Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 May 2015
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
Are the minutes of the meeting of 23 April agreed to? Agreed.
We will move to correspondence received since the previous meeting. No. 3A.1 is correspondence, dated 1 May 2015, from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It follows up on the committee's meeting with officials of the Department on 5 March. The correspondence is to be noted and published.
No. 3A.2 is correspondence, dated 6 May 2015, from the Health Service Executive to correct the record of the meeting of 23 April. The correspondence is to be noted and published.
No. 3B.1 is correspondence, dated 28 April 2015, from the Health Service Executive which provides a response on the issue of State-sponsored methadone treatment. The correspondence is to be noted, published and forwarded to Mr. Jim O'Connell.
No. 3B.2 is correspondence, dated 14 April 2015, from Mr. Noel Waters, Secretary General, Department of Justice and Equality, regarding the Thornton Hall project.
I note a number of discrepancies between this document which provides a full account of the Thornton Hall project and the document the committee received on 6 February. For example, the document, dated 14 April 2015, states in respect of capacity that the proposed development at Thornton Hall would have provided a maximum of 723 places, in addition to the female prison. However, the original document, dated 6 February 2015, stated the new prison development would provide accommodation for 1,400 prisoners, with operational flexibility to accommodate up to 2,200. There is a major discrepancy between the figures presented for the numbers of prisoners who would have been accommodated at Thornton Hall.
The original document stated that following the decision not to proceed with the Thornton Hall project, the Department decided to focus resources on providing in-cell sanitation in Mountjoy Prison and noted that the project was nearing completion. The main reason cited by the Department for purchasing a site for a new prison at Thornton Hall was the lack of in-cell sanitation in Mountjoy Prison and the estimated cost of installing same of €400 million. Now that the Department has addressed the primary reason for spending €30 million on the purchase of Thornton Hall, it has not indicated what was the cost of providing in-cell sanitation in Mountjoy Prison. Clarification is required in this regard.
The document, dated 14 April 2015, only gave a brief description of the expenditure of €30 million on the Thornton Hall project and some additional minor expenditure in a couple of other areas, including acreage purchased for ancillary purposes. The document received on 6 February, however, indicated that total expenditure on the prison development project was €50.14 million. There is, therefore, a discrepancy of €20 million in expenditure. It is one of a number of serious discrepancies.
It should also be recalled that Mountjoy Prison was to be sold and that Shanganagh Castle, the only juvenile open prison in the State, was sold. There is now no juvenile prison to make up the shortfall in expenditure. The contents of the two documents suggest either that they were produced by two different people or that the author approached the issue from two perspectives. I suggest we seek clarification on their contents.
Perhaps we should set out the differences the Deputy has outlined by sending a copy of the transcript to the Department to seek clarification on the matters raised. We should also state that if they are not clarified in a satisfactory manner, we will invite the Secretary General and the relevant officials to appear before the committee. I suggest this as a first step.
No. 3C is documents for today’s meeting and comprises Nos. 3C.1 and 3C.2. They are to be noted and published.
No. 4 is reports, statements and accounts received since the meeting of 30 April. All four documents have a clear audit opinion and are to be noted and published.
The work programme is on screen. The next meeting will be with officials of the Office of the Minister for Finance to discuss the outturn for 2013, the issue of Government debt and the financial accounts for 2013.
This morning in the Dáil the Minister for Finance indicated that there would be some form of investigation into SiteServ and referred to the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Committee of Public Accounts. My understanding is the deal in question was very much commercial in nature.
At the last meeting, we, as a committee, decided we would ask for the papers relative to the decision-making process leading up to this. If we could have those for that meeting, then we can rightly deal with whatever queries that might arise in respect of the lead-up to this sale and the involvement of the Department officials. We could also seek clarification from them as to what their concerns were at the time about Siteserv and the other commercial deals that were done. Apparently, they were speaking about not only Siteserv but the other businesses that were sold.
We did ask for those papers.
Clerk to the Committee:
I did speak to the Secretary General of the Department. He is aware of the committee's request and said he will have the appropriate people here next week to deal with the main issues on Siteserv. There is a bigger investigation ongoing at the moment so I presume they may be limited in what they can reveal.
