Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 22 June 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined today by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, as a permanent witness to the committee. He is joined by the deputy director of audit, Mr. Shane Carton. The minutes of the meetings of 14 June and 15 June 2017 have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed.
With regard to matters arising, we will come to everything relevant in the course of the meeting today. We will move straight on to No. 3, which is correspondence received. There are three categories of correspondence. Some will relate to the meeting we had with the Garda Commissioner on Tuesday because they have not been noted. They arrived since our last public meeting but we did not note correspondence.
The first item is the opening statement from Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan for the meeting on 19 June. We note that because that meeting was held on Tuesday. The next item is opening statement for today's meeting from Professor Brian Norton. We note that. The next item is the opening statement for today's meeting from Professor Desmond Fitzgerald, president of University of Limerick. We note that and it will be published with the other opening statement. There is an opening statement for today's meeting from Dr. Brendan J. Murphy, president of Cork Institute of Technology. We note and will publish that.
Next is category B correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers and follow-up to previous meetings. Correspondence dated 14 June from Cork Institute of Technology is as follows: a briefing document as presented to the Committee of Public Accounts on 10 December 2015 which outlines the background and details of the KPMG report. We can raise that with its representatives when they are here shortly. There are also relevant extracts from Committee of Public Accounts opening statements by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Department of Education and Skills and Higher Education Authority. We also attach the full copy of the transcript of the Committee of Public Accounts hearing on Cork Institute of Technology, which was held on 10 Dec 2015. Members have it by way of background information. We note all that.
No. 603B is correspondence from the chairman of the Office of Public Works regarding a 2013 request to provide office accommodation for Caranua with instructions from the Department that Caranua would meet the appropriate rental costs. Do we have that letter on screen? Does anyone want to comment on it? It is No. 603B. What is the conclusion of that letter, towards the end of it? Do members want time to consider it? We will come back to it next week. We will hold it over until next week.
No. 607B is correspondence from the Comptroller and Auditor General dated 19 June.
Absolutely. We will come back to it next week. We have done No. 603B regarding Caranua.
No. 607B, (i) to (iv), is correspondence from the Comptroller and Auditor General on the Committee’s examination of the Garda Síochána Templemore issue, including a briefing note on the accounting officer's obligations, which is dated 7 July 2015, from Michael Culhane. It has been referred to and discussed. We note and will publish it.
No. 608B is email correspondence from Cyril Dunne, former chief administrative officer, An Garda Síochána, with details of the membership of the two steering committees. It has been circulated and discussed publicly. We note it. We are really just catching up on correspondence we did not note publicly at the meeting on Tuesday.
No. 609B is correspondence from Niall Kelly, head of internal audit, An Garda Síochána, regarding the EU-funded programmes. It was discussed. We note and publish it.
No. 611B is correspondence dated 19 June 2017 from An Garda Síochána with details of compliance to Standards in Public Office, SIPO, declarations. We note and publish that. It has already been discussed.
No. 612B is correspondence dated 19 June 2017 from the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána on the draft audit report on EU-funded programmes. It was discussed on Tuesday and we note and publish the document. We are only doing it as a formality at this stage.
No. 613B is correspondence dated 19 June 2017 from the Deputy Commissioner of An Garda Síochána clarifying the advice referred to at the meeting on 14 June 2017 was advice received from the then chief administrative officer, Mr. Cyril Dunne, and not Mr. Ken Ruane, the head of legal affairs. Also included are communications from the head of legal affairs with the Department of Justice and Equality. That was discussed and we note and publish it.
Item No. 615B is a copy of correspondence dated 12 June 2017 from the executive director, human resources and people development, An Garda Síochána to the Commissioner of An Garda Síochána. We noted and discussed it before and we will publish it now.
