Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 28 January 2016
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
Are the minutes of the meeting of 21 January agreed to? Agreed.
The next item is correspondence received since the meeting on 21 January. No. 3A is correspondence received from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers. No. 3A.1 is correspondence, dated 18 January 2016, received from Mr. Derek Moran, Secretary General, Department of Finance, as a follow-up to the meeting of the committee on 3 December 2015. The correspondence is to be noted and published.
No. 3A.2 is correspondence, dated 22 January 2016, received from Mr. Sean Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, as a follow-up to a meeting of the committee on 10 December 2015. The correspondence is to be noted and published.
No. 3A.3 is correspondence, dated 22 January 2016, received from Mr. Sean Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, regarding allegations of fraud in DIT, Aungier Street. The correspondence is to be noted and published.
No. 3A.4 is correspondence, dated 27 January 2016, received from Ms Claire Looney, social worker, Waterford Intellectual Disability Association, regarding an apology received from the HSE. The correspondence is to be noted and published. In respect of the letter from the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association, members will recall that at our last meeting we received a letter from the HSE stating it had been in contact and that officials had made an apology to those concerned. The letter from the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association was central to the issue. It states clearly that the HSE did not make contact and did not make any formal apology. That we received confirmation of this from the HSE almost by direct post last Thursday highlights the fact that there is either incompetence on the part of whoever is dealing with the matter in the HSE or there has been a deliberate attempt to mislead the committee.
In my view it is a mixture of both, and I am extremely disappointed that this is the case. I am bringing it to the attention of members. It has been discussed at length and last Thursday the committee thought some of the issues were at an end. It now appears that the HSE has not lived up to its commitment and has badly treated the organisation and the whistleblower. It has also treated this committee with some disrespect by not checking its facts before the written correspondence was submitted to the committee last week. I suggest that the committee bring the matter to the attention of Mr. Tony O'Brien at the HSE and include it in a file for the Taoiseach's attention.
I do not want to repeat myself, but we had discussed a report which was sent to the Committee of Public Accounts by the HSE in which it said that a formal apology had been made to the birth mother and to the client of the organisation. The Irish Examinercovered the story and the committee received a two-page rebuttal from the HSE which denied that an apology had not been given. It is clear to everybody who has been dealing with this matter that apologies were not given. Is that a small thing? If one considers it a small thing to lie to an Oireachtas committee or the Oireachtas and to fabricate events after the fact, fine. However, I do not believe it is a small thing. It should have consequences. That it is continuing to operate along that line of action is deeply troubling when one considers that this is a State agency with a responsibility to these people who are mentally disabled and who were placed in the foster home concerned.
The Chair suggested that the matter be brought to the attention of Mr. Tony O'Brien in the HSE. I am pretty sure that Mr. O'Brien is well aware of the circumstances and what his organisation has done. It appears that the entire organisation is holding the line with regard to the behaviour of some individuals within the organisation. The question must be asked about where, beyond that level, is the appropriate office to which this must be sent. I find it hard to believe that the Department of Health and the Secretary General's office would not have an opinion regarding this behaviour. Since this is the last meeting of this committee, perhaps the clerk would send this letter to the Department requesting that it contact the HSE about the matter.
When one reads the letter, one must think about the individuals involved. The charge has been made that there were efforts to discredit and damage the professional reputations of the people who worked in the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association. That is a serious charge, and I believe it is something that did happen. Two individuals within the HSE were, according to the HSE, supposed to have made those apologies. They have contacted their HSE bosses to tell them they did not make the apologies. The HSE ignored this and continued to hold the line that the apologies have been given. This is inexcusable. The two individuals in the HSE have been badly compromised by the organisation they work for. One cannot imagine how they must feel today with this matter being discussed again. People will recognise their posts, who they are and the kind of position they have been put in. I agree with the two individuals who have written to the committee today about their version of events, but there must be some understanding of how the two HSE staff are feeling right now, having been used by the organisation they work for.
