Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 24 May 2018
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
Will we agree to amend the minutes to reflect that? Agreed.
There are three categories of correspondence, some of which is now a little dated.
No. 1301, which is from last week, is the Medical Council's opening statement. We did not formally note it. We will note and publish it.
Nos. 1319 and 1324 to 1326, inclusive, are the opening statements for yesterday's meeting from the Department of Education and Skills; the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI; the Abbey Theatre; and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Even though we discussed these statements in public session, we are just formally noting and publishing them now.
Nos. 1311A and 1322A are from Mr. Neil McDermott, system funding, the Higher Education Authority, providing a briefing paper and opening statement for this morning's meeting. We note and publish these. Nos. 1313A and 1323A are from Mr. Diarmuid Collins of University College Cork, UCC, providing a briefing and opening statement for this morning's meeting. We note and publish these.
No. 1321A is the opening statement from Cork Institute of Technology, CIT. We will note and publish it.
We move to correspondence category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to previous meetings. These items are for noting and publishing.
No. 1277B, which was held over from last week, is from Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, dated 8 May 2018, responding to specific questions put to him at the meeting of 19 April 2018 about unfinished housing developments; the local authority mortgage protection insurance scheme; the local authority mortgage arrears resolution process; the taking in charge of estates; and a breakdown of the social housing direct build for 2017. We will note and publish this. It has been circulated to members. They should feel free to use the very useful document as they see fit as Deputies.
No. 1278B, which was held over from last week, is from the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, dated 9 May, providing information requested by the committee on 29 March on advance payments for the green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, known as the GLAS, 2017.
It is No. 1278B. We will note and publish it. The Deputy can get a copy of it directly from the system.
No. 1287B, which was held over from the last meeting, is from Mr. John McKeon, Secretary General of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, following the meeting on 19 April. He provides the following documents: a code of practice for determining employment status; class decisions and test cases; submissions made by organisations; evidence regarding false self-employment; and a media campaign regarding the issue of employment versus self-employment and how these are legally defined. We will note and publish this document. People will be interested in it.
No. 1289B, which held over from the previous meeting, is from Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General of the Department of Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht, dated 10 May, providing follow-up information requested by the committee at our meeting of 26 April. She gives information on the business case submitted to the Department in respect of Foras na Gaeilge's move into a new building and the timescale for the post-project review in respect of the Galway Picture Palace art house cinema. Deputy Connolly was particularly interested in this. We will note and publish the correspondence.
The Deputy should feel free to raise it at our next meeting as arising out of the minutes.
No. 1296B, from Mr. Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer, dated 11 May, is in response to the committee's request for a note on the agreement for the provision of external investigation services in respect of the framework for receipt and investigation of protected disclosures. This framework came into effect for public bodies on 11 April 2018. We will note and publish the correspondence. This is the item concerning protected disclosures that I mentioned earlier. The question Deputy MacSharry asked is whether someone within a small organisation can be independent. That is what the legislation says, so the Office of Government Procurement is operating within the legislation, within those guidelines. I think he-----
Yes, so the guidelines have been issued to the various organisations. This protected disclosure will come up again. I know of another item of correspondence raising the protected disclosure issue for next week as well, so this protected disclosure issue will come back and we can discuss it further. We have already agreed to write to the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Education and Skills today asking them to comment on this issue of people internal to the organisation who may not be considered independent or may be named as part of the disclosure that has been made and the appropriateness of those individuals examining matters when they might be personally connected with some of the issues that have been raised in the statement. We will ask for a response from the two Departments specifically on that issue and we can take it from there when we get a response.
No. 1302B, from Mr. Maurice Buckley, chairman of the Office of Public Works, OPW, provides an information note requested by the committee on the advices given by the OPW to the Department of Justice and Equality and the Probation and Welfare Trust. We will note and publish this. We have discussed it before.
No. 1309B, from Ms Oonagh McPhillips, Acting Secretary General at the Department of Justice and Equality, provides a follow-up note on a number of matters, including the probation service building; costs associated with two protected disclosures; the numbers of people accommodated in commercial and State-owned direct provision centres; sections to be commenced in the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act; the Bridge Project; and the process and systems to raise matters with the Minister. We will note and publish this. There is a lot of documentation there. If members want to raise it again next week, they should feel free. We will note and publish it for today.
No. 1320B, from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, provides an explanatory note on Trinity College Dublin, TCD, and the inclusion of audit certificates with financial statements. We will note and publish this.
