Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 October 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The first item on our agenda is the minutes of the meeting of 5 October, 2017. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. Apologies have been received from Deputy Josepha Madigan. We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to the committee and he is accompanied today by Mark Brady.
The next item is matters arising from the aforementioned minutes but there is nothing arising that will not be dealt with when we deal with our correspondence. The next item is correspondence received. The first items of category A correspondence are Nos. 792A and 798A, which are briefing documents and opening statements from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, for today's meeting which we will note and publish. In category B we have correspondence from Accounting Officers, Ministers and follow-ups on previous meetings. The first item is No. 775B, which was held over from the last meeting. It is dated 26 September and is from Mr. Tony O'Brien, director general of the HSE. We noted and published this correspondence last week but said that we would return to it. The correspondence includes the independent review of the cost of care incurred by the service provider in the Grace case, known as the Deloitte report, as requested by the committee. Does anyone have any comment on this?
Okay. I will move on and take these two items together. We are also looking at No. 790C, which is correspondence from the person known as the whistleblower who dealt with the Grace case and who works for the service provider. We will discuss that correspondence too, but I would ask members to refrain from putting the names of any of those involved into the public arena.
I will certainly do that. Obviously there is a strong difference of opinion between the HSE and the service provider. I have a concern as to whether the Deloitte report could be classed as independent. We have received a report that was paid for by the HSE to answer a question that the service provider says was not the question that needed to be asked. Notwithstanding that, the report includes tables and data that were simply presented by the HSE.
My understanding is that there was also a slimmed-down version of this that was a draft and got lost in the ether somewhere. It is very similar to what was being requested of us when we were doing reports. A draft report is done. It must go to the person who is the payer. They have an influence and a say. Drafts go over and back. The final product ends up being not truly independent but yet it is presented to us as the independent analysis. How independent is it? I want the HSE to come back in because it all arises from comments made by Mr. Healy of the HSE, who has not been here. He was the one who made the comment originally about the costs and he needs to come before us. There was a table in the earlier draft that did answer the question for the service providers.
That is the point; we should see it. I am only relaying what it is telling us. It is telling us that there was an earlier draft, which had the table and did make the distinction between the cost of care for Grace and whether that would then involve a net increase or decrease in its funding. That was the source of the contention. That did not make its way into the final report and as the question then is why not, I also want to hear from the author of the report. The author of the report needs to come before the committee because this chimes with a point I was making about the third level sector, where these type of organisations are being asked to come in and do so-called independent reports. I am asking how independent they are. What process is used? Is it lending itself to reports coming to us that really give clear answers to the questions being put? I am very concerned about it and I think this is a good case for us to examine whether this is the case. Perhaps it is the case, perhaps it is fair and perhaps they have answered the question but I have concerns. My point is that the HSE needs to come back, including the director general and Mr. Healy, who was at the heart of the comments that caused the difficulty in the first place, as well as the author of the report.
I know we have timetabled dealing with this issue when the HSE is in front of us again in a few weeks' time but I share some of the concerns. Having been on the other side of an organisation receiving reports, one tends to want to be happy with the report that is finally published. It gets tweaked and goes forward and backwards even if it is independent. We are getting a steer for some of the questions we should address from the whistleblower and I wonder whether we should have further engagement with the whistleblower in advance of the meeting with the HSE. What we do not want to do is go on a merry-go-round where we have the HSE before us and there are questions that are not asked when we had that meeting. The letter is one thing but expanding on the letter, regardless of whether we do it in private session, as we did before, would be useful.
I am sorry for being late. I do not know what was said but I feel it is a subject we should return to regardless of whether we discuss how we return to that. I am most unhappy with the way a public body is dealing with an issue like this. The system is extremely strong and I have repeatedly said that notwithstanding the excellent work of the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and other offices as well, we are utterly dependent on whistleblowers. If this is what they must go through, I must repeat, and I am taking a second to say that, that it is important that we balance this. If this woman and her colleague did not persist, we would not know. Where does that leave us with a public body with a huge budget that is responsible for life and death?
I thank members for those comments. We received the Deloitte report, noted it and said at our last meeting that we did not have time to consider it the last time we discussed it. I think we can agree to publish it today. We held off publishing it the last day. It has been sent to us with the consent of the Farrelly commission so everybody can assume that it has been sent to the Committee of Public Accounts not to be kept secret. I am informed that the HSE said that there is one identifying detail relating to one particular point that needs to be redacted. We will do that.
I am moving on to that matter. I appreciate everything the whistleblower has said. We would not be here discussing it without the whistleblower, who has done an enormous service not just to Grace but in highlighting the issues that have come to light as a result of this over a period of years. In addition to that, the whistleblower, who has written to us, was personally involved in this case and has more information than anybody else. As a result of the work of the whistleblower not solely through this committee and the previous one but through other people in the Oireachtas, this issue has been highlighted very extensively resulting in the Oireachtas setting up a commission of investigation - the Farrelly commission. That is how the Oireachtas has decided that this matter is to be dealt with from here on in. The commission is commencing its public sessions next week and I do not think it is appropriate for the Committee of Public Accounts to engage in any significant discussions in parallel with the commission of investigation established by the Oireachtas. That is one issue.
