Cork City Council response to damning report from Ombudsman for Children on dire living conditions at Traveller accommodation site in their area

A local authority hit back at a damning report by the Ombudsman for Children which said the rights of Traveller children were being violated at an accommodation site in their area.

Cork City Council said matters were “nowhere near as simple as outlined” in a lengthy finding-by-finding rebuttal, which they submitted to the Department of Housing.

It also said the report on the Spring Lane site did not show a “complete understanding or appreciation of the complex problems and deep-rooted socio-economic issues” involved at the site.

The report by the Ombudsman for Children had detailed failure after failure to improve living conditions with children left in filthy, overcrowded, rat-infested, cold and damp living conditions.

However, a six-page letter sent to Minister Peter Burke by the council said that while an external observer view was useful, that they had great difficulty in accepting a number of its findings.

Judges worried about unauthorised broadcasting of virtual sittings and loss of the “gravitas” of court from hearings held online

Judges were worried about people recording virtual hearings and broadcasting the contents elsewhere, according to Courts Service research on remote sittings.

Issues were also raised about the loss of the “gravitas” of the courtroom, difficulties in presenting and viewing documents, and the ability to remove disruptive parties from a virtual sitting.

Also flagged were the presence of unauthorised people at court hearings, the ability to see at all times who was present, and an option to mute or disable sound from a person taking part in a remote sitting.

The research also said the ability to display documents live would be a key component of any long-term solution for virtual court sittings.

Key requirements also included clear guidelines on using documents in virtual sittings, the ability for only the judge to see them, or allowing access to multiple parties when needed.

Feedback from specific groups was also gathered including judges who raised concerned over “broadcasting and inappropriate usage” of proceedings from court sittings.

Department of Social Protection warned that scam phone calls were making it difficult for them to conduct official business over the phone with the public

The Department of Social Protection were mystified by the tsunami of mobile phone scam calls to Irish people seeking their personal details.

They said the calls had already caused the department “reputational damage” and had seriously affected their ability to deal with customers over the phone who had become “apprehensive” believing legitimate calls might be fraudulent.

Monitoring of PPS numbers that had been divulged to the fraudsters had not “thrown up any suspicious activity” to suggest it related to bogus social welfare claims however.

The calls, which appear to have begun in earnest in April, have seen hundreds of thousands of people contacted by people purporting to be from the Department, the Courts Service, or the Attorney General’s office.

An internal note said that while the “modus operandi” was mostly constant with soe variations, but that “the outcome [the scammers] are seeking is unknown”.

The department also said a major issue was that that public announcements or ad campaigns about the scam calls were not reaching all pockets of the population.

Overwhelming majority of submissions on government’s controversial planning law proposals object to restrictions on access to justice for citizens, NGOs, and others

The Department of Housing received nearly 300 submissions about controversial plans to tackle the number of legal cases being taken against planning proposals.

The government had put forward plans to restrict the right of community groups, non-governmental organisations, and citizens from taking legal action against developments around the country.

Among the measures were that groups would have to be in existence for at least three years, have at least 100 members, be personally and substantially affected by a development, and have enough money to cover legal costs.

However, the plans were met with a wave of complaints from members of the public and environmental groups, according to 294 submissions received as part of a public consultation, a significant majority of which opposed the plans.

Submissions described the proposals as “a total travesty of the rights of citizens” with one piece of correspondence saying it was an “absolute contravention of democracy”.

Others described the plan as a “crude instrument” and an “outrage” with one barrister saying he feared objections to the plan would inevitably be ignored by government.

An Taisce were among more than a dozen environmental groups to object to the proposals, which form part of the Housing and Planning Development Bill.

They asked for it to be withdrawn saying it represented a “significant erosion” of the public’s right to access justice and participate in the planning process.

Industry groups were more welcoming of the plans with energy providers, airport operators, and chambers of commerce all voicing their support for some of the changes.

The IDA warned that Ireland’s planning system had become a “reputational risk” and was working against their efforts to attract international investment.

These records were re-released to Right to Know following a decision of the Commissioner for Environmental Information.

We did not make this request so all credit goes to the person (unknown to us) who did the legwork.

Access to information like this in a timely fashion is a critical part of the Aarhus Convention and the AIE Regulations.

Courts Service audit finds over €120,000 wrongly paid out for on-call allowances

More than €123,000 was paid out in on-call allowances to Courts Service staff that should not have been paid, according to an internal audit.

The audit said that on-call allowances should only be paid in offices where there was a minimum of 12 callouts for out of hours or emergency court sittings each year.

However, their inquiries found multiple instances where money had been paid out when this had not happened and questioned whether the allowances should now be recouped.

The audit report said the overpayments had happened in an average of six offices annually with a “number of the same offices featuring each year” for the incorrect payments.

The audit also found a separate agreement in place for staff at one office in Co Galway had never been properly implemented.

Under the deal, some staff had their positions upgraded providing that payment of an on-call or callout allowance to them would cease.

The report said: “But this has never been implemented and the allowances continue to be paid.”

