Pre-budget submission from Department of Foreign Affairs predicts more than a million passport applications next year

The Department of Foreign Affairs pleaded for an extra €5 million in funding for the Passport Service saying it was the only way they could provide at least the same levels of service last year.

In a pre-budget submission, the department said they were expecting to issue another 1 million passports this year, not far off last year’s record level of 1.085 million.

They also said they expected to deal with a higher level of sometimes complex foreign birth registration applications with figures rising significantly over recent years.

The submission said: “[We have] over 21,000 applications received so far this year, an increase of almost 22% on the same period last year.”

They said the Passport Service was grappling with “ageing systems” and “increased postage costs” which meant a significant boost in funding would be required just to maintain services at the existing level.

The department also said they were looking for €15 million as part of a plan for a new ‘Ireland House’ that will be based in New York.

It will bring together diplomatic personnel along with overseas staff from agencies like the IDA and Enterprise Ireland under one roof.

The pre-budget submission said: “This development needs to be completed by end 2024, as the lease on the current property expires at that time.”

The department also looked for a €2.5 million funding boost to help open up three new missions next year.

These will be based in Munich in Germany, Milan in Italy, and in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and are part of the ‘Global Ireland’ programme to extend the country’s diplomatic reach.

In their ask for overseas development funding, the department said they were seeking an extra €130 million because of the “unprecedented scale” of the challenges being faced by the world.

These included the climate crisis, “the biggest land war in Europe since World War II” in Ukraine, and an increasing number of humanitarian disasters. The submission predated the conflict in Gaza and Israel.

It said: “At the same time, the rules-based international system – a system that Ireland depends on for our continued prosperity and safety – is under profound pressure.

“The requested increase would be used to meet increasing demands for climate finance, to support Ukraine and the interconnected global food crisis, as well as to meet growing humanitarian demands.”

Department of Finance frustration over new €115 million accounts system that was causing staff stress and delays in reporting

The Department of Finance complained bitterly over a new €115 million system meant to streamline public accounts blaming it for incorrect calculations, slowing down civil servants, staff stress, and simple tasks taking an “inordinate amount of time”.

In correspondence, the department’s secretary general said they had even been hit with penalty interest because of delays in setting up basic data using the new Financial Management Shared Services (FMSS) system.

The Department of Finance was one of a number of stage agencies that were chosen for the initial roll-out of what was supposed to be a new ‘simpler’ system early last year.

However, they soon ran into problems with financial reports that used to be delivered in moments now taking extended periods of time to generate.

An internal paper said: “The impact of the reporting issues means that finance officers cannot quickly do the same searches that they could previously.

“Reports that took literally one second on [the old system] take anywhere from two to three minutes to over ten minutes to run and sometimes the same report has to be rerun if the user does not locate the information required.”

The position paper added that reports which were generated were “very cluttered and difficult to read”.

The department – along with the Department of Public Expenditure – said the new system had caused a “material impact on the labour productivity of staff”.

“Staff across the departments and their offices of government are of the view that the system design is unnecessarily complicated and not intuitive especially if you are processing a new item for payment,” said the document.

Oireachtas members reimbursed travel and accommodation expenses even when off work due to illness

TDs and Senators have been paid travel and accommodation expenses for more than 1,600 days’ worth of sick leave over the past two years.

Under a strange quirk in the expenses system that applies in Leinster House, politicians can be declared present in the Dáil or Seanad even when they are not there.

The system allows TDs and Senators to “reconcile” their attendance based on a sick note from a medical practitioner.

Each day of attendance at Leinster House can yield a daily payment between €75 for TDs who live in Dublin up to €283-a-day for those who live more than 360 kilometres from parliament.

There are thirteen different “bands” in the system with payments rising according to how far the person’s home is from the capital and slightly lower rates applying for Senators and officeholders compared to TDs.

The maximum payment is only available for those who clock in for at least 120 days in every year. A deduction of 1% is made for each day below that target.

According to records released under FOI, 780 days of ill-health were reconciled last year, made up of 491 days for Senators and 289 for Deputies.

In the first eight months of this year, there were 822 days reconciled because of sickness, broken down as 275 for members of the Seanad and 547 for TDs.

