Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 23 November 2017
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to the committee. Today he is accompanied by Ms Mary Henry, deputy director of audit. The first session today deals with the reopening of Garda stations. The next item will be Chapter 12 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, which is on the management of ancillary services at the Garda training college. We are dealing with these matters first and we will defer our normal consideration of correspondence, our work programme and accounts received until the afternoon, as the witnesses from the Garda Síochána must attend a Policing Authority meeting later on today. They have to be long gone from here before 1 p.m. We will come back to our normal business in the afternoon.
As I mentioned, two matters are to be considered today. However, we also requested and received a note last week from the acting Garda Commissioner, Dónall Ó Cualáin, on the recruitment process and a breakdown of costs associated with the Charleton tribunal. This had been raised in previous correspondence with the acting Garda Commissioner. We received a letter from him yesterday evening on this particular item. I will read it into the public record. It has not yet been circulated but it will be published now. It is addressed to the committee and is dated yesterday. It states:
I refer to your email of 16th November 2017 and note the Committee's intention to set aside a small amount of time at the PAC to questions on the setting up of the Tribunal Co-Ordination Office.
Please note that this matter has been the subject of correspondence between ... An Garda Síochána and the Committee [since] August 2017.
Beyond the delivery of the public funding information furnished in that correspondence, and having taken Counsel's advice on the matter, I am concerned that discussions in the Public Accounts Committee concerning the Tribunal Coordination Office might easily trespass on the work of the Tribunal. The Coordination Office are fully cooperating with the Tribunal on behalf of An Garda Síochána and I wish to ensure that there is no potential for any trespass on it's [sic] important work.
In the circumstances, I would be grateful if the Committee could postpone discussions on this particular matter.
We will confine this matter to the very tight issue of costs, and there will be no straying into discussions that are taking place in the Chamber every day and the matters before the tribunal. I have not spoken to the acting Commissioner because I have just received this letter, but can we deal with that one small item without straying any further? I am saying to both the witnesses and the members that they are not to stray any further. It is not within the remit of this committee to discuss what it happening at the tribunal, but we can talk briefly on the costs issue in terms of that unit. I am not sure if such a comment is in the acting Commissioner's opening statement.
I have been asked to read the normal welcome. I skipped that.
We sought it before the summer, and there has been correspondence between the Garda and this committee since August 2017, after the issue arose in July. We are thorough in following through on previous commitments. At this stage we will allow a few minutes for this topic. There is general agreement not to stray into the work of the Charleton tribunal or matters that are not within the remit of the committee.
I would like to welcome the acting Garda Commissioner, Dónall Ó Cualáin, Assistant Commissioner Pat Leahy, Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll, chief administrative officer, Mr. Joe Nugent, Mr. John Barrett, executive director of human resources and people development, Mr. Seán Murphy, head of estate management and Assistant Commissioner Eugene Corcoran. From the Department of Justice and Equality we are joined by Mr. Noel Waters, Secretary General, and Mr. John O’Callaghan, assistant secretary. Mr. George Trimble also joins us.
I remind members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery that all mobile phones must be switched off. That means putting them on to flight mode.
I wish to advise the witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity, by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the provisions of Standing Order 186 that the committee shall also refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits of the objectives of such policies.
So, in relation to the recruitment process and costs associated with the Charleton Tribunal, members are invited to make a quick comment on it. If there are no questions we will move on straight away, but if there are questions they are to be limited, very tight and very short.
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
In relation to the disclosures tribunal established by the Houses of the Oireachtas and under the chair of Supreme Court justice, Mr. Justice Charleton, I am very conscious of the need for I and members of my team here today not to say anything that could be seen to undermine the work of the tribunal. I am sure that the Chairman understands that.
As with all tribunals of inquiry, it is vital that An Garda Síochána ensures it provides all assistance it can to the tribunal so that the truth and facts can be established. This requires extensive and considerable resources to be devoted to the task. At all times our objective is to provide the tribunal with the information it requires as quickly as possible. So far, tens of thousands of pages of material have been provided to the tribunal. As per material provided to the committee, additional, dedicated staff with expertise and experience in this area were required to assist with this task to meet the timelines of the tribunal. This approach received written sanction from the Department of Justice and Equality and we have provided you with the costs involved. I also wrote to the committee yesterday evening.
