Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 8 March 2018
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
I welcome two new members of the committee, Deputy Kate O'Connell who replaces Deputy Noel Rock and Deputy Jonathan O'Brien who replaces Deputy Mary Lou McDonald. We look forward to working with both of them. I thank Deputies Mary Lou McDonald and Noel Rock for their contributions to the work of the committee. I believe Deputy Mary Lou McDonald was a member of the committee for seven years, while Deputy Noel Rock was a member since the last general election. We wish them well in their other activities.
I commend an Teachta Mary Lou McDonald for her work on the committee. She was also a member during the last Dáil. She was a formidable and very constructive member of the committee. Perhaps we might write to the two Deputies who served as members of the committee to thank them for their contributions.
That is a good idea. We have a letter in hand from Deputy Mary Lou McDonald wishing the committee all the best in its work. We will write back to her and also to Deputy Noel Rock to thank them on behalf of the Committee of Public Accounts.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, is present as a permanent witness at the committee. He is joined by Mr. John Crean, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputies Alan Farrell and Marc MacSharry. Deputy Alan Farrell will be present for the afternoon session.
Are the minutes of the meeting of 22 February agreed to? Agreed. It goes without saying last week's meeting was postponed and that it will have to be rescheduled.
We will come to that matter when we discuss the work programme.
Item No. 3 on the agenda is correspondence, of which there are three categories. The first is briefing material and opening statements. As members can see, there is a large bundle of correspondence to be dealt with. We will move as quickly as we can, but a few items will merit a more detailed discussion.
Items No. 1117 and 1128 are briefing documents and opening statements received for last week’s meeting submitted by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. As the meeting did not take place, I propose that we note but do not publish the documents and statements until the meeting has been rescheduled. We will consider a date when we discuss the work programme.
Items Nos.1132, 1140 and 1141 are briefing documents received for today’s meeting. I propose that we note and publish them.
Nos. 1133 and 1145 are a briefing document and an opening statement for today’s meeting from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I propose that we note them.
Nos. 1146 and 1147 are opening statements for today’s meeting from Transport Infrastructure Ireland. I propose that we note and publish them.
Under category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers or Ministers and follow-up to previous meetings of this committee, No.1094 is a letter from Ms Rosalind Carroll, director, Residential Tenancies Board. This was held over from the meeting two weeks ago and is information requested by the committee regarding the delay in a competitive procurement process for legal services since 2014 and an outline of legal services costs. I propose that we note and publish it. Members should feel free to comment.
No. 1102B, correspondence from Mr. Patrick Hopkins, chairperson, Charities Regulator, relates to the review of registered charities holding shares in section 110 companies on trust. At the meeting on 22 February, we decided to hold this over. I propose that we note and publish the correspondence. It will be taken into consideration as part of our report when we come to deal with corporation tax because that was the context in which the issue was raised.
No. 1112B, correspondence dated 21 February 2018, is from Mr. Joe Nugent, chief administrative officer, An Garda Síochána, enclosing updates on the Garda College, Templemore, as requested by the committee at its meeting on 23 November 2017. I propose that we note this.
The Garda Síochána has responded to the committee with a range of correspondence. I would like to highlight two issues with which I am not happy. First, when we were discussing issues relating to the Garda College, a document was sent to the then Garda Commissioner by the head of legal affairs, Mr. Ken Ruane, in July 2017. I understand it was a letter rather than a legal document but, nevertheless, the then Garda Commissioner claimed legal privilege. When the current acting Commissioner, Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin came before the committee, I asked him whether he would release the document because the commissioner is no longer in place and one cannot claim privilege when one is no longer the Garda Commissioner. I asked for that document to be released. It is now four or five months later and we have received a two-line reply stating that the committee was previously advised in respect of the claim of legal privilege regarding the legal advice provided to the former Commissioner. The position remains unchanged. That is a joke. Frankly, it is unacceptable. It is unacceptable as a reply. It does not look as if the request was considered. It looks as if they were ticking a box to say that they came back to us - only because they were chased. On the substantive matter, the acting Commissioner has not explained why he will not release a document which was given to the previous Commissioner, who claimed privilege in the role as commissioner but who is no longer in place. How can Mr. Ó Cualáin, as acting Commissioner, claim privilege in respect of a document that was sent to the previous Commissioner, who is no longer in place? Even if he has some argument as to how he can do this, he needs to explain it to the committee. This two-line letter is an insult to the Committee of Public Accounts. It speaks volumes about what the acting Garda Commissioner thinks of the committee. We need to respond, asking that the Garda authorities write back within a week and give a full explanation as regards that document. We should also indicate that the document be released.
I have three issues and I propose to deal with them all, rather than coming in separately on each. I understand the point Deputy Kelly is making on the legal advice given to the then Commissioner. Can the Committee of Public Accounts get legal advice on whether privilege still exists when the then Commissioner is no longer in office? I presume that the legal adviser to the acting Garda Commissioner is the same person as previously, namely, Mr. Ruane. I question whether the latter is still bound by confidentiality. To be fair to everybody involved, we need certainty regarding what is the actual position.
My second point is that we did a great deal of work on this issue. In fact, we published our own report on the matters relating to the Garda College in Templemore. If one reverts to the internal audit report, the headline issue - leaving aside the salacious stuff and the madness when had the heads of different departments, who almost collapsed before us - there was recommendations made by the head of internal audit and changes were to be made. What tracking is the Committee of Public Accounts doing to ensure that those changes have been implemented? Have we stopped? Are we going to come to the issue when the next set of appropriation accounts or-----
That is fine; that is reporting. What I am talking about is holding the Garda authorities to account. Recommendations were made. I am asking whether the recommendations were implemented? Are the changes that were promised being made? We need to give that some consideration. One could argue that we have to wait until the Garda Síochána come back before us again in the normal run of things.
My third point relates to something that has not happened very often in the history of the Committee of Public Accounts. I refer to the fact that efforts are being made by other politicians to undermine the work of the committee. We see it both inside and outside the Dáil Chamber. It happened in respect of this issue as well. There was correspondence from some Government Deputies criticising members of the Committee of Public Accounts for defending the work of the committee. We must defend the integrity of the committee and not allow people to make what are political charges. They are entitled to do so but those charges should not go unchallenged. We have an absolute right and entitlement to raise issues, especially those we raised in the context of Templemore. The issues in question arose on foot of an internal audit report; we did not invent them. The internal auditor said that he could not give any assurances whatsoever that the controls in place at the Garda College in Templemore are what they should be. He said he was frustrated in his work. We saw what happened. Obviously, we had an entitlement.
For other Members of the Dáil to criticise the work of the Committee of Public Account , I think they are entitled to do it, but I do not think it should go unchallenged. For former members of this committee to chastise us in the way they have done is unacceptable. Members of the Dáil may say what they want but we have an absolute right to defend ourselves and the work we do.
If we were not being criticised, we would not be doing the job right. I think there is an element of that too. I suspect that the former Commissioner did not receive the legal opinion in a personal capacity. I also suspect that she received it as an officeholder, namely, in her capacity as Garda Commissioner. We must be mindful that this is not exclusive to the Garda Síochána. It will arise in other scenarios. It is general advice regarding privilege but I suspect that the Garda authorities and the acting Commissioner have a right to tell us what we do not want to hear. It would be useful to receive guidance. However, I would hazard a guess that such guidance would indicate that the Garda has a right to claim privilege.