An information note from the Oireachtas said: “Ill-health [has to be] certified by a medical practitioner as preventing the Member from performing their duties as a Member.

“In this case the Member must produce a medical certificate for the days not attended with an application to specify the dates for reconciliation in the application.”

Department of Health believed they were fortunate to get away with just a €22,500 fine over gathering of personal information on families

The Department of Health believed they were lucky to escape with a €22,500 fine for a major data breach that involved “excessive and disproportionate” gathering of sensitive personal information about people who had taken legal action against the state.

In internal submissions, officials said the department could have been hit with a fine of up to €1 million and that the actual fine “fell far below the maximum that could be levelled”.

A submission to Department Secretary General Robert Watt from senior officials said the level of the fine “should as a result be welcomed” and suggested the department could despite “some reservation” accept the sanction proposed by the Data Protection Commission (DPC).

The investigation followed an RTÉ programme in March 2021 based on information provided by the whistleblower Shane Corr who said the department had a practice of collecting sensitive and personal information about vulnerable children and their families when they were involved in litigation against the state.

Outbreak of “very difficult to treat” CPE superbug in Tallaght Hospital risked “significant morbidity and mortality”

A busy hospital struggled with an outbreak of a new variant of a dangerous superbug trying to manage patients who needed to smoke, medical students that ended up in a ward with infection, and allowing visitors for sick people.

Internal records said Tallaght University Hospital (TUH) in Dublin was dealing with a “very active and resistant outbreak” that could be associated with “significant morbidity and mortality”.

Hundreds of potential contacts were identified with progress reports saying there were “not many options” available to treat the variety of the CPE superbug that was spreading.

The outbreak was first notified to the board of the hospital in April of this year and remained open until the end of August, a TUH spokeswoman said.

The progress reports detail some of the measures that were introduced including “visitors restricted unless end of life” and how 95% of staff were compliant on hand hygiene training and that only those with this training should be allowed on the ward.

One update noted: “Leaflets to stop visitors coming from the atrium, leaflets to be distributed to patients, wording to be updated to advise patients to not leave the ward to go to the atrium (smokers will be a problem).”

Concerns were also raised over consultants who had visited the ward at the centre of the outbreak that were not “bare below the elbow”, that is they were wearing long sleeves, jewellery, watches, or other items that have the potential to carry infection.

Another note said: “Medical students doing exams were on [the ward] – the instruction was that they did not go [there]. [Staff member] to follow up with [colleague as to] why this happened.”

Data Protection Commission told it must release records on use of CCTV to combat illegal dumping

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) has been directed to release documents it holds on the use of surveillance cameras for tackling fly-tipping and environmental crime.

In a request made under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations, Right to Know had sought copies of correspondence between the DPC and local authorities about CCTV.

In both its original decision and at internal review, the DPC said the records sought were not “environmental information”.

They argued that the records related to data protection and personal data processing and they contained nothing that was likely to have an effect on the environment.

The Commissioner for Environmental Information disagreed however, and said the CCTV was clearly intended to “target illegal dumping and environmental crime”.

It said the records clearly related to a plan that carried “more than a remote possibility” of an environmental impact.

The decision added: “Data protection considerations are, therefore, in my view, a critical or integral factor in the proposed use of CCTV to target illegal dumping and environmental crime.

“This means that inquiries to the DPC about potential data protection considerations pertaining to the use of CCTV to target illegal dumping and environmental crime constitute information ‘on’ the measure [that is proposed or planned].”

The DPC’s other flimsy arguments about why the records would in any event be exempt under the AIE Regulations were also rejected in the decision.

Cases like this involving the DPC are important because that office is effectively off-limits within the FOI Act, where only purely administrative records can be accessed.

However, any of their work that has an environmental impact like this is open to scrutiny.

Department of Finance said “over-riding consideration” in sale of AIB shares should not be recovery of state’s full €29 billion bailout for banking sector

Officials told the Finance Minister that recovery of the full €29 billion the state used to bail out the banks should not be the “over-riding consideration” as the Exchequer looked to sell off more of its stake in AIB.