We only received this letter on the day of the hearing. It was a very important letter and we probably did not get enough chance to properly go through it with the Commissioner because we only got it. I note that for the Cathaoirleach. We have completed our work in terms of our hearings and we will move to a report. This was Mr. Barrett, who is head of human resources, asking the Commissioner to correct the record of the Committee of Public Accounts. When the questions were put, she said there was no need to correct the record of the Committee of Public Accounts. It shows the clear contradiction between his understanding of what happened in meetings and her understanding of what happened at the meeting. It is quite serious for the head of human resources to be alerting this committee to information he says the Commissioner had in respect of previous briefings she was given before she said she was briefed but also the nature of the meeting that he was present at. He is writing to her and giving us a letter to say in his view she should correct the record. She disputes that. I think we should note that she disputed the content of the letter.
It is not just his view. We will just go down through it. I want to draw attention to the second paragraph, in fairness to Mr. Barrett. I am reading the paragraph that starts, "In the course of the meeting I referred extensively". The last sentence is, "On 30th June, 2015 and again in early July I had been advised that Mr. Cyril Dunne had brought these matters of critical concern, which I had been raising, to your personal attention". He is saying he was advised. He does not say who advised him. I read it carefully. That letter is an element of hearsay. He is saying he was advised by somebody. He does not tell us who advised him and that something was brought to somebody else's attention. It is not a statement of fact but we will ask for a written response.
We also need clarity because probably more important is the last line. This is the meeting where there was a dispute as to how long the meeting went on. It says, "In addition, time was spent discussing Mr. Ruane's suggestion that all key external stakeholders (the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality) should immediately be notified before advancing the work of the steering committee further". We need to hear from Mr. Ruane, if we can write to him. Is it his understanding? Did he state at that meeting that all of those stakeholders should be immediately notified? We know that did not happen.
It goes to the heart of the matter. The head of legal made clear in his view who should and should not be notified and when. The word "immediately" is clear.
We will let the Commissioner, Mr. Ruane and Mr. Barrett respond to the points that the committee is making.
Now that we are in public session, it is probably useful to clarify for viewers. Our proposal is that, next Thursday, the committee will meet in private session to discuss a preliminary draft of our report on the progress to date on the Templemore issue. We will finalise it in due course. At 11 a.m. next Tuesday, we will have a meeting in private session to commence our work on the draft report on third level institutions. There will be no public meeting next week, only two private ones to discuss draft reports.
Next is No. 589C, correspondence from the Waterford Intellectual Disability Association. It refers to the HSE's attendance at the meeting of 15 June and provides an update regarding the Deloitte review of the cost of care for Grace. I propose that we note this correspondence and forward it to the commission of investigation. Is that agreed? Agreed.
We have been hearing that for a while.
Next is No. 590C, email correspondence dated 15 June from an individual regarding inquiries made with the Department of Education and Skills about the employment status of teachers. I propose that we write to the Department to copy us on the response being prepared for the individual. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next is No. 591C, correspondence dated 15 June from an individual bringing members' attention to issues with insurance claims and compensation. We have not been asked to do anything specifically, but we must note it in detail.
Next is No. 592C, correspondence dated 15 June from Deputy Murphy suggesting topics for the meeting with the Dublin Institute of Technology, including the outsourcing and funding of courses and the digital library. Does the Deputy wish to comment or will we deal with it during the course of today's meeting?
We will note and publish that correspondence.
Next are Nos. 593C(i) and (ii), correspondence dated 15 June from NAMA enclosing its response to a request from the committee to address queries raised by Deputy Wallace regarding the sale of Project Shift to Cerberus. According to the correspondence, NAMA expects the proposed commission of investigation to consider that Project Shift falls within its terms of reference and, on that basis, NAMA is of the opinion that it would be prudent not to comment further on these matters. The correspondence states that NAMA will co-operate fully with the work of the commission and, in the course of that work, expects to provide the commission with materials relating to Project Shift and to address fully any question the commission may have about the project.
For the benefit of viewers, Project Shift was originally a part of the Northern Ireland Project Eagle loan portfolio, but it was sold off separately during the course of the transaction, also to Cerberus. We will send this correspondence-----
It was categorically a part of the Northern Ireland loan portfolio. As a matter of courtesy, we will forward all of this correspondence to the commission. We will send to it anything that we receive about matters under its remit because we do not want to hold anything back that it might consider relevant down the road. We will also forward a copy of this to Deputy Wallace.