When we are tracking the issues that are outstanding, we should ensure - before we come back to do the work - that they are substantially complete in order that we might have a more meaningful engagement.
We asked for a copy of the risk register in respect of the Garda College. The response to that request states that An Garda Síochána risk registers are restricted documents, with only those involved in the risk management process or the auditing of risk being provided access to them. Would that be the norm? Second, are we not entitled to copies of the risk registers? I would presume that we are entitled to them.
The answer that has been given relates to An Garda Síochána's risk registers but we specifically asked for a copy of the risk register for the Garda College. Are we entitled to a copy of that register? If so, we will have to write again seeking it because the document supplied was not the one we requested.
We will give them ten days. A week is a bit tight. We will ask again about the legal advice and when we get the reply within the fortnight, we can take that up with our own parliamentary legal adviser.
The other issue that has come up a number of times is criticism of this committee, which is fashionable in some quarters and systemic in others. In that context, I am going to ask the secretariat to prepare a briefing note for us that we can approve and then issue. I can think of a few issues on which this committee has been roundly criticised in the past but was upon which it proved to be absolutely correct. During the term of the last Committee of Public Accounts, Maurice McCabe arrived in here with boxes of speeding fines that had been cancelled, adding up to €5 million. That was one of the ingredients that led to where we are now. The committee was attacked right, left and centre for dealing with the Garda Síochána issue but a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General found that the committee was totally within its rights to do that. We also dealt with the so-called Grace case in the south east and were attacked right, left and centre and told it had nothing to do with this committee. Our work on that case has contributed to the establishment of a commission of inquiry. We dealt with the issue of Project Eagle and NAMA. A vague commitment had been made to establish a tribunal or commission of investigation but that had gone off the boil. Our committee's report brought the issue back to the boil and that has now happened. In terms of the Templemore issue, were it not for the work of this committee all that has unfolded would not be in the public domain but we were criticised heavily for doing that. It is important that the committee secretariat would put together a briefing note for us in order that members would have such available to them and be able to say that despite the constant criticism, this committee is dealing successfully with very serious issues.
I totally agree with that. We are big boys and girls and are well able for the cut and thrust of politics. I have no difficulty with people making political charges about this committee or its members. However, a pattern has emerged in recent times. At times we obviously have to raise issues that are sensitive in our constituencies and the Chairman has given an example of such. I imagine the same applies to Teachta Kelly. We cannot have people playing us off one another and using or taking advantage of those sensitivities to stop us doing our work. We have to ask questions without fear or favour and if we are not in a position to do that, we cannot do our job. We need to collectively protect ourselves. We cannot have Teachta Kelly being attacked because he is raising issues to do with it Templemore because it might be sensitive in Tipperary-----
I thank Deputy Cullinane for his comments. He has basically said what I wanted to express. Effectively in my own constituency, three Deputies are attacking me politically. Now, I am a big boy and I can take it. That is not the issue. They are attacking me because through the process by which this committee works, in conjunction with the Comptroller and Auditor General, issues relating to the Garda College in Templemore have come through the pipeline and have been dealt with in here. Deputies are attacking this committee and by extension, me as a member of this committee. I have no issue with that and will take them all on, collectively or individually. The main issue for me is that they are undermining this committee and are creating a dangerous precedent whereby people who are members of this committee are to be picked on or almost victimised because of their work as members of this committee, which they are bound to do. We all leave our politics outside the door of the committee room, or at least that is what we should do, and we do our job to the best of our ability based on what comes through to us. There is a dangerous precedent being set because members of this committee will not be able to do their work, including Deputies Cullinane, Catherine Murphy and myself. The attacks are also inappropriate. In fairness to the Chairman, he has a good track record in defending this committee. When we were attacked in the Dáil, the Chairman stood up and defended the committee on behalf of all its members. As Deputy Cullinane has said, we need to identify a way in which we can defend this committee and robustly argue against criticism made of it. At the political level, we can all do our individual thing and that is fine. However, we need a process or a way in which that defensive work can be done, possibly through the Chairman. Dare I say it but some individuals in the Houses of the Oireachtas may need to be educated about the way in which information comes to the Committee of Public Accounts and the way in which it goes about its work. They are either deliberately misunderstanding or they genuinely do not understand.
There are many issues that we need to address. We need to demonstrate what the Committee of Public Accounts has achieved, in spite of what those who want to knock us might say. We will certainly come back to that matter.
The next item of correspondence is No. 1114B from Mr. Tony O'Brien, director general of the HSE, enclosing information requested by the committee on salary overpayments in respect of the HSE for 2016 and 2017. The figure in question is approximately €2.5 million. We will note that. The next item is No. 1116Bfrom Mr. Fergal Lynch, Secretary General of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, dated 20 February 2018 with further information on the quality capacity building initiative, QCBI, as requested by the committee at our meeting on 8 February 2018. We will note and publish that. Correspondence item No. 1118B is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding public bodies within the remit of the National Shared Services Office, NSSO, and a briefing note on the feasibility and scoping study that was carried out to determine which Departments and bodies transferred to the NSSO. We will note and publish that. The next item is No. 1120B from Mr. Kieran Harrington, Department of Health, dated 22 February 2018 enclosing follow-up information requested by this committee in respect of the Dormant Account Fund and community based models to support people with dementia. We will note and publish that. A number of issues are arising regarding the Dormant Account Fund and as a committee, we found that engagement most unsatisfactory. It was all over the place and nobody seemed to have a handle on it. We will come back to that issue as part of our periodic report. It was a glaring problem. That is all I can say at the moment about the way that account has been administered in recent times.
The next item is No. 1121B from Ms Marie Ryan of the Courts Service, dated 22 February 2018, with an information note on the court poor box. I want to highlight this because an individual wrote to me about it. The note we received about the court poor box is very interesting. The Courts Service has provided figures from 2013 to 2017 showing that the poor box received €8.917 million in the period, with payments from the poor box amounting to €8.734 million. The poor box is running at close to €2 million per annum and is now fully maintained by the Courts Service through its own accounting system.
All of those payments are centralised, recorded and verifiable. The heads of the criminal justice (community sanctions) Bill are under consideration. That proposed legislation would replace the Probation of Offenders Act, which deals with this. It will come up in due course.
The most interesting part of the correspondence, however, is the comment that there are three categories of payments made to the court poor box. The figures mentioned relate to category A payments, in respect of which the correspondence states, "Such payments are accounted for in the Court office and the accounting procedures are subject to audit by both the C & AG and Internal Audit." The correspondent goes on to say there are category B payments, made directly to a named charity by producing a receipt in court. She states, "These payments are not included in the annual Poor Box receipt figures." It appears that, on some occasions, the judge can say some money should be put into the court poor box while, on others, he can ask that €200 be given to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, for example. The person has to come back with a receipt from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul the next month showing that the payment has been made. It does not go through the system. Therefore, we do not know what is going through that system. There are also category C payments, referred to as payments made via the Probation and Welfare Service to the Garda on order of the court. It is stated, "These payments are not accounted for in the Court Office and are not included in annual Poor Box receipt figures." Therefore, there are two categories of payments not going through the accounting system. We should write to the Courts Service in this regard. It is in its interest and in the interest of the administration of justice that the service get a handle on this. One category of payments goes through the poor box and two other categories do not do so at all. I am surprised by that. I thank the correspondent for the information and for making it public. It answers questions people have on payments through the poor box that do not seem to be able to be traced anywhere. At least we are now hearing some of the reasons why this is happening. It is not the way it should be; that is all I can say. I do not want to trespass into the area of the authority of judges. Judges issue the fines and request that amounts be paid, but they should be accounted for by the Courts Service somewhere.
