Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 6 April 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined from the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General by Ms Colette Drinan, director of audit, and Mr. Shane Carton, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputies Aylward, Cassells and MacSharry.
Are the minutes of the meetings of 29 and 30 March 2017 agreed? Agreed. There is nothing specific arising out of the minutes that will not come up on our agenda so we will move on to correspondence received since our last meeting. There are a number of items before us.
Category A concerns correspondence for today's meeting, namely, items 385A, 386A, 387A, 399A, 402A and 403A. They are briefing documents and opening statements from Dublin Institute of Technology, NUI Galway and Waterford Institute of Technology in advance of today's meeting. We will note and publish them.
Category B concerns correspondence from Accounting Officers or Ministers or both and follow-ups to previous meetings. The first item is 355B(i) and (ii), which is correspondence dated 23 March 2017 held over from last week from Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. This is a follow-up to an appearance before the committee on 20 February and a subsequent request for information. It has already been noted and published. Having had a better chance to review it, do any members wish to discuss it? It concerns the European accounts. If members wish to raise anything in respect of the correspondence, they are free to do so at any subsequent meeting.
The next item is 356B, dated 23 March, held over from last week, from Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. We noted and published it last week. We just held over consideration of it because it is a substantial document. I propose to move on but if members wish to raise anything in respect of the correspondence, they can do so at a subsequent meeting.
Next are correspondence items 383 (i) to (iii), inclusive, received from the Higher Education Authority, attaching a copy of the Quigley report of the statutory inspection on the relationship between Waterford IT and campus companies and the report by the HEA on the implementation of the Quigley report recommendations by Waterford IT. We will note and publish the correspondence. It is relevant to today's meeting.
Items 391B(i) and (ii) comprise an e-mail from NAMA on 30 March attaching a letter from the chairman of NAMA referring to comments I made at last week's meeting on the committee's draft report on Project Eagle and information held by NAMA about the chairman. I think members saw the correspondence at our meeting last Thursday. We will note and publish the correspondence.
The next item is 407B, correspondence received on 5 April 2017 from Mr. Neil McDermott of the Higher Education Authority correcting a statement made by Dr. Graham Love, chief executive, at a meeting last week. For the record, the reference was to persons B and C. They had made a protected disclosure prior to their suspension from work and not the other way around, as had been stated. It is important people understand that because I took it as it was said on the day but the correction changes the background a little.
The next item is 409B, correspondence received on 6 April 2017 from the HSE as a follow-up to a request for further information regarding our meeting with the director general on 9 March. Did members have an opportunity to consider this? It is a letter regarding the freedom of information issue in respect of differences of approach in this matter and RTE and the information supplied to us. The director general also confirms the issue regarding the various staff numbers, H3, H7, H12, H4 and H6, as they relate to the Grace case. I have read the letter. The HSE splits hairs as to who raised a timetable and who suggested it. I propose we send all of this to the commission of investigation. The key issue of difference between the director general and the RTE correspondence we have received is that the HSE, when it responded to the freedom of information, FOI, request, mentioned the issue of a timetable. We then took the view that the HSE was suggesting a timetable to be covered by the FOI. The HSE states that while a timetable was mentioned, it did not suggest a specific timetable. We are splitting hairs inordinately. We cannot have a meeting discussing the difference between mentioning a timetable and suggesting a timeframe. I suggest we just send the correspondence on to the commission because we cannot achieve much more by calling the director general back before the committee. The differences are all there for the commission to see.
It is a bit more than splitting hairs, to be fair, although I understand the point the Chairman makes about the FOI request. There are two elements to this. The FOI request is one but there are also the answers the director general gave to the issue as to whether some of those involved in the decision-making regarding the Grace case are still working in the public service. That was the question he was asked. Even in his correspondence to us he restates this and at length goes through the individuals' involvement with the HSE, as if that were the question asked. That was not the question asked. With respect to the Chairman, it took us a few hours to get some information from the director general when he appeared before the committee before. For the first time he did place on the record, because of questions from members of the committee, that a second person does in fact work for Tusla. If we did not have that hearing and if the director general had not come before us, the public would not be aware of that. We would still be none the wiser. The reason we asked him to appear before the committee in the first place was to correct the record of a previous hearing and question marks remain as to evidence he presented to us at the last hearing. It strikes me overall - and I say this generously to the director general - that trying to get straight answers to straight questions from him is like trying to get blood from a stone. As we all said the last time he was here, given the gravity of the issues involved, that is unacceptable. We have therefore requested that he come before the Committee of Public Accounts again. We will obviously be guided by other members as to whether they feel that is appropriate. However, given that the issues are so serious and that all we are trying to do is correct the record of the Committee of Public Accounts and get straight answers to questions, that is the very least we deserve. We have a job to do. The Chairman said the last time that we will not be stonewalled by anyone and will not allow anyone to come before the committee, give inaccurate information and then walk away and that is it. We must put down a marker as a committee that such stonewalling is simply not acceptable.