No. 1328B, from the State Claims Agency, dated 22 May 2018, provides follow-up to our meeting two weeks ago. I consider this a very serious item of correspondence. It arrived here just yesterday evening, and I arranged for hard copies to be given out to members even though there are 40 pages in it. The issue is very serious. I do not want to reopen the CervicalCheck discussion at the Committee of Public Accounts - not at the moment anyway - but there is a very difficult issue highlighted in this letter that the committee needs to deal with very strongly. I refer to the addendum on page 2. The State Claims Agency was asked by the committee for "A note with the details of the interaction with CervicalCheck and the [State Claims Agency] regarding how the communication process to the women affected would operate". I wanted to read that last section into the record. This is the cover letter.
It is after page 66 but the page numbers do not continue thereafter; it is not page 67. There are the six requests we made to the State Claims Agency after its appearance before the committee on 10 May. We requested "A note with the details of the interaction with CervicalCheck and the [State Claims Agency] regarding how the communication process to the women affected would operate" and four other items. They were in the minutes of the meeting and the State Claims Agency formally got a letter asking that it reply to those five items. The response to one of the items concerns me. The bulk of the document concerns dealing with period payment orders and so on. The agency is waiting for that section of the Act to commence. The part I want to highlight is on page 2, the addendum to the letter signed by Ciarán Breen, the director of the State Claims Agency. It concerns the communication between the HSE and the State Claims Agency and the communication process to the women affected by the case. He says in his letter:
We have noted that John Gleeson of HSE CervicalCheck, during his evidence to the PAC on Thursday 17thMay last, indicated that nobody in HSE CervicalCheck informed the State Claims Agency, in or about the time of Vicky Phelan's trial, that all of the women, the subject matter of the audit, had been informed.
Mr. Gleeson's assertion does not accord with the facts.
I will read that statement again. The HSE was here last week giving evidence, and the director of the State Claims Agency flatly contradicts it and says, "Mr. Gleeson's assertion does not accord with the facts." We have an absolute conflict. I want to read the rest of the addendum.
The Agency re-iterates its advices to the Committee that its legal team, comprising Senior and junior Counsel, a solicitor and paralegal, held a teleconference, on 20thApril 2018, with a senior person in CervicalCheck. Senior Counsel specifically asked if that person, the employee of CervicalCheck, was aware whether or not the affected women had been informed. The reply was that all women whose smear [test] was part of the audit had now been informed or assumed they had been informed by their treating clinicians and this reply was carefully noted and attached to the [State Claims Agency's] legal file.
In giving his evidence to the Committee, Mr. Breen had ascertained the above specifically for the purposes of giving evidence to the Committee on the particular point.
Since that arrived this morning, I have sent a message back to the State Claims Agency asking it to provide us with the name of the person from the HSE who was part of the teleconference and, if possible, a copy of the final note. On the face of it, there are two State agencies involved, two of the most important in the State. One is saying that what was said by one in public session at a meeting of this committee does not accord with the facts. The Committee of Public Accounts has nothing to do with CervicalCheck, but when witnesses appear here, we expect them to speak openly and with candour. This man is disagreeing that that has happened. This is an issue that the committee cannot let run.
There are two issues. The first is that, on the face of it, Mr. Gleeson might not have given accurate evidence to this committee. That is quite serious. I had difficulty with many of the answers we got from him, in particular. That is serious. What is more serious is the substance because if the State Claims Agency was of the view, formed on the basis of information it states it got from CervicalCheck, verified by its legal counsel, that all the women had been informed of the misdiagnosis, or that their treating clinicians had informed them, so maybe it was not the women directly-----
That is very significant because it would have guided the organisation in its approach. It is very profound and goes beyond whether Mr. Gleeson was correct in what he said to the committee. I am more concerned about the substance. I am not sure how we could handle that today but it is certainly very serious.
The Chairman will forgive me for not being here last week. I was representing the committee elsewhere. I have read a lot about the proceedings of this committee, the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, and the Committee on Health. First, there should be only one committee doing the business on this matter although I recognise two points: first, that the Committee of Public Accounts did a very good job last week and, second, that I do not believe some of the information that has been provided to the Oireachtas would have been provided had it not been for the Committee of Public Accounts. With those two provisos, I must state there is a point at which we, as a committee, must recognise it is not customary for committees to duplicate each other's business, which is what is happening. There are three involved. The matter is to be subject to an inquiry that the Oireachtas will establish in due course. Therefore, it is appropriate that the correspondence provided by Mr. Breen, which alludes to an issue that merits further discussion at this committee, should be provided to the health committee. It is of relevance to it to consider it while not diminishing our role in the process from a public expenditure perspective. I propose that the correspondence be sent to the clerk of the health committee.