Sometimes one hears that money is payable to the Garda benevolent trust fund or social club. One sees instances of this reported on in local newspapers. The correspondent is clear that the payments do not go through the accounts and are not recorded or audited.
We will write to the Minister for Justice and Equality in respect of categories B and C. The Department says that it is bringing forward new legislation — the criminal justice (community sanctions) Bill — which must include some revision to the operation of the court poor box. We will ask the Minister to take this into consideration and give us his views on the matter.
The next item of correspondence, dated 16 February 2018, is No. 1125B, from the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Ciarán Cannon. Enclosed is an invitation to the committee to travel to Tanzania to view Irish Aid interventions. This is related to the Comptroller and Auditor General's chapter on the control of Ireland's bilateral assistance programme. Can we note the correspondence? Noted. The committee has already agreed that such a visit would be worthwhile, and the secretariat is liaising with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on the practicalities. We note that. The matter will come back before us.
No.1129B is correspondence from Mr. McCarthy, the Comptroller and Auditor General, enclosing a note, as requested by the committee, setting out how State bodies account for property in their financial statements. I have not had an opportunity in this regard. We will note and publish the correspondence. We need to have it in our body of knowledge as committee members.
That is fine.
No. 1131B is correspondence from Mr. Kevin McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of Rural and Community Development, providing information requested at the meeting on 8 February 2018 when we discussed the Dormant Account Fund. We will note and publish that and take it into consideration when drafting our report on the topic.
No. 1134B, from Mr. Deaglán Ó Briain of the youth crime policy and programmes division in the Department of Justice and Equality, provides information on mentoring initiatives requested at our meeting on 8 February 2018, when we discussed the Comptroller and Auditor General's report regarding the Dormant Account Fund. We will note and publish that and take it into consideration when drafting our report on this area.
The final category of correspondence is category C, comprising correspondence from and related to private individuals and any other correspondence.
No. 1095C, dated 18 February 2018, was received from an individual in respect of a complaint regarding a case that has been the subject of appeal regarding a Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection case. The complaint is with the Ombudsman's office. On 18 January, the committee decided to note other items of correspondence from the individual and allow the Ombudsman to complete his work. It is not for the committee to become involved in individual cases. Can we note this and agree not to circulate further items on the matter, which is before the Ombudsman? Agreed.
No. 1096C, (i) to (iii), dated 18 February 2018, is correspondence from an individual requesting that the committee make inquiries regarding hiring practices at Trinity College Dublin. The individual refers to a competition in respect of which she was unsuccessful. The matter does not come within the remit of the committee and I propose that we write to the individual directing her to the Workplace Relations Commission, which is the appropriate body to consider it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1097C, dated 19 February and from Mr. Neil McDermott of the Higher Education Authority, encloses returns submitted by each higher education institution in response to the committee's request for information regarding consultancy fees. There are a number of spreadsheet attachments.
-----because the correspondence was raised previously? I wish to raise the issue of Waterford IT. I was informed by the head of the Higher Education Authority that, in December, the report commissioned by the authority into the funding of intellectual property and the activities relating to commercialising intellectual property in Waterford was complete, with the authority and being examined by its legal team. I was then told that the report would be published as quickly as possible, probably in January. There was a supplementary report, a different report, that examined the global issue, the bigger issue of how that area is governed. We have that report. It was published. We are going to come back to that at some point. It is now March, however, but the Waterford report still has not been published. How is it taking so long? It concerns me. Why is it with the legal team for so long? I understand and am mindful of the fact that the organisation has to protect the author of the report and the integrity of those named in it, as it may be sensitive, but we are into March and the report has been with the authority since December. It is an issue we have been working on and chasing up. Could we contact the authority again and achieve some clarity on the matter?
That is fine. With regard to No. 1097C, there are many spreadsheets and much information. Members may use that information or come back to it at a subsequent meeting.
There are many spreadsheets for people to examine in detail.
The next correspondence is No. 1098 from Mr. Neil McDermott of the Higher Education Authority with details of expenditure regarding mergers of technological universities. I want to deal with this matter as I am alarmed about it. Deputy Kelly might want to speak on this issue. We asked for information on expenditure on accountancy and legal fees, due diligence, public relations and additional costs in the legal and accountancy area regarding the proposed mergers of the various technological institutes. The first proposed merger mentioned on the list is the Munster Technological University involving Cork Institute of Technology and Institute of Technology Tralee. Between 2014 and 2017 there was expenditure of €571,803 on that. I will ask Deputy Kelly to advise us if that is going ahead. If it is not proceeding, is this what he would call nugatory, or expenditure of no value? Regarding the proposed merger of DIT, involving IT Tallaght and IT Blanchardstown, €344,000 has been spent. Regarding the alliance of IT Sligo, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology and Letterkenny IT, €3,000 has been spent and regarding Waterford IT and IT Carlow, €49,000 has been spent. Does Deputy Kelly want to comment on the proposed merger involving Cork IT? He raised this matter previously.
Yes. I raised this matter previously. Effectively, we have had to drag these figures from those involved in terms of the costs and the breakdown of them. We asked for them in numerous different ways. The total figure is alarming. More than €571,000 has been spent on a proposed merger and we do not know if it will ever materialise. The other figures are also quite disturbing. Some €344,000 has been spent on the proposed merger of DIT, Tallaght IT and IT Blanchardstown and €49,000 has been spent on Waterford IT and IT Carlow. More than €900,000 has been spent on fees for all these proposed mergers. The fact that we had to drag these figures from those involved is deeply worrying given the level of detail and questioning we went into on this at this committee. We will have to make some commentary on the scale and cost of these fees because of the potential loss to the taxpayer across the board. We need to get some answers on this. I suggest that we will have to follow up with questions based on the figures we have got here today.
-----Munster Technological University merger, the stage it is at and the most recent decision of the boards of the respective ITs on it. We will await their replies but if it if the proposed merger is not proceeding, there is a big question to answer about that expenditure of more than €571,000.
Not alone that, but the Chairman will remember from evidence we went through here and documentation we sought that there were board minutes regarding this decision that were not published. There were also questions at the time about the whether the boards agreed with the merger in the first place, but yet it has proceeded at a cost. These are only legal costs and we can imagine all the other costs that will be involved on top of those.