RTÉ forced to release copies of correspondence received about their coverage of climate change

Way back in November 2018, Right to Know sought copies of records held by RTÉ relating to how they cover climate change.

We were looking primarily for guidance or policies created for editorial staff on how to approach global warming.

At the time – and today as well – there is a sustained level of criticism of RTÉ’s approach to the climate crisis, how they cover it, and particularly the level of specialist resources allocated to reporting it.

Our request was refused by RTÉ and subsequently appealed to the Commissioner for Environmental Information, who ruled that the information was not environmental.

We disagreed, with this based on the belief that broadcasting is clearly a measure that can affect the environment as outlined in the AIE Regulations.

When a public service broadcaster has very significant TV, radio, and online audiences … of course how they cover climate change issues will have a far-reaching influence on what people know and do when it comes to the environment.

In his judgment, Justice Max Barrett agreed and ordered a fresh decision-making process in light of the fact that broadcasting was clearly a measure for the purposes of our request.

RTÉ has now “without prejudice” released copies of the records, a selection of emails received from the public commenting on their coverage of climate issue.

In correspondence, the public service broadcaster has also indicated that it shouldn’t even have had to deal with such requests for environmental information in the first place.

They have also made repeated spurious attempts to suggest these requests impinge on press freedom, even though we have never – and would never – seek material where that consideration would arise.

So, it is clear this story is not over … and we will keep you posted on developments.

Internal audits from local authorities in Donegal, Kildare, and Wexford

Staff at one county council claimed mileage for making repeated journeys to the same location on the very same day, made claims based on inaccurate distances, and declared starting or destination locations that wrongly bumped up their expense payments.

An internal audit of travel and subsistence claims at Donegal County Council found just 28 of 120 claims had been completed fully and accurately.

Under Revenue rules, civil servants are supposed to declare the shortest route for their journey using either their home address or their workplace, whichever of them is closest to where they are going.

However, the audit found that in at least 27 cases from the 120 claims examined, staff members had declared the longer distance for mileage purposes.

In other cases, staff were found to be making multiple trips to the same location on the same day, or travelling to the same area of the county on consecutive days.

Employees also claimed subsistence payments for journeys close by their office or that were on their way to and from the office.

In one case, a staff member photocopied the exact same set of journeys for their expense claims and submitted it each month.

“This does not constitute ‘vouched expenses’ in Internal Audit’s opinion,” said the report.

These records were released to Right to Know following a decision of the Information Commissioner that Donegal County Council could not charge significant fees (read that decision here)

You can read the audits here. We also have separate audits from Kildare and Wexford available.

Letters from Leo Varadkar to technology and social media firms urging them to do more to tackle misinformation and organisation of anti-lockdown protests

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar wrote to four of the world’s biggest technology companies asking them what more they could to tackle illegal gatherings and the spread of misinformation during the pandemic.

Mr Varadkar sent letters to Facebook, Twitter, Google, and TikTok in the wake of violent protests on the streets of Dublin earlier this year.

He said the events were “clearly planned” using social media platforms and private messaging services and that he had been “appalled” by what happened.

The Tánaiste said that this behaviour by a “selfish few” had undermined the sacrifices that millions of Irish people had made over the last year.

Joint protocol between gardaí and National Parks and Wildlife Service on tackling wildlife crime

Illegal hunting can be used as a front by criminals to check property, equipment, and security according to a joint garda and department memo on wildlife crime.

The memo also says property damage and threats against landowners are all taking place during the illicit hunting of hares.

It said badger baiting and dog fighting can be associated with known criminals and attracted in “overseas criminals” who wanted to bet on the fights.

The memo said unlawful hunting with firearms at night was a problem throughout Ireland usually targeting wild deer populations.

And it said that there had been numerous instances of horses or cattle being accidentally shot, with bullets on occasion hitting houses and farm buildings.

The details are contained in a joint protocol signed between gardaí and the National Parks and Wildlife Service to tackle wildlife crime, and which has been released under access to environmental information regulations.

OPW’s €215,000 bill for gardening and pest control at Áras an Uachtaráin

The Office of Public Works has spent more than €215,000 on gardening and pest control at the President’s Áras an Uachtaráin residence over the past three years.

Details of pest control reports from the Áras reveal a litany of problems with rats, mice, and crawling insects across the sprawling estate in the Phoenix Park.

A wasp nest was also found in the attic space of the “private quarters” of the Áras, according to inspection reports released by the OPW.

The records also detail how a motion sensor camera was to be installed in the kitchens after an elusive rodent was spotted on a number of different occasions.

The data was released following a request made using the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations.

The Office of Public Works had originally refused to release the reports saying the President was excluded from the scope of the AIE regulations in the same way as that office was excluded from Freedom of Information legislation.

The OPW said they had a duty of care to the President and that providing the information might have “generated negative media coverage”.

However, the Commissioner for Environmental Information found the records were held by the OPW and that there was no exemption for records they held relating to the Áras through the AIE Regulations.