Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 July 2015
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
At our last meeting the Chairman referred to the report we issued on foster homes. I understand he said the Garda made it clear to him there may not be prosecutions. It now seems to be suggested that the terms of reference for the senior counsel appointed to investigate the matter will be so narrow that they will only cover the procurement aspects of this entire affair. Given that the Garda indicated criminal prosecutions are unlikely and that the committee was at the forefront of dealing with this matter with the HSE, we should ask that the terms of reference be broad enough to include all events since the early 1990s or late 1980s. It is not good enough to merely review or investigate the procurement issues. I understand we have a remit in this regard. We dealt with procedure, which was why we had the HSE before us, but we also dealt with much more subsequently. The committee should ask that the terms of reference be as broad as possible.
Arising from the correspondence received on the matter and the suggestion that a senior counsel be appointed, it is clear that the investigation is to be limited to procurement issues. I agree with Deputy Deasy that we should write to the Minister to suggest that, given the circumstances and range of the complaints involved, the senior counsel's investigation should extend beyond the procurement aspects. It would not do any harm to note our concerns about the allegations and the children involved, who are young adults now. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 3A.1 is correspondence dated 23 June received from Ms Jacinta Stewart, CEO of City of Dublin Education and Training Board and SUSI following our meeting of 11 June 2015. No. 3A.3 is related as both refer to the appointment of an outsourced service provider, Abtran. Perhaps Mr. McCarthy would like to comment on that issue?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
A question arose at the meeting about the relative cost of the Abtran bid. The Accounting Officer was asked the reason for selecting the most expensive bid, and she replied that the organisation did not select the most expensive. We noted in the report that Abtran received maximum points for each of the tender criteria except for ultimate cost, which was significantly higher in both tenders than the next best candidate. I included in my correspondence two tables setting out the tenders for document management and call centres, respectively. The values in the blue columns of the tables are the maximum scores available, which can be compared with the scores for each of the under bidders. The maximum score of 3,000 points for cost went to under bidder A, which means it was the least expensive. There is not inconsistency of fact but it is a question of how one examines the information. The bid price from Abtran was €1 million, compared to €600,000 from the next best candidate. Our report drew attention to this. Under bidder C proposed a cost of €1.7 million.
One of the aspects of the Abtran affair which concerns me is that it seemed to have a get-out-of-jail-free card. As I recall, if too many telephone calls came in it was not required to meet any criteria.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The Accounting Officer from City of Dublin Education and Training Board confirmed in her correspondence that a discussion took place on the standards to be achieved in terms of call answering. We drew attention to the fact that while the initial requirement was that 100% of calls had to be answered within 30 seconds, that was dropped to 80% of calls. It is interesting that she stated in her correspondence: "[i]t is also the case that the agreed service levels under such a contract when the relevant agreed forecast is exceeded". That is a useful scenario for a service provider because it effectively means that any demand risk in provision of the service is carried by the State rather than the contractor. Much of the process in agreeing public-private partnerships involves the appropriate sharing of risks by assigning them to the party best placed to carry them. It is arguable whether that is a good deal in terms of the likely service provided to persons trying to use call centres.
Mr. McCarthy may not feel it appropriate to comment on one of my other concerns, namely, whether the company was paying the right share of tax in this country given that its parent company was based in the British Virgin Islands.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
It is important to bear in mind that every supplier is required to provide a tax clearance certificate. The company would have a tax clearance certificate from Revenue. I am not in a position to comment beyond that.
There was one other thing in the letter. I am talking about No. 3A.3 again. I cannot remember who asked about the cost of coroner services at the meeting. I just investigated that. Coroners are appointed and paid by local authorities and, therefore, those payments are audited by the Local Government Audit Service. As far as I know, they are not identified separately in the accounts of local authorities, so if one picks up a set of financial statements of a local authority, one will not see-----
No. 3A.2 is correspondence from the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, as a follow-up to our meeting of 11 June 2015, to be noted and published.
No. 3A.4 is correspondence received from Mr. Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer, regarding our request for him to meet the Small Firms Association and the Irish School Arts Supply Federation, which is to be noted and published. Deputy Connaughton raised this matter.
I welcome the fact that he will meet them, but the commitment on the day was that the two groups would be met, whether separately or together, and that has not happened. Since that time, two other small business have closed. I am not saying it was because of this, but the necessity at the time was to meet quickly. At least they are getting around to it now, but it took an awful lot of chasing to get that correspondence back.
The correspondence, dated 26 June 2015, states: "My office intends to meet with the ISASF shortly." That is not what we agreed. We agreed that the procurement officer would meet them as soon as possible after our meeting. That was my understanding of it and that has not happened. We should respond to Mr. Quinn saying it was our understanding that he would meet the ISASF pretty much immediately-----
We move on to individual correspondence. No. 3B.1 relates to payments to the Order of Malta by Horse Racing Ireland, which is to be noted and published and a copy sent to the person who wrote to us in the first place.
No. 3B.2 is correspondence, dated 2015, from Mr. John Quigley from County Kildare, regarding the children's rights referendum campaign. I note his comments. However, the issue relates to a Supreme Court decision, and once the issue was clarified by the court, further expenditure was in accordance with the Constitution. It would only be if that were not the case that the PAC might get involved. It is not a matter for us; the courts have decided.
No. 3C is documents relating to today’s meeting - briefing documents and opening statements, which are all to be noted and published.