Forgive my ignorance here, but I understand the technological university process as I pay close attention to it, having regard to what is happening in the south east. My understanding of this is that the merger process was in place without being underpinned by legislation. The legislation was on hold for a long time; it was pretty much suspended because there were political differences. There is now a change in the sequencing where initially the institutes had to formally merge and then had to reach and meet criteria. There were benchmarks around having a set number of graduates and so on. Then there was an international panel of experts who would come in and adjudicate on the application and so on. My understanding is that the legislation is going to change to allow the merger part of it to come in at the end of the process. Much of the legal and consultancy advice was around some of that process. It is glaringly obvious and jumps out from the page that if the process involved the proposed mergers is the same, how can it be logical for those engaged in the proposed Munster merger to have spent more than €570,000 and for those involved in the other proposed mergers who are engaged in exactly the same process to have spent-----
They had further advances to spend €4,000 in one case. Those engaged in the proposed Connacht-Ulster alliance spent €5,000 and those engaged in the proposed merger of Waterford IT and IT Carlow spent just short of €100,000, but more than €571,000 has been spent on the proposed Munster merger. The fees are also striking when we consider what the smaller companies charge as against what the larger companies charge. The figure for Deloitte is €190,000, Arthur Cox is listed a number of times and the figure for PricewaterhouseCoopers is €187,000. What exactly were those companies employed to do? What were they examining? We can return to this issue in terms of our work programme later. I have an issue with the continuous outsourcing of responsibility in terms of management and consultancy in the third level sector to these agencies. Leaving that aside, more than €570,000 has been spent on the proposed Munster merger and a fraction of that cost has been spent on the other proposed mergers which are involved in the same process. Why is that the case?
We are constantly told about the shortage of funds in the third level sector and the risk of introducing further fees for students. That is the backdrop to the matters we are considering. The same companies appear to be used. I clicked into some tables and the I note the same entities appear. Essentially, these entitles are building up a great deal of expertise which does not have to be learned by them a second time. I wonder about a scoping exercise in terms of a cost-benefit analysis that should have been done by the Higher Education Authority. That falls very much into the value for money side of matters. There should be cumulative purchase power here as well. It is as if each separate one has to incorporate that learning legal or consultancy experience. It almost reinforces those particular entities as the experts in the field to the detriment of others who may well provide a similar type of service at a lesser cost.
We will certainly write to the Cork IT and IT Tralee enclosing this schedule and ask why their figures are so high relative to the others. We want to know which college paid the amount involved, was it paid on a 50:50 basis or by one college? As Deputy Catherine Murphy said, it has had an impact on student services. If more than €571,000 has been spent by two colleges on this project, less money has been available for student services. We will write to the Higher Education Authority asking it to give us a detailed response on this. The expenditure involved is alarming with a €1 million having been spent on some of those items. I know some of these are proceeding well in Dublin, etc., but some of them are not. We also want find out from the Higher Education Authority if, from its perspective, it is satisfied with this level of costs and what control it had regarding this merger issue? When we get a reply from those organisations, we will return to these matters.
The next correspondence No. 1101, dated 19 February, from an individual requesting further information from Tusla regarding a matter previously raised with the committee. The committee requested a response from Tusla, which we forwarded to the individual. Tusla in correspondence with the individual directed the person towards the Office of the Ombudsman and the Ombudsman for Children. The individual states she has documentation gained under free of information that supports her view that a report was suppressed unnecessarily. I do not believe we can take this matter further and the individual has been directed to the Office of the Ombudsman to examine such a claim.
Is that agreed? Agreed. We cannot take any further action.
Correspondence No. 1103C, from Deputy Alan Kelly, draws our attention to an Irish Examinerarticle on UCC and a deal with the Cork Opera House.
My jaw nearly hit the ground when I read this. We have raised issues here on numerous occasions about the use of taxpayers' money by universities and colleges. I wonder whether my alma materhas learned anything. Obviously this is a vast sum of money. That is one thing, and UCC can make its own decisions about it, and it is not what I am questioning. At committee meetings we have had numerous discussions on what is taxpayer funding and what is not. There was a lot of discussion and argument relating to the institutions' own funding, and they stated they could use their own funding in whatever way they pleased. However, the fact of the matter in many cases we saw was their own funding was put into a pot with taxpayers' funding and then utilised, and in many various scenarios we had to try to decipher whether this was value for money for the taxpayer. Here we have a situation where UCC is spending this amount of money and is stating it is from non-taxpayer funded revenue. I would ask the following question. If UCC did not get taxpayers' funding in the first place would it be in a position to go out and get non-taxpayer revenue to be able to do this? The manner in which UCC has explained this smacks of nothing being learned from our report of a few months back and the ongoing analysis on some colleges and universities.
We will write directly to UCC about the agreement and the secretariat has a note of the query. UCC states it is part of a postgraduate degree and a new partnership that will see University College Cork invest in-----
The issue of whether or not this is good for the college is not something I am debating. That is a choice it has to make. Personally, I think it is ridiculous but that is a different thing. The issue for me is UCC is trying to justify it on the basis it is using non-taxpayers' revenue. Sorry, but that argument was rubbished at this committee.
Let me tease it out. The majority of funding for most of them is public sources such as the Higher Education Authority. They get some private funding also, but I understand there is one set of accounts with all the money in the one pot and nobody can say all the money did not come from that source.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
One distinction that is made by the institutions is, for example, that student fees are regarded as non-taxpayer revenues. There are also donations and bequests. Some donations and bequests might be fundraising for a specific purpose. If there are conditions around funding such as this, then it should be kept separate and not put into the general pool of funding.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I know. There is probably an over-fine distinction made in many cases. Another example is where a bank is paying rent for premises on campus. This is regarded as non-taxpayer revenue. These distinctions are a bit too fine. There is a distinction to be made in terms of whether the majority of funding is coming from taxpayers' sources. Another source of funding, obviously, is research funding, but again this is very specific. It is for specific research purposes. It cannot be diverted and used. Very often, anyway, it is from taxpayers' sources.
We understand the question.
Correspondence No. 1104C is from an individual who was previously a member of An Garda Síochána. The document is dated 20 February 2018 and encloses a review of contracts relating to the provision and operation of safety cameras for An Garda Síochána. The individual provides an analysis of the GoSafe programme, about which he expresses grave misgivings in relation to value for money for the project. I propose we write to the Garda Síochána-----
If we read the report it is actually a very good report. It raises a huge number of questions, and we really need to write to An Garda Síochána to ask very specific questions based on the report. I would encourage the secretariat, and there is a bit of work in it I am afraid, to go through the report and refer it on. There are some very specific questions in it, which may need to be highlighted. Ultimately, there is a serious question about value to the taxpayer based on what was there beforehand and what is there now. The decision-making process through the Department of Justice and Equality regarding how it came to put this in place is one side of it, and another is how it continued to have the GoSafe strategy in place when the trajectory as regards the costs and value to the taxpayer was certainly going in a direction that leads to many questions.
It states in the document the contract was signed by the Minister and the Commissioner, so we need to write to the Department and the Garda Síochána. The person rightly prefaces the whole report by stating this matter was discussed by the Committee of Public Accounts on 10 July 2014, following the earlier report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. This matter came before us a couple of years ago and it is back before us again.