I thank the Chair and Deputy Deasy for the outstanding work they have done in highlighting this issue. I also acknowledge the media and our national broadcaster for its in-depth coverage of the incredible injustice done to people in the Waterford foster home and for really bringing it home to the public. The committee received, at its last meeting, a very specific statement that an apology had been made. It is very difficult to imagine that this was a misunderstanding, as the HSE is now claiming. There cannot be a misunderstanding about an apology when it has been presented in such specific terms. There are serious questions to be asked about the nature of that so-called apology, how it came about and how it is now being categorically withdrawn. There is now a new formal apology recognising that a so-called misunderstanding took place. This is a very serious matter and, as Deputy Deasy has said, it is very hard for the people concerned and for this committee to take it as anything other than lying. It has been on the record of the committee in specific terms.
The very least the committee can do now is to request the HSE to put on the record of this committee the actual details of the apology and the circumstances that led to its statement that an apology had been given even though it was never given, and it was presented to this committee and to so many others as having been given. It raises questions as to whether certain State sectors are providing accurate information. We need to get to the bottom of it, and the Secretary General of the Department must be brought into the matter also. The HSE now seems to be a law unto itself and thinks it can behave willy-nilly and in any way it wishes in its dealings with the people in its care and with statutory bodies such as the Committee of Public Accounts. It must be rooted out and we need to get to the bottom of it. The matter should be a priority item on the agenda of the incoming Committee of Public Accounts.
I suggest that the committee ask the HSE to send a written statement explaining all the circumstances surrounding that so-called statement of misunderstanding regarding the apology. There is also the recommendation from the last committee meeting that the committee look to the Garda Commissioner once again regarding the contents of the case and the actual events that took place. The Secretary General of the Department should also be fully brought into the case to carry out a proper investigation to see how all of these matters transpired and how what appears to be a cover-up was allowed to continue for so many years with so much damage to all concerned.
On this issue, I very much appreciate the work Deputy Deasy and the Chairman have done on this. As someone who worked with children with disability, albeit physical as opposed to intellectual disability, I realise how vulnerable those people are, especially when one is dealing with people who are non-verbal. It is very hard for them. They cannot speak up for themselves, literally. One of the reasons it is important that this issue is pursued is to try to dent the inclination of institutions to circle the wagons when they are in difficulty.
I, too, acknowledge the Chairman's work and that of Deputy Deasy in this regard. The correspondence circulated to us this morning makes for very stark reading. There is no margin of misunderstanding. There was no apology. Perhaps there was no intention of an apology, bar for the work done by Deputy Deasy and yourself, Chairman.
I agree with other members of the committee in respect of calling the HSE to account for this to establish exactly who, for instance, cleared the statement or the incorrect misleading position adopted by the HSE. Whose idea was that? I would like to know that. The committee needs to know that.
I am troubled also by the second strand of this which is a clear understanding on the part of the whistleblowers, who are acting in the best interests of a vulnerable person, that they regard the manner in which they were treated as a concerted effort to discredit them and silence them. This, too, needs to be answered and explained. It reflects extremely badly on the HSE, its governance and attitude, and the culture of the organisation.
We are obviously coming to the end of the Dáil term. We do not know if we will meet again next week. I know there is a meeting scheduled by the clerk to the committee, ever the optimist. Although time is short, could we move a little bit more speedily on this matter? Deputy Costello referred to an incoming committee in the next Dáil. Could we at least explore the options of having the HSE come before us before the Dáil is dissolved? I appreciate that might not be possible but I think the clerk and the Chairman should examine all options on that because the correspondence this morning is extremely alarming. We would not be doing our job as a committee if we were to let it lie.
By and large, the public service, Departments and semi-State organisations do a very good job. At this committee - I am only a recent member of it - we get to see the wrong end of public service and public administration. This is the worst element of what I have seen by virtue of the people concerned and their vulnerable nature.
What this case brings home to me is the absolute and total lack of any level of accountability or responsibility. No one has been fired and no one probably will be fired. As Deputy Dowds said, it is not only on this particular issue. Every time the HSE has been before this committee since I became a member, it is just a continuation of circling the wagons, never taking responsibility, never admitting it did anything wrong, having the truth dragged out of it and, at the end of the day, begrudgingly giving an apology. Does it matter who the next Minister for Health will be while that culture of not taking responsibility and not accepting accountability is there? Ultimately, the only responsibility that can be taken here is that somebody has to vacate their position. Somebody either has to resign or has to be fired on the basis of what happened.