The second issue about which I am concerned is the fact that there is no reference in the correspondence we received today that the service provider, the employer of the people concerned, has been to the High Court on this matter. I will read into the record page five of the Deloitte report. It is the executive summary. I could read out a lot of it but I will just read out this particular point. Before I make that point, Deloitte made the point in the report that much of the documentation that was supplied, most of which was from the HSE and some of which was from the service provider, was included in the report but that Deloitte had not substantiated the information from either source. There is information from both sides that Deloitte did not feel was its job to substantiate but was given it and included it. Everything in that is not from Deloitte and we all agree on that. The paragraph on page five of the executive summary states:
In April 2017 the HSE and the Service Provider agreed a funding position for 2016 and a payment schedule for 2017. Subsequently, the High Court approved settlement terms on 27 April 2017 which included a care settlement of €600,000 for past care and €120,484 per annum for the individual’s care going forward. The HSE contacted the Service Provider on 19 May 2017 to update the previously agreed payment schedule and payment of the €600,000 was made on 2 June 2017.
This matter has been before the High Court. The settlement figure and the cost of care has been accepted by the service provider and the HSE and has been approved by the High Court. We are not revisiting a matter that has been approved by the High Court at the request of the service provider and the HSE. It is not our job to unpick a High Court-approved agreement. As Chairman, I am saying that we will not be going there. If the Parliamentary Legal Adviser tells us it is safe for the Oireachtas to consider unpicking an approved agreement in the High Court, well and good. If the Parliamentary Legal Adviser takes the view that it is appropriate given that the Oireachtas has set up a commission of investigation, all of which should examine the issues the whistleblower has highlighted, our response should be to forward the whistleblower's letter to the commission established by the Oireachtas to look into this matter. I am making it very clear that we are not unpicking a High Court settlement and we are not trespassing over a commission established by the Oireachtas. The letter in front of us makes no reference whatsoever to the High Court agreement. It is a valid letter.
It is a great letter, but it ignores the fact the employer organisation of the people who wrote to us has an agreement in the High Court. I am just saying we have to take that into account and I propose we send it off.
Of course the Chairman is entitled to be clear, and he is very clear, but he is conflating two issues, with respect, if I can just respond. Of course there was a High Court case, and it was in respect of whether moneys were due to the organisation. The High Court outcome was that there was money due and it was paid. That is not what is in question. The question is whether the group itself was targeted in terms of its funding, and whether a statement made by Mr. Healy to the previous incarnation of the Committee of Public Accounts was accurate.
This is not about us trying to interfere with the commission of investigation or anything like it. It is about how the HSE interacts with the Committee of Public Accounts. It is about the information it gives us and whether we have the right then to interrogate it and examine it. We also have a duty to examine the Deloitte report. I have very real concerns about whether it really is independent. It is being presented to us as independent analysis. I will give just one example of what it says, because there is a lot of spin going on here as well. The HSE states, and this is from Tony O'Brien in his letter in response, "Consequently, the Service Provider was not treated either unfairly or disproportionately when compared to other similarly funded organisations."
The report actually states at paragraph 6.13 that HSE south east advised Deloitte that in its view, based on the comparative analysis, the cuts visited on the service provider were in line with cuts nationally and locally. The report just gives us the HSE's views. That is not independent or an analysis. A whole section in the report gives the HSE view and states Deloitte does not offer any opinion. Where is the view of the service provider? I am not comfortable at all with this report.
Hang on one second now, because the Chairman gave his view. I do not see the report as independent. There are questions that need to be answered about how the HSE interacts with this committee in terms of the evidence it gives and whether it is accurate. We must hold it to account if we believe it is not accurate, and there is every indication it was inaccurate, so we have a responsibility to follow it up. We cannot just bookend it and state that is it because there is a commission of investigation. That commission of investigation is dealing with all sorts of other issues and may not deal with the issues we are dealing with. It will deal with its issues and we will deal with our issues, and our issues are how organisations interact with us. The HSE has interacted with us on this issue for a long time, it has not been to our satisfaction, and we still have not resolved this issue. With respect to the High Court, I do not believe the service providers had to put that in the letter, because they were dealing specifically with what was said at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, what subsequently happened and what is in the report. It has dealt with that. Nobody is contesting now whether the €600,000 was due. It is not in question. The question is whether the organisation was targeted or not.
I heard the Chairman's opinion. He chairs the meetings very well and normally I do not disagree too much with him, but I disagree with him fundamentally on this. He is conflating issues inappropriately. I, more than anyone, am fully conscious there is an inquiry and we should not trespass in any way into it. It is an indictment that we have had to come to the stage where there is an inquiry regarding this matter so we will park that. This is with regard to value for money and how much money the organisation got or did not get. It is clear the service provider maintained at all times, right up to the present day, that it was underfunded. Do we accept that it was underfunded?
There was a settlement for Grace, who was a ward of court. As part of that settlement this figure was put in. The Chairman is interpreting the figure in a way without knowing the facts as to the nature of the case, who took it and what happened. This money was paid. We interpret it as an acknowledgement that it was underfunded all along, and that backs up exactly what the whistleblowers have told us. In addition, we have an up-to-date report from Deloitte, which is questionable in itself because of both sides, and this needs to be teased out. It is a fundamental issue. If an independent report is commissioned and questions are asked as to its independence and what has changed, it is a matter for this committee.
