Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 February 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We have a quorum and are now in public session. We are joined today by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to this committee. He is accompanied by Ms Mahin Fitzpatrick.
The first item on the agenda is the minutes of last week's meeting on 26 January, 2017. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. I wish to raise one item arising out of the aforementioned minutes. We had quite a long discussion last week with the Secretary General of the Department of Defence, Mr. Maurice Quinn, about the sale of the Government jet. I propose that the committee writes to Mr. Quinn to clarify a few issues because a couple of people have contacted me since our meeting and raised a number of matters. First, I understood clearly from Mr. Quinn that there were access issues in terms of other people inspecting the Government jet and the spare parts in the hangar in Georgia. I want him to explain how he arrived at that conclusion because I have been informed that there were no access issues and all one would have had to do was ask. Access was put up as a reason for not getting an outside opinion. Second, in his statement Mr. Quinn said that a lot of the spare parts did not have certification and I want some documentary evidence on that. I also want know what document he issued to the Air Corps seeking certification and any correspondence received back confirming that there was none. Finally, I just want to raise a point relating to our remit. We accept that a decision had to be made to either sell the Government jet as it was, in parts on the floor and get the best available price - which is what actually happened - or fix it and put it back in the air.
There is a third option that was not considered, which I ask to be considered. If someone took a vehicle into a garage and parts of it were on the floor, it may have been economical to put it back in working order and then sell it. I am told that if they just repaired it and put it back in working order it could have been sold without any ongoing commitment at substantially more than was actually achieved. There is no evidence that that option was explored. No evidence was given to us that it was explored. I would like to know the Secretary General's views on whether that option was considered and to see the documentary evidence that it was considered. There appears to have been a Government decision to sell it. Normally, somebody with a knowledge of selling things would have been involved in that process. Did they seek to appoint any third party - some kind of broker - with knowledge of the industry to sell it or was it just done by civil servants? I will ask the Secretary General to clarify those matters. I am not disputing anything he said but I want those matters clarified because people who were watching proceedings contacted me afterwards with those questions so I would like them clarified.
I want further clarification. There was some discussion about the informal contact the Department used to give a view on the different options for the sale of the jet. We had previous reports from the Air Corps and then we had this informal contact. It seemed that somebody in the Department made contact with somebody they knew and that this person was paid €900. A number of e-mails were submitted. I asked if we could get that correspondence and further clarification on who that person was. Has that been asked for? If it has been asked of them, have we got it yet?
That is one of the points already communicated to them in writing to supply. The one thing the committee will do is make sure we have a tracker system in place so that when we ask questions we get replies within a reasonable period and not weeks afterwards.
On the same point, we asked Tusla and the Department, when their representatives appeared before us last time, for information on the guardian ad litemscheme. We sought an awful lot of further information. I have not seen any of that come back. It is the same point. We ask for clarification but it is hard to track whether we get it within a reasonable timeframe.
I will add to that. I forget how long ago it was that we had representatives from the Department of Social Protection in to discuss the insolvency fund. We asked for information and we are still waiting for it. I am not letting it go. I submitted a parliamentary question on it to further prompt the information. We have to be very clear; we have to have a tracking system so that we do not move on and leave questions hanging in the air.
Those are matters arising from the minutes. The next item is correspondence received. We have a briefing document from the Department of Justice and Equality - No. 276A. We have that. The opening statement from Mr. Noel Waters for today is No. 280A. When did we receive that? When I went looking for it yesterday I could not find it. It has already been in the system for a number of days.
We should not be giving out to the Secretary General for non-receipt of it; he is guilty of sending it in too early. He caught us on the hop. We will all get a copy of that.
I will move on to correspondence, No. 266C, i to iv, and No. 267, i to ii. This is correspondence from last week where we are awaiting another explanatory note. It all relates to payment of public moneys by Dublin City Council to Ballymun regeneration programme. We agreed to forward this correspondence to the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and when the Secretary General is before the committee on 2 March, we will discuss this matter further. We have put him on notice of that. There is a new item of correspondence here today. Do any members have anything further to add or can we just keep it on the file until 2 March? Is that agreed? Agreed. We have sent it on.