I do not for any reason disbelieve the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association on the basis of the work it does for the children and young people. However, it stated, it was surprised by the Department’s efforts “to discredit us and damage our professional reputations”. At the end of it, it said, “treatment of us as whistleblowers is as despicable now as it was six years ago. It has taken six years for us to get to this.”
It is a pity it is the last meeting before the Dáil is dissolved. Ultimately, as the French say, plus ça change. Unless somebody walks over this, I do not think it will matter to the people concerned at the centre of it. I believe that is the only level of accountability and responsibility that can come from this.
I do not want to repeat everything everybody else said. It is appalling that it is the HSE versus the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association, when both groups should be looking out for people with intellectual or physical disabilities and not fighting with each other. As Deputy McDonald said, there has been no apology. We are sitting here while money and man hours are wasted toing and froing with letters, with "he apologised but she did not apologise", when that budget should be spent looking after people with intellectual or physical disabilities.
The previous speakers are right. Somebody has to be held accountable. The HSE needs to be held accountable. It just seems to be covering its back. There was no apology and that is the end of it. We should not be spending time and taxpayers’ money on whether a letter was written. We should be looking out for the people with physical or intellectual disabilities.
I admire the whistleblower and the fact they have stuck this through thick and thin to keep fighting for their client. If we had more of that and less of the toing and froing and bureaucracy, we would have a much better service for people with an intellectual disability. I agree the HSE should be called in and it needs to be held accountable.
We will contact the HSE and its chairman. Depending on the circumstances in the Dáil, we will try to meet next Tuesday at 11.30 a.m. or 12 o'clock to determine if we can have the HSE before us to go through this issue.
In the meantime, the HSE should reflect on the fact that this has gone on since 1983 and that it was given information in 1993. We have to continue to remember it is vulnerable, mentally challenged individuals we are talking about. When one considers that, the HSE has not responded as one would have expected. This today shows up in full light the culture that exists in the HSE of circling the wagons, as members said, hiding behind all sorts of excuses, lies, misrepresentation and giving misleading statements.
Those who are employed by the HSE who now seem to deny that they were even told to give an apology, according to Deputy Deasy-----
The key thing is, and it is worth repeating, those individuals have made it clear, within their organisation and to others, that they were not aware they were meant to give an apology. They did not give an apology. They are now being misrepresented by the organisation for which they work. They have done that and have made it clear in writing to their bosses that they did not. It continues to be the case that the HSE is holding the line they did.
The issue for us and the Oireachtas needs to be who is going to protect their integrity. The organisation for which they work seems to believe it is a cheap commodity. That is the issue here. We are trying to figure out where it goes from here. The Chairman has spoken about bringing in the HSE. There are higher powers in government that need to take a look at this because it goes to the core of veracity within government.
Some people might say it is only a small thing or it was a misunderstanding. I think it is far bigger and weightier than that. It goes to the core of honesty and veracity in government and if one ignores that, what is the point?
I asked the Deputy to repeat that about the workers because of the fact that, as well as protecting those who were abused and the whistleblower, the workers need to be included because it would seem that they are being used in this game of circling the wagons.
The culture that was mentioned earlier by a number of members is one that needs to be broken. I accept what Deputy O'Donovan says - it does not make any difference what Minister is there if the culture is there - but this needs to be brought to the attention of the Minister for Health so that he understands how far the HSE is willing to go to protect the very culture that has given rise to this issue. I still do not know how the 47 individuals are fixed in life, how they are being professionally supported and so on. In line with that, it is just not right that from the time this issue arose, the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association saw difficulty, at the very least, in terms of getting its funding year on year. That is wrong. The content of this letter is, in light of what the Deputy has said, extremely disturbing. We will pass it on to the Minister and to the Taoiseach, as we have all agreed, but we should make that effort to talk directly to the HSE through this committee and see if we can bring about some other focus to it in the last few days we have in this Dáil.
The other issue that was discussed last week was the matter surrounding Meath County Council and the apparent giving of a contract to an unregistered company. There were also other allegations about cutting down over 200,000 trees. I know from what was said last week that part of the reason for raising that was to try to put it on the agenda for the next Committee of Public Accounts, but could the Chairman clarify to what extent the next committee will actually be able to look into that, given that it relates to a county council? In many ways, the examining body ought to be the auditors for Meath County Council.