Yes. To remove any mystery about it, the gentleman who has compiled this report has put his name to it. The former member of the Garda Síochána is John O'Brien, and he has some knowledge of this particular area. We will ask for a detailed report from the Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality to address the issues. Perhaps, as Deputy Kelly has said, the secretariat can go through it and distil some of the key points rather than sending it-----
With regard to the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General on selecting something like this, a piece of work was done in 2014. Is augmenting that with this type of analysis something that is likely to fall into a report the Comptroller and Auditor General would be doing this year? How would it find its way into the choices he makes?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Certainly, a large procurement on this scale would be looked at in the course of the audit of 2017 because, as I understand it, that was when the procurement occurred. An important issue here, with regard to the type of analysis that has been done and sent, is for a procurement on this scale I would expect to see that An Garda Síochána had done an exercise along these lines to establish that a proposed contract with the value of €100 million, or thereabout, was likely to deliver value for money, and to compare it to more in-house Garda Síochána speed testing with regard to what is effective. I would expect to see that all of this type of work had been done by An Garda Síochána. If it has done this work and the analysis stands up then I would not necessarily feel the need to report on it, but legitimate questions for the committee to ask are whether the analysis is in place, what are the results of it and has it been established it is likely to deliver best value.
That is a good basis to seek information.
No. 1106C is correspondence from Deputy Shane Cassells regarding our proposed engagement on the funding of local authorities, which is the main item for today. No. 1108C is correspondence from IBEC.
We will note and publish that and No. 1108C. We want to discuss this IBEC letter regarding commercial rates and the funding of local authorities. Correspondence from IBEC is publishable so we will publish the letter. I do not think it wrote to us to keep a secret. We will deal with the issue of funding local authorities during the course of meeting.
No. 1109C is correspondence, dated 20 February 2018, from Mr. Fintan Gorman, chairman of Inland Fisheries Ireland, and No. 1113C is correspondence, dated 21 February 2018, from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, both containing information requested by the committee regarding the national strategy for angling development on procedures used relating to consideration of projects and disbursement of funds. I propose that we note the correspondence and forward a copy to the body which raised the matter with the committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1111C is correspondence, dated 21 February 2018, from Mr. Neil McDermott of the Higher Education Authority containing information note as requested by the committee relating to the role of secretary-financial controller in institutes of technology. I propose that we note this and forward a copy to the correspondent who raised the matter with the committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1119C is correspondence, dated 22 February, from the Irish Environmental Forum responding to correspondence that the committee agreed to forward to the individual in question from the director general of the EPA. The forum maintains that the EPA licenses industrial plants that have caused €1 billion euro in damage as a result of their emissions. There are matters which may be worth pursuing with the EPA. This is a matter we can put on our work programme for the autumn. It is a very significant issue concerning the role of the EPA with regard to pollution caused by organisations and industrial plants the EPA licenses. We will note and hold that over for a later date.
No. 1122C is correspondence , dated 22 February, from Ms Oonagh McPhillips, acting Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, providing a note relating to the wards of court. The Department states that because the wardship funds are not public funds and are subject to the control and supervision of the High Court, they cannot be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and that to do so would undermine the independence of the Judiciary. I propose we note the correspondence and forward a copy to the individual who has written to the committee on the topic on many occasions. The person may not be satisfied with the response. Does Deputy Catherine Murphy wish to comment? It is about wards of court.
This comes from an acting Secretary General. We are publishing this. The issue of wards of court is a public matter. The one point I would make is that there seems to be a big mystery. These are administered by the judges, and rightly so. We are not trespassing there. They seem to have their own committee overseeing the investment. Perhaps when we come to do our work, such funds might be better managed by the NTMA or somebody else. We should leave the judges with their authority as trustees. In the context of funds that are for the benefit of the public, although I know it is not taxpayers' money directly and can come from insurance companies regarding claims, I think there would be more public satisfaction if they were managed by an organisation such as the NTMA. That is only a suggestion but it is one to which we might return.
We will publish that correspondence. We do not need to take any action now but I assure members that the issue of wards of court will come before us again. We might consider asking for the relevant policy matter to be looked at in the context of the management of funds under the supervision of trusteeship or whatever of the judges without interfering with them. The funds might be better managed by somebody with far more experience of managing these funds than the people who currently manage them. That is not a conclusion at this point. It is only an observation. We will come back to it.
No. 1123C is correspondence, dated 12 February, from a body called Former Local Authority Members Éire relating to a previous item of correspondence discussed on 9 November. The body has asked the committee to investigate the transfer of corporate governance responsibilities arising from the Local Government Act 2014. The correspondent also raises questions relating to the consideration of the organisation's previous item of correspondence, No. 861C. I will ask the clerk to provide the responses as requested. This is not a matter for the Committee of Public Accounts as the changes were the result of a policy decision and the implementation of the Local Government Act 2014. I do not think this is a matter with which the committee should engage further. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1124 is correspondence, dated 26 February 2018, from Mr. Graham Doyle, Secretary General at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport providing a detailed note relating to the situation with CIÉ pensions as requested by the committee. Is it agreed to note the item and agree to publish it? Agreed. Obviously, members will want to utilise that correspondence as they see fit.
No. 1126 is correspondence, dated 8 February 2018, from a journalist providing a copy of a note from the Department of Justice and Equality and an article in Kerry’s Eyeon the court poor box. Can we note and agree also to forward him a copy of the earlier item we received on the court poor box and a copy of the transcript of our discussion on the court poor box? Agreed.
No. 1127 is correspondence, dated 21 February 2018, Deputy Cullinane regarding CIÉ pensions. We have covered that issue. The response is there. Various Members of the Oireachtas have inquired about this. We received the response. It does not deal with the issue satisfactorily but at least it is a response. I know people will take it up at other fora. We will note and publish that. Does the Deputy believe we should publish it?
Item No. 1135C is correspondence from the clerk of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment relating to our proposed engagement with RTÉ requesting that the committee be mindful of its remit and avoid unnecessary duplication of the work of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment in this area. The secretariat has written to RTÉ inviting it to attend a meeting in view of the fact that the majority of RTÉ's funding comes from public sources. The committee is interested in exploring how that funding is used and accounted for.
As the Chairman is aware, I have raised this issue consistently. It is wise for sectoral committees to observe the work of the Committee of Public Accounts. If these committees feel that we are encroaching on their work in any way, they have an absolute entitlement to inform us about that and write to us so I have no difficulty with that whatsoever. We have consistently said that we do not want to duplicate the work of any other committee. There is a difference between the sectoral committees do and what the Committee of Public Accounts does - even in terms of who appears before the different committees. Ministers and Ministers of State appear before sectoral committees and can deal with issues of policy and so on. We do not do that. We deal with a look-back exercise, value for money and accountability. This issue arose when the Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment was here. Almost 40% of the entire budget of the Department, which I think was €170 million, was transferred to RTÉ. The Secretary General was not in a position to answer questions in the same way he was answering questions about the rest of the spend because it was a matter for RTÉ. I have very serious questions to ask about allegations of bogus self-employment and contracting of staff, which are genuine issues. There is a potential cost to the State in terms of revenue as well so they are genuine issues that need to be addressed.
Another issue, which was probed by the Chairman, concerned whether or not a proper service-level agreement is in place between the Department and RTÉ. At no point would we want to duplicate the work of the sectoral committee nor would we want to interfere with the independence of the national broadcaster and ask questions about its decisions in terms of programmes. It was never about that and we have said so ad nauseam. There are specific issues we want to ask about and we have a responsibility and an entitlement to probe and ask questions about the spend of €170 million of taxpayers' money even if RTÉ is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. This is a lot of money so we have a responsibility. We should write back to the clerk of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment and, in a cordial way, agree because I agree with the committee's sentiments but also inform the clerk about why we want to engage with RTÉ.