The next item is No. 275C, i to iii, a letter from an anonymous source which attached a newspaper article regarding lease agreements entered into by the OPW. We note that. It is just a newspaper article.
The next item is No. 277C, an e-mail received from two individuals who are involved in the ongoing case with the University of Limerick. The secretariat has written to the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser for advice on this matter. I propose that at our next meeting, the committee gets a brief from the parliamentary legal adviser on this particular issue. We are also scheduling the third level institutions to appear before the committee in April. I suggest we inform the University of Limerick that this topic will be discussed at that meeting. We will come to that meeting in our work programme in a few minutes. We note that.
The next item is No. 297C, i and ii, from NAMA regarding the sale of a property in Dublin 8 and an issue raised by Sager Management Limited. The correspondence explains that the situation has been dealt with, that the individual has been contacted and is engaging in the process. I propose we note this correspondence from NAMA. Is that greed? Agreed. For the record, it is interesting to note that although NAMA was the secured lender on the property, the property remained under the control of the debtor and it seems NAMA is at arm's length from the actual sales process. NAMA has been in direct contact with the individual.
No. 4 is statement and accounts received since the last meeting. They will come up on the screen now. They are in front of us. No. 4.1 is Leopardstown Park Hospital board, clear audit opinion; Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, clear audit opinion; Health Service Executive, patient private property accounts, clear audit opinion but attention is drawn to the issue of internal control. That is specifically on our work programme. On 9 March, we will deal with the HSE specifically on the patient private property accounts and the fair deal scheme. We will deal with other HSE issues separately. Those two items are specifically on our agenda.
The next item is No. 4.4 is special account for the purposes of the Health (Repayment Scheme) Act 2006, clear audit opinion. The next item is the Repayment Scheme (Donations) Fund. There were nil proceeds to that account in 2015. It was very easy to get a clear audit report when there were no transactions. That was an account whereby the Repayment Scheme (Donations) Fund was set up to receive voluntary donations from beneficiaries of the scheme to be used to fund improvements in health services for dependent old persons and persons with disabilities. People will recall that some people were in institutions without the proper legal sanction and they sought refunds of charges and everything like that and €1.67 million was paid out in 2015. Many families felt they got very good service and they made a donation back of the amount received. Other families chose, in recognition of the happy service they received, not to make a claim in the first place.
Can the Comptroller and Auditor General tell us if there is much left to be paid in that fund? Is it nearly over?
Those are available in the Oireachtas Library if anyone wants to have a look at them. There will possibly be indications in them. I take it the claims date has passed and no new claims can come in at this stage?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I am not sure if there is a threshold. If the committee is interested, it would seem to fit quite closely with the patient private property accounts and the fair deal scheme. They are all related issues. Perhaps if the HSE would provide an update and assessment of where they are at the moment.
It is under the HSE. We will write to the HSE to get an update and summary on that whole issue because €453 million is a big amount of money. We were all conscious of it a couple of years ago but we have kind of forgotten about the issue since. We will add that as an agenda item when representatives from the HSE are in next month. We will discuss the patients fund account, fair deal and the special account for the purposes of the Health (Repayment Scheme) Act 2006. We will put that on the work agenda for that meeting.
The next item is our work programme.
There is a draft going up on the screen. Today we have officials from the Department of Justice and Equality specifically to discuss the Vote for the Prison Service and the Comptroller and Auditor General report. We will not deal with the broader Department of Justice and Equality.
Next week there is a meeting scheduled to deal with Project Eagle. Just on that and even without going into private session, the conclusions of the secretariat's work will be circulated to all members next week. In December while we were working on it in addition to the normal secretariat that is available to us we had the support of another staff member as well as help from a second person. They have been moved to the secretariat of the Joint Committee on Future Funding of Domestic Water Services. The clerk is finalising it on his own and we are still doing our routine business as well. It is fully understandable why it has taken the extra week or so. The clerk assures me we will all have the document from the secretariat next week. We will then discuss it and amend it accordingly leading to a draft and then a final report. How long that takes will be up to the committee.
