Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 28 September 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
For the first few minutes we will clearing routine business, which will not take very long. I mean correspondence that we have received in the past seven days and other small items. Then we will go into private session for a legal briefing on the issue of protected disclosure.
The first item on the agenda is the minutes for the meeting on 21 September 2017. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. Nothing has arisen from the minutes.
Correspondence received is the main issue and it will not take too long. Correspondence, Category A, is a briefing note on the opening statement from HIQA. We have already dealt with that note and published it. Category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers and follow-up to previous meetings. The first item is No. 763B, a letter from the Secretary General, Department of Justice and Equality, dated 20 September 2017, relating to the interim report regarding the reopening of Garda stations. We note and publish that as we have discussed the topic earlier.
The next item is No. 766B, correspondence dated 22 September 2017 from Dónall Ó Cualáin, acting Garda Commissioner, relating to the interim report on the reopening of Garda stations. We discussed that issue at length this morning so we note and publish.
The next item is No. 764B, correspondence dated 22 September 2017 from the Higher Education Authority confirming the higher education institutions were requested to report on the engagement and associated costs of external consultancy and legal firms and services going back over ten years. A number of returns have been received by the Higher Education Authority. It expects to be in a position to report to the committee in early October. We note and publish that.
The next item is 765B, correspondence received from Tony O'Brien regarding the delay in sending the Deloitte report on the Grace case. We note and publish that.
The next item is 775B (i) and (ii). It is a further item received yesterday from Mr. Tony O'Brien, enclosing a covering letter with the Deloitte report. This is a report that members will wish to study before deciding if we want to discuss it further.
We have to be conscious that the Grace case is the subject matter of a commission of investigation. It is good to note that the chairperson of the commission wrote to the HSE to confirm that she does not have any issue with the provision of this report to the Committee of Public Accounts. We have that cleared the whole way up the line to the commission. We have it there. It is a substantial document and people can-----
Yes, it was very good in fairness to all concerned. Category C is correspondence related to private individuals and other correspondence. No. 758C is correspondence dated 14 September from the Secretary General, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, regarding the purchase of lands by Galway City Council at Keeraun, County Galway. The correspondence includes a report undertaken by the Local Government Audit Service that there was no evidence that the council was aware of the purchase price associated with previous sales of the land. Mr. McCarthy confirmed that a revised set of procedures governing local authority land purchases will be put in place later this year and issues included in the audit report will be taken into account in finalising these new procedures.
I am also requesting that we write to the Department asking them to send us a copy of these revised procedures when they are going to issue them to local authorities. Is that agreed? Agreed.
This is one piece of land among many pieces of land that were bought. I want to just comment on this matter. Well done to Deputy MacSharry for raising the matter and securing an answer.
What is noteworthy when one reads it is that the councillors held off. The councillors had no role in this purchase of land. The purchase of land is down to officials but the approval of a loan is for councillors.
Getting a loan is the role of the councillors. They did not rush into getting a loan. In fact, it would seem, from memory, and I am going by what I have been told, that the approval was finally given. The land was purchased subject to the councillors approving it. Looking back on it, there was a whole process where the councillors, looking back retrospectively, seemed to do their best and ask questions. I was on the council so I put my hand up and we asked questions. It is unclear whether the estate agent acted for both sides. On a general issue, many times in my period as a local councillor we asked repeatedly for services in terms of solicitors and auctioneers to go out to tender.
Those are good points. The next item is No. 759C, correspondence from Catherine Murphy enclosing correspondence sent to several members of the committee on an individual making a complaint against a commercial bank relating to overcharging. Members of the committee will agree that overcharging by banks is a serious matter. In this case the bank is not in public ownership and, therefore, it is not within the remit of the committee to make specific inquiries. I propose that we advise the correspondent accordingly and suggest he contact the Financial Services Ombudsman because that is where one goes with an individual complaint. I think that is the correct procedure to take in this situation.
The next item is No. 760C, correspondence dated 15 September from an individual regarding the management of resources in the carer's leave section of the Department of Social Protection. Deputy Cullinane brought this matter to the committee. I propose that we hold it over because he is not here. We will defer this matter.