No. 4 is reports, statements and accounts received since 25 June. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to comment on No. 4.1, which relates to the Private Residential Tenancies Board.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
It is clear audit opinion, but I do draw attention to the recognition of deferred pension funding assets by the board and the disclosure that a significant number of tenancies registered in 2013 related to the clearance of a significant backlog of applications for registration received in the period October 2010 to November 2012. What happened was that incomplete data was given in relation to certain tenancies submitted for registration or, in other cases, an incorrect fee was paid, or perhaps, if it was submitted late, there was liability for a late payment penalty, which might not have been included. A backlog built up, therefore, while they were trying to figure out how they would treat these. Strictly, in law, they should all have been returned to the landlords in question, but the PRTB took a pragmatic decision in 2013 that it should draw a line under it and recognise that there was fee income that could have been collected had the items been returned to landlords and had the landlords returned the correct amount. The cost of this was estimated at €1.3 million. However, the backlog of applications were registered and they stand as tenancies registered and subject to the oversight of the tenancies board.
The other statements and reports, under Nos. 4.2 , 4.3, 4.4, and 4.5, are all to be noted.
With regard to the work programme, next week we will have the Cork VEC report and the financial statements of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, with Mr. Ó Foghlú, the HEA and the accounting officers for GMIT and Cork VEC appearing before the committee. The other issues that were discussed last week in respect of CIT can be dealt with at a further meeting when we get the information from the accounting officer. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Is there any other business? We have the wards of court report, which the clerk to the committee will circulate to members tomorrow. I propose to allow it to be published on Monday and let the clerk deal with that. Is that agreed? Agreed. Are there other matters?
Officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine were before the committee a few weeks ago. Could we follow up before the summer recess and get definite answers about two issues? The first is the review promised by the Secretary General in the case of Tom Galvin. I know I mentioned this last week, but I am anxious that it be confirmed at the very least. I do not know if the Chairman has written to the Department yet.
The second issue is the interaction between Enterprise Ireland, the Department and Bord Iascaigh Mhara. I would like to follow up to see if a meeting has been scheduled regarding what we reported on in the fishery harbours. I would like clarity before the summer break.
Yes. I spoke to the clerk to the committee about this earlier. They said they would reply to us within a week about goods that were confiscated and tell the committee why they were confiscated. In cases in which no further legal action is to be taken, they were to tell us where the goods are and whether they will be returned, or whether the value of the goods would be returned. They said they would do this within a week, and that has not happened. I have asked the clerk to the committee to remind them that we want that information not just in regard to the two cases raised but in regard to any other case in which goods were confiscated.
Deputy Connaughton referred to the comprehensive reply on the various issues that were raised by the individuals who came to us. Once again, it is not right or a fair process to say that what they said was a lie or was untrue without giving a comprehensive response and an explanation as to why that is the case.
That is right. Last week we agreed to send the transcript of the meeting to all the individuals concerned in order that they could have the opportunity to reply.
There are a number of other minor issues that I would like to mention.
One is about Cork Institute of Technology. We have received a number of reports and replies from the Department on CIT. We will wait until we get further information at next week's meeting and, if necessary, we will bring the accounting officer before us at an appropriate meeting after the summer recess.
Not quite in that context, but partly to do with procurement issues, we did agree that there were so many breaches in various public sector bodies and Departments that we would do an audit of it. How is that coming on and when do we expect to have it?
Even this morning, under correspondence item No. 4.3, Mary Immaculate College is instanced as not complying with national procurement guidelines. It runs right across every agency and Department and it is an issue that we must deal with.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
It is really just a briefing note identifying the sectors where this is a persistent problem. We have a report on the HSE, and the difficulty that is pervasive or systemic in the HSE, and also in Departments where instances of non-competitive procurement are being disclosed. It will not be at the level of individual contracts because this level of detail is not available without going back into reports. What I am trying to do with the liaison officer is to draw out the types of situation where non-competitive procurement is being proceeded with or pursued.
When we get the report next week on oversight we can then decide what members want to do about it.
We have received a query in correspondence about a file on Temple Bar Properties and the Viking Centre. Is that to do with local government?
I ask the members to agree that we will get some information on this project. A file was sent to us a while ago and the person who sent it has asked us to look at it again. We may have dealt with it at some stage but I have it here.
The other issue I wanted to ask about was the contract being put in place for the construction of the Luas extension. Can we get a note on the process? The information I have is that there was a €12 billion difference between the company appointed and the company that failed in terms of the tender cost. If this is the case I would certainly like to see an explanation, but we must check first whether it is the case and what are the circumstances around it. I am sure we are entitled to know, as it is a public issue.
Will the Clerk bring the members up to date on the SIPTU fund that was asked about a number of weeks ago, and the Kerins case?
Clerk to the Committee:
On the SIPTU fund, the matter is before An Garda Síochána and we are seeking clarification on how we can proceed while its investigation is ongoing. That is the danger and the Garda has not clarified this to the extent we can go ahead and call in the people we want to call in.
Can we get clarification on the up-to-date position on the last correspondence sent from here? We took legal advice, they wrote on behalf of the committee and I would like to know what is the up-to-date position with regard to where the correspondence now lies.
Last week, officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government were before the committee and the Chairman and I mentioned the membership, structure, remit and role of the National Oversight and Audit Commission. We asked about the possibility of having a report forwarded to us on its deliberations. Will we have an opportunity to discuss this with the Department?
We will get the report first and look at its content, and the Deputy can determine whether he wants to pursue it. If he wishes to pursue it the commission can be invited.
We have agreed on wards of court and we have discussed next week's agenda.