Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 17 January 2023
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Local Government Performance Indicators and Public Spending Code: National Oversight and Audit Commission
Victor Boyhan (Independent) | Oireachtas source
The next thing I want to talk about is the importance of timely reports. It is important that reports come in a timely manner. Mr. McCarthy will be familiar with how local government chief executives move on after seven to ten-year cycles. It is difficult to deal with reports when a lot of the relevant people are gone. On NOAC’s report, it is important that we have timely reports. That is just a comment and not a question.
NOAC will be familiar with the local government auditing system and Niamh Larkin, who is director of that in the Custom House, does an excellent job. The biggest issue, which Deputy McAuliffe touched on, is how NOAC’s work interacts with the elected members of the 31 local authorities. We know we have internal audit committees but some councillors struggle to understand, through no fault of their own, and to get a detailed grasp on the fine grain of finance and law and that is an issue. As they are not lawyers, accountants or taxation consultants, it is important that we work closely with the AILG and LAMA in upskilling, training and assisting our elected members in respect of finance and general corporate governance issues.
I have had numerous complaints in the past 12 months about how some local authorities have given five or ten minutes of discussion to their statutory audit committee reports. That is 14 members in a council having ten to 15 minutes of discussion on audits and anyone who sticks his or her head above the parapet and challenges a chief executive in a local authority about finance is suddenly considered a troublemaker, difficult person or incorrigible little upstart. That is the language that is sometimes used about people. My colleague is laughing and we were on the same council so maybe that is a mutual opinion. It is concerning, disheartening and disappointing. I would be interested to hear what Mr. McCarthy thinks about it but I am of the view that there should be a statutory meeting set aside for everyone in the local authorities annually that is solely and exclusively to discuss their audit reports. Members are being told there is no time to deal with the audit reports and that is not good enough. These are public funds and finance. It is taxpayers' money and accountability is way down the Richter scale.
I acknowledge NOAC is not directly involved in this but it has engagement with the local government auditing service. Like with NOAC's report, I mention Wexford County Council’s situation in December 2022. I have already been in touch with the elected members in Wexford on this report and I would like to think that somehow, NOAC would get assurances that these reports were tabled and that opportunity was given for some discussion. That is important because our elected members are the eyes and ears of the public. They are advocates for the public, for good corporate governance and for how their taxpayers money is being spent locally.
I genuinely acknowledge the important work Mr. McCarthy and his team do. It is a tool, it provides data and it will assist people to scrutinise and understand the process. That is why I am glad Mr. McCarthy is here talking about his work. There is a case to be made to develop and empower more our local authority members to scrutinise any issues around governance locally and in local government auditing services. Can Mr. McCarthy share with us his interplay and engagement with the local government auditing services, both centrally in the departmental unit Niamh Larkin heads and in terms of the chief executives and elected members of local authorities? I will leave Mr. McCarthy with that question.
I thank NOAC for coming but the important point is that these are tools and aids. These are data and evidence and we have to use all this information to improve how we progress and draw light and accountability into the affairs of local government.