There is no other issue before us except about funding. It seems to me, and this is my view and I am open to changing this view, that the HSE wants it both ways. It wants to acknowledge retrospectively that this money had to be given but that the organisation was never targeted and never underfunded. The HSE quite happily gave over this figure of €600,000. It wants it both ways and it simply cannot have it both ways. I disagree with the Chairman. It is very specific. If the Chairman would like to make it even more specific as we did with the Garda, I have no difficulty with that, but this is an issue that has to be debated before us publicly.
We have already agreed to make time available when the HSE is in to discuss the section 38 and 39 bodies. To be clear, the terms of reference, and I am reading from the report, was an independent review of the cost of care from 2009 to 2016 of a specific individual in the care of the service provider and the funding provided by the HSE to the service provider. The letter from the whistleblowers today specifically states in the third paragraph:
In this regard, the Committee must note that Deloitte makes no finding regarding the fairness, or otherwise, of the Service Provider's treatment by the HSE in relation to funding. This was not within the Terms of Reference, but rather is a matter for the Farrelly Commission.
The whistleblowers writing to us today state the fairness of the funding is a matter for the Farrelly commission. The Deloitte report did not examine funding to other organisations and there is information provided by the HSE. Deloitte stated it did not examine any other organisation the HSE is funding to compare the funding with this organisation that cared for Grace. It was not within its terms of reference. Regarding the issue of the fairness of funding by the HSE, the whistleblower tells us today it is a matter for the Farrelly commission. I want to tread carefully. We have agreed to make an hour available when the HSE is here in a couple of weeks, but a commission of investigation is in place and I will not have the Committee of Public Accounts referred to at a commission of investigation established by the Oireachtas because in some way we are trespassing on its work. I want to clear the lines of demarcation. I also want to make sure we are not treading over an agreement the High Court has set. I ask that we get the parliamentary legal adviser to give a clear guideline on the issues it is safe for us to discuss with the HSE when it comes before us.
I seek clarification. I do not want to be unhelpful and I do work with the Cathaoirleach and members of the committee. It is not often I strongly insist on something. I have concerns, and I have expressed them already, about the independence of the Deloitte report. I am expressing it as an opinion, but in terms of due process and fairness, surely I should have a right to test and probe this with the author of the report. This is a pattern. This is not just an isolated incident of having concerns about a report from these types of organisations presented as independent. I have a concern about the process and I am asking whether it is within the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts to examine reports such as this. The report was presented to us. We asked for it and we were waiting for it for God knows how long. It took us months of delays before we got it. We now have it, and are we to accept it and that is it? We have a counter opinion from the whistleblowers, who completely disagree with the report. I have read the report. I have huge concerns about information that was going over and back. As I have already put on the record, it gives the HSE's position and that is all it does. I am not happy with that.
Every one of us will agree that the HSE commissioned this report, set the terms of reference, approved all of the drafts, inserted much of its own views into the drafts and paid for the report. Therefore, we do not accept for a minute-----
The Committee of Public Accounts can unanimously agree this is not an independent report. It is a document procured by the HSE from Deloitte at its request. The HSE may choose to use that word but no reasonable person can use it. I think we are agreed on that.
We have to be conscious. The service provider has gone to the High Court on this as well. Despite all of the issues, it has settled the issue. I want to read one paragraph from the executive summary.
Deloitte reminds the HSE of its letter of engagement, particularly in relation to confidentiality. This precludes the HSE from disclosing this report to any third party without Deloitte's prior written consent. In other words if we want to contact Deloitte we are going to have to do it through the HSE, who commissioned the report. We have no direct link to Deloitte on this. I ask the members of this committee to provide targeted information on the direction we want to take with that meeting. I will consult the parliamentary legal advisor so that we do not trespass onto a High Court agreement or onto a commission engaged with the work. We have our job to do but we need to avoid trespassing onto those two areas. I think that is fair and reasonable. I do not want the Committee of Public Accounts to get into a conflict with an independent commissioner appointed by the Oireachtas.
The Chairman is right, we must be very careful. Is the danger of trespassing onto a High Court case not irrelevant, however? As is the case, separately, with the inquiry. We need to be very careful but they have written to us to state that it would be fine for us to deal with this report. To be fair, I also understand that the whistleblower had confidence in Deloitte and found that it dealt with them on a professional basis. It was as the process went on that that issues arose over what was and was not included. I say this to be fair to the writers of the report. The issue was with the process dictated by the HSE as time went on.
To be factual here, the service providers did not go to the High Court. It was Grace who went to the High Court. The service provider element was just one part of what was heard. The service providers did not themselves go to the High Court.
Coming back to Deloitte, there is a confidentiality agreement. I am not casting any views on Deloitte. What I am saying is that we have to work through the HSE, which is the body accountable to us. I ask members to consider this matter. The HSE is coming into us in a few weeks and we still have time. We need to be clear on how we are going to deal with that meeting when it happens.
Can I make a suggestion? Given that we have the report and given that this has been a long-running matter that has come up before successive Committees of Public Accounts, we should be starting from the position that we deal with this issue. The question should then be how we deal with it, what are the parameters and what are the cautions that we need to build in. It would be wrong-headed to start from the position that we are not dealing with it. That is not a credible position for us to take.