That is the only action I am proposing. I just wanted to put that on the record because I did not have the opportunity to do so before last Thursday evening's meeting where the decision to have a hearing on this matter, with which I have no difficulty, was agreed to, and the subsequent meeting of the committee on the matter.
Now that the issue has been raised by the Committee of Public Accounts, some people feel the Committee of Public Accounts should not be doing the work of the Committee of Public Accounts. The letter from the State Claims Agency is headed and refers to the work of the committee. The subject was matters related to the State Claims Agency, management of legal costs, open disclosure, and the implications for CervicalCheck revelations. Also covered were the 2016 financial statements of the State Claims Agency and the 2016 financial statements of the HSE. The Deputy will know that, over recent months, we have had detailed correspondence from the HSE and State Claims Agency regarding the management of medical negligence issues. That issue, which we have flagged, will be considered by this committee again. The cervical screening issue that blew up in the public arena was an example of the issue we had been dealing with all along. It is not the issue per se.
When I was reviewing the proceedings of the meeting itself, it became abundantly clear that it was not the case that we were outside our remit. I do not want to give the impression that it was. I used to be a member of the Committee on Justice and Equality, and I remember that a common phrase used at its meetings was that it was not a catch-all for everything. The justice committee gets almost as much business as the Committee of Public Accounts. Now that I am a member of the latter, I recognise that it gets everything and that the justice committee is second. I just wanted to put on the record that-----
Much of what has been done has been done somewhat in isolation. That is not good. If we want a joint meeting with the health committee, perhaps it could be considered in the future. I am not saying we should but it could be considered.
The Deputy's point is well made. I made the point here on the previous occasion that there had been seven committee meetings across three groups, with 32 witnesses in attendance. I do not believe in unnecessary duplication but I do believe the Committee of Public Accounts dealt with specific issues. There was a debate at the health committee yesterday that probably covered areas that we will not be covering. The same happened with Templemore in that the justice committee said it should be considering that. The same happened with the issue of Mr. Maurice McCabe. That happens every time the Committee of Public Accounts deals with a matter. The Deputy's point is well made.
I agree. I just wanted to thank the Chairman for raising this because it is a serious issue. The other issues, concerning the remits of committees, are different. I fully support the view that we cannot be doubling up on things. This is an issue, however, where there is a clear conflict of interest. The words about which there was a complaint were said at a meeting of this committee. Therefore, it needs to be dealt with.
Can we agree to write immediately to the chief executive of the HSE asking for a detailed explanation before our meeting next week? Is that agreed? Agreed.
In category C, No. 1297B is correspondence dated 9 May from Professor Patrick O'Shea of UCC regarding Cork Opera House. It was discussed a few minutes ago. We will note and publish it.
No. 1310C, from Ms Maria Browne, Chief State Solicitor, relates to the lease of a building for the Probation Service at Wolfe Tone Street. Is it agreed to note and publish this? Agreed.
No. 1312C is from Deputy Catherine Murphy and relates to the public services card. I propose that we hold that over completely because the Deputy is not here. She sends her apologies.
No. 1314C is from an individual and relates to the cost of insurance. It is not within the remit of this committee to get into the matter of insurance costs. The lady mentions motor insurance primarily, especially motor insurance for young people. We will forward the correspondence to the finance committee for its consideration and whatever action it deems appropriate. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1315C is from Ms Oonagh McPhillips, acting Secretary General at the Department of Justice and Equality, and relates to the GoSafe programme. Can we note and publish it? Agreed.
No. 1316C is from the former vice president of CIT and relates to matters discussed at the committee meeting on 22 March 2018.
I propose that we do not publish this but rather hold it over for consideration until next week. The next item is No. 1317, a letter dated 27 April from an individual on the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine regarding ex gratiapayments to the Irish Horse Welfare Trust. I propose that we forward this item to the Department for a further response on the points as this has come up before. Item No. 1318 is correspondence from an individual on the committee's hearing on cervical cancer. The individual feels this would be more appropriate to be dealt with by the Garda. We will just note that remark. Item No. 1327 is correspondence from UCC on a request for information by the committee on a specific retirement package which was raised by Deputy Kelly. We note that.
There are no statements of account before the committee today. There is a gap in the work programme due to a cancelled meeting. We will try to get the National Treatment Purchase Fund in on 14 June. There being no other business, I note that next week we were to consider the draft report on corporation tax which was circulated from the secretariat weeks ago and which had been on hold. The report has sat there but I hope we can run through it in detail next Thursday in private session. It is not a long report. We will try to complete that business in private session. We are not circulating copies of that. When we did so three weeks ago, it appeared on the front pages of newspapers within 36 hours. People will have to come here and get hard copies, discuss it as it is here and hand it back in. When we issue a report, it will be a report of the committee. Before we adjourn, I note that Deputy MacSharry had indicated.