Ahead of the latest share sale of the bank earlier this month, a submission for Minister for Finance Michael McGrath said the state had now been a shareholder in AIB for thirteen years and that it was key to keep reducing its exposure.

A pre-sale submission said: “Our advice for many years has been to gradually reduce our investment in the banks at sensible prices such that we can recover as much of the [circa] €29 billion we put into AIB, BOI and PTSB as possible.

“Full recovery of the €29 billion or what we put into AIB should not be the over-riding consideration that drives our decision making. Bank shares are risky and volatile and the State has already been a shareholder in AIB since 2010.”

Minister McGrath was told that “political conversations” about another sale should take place but that as long as these did not include a specific date, they were not considered sharing “inside information”.

“Therefore (if required) we recommend that you seek political clearance in the coming days, and ideally before AIB’s trading statement on November 1st, giving you the ultimate decision and authority to execute a transaction based on our advice and market conditions,” said the document.

A post-sale submission on what was tagged Project Viking VI said the latest sale had yielded €515 million and had reduced the state’s shareholding in the bank to 40.8 per cent.

DPC said planned new structures for commission could hamper speed of large-scale inquiries into big tech

The Data Protection Commission (DPC) warned the government that new proposed structures for the organisation could slow down the pace of major data protection inquiries involving high-tech companies and other multinationals.

In a pre-budget submission, the DPC said there “simply aren’t enough people” if plans for a new system of governance involving multiple committees were implemented.

In the document, the commission claimed it was “by far the most agile and expeditious” data protection authority in Europe when it came to large-scale inquiries and that this could be compromised by increased procedural bureaucracy.

It said: “The new form of administration which has been prescribed … [will require] more rigidly structured, multi-layered protocols that have the potential to decelerate the rate at which the DPC concludes its regulatory inquiries.”

The submission also warned of chronic difficulties in recruiting suitable staff, and said there were long waiting times in getting jobs advertised through the Public Appointments Service.

They said this had “inevitably caused significant delays to all of the DPC’s 2023 recruitment campaigns and onboarding of new hires”.

The document also outlined how the DPC had run into unforeseen delays in moving to a new headquarters in Dublin city centre.

EPA predicted tweet about reducing red meat in diet was likely to “get the ire [up] of some people” before its controversial deletion

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew a tweet about cutting down meat consumption was likely to cause consternation but said there were always “people that get annoyed”.

The EPA deleted the controversial post within a day of being contacted by farming groups who asked them if they stood over the message about reducing red meat in the diet.

In the run-up to posting on social media, an internal email said: “It should be fair game, but I wanted to flag it. It’s not controversial but as a topic it does get the ire [up] of some people who are very online.

“That said, EPA should probably be saying more about the environmental impact of Ireland not transitioning to a more plant-based diet.”

In response, another official said that it looked “fine” and that at the very least they could say that “we are starting a conversation”.

Donald Trump’s Doonbeg hotel given all-clear by county council over unauthorised fencing on protected Co Clare beach

Donald Trump’s legal woes have been mounting but he has one less worry over the erection of fencing near his luxury Co Clare hotel and golf resort.

Clare County Council has confirmed to the Trump International Golf Links Hotel that it has closed its investigation into controversial works at an adjoining beach and that they did not intend pursuing the case any further for now.

The news followed an inspection of the site in March of this year during which an executive planner confirmed that the removal of fencing had adequately addressed most of the issues at Doughmore Strand.

It said the fencing that remained was “limited in nature” but that there was still some fence along the beachfront as well as round hay bales.

The inspection report said a letter should issue to the Trump hotel saying: “Clare County Council considers that the entirety of these works … are unauthorised. You are therefore requested to outline your proposals to resolve this remaining planning issue.”

However, in response the hotel and golf links said they did not agree that either the bales or the last of the fencing constituted unauthorised development.

The hotel’s general manager Joe Russell wrote: “I would also note that the bales, placed seasonally to protect the golf course for very many years, have now been removed as is normal at this time of year.”

In May, the council informed the hotel that they had no plans to take any further action arising from the controversial fencing.

A letter said: “Please be advised that in light of the substantial compliance with the enforcement issues on the site, the planning authority does not intend to progress with any further enforcement proceedings at this time.”