I say this to be helpful. This matter has had a good airing and ventilation and I share the concerns of colleagues on this. Perhaps next week we could have a more deliberative session to set out the parameters and telling us not so much what we cannot do but what it is that we can.
Yes, we agree on that. The date for that HSE meeting is given on the work programme. The HSE will primarily be dealing with sections 38 and 39 on that day but we have said that we will make some time available for this once we are precise in what we are doing.
Absolutely. We will note items Nos. 775 and 790 (C) as they have just been discussed.
The next is item No. 787, correspondence from the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. This is additional information in follow-up to our meeting on 28 September. Interestingly, the correspondence refers specifically to policy so I propose that we refer this to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health for its consideration. I believe Deputy McDonald also has correspondence on this. We will deal with the other HIQA correspondence now. Deputy McDonald has written-----
Yes, but I am going to address the net issue, if I might. As members will know, I and others here have on a number of occasions raised issues around the fair deal scheme, ancillary charging regimes and so on. We had agreed as a committee to review and examine this area. Last week the executives from HIQA appeared before us, which I found to be a useful exchange. A number of issues were raised with HIQA, including the role of the board, specifically that of the chairman; issues surrounding the role of HIQA itself in respect of the nursing home sector; HIQA's prerogatives as a regulator; and its remit or otherwise in respect of setting charges, where the authority made it clear that it was not a financial regulator. We were given certain assurances. I asked specifically about governance and about the management of conflicts of interest and so on. We were given answers which I thought at the time to be thorough and reassuring.
A story appeared at the weekend in the Sunday Independent - not my newspaper of choice, perhaps.
Let us just give them a mention. This story was alarming. It referred to a meeting, the minutes of which we as a committee now have in our possession, at which the serving chairman of HIQA, Mr. Brian McEnery, was in attendance along with members of Nursing Home Ireland and legal counsel. On the basis, not just of the newspaper report, but also of the minutes that members now have before them, I believe-----
Yes. That is correct. We do not know the provenance of it, but I think we can accept its veracity. I noted in the news report at the weekend that there has been no refutation of this meeting. Let us take from that what we will. For the purposes of our work, this requires that HIQA - not just the executive Mr. Phelim Quinn and his colleagues but the HIQA board and Mr. McEnery, the chairman of that board - must come before this committee. We need to revisit the assurances we were given last week in terms of good governance, management of conflicts of interest, the role of the board, the role of the chairman of the board and so on. We should also extend an invitation to Mr. Tadhg Daly of Nursing Homes Ireland. I appreciate that Nursing Homes Ireland does not fall under the purview either of the Comptroller and Auditor General or of this committee so we would be asking Mr. Daly to attend in a voluntary capacity.
However, it would be unthinkable that we would allow such a shocking revelation as this to go without comment and without the examination of the Committee of Public Accounts. I could say a whole lot more in respect of the issues that we need to rehearse with HIQA and with Mr. Brian McEnery, but that is more productively done when we have those witnesses before us. I propose that we call HIQA, the executives, Mr. Brian McEnery from the board and Mr. Tadhg Daly from Nursing Homes Ireland to appear without delay. We need to do this urgently. I propose that we would ask them to attend on Thursday next.
Briefly, I support An Teachta McDonald. We are busy and we have a heavy work schedule, but anyone who has read that report would have been flabbergasted by it and really concerned and alarmed, and I was one of those. We have to make room as soon as we possibly can.
There was a cover note - I appreciate that it was sent anonymously to us but it seems to be authentic - that this was a meeting that took place between the those who An Teachta McDonald has mentioned. Legal were also present in the meeting. They cautioned people and warned people against some of what was being said that what was being advocated potentially could be illegal. That is obviously alarming as well, and disturbing. All of this needs to be probed.
Also there was a cover letter asking that this actual note of this meeting should be deleted and destroyed. Any time I see words such as "delete" and "destroy" I am worried, as a member of this committee.
I would completely support my colleague's assertion that this needs to be urgently addressed and we cannot let this slip. The seriousness of this note lends itself to them coming before us next week.
One moment, let me finish. I agree with it. I believe there is a time-sensitivity in this regard. We have a couple of issues which will take a couple of hours in this committee - we will be talking about the Garda matter later on. Maybe we could address two or three of these issues on the same day and deal with them.
From a practical point of view, HIQA made it clear it has no role in setting the fees and costs of nursing homes. Those are set by the National Treatment Purchase Fund. The body which deals with the nursing homes is the NTPF. When it comes to the fair deal issue and the cost of the fair deal issue, and what the State pays the nursing homes, we will have to have the NTPF here because its staff are the ones who write the cheques and agree the money. HIQA have a role in the so-called health and safety aspects and other aspects such as inspections in nursing homes and other HSE facilities.