That is fine. I only referred specifically to the FOI aspect. The two conflicting points of view are very well stated. I do not know how much we will get beyond the publicly-stated positions, but the points Deputy Cullinane makes about the staff and the staff numbers were the original points we invited the HSE in to discuss. The Deputy's point is well made in that regard.
I concur with my colleague, Deputy Cullinane. We should have him back before the committee. This matter would be much simpler if people simply co-operated with the committee, but there are a number of outstanding issues on which we need clarity from him. We need him to put those on the record. It should not be a long meeting if he comes before the committee in the right frame of mind. Specifically, I endorse the point Deputy Cullinane made about future hearings of the committee. People coming before us need to understand that if they mislead the committee, whether by accident or design, and if they are invited back to correct the record, they do not come in and for a second time sow confusion.
I think Mr. O'Brien should be brought back. I see the Chairman's point that the correspondence should be sent to the commission. However, Mr. O'Brien should come back before this committee. His testimony was extracted like pulling teeth without anaesthetic. It was difficult. I particularly zoned in on the staff. It is now confirmed that two of the staff work with Tusla. That was dragged out. I also asked about public procurement. There was an issue about that and value for money.
In a week or two, yes. Has it been published? We were to look at that issue in terms of the costs and whether the voluntary body was given sufficient funds. They are serious issues because when I asked if any money had been provided for Grace in view of the trauma she has suffered, I was told nothing had been given. In the middle of trying to extract information without anaesthetic, we might forget what we are about, which is that the head of the Health Service Executive should be absolutely upfront with the committee.
There is a consensus that we should invite Mr. O'Brien back. I agree with Deputy McDonald that it would be helpful if we can close it off and be concise. I therefore ask all members to contact the secretary with a list of specific queries for Mr. O'Brien so that when he comes to the committee he will have the complete answers rather than members raising issues on the day and he having to come back again. It would be helpful for the efficient running of the committee. He is genuinely not available next week. We will ask the secretary to arrange a date as soon as practical. It will be as soon as possible after Easter. I ask members to submit their specific queries so he can be put on notice of precise issues. We will be conscious of the points that have been made today.
The next item is category C in regard to correspondence from private individuals and other correspondence. No. 373C is correspondence received on 24 March 2017 from an individual referring to inappropriate language used by Mr. Tony O'Brien, director general of the HSE, while he was at the committee. While the correspondent is sure Mr. O'Brien did not mean to cause offence with a particular term used, he or she makes the valid point that it should be brought to Mr. O'Brien's attention. I propose we forward a copy of the correspondence to Mr. O'Brien. There was a particular use of words by Mr. O'Brien that could have been interpreted in an uncomplimentary manner. It was perhaps not the most appropriate language to use in that case. It is a fair point that the correspondent makes and we will forward it to Mr. O'Brien. Is that agreed? Agreed
No. 389C is correspondence dated 30 March 2017 from an individual following on from a letter from the committee in which we advised her of how her complaints against the HSE, the Garda and her previous employer could best be dealt with. While I believe we can only reiterate that she should use the structures of the State available to deal with individual cases, I note she also raises the issue of the pharmaceutical company Novartis which she raised with us in another item of correspondence. We have written to the Department on this issue and I propose we forward any reply we receive. Is it agreed that we write to the individual along these lines. Agreed
Nos. 390C and 392C are correspondence received on 30 March and 3 April from an individual referred to as Person A in regard to the University of Limerick meeting last week. She requests the opportunity to meet with the PAC to give her side of what happened. I also want to point out that there are three more items of correspondence from former employees of the University of Limerick. We dealt with three third level institutions last week and we will be dealing with three today. When we have the six done, we will review where we stand. A significant amount of correspondence has been received from former employees of the University of Limerick. We need to consider it all after today's meeting so we will hold this item over. We will note it and come back to it.
Nos. 397C and 404C are correspondence received on 4 April 2017 from individuals referred to as Person B and Person C in our meeting last week with University of Limerick. Similarly, we will note that correspondence, hold it over and come back to it.
No. 406C is correspondence received on 5 April 2017 from another individual and ex-employee of University of Limerick. We will note that correspondence, hold it over and come back to it when we are finished our hearing with the third level instructions.
No. 393C is correspondence received on 31 March from an individual in relation to the fair deal scheme and the person’s experience of fitness programmes for elderly people. I propose that we write to the individual informing him that the adoption of such programmes is a policy matter and not within the remit of the committee. We are dealing with the fair deal scheme with the HSE. Nursing Homes Ireland have written to us separately. We will consider it as part of the total correspondence. It may not be within our remit but when we close off the issue of the nursing homes, we can dispose of it at that stage. There might be something in it that we can refer on to the Minister in the future.
Nos. 394C (i) and(ii) were received on 29 March 2017 from an individual alleging waste of taxpayers' funds in the Irish Prison Service. The person wishes to draw the committee’s attention to the inadequacy of the internal audit unit to properly police and protect the rights of someone who raised concerns with the PAC. Is the correspondence noted? Noted. Should we ask for a response from the Prison Service on it? I have not yet had an opportunity to do so. The correspondent is asking us only to note it and to be aware of it, not to take specific action. We will note it.
