Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 March 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, a permanent witness to our committee, and he is accompanied today by Mr. Patrick Mullen, senior auditor. I have received apologies from Deputy Alan Kelly, who was a Minister in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government until quite recently. He has asked for his apologies to be recorded here today rather than participating directly in the meeting.
Are the minutes of the meetings of 22 and 23 February agreed? Agreed. There are no matters arising that will not come up in the correspondence.
We will move on to correspondence. No. 315A is a briefing document from the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government for today's meeting. We will note and publish it.
No. 319A is an opening statement from Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. We will note and publish it.
The next items are category B correspondence. The first item is correspondence dated 16 February 2017 from Mr. Tony O'Brien, director general of the HSE. The letter recommends that, before the Department and the HSE appear before the committee on 9 March 2017 to discuss the fair deal scheme, the committee visit a public residential community hospital. We discussed this last week and I do not think a visit is feasible before 9 March. However, following the Easter recess I propose that the secretary identifies a Tuesday morning to visit to a public residential community hospital and liaises with the members regarding their availability. We will make some preliminary inquiries but we will hold over a definite decision. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 300B, 1 to 3, inclusive, is correspondence dated 17 February 2017 from Mr. Maurice Quinn, Secretary General of the Department of Defence. This is a follow-up to an appearance by the Department before the committee on 26 January and a subsequent information request. This was held over from last week and I propose that we hold it over again. There is quite a lot of documentation, some of which deals with the sale of the Government jet and the health and safety issues in Baldonnel. I have received some correspondence directly, and perhaps other members have also, in the past day or so from people who do not fully accept what they understand the Secretary General to be saying so I would like another week to consider the matter. Can we hold that over and give people an opportunity to look at it? Is that agreed? Agreed.
Further correspondence, dated 20 February, is from the HSE with a briefing note for the committee on the High Court case relating to consultants pay. We will note it.
No. 313B is correspondence dated 22 February from Noel Waters, Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, in follow-up to his appearance before the committee on 2 February. We can note and publish it, but perhaps it would be better to hold it over as we have been very busy with Project Eagle in recent weeks. Will we hold it over as it is a voluminous document with 13 pages. The reason we are holding some of these items over is that we have been having meetings on Project Eagle in private session and we did not get an opportunity to review them. We will hold it over for another short period.
Further correspondence, dated 22 February, is from the Central Bank correcting information that was sent to the committee regarding retention payments. It is a minor correction of €730. That is in relation to the retention of staff. We dealt with this issue at some point last summer.
Can we follow up on that? We asked for a more comprehensive reply about two weeks ago, so we will follow this up again today.
Category C correspondence relates to private individuals and other correspondence. No. 309C, dated 21 February 2017, was received from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, regarding the building of a new school in Rathnew, County Wicklow. Is it agreed to forward this to the regional correspondent and note it? Agreed.
No. 310C is correspondence, dated 20 February, from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine informing the committee that the Department will not be in a position to lay the accounts for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority within the agreed timetable. Perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General would say a word about this. We made contact with organisations regarding late filing of accounts with the Department.
Even though he is saying that it is late, it is good that he is being upfront about it at this stage. Others have not been as upfront. We will note that.
Correspondence dated 24 February from Sage, which is the support and advocacy service for older people, relates to fees and charges associated with nursing homes. This will certainly be a useful piece of information for our forthcoming meeting with the HSE. We will note and carry that forward to our committee meeting when we are dealing with that particular issue in the coming weeks.
No. 317C, dated 24 February, is from an individual on behalf of staff of a 24-hour suicide helpline formerly run by the Console charity. The correspondence states that the staff have been unpaid and seeks information on what the HSE plans to do about this. I suggest we write to the HSE and ask that the question raised in the correspondence be dealt with. We should seek a reply within seven days because, if there is a question of people going unpaid for their work, we will not let that run to the normal timescale for reply.
We do not know the circumstances behind this letter. We need a response. In fairness to the people who have gone through a difficult period, they are entitled to a response within seven days at this point. We are not going to keep adjourning it. We will tell them that there is a seven day turnaround and we will be raising it here next week and asking where the response is if we have not received one by then.
No. 318C, dated 24 February, is from Ms Mary Higgins, CEO of Caranua, by way of information note to the committee on policy, processes and standards in Caranua. We will note this, but the Comptroller and Auditor General has completed a report and it is with the Minister.
That is guaranteed. A special report will require a separate meeting. The Caranua letter relates to that issue.
The next item on the agenda is No. 4, reports, statements and accounts received since the last meeting.
On correspondence, at the last meeting we discussed a letter from the president of WIT to correct the record of a previous committee hearing. I looked back over the report of the hearing and think we might need to receive further clarification because there was a context. The context was that there was a spin-out company, FeedHenry, which had been sold for €64 million and the president was asked if he was a director. He said, first, that he was not but then corrected the record to say he was. My understanding is he was also a shareholder. I think we need to receive clarification, but that is not to say there was anything wrong because he was head of research at the time in the institute and researchers can have an association with spin-out companies. However, for the record, it is important to have the matter clarified.
That is agreed.
The next item is No. 4, reports, statements and accounts received since the last meeting. The first item concerns the Mental Health Commission, for which there is a clear audit opinion. However, there is a note in the financial statements on payments totalling €205,000 to a commission employee in respect of paid leave granted to finish a fixed-term contract. Are there specifics? Should we write to the Mental Health Commission?