I will also include as part of this debate correspondence item 803C on the agenda relating to this. It is from Mr. Gearóid Brennan, chief executive, Droimnín Nursing Home, Stradbally, County Laois. He wrote to me, as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts.I met them and I have tabled parliamentary questions on this issue. They forward a copy of the parliamentary questions I put to the chief executive of Nursing Homes Ireland, Mr. Tadhg Daly. They are very concerned. They state they believe the matters raised, particularly the disparity in the treatment of the public vis-à-visthe private and voluntary nursing home sectors, are deserving of scrutiny by the Committee of Public Accounts and would urge me to use our good offices to pursue this matter. That deals with the cost - what the State pays them. It also raises the issue of what the taxpayer pays for the service provided in the State nursing homes.
To cover all the ground - I want to be comprehensive and do everything members suggest - there are a couple of interests. HIQA has a role. Nursing Homes Ireland has a role. The NTPF has a role because its staff are the ones who make all the financial arrangements. Finally, the HSE has a role because a significant proportion of those in respect of whom the fair deal is being paid are in State nursing homes, while others are in private ones. We have all said, from last year, we want to deal with this fair deal issue. There is a day in that with all those groups.
Can we ask the secretariat to get the first available date when we can get these people in? It might work to meet them next Thursday afternoon. I have no problem if it is next Thursday afternoon.
In respect of dealing with the fair deal scheme which involves €1.6 billion in spending, the correspondent raises an issue against the ratios, private to public, and we need to examine that. However, what I am raising here is something quite distinct, discreet and specific. We have here not so much wider questions around the fair deal scheme. These are direct questions around the governance of HIQA, its interactions with the NTPF, the role of the chairman of the board of HIQA, the management or otherwise of conflicts of interests, and a specific meeting that happened at a specific time, the minutes of which are now in our possessions and raise alarming questions in terms of oversight, in terms of roles and in terms of the management of this scenario. I suggest that we have the HIQA executives return to us because we need to go back over that ground around conflicts of interest, around the role of the board and around the fact that, as the Chairman quite correctly states, it is not a body that sets or regulates fees or charges. We need the chairman of the board here to assist us in examining those and we need an account from the chairman of the board of that meeting, why he was at that meeting, what happened at that meeting, etc. We also need Mr. Tadhg Daly from Nursing Homes Ireland because he was the convenor of the meeting in question.
I take the Chairman's point that it would be helpful for this specific investigation to have the NTPF present as well but I am not suggesting, although we need to do it, the wider investigation of fair deal. This is a specific matter. This is an account of a specific meeting, that is to say the least alarming and that raises the most fundamental questions around accountability and governance and people's roles and limitations. That is what I ask an examination of on Thursday next.
This correspondence impinges on that. I thought the Deputy wanted to discuss the fair deal issue and I stated these are all similar issues. If the Deputy wants to leave the fair deal issue for another day-----
I do, because we need to examine the entirety of fair deal. I am saying, for now, the urgent piece in my view is not only the newspaper account but the account we have now by way of minutes of this particular meeting. We need to examine it next week.
The Chairman is correct when he states that the NTPF sets the prices, but what is disturbing about this note - noting the caveat it was sent to us anonymously - is that it suggests the chair of HIQA potentially was involved in discussions with private nursing homes where he could have been lobbying or seen to have been lobbying on their behalf, but also exploring ways in which the NTPF could be, to use the word that is in the document, "threatened" and courses of actions taken that would influence prices, and that is very serious. That is what is in the note. The Chairman is correct in terms of who sets the prices but it is very serious if one has the chair of HIQA involved in a discussion with private nursing homes around tactics that can be deployed to influence prices.
I am stealing Deputy MacSharry's notes. My point is that one should tie that in with what has been said earlier on and with the discussion we had here with HIQA, but also with the fact that in tandem with this - I am not getting into the legal issue but merely making the committee aware of it - there is also a court case between HIQA and the HSE on the potential future non-admission of people into public nursing homes.
That raises even more questions about what is going on here.
I broadened it because it is relevant. I think there is a day's work in that. We cannot set a date but we have mentioned several organisations. I will ask the secretariat to try to set a time and date for that meeting as quickly as can be done.
It is simply that I cannot confirm it today. That is all I am saying. The next item of correspondence is No. 787B. That is noted and has been discussed. The next item of correspondence is No. 791, correspondence from Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, advising that the Minister for Education and Skills has appointed an investigator to carry our an investigation into the performance of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board. We mentioned that the previous day but the correspondence has just arrived. The board was requested to submit a final report to the Minister as soon as practicable after the report was completed. We discussed this correspondence briefly. We are all aware now that the investigation is due to end by the end of March. The Comptroller and Auditor General indicated the previous day that the audit cannot be completed until after that.
I have been chasing this for some time. I believe we will need to look at Education and Training Boards Ireland as well. That is the organisation over all the boards. There are broader issues relating to the way in which funding is being spent, in respect of how SOLAS provided funding to the board and the issue relating to the merger of the education and training boards and multiple locations of offices. I put tabled a parliamentary question on the matter. In fact, I do not know how many parliamentary questions relating to education and training boards I have tabled recently. To say that the answers were disturbing would be an understatement in respect of how funding was administered and especially in respect of how staff at senior levels were being positioned in organisations and so on. I want a date in the diary for it.
