Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 11 June 2015
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
I express our condolences to the Clerk to the Committee, Mr. Ted McEnery, on the death of his mother, Kathleen, who was buried yesterday. I am sure members will join me in sympathising with Ted and his family. I ask the acting clerk to ensure the message is conveyed to him.
Are the minutes of the meeting of 28 May 2015 agreed to? Agreed.
I understand the matter was reported to the Garda authorities. An issue was raised at a previous meeting about setting dates and so forth, but nothing has materialised. However, we can ask the clerk what is the up-to-date position.
The other item relates to the representatives of the Department of Social Protection who appeared before the committee last week. I presume no detailed note has yet been received on the fee programme and other items?
It is a matter of some urgency. Many non-governmental organisations have provided extra capacity in the expectation that the funding will be forthcoming to enable them to provide services.
They have hired out capacity there in terms of space and so on and in some cases recruited extra staff on the basis that the funding for the extra purchase of supplies would be made available.
We are waiting on that response from the Department. It will arrive in due course. I have noticed that the definition members might apply to the word "urgency" may not be the same as is applied by the Departments and Government agencies we are dealing with.
We will have to inform them when they come in as to what we mean by urgent.
We will deal with correspondence. There is correspondence from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, following up on our meeting on 7 May 2015. It is to be noted and published.
Item 3A.2 is correspondence from Ms Clare McGrath, chairperson of the OPW, regarding the chartered surveyors' submission to strengthening Civil Service accountability and performance. It is to be noted and published.
Item 3A.3 is correspondence, dated 5 June 2015, from the HSE following up on the meeting on 23 April 2015. It is to be noted and published.
Item 3A.4 is correspondence, dated 5 June 2015, from Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General of the Department of Heath, regarding an investigation into abuse of people with disabilities in a foster home in the south east. It is to be noted and published.
Item 3A.5 is correspondence, dated 5 June 2015, from Mr. Noel Waters, the acting Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, with an update on the criminal justice (fixed charge processing system) working group. It is to be noted and published.
Item 3A.6 is correspondence, dated 5 June 2015, from the HSE following up on our meeting on 23 April 2015. It is to be noted and published.
I now come to individual correspondence. A number of issues have been responded to and they really require further comment and discussion. As we have two sessions today, I propose that we should revisit those items of correspondence again next week when we have time to do so. Some correspondence relates to the OPW. There are HSE issues regarding the foster home that was being investigated. I express my absolute dismay that the gardaí who have come back to me directly have said that there may not be prosecutions owing to insufficient evidence and so on. I find it absolutely appalling and it needs to be discussed again by the committee.
In the course of the replies from the HSE there are issues about those who were employed to investigate and the committee needs to revisit the matter. The correspondence mentions that the HSE spends €40 million on legal fees and we need to investigate that.
The committee has dealt with the foster home issue. We need to remember that the Garda investigated all this in the early 1990s and no prosecutions resulted. The fear I and other committee members had was that it would be repeated. For that reason there was an imperative on Government to take the review or investigation process very seriously. That was what the committee was asking the Government to do. I believe the Government is about to make a definitive decision not only on the course of action the Department will take, but also on the policy issues that arise from the contents of the report we will submit to it. Perhaps we should hold off for a week or so. I always had the fear, which I expressed, as, I believe, did the Chairman, that it was going to be very difficult for the Garda because of the timeline involved and because most of the individuals who were affected were non-verbal. Some of the people involved have died since these issues arose. However, we need to wait a little longer because those decisions are being made right now.
That is why I am saying we will revisit this batch of correspondence, which covers a considerable amount of ground.
In individual correspondence, there is correspondence from Mr. Tom Boland, CEO of the Higher Education Authority, regarding the GMIT investigation of plagiarism. It is to be noted.
While the correspondence received is detailed, it probably asks more questions than it answers. For instance, it cost €1,500 a day for the two investigators. I doubt Sherlock Holmes would have cost that much. There is no conclusion in sight and the review could continue like a runaway train. The last point was that there was an argument between the investigators that required further legal action between the two of them before the report could be published. That was also an extra cost on the taxpayer.
I know officials from the Department of Education and Skills will appear before the committee this morning, but I am not sure we will be able to cover this. The report received back poses many more questions than it answers. They would probably want to come in to explain it again and to give some detail. How did they come up with the €1,500? Why there was no interim report? Why was there no deadline? At the very end it states that the college's procedures for dealing with plagiarism were fit for purpose. It cost us €436,000 to find that out. So many more questions need to be asked about this.