Could I have a supplementary one-page paper from you, Chairman, or the secretariat to complement whatever draft we get, setting out exactly what work we are carrying out? My understanding is that we were doing an examination of the sales process of Project Eagle - an examination of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and we were not carrying out any investigation. This is now quite sensitive in respect of whether a commission of investigation is established. We can all have different opinions and interpretations. We can all put our own spin on it irrespective of the side of the fence we might sit on. Whatever opinions people might have here, it is important that it be factually set out making clear exactly what this committee was doing and what we were not doing. We all stayed within the boundaries because it was made very clear to us that we were not examining actions that might have been criminal or illegal by any individual or organisation. It is important for that to be on the record. I am asking for that paper to be provided.
Essentially, we will clarify it and sent a note out. We are just examining the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. We are not doing an investigation as such; we are examining the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. We did not seek powers of compellability. We are examining the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and that is it. However, we will specify what the Deputy has said and what we are not doing in case somebody things we are doing something else. We will be clear on that.
On the record, it is a wrong message. It is a misinterpretation of our role and the Chairman has clarified our role. I appreciate that.
It is unacceptable that the staff have been taken from the committee. I know the burden of even reading this stuff, which takes hours. It is unacceptable that staff are taken away at a crucial point in the preparation of a report on Project Eagle. What can we do about that?
We are in public session and I have no problem dealing with this issue. I sought additional staff when we commenced our work and we had staff going through all the correspondence, summarising everything for the report, and they were available to us until the beginning of January. We probably thought we would have had a draft report in January. It has taken a little longer because we held our public hearings right up until Christmas week. We were still in receipt of correspondence subsequent to those meetings. It is unfortunate we do not have the full complement of staff to see it through. The outcome of it is that we are no more than a week or two behind where would like to have been. We would like to be finishing it up now, but we will have the final work from the secretariat in the coming week. There is no point in drafting in extra staff at this stage; we are down to the final-----
In fairness to the committee, we made a decision. We could have postponed and not have had last week's meeting or this week's. We decided we wanted to continue our normal public meetings here, so we have doubled up our work. However, the Deputy is right.
When a decision is taken to remove staff, on what basis is it made? We were at a critical point where we needed staff. It would seem to me a decision was made not to give importance to that and to give importance to something else.
I absolutely agree with Deputy Connolly. The Chairman ought to challenge that decision. We all appreciate the staff can only do what they have the resources to do. That is taken absolutely. I now have a sense that there is messing going on and I am not speaking about the staff.
I am not referring to you, a Chathaoirligh. There is political messing happening on this issue. We have been stalled in completing our work not least because of a staffing issue on the one hand, as it now emerges. On the other hand the political system, in the form of the Government, is saying that it is stalling the ball on a commission it had already committed to on the basis that it wanted to see our report. It is completely unacceptable to put this committee and us as parliamentarians into that position. I would go so far as to say that if at this stage we have to postpone all other work to finish our work on Project Eagle, if the Taoiseach or anybody else is using this as a pretext to delay a commitment they entered into - I certainly speak for my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, and I imagine for others - I am not prepared to be used in that way. I find it utterly unacceptable. Let us remember the ambition had been to publish all of this at Christmas time. That got held up; we all understood that.
That has only happened in recent weeks and we will seek clarification on that. They probably felt we were almost there. We should have been allowed to complete it with the complement and we would have been there now.
My question really relates to the following. We do work programme planning here every week. There are resources there that are specialised because of the work of Project Eagle. There are staff working on that. Some of those staff were removed and we were not informed. Our work programme planning has gone out of kilter because we are not aware of what staff were there to do the work in the first place. We can only do X amount of work because we have X number of staff. This is X minus Y which we were not informed about. When did this happen and why were we not informed?