To make it clear as I understood it from the members last week, what we want is the information relative to the different businesses that were sold in respect of what the officials thought and what were their concerns that we read about every day in the newspapers and the media. It is our responsibility as the Committee of Public Accounts to have that information and to analyse it. That is where the members were coming from and it is the information we want. Beyond that, in terms of the sale from the bank to the business, that may be for another day. Is that correct from our last meeting Deputy McDonald?
Yes, that is correct. In fact, at the finance committee yesterday, a motion was brought forward asking for different individuals to come before that committee.
On legal advice that motion was withdrawn on the basis that the commercial interactions, be it around Siteserv and the commercial wisdom of decisions made, are not for that committee or for our committee to scrutinise or second-guess. The point was made very strongly that the policy oversight, as well as the political oversight and interaction between the system and the IBRC, Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, is very much a legitimate space. It is not something KPMG will delve into. It will be very much a technical and, in my view, a wholly inadequate mechanism for investigating all of these matters. I support what the Chairman is doing and I would hope that we would have the relevant documentation in advance of next week's meeting so we can prepare ourselves for the exchange.
The second question is this but I do not know if it can be answered today. We need to get some clarity from the Minister because he has made several references to committees of the House and he has referenced our committee in particular. We need to know not only that we will be in receipt of whatever report KPMG produces but to what end. What level of scrutiny at the end of the day will we be able to apply to such a report, giving our remit, standing orders, Abbeylara, etc?
It strikes me there is a strong element of playing for time on the part of the Government. We are being referenced as part of a very drawn-out sequence. That is my own view. Apparently, we are going to get this report. We are not sure what form it will take or the level of data and information we will be given, however. The experience has been that all of these interactions are cloaked in a veil of commercial sensitivity. We have no guarantee that this will not be the case when we finally see the report from KPMG. We receive it but what next? What level of scrutiny will we be able to apply to it?
We indicated at our last meeting that we were dealing with the matter arising from remarks made by the Taoiseach that he would hope to refer it to this committee and that it would involve the Comptroller and Auditor General. Then some other issues arose. The general opinion around the table was that the committee would play as big a role as it could in the matter. I would welcome the Committee of Public Accounts playing that role because we are, after all, the committee that deals with taxpayers’ money and the use and abuse of that money.
The system that has been set up is to report by the end of August. I do not know if the Minister for Finance mentioned this committee. He did mention the relevant committees of the House. The Taoiseach mentioned this committee. We do need clarification that this is the committee that will deal with the report when it does come out. It is to be completed by the end of August. Presumably, the intention would be that it would be dealt with by the committees of the House in early September. In the meantime, regarding whatever documentation might be required, I would be agreeable that it would come before the committee and we could be prepared for it.
I agree with Deputy Costello that it is important to get clarification on the Government’s intention as to what role the committee will have once the report is published after September. This would be the appropriate committee for dealing with the report. I also agree with the Chairman on getting the documents before the officials attend the committee next week. Will the clerk get clarification as to what increased powers the Committee of Public Accounts would require to investigate this report once it is published in September?
To what extent will the remit of this committee have to be altered for us to consider something like the Siteserv issue? If that will be the case, then there is an argument for the remit to be examined for other matters.
To be clear about the committee and where we are going, next week the Department of Finance officials will attend the committee. We have indicated to the Department that we will ask questions about its involvement and whatever concerns it might have had, not only with Siteserv but the other companies and transactions that have been brought into the public domain by way of general comment. Any paperwork relevant to those transactions from the Department’s side is what we are entitled to discuss. We shall send a clear message to the Department of Finance that this is within our remit, this is what we want to discuss and there is more than just Siteserv. In a general way we want to deal with that.
It is only fair then, on the other side of this, that we would make clear that it is misleading of either the Taoiseach or the Minister for Finance or any other Minister to say the Committee of Public Accounts will deal with this. The committee’s remit will not allow it to go into the IBRC or call witnesses. If the Committee of Public Accounts is to conduct any analysis of this, then an order of the Dáil needs to be made. The KPMG report, if it is to be referred to us, will have to be given to us with the appropriate powers to analyse it and to call witnesses.
Whatever statement has been made on this, from a public interest, it should be specified and clarified that whatever committee deals with this, it will require a certain set of powers to be able to do it properly. It is wrong to leave it hanging in the air with the public expectation that the Committee of Public Accounts will be able to discuss it when it is clearly not the case.