The auditor of Meath County Council is the audit committee, which stems from the elected representatives of Meath County Council. It is probably an issue in terms of this committee, given the road construction programme and whatever funding might have gone in that direction. In the context of good governance from the Department, it is an issue that can be raised-----
We set that out and we put it on record last week. The incoming committee can decide whether to pursue the matter, but there is a substantial body of information that would lead me to believe that any incoming committee would at least take an interest in it at the very beginning and determine what they are going to do.
No. 3B.1 relates to correspondence from Deputy Costello regarding Regent Catering Services. We will note that and forward it to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Revenue Commissioners for an investigation into the matters raised by Mr. Brown. Is that agreed?
No. 3B.2 relates to correspondence, dated 21 January 2016, from the HSE regarding the myGP.iewebsite, to be noted and forwarded to Deputy Sean Fleming, who raised the issue. No. 3B.3 relates to correspondence, dated 21 January 2016, received from Mr. Brian Cullen regarding land owned by Fingal County Council. This is to be noted and, as local authorities do not fall within the remit of the committee, we will just ask for a comment. That is as far as we can go. The incoming committee can look at the response to that matter.
In respect of today's meeting, the opening statements and so on are all to be noted and published. No. 4 relates to reports, statements and accounts received since 21 January. They are listed, from No. 4.1 to 4.9. I will ask Mr. McCarthy if he has any comment to make on the notes on the different accounts.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
In respect of No. 4.1, regarding the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, it is a clear audit opinion, but I draw attention to disclosure in the statement on internal financial control regarding the progress being made by the authority in investigating irregularities in respect of certain claims made under the better energy homes grant scheme. It also sets out the steps being taken by the authority in response to that.
The only other point to draw attention to is the financial statements of Kilkenny and Carlow Education and Training Board and Cork Education and Training Board. These would be the first financial statements of those education and training boards and I am drawing attention to disclosure by the boards in both cases - that they did not perform a review of the effectiveness of the system of internal control, as required in the code of practice for the governance of VECs. A new code of practice specifically for new education and training boards has been drafted and will be effective in respect of 2015 but there was some laxity around the review of the system of control in the context of the establishment of the new education and training boards.
There was a reply from the Department. It is holding its position, which is effectively that it is not prepared to provide for the loss. I know the Deputy has raised this matter on numerous occasions at this committee since his appointment and the members have discussed it in detail, but the response from the Department is that it is holding its line in this context.
Can that response be circulated? I am very disappointed to hear that, in light of the action taken by the Ombudsman's office and the Chairman's intervention. We are dealing with the previous Waterford issue, which is a different matter entirely, but this is going on for a number of years and is equally unjust. We have members of the Byrne family here today. It is bitterly disappointing that the Department is holding the line very clearly when the copy of the letter from the Attorney General to the Minister of State, Deputy McHugh, dated December 16 states that she has furnished a copy of same to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, and that this is a matter for his Department's consideration. There is no legal impediment from the Attorney General's office to this being dealt with by the Department. I can circulate a copy of that. Is there any way we can get a review of this decision?
The committee can discuss whatever the Deputy might suggest and we can make the recommendation. I recall the debate in the House and, previous to that, at committee and so on, at the very beginning of this issue. I support the Deputy in what he is attempting to achieve, which is to have the case recognised and payment made by the Department.
The committee could support that and add weight to what Deputy is suggesting, and we could forward that to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney. That might be the only way left open to the Deputy to deal with this issue.
This case has been discussed with the Taoiseach and Deputy Coveney. They have given due consideration to the manner in which this matter should be dealt with, and they have given much comfort to the family in assuring them that the matter would be dealt with. It is statute-barred, and this is an unprecedented case from the point of view of understanding, concern and respect for the family concerned. There was a similar situation involving civil servants within the Department when a tragic incident occurred and the family concerned was unaware of the Lost at Sea scheme and the quota restriction. The fact that the Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, ruled in favour means that the Department should pay. It is the first time ever that a ruling from the Office of the Ombudsman has stated categorically that the Government should act, but it has not acted on this, and I am quite amazed by that. We have a letter from the Attorney General's office, which I can circulate to the secretariat, stating that it has no difficulty whatever with any action, so only the goodwill of the Minister is needed. It is not a huge amount of money; it is just the principle involved. If the committee could agree to this I would appreciate it very much, because I know the family concerned. The case has been going on for 30 years but has been in the public domain and the political domain for only ten years, and several Secretaries General have been here, including when I was Chairman, and they have all obfuscated in every sense.
