they could spend their free time doing.”

The tourism agency signed up to a three-year sponsorship deal with RTÉ late last year replacing long-time sponsors Avonmore.

Right to Know wins case over access to Department of Health records on AstraZeneca vaccine supply issues

The Information Commissioner has directed release of records held by the Department of Health about the supply of AstraZeneca vaccines to Ireland.

The early months of the vaccination rollout in the EU were dogged by delays and supply issues, which culminated in high-profile legal action against the company.

The Department of Health mishandled the request for records at both initial request and internal review, and it was a “deemed refusal” at both these stages.

The department claimed the records were exempt under Section 30 and Section 36 of the FOI Act without ever providing any detailed reasons for why this was so.

During the review process, AstraZeneca also objected to release of certain information contained in the records.

However, the Information Commissioner found that the information had been the subject of considerable public controversy, and that some of it was already in the public domain.

The case highlights a significant failing in FOI in Ireland where reviews are not concluded until over twelve months have passed.

It means that even in cases where requesters are fully successful, the information can almost be historic by the time it is released.

These records were of significant public interest when they were first sought early last year.

However, with the passage of time, that has inevitably declined and what requesters are often left with are pyrrhic victories.

The failures identified in the original handling of the request, and the incorrect decision made by the department, are not the subject of any sanction, or instruction to do better.

And there is nothing that will stop the public body involved continuing these long-standing poor practices well into the future.

Department of Justice warned of “significant interdependence” between global reputation of Ireland and resourcing of Data Protection Commission

The Department of Justice said that the international standing of Ireland and the Data Protection Commission were now so interdependent that a significant increase in staffing was required.

Department officials also told of how investment in garda air support was essential because police helicopters were so old and in deteriorating condition.

In a pre-budget submission, the department sought €840,000 in funding for border management to deal with growing queues at Dublin Airport due to public health checks.

They also advised how Forensic Science Ireland would need extra support as it moves to new headquarters and of “a significant negative effect” on the justice system if it couldn’t keep up its service levels during the move.

You can read the full pre-budget submission below:

The curious case of the €8,000 Rolex watch that has been stored in a safe at Government Buildings for almost three years

The Department of the Taoiseach was quizzed about what controls were in place for the safekeeping of an €8,000 Rolex watch that was gifted to the Ceann Comhairle.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) contacted the department after it emerged that the valuable item had been kept locked in a safe at Government Buildings for almost two years.

In an email, the C&AG asked if the Department of the Taoiseach had a list of all such high-value gifts, what controls were in place for them, and whether it was listed as the property of the Taoiseach or the Oireachtas.

The Rolex watch remains in storage at the department despite a request by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl that it be sold, and the proceeds given to Trócaire.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl had been presented the watch on an official trip to the UAE in late 2018 but ethics rules on valuable gifts meant he was not allowed to retain it.