It is not a crossover in terms of any work that they do.
The letter is gone. I cleared the matter some time ago.
There is one last item of correspondence. I wish to explain to the people who are watching that we have a double batch of correspondence to deal with this week due to not having a meeting last week.
Nos. 1136, 1137, 1142 and 1143 from Deputies Catherine Murphy, Cullinane, Aylward and MacSharry, respectively, request the committee to schedule a discussion on issues surrounding the strategic communications unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. I will call the Deputies in the sequence that the correspondence arrived. Therefore, I call Deputies Catherine Murphy, Cullinane and Aylward, as Deputy MacSharry is not here today, and anyone else can comment after that.
My letter calls on the committee to consider the business case put forward for the strategic communications unit and that we invite the two Accounting Officers, Martin Fraser and Robert Watt, to attend because they will be the people who have responsibility. A business case would have had to be made by Martin Fraser to Robert Watt in their relevant roles. It would be useful for us to see the business case as it would help us to understand the inner workings of the unit and see where the separations exist, and learn the objectives for such a unit. That is what I seek, at a very minimum.
No but we need to be upfront. Political charges have been made in the Dáil Chamber by many parties, which they are entitled to make. This committee must examine the processes and procedures and the logic behind the setting up of this committee in the first place. We were told that this committee was set up to save money-----
------achieve efficiencies and to streamline communications within different Departments and the work of the public service and the Civil Service.
The difficulty is and the concern, if I can call it that, that many of us have is that the unit became something else and is being used for party political purposes. The Committee of Public Accounts has an absolute obligation to see if that was the case because all political parties are funded by the taxpayer and are given funding to use for purposes such as advertising and so on. They can spend money in many different ways but they must account for same. If a party in government used taxpayers' money in any way outside of that remit and thus had an advantage over other political parties then it would be undemocratic, wrong and, potentially, an abuse of taxpayers' money and needs to be probed.
Serious questions have been raised about the advertisement of the national planning framework and the national capital plan and how the advertisements in regional and local newspapers were done. We must, therefore, ask some obvious questions. Who authorised all of that work? Who supervised such activities? Who is accountable? Is the process working in terms of the rationale behind setting up the unit in the first place? Was the money spent for those purposes? Was the money spent for other purposes? Are we getting value for money? Are we getting efficiencies? Are we seeing changes? These are genuine questions on all of these issues. We can park the political charges because we will all make them when we leave the Committee of Public Accounts.
We can certainly park the political charges and we will deal with them outside of this committee.
The Taoiseach took ownership of this project and I call on him to come before the Committee of Public Accounts. I also call on Mr. Fraser as the head of the public service, Mr. Robert Watt who is the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and Mr. John Concannon who has been appointed to lead the unit to come here, and others as we see fit. It is up to the committee to decide whether we should do so. I propose that we invite all of those individuals. We, the committee members, have listed some. I know that Teachta Catherine Murphy has listed other people that maybe I have not, and the same applies to Teachta Aylward. It is up to the Chairman in terms of how he proceeds. I propose that we invite all of the individuals that have been suggested by all of the Deputies, as soon as possible.
My comments are on much the same lines as the two previously speakers. We are concerned. This matter has been in the public arena for the past week, in particular the past ten days. All of the political parties have raised this matter in the House. My questions are as follows. Is this an abuse of public money? For what purpose was the strategic communications unit established? Was it established to streamline information from the Government to the public? Perhaps the unit is being used for political purposes and promotion.
I will not make an allegation. Is the unit being used to promote a particular party rather than the good of the public? The matter needs to be investigated. I agree with Deputy Cullinane that the Secretary General should be invited to come before this committee, and the Taoiseach. Perhaps there is no precedent for a Taoiseach to attend a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts. At least the Secretary General of the Department and the head of the strategic communications unit should be invited to attend. The unit was set up last August, it costs €5 million per annum and the unit consists of 11 personnel. The Brexit unit only has half that amount of staff even though it is more important to this country. Is the unit value for money? Has taxpayers' money been wasted? Is taxpayers' money being used appropriately?
I agree with the previous speakers that we should park the political side of things. Even though our concerns are all real we must consider this matter from the committee's mandate. We need to consider the business case put forward for the unit, the costs associated with the unit, the budget that was given and the recruitment process. I have heard these statements about being cost-neutral. The people who have been pulled into this unit had to come from somewhere and obviously they had to be replaced. Down the line, is there a cost? I presume there is in some cases.
In terms of the campaign, it is a dangerous scenario if a line has been crossed, as has been referred to in both Chambers of the Oireachtas on numerous occasions over the past few weeks. We need to see if taxpayers' money has been appropriately utilised. We need to get into the detail of the campaign. We need to get into the detail of the individual areas of expenditure and why the moneys were allocated. We need to see whether there is precedent in terms of other campaigns that have led to this scenario. We need to ensure that all the relevant individuals are brought before this committee as soon as possible. It would mean, from a public accounting point of view, that we can get the details as to why this unit was set up, whether there was precedent, how people were recruited, how the total budget was allocated, how the campaigns were run and the manner in which the funding for the campaigns was administered.
As part of this process, not alone do we need to bring in the Accounting Officer, we also need to bring in key individuals in the Department of the Taoiseach where the unit is based. Furthermore, it may be the case, Chairman, where we need to bring in the outside agencies that run the campaign or campaigns as well. I make that suggestion because I am afraid that some people who are accounting for funding may be delineating down how funding was being administered to outside agencies, thus creating a vacuum whereby we could not get answers, which would be unacceptable. We should also discuss or reserve the right to call in outside agencies that work for the unit.
Yesterday, the Taoiseach said he would appear before the Oireachtas Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach and deal with this matter as part of the Estimates for his Department. That is a red herring. Perhaps the Taoiseach needs to learn exactly what the Committee of Public Accounts does, as opposed to sectoral committees. He will only discuss the Estimates with the select committee and we will be unable to ask whether we are getting value for money or get details about the controls and practices that are in place, or find out who is accountable and discover who is responsible for making decisions on the expenditure. None of those matters will be covered when he goes before the select committee.
As only the policy decision and the setting aside of the money will be covered, we will not be able to go into the detail. That is the reason he needs to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts, not just a sectoral committee at Estimates time.
I agree that there is a very serious issue and that we should be very careful. I agree fully that there is a value for money issue, but we should be very careful in talking at this committee about the misuse of money for political purposes. This is an extremely important committee. We are here every Thursday with numerous reports before us that we read, reflect on and question in terms of value for money and holding institutions to account. It is extremely important that we hold them to account. I agree that there is a serious value for money issue when it comes to the strategic communications unit and would like to tease out a little more with the Chairman and the Comptroller and Auditor General how best to proceed to ask questions about the unit which have been raised by many of us in different fora. When I raised the issue, I was told the purpose was to save money. That brings the role of the Committee of Public Accounts into it. How did it save money? As my colleague said, what business case was made and who made it? Has it worked? That is an issue for us. To do it we should have immediate access to the business case made. It should be forwarded to us with all relevant documents. I agree with what has been said, but I would like to tease out what the precedent is. We are looking at something without a report before us which is a new departure for us, although I am sure it has happened before. Let us tease out these issues first and stick with the issue of value for money and to the best way to bring the matter before us before we say who we would bring in. I have no difficulty in looking at that issue, but at this point we should tease out the issues involved and establish what we want to do.