When we see a figure like this, we will write to the Mental Health Commission to ask for a detailed note on it. When we receive it, we can consider the matter.
The next item concerns the Private Residential Tenancy Board, for which there is a clear audit opinion on the accounts for 2015.
The next item concerns the Medical Bureau of Road Safety, for which there is a clear audit opinion. It analyses samples given by drivers in the course of enforcement of the Road Traffic Act. Does Mr. McCarthy know if it is part of the Road Safety Authority or is it a stand-alone entity?
The next item concerns the Inland Fisheries Board, for which there is a clear audit opinion on the 2015 accounts.
The next item concerns Bord na gCon, for which there is a clear audit opinion on the 2015 accounts, but it is noted that the board considers preparation of the financial statements on a going concern basis remains appropriate based on ongoing State funding, increases in profits from racing facilities, new income streams and the continuation of the board's bank borrowing facilities and the future sale of assets in accordance with its assets disposal strategy. As we have already agreed that it be included in our work programme, its representatives will be coming before us. Other members have raised the matter.
The next item concerns the National Lottery Fund, for which there is a clear audit opinion. Am I correct that this is the transfer from the operator to the account? Who runs the fund?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
It is managed by the regulator. The next item concerns the regulator's own administration account. The proceeds of the national lottery are held in a separate fund and that has been the position since the beginning. It used to be handled by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, but since the regulator has been in place-----
All that goes into the National Lottery Fund account is the surplus from the operator. The prizes are paid out and there are administration expenses. There is an agreed percentage included in the legislation.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has the right to transfer surplus funds from the National Lottery Fund to the Exchequer. I presented a report last year on the National Lottery. If the accounts for 2015 are being circulated, it might be helpful if that chapter was circulated also. We can arrange for that to be done.
Good, because it seems there are the operator, the regulator, the National Lottery Fund and the Exchequer which also has a role. Somebody else then pays out the money through the different Departments. The committee would like to know what the flow is.
It might help if the chapter for last year was circulated. We could come back to it if there were queries. We have the accounts for the national lottery regulator. I suspect it may be his first set of accounts.
Possibly, as he has not been there long.
The next item concerns the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland, for which there is a clear audit opinion. The statement on internal financial controls discloses expenditure of €927,000 on services not openly tendered for. We have to write to the board again straightaway to see what is going on. A letter will be sent to the chairman or chief executive, whoever the appropriate person is.
When we finish dealing with Project Eagle, we will deal with this report. The Comptroller and Auditor General has drafted a working paper for us to consider. I have seen it in the last few days, but I have not yet had a chance to read it.
We are making progress.
Our work programme is as follows. Today, we will have the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Next Thursday, we will have the Department of Health and the HSE to deal with patient private fund accounts and their financial statements. We will have a note on the fair deal scheme and the health repayment scheme donation fund. It is not a broad HSE debate; it will be on those specific items. We will have the HSE here in the normal course of events separately.
On the children's hospital, we wrote a detailed letter last week to the new national paediatric hospital development board and to the Secretary General of the Department of Health who was involved in the planning before the board was established. We asked for a detailed response on the assumptions used in the costs. I am conscious that the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health has also called them to appear before that committee in the next couple of weeks. We will have a very specific examination of their accounts. We will probably have to wait for at least a month until they appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health. We do not want to duplicate its work in a fortnight. They are on our list, but the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health will deal with them first. That committee will probably ask broader questions, but we will have very specific questions.
On 23 March, we will have the Department of Education and Skills and the Higher Education Authority in the afternoon. The reason for this is we have said we want to have a series of meetings with the third level institutions and we are pencilling in 30 March and 6 April. We will try to get through a number of universities on one day and the institutes of technology on the other day. I want to confine it to three meetings because if we go to four or five meetings on third level education we will never get the others up. We have to condense it into a maximum of three meetings even though it is a big area. Members can see what we are trying to do. The secretariat is trying to line up the slots for the different groups.
Members should volunteer and put their names down. They can contact the secretariat. Nobody else has come forward yet. Members might want to judge it based on the dates particular institutions will be represented here. The secretariat is working on the detailed timescale in that regard.
We have a gap on 13 April which we will fill next week. We have not confirmed attendance. On 4 May, we are dealing with the Revenue Commissioners as we do each year. On Thursday, 11 May, we will have the Department of Finance on everything to do with the national accounts. We then come back to other topics to be considered. The section 38 and 39 issue is ongoing. The Comptroller and Auditor General has done some work on the procurement issues. Third level institutions are on our list and we will deal with the national paediatric hospital development board as soon as practicable thereafter.
As we just mentioned, next Thursday a report on Caranua and the redress scheme will be published. We might factor that in for 13 April. We will consider that. We will try to deal with that report as soon as possible.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
There is a chapter on direct provision.
On the outstanding issues vote accounting and budget management, and then we have the procurement and management of contracts. That is one of the outstanding issues and then NTMA. We have only a couple of outstanding issues to deal with.
It is item No. 6, procurement and management of contracts. It is there specifically. We do have a date. I guarantee it is on our work programme and it will definitely be dealt with, but we do not have a date yet.