I will get all that clarified and we will take it up. A week or two ago we scheduled not to have any other business next week so that we would be able to deal with the report from the secretariat. I am satisfied that we will have that report from the secretariat, but at this stage we may not have it in sufficient time to have that meeting next Thursday. Our original intention a couple of weeks ago was to get it out this weekend and we would have a detailed discussion in the coming weeks on that document and prepare a draft report. We will have that report next week, but I do not envisage us having it in sufficient time to allow a detailed debate on it next Thursday. However, members will have it next week. We are a week behind schedule on that. I will take up all the issues that have been mentioned.
I echo what has been said on staffing. We were not on notice and should have been on notice. This is the only constitutional committee. It does extremely serious work. We know all that. It is outrageous to suggest that the Taoiseach or Government might have anything to do with staffing.
Can I make one follow-up point? This is not a criticism of the clerk to the committee but my office was in contact with him and there were seven or eight e-mails exchanged. The response I got back about the delay implied that it had nothing to do with staffing. Staffing was not even referenced. I was told that the delay was to do with tying up loose ends. That is the problem we have; there was no clarity given to us, right through the process, as to exactly what was happening and why. If that can be-----
I will accept responsibility for that. The clerk checked with me and I said that we cannot release the document until we are in a position to release it to everybody. I held back until this morning's meeting because I wanted to clarify the position for all members. Staffing issues are not normally within the remit of politicians in the House. We did get some extra support but it is very disappointing that, at the final furlong, that was pulled back. Had that not happened, we would have been at the finishing line now. That said, we are nearly there. I do not want to undermine the report just because it will be produced two weeks later than originally planned.
By the end of next week all members will have the final output from the secretariat. That is the document that we will sit down, as elected members of this committee, to discuss and then we will start making our amendments to it. At that time it will become a draft report of the committee, ultimately leading to a final report fairly soon thereafter, I hope. The document that will be circulated next week is not a draft report; it is only a document that is being prepared for the committee's benefit. Are members happy with that? I do not know if I am right or wrong in saying this but if any of that document is leaked, we will have to take measures when drafting the actual draft report to make sure that it will not be widely circulated in advance of publication. I am putting members to the test in that regard. If any of the secretariat's document appears in any part of the media, we will have to sit behind closed doors. If somebody breaches the confidentiality of the committee next week, he or she will not be able to do so again when we are the drafting of the final report. Can we get agreement on that? It is not fair to the rest of the committee if one member goes off and leaks it in an effort to get a bit a kudos.
We will see how we get on next week with that document from the secretariat. Any breach of confidentiality by any member of the committee will mean that we will have to put measures in place when we are preparing the draft report. We will discuss those measures at that stage.
In truth, there is a meeting scheduled for 16 February and I would hope that we could have a first discussion on the draft report on Tuesday or Wednesday of that week. We will wait and see but that is a possibility.
In the meantime, our work schedule is as follows. On Thursday, 16 February we will be meeting the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to discuss the appropriation accounts, Vote 30 and the Comptroller and Auditor General's chapter on EU refunds and levies in the agriculture sector. On Thursday, 23 February we will be dealing with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, while on Thursday, 2 March we will meet the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to discuss the appropriation accounts, the Vote for environment, community and local government and the Comptroller and Auditor's chapter on central government funding of local authorities. We will also discuss Chapter 5, which deals with progress on land aggregation. We will also discuss the Ballymun renewal project, which has been the subject of correspondence with this committee.
On Thursday, 9 March we will meet the Department of Health and the HSE to deal with patients' private property accounts, the fair deal nursing home scheme as referenced in the HSE's financial statement, as well as the special account for the purposes of the Health (Repayment Scheme) Act 2006. The latter will be included that as an item on our agenda for the meeting on 9 March. There will be separate meetings with the HSE about section 38 and section 39 hospitals and so forth.
