Budget watchdog hit back at “slur” from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar over the accuracy of their projections

The state’s budget watchdog accused Tánaiste Leo Varadkar of misrepresentation and a “slur” against their work.

Mr Varadkar had given a weekend RTÉ radio interview in which he said the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council (IFAC) had repeatedly failed to predict the government would run a budget surplus.

In internal emails however, the council’s chair described the Tánaiste’s version of events as “bizarre” and said sometimes they needed to show they will not “be misrepresented without putting up some resistance”.

Another council member described Mr Varadkar’s remarks as a very “weird angle of attack”.

Professor Michael McMahon wrote: “And I’m not sure I would take forecasting advice from the people who bring us budgets that don’t seem to be able to predict Christmas …. :-)”

There’s lots more colourful material in there.

These records were the subject of a decision by the Information Commissioner, which you can read here.

IFAC had claimed they were exempt under Section 29 of the FOI Act covering deliberative processes.

However, Right to Know successfully argued they were not, and that release was not contrary to the public interest (as is obligated by that part of the legislation).

Records on deletion of text messages by a government minister and policy on retention under FOI

Minister Michael McGrath was advised not to comment on the controversial deletion of records by Simon Coveney even as his officials were briefing colleagues that text messages had always been subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

Mr McGrath – whose Department of Public Expenditure are responsible for FOI – was told that if asked about Zapponegate and the deletion of text messages, he should say “I am not going to comment on the specifics of a particular case”.

At the same time, his officials were telling colleagues across the civil service that there had never been any doubt over the inclusion of text messages under the legislation.

Mr Coveney caused significant controversy in the late summer after saying that he deletes text from his phone, at first saying it was for storage reasons, but later clarifying that it was over hacking concerns.

An updated briefing on record retention was delivered to civil service decision makers in early September with one slide saying: “It is well established that text messages have always been a ‘record’ for FOI purposes.

“This may include messages held on non-official systems such as personal devices, WhatsApp, Gmail, etc.”

Pavee Point, the HSE and Traveller Homelessness

Earlier this Summer we learned that Pavee Point and the HSE had decided – at the last minute – not to launch or publish a research report they (either jointly or separately) had commissioned into Traveller homelessness – some of the first research of its kind.

The report was written by Brian Harvey and took a detailed look at the critically important issue of homelessness (and hidden homelessness) among Travellers.

There were conflicting stories about why the report had not been published – a report paid for with public money. So we initiated an FOI process with the HSE in August and last Friday the HSE finally issued a response.

This was after the HSE failed on several scores in relation to standard FOI procedures:

  • They failed to answer our initial request in the time allowed
  • They failed to acknowledge our internal review request on the basis of deemed refusal
  • They failed to answer our internal review within the time allowed

In effect what we mostly got from the HSE was administrative silence.

We were left with no option but to appeal to the Office of the Information Commissioner to force the HSE to answer our request, and the OIC accepted our appeal.

On the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, months after our initial request, the HSE finally released documents – though crucially not the report itself. We here publish everything that was released to us, and a copy of the report which was published on Pavee Point’s website last week (though it’s hard to notice that they did, in fact, finally publish it).

In our request we sought:

“1. The Traveller community and homelessness report by Brian Harvey. (Pavee Point, 2021). | believe this report was submitted or sent to the HSE in June or July of 2021.

2. Any emails or written correspondence between Pavee Point representatives /Maynooth University staff and the HSE in the months of April, May, June and July 2021, inclusive.

3. Minutes, notes or other records related to any meetings between Pavee Point/ Pavee Point representatives and the HSE in January, February, March, April, May, June, July 2021, inclusive.

4. Any records held by the HSE in regard to the commissioning of the Brian Harvey report, scoping of the work, including the cost of the report and any invoices or recorded expenditure in relation to the report.”

The report itself was refused on the basis that it was in draft form and therefore fell into a deliberative process exemption (we would dispute that).

But emails do give some clues as to why the report was never published in the first place. First is an email from Ronnie Fay at Pavee Point saying that the report would be launched on June 22nd, all good so far:

Second is an email on July 2 from Pavee Point’s Ronnie Fay explaining that following a conversation with the HSE’s Martina Queally (chair of the Traveller Health Unit or THU), the report would not be published or disseminated “as research undertaken by Pavee Point”.