We are dealing with this item of correspondence now. The second response from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is similar. The correspondence the Deputy mentioned refers to €436,000 and it raises many other questions. We need to have a further discussion on it. As with the previous correspondence, I suggest that items 3B.1 and 3B.2 should be discussed next week so that we set in train a process to deal with these matters directly with the Accounting Officers. The Deputy is correct in terms of governance and money. It is incredible that it would go on in the way it has.
Item 3B.2 is correspondence from Mr. Tom O’Mahoney, Secretary General, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, regarding correspondence from Mr. Philip Cantwell. This is to be noted and forwarded to Mr. Cantwell. We will write to the Environmental Protection Agency as we agreed to do and will await its response. We will note and publish 3B.1 and 3B.2 and will follow up with a further meeting next week.
Item 3B.3 is correspondence, dated 8 June 2015, from Deputy Sean Fleming. It is evidence given to the Committee of Public Accounts at the meeting with the Department of Finance. This is to be noted. Does the Deputy wish to comment on this?
Yes. Since I wrote the letter, the Oireachtas has established a commission of inquiry. When I wrote that letter it was quite clear from comments that the Minister for Finance had an issue and he wanted to correct the record of the Dáil, which he did in person on Tuesday. I wanted the same procedure to apply here rather than a letter coming in here. The statement was given orally and I wanted the record corrected in person as well.
Since I wrote that letter, the Oireachtas has established a commission of investigation. Now that the commission is in situ, does the Committee of Public Accounts have the ability to deal with issues that are the subject matter of the commission? In light of the commission having been established, are we in a position at this stage to accept an appearance from the Secretary General to correct the Dáil record on a matter which may be germane to the commission of investigation? If it is deemed to be germane to the commission of investigation, I do not believe we could have that issue dealt with here today. In that case it would be up to the Secretary General if he wants to inform the commission of the inaccurate Dáil record or Committee of Public Accounts record. That is a matter for him.
However, the terms of reference of the commission as approved by the Dáil yesterday state that it is to investigate matters where there is a capital loss of €10 million or other matters specifically identified by the commission. The Government was very clear not to have the terms of reference so broad that the commission could go on for a long time.
The terms of reference are narrow and specific to a number of transactions. In my view, taking into account that document and the specific terms of reference, the only matters being considered by the commission of investigation are those in respect of which there was a €10 million write-off and other matters that may be identified by the commission. There is nothing in the terms of reference preventing any arm of the Oireachtas discussing matters surrounding the relationship between the Department of Finance and IBRC. The only matters included in the terms of reference in respect of the Department of Finance are those relating to each transaction under investigation, whether the Minister for Finance or his Department were kept informed, where appropriate, in respect of the transactions concerned and whether he, or the officials on his behalf, took appropriate steps in respect of the information provided to them. As I said, the terms of reference are very specific to particular transactions. In my view, the terms of reference do not preclude a discussion in the Oireachtas, including at this committee, any other committee or in the Dáil Chamber on all relationships between the Department of Finance and IBRC during the period in question. The terms of reference are very narrow and specific. The Government did not want to broaden the terms of reference to include all matters.
Reference was made during our last meeting to the relationship framework and the revised relationship framework which the troika in 2011 requested the Government to complete. IBRC wanted that done. As far as I am aware, there were umpteen drafts of that framework. These issues are not included in the terms of reference nor is the matter of the monthly board pack which dealt with matters other than the specific transactions provided for in the terms of reference. In my view, all matters, other than those specific transactions, can be discussed in the Oireachtas and everywhere else, including by this committee.
The Secretary General of the Department of Finance should be put on notice that during his appearance before the committee to correct a particular matter he will be requested to discuss all other matters in relation to IBRC. We did not complete our consideration of the Vote during the last meeting, in particular in relation to matters that are not specific to the commission. I do not think it would be appropriate for the committee to allow the Secretary General to simply appear before it, correct the record and then leave. If officials from the Department of Finance are to appear before the committee to discuss an issue in relation to our last meeting, they should also be asked to discuss all matters surrounding the relationship between the Department and IBRC that are not specific to the commission.
The issue raised by the Deputy is a matter for the second half of this meeting. Prior to commencement of that part of the meeting, the committee will hear legal advice from our parliamentary legal advisers. Following the request from members that the Department of Finance officials would re-appear before the committee to correct the record, and the desire of the officials also to do so, it was made clear to them that during their appearance before us today, apart from correction of the record, they would be asked a wide range of questions about issues not related to the inquiry. Arising from that, the Department wrote to the committee indicating that it had taken legal advice on the matter and would not be able to answer questions relative to the inquiry.