On Thursday, 23 March we will meet the Department of Education and Skills. I propose that on Thursday, 30 March and Thursday, 6 April, we deal with the third level institutions. In the first instance, we should start with some of the universities and we can go on to the institutes of technology later. I believe we should open up the session with the Higher Education Authority, HEA, which deals with all third level institutions. We will try to determine which universities we should call and in what order. I have no particular view as to which universities to invite but would point out that we cannot invite them all. The University of Limerick has been brought to this committee's attention through various correspondence. DCU was highlighted in terms of big procurement issues during the course of the year-----
UCC. Okay. We will try to schedule those for the first meeting. If any member wants the committee to invite a particular university to either of those two meetings, he or she should pass a request on to the secretariat but we will not be able to cover all of the universities. We will have to decide which ones to invite and we will certainly have to look at the biggest ones.
We will probably need to bring in the two biggest institutions. Their scale is such that they must be examined. We will work to set up meetings with those two universities and if any member wants any particular issue to be highlighted, he or she should let the secretariat know so that the universities can be given advance notice.
I think we should invite NUI Galway, if that is possible. It is involved in taking over what was the only NUI college north of the Dublin-Galway line, namely, St. Angela's College. That takeover will have cost implications and it would be useful to have a discussion about that.
Okay, that is fine. On Thursday, 13 April we will meet the Department of Justice and Equality to discuss the Department's Vote and the procurement and management of contracts for the direct provision system. That meeting has not been fully confirmed as yet but that is the plan. We are meeting the Department of Justice and Equality today but that is strictly to deal with the prisons issue.
On Thursday, 4 May, we hope to have the Revenue Commissioners in before us. In fact, that meeting has been confirmed. After that, we will move on to the institutes of technology and finally, the Department of Finance. The schedule is such that we have a number of weeks for which we can select particular topics outside of the chapters in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. Between Easter and the summer recess, I hope to have a number of meetings, the agendas for which this committee can be selective about and determine who to invite. We will come back to that but if anyone has any suggestions in the meantime, please let the secretariat know so that we can put it into our work schedule.
That is where we are with regard to our work programme. I take it that we do not have any other business so we will suspend for a moment -----
I wish to raise one issue. There has been a ruling in the courts relating to an action taken by a previous witness to this committee. This committee was vindicated. There was a lot of talk at the time that the action was initiated against this committee and indeed, against the State, about the remit of the committee, the conduct of its members and so on. It would be useful to get a report back from legal services personnel to clarify a number of the issues raised. The court made a very clear decision in favour of the committee. I ask that the legal representatives be invited to appear before us to explain the verdict, offer clarifications on the remit of this committee and how it conducts its business, as well as any learning from the case itself.
Thank you Deputy. We will do that. While I know the ruling has implications for the Oireachtas as a whole, the case originally stemmed from the Committee of Public Accounts. I agree that we should hear directly from the parliamentary legal advisers as soon as they are in a position to do so. I would be surprised if they are not already working on it, with a view to meeting us.
Finally, there is one item of correspondence that I skipped over by mistake, reference number 281C , from Deputy Marc MacSharry.
It concerns matters relating to a certain property acquisition by Galway City Council in 2007. We have a detailed folder that has been supplied to the Deputy. We decided not to circulate it to all members because of the volume involved but I will ask Deputy MacSharry to make some comments.
I am sure Deputy Connolly is more aware of this than anybody. It came to my notice there was a transaction in 2007 with Galway City Council acquiring land, it would appear, without appropriate valuations and at a very substantial premium above market value at the time, as well as a number of other anomalies. I propose to speak to the clerk privately and refine the specific points I would recommend the committee considers. Perhaps at that point we would circulate them to the committee, which can decide whether to look into this. I know we do not have competence over the accounts of councils but we have competence over the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, which under the appropriate Acts is bound to approve all borrowing by local authorities. There was borrowing of €10.5 million in this regard so it would be useful for us to examine what level of oversight the Department put into practice. This is just one example I believe is worth looking at, as it may have been replicated in every local authority area in the country.
Given the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will have representatives here on 2 March, does the Deputy wish us to indicate to the relevant people that he will raise the matter at that meeting? Would he prefer to wait?
I would like to liaise with the clerk and perhaps his experience will advise us how best to handle it. The committee may decide whether to raise it at that meeting or a future meeting with the Department.