Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín TD has revealed that in November 2019, the then Minister for Health, Simon Harris, cancelled a meeting with a prominent Cervical Check campaigner after details regarding a letter of claim she had issued to the HSE and a US-based laboratory were brought to his attention. This is despite the fact that the current Minister for Health this week said that the State Claims Agency “does not share details of individuals who have issued letters of claim in relation to CervicalCheck”.
The campaigner in question was Sharon Butler Hughes, the whistle-blower who, in July 2019, exposed the IT glitch issue in Cervical Check and thus triggered the Brian MacCraith rapid review report.
At a meeting of the Health Committee on 2nd October 2019 Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, and then opposition Health Spokesperson, Stephen Donnelly, both raised the case of Ms Butler Hughes with Minister Harris, and asked if he would commit to meeting her, without placing preconditions on the meeting. The Minister said he would meet with her, and a date was subsequently set – 27th November 2019. However, Deputy Tóibín has now revealed that this meeting never occurred, because it was cancelled with just hours to go.
Deputy Tóibín has seen the content of a follow-up letter sent to Sharon by Matthew O’Gorman, the Minister’s private secretary dated 30th December 2019. In this letter, Mr O’Gorman sets out the reasons why Sharon’s meeting was cancelled. He said;
“On the morning of the meeting it came to the Minister’s attention that a letter of claim had issued on your behalf, and the Minister was therefore advised that it would be inappropriate to meet with you”.
Commenting on the letter, Deputy Tóibín said: “When I saw this letter it struck me as unusual – Sharon had issued a letter of claim to the HSE and a US laboratory, she had not named the Minister, or the Department in her letter, so I wondered how the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, had become aware of the existence or content of the letter?”
In a separate letter, dated the same day, Mr O’Gorman wrote to Sharon’s solicitor, explaining how the Minister became aware of the letter of claim. In this letter Mr O’Gorman wrote:
“It is entirely within the remit of both the Department and the State Claims Agency to communicate both generally and in respect of specific cases of litigation and prospective litigation concerning matters within the Department’s purview such as the delivery of health services”.
Deputy Tóibín has expressed ‘serious concerns’ about this response and has called on both the current Minister, Stephen Donnelly and the previous Minister, Simon Harris to answer questions in the Dáil on the matter. He has released a copy of the letter to the Irish Independent Newspaper.
Deputy Tóibín said:
“What we have in the letters I have seen, is proof that the State Claims Agency exchanges with the Department of Health information about Cervical Check cases. Is this to suggest that if any woman attempts to sue the HSE, the Minister for Health of the day is aware of her details and name, from the very moment she sends a letter of claim? Is this proper? If the Department wishes to maintain that this is normal and appropriate practice, then they must also explain why the Minister was not informed of the Vicky Phelan case until a week prior to settlement. This is a very serious matter and the Ministers Donnelly and Harris must address it. The Minister’s response to me this week is very strange, he says that the State Claims Agency “is an independent body that manages claims in a confidential and sensitive manner and the Agency does not share details of individuals who have issued letters of claim in relation to CervicalCheck or any other health service with my Department. Accordingly, my Department does not keep or compile details of these claims”, and yet in the letter sent by the previous Minister’s private secretary to Ms Butler Hughes and her solicitor, the Department is blatantly saying that the State Claims Agency exchanged the fact that a letter had issued with the Minister. Both statements cannot be true, and the Minister must clarify the situation”, concluded Deputy Tóibín