The special report is dated 14 December 2009, and since then Members of the House have been pretty supportive of the report and of the compensation being paid. If the Deputy wants to propose that we support the Ombudsman's report and request that compensation be paid, we can take that action today and make that recommendation.
I support that. It is a wise decision. It is just a further reflection of political inertia or indifference that this has gone around in circles for so long. My sense is that there is broad agreement that the right thing should be done, but for the life of me I cannot understand why this has not been sorted out. It is disgraceful that now, at the eleventh hour, at the end of this Dáil, we are dealing with this issue again, so I strongly support Deputy Perry's proposal. We should not only make a representation supporting the special report but also set out in no uncertain terms our strong dissatisfaction with the length of time the case has taken and the obfuscation involved, asking that it be resolved as speedily as possible. It is awful to think that the 32nd Dáil will come into session and the next committee will be dealing with this issue again. That is not the way to do business. If the Government, for whatever reason, is not willing to do the right thing by this family, then it must come out and state that, and then at least we can deal with that position. However, there seems to be a whole malaise around all of this, and it is not acceptable, so as a committee we should certainly do as Deputy Perry suggests.
Deputy McDonald's point is a very good one. The point is that all the investigations have been carried out; what we want is a resolution. This has been checked by the Office of the Ombudsman and by civil servants. The matter must be brought into the political domain, and a recommendation from this committee must be made to Deputy Coveney and the Taoiseach's office that they do the right thing and that the Government of the 31st Dáil resolve this issue for once and for all. A new investigation would merely kick the matter to touch again when it has been debated to death. The force of a letter would be a major help.
I agree entirely with Deputy Perry, who has made a very strong case. This has been going on for so long now, and justice delayed is justice denied. It has been kicked around like a football, so a strong recommendation coming from this committee in favour of what was outlined by Deputy Perry would be very welcome.
I support the proposition on the basis of the Ombudsman's report dating back to 2009 and also on the fact that, in its report of 20 October 2010, the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food decided that it was not in a position to recommend an acceptance of the Ombudsman's special report on the Houses of the Oireachtas. I hold that there was political interference in that committee, that it reached the decision firmly on political grounds - that is a fact - and that the decision needs to be revisited. It does not hold any strength in the context of the argument because of what happened politically, and I suggest that the Ombudsman's report is the direction that we should take, because that meeting is, in my opinion, simply not valid in the context of this argument, given what was attempted to be achieved by the majority on the committee at that time. I therefore support Deputy Perry's position.
This is a point of principle. This case has been going on for years, and the last report was in 2009, as the Chairman said. The recommendation should go to the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Coveney, before the dissolution of the Dáil. I am totally unhappy that they have not made a clear decision, regardless-----
I take it that the committee is in full support of the Ombudsman's recommendation and that it should disregard any consideration of the decision taken on 20 October 2010 by that committee. We will ask the clerk to forward that view to that Government, and that is the direct line to take.
If there is no other business, we will now deal with today's business.
Yes. We will ask that the appropriate officials in the HSE who dealt with this case and those at the level responsible for making the apology come before us, to make everything clear, with whoever represents the HSE and Mr. Tony O'Brien.
Under any other business, while we are waiting for the witnesses, we asked for a report from both the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on the funding of the Central Access Scheme, CAS, for Kilkenny, which is in my constituency. I suggest that we ask them for a review of that in light of the application being made for funding: the expenditure to date, how it was incurred and for what purpose, and to whom it is accountable in terms of the audit committee of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
Also, I asked earlier whether we ever got a report back from the Dublin local authority managers explaining why they refused those houses from the National Asset Management Agency? We just got the numbers and the locations of the houses but it was-----