The matters raised strike me as extremely serious. While I propose to refer the matter to the Department for response, before we do that we may need to liaise with the individual and, perhaps, get some legal advice on the matter in case it could be interpreted as a protected disclosure. As the individual is an employee of the Department, he may need protection under the Protected Disclosures Act. We must be mindful of that. I suggest we return to this matter next week following consultation with the parliamentary legal adviser in case there is a protected disclosures issue part of this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
We will come back to that when we get the advice.
The next item is No. 761 (c) dated 20 September, relating to birth certificate fraud. The purpose of the correspondence, which was sent to a number of Oireachtas email addresses, is not clear and does not relate specifically to any institutions or organisations in Ireland. We will just note that as we have no further action to take. Correspondence item No. 762, dated 14 September, from an individual who resigned from An Garda Síochána in 2013 alleges bullying. I propose that we write to the correspondent to advise that the matter is not within the remit of this committee and refer the individual to the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. That is the first port of call. This committee is not the first port of call on such matters. The next item of correspondence, No. 767 (c), dated 21 September, relates to public parking in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council area by Garda vehicles. I propose to request an information note from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Essentially, the correspondent has complained that members of An Garda Síochána often park in an area and do not put money into the parking meter. We will await a response to that matter. I will probably get into trouble for smiling while reading out that item.
Item No. 768, dated 25 September, is from an individual in response to correspondence that was forwarded to him regarding the Irish Prison Service following last week's meeting. The individual is frustrated at the lack of action in relation to the external review until the WRC completes its work in November. While this is understandable, we will have to await the outcome ourselves. Essentially, the matter went to the external reviewer under a protected disclosure. The individual is now in the WRC with the Prison Service. We have written to the Prison Service asking for a progress report but the service has said that the matter is now with the WRC and until that body has completed its consideration, the Prison Service is not in a position to revert to this committee. That is not unreasonable and we will just have to wait until November. We would like to see things move more quickly but we will have to wait until the WRC has dealt with the matter.
Let me go to the particular item of correspondence, No. 768. There is a reply from the Department of Justice and Equality. Essentially, this is one of the first issues in terms of how to deal with a protected disclosure in the Prison Service. The person involved was not happy and used the legislation to get an external reviewer to examine the case. The external reviewer is a retired District Court judge who has issued a very comprehensive report to the Prison Service and to the individual concerned. The individual has taken his case to the WRC and there are difficulties regarding the use of the aforementioned report at the WRC. I think we have no option but to wait until the WRC is finished its work. I have to say that the individual is a constituent of mine, I am familiar with the case and have actually met the gentleman. As I said before, there is a lot of learning to be done by public bodies in terms of how to deal with protected disclosures. They seem to be only beginning to become aware of the issues involved. Does anyone else have a view on this? I do not think we can do anything until the WRC deals with the individual in the Prison Service and that will be in November. We will ask to be kept informed on that particular issue. I am disappointed that we cannot do anything sooner but we cannot really interfere if the matter is with the WRC.
In terms of the statements and accounts received since our last meeting, there are only four on the list, all of which received a clear audit opinion. First on the list is the Local Government Fund, which is the central fund which finances part of the expenditure of local authorities. As I understand it, that was €1.9 billion. A big chunk of money goes in there from-----
Money goes out of that to Irish Water and the plastic bag levy is in there as well. Motor tax is also included. Waterways Ireland's report is there, as is the financial report 2016 from An Bord Pleanála, both of which, as I said, got clear audit opinions. We will agree to note those.
The next item is our work programme. We will discuss that next week. The Comptroller and Auditor General is scheduled to issue his annual report tomorrow. The report is normally published on the last working day in September. We will analyse what is in his report over the coming weekend and when we come back next Friday we can discuss it in the context of our work programme for the coming period, along with the other items that we have already discussed. There is no point in discussing the work programme until we see the annual report from the Comptroller and Auditor General.
As there is no other business, we will suspend and go into private session-----
Before we go into private session, I asked last week for a list of Education and Training Boards, ETBs, and where we were as regards the Comptroller and Auditor General and their accounts for 2015 and 2016. Has that list been drawn up? We will be bringing the ETBs in at some point in time and I would like-----
I understand that we have requested that information and it is on our list. We will make sure we get it back. As there is no other business we will suspend and go into private session to take advice from the Parliamentary Counsel with regard to the issue of protected disclosures.