I agree with what Deputy Fleming said but, because there is a difference of opinion and we must ensure we are right in what we are doing, we will seek legal advice before commencing the second part of this meeting. I ask members to wait until then to raise the issues of concern to them in relation to this matter.
The committee will suspend at 12.30 p.m. for 15 minutes, following which it will resume with the Department of Finance officials. My view is that once we do not stray into the specifics of the inquiry, we can deal generally with all other aspects. However, that is a matter subject to the legal advice we receive when we come back.
They have been told that is what we intend to do. Whether the letter sent to us by the Department limits that to beyond what we believe the limits are is another matter. We will deal with this during the next part of the meeting.
The Minister for Finance has already corrected the record in the Dáil. It is only appropriate that the people who misled this committee would re-appear before it to correct the record and answer questions in relation to that matter. Anything else beyond that, if related to the transactions, are matters on which we should take legal advice. I welcome that the Chairman has indicated that we will have the benefit of legal advice prior to our discussions at 12.30 p.m..
We now move to documents relating to today's meeting. Nos. 3C.1 to 3C.6 are briefing documents and opening statements relating to today's meeting, to be noted and published.
We now move to reports, statements and accounts received since our meeting on 28 May. Perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General would like to comment on some of the outcomes arising in this regard.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
No. 4.1 is the report and financial statements for the University of Limerick in relation to the academic year 2012-13, in respect of which there was a clear audit opinion.
No. 4.2 is the annual report and financial statements 2014 for the National Asset Management Agency, in respect of which there was also a clear audit opinion, with attention drawn to Note 2.1 which describes the main funding source for the agency and sets out the basis upon which the board is satisfied that it is appropriate to prepare the financial statements on a going concern basis. A similar note has been included in each certificate since the establishment of NAMA, because of the manner in which it is structured and funded.
No. 4.3 relates to the National University of Ireland Maynooth, I draw attention to a number of matters, including the recognition of a deferred pension funding asset, which is a standard for the universities and non-consolidation of the results of the foundation of the university. The university does not consolidate those with the results of the university group. The report draws attention to the fact that the foundation had net assets of €3.4 million at the balance sheet date.
No. 4.4 relates to the National Museum of Ireland. Nos. 4.4 to 4.8 relate to a number of VECs. Nos. 4.9 to 4.11 are three financial statements for the National Gallery of Ireland. Members will recall that up to 2014 there were two basis of accounting for the National Gallery of Ireland. It has an appropriations account but it also prepares consolidated financial statements because it has a number of funds. There has been a difficulty in producing those financial statements. I also draw attention to the fact that its accounting does not take into account the requirements of financial reporting standard, FRS, 30 for heritage assets that would have required it to recognise on the balance sheet the cost or value of heritage assets it acquired since 1 January 2011. The gallery does not follow that practice but it does provide a note on the nature and scale of its fine art collection.
Nos. 4.12 and 4.13 are the financial statements for the Medical Council and the North-South Language Body, both of which received clear opinions.
In regard to NAMA, the committee has received a number of pieces of correspondence on NAMA, one of which was received only this week and is due for circulation tomorrow and relates to complaints from an individual regarding a lack of engagement, feelings of being bullied and difficulties around organising meetings to try to resolve issues. We discussed similar complaints from another individual during previous meetings. The case about which I am speaking now is a separate case. This issue needs to be addressed. When the correspondence received yesterday has been circulated, we will address it in the context of our examination of NAMA's annual report and financial statements for 2014, in respect of which we need to examine various transactions.
Another issue highlighted in the National University of Ireland Maynooth accounts is the non-compliance with procurement guidelines. The same applies in regard to the HSE and many other agencies that come before the committee. One wonders what needs to be done to bring them in line with the guidelines or who has oversight in this regard. Is procurement in this area the responsibility of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
We are seeing a bit of progress on it as a result of consistently drawing attention to it, raising it in management letters and drawing attention to where there is a systemic level of non-competitive procurement. It will pay off over time and we should see fewer of these as performance improves.
Is the Office of Government Procurement an oversight body or a guideline structure for procurement in the public sector? Where various Departments and State agencies are involved in procurement, must they report to someone supervising procurement operations? Is there someone who has a live interest in the procurement process?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
We check post factum and draw attention to issues which arise. The role of the Office of Government Procurement is to facilitate. It put in place framework agreements and works with organisations to develop a more strategic approach. It is available as an expert advisory facility to public sector bodies.