Apart from repeating what we have already provided in correspondence I am not in a position to answer any questions on this matter.
I have deep concern about this liaison unit and how it was formulated, how sanction was given for it and how it was funded. For the benefit of the Chair, I asked parliamentary questions on 20 June, 26 July and on 14 November on the process by which this unit came into place, how authority was given for it to be put in place, how it was funded and how its members were sourced. I am completely dissatisfied with the answers I have been given. I believe I have been fobbed off. I believe that, given that this is taxpayers' money, we need full transparency about how it was created and how the decision was made to exercise public money on this. Who is using it? Are all gardaí using it or only a few?
I have a question for the acting Commissioner, Mr. Ó Cualáin, and the head of HR, Mr. Barrett. When were the people in this unit approached to go into the unit? When was sanction given to spend this money on this unit? The witnesses might identify the timelines involved.
Mr. Noel Waters:
My recollection is that the Commissioner phoned me and said that she was anxious to ensure that the Garda would comply fully and speedily in all respects with the tribunal that was about to start. She said that it was going to have a big impact on the force and the senior management team. At the time the Garda was dealing with gangland crime and international terrorism. She was concerned about the capacity of the Garda to ensure that the tribunal would be serviced quickly. To me it was a compelling case.
On that basis, I indicated to her that I would support that if she should go ahead and do that.
Approval was only given by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 5 May. In the interim a whole pile of people were hired before the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform gave sanction. Is that correct?
Mr. Barrett, I presume as the head of HR, and given the issues that the Secretary General has outlined here and given the timelines that the Acting Commissioner has outlined, I am sure he was fully consulted on all of this given the HR implications and is fully happy with all of this process.
My question is about the creation of the unit, not about its work on the Charleton commission. Is Mr. Ó Cualáin absolutely happy about the manner in which this was created, not the functioning of it? I mean the manner in which this was created.
I do not want the Commissioner to answer anything. I am asking Mr. Barrett. Is he, on the record, fully happy with the manner in which this was created? My question has nothing to do with the Charleton commission at all just the way in which, using public moneys, the unit was created. That is it.
My question is not really for the Commissioner either. I asked Mr. Barrett the following. Given the fact that we now know that public moneys was spent on this, as the director of HR, is he 100% happy with the manner in which this unit was created? My question does not relate to the running of it or how it is operating in the tribunal. My question has nothing to do with that. I just want to know how the unit was created, the hiring for the unit, etc. and the resource implications.
Again, I shall repeat my question for the benefit of the HR director, Mr. Barrett. I have a very simple question. Is he absolutely and 100% fully happy with the manner in which this liaison unit was created? I have tabled in excess of 20 parliamentary questions on this matter on three if not four different occasions and I have got all of the answers that I have received here. Was he happy with how the unit was created, resourced, populated, etc?
-----asking questions, as Vice Chair of this committee, in relation to public moneys that are being used, that this question is answered. I am referring to just the creation of the unit. My questions have nothing to do with operational issues or the Charleton tribunal, which I will not be straying into at all.
I disagree, Chair. I do not see why this committee is being prevented by commentary by the acting Garda Commissioner from asking questions about the expenditure of public moneys on the creation of a unit. That is it. My question has nothing to do with the operation of the tribunal, its findings or anything like that.
The Accounting Officer is here today, who is the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, as well as the Acting Garda Commissioner. No other Accounting Officers are involved. It is the role of the Accounting Officer to give an answer to the particular question that has been asked. The two Accounting Officers have answered. The only Accounting Officer who has not answered the question is the one for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because the official is not here. The Department gave written sanction.
We are here today specifically to discuss the one issue of finances. We are only dealing with the 2016 audited expenditure to date. We have had an answer from the Accounting Officer of the Department of Justice and Equality. We have had an answer from the acting Garda Commissioner. As Chairman, I can say that we have got answers from the two people who are accountable to this committee here today, and I have to rule on that.
I am deeply alarmed that this committee is not allowed, given that we have given notice, to ask questions about the creation of a unit, which does not stray into anything to do with the tribunal. I have asked well over 20 parliamentary questions on this matter but I have not received answers. The Secretary General is aware of this because I have had to go back to him seeking answers to my questions. Here today my questions has been knocked down again and the Garda Commissioner has said that he does not want them to be answered. We have also got a situation where the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform did not give sanction until May. Now, we note on the record, that the head of HR has expressed, on a number of occasions, his concerns about this issue. Those are the facts. I want it put on the record that I am deeply unhappy that my questions have not been answered in any forum.
