Department of Health official said it would be “extremely bad faith” to pull the plug on €280,000-a-year Operation Transformation sponsorship as Robert Watt expressed “grave reservations” about deal

The controversial civil servant Robert Watt said the use of public funds to sponsor the RTÉ hit show Operation Transformation was “questionable” and that he had “grave reservations” about continuing to support it.

However, he was told pulling out of the deal at the eleventh hour would be “extremely bad faith” and would force the makers of the show to re-record parts of the programme at late notice.

Mr Watt had been asked to approve expenditure of €282,900 in Department of Health funding for the popular weight loss programme but raised red flags over why it was even happening in the first place.

In an email to a colleague, Robert Watt wrote: “I have great difficulty in supporting this given the sums involved. If we don’t provide funding, what happens? The programme goes ahead with or without some other sponsor.

“What are risks to us of saying ‘no’ now? Please advise me on this. I think using public funds in this manner is questionable and as accounting officer, I have grave reservations.”

In the internal discussion in late 2021, the possibility of giving just €100,000 in sponsorship instead was floated instead of the near €300,000 annual figure that had previously been agreed.

Mr Watt, who himself earns €292,000 annually, then sought a detailed submission on the background to the arrangement and how the Department of Health had ended up sponsoring the programme.

That submission, released under FOI, said there was a “verbal agreement” in place for the department to sponsor the coming series of the show.

It said they had told RTÉ the sponsorship would continue and that this had been “effectively executed” by already working with the producers on the show.

The submission said: “The programme will go ahead if we pull out, possibly with a corporate sponsor.

“This means that instead of being pointed to [our] Healthy Ireland’s trusted information, the circa 500,000 viewers each week will be pointed to the corporate sponsor’s online material, or not pointed anywhere.”

The submission said there were “reputational risks” associated with pulling out of the sponsorship deal after it had been verbally agreed.

“It would represent extremely bad faith, given the show is starting in five weeks,” it said.

“The material recorded for the first episode would be unusable and would require re-recording and bringing the participants (parents and children from various sports clubs etc.) back to Croke Park, where we recorded a piece for the Ireland Lights Up element of the show.”

Fixed price contracts on major projects leading to “low ball tender pricing” and later disputes over costs

Overly optimistic cost estimates for major public projects in Ireland were creating “significant public and political condemnation” when the final bill initially put forward had been nowhere near robust enough to begin with.

A risk paper from the National Transport Authority (NTA) also explained how government rules demanding a “fixed price” for every large construction contract had created a “perverse effect” leading to claims culture and adversarial relations between contractors and the public sector.

It said this had incentivised “low-ball tender pricing” where companies would look to win a tender using an unrealistic estimate and then try to claw back money at the end during costly dispute resolution process.

The NTA paper said while fixed price lump sum contracting could work for certain smaller “more conventional” projects, it was completely unsuitable for major programmes.

It said: “Because such programmes face countless variables and pressures, are enormously complex and take years – if not decades to complete, to expect an initial forecast (or fixed price) to stand the test of such wide-ranging variables is simply not realistic.”

RTÉ expenditure hearings crashed Oireachtas website after “connection storm” as “malevolent” attack was ruled out by IT staff

The Oireachtas website crashed during the first hearing of the RTÉ spending controversy because of a “connection storm” with Leinster House ruling out any “malevolent” effort to overwhelm their internet page.

Internal records explained how their website normally gets 4,000 requests per hour. However, in the space of five minutes on the day of the very first committee meeting on RTÉ, it received a massive 10,000 such requests.

Emails detailed how there had not been enough computer processing power to scale up for such high demand leading to what was described as a “connection storm” scenario that ultimately caused the website to crash for almost an hour.

A message from one official said: “Christ above. Ok work through and let me know.”

The web manager at the Oireachtas Karin Whooley said the outage had lasted around fifty minutes although the actual livestream of the hearings continued to work as normal behind the broken home page.

An email from Ms Whooley said: “Essentially the website should scale automatically to cope with large volumes of traffic, but it seems it didn’t do so yesterday and users were unable to get to the site.”

