Senior civil servants in the 26-County government knew that pensioners were being illegally charged for nursing home care years before the matter became public knowledge, it has emerged.
The report of John Travers into the illegal charges scandal has threatened to force resignations at the highest level in the coalition government. He found that the charges had been imposed for over thirty years, and questions over their legal basis had been hushed up.
The report concluded that a solution was readily available through the introduction of a simple legislative amendment, but was never acted on.
However, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s government appears determined to brazen it out.
The Travers Report concludes that the main responsibility for the illegal charges lay with the Department of Health, where there was a long-term systematic failure to deal with the issue of the illegality of these charges.
It has emerged that documents prepared by six senior civil servants indicated the annual bill could reach 400 million Euro if the charges were to be stopped.
The documents were passed on to the department’s then secretary general, Michael Kelly, but never reached the Attorney General. No action was taken, however, and the government simply pocketed the money.
The then Minister for Health, Micheal Martin, claims he never saw the documents. The file is now described as “missing”.
It is estimated the cost of repaying the charges could be as much as 2 billion Euro.
During heated exchanges in the Dublin parliament on Wednesday, Sinn Féin Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain described the Travers Report as a massive indictment of successive governments.
“It beggars belief that this could have continued for almost 30 years,” he said.
The Secretary General of the Department of Health, Michael Kelly, is to be moved in the wake of the report.
But Minister Martin told the Dail the Travers report had exonerated him of all blame and, backed by the Taoiseach, dismissed Opposition calls for him to resign.
During heated exchanges, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said to Mr Ahern, “This amounts to the greatest political handwashing exercise since Pontius Pilate... You have no political courage.”
“If Minister Martin knew the implications he should resign because he is in dereliction of duty; if he didn’t know, given any fair reading of Travers, he should resign because he is incompetent,” said Labour leader Pat Rabbitte.
Sinn Féin Dail leader Caoimhghin O Caolain described the Travers Report as a massive indictment of successive governments.
“It beggars belief that this could have continued for almost 30 years,” he said. “The buck stops on the desk of every Minister for Health since 1976 and every Cabinet since then must share collective responsibility.”