If I were getting taxpayers' money, I might not do as much. The fact of the matter is it is being paid to look after taxpayers' money and is not doing so. Every week some agency or another comes before the committee which is not complying with procurement. We also have issues such as that raised by Deputy Connaughton this morning with regard to €436,000. No one seems to cry stop. When we carry out reports and put them before the various Departments, and it happened again last week, we must remind the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to remind the Accounting Officers to reply to us. They are either serious about the job or they are not. If they are not serious about it, they should go or they should not be paid as much as they are, quite frankly. I certainly would not pay them and Deputy Deasy is quite correct.
I want to return to NAMA and an issue that was raised on the floor yesterday during the debate on IBRC. I have a question about the ongoing monitoring and oversight of NAMA by the Comptroller and Auditor General's staff. How many members of staff are embedded in dealing with NAMA on a permanent basis? What oversight, monitoring and reporting does this entail?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The team comprises seven whole-time equivalents over a year. We may have a dozen people at a particular time if we need more bodies, but it equates to having seven full-time people. There is a very high level of engagement in the course of planning and carrying out the audit and reporting back any issues which we discover. The director of audit attends at least part of almost all the audit committee meetings. It is a very rigorous engagement. I will come back to the Deputy with more detail on it.
I wish to speak on the issue of procurement because the office has come before the committee. To guide whatever discussion we have with it rather than speaking in generalities and broad brush strokes, it would be very useful to synthesise the precise instances where various Departments and agencies have strayed from appropriate procedures and practices. One of the big problems in procurement functions is total confusion in the system as to the appropriate level at which the procurement function is managed and who signs off on it. It still seems to be quite loose and casual. There are also issues of excessive expense and we could usefully look at patterns of winning contracts and how open the procedures are. Are they sufficiently robust to allow diversity of providers in various functions? This would be useful if we are to have the office in again in order that we can have quite a pointed discussion with it.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
One of the exercises it is conducting is surveys with public bodies as to what is procured and from whom they procure it to try to develop appropriate strategies for the various sectors of products, classes of public bodies or classes of procurement. It should be more advanced now than when it was in a number of months ago.
That is a useful exercise, but from our end of things I do not know if it is the Comptroller and Auditor General, the clerk or whosoever brings together what we have found and the dilemmas we have come across. We can have a discussion beyond this, but it should be the premise on which we speak to the office.
On the previous occasion the office came before the committee it promised progress on small and medium enterprises providing school art supplies. Perhaps it can report the progress it has made in this small area since then.
Have any members of staff of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General attended the meet the buyer meetings which take place throughout the country and are held in hotels on issues such as HSE and school supplies? It is like a roadshow and I have attended them. The Office of Government Procurement has made certain changes.
The Office of Government Procurement is making a huge effort.
It might be important to get an update on the participation of companies in this scheme. While it might be difficult with the larger companies, when the national procurement office is before the committee, it should give an overview of these meet the buyers meetings.
We will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General, the clerk and the liaison officer to put together that work and include in that the last meetings with the groups that made submissions and any progress that was made.
We agreed the work programme the last day and had intended to finalise reports. However, due to the clerk not being available, we will postpone that until next week.
Is there any other business members wish to raise?
Yes, it is being completed. We have two reports to publish which we were to do this week. Unfortunately, as I said, due to the death of the clerk’s mother, we will postpone these. The docklands report will be completed immediately after that.
We had the Harold’s Cross stadium people outside the Dáil protesting yesterday about the greyhound industry. We have discussed the possible sale of Harold’s Cross stadium to defray the rather extravagant expenditure on Limerick stadium which is now €19.5 million in debt. A going concern and a profitable operation, which is Harold’s Cross stadium, must be sold for one that is a loss-making operation. Next week, we have the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Can we ensure that item will be on the agenda? The Indecon report on the greyhound industry made a number of recommendations but it appears that the only one the Department seems to be acting on is the sale of Harold’s Cross, a profitable and really the working man’s and working woman’s stadium in Dublin as distinct from the Shelbourne Park stadium which is very much the high end of the greyhound racing industry.
Chairman, I do not agree with the class distinction in the greyhound industry. Does the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office cover the costs of the Coroner Service? Has it ever been examined by the committee?
Arising from that meeting, members were asked to give some names to the clerk and a meeting would be arranged thereafter, depending on who may have wanted to come forward. We will deal with that next week.
With the absence of the clerk, we might not have an answer to this question. However, we have been back and forward with the investment committee of the wards of court. The latest was that we were to send it an invitation to attend the committee. Where does that stand at the moment?
We had agreed to invite the committee in. Again, we will just have to check that next week with the clerk. Our next meeting has been agreed as part of our work programme, so we will now turn to today’s business and call in the witnesses.