Tánaiste Micheál Martin urged Defence Forces to make immediate move to ensure any allegations of sexual assault in the military were referred to gardaí

Tánaiste Micheál Martin told the Defence Forces chief of staff he wanted all serious complaints of a sexual nature to be immediately referred to the gardaí and no longer dealt with by military police.

In a letter in April, Mr Martin said it was his “strong preference” that all allegations of sexual assault should be investigated externally without delay.

The move had been recommended in the wake of the ‘Women of Honour’ report into widespread mistreatment of female members of the Defence Forces including harassment, abuse, and discrimination.

However, the recommendation that all serious allegations of a sexual nature were dealt with by gardaí required legislation which the Tánaiste and Minister for Defence did not want to wait for.

In his letter, Mr Martin asked that commanding officers be told that any complaints under the Criminal (Rape) Amendment Act should not be investigated by military police.

In correspondence with the Chief of Staff Lieut Gen Seán Clancy, the Tánaiste wrote: “I would ask you to confirm that the interim arrangements have been put in place as soon as possible.”

In a handwritten note, Lieut Gen Clancy said a concise order was to be issued “immediately” to all commanders noting their victim’s handbook, their victim-centred approach, and the need to “comply” with the requirements suggested by Micheál Martin.

HSE misses emergency department targets rating its efforts to improve treatment in A&Es at just one out of five

The HSE was far off targets it had set for emergency departments covering the length of time patients spent in A&E, the numbers on trolleys, delays in treating over-75s, and slow handover of patients from ambulances.

In a board strategic scorecard, unscheduled care was given a rating of just one out of five with “significant concerns” targets were again not going to be met this year.

According to the figures, which were shared with Health Minister Stephen Donnelly in April, a daily target of 236 patients on trolleys in A&Es had been set for 2023 but the actual figure was 352 in January and 326 in February.

Another target of having 97% of patients gone from the emergency department within twenty four hours was also missed, the records showed.

Instead, in January 5.3% of patients were at least a day in A&E while in February, that number had fallen only slightly to 5% of patients.

The HSE had also aimed to have 99% of patients over the age of 75 discharged or admitted within nine hours of having turned up at hospital.

However, the actual figure for January was 50.9% and again in February, there was only a small improvement with the figure rising to 52%.

A further target for over-75s of discharge or admission within 24 hours of registration was also set at 99%.

However, it too was missed with an average of 12% of this vulnerable age group at least a full day in the emergency department in the first two months of the year, many of them on trolleys.

Another performance indictor that was significantly off target was the aim of twenty minutes as the time it took for a “physical and clinical handover” of a patient who had arrived at an ED in an ambulance.

The target set for this was 80%; however, the actual figure for January was just 7.5%.

Retired civil servants and semi-state employees earn five figure sums for sitting on interview boards with one paid nearly €53,000 in fees last year

Dozens of retired public service employees earned five-figure sums last year for sitting on interview boards and assessments including one former semi-state worker who received almost €53,000 in fees.

The Public Appointments Service (PAS) said they had paid €2.25 million to board members in 2022 to carry out more than 14,000 interviews or assessments, leading to the assignment of 9,601 staff to new roles.

A breakdown of those fees showed that €1.365 million had been paid to retired civil or public sector board members.

A further €153,000 was paid to ex-staff of semi-state bodies, while €603,000 was paid to individuals who worked in the private sector.

The PAS said the top fifty earners had been paid between €14,000 and €53,000 last year with nine people earning at least €30,000.

More than 1,000 complaints made by prisoners last year including 70 serious ‘Category A’ reports

Seventy complaints were made last year by prisoners alleging assault, excessive force, racial abuse, ill-treatment, discrimination or intimidation.

More than a third of them came from a single prison, the Midlands Jail in Co Laois, from where there were 25 individual complaints logged.

Of the 70 complaints made, just a single one has so far been upheld while one was considered to have been “vexatious”.

Twenty six of the complaints were not upheld, two were withdrawn, while the majority of them are incomplete and still under investigation.