We are obviously all aware that there is an independent investigation going on here. Some of the work would already have been done by the Comptroller and Auditor General in respect of that audit. Do some of the things identified form part of the inquiry in any way? Is there any feed-in to the inquiry from the network? If we are going to agree that we need to have some coherent work done in respect of all the areas outlined, then we need the ability to come back to this because I imagine it will be instructive in its own right.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes. We will of course co-operate with the special investigation. Any material we have, we will make available to the special investigator. He may decide to widen the focus and examine further procurements and so on within the education and training board. I imagine he will be reporting some of that material. I am unsure exactly what his focus will be, whether it will be a governance or audit focus.
The only vehicle I have to report is when the audit is completed. At that stage I can attach a report to the audit report. That is the only way I can report this, but I cannot report unless I have a set of financial statements approved by the education and training board. The board is not in a position currently to present those financial statements.
The next items of correspondence are No. 797B from the Comptroller and Auditor General and No. 800B from the Department of Defence. The item was raised here the previous day. A technical issue arose due to the audit. We will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to give us a short report. It is a technical issue and we do not need a major discussion. However, there is a formal process whereby the Committee of Public Accounts has to approve a matter highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General. I will explain it briefly because we do not need to have a detailed discussion on it.
Last week the Comptroller and Auditor General raised a technical matter with the committee in respect of Vote 35 - Army Pensions and an excess of €23,000 in that Vote. As a result of the overspend, approval of Dáil Éireann was required for what is known as an excess Vote. It is a technical issue. Last week, we agreed the Comptroller and Auditor General would submit a briefing note to the committee and we requested a note from the Department of Defence on the matter. These are the correspondence items I mentioned, No. 797B and No. 800B, respectively. Is it agreed that we note these two items? Agreed. Will Mr. McCarthy comment briefly?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes. The Dáil sets a limit on the amount that can be spent under any Vote. The Department of Defence, in respect of pensions, has exceeded that by an amount of €23,299. It took in more money than the Dáil allowed it to spend. Therefore, the money is there but the Department cannot apply it. There is, technically, an open situation in respect of the €23,299. The procedure involved is that I report this to the Committee of Public Accounts. If the committee is satisfied with the explanations provided by me and the Accounting Officer, it forms a view that it is appropriate or not appropriate and reports the matter to the Dáil and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. If the Minister is likewise satisfied, he can then bring a motion in the Dáil approving the excess Vote and asking the Dáil to vote that specific sum.
In other words, when we had an appropriation vote before Christmas, the matter was not captured at that stage. It came to light during the Comptroller and Auditor General's audit after the year end. A payment of €23,299 was recorded in a suspense account. It should have cleared out of the suspense account before the year end. It cannot go into 2017 because it relates to 2016 and we have to correct it retrospectively.
It is an accounting error. The Department recorded the payment in a suspense account rather than in the pensions account. It should have gone through the suspense account before the year end and cleared it out and put it into the proper account.
I propose that we note both of these items of correspondence for the record. We have a draft of the report on the appropriations account for 2016, Vote 35, which the Committee of Public Accounts will lay before the Dáil. The Dáil will then deal with it. We will issue this short report to the Dáil to the effect that it sees no objection to the excess sum being sanctioned by means of an excess Vote. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next item of correspondence is No. 789, correspondence from John Barrett, a member of the Garda Síochána, offering his availability to attend.
My view on this matter is well known to the committee. I saw the correspondence from the clerk whom I thank for it. I would not necessarily agree with it and one would not expect me to. We have unfinished business, particularly in regard to the process that was engaged in here. I believe there are serious issues with the evidence given. We are not getting the full picture. I understand the areas into which the clerk has said we do not need to stray. The justice committee can deal with them; that is fine and I understand that, but I do not believe it has to be a long meeting.
I agree with the Chairman's suggestion that we should have the author of the report, Mr. O'Driscoll, come here. I believe - I am supporting Deputy Marc MacSharry who wrote the letter to the committee a couple of weeks ago - that we need to have Mr. John Barrett, Mr. O'Driscoll, Mr. Leahy and the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality come here. The Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality needs to join the dots on a few things in respect of the process and procedure followed because the evidence given here when we were dealing with this issue had loads of holes in it, certainly for me. I have followed the issue very thoroughly, as everyone knows. There are real issues that need to be addressed but strictly not about policy or the subject matter that falls within the remit of the justice committee. This is about the process that was gone through and we have a duty on behalf of the taxpayer to get to the bottom of it. There is a requirement for us to bring in the four individuals in question. We can set a defined timetime for the meeting, if the Chairman wants. If he wants to have it after lunch after another meeting in a couple of weeks, I have no issue with that.
In fairness and in deference to those concerned with the issue about which we spoke in regard to HIQA, I am not even saying what I propose has to be done in the next week or two, as long as we do it in a couple of weeks' time. It has to happen because this issue is far from over. I have so many questions about the evidence given and, in particular, the process used. This is historical; it is about decision-making in the spending of public money. I believe we need the full picture. We need the author of the report who, by error, I left out and did not include in my list. It was accidental and right to correct me. The author, Mr. John Barrett, gives out the resources and has asked to come before the committee, or said, in writing, as members can see, that he is willing to come before it. The person in charge of policing in Dublin, Mr. Leahy, and the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality should also be invited because certainly there are questions that come from the Department's side also. I do not believe the meeting has to be long. In fact, if we are given the answers, it could be very short.