There is nothing more important than the independence of the media in doing its job. In the past two weeks I have heard that they are under extreme financial pressure and have effectively been coerced into allowing this to run because of the financial strain they are under. There is nothing more important than we have entered a sphere in which the State can buy the news. We are not living in some Russian creation; this is not Trump-land but a republic. In a democracy the independence of the media to present the news and people to disseminate are fundamental. People have become obsessed with side shows, which is unfortunate, about whether Fine Gael members were in pictures, but it goes far deeper than that.
The people running the campaign were extremely astute about what they wanted to achieve and I will tell the committee why. They dealt with the design of the page, which is the most important point, newspaper by newspaper, including the fonts used in headlines. One should not forget that it did not run as an advertorial, which is bad enough, but I will tell the committee how specific it was. The headline and subhead fonts and text style were the same as on every other page in each newspaper. The first thing one learns in journalism school is that every single newspaper uses a particular font which is unique to it. Newspapers are precise in how their readers react to them. If a newspaper engages in a redesign, it will be at pains to explain to its readers why it has changed the font. When The Irish Timesdid it a number of years ago, it was at pains to explain that it engaged in the redesign to make it easier on the eye. These guys were so specific that in every single newspaper the same headline font, subhead font and colours as on the other pages were used. That takes some work. The newspapers concerned have been caught out and they know it.
The NUJ has commented on the issue because it is worried that if its members and the owners of newspapers allow it to happen, we have entered a dangerous sphere. My local newspaper which is as guilty as all of the rest this week ran a full page viewpoint by Paul Murphy who is one of the most respected local journalists in the country and editor of the Drogheda Independentgroup for many years. He was my first boss when I worked with that newspaper. He said readers of the Meath Chroniclelast week had come across details of the plan spread across the pages but that the words "advertising content" or "advertorial" did not appear anywhere in the copy. An unsuspecting reader would have assumed it was part of the newspaper's normal news coverage. He said it had been a mistake to present the copy in this way and expected it not to happen again.
A number of experts in various fields had been asked to supply quotes about the national development plan, but they had not been told that their views would be part of advertorials paid for by the State. Even the most brazen PR stunt man or woman would not pull that one and hope to get away with it. It looks and is grubby in the extreme.
My point is there is no question that is more fundamental than if people can use public money to try to present spin as news and if the State is buying the news. If the Government presents its press releases, so be it, but if we have come to a point where it can pay for the design to look the same as on every other page in a newspaper, we have entered a most dangerous sphere. Newspapers know it. This is clearly a misuse of public money and one does not need to set up a commission or a committee to investigate it. Anything that fails to be presented as an advertorial and if public money is spent in doing so is a clear misuse of public money and the question demands to be answered. That the Taoiseach flippantly tried to disregard it in the Dáil is a disgrace. The Government cannot buy the news.
We all have concerns and I share all of the concerns outlined by Teachta Shane Cassells about regional publications. On the face of it, it seems as if the unit pulled off a very slick, almost sly operation and our job is to test it. Allegations and political charges are being made. It is for the Dáil Chamber to deal with the matter. What we have to do as a committee is to evaluate whether there is any truth in the allegations that have been made. I have my concerns as we can see it with our own eyes. Teachta Shane Cassells was right in everything he said and I agree with all of it. We will I hope have people before us. We have to provide them with an opportunity to prove to us that the charges made are not true. That is our role.
Teachta Catherine Connolly's point was that we needed to have a good sense of what we wanted to achieve before we invited people. That is obvious, as Teachta Shane Cassells and others said. It is obvious what we want to achieve and what the questions are and we should not delay or postpone making a decision. I have already proposed one which I will reiterate. I formally propose that we invite the individuals named and others. The first session should include the key individuals - the Taoiseach, the Secretary General, Mr. Fraser, and Mr. Concannon, the head of the unit. They are the three key individuals. Others are also important. The Taoiseach and others have been making the point that there are bigger issues. There are, but there is a fundamental issue with how political parties are funded.
If any political party is gaining an advantage over others, that is not right. There are also issues about how taxpayers' money is spent and there are now blurred lines between the communication of Government and public and Civil Service and how that has become political and party political. They are fundamental questions. The issue of value for money is then wrapped up in that and, as others have asked, whether we have achieved the savings we were promised. The Committee of Public Accounts has a clear role in that. That is our starting point and should be the avenue for those coming before us.
I am rarely accused of not being clear. I am crystal clear. There is a serious issue here regarding value for money. I did not ask for a delay but to tease out the issue of how best we can do that in this forum. I am as critical as any Deputy outside of this forum but we have a special role on value for money. I asked that we tease out how best to bring the issue before us based on what the Taoiseach himself has said that this was to save money. I would appreciate if the Chairman could tease this out how the issue should come before this committee, with the help of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I am not talking about a delay.
First, I would like the committee to request the business case. Second, in relation to the process for populating the unit, it would be useful to know who came from where. Were staff seconded from different Departments or were they recruited? That matters in relation to the financial aspect. We have all spoken in other forums. Different committees will do different things. I expect the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment will look at this, as will the Department of Expenditure and Public Reform, and it has already been raised in the Dáil. There are different strands which will be explored, and we need to separate the appropriate segment for this committee as we will not cover the entire gamut. For example, having made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland, I have discovered it does not have a remit in this type of advertising, so I will write to the communications committee to ask if we have appropriate safeguards.
As I understand it from the past, the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland has a clear view that it does not have a remit in relation to political advertising. This is Government, taxpayer-funded advertising, not political. What is it saying?
There are many areas to be looked at, and the two that this committee should explore are the business case and the process for populating the unit. I want to see the two Accounting Officers here. I would not be averse to inviting the Taoiseach, and certainly the person who leads the unit. I would be somewhat concerned about bringing in contractors at this point. We should first establish what we are talking about. If there is a deficit of information that we must test, we need these people to explore how we test that.
I understand where people are coming from but as Chairman I am pointing out that the Comptroller and Auditor General has an independent constitution and I will not bring him into this debate at this time. I do not want him involved in this question which is semi-political. I will not ask him to participate. When we come to the meeting and we have Accounting Officers before us, he will prepare a note then but we must get our end of it out of the way first before we involve the independent office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Members will understand why I am not calling him on this. There are issues of value for money, process, savings and staffing. What falls under this committee's remit is clear, namely the Accounting Officer in the Department of An Taoiseach, the Accounting Officer of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and perhaps other senior people. They are currently under the committee's remit and are obliged to appear before it as requested.