I do not want to delay the meeting, but I note that I was not trying to direct on behalf of the committee. I do not know if Deputy Connolly meant I was trying to direct on behalf of the committee or that I called for anything on behalf of the committee.
I was not speaking on behalf of the committee. I went through the appropriate procedure. I made a proposal. What was decided by members was not to consider that proposal until some other time. When will that be?
The Deputy has made a proposal. There is no seconder but we will discuss it. What we have agreed in the meantime is the issue the Deputy raised on the lack of independence and the potential conflict of interest in organisations where protected disclosures or alleged protected disclosures are being made where the people involved in the process cannot be considered independent. In relation to that conflict, we have written to them for a detailed response to the views and points expressed.
Not a public investigation, an independent one in relation to what we displayed pretty clearly was not an independent or thorough investigation. It should be done by the Department or the HEA rather than the people themselves.
The legislation provides for guidelines. I asked the gentleman from education which section of the Act prescribed that and he quoted the section of the Act which allowed for the making of the guidelines. Guidelines are just that, guidelines. This is in the interests of all of the people. As I said at the meeting, even if all of the allegations were vexatious, why would everyone not be interested in having a process which was beyond reproach in circumstances where the current one is not. This was a significant issue which has caused a lot of trouble. There has been correspondence to all of us to pursue it. Why can we not have an independent investigation or reinvestigation of all of that? I am not asking for a commission of investigation or tribunal or anything like that. I note regarding the question of whether the Department of Public Enterprise and Reform ever comes back on the Chairman's correspondence that we need a very prescribed process. A process should never be overseen or facilitated by the fox rather than the hens. That stands to reason.
If we require extra information during the course of a public session, we write and get it and then we consider it. During my time, we have never taken a proposal for a recommendation from the committee to be taken without it being teased out.
Can I be straight? I see value in a big organisation. I see value that if somebody has a complaint about somebody in an organisation and makes a protected disclosure and that organisation is big enough, it can include people independent of the people concerned who can investigate internally. Every single complaint made by each public servant should not be sent to an outside firm.
We accept and they accept the point and we will make a recommendation on it. We normally do it through a structure, having considered all the evidence. I am in favour of the Deputy's recommendation but it will probably work its way into our next report. It will not be today.
That is into our next report. If the Chairman does not want to take my proposal now, take it the next day. It is that an independent investigation be carried out either by the Department or the HEA into what we now believe to be one to three protected disclosures because of the interpretation. The first of those is the one where the KPMG report was. If one goes through the transcript, we have poked enough holes in the process to question it. I have no axe to grind. I am not from Cork and I have nothing to do with CIT. It is 220 miles from my constituency and we are either going to do it or not.
The other thing is that we decided as a committee in principle to contact the legal team for a mortgage debt advocate in relation to the IBRC liquidation and the case being taken against the State. We agreed to go ahead with that but I had suggested we would ask the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor for a view just before doing so. It is not that the advice will dictate our view but it might inform the decision we have made before we finally proceed with it. What is the update on that?
I do not need them to be here. I just want their view on it. On that, I note that when the Department of Health wrote to the CPP last week to try to stop the Chairman proceeding with the meeting, by 5 p.m. that evening the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor had a full legal position. That took a matter of hours but it is weeks since I brought this up. Is there a problem? Did we request it?
In the interest of the State, in the interest of value for money which is our work here, given the costs of the IBRC liquidation and the fact that we had a recommendation in our last report, I have reasons to believe that if we made contact with this person and asked him if he would like to engage with us, that we can ask pertinent questions, and would that allow him to pull back from your case, it would save everybody money. He is not after money. He is just after proper oversight. In the meantime, we are being hampered in getting answers from the relevant people when they are in because they state these matters are before the courts. If we proceeded along those lines, we would do the State a service, save the money and maybe get answers for everybody.
No doubt the legal affairs office will come back and state that such a course of action is highly unorthodox and, of course, it is. Sometimes it is okay to be pioneering, particularly if it shows a bit of common sense and saves a few pounds.
To do the rugby video TMO, one should be careful what question one asks. The question I ask is, "Is there anything wrong legally with us doing this?", as opposed to "Give us lots of reasons why not to do it". It is, "Can we award the try?", as opposed to, "Give us an analysis of the game?"
I know the format of dealing with the parliamentary legal adviser and the office of the parliamentary legal adviser will want a memo setting out what it is being asked to look at. I will ask that both the Deputy and myself agree that memo before it goes to the office.