The second email is stranger. Sometime in early July following the decision not to publish, the author of the report Brian Harvey sent an email to research participants alleging that the HSE had intervened “to prevent its publication”. Ronnie Fay at Pavee Point received a copy of this email and then forwarded it to Martina Queally at the HSE. She wrote:

“I’m suggesting we ignore this. But wanted to alert you just in case!!”

Why was Pavee Point emailing the HSE saying they should ignore the person who did the research, alleging that his work was being blocked from publication by the HSE?

We learn later in the documents that the cost of the report was budgeted at €30,000 (not an unusual or significant amount in our view for such a report), but the amount invoiced for could well be much less.

So who decided the report was not worth publishing and why? And why did they fail to respond almost entirely to our FOI and internal review requests? Why the agreement between Pavee Point and the HSE not to publish a report they paid up to €30,000 for? Why then release the report on the Friday of a Bank Holiday weekend? What happened between the scheduled launch of the report, and a decision not to publish it at all?

From an FOI perspective there is also an interesting issue which can arise: the person who was in charge of Right To Know’s internal review (which never actually happened as such and was indeed never acknowledged), is the person mentioned in the emails – the chair of the THU Martina Queally. It is not good practice to have officials deciding what to release about themselves or indeed doing an internal review (the first stage of the appeals process) for obvious reasons – but it’s not necessarily unusual for this to happen.

The documents and report, as released and published, are below. They also include minutes of board meetings of the THU. If you find anything in there that we might have missed, please do leave a comment.

Dublin City Council advised not to add “fuel to the fire” over controversial remarks by Owen Keegan about tents and perceptions of safety in the city

Dublin City council chief executive Owen Keegan hit back at critics of radio comments he made about homeless people sleeping in tents and safety on the streets of Dublin.

Mr Keegan – who was at the centre of more controversy last week over an ill-judged letter about student housing – had told a radio station that the number of tents in the capital added to perceptions of “edginess” in the city.

The city council chief executive responded directly to a number of people about his tent remarks according to emails released by the council, in one saying he totally rejected the “characterisation of my comments and your assessment on my motives”.

Mr Keegan said he fundamentally disagreed with people who “promote” the use of tents for homeless people and “seek to sustain this inferior form of accommodation”.

He said tents were removed on average of three or four times a week by the council and this only happened where “the occupant has taken up an offer of secure accommodation”.

“Sleeping in tents is dangerous, unhygienic and a poses serious public health risk to both the occupants, and at times to the general public,” he added.

In another response, the city council chief executive said while there were valid reasons for somebody to live in a tent, it was never the best option.

“Notwithstanding the potential difficulties with hostel accommodation, I believe living in a supervised hostel is much safer than living in a tent in the city centre,” he wrote.

Internal emails also reveal that the city council was advised not to make official statements on Mr Keegan’s tent comments for fear of “adding fuel to the fire so to speak”.

The local authority had received several media queries about his remarks, but their external public relations advisers had recommended letting the matter fizzle out.

An email to Owen Keegan from one of the council’s communications staff said: “In other words if we try to justify our position, media might just use this to keep the argument going.”

You can read the full set of records below.

Irish Rail pays out €17,000 in refunds to passengers with 28 trains running more than two hours late

More than 260 Irish Rail services have been at least an hour late during the past two years.

Figures from Iarnród Éireann reveal that 237 trains were at least sixty minutes behind schedule, while 28 were more than one hundred and twenty minutes late.

Irish Rail had to pay out almost €17,000 to passengers and commuters for late trains, cancelled services, bridge strikes, and other operational hitches during 2020 and so far in 2021.

The rail operator said they had paid out €6,785 so far this year in refunds in 351 separate claims.

The majority, or 226 of the refunds, related to “train failure”, while timekeeping led to refunds in 62 separate cases.

Also logged were refunds for an incident on the line (26 cases), signal fault (19 refunds), track fault (7), security issue (7), bridge strike (3), and weather conditions (1).

Not all claims for refunds are paid however, and of the 517 cases received so far this year – refunds have issued thus far in only around two-thirds of cases.

The Learjet, the Ambassador, the flight diversion, the Covid-19 test chaos, and an Air Corps crew confined to base

An Air Corps crew were ordered not to leave an airbase in Abu Dhabi because of a Covid-19 testing fiasco as part of the evacuation mission for Irish citizens fleeing Afghanistan.