The last point is pertinent. Had we received answers at the last meeting - I was not here - we might not have to revisit the issue.
On the report from the secretariat, it was good and useful in that it set out what our remit was and was not. That is useful for us in influencing what decision we will make. I have looked at five areas of concern that fall within the committee's remit, some of which were not reflected in the report. The first is the criteria outlined at the meeting by the acting Commissioner and those cited in the report: the consultation procedures and the involvement of HR which would involve Mr. Barrett and evidence, process and procedures for decision-making which do fall within the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts. Also to be considered are the criteria used in considering the closure of the station and delays in providing the committee with the report. The latter issue rests with the Department of Justice and Equality. For that reason, I support Teachta Alan Kelly in saying we do need to have people come here. I reiterate the point I made at the last meeting that I would prefer if, at the end of the proposed meeting, we had a very short report giving our view. Notwithstanding the secretariat's constructive and helpful report, it is our committee. Obviously, we have a series of concerns and questions. Let us ask them, tease them out and produce a very short report giving our opinion.
In fairness, the author of the report, assistant Garda Commissioner John O'Driscoll, gave a very comprehensive report at the justice committee meeting. Every question we have asked here was put to him and he answered all of them in terms of resources, who he consulted - Mr. Pat Leahy, local management and the assistant Commissioner - and the people he chose to consult. He deals with quite a few of those issues. All I am saying is I want to make sure this committee will not duplicate questions already asked, as members can understand. I believe Mr. O'Driscoll has answered quite a lot of the questions asked. He has made very it clear that it is a Government decision and that it is included in the programme for Government. Therefore, it is Government policy and not within the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts. It is said at the beginning of every single meeting here that witnesses should not discuss policies of the Government or their merits of those policies. It is a political matter, one for the Dáil Chamber and everywhere else, including the justice committee. It is for every member of that committee to do that, not the Committee of Public Accounts. The only point I am making is that we must be conscious of the work the justice committee has done and not repeat it. We would begin to look foolish if we were to repeat it. We know that there is a policy which is outside our remit, but that is politics. There will be issues about costs to be incurred next year which will rightly be matters for the justice committee to consider in dealing with the Estimates for 2018. Let us not stray into areas already covered.
The next item of correspondence is No. 793, dated 5 October. It is an acknowledgment from the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. We asked it for an update on the project and the costs involved. It stated it would send on the details to us. We expect to see them very soon.
Item No. 794C has been dealt with already in dealing with the HIQA issue.
Item No. 795C, dated 9 October, concerns previous correspondence with the committee regarding the appointment of a protected disclosures manager in the Irish Prison Service. When the previous correspondence was before us, we decided to await the outcome of the case, which is before the Workplace Relations Commission. While I believe it remains the right course of action, it appears that the person concerned is experiencing severe financial and other difficulties related to his protected disclosure. I propose at this stage, because of the seriousness of the case, as highlighted by the individual, that we not ignore it and write to the Minister to ask him to use his power to take the appropriate action to ensure the matter will be dealt with expeditiously. We will write directly to the Minister today. I am conscious that the matter will be before the Workplace Relations Commission soon. We said we would await the outcome of its work, but the matter seems to be very serious from the point of view of the person who made the protected disclosure and we want to help that person. It would be more appropriate, therefore, to write to the Minister. We have contacted the Irish Prison Service several times and have to take the issue to the Minister for a response.
I agree. In whatever we say to the Minister, can we make it clear that we are not simply writing to draw the matter to his attention but that, without interfering in the business of other bodies as they go about adjudicating on these matters, we need some oversight or surveillance in order that the individual in question will not be in a position where things will become increasingly worse and that they will have to reach out to the committee again. I am not sure whether the clerk or secretariat can come up with some-----
We will ask that the individual be properly supported.
The committee did agree a little while ago that we would finish with correspondence at 10 a.m. There might be two, three or four items to which we can come back.
Public bodies have not yet learned how to deal with protected disclosures. That is a fact.
If there is a job of work to be done somewhere, it is probably the job of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to get that across.
I have a query about the Prison Service in general. I do not know the remit of this committee in this regard but I have received many complaints from prison officers about the system that is in place, especially around the rehiring of retired prison officers and not hiring new prison officers. I do not know if this committee has a remit in this area. The prison officers are not happy with the system that is in place and they have no say. There is a lot of overtime involved so there is money involved for that particular Vote. What can this committee do as I have had this complaint several times?
It is correspondence No. 796C, dated 9 October 2017, from Deputy Catherine Murphy relating to correspondence from an individual pertaining to a contractual issue regarding property at St. Angela’s College, Sligo. Deputy MacSharry's name was mentioned as he is the local Deputy in that area. Would he like to comment?
I would like to put a couple of things on record about this. The gentleman in question also wrote to me requesting that I recuse myself because of what he determined as my long association with the college. To me, the implication of his correspondence was that a partiality or conflict of interest might impair my fair adjudication of any evidence or correspondence that this committee might decide to consider. I wrote back refuting this and explained that I do not intend to recuse myself or disqualify myself from consideration. My association with St. Angela's College is that my father was a board member in the 1990s, which long predates these matters, and there is a family member on the academic staff, which again would have no relevance to this matter. I do not intend to recuse myself because of that.