Next are Nos. 594C(i) and (ii), correspondence dated 13 June from the HSE regarding the National Ambulance Service and procurement processes in the north Leinster area. This correspondence relates to a protected disclosure to the HSE made on 11 May 2017 that detailed concerns regarding the purchase of ambulance fleet cars in Leinster. The matter is being investigated, so I propose that we request the HSE to update the committee when its investigation is completed. We will put down a marker to ensure that the matter reverts to us at that stage.
Next is No. 595C, email correspondence from an individual requesting the committee to check the accounts of the National Roads Authority, NRA, and the moneys for tolls being collected by it. In August 2015, the NRA and the Railway Procurement Agency were merged to become Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, which is responsible for monitoring and managing existing toll arrangements. I propose that we write to TII and request it to provide a response to the matters referred to in the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next are Nos. 596C(i) and (ii), correspondence dated 13 June from the chairman of the OPW regarding Cork city's lower Lee flood relief scheme. This information was requested by the committee following an inquiry from an individual about flooding in Cork city. I propose that we write to the individual who raised the matter and enclose the OPW's response. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next is No. 597C, a copy of the letter to the new artistic director of the Abbey Theatre dated 10 June from an individual alleging that the Abbey Theatre censored a play about corruption. We have only received a cc copy, as the letter was not directed to us. We have nothing to do on this matter, only to note the correspondence.
A large scheme has been proposed by the OPW, but a serious campaign by a range of civil society groups that disagree with it is also under way. Is the OPW's response likely to address the issue?
We will hold it over so that members can have an opportunity to consider it in advance of the next meeting. We will not conclude the matter.
Next is No. 598C, correspondence dated 15 June from an individual regarding the Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board. There is insufficient detail in the correspondence for the committee to take any action. All we can do is note it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next is No. 599C, correspondence dated 9 June from the Department of Finance attaching a copy of the 2016 annual report and financial statements of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland. We note that.
Next is 600C, correspondence dated 24 May from an individual regarding the transfer of salary arrangements from the Department of Social Protection to PeoplePoint, that is, the HR shared services centre for the Civil Service. This is a policy matter not within the remit of the committee, so I propose that we refer it to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for a response. When we get a response, we will consider the matter further.
Next is No. 601C, correspondence dated 9 June 2017 from an individual regarding the excavation of drains in Galway and making certain allegations against named persons. I propose that we write to the individual about directing any correspondence to the Local Government Audit Service, as the matter is outside the remit of this committee. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is a local authority issue.
Next are Nos. 602C(i) and (ii), correspondence dated 28 May enclosing communication with An Garda Síochána. The note is on members' screens. All that we are being asked to do is note the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next are Nos. 605C (i) and (ii), correspondence dated 16 June from the chairman of the Ireland East hospital group regarding receipt of protected disclosures in respect of to St. Vincent's University Hospital. The matter has been referred to the HSE internal audit division. I propose that we write to the HSE to be kept informed of the outcome of that. Members will see the acknowledgement on their screens. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Next is No. 606C, correspondence from Deputy Murphy dated 19 June regarding a contract for water cleaning chemicals due to be signed on 23 June by Irish Water.
I received a complaint that there was no competition to find a supplier.
I replied that it amounted to a monopoly in the provision of one particular product. Is that appropriate for us or is there another relevant body? I do not suppose the Comptroller and Auditor General audits the-----
I will outline what we are going to do. We are going to write to Irish Water directly because, even though it is ostensibly a commercial semi-State organisation, it is substantially funded by the taxpayer through the Vote of the relevant Department and through motor taxation receipts. Since it is substantially publicly funded, we have an interest in it. Therefore, we will write directly to Irish Water.
It would be responsible to the line committee in the Oireachtas rather than this committee. Irish Water and the regulator are answerable to the Oireachtas line committee, as opposed to us directly. Considering the Deputy's letter and the fact that Irish Water is publicly funded, we will write to it. We could refer the matter to the other committee but, because it is publicly funded, we could write to it directly, even though it does not-----
That is very simple. We just do not know the answer off the top of our heads. It can be established very quickly. I will send a note to members tomorrow on which Department is the line Department. I am a little confused because the regulator over Irish Water is under one Department but the funding comes from the other Department. Two Departments actually have responsibility. There is also the motor taxation revenue aspect.