The Irish Prison Service has admitted they are concerned about long delays in dealing with the most serious of complaints made by the incarcerated.

They said this was down to a shortage of suitably qualified investigators as well as a backlog built up during the Covid-19 pandemic when prisoners could not always be interviewed face-to-face.

The seventy ‘Category A’ complaints were among a total of 1,045 made by inmates in the Irish prison system last year, according to records released under FOI.

Robert Watt intervened to end government sponsorship of Operation Transformation saying he would sign off on one final year with a “heavy heart”

The country’s most controversial civil servant personally intervened to end his department’s sponsorship of the hit RTÉ show Operation Transformation.

The Department of Health had been paying around €283,000 per year to sponsor the programme through its Healthy Ireland initiative but that arrangement was brought to an abrupt end last year.

Internal records detail how Secretary General Robert Watt had “severe reservations” about sponsoring the programme in 2022.

Mr Watt only signed off on the deal with a “heavy heart” but said it should not continue beyond that, according to records that were released under FOI.

An email from October last year said: “The Secretary General had severe reservations about sponsoring it in 2022, but approved it after some engagement from your predecessor.”

Mr Watt’s involvement in the sponsorship deal began in late 2021 when he sought additional information from colleagues on the background and rationale for it.

The Secretary General – who himself earns €292,000 annually and more than the Operation Transformation sponsorship was worth each year – was provided with an overview by a senior civil servant.

“As discussed, supplementary e-submission for review and approval please,” it said.

Mr Watt signed off on it saying: “Approved – with a heavy heart!! But we need to review next year. Thank you. Robert.”

An email later sent by the Secretary General from December 2021 reiterated his point: “This is the last year!”

His colleague, a principal officer in the department, responded: “Thanks for this, noted re: the heavy heart!

“I am more than happy for a full review and consideration next year to evaluate appropriateness of any future involvement and long before any discussion with program producers.”

Revenue was paid €783 million through unpublished tax settlements in 2022

A total of €783 million was paid last year in unpublished tax settlements involving close to 55,000 separate companies and members of the public.

Altogether, €665 million was paid out by companies in 35,684 separate settlements, an average of around €19,000 each.

A further €103 million had to be given to Revenue by individual taxpayers and members of the public, according to records released under FOI.

Those deals averaged around €6,000 each and made up 31% of the total number of cases involving unpublished tax settlements in 2022.

Another €6.1 million was paid out by partnerships in just over 1,200 separate cases, roughly €5,000 for each settlement.

There was also €1.09 million worth of settlements involving trusts estates, dealing with 195 cases each case worth around €5,600.

Another €7.5 million was paid by unincorporated bodies in 771 separate settlements, with an average value of just over €10,500.

Advocate General of Court of Justice of EU says technical standards should be available free of charge in case taken jointly by Right to Know

For the past five years, a case taken by Right to Know in conjunction with information NGO Public.Resource.Org has been rumbling its way through Europe.

In it, we had sought copies of harmonised technical standards agreed by the European Committee for Standardisation (or CEN).

Specifically, we looked for standards on the safety of toys, including chemical sets and chemicals present in things like finger paint.

These are a category of standards that are produced following a mandate by the European Commission and are adopted once a reference is published in the Official Journal.

The European Commission refused access both at first and following appeal.

Today, in the latest stage of the case, Advocate General Laila Medina has published her opinion on the case.

We had argued the technical standards could not be protected by copyright because they are part of EU law, and therefore require free access.

The Court of Justice agreed.

A media statement from them said: “The Advocate General concludes that the rule of law requires access [to the standards] that is freely available without charge.”

The Advocate General said the indispensable role of the standards in implementation of EU secondary legislation and their legal effects meant they should not benefit from copyright protection.

The opinion said that even if they were protected by copyright, free access to law should take priority.

Advocate General Medina proposed that the Court of Justice should annul the original decision refusing access.

It’s important to say that the opinion is not binding on the court and the judges are now beginning their deliberations in this case.

You can read the full opinion here.