No. 395C (i) to (xi) are a copy of correspondence sent to the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 31 March. The correspondence refers to the waste of taxpayers' money and harassment of a family. Has it been sent to other Ministers? We will note it. We have not been asked to do anything specific. It is only a copy for our information.
Nos. 370C and 396C. Item 370C was held over from last week and 396C was received on 22 March 2017. It refers to fraud allegations in Teagasc in regard to the selection process for a post of responsibility in 2007. The clerk has reviewed correspondence with the previous committee going back to 2015 on this issue. A response was sought by the committee at the time from Teagasc in regard to the issues raised. Teagasc provided comprehensive background on the case, which had gone through an internal grievance procedure, been referred to a rights commissioner service and gone through a Labour Court hearing. The person’s claims were not upheld in any of the three processes. A copy of the Teagasc response was sent to the individual by the committee on 26 January. I propose that we hold this over with a view to writing a detailed letter. We will be able to close off this matter but I have not yet had an opportunity to see the letter from the previous committee. I want to be consistent or at least aware of that. We will have that circulated. When we see how the former committee approached this matter, we will deal with it at that stage.
No. 398C is correspondence received on 3 April from an individual in relation to Waterford IT and campus companies such as FeedHenry. Can we note this for today's meeting? Noted.
The next item is reports, statements and accounts received. There are two items, first, the European Agricultural Guarantee Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, and the European fisheries fund for Irish operations with a turnover of €1.6 billion for the end of 2015 as per the auditor's report; and, second, a file concerning the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, and the Loughs Agency 2015 accounts clear audited opinion. We will note those items.
The next item is the work programme. It is on the screen in front of the members. Today, we will have Waterford Institute of Technology followed by the Dublin Institute of Technology. In session two, we will have the National University of Ireland, Galway. Next Thursday, we will have the Department of Education and Skills dealing with the special report on the cost of the child abuse inquiry and redress scheme. Caranua is also invited to that session. We will have to work out whether we take both together or deal with them separately, but that can be decided during the week. Many people who were affected by this issue have expressed an interest in being here or watching the proceedings. I will facilitate anybody who makes such a request.
On 4 May 2017, we will be dealing with Bord na gCon. On 11 May 2017, we will deal with the Department of Justice and Equality appropriation accounts for 2015. There is a specific chapter dealing with the procurement and management of contracts for direct provision. Sometime around the date of the last meeting, we noted the report by An Garda Síochána into the Templemore issue. There is also the issue of the different slant to the Garda Commissioner's evidence before this committee a couple of years ago compared with her evidence at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality last week.
Would it be too much if we bring in the Department of Justice and Equality to deal with direct provision and the Garda Síochána all on the one day? What do people think?
We will not deal with direct provision, the appropriation accounts, Templemore and the Garda Commissioner's previous evidence in one go. If I may make a suggestion, there are three areas here, namely, the appropriation accounts; direct provision; and the Garda Commissioner's evidence and the Templemore issue, which could be put into the one sitting.
Bord na gCon was put in the week before. Direct provision was down and Bord na gCon came afterwards. While I am not going to be unreasonable, direct provision is very important and Bord na gCon could, perhaps, be moved.
I take Deputy Connolly's point about all of that. It is a matter of a week or two. While I am very anxious that we get to the direct provision piece, I am not going to die in the ditch for the sake of a week. This has been going on for so long. The main thing is that we do it justice and get to the bottom of it when we deal with it. There is a point of urgency, as Deputy Kelly has said, around the issues pertaining to An Garda Síochána. In terms of the public perception of our hearings, I think there would be an expectation that we get to those issues sooner rather than later.
If we wait until that date, if we push it out, I know what the response will be, given that Bord na gCon has been asked already and is preparing for that date. If the date is pushed down the line, the likelihood is that this industry will have collapsed by then.
When they are in, we will deal with the Vote for An Garda Síochána. It is a separate Vote. We will deal with the Vote, specifically the Templemore issue, and the issue of resources to which we referred at a previous meeting and which was referred to in a different manner at the justice committee meeting last week. They are the three points. We will see if that can happen. We do not know yet. We will try to do our best.
Then we are on to 25 May, which is the Department of Finance. The following week is the Revenue Commissioners. That appears to take us to 1 June. I am just remembering that when we discussed this issue last week, that is, about the findings that were issued, we said we would write to the Department of Justice and Equality, the Courts Service, which has collected the fines and will know what mechanism is in place to return the money, and An Garda Síochána. We will highlight that issue, whether we deal with it all on that day or have to come back on the second day. That is strictly a financial issue in respect of fines collected from the public that possibly should not have been. That issue was already flagged here at the last meeting. We will do our best to deal with all of those issues, whether it takes a second sitting or not. It probably will. Then on 26 June, we have the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
That is where we are on the draft work programme to date. There being no other business, we will suspend for a few minutes to allow the witnesses to take their seats.