Our committee considers that funding. That aspect of its funding comes under the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts. That is why we can write to Irish Water directly. We will confirm which Department covers the communications regulator. It would be useful for us to have a briefing note. Somebody in the Oireachtas might get it out to us.
The next item is 610C, correspondence dated 19 June 2017 from the secretary to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission regarding an increase in staff resources to support the Committee of Public Accounts. The clerk has been in touch with the Office of the Ceann Comhairle and a meeting with the Ceann Comhairle is still an option. There is a note on additional staff. We are being informed as to what is being done. The offer of a meeting was not stated specifically in the letter but it is available. We will have that meeting as soon as is practicable.
I would like to say on the public record that this is very important. The staff issue concerning this committee is very important. We said it in private and it is important to say it in public. Tremendous work is being done. There is a huge burden not only on us, as members, but also, and more importantly, on the staff. "Overwhelmed" is the wrong word because I believe the staff are coping, but it is a case of David and Goliath in terms of how we face institution after institution. We need the likes of "Prime Time" to help us. What was exposed on "Prime Time" indicates the difficulties we are experiencing in this committee. They are difficulties for us to work through but we need sufficient staff.
I reiterate Deputy Connolly's point. The Committee of Public Accounts meets for a minimum of almost a full day every week. Some committees meet weekly and some meet once a fortnight. Since last summer, we have been meeting practically twice a week. Therefore, the workload of the Committee of Public Accounts is extraordinarily extensive. The staff allocated to us are stretched beyond all reasonable limits and we do need the additional support because of the workload. Since we are diligent in doing our work, we believe we need to have these extra meetings. It puts strain on us as members but it puts a double strain on the staff trying to support us. We do need the resources. It is for one reason only; it is in the interest of the public who elect us to ensure we do our job as members of the committee. That is the only reason we are here.
I agree with Deputy Connolly. It is important that it be said on the public record that we are under-resourced as we speak. Not only do we have a very busy schedule, we also have a very diverse brief, unlike other committees, perhaps. Everybody is before us, which causes a challenge for us, as members, but also for the staff because we are covering virtually the entire gamut of public bodies, officials and so on. We need the meeting and we need to agree a day and a time for it. We just need additional resources. It is doing a huge disservice to the public to under-resource any committee, this one in particular.
I wish to put my view on the public record. We did speak about this matter in private, as other Deputies have said. It is only this morning that I discovered the limited number of staff available to the secretariat by comparison with the number that were available to the banking inquiry. The amount of work they do on our behalf is phenomenal. As Deputy Connolly said, they are coping. There is the equivalent of a mini-banking inquiry going on here every week, if not from month to month. When one considers the various reports we are producing at the moment, one recalls that the banking inquiry had an entire floor in Agriculture House. It had 20 or 30 people at its disposal. In fact, there was an additional member of staff for each of the members of the banking inquiry. It is not that I am looking for that – I am not – but I am appalled, quite frankly, that the secretariat of the Committee of Public Accounts, the only constitutional committee of the State, is limited to six or seven staff. I was genuinely of the view, given the quality of the work coming our way and the research, that there was a team of 20 people behind the scenes. The clerk, the members of the secretariat themselves and the Chairman should put a plan together and ascertain our optimal number of staff in terms of research, secretarial and administrative functions. They should go to the Ceann Comhairle and Oireachtas Commission and make the case for them. The importance of the work is such that it demands that.
That is agreed. We will try to have the meeting next Wednesday, possibly.
The next item of correspondence is from Deputy MacSharry asking whether we can request any and all communications between the Department of Justice and Equality and the director of finance and-----
The letter was provided to us at the meeting the other day. I knew there had been suggestions, somewhere in evidence, that the Garda College may have been seeking charitable status but I did not realise the magnitude of what this could mean. I asked whether there was any correspondence. There was not. During a break, the secretariat approached the CAO, who provided the correspondence, within which there was an email that mentioned this troubling muddying-the-waters commentary.