In my work in the Oireachtas over the years, when the Sion Hill home economics college in Dublin was being closed, I strongly advocated that it would come under St. Angela's remit and that it would deal with the Sion Hill students. This subsequently happened. More recently I have lobbied during the merger process. St. Angela's College was always a constituent college of the National University of Ireland Galway and it is now in the process of being fully merged with NUIG. There was an issue around staff as they came in. Even though many of the St. Angela's staff held PhDs and are fully qualified, NUIG proposed to take them on as university teachers rather than lecturers. This would obviously have had implications for the staff in terms of their promotional prospects. I certainly advocated in this and it was successful. There has not been, however, any involvement by me or my family in the issue that is before the committee this morning.
In consideration of the correspondence sent to Deputy Catherine Murphy, I agree fully that there are matters to be considered. It alleges the misappropriation of public funds for uses other than their intended purpose. It would be appropriate that this gentleman and representatives from St. Angela's College would appear before the committee, or at the absolute minimum we would seek clarification and comment on these issues from them as a matter of urgency. I hope that this proposal is acceptable to the committee members because I resent the implication in the letter that in some way I have an association that might impair my fair adjudication.
By way of background, are there any records on file with the Department or with the Committee of Public Accounts on any of the issues that have been highlighted in this correspondence, or is this the first record?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
We would be aware of legal cases from the audit of the financial statements. The financial statements do disclose that there have been legal cases in the past. It is quite a complex process. The 2016 financial statements show that the college is operated through a company and its financial statements are for the calendar year 2016. I have cleared the accounts for signing and they are due in next week for signing. In due course they will come to be submitted in the Oireachtas also, and then it would be open to the committee to call them and examine them.
I thank Mr. McCarthy. My only view on this, which I have corresponded to the author already, is that I accept entirely what Deputy MacSharry has to say about his involvement regarding the letter. It appears to me that this is not a matter for the Committee of Public Accounts in so far as the matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of the courts. While this person might have a legitimate grievance, it has been resolved in the eyes of the courts. Ultimately, if the Comptroller and Auditor General is giving the organisation a clean bill of health by way of the audit, which will be with us shortly, then I do not believe there is anything for this committee to investigate. That is my view, notwithstanding any of the views expressed by my colleagues.
There was a court case with an outcome. It seems to be suggested in this correspondence that the outcome of that court case may be being interpreted differently by NUIG than the authorities at St. Angela's College and by this gentleman. The suggestion in the correspondence is that up to €1 million was potentially spent in legal fees which, without prejudice to any of our own consideration, would seem to allege that this was a potentially vexatious pursuit with the use of public moneys. While there has been an outcome from the court case, it appears that NUIG may have a different interpretation of that outcome than the authorities at St. Angela's or this gentleman, and this may be holding up the progression of the merger of the two campuses.
We will write a letter asking for a note on the issue of the legal costs and any effects on services. We will get the audited accounts before us in the coming weeks. We will look to see if there is a note in the accounts and we will decide when we get the accounts. In the meantime, the committee will write to the college and the Department. The correspondence might deal with the issue.
No. 801C, dated 6 October 2017, is correspondence from Deputy John Brady relating to Kildare-Wicklow Education and Training Board, ETB. We have covered this and we will write to the Deputy to inform him that the committee will be addressing the matter once we have received the Department’s report on the matter. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 802C is correspondence, dated 5 October 2017, from an individual alleging wastage of financial resources at University College Cork, UCC. I propose that we write to UCC and request a detailed response to this matter. Is it agreed to note this? Agreed.
No. 804C is anonymous correspondence, dated 9 October 2017 and also sent to the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport and a number of other bodies. The individual alleges what can be described as inappropriate spending by Irish Rail. Irish Rail is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and its accounts do not come before the Committee of Public Accounts. We could ask the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for a response, but it is not an issue that this committee will look at. As it is anonymous correspondence, this committee cannot even write back to the individual if we get a response from the Department. We will just refer the correspondence to the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport, full stop. It is anonymous correspondence, there is no specific remark and Irish Rail is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, so it will go over the transport committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.
There have been three sets of accounts and statements received since our last meeting. The first is the intestate estates funds account, which has a clear audit opinion. It receives the proceeds of unclaimed estates. Is wills and estates under the Department of Justice and Equality?
I have a question on that. The intestate fund account receives the proceeds of unclaimed assets. Does this include the assets of companies that have been dissolved?
Does the Comptroller and Auditor General understand my point? I am referring to companies that have been dissolved.
There is a clear audited opinion for the National Cancer Registry Board. In respect of the fisheries harbours centres there is a note about significant delays in the preparation of the auditable accounts, the billing of harbour dues and of rental income and the effectiveness of debt collection.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I reported previously on that. There had been very significant delays. While the delays are not as significant as they were in the past and matters have improved there are still delays. These are the 2015 financial statements. It was during 2015 that I reported on the matter. The audit of the 2016 financial statements is progressing.
Fine. I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General. We note that. The next item on our agenda is the work programme. We have discussed No. 20 on the programme and I will ask the secretariat to come back to us on that matter next week and take account of what we have already mentioned.
There is one matter we might want to deal with in private session. It will take two minutes.