In response to what is happening, we should reflect that fact to the Taoiseach and the Ministers concerned to ensure we are all clear about it.
I think that is the right thing to do. Is that okay? Yes.
We are dealing with the work programme. We will have the Department of Social Protection after that and then the Department of Education and Skills. We have that special report from Cork VEC. Will that come up on that day?
There is just one other item then under the work programme. We had a meeting yesterday - a briefing session - which went on for two and a half hours. I thank the members who were present and who listened to what was said. It was a shocking story of events and abuse of power by the State in relation to a number of individuals and companies. The need for investigation is quite clear. In the light of what we heard yesterday, I will ask the clerk to do a full report of what was presented to us. He should attach the appropriate paperwork collected by the individuals and businesses concerned because it relates to a huge waste of public money and an abuse of governance and power. We can then circulate that to members with a view to having a hearing specific to the expenditure of public moneys in relation to those matters. We are due to meet with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 18 June. We could perhaps use that as a timeline and bring forward the report prior to that. The committee can agree the report and then we will be armed with the information should we wish to raise it at the meeting.
In relation to that meeting, while we would hope to be able to discuss it at that time, given the angle that it appears we can come from, will we be able to get the people who might know a lot more about it from within the special unit? Will it be possible to bring them in to answer questions at that time?
We will request that they be here. It is important too that the Chief State Solicitor's office would be represented as well at the meeting, because then all the players responsible for the expenditure and governance issues will be present. The members can decide for themselves then what questions to ask from the report the clerk will provide for us. We will have a dossier of information.
Subject to the report being compiled and circulated to members, we may be seeking fairly specific figures at the meeting relating to specific expenditure on specific actions. Once the clerk has compiled the report, could we then hone it down to specific instances because in fairness to the officials, if we are asking for very specific figures we must give them notice of that?
Once we examine the dossier of information, members can decide what questions to ask and what information we should seek from the Department, or what indication we should give the Department as to what questions might be asked so that officials are prepared before they come to a meeting. All that can be worked out prior to 18 June.
As someone who was here yesterday also, I left the meeting nauseated at some of what we were told. I never met the individuals concerned before. I do not know them or the sky over them but we have an obligation to try to do something about it in the event of any of the stories being repeated on any family farm anywhere in the country. It was probably the most disturbing thing I have heard since I came into this House.
I share those views. Aside from the work we can do on this committee, I would recommend to members that they might consider fully what we heard yesterday and perhaps use the floor of the House to raise this issue in the context of a debate, which I believe is absolutely necessary given the evidence we heard and the documents that are available.
From what we heard from one of the farmers who was present, it seems there is more than just the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine that could be discussed. When the clerk is drawing up a report on the presentation that was made yesterday, will there be an opportunity for us to go beyond the Department and the unit concerned because references were made yesterday to costs being incurred by the State across a range of Departments, the Courts Service and the Garda?
Yes. Once it is a cost to the State, and it is within a Department and it is relevant to what we heard yesterday, based on the dossier of information the clerk will provide to us, we can then decide that we should also invite others to attend our meeting on 18 June. We will meet prior to that and members can contact the clerk and make their suggestions. From what we heard yesterday, it is clear that there needs to be a very open debate about the issues that were raised. Some issues might be better raised in the House rather than in this committee. Members should consider a significant and appropriate way to raise those matters.
I did not get a chance to ask yesterday, but I imagine the cases have come up previously in another committee or elsewhere in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Has the matter come up and has work already been done? We do not want to cover old ground if information already exists on which we can work.
No, it came forward through other Members. Those concerned were in contact with other Members of the House, including previous Ministers, some who are still Members of the House. That is the way they tried to highlight their issues. We heard about the totality of issues yesterday, but when one separates them out, some issues are relevant to this committee and others are more suited to the Dáil Chamber. I encourage members to read the report and to give their suggestions to the clerk in order that we can have a pretty full hearing on the matter. We will have the hearing on 18 June. Is there any other business?
We are working with the Chief State Solicitor's office and other Departments in order to get them all in together. We will set a date for a meeting in due course that suits all parties. We will give the matter priority.