I will be brief. I welcome the fact that this unit has been established and had it not been, we might be having a different conversation here. My question, however, concerns why it was that two retired officers were chosen. Did they have to be retired? Was there a reason for this?
Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin:
There was no reason they had to be retired; this was just a matter of capacity in the organisation. With all that is happening at this time and with so many vital vacancies at this critical juncture it would be the norm to go for people with past experience who could be brought back in at short notice.
Mr. John Barrett:
I cannot tell the Deputy off the top of my head. I apologise for that. As I only learned yesterday that this matter was to come before this committee, I am rather ill-prepared. There are a number working in the unit, however. Assistant Commissioner Corcoran is working closely with the unit so he is better positioned to talk about current strength.
My question has already been asked by Deputy Cullinane. I would also like to ask, however, what the figures are for the total complement of the unit I appreciate what the witnesses are saying and I will not stray in any way. I also have a question for the Secretary General. Is he happy that the normal process for recruiting people was complied with in the Department of Justice and Equality?
I apologise for being late. These people were employed in February and this was sanctioned by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in May. I have a problem with efforts to take refuge in the fact that this is a tribunal. We are not asking about any of the evidence, liaisons, contents or about anything that has been put forward. I do not understand why the acting Garda Commissioner cannot just answer the question.
I am nearly finished; this is just a short thread. How were the staff involved selected? Deputy Connolly just touched on the selection process. Was it a question of who was available and who was around?
Mr. Barrett mentioned that he had an issue that he potentially wanted to raise with the Commissioner. He got a direction and registered whatever concern it was in writing. Was this in the form of one letter? Was it two letters, was it five letters?
With the greatest of respect, Deputy Fleming is chairing the meeting here. We have heard the acting Garda Commissioner's objection to talking about any of these matters, even though these are procedures backing a tribunal as opposed to the detail informing it. The Chairman has given his view on that and in the meantime, I am within the law to ask whatever I want. How many times did Mr. Barrett register his issues?
I am, with respect, in the middle of the question. I have to put on record here that the demeanour of the acting Garda Commissioner is such that he does not want Mr. Barrett to say anything at all. We are asking a question and yet every few seconds the acting Garda Commissioner interrupts to say that we are straying. I ask the Chairman to instruct the acting Garda Commissioner to be quiet while we are addressing another question, and then to give us some specific detail on what the issues were beyond the financial.
If that is the case then we could all interrupt everybody. We are either going to ask somebody a question and get an answer or we are going to have what would appear to me to be vexatious intrusions when somebody else is trying to answer because of what that person might potentially say. That is how it looks to me as I sit here.
I am ruling as Chairman that we are now moving on. With regard to the financial issue, I want to draw the attention of everybody here and everybody watching to the fact that we have the Accounting Officer of the Department of Justice and Equality here. He is responsible to the Oireachtas for the Vote and he gave verbal sanction to this matter. A letter subsequently arrived. We also have the Accounting Officer of An Garda Síochána here, who is satisfied that he got his sanction and did the job he was required to do. We have information that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform subsequently gave written sanction but that the matter had proceeded on the basis of the original verbal sanction because the job needed to be done. We have two sanctions from two Accounting Officers here in person and we have notification of a third sanction from somebody else. We can come back to look at this when we come to examine 2017 expenditure as part of next year's audit. In the meantime I am ruling that we have statements from two Accounting Officers here, who are satisfied with the process. They are the people who are answerable to the committee so this topic is now closed. We had agreed to only give this matter 15 minutes and we have done-----
We have spent 40 minutes on this and we have other business to address. We are now moving on to look at the matter of the re-opening of Garda stations. At this point I will ask acting Garda Commissioner Ó Cualáin to deliver the rest of his opening statement.
The main business is chapter 12. I am flexible on the time but the main business is chapter 12 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report and the management of ancillary services at the Garda Síochána College. In view of the fact that we invited people in on that, we said we would allow a specific time at the beginning of the session to address what we just discussed and the reopening of Garda stations. The main business for today is chapter 12 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. Can we agree a time to address the Garda stations issue? We will then move on to the main business. Is going to 10.30 a.m. sufficient?