I am not averse to inviting the Taoiseach before the committee but, as Deputy Cullinane said in relation to RTÉ, it is important that we do not trespass on another committee. I want to explain what committee the Taoiseach is appearing before. He is going before the specific select committee, not the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach where they discuss policy issues. It is a select committee of Deputies, no Senators are involved, and it will deal only with the Estimates for expenditure. The purpose of that meeting is to deal with the Estimate of expenditure. The Taoiseach is committed to going before that committee, as he does every year, as every other Minister goes before their relevant select committee, to get approval for his Department for the current year. He will be before that committee on 29 March, I think, when he has returned from the United States. The date has been set already. Undoubtedly, the unit will be discussed at that meeting, because he is going before it to seek approval for expenditure in his Department, which includes the strategic communications unit and all other matters in that Department. I am conscious of not duplicating work by bringing the Taoiseach before this committee. I have confidence in our colleagues on that committee to tease out these matters with the Taoiseach during the Estimates debate. Members might feel after that they did not ask all the questions that we feel should have been asked, but that meeting is already scheduled. Normal political courtesy dictates that the meeting should be allowed to take place to deal with the Estimates. However the Secretaries General as Accounting Officers are under the remit of this committee. The secretariat will be well able to write to them based on the points that have been raised on the specific reasons they need to come before this committee as Accounting Officers as soon as possible after the break.
Perhaps I am over-reaching. I am conscious as Chairman that there are several other forums where the politics of this matter may be dealt with and that the Committee of Public Accounts is not the place for party politics. I am clear about that. We will have more respect if we do a thorough job on the financial side of things and the value for money rather than party politics, in which we can all engage outside of this room.
I am happy for people to disagree with me but I am saying that we should start with the Accounting Officers who are under the remit of this committee. That is my suggestion but I want to hear what members have to say on that. The points have been well covered about the value for money, savings, the business case and recruitment, which is 100% under the remit of this committee to ask the Accounting Officers to deal with.
To be fair to everyone, I was upfront about saying that political charges were being made but the place to make them is in the Dáil Chamber, not the Committee of Public Accounts. We were all very clear on that. We have spent a long time on correspondence, and in an effort to move this forward, given that the Taoiseach will be before the select committee, I think that bringing in the Accounting Officers would be a good starting point but we should continue to hold the position that we may want to hear from the Taoiseach at some point. Let us first hear from the Accounting Officers, and we should be able to get a transcript of what happened in that committee. An Teachta Jonathan O'Brien is a member of both committees and there may be some value in that.
If members are happy, we can write to the Taoiseach arising from this and put him on notice that we may decide to ask him in. We will keep our options open and not rule it out or tie ourselves down. Having engaged in our earlier meetings, we may do so. Can we get a general agreement that we will proceed with the Accounting Officers and the head of the unit?
The secretariat and I will clear the letter going out with the invitation, saying clearly the issues to be covered.
I have no difficulty with that but I wish to clarify something. I mentioned that the Comptroller and Auditor General ought to clarify precedent on this matter, not to draw him in to anything but because there is no report before us. I asked that to tease out the process. At the very least we should ask for the business case, as referred to by Deputy Murphy.
I will help the Deputy on that. The Committee of Public Accounts currently has before it the Department of the Taoiseach's 2016 accounts. The 2017 accounts have not yet been audited and will not come before the committee until September. The 2018 accounts are also not before us yet. Our correspondence will be in the context of the 2016 accounts and an update on developments in the Department on specific issues since then. The 2017 and 2018 accounts are not before us yet so the invitation will have to be framed on that basis.
I agree with asking for the business case. There was a very good report in The Sunday Business Poston this issue. The newspaper got information under a freedom of information request that relates to correspondence, emails and exchanges between the unit and the political side. If they are accurate, it was very interesting that clear direction was given around the advertisements in the regional newspapers. It would raise concerns. Given that the information has been supplied to the newspaper, all of that documentation should also be supplied to the committee, with any other relevant documentation. As much information that can be given to us should be given. It is in their interests to give the committee what has been given to the newspaper and more.
Absolutely. If they have already circulated information to specific journalists, we will ask for it. We are agreed on where we are going now. Will people want to set a date for as soon as is practicable after the break?
I will ask the secretariat. In a few days the secretariat will issue and update to the committee members about precisely where we are at. If members are busy on Thursdays, we can come in to the House on a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening to do this. I believe there would be general agreement to do that. We will start that with the Accounting Officers. The secretariat will update us after a few days. I knew this issue would take up a little bit of time so we will move on now to the next item on the agenda.
Details of the report statement and accounts received since the last meeting are on the screen now. There is a clear audit opinion for the Quality and Qualifications Ireland. We also have the Dublin Institute of Technology 2017 accounts and - here we go again - the institute procured €3.16 million of goods and services during the year without the required competitive tendering.
No. 4.3 is the clear audit opinion of the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland. The board procured €890,100 of services during the year without the required competitive tendering. We will write directly to the board to request an explanation as to why this happened. It is a significant portion of its income.
I will ask the secretariat to circulate that. If the board has already answered in that regard, we circulate it to members. No. 4.4 is a clear audit opinion for the fishery harbour centres. The clear audit opinion for the Church of Ireland College of Education is for the nine-month period ending September 2016. The report states that the review by the Board of Governors of the effectiveness of the financial control system was carried out late and did not cover the full period of account. Why is the committee only dealing with a nine-month period?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The Church of Ireland College of Education has traditionally operated on a calendar year basis. As of 1 October 2016 it became a constituent college of DCU, along with St. Patrick's College. The Church of Ireland College of Education was aligning with the DCU financial year, which is the end of September.
Okay. That is reasonable. The Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board has a clear audit opinion. It is a very small organisation. No. 4.7 is the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission and this is a clear audit opinion. The committee is getting these audited accounts 15 months later. They took their time in getting these accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is a clear audit opinion, however, so we will just note it at that.
It might be worth our while having a section in our occasional documentation about those organisations that have their audit in on time and with a clear audit opinion, which might reward some good behaviour.
It would point out that if some organisations can do it, why the rest cannot do it. I take the Deputy's point. We have the work programme and will have to come back with a date for the meeting we missed last week. We will try to schedule a date. The secretariat will work on this with regard to the Department of the Taoiseach and the strategic communications unit.
I want to come back to the issue of the higher education sector and the work programme. I may not have been clear at the previous meeting, so I will be a bit clearer now. So many different issues with regard to the higher education sector are being juggled at this committee and there are so many elements to it that a level of coherence is needed. I do not know if it has been done. There are some areas where we just need additional information and where we seeking information. That is fine and we will deal with that aspect. There are other areas where we need more scrutiny. The committee needs to return to some issues with Cork Institute of Technology , the University of Limerick, Waterford Institute of Technology and some education and training boards. There are also reports, published or not, and we need some level - perhaps a paper - to put some shape on to all of that. Then we can make a decision as to how to proceed. I am conscious that we do not have that.
There is a bigger issue, where a spotlight needs to be put on the Higher Education Authority. If the HEA's role is to govern and if it is about governance, then that is what it should do. The committee dealt with the correspondence around funding for independent reports, legal and consultancy and all of that, and we now have the data. What are we doing with it and how are we going to approach it? Is it possible that such a paper could be done for the committee? It could be broken down in terms of what attention is given to the various issues and what actions are needed. Some actions, for example, may just be the committee waiting on information. Other actions may be that witnesses and organisations need to be brought back to the committee again and so on.
We will ask the secretariat to address this over the break. That concludes our discussion for today on the work programme. I propose to suspend the meeting for a few minutes to allow our witnesses to take their seats.