The government Learjet had been dispatched to the UAE to support the evacuation but was diverted at the last moment to a military airbase where the crew were told they were confined to an area with no sleeping facilities and only couches.

The last-minute hitch in late August caused chaos in the Department of Defence and the Department of Foreign Affairs with diplomatic staff saying they were reluctant to intervene with the UAE government.

It also caused havoc with flight plans because of concerns the Air Corps crew would not have the required rest periods before flying the aircraft back to Ireland.

Internal files from the Department of Defence detail how the plane was first diverted to a military airbase with “no reason” provided.

A copy of the draft guidelines for requests made under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations

In 2017, the Department of the Environment issued a tender for a company to review the guidelines for implementation of the AIE [Access to Information on the Environment] Regulations.

The review took place, and the guidelines were at least substantially finished by the end of that year. They have never been published since.

Through Right to Know, we sought a copy of them under the afore-mentioned AIE Regulations last April.

The Department refused the request saying the material was in the course of completion, and that it constituted unfinished documents or data, which were therefore exempt.

We appealed that decision to the Commissioner for Environmental Information.

In submissions, the department made a number of arguments about the risk of releasing draft records, delays over ministerial sign-off of the guidelines, and that it would not be in the public interest.

It emerged at that stage that the department no longer even intended to publish the records, because a separate review of AIE was now underway which meant the guidelines themselves would need another review.

Ultimately, the Commissioner decided in our favour, in a decision that was particularly strong on the public interest.

In the decision, Peter Tyndall wrote: “I do consider that there is a public interest in disclosure of the draft Guidelines in circumstances where they have been in preparation since 2017 and where, according to DECC, a final version of the Guidelines will not be published until revised AIE Regulations are enacted.”

You can read that decision here.

You can see the guidelines for yourself below.

Persistent parking offenders run up unpaid fines of over €1,000 in one local authority area

A motorist has run up an unpaid parking bill of more than €2,100 in one local authority area.

Shameless drivers have in some cases been hit with more than a dozen tickets each but simply refuse to pay any of them.

The problem is most pronounced in Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown in Dublin where four different motorists owe more than €1,000 in unpaid fines.

Figures from three separate councils have also shown that in one of Dublin’s local authorities – more than one in three tickets went unpaid last year.

In Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown, a single driver with a UK or Northern Ireland registered car owes the council €2,140 relating to fifteen separate unpaid tickets.

Two Dublin-registered cars have each amassed €1,552 in parking debts with the local authority, covering sixteen tickets each.

Another ‘D-reg’ car has twelve outstanding tickets and a bill of €1,164, according to the records.

Greyhound Racing Ireland criticises RTÉ and other state agencies for shunning coverage of their sport and events

A row has broken out between Greyhound Racing Ireland and RTÉ over the station’s decision to cease broadcasting and coverage of the sport.

Greyhound Racing Ireland (GRI) have also hit out at national tourism agencies Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland for halting promotional activity around the sport.

The outgoing GRI chief executive Ger Dollard said the greyhound industry was being held to a different standard than other sports, including horse racing.

He said it was “unacceptable” that coverage and engagement with greyhound racing had ended and that they had taken it up “at the highest levels of government”.

Internal records from GRI detail how the industry has battled with significant reputational issues ever since an RTÉ Investigates programme in 2019 about greyhound welfare.

A briefing document was prepared for an economic analysis that Greyhound Racing Ireland had commissioned from economist Jim Power.

It said: “The change in public perception has also been reflected in the refusal of a number of media outlets to cover greyhound racing, most notably RTÉ and the withdrawal by Fáilte Ireland/Tourism Ireland from including [it] it its promotional activity or permitting [us] to participate in promotional activities relating to the greyhound industry.”

  • Full statement on these records from outgoing GRI CEO Ger Dollard.

A database of complaints of harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment in An Garda Síochána over the past five years

Gardaí have received 76 complaints of harassment, bullying, and sexual harassment from members over the past five years including eight complaints so far this year.

A detailed breakdown shows that seven male gardaí and one female officer have alleged they were the victim of bullying at work in 2021.

However, An Garda Síochána said there had been no complaints of either harassment or sexual harassment in the first nine months of the year.