Included in what was provided was a thread of email correspondence from PwC advising Mr. Culhane, and correspondence to Eugene Banks, who was in the Garda division of the Department of Justice and Equality. The Department was able to clarify the other day that he is still in the Department but in a different role. If we are finished in terms of having witnesses in for public hearings, I would like to have Mr. Banks in to put some questions to him. It would be reasonable for us to contact Mr. Banks to see what he might like to tell us or share with us in regard to this matter. In any event, we should look for the entire email thread the correspondence relates to, because there seems to be only one or two but they suggest many more. We should also look for any other correspondence that may exist between the director of finance and the Garda and Mr. Banks with regard to issues on taxation on the charitable status of Templemore, and any other correspondence with PwC on the same matter. That would be very useful for us so we can make a fair analysis of this issue before we write our report.
In the two or three pages given to us the other day there was an email thread which involved letters between Mr. Culhane, the finance director of the Garda and someone whom I assume to be a partner or senior person at PwC advising on various options that might be available. The PwC view was there was situation in the UK where there may be grounds for seeking charitable status. I imagine there would be much more to that particular correspondence that might put a more complete picture on it.
That is the request to An Garda Síochána. We need to communicate that we want all the information on everything requested during and arising from the four public meetings to date back here by next Wednesday. We will be discussing our draft report on Thursday and we want to have the full complement of documentation. We may have further points of clarification at that stage, but we want everything we have asked to be back by next Wednesday.
I seek clarification, and perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General can tell us. With regard to the Office of Public Works renting out buildings, has there been a change of policy or something we have missed with regard to a direction from the Government or any Government on the office of Public Works getting market rent for its premises? With regard to the buildings identified following the 2009 Ryan report, in 2002 cash and property was to be handed over. The Comptroller and Auditor General has followed up on this. Deputy Cassells and I have raised concerns about buildings that were on the list but have not been handed over. I will take the specific example, to make it easy, of Lenaboy Castle, Taylor's Hill, Galway, which has not been handed up. Where can we follow up on this? This is 2017. It is down on the list that it was handed over in 2009. I have chosen one example in which I have a particular interest. In fairness to Deputy Cassells, he has raised the issue also. Where can I follow up? Who is following up on this?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The organisation to follow up with on the receipt of the property and accounting for the transfer of the property is the Department of Education and Skills. Properties are being handed over to a range of bodies, but it is the Department that should be co-ordinating it and who should be accounting for it.
With regard to the rent, my reading of the letter from the chairman of the OPW is there has been no change of policy. My understanding of what he has said is Caranua was accommodated for a period in accommodation that was assigned to the Department of Education and Skills, and because it was a Department the OPW was effectively paying the rent, and there is a rent payable for the property, but it was not passing on the charge to the Department of Education and Skills. It had a provision of funding for this, and when the lease came to an end the funding had run out and, therefore, it asked Caranua to pay the rent to it, which it had paid on to the landlord.
How the OPW's portfolio is managed is something that at some point we need to look at. I have experience with a piece of land that went into the OPW because the builder went bankrupt. I understand it is through the Minister for Finance that those types of land holdings or buildings end up in the OPW. Given the crash and all the rest of it there must be an increase in the number of buildings or amount of lands that the OPW acquired, and it would be quite important to look at it at some point.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
There have been significant changes, such as leases that ran out and were not renewed and new properties taken on. It is something I am looking at and may produce a report on it. There has been turnover of the portfolio, particularly if there were break clauses in leases. If the OPW had been locked into an upward only rent review it might take the opportunity to avail of a break clause to end it, but obviously it needs to go into the market and acquire other property to accommodate Departments.
Definitely after the summer recess we can put the OPW on our work programme for an early visit because there are very extensive issues that would be of interest to the committee under our remit. We will note it for early in the work programme for the next season, if we are all still here.
Next on the agenda are statements of accounts received since the previous meeting and the list is coming up on screen.
It is the residential redress special account. Moneys from the special account are used to pay awards made by the residential institutional redress board and associated legal and application costs. For the year ended 2015 the account had a throughput of €10 million and there is a clear audit opinion. We note it. If any member wants to follow up on the account directly he or she is free to do so.