Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 21 June 2018
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
This morning we dealt with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Are the minutes of the meeting of 14 June agreed? Agreed. Is it agreed that there is nothing arising that will not be on the agenda? Agreed.
There are three categories of correspondence. Category A relates to briefing documents and opening statements. Correspondence item 1392A is a briefing document from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for today's meeting. We note and publish that. It has already been discussed.
Document No. 1411A is the opening statement from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for today's meeting. We note and publish that. It has already been discussed.
Correspondence item 1405A from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade provides statistical information on passports requested by the committee. We note and publish that. We had a detailed discussion on that earlier today.
Correspondence category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers or Ministers or both and follow-up to Committee of Public Accounts meetings. A number of members are not present and others have not had an opportunity to read some of the correspondence. I have been asked to hold a number of items of correspondence over to next week.
Correspondence item 1370B from the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, dated 11 June 2018, provides an information note requested by the committee on the funding scheme in place for local authorities to provide housing for refugees. We note and publish that. We had a detailed discussion on that earlier today.
Correspondence item 1371 is from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills and is dated 11 June 2018. I have been asked by members to hold that over until people have an opportunity to consider it. The same applies to the next item, correspondence item 1380 from Dr. Graham Love, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority. Due to members not being present I have been asked to hold that over to the next meeting. Correspondence item 1384B also is from Dr. Graham Love of the Higher Education Authority dated 15 June 2018. I have been asked to hold that over and it will be on our list next week.
Correspondence item 1385B from Ms Dee Forbes, director general of RTÉ, dated 15 June 2018, is in response to an email received from an individual querying information provided to the committee regarding the possibility of having an RTÉ 2+1 channel. Ms Forbes clarifies that RTÉ 2+1 does not currently exist, which is something I asked. I think we will hold that over. There is a second item of correspondence. I express my exasperation. We had a detailed conversation with the Department about getting an RTÉ 2+1 channel on the Sky platform. We received a detailed reply last week which does not answer the question and does not correct the record. In the meantime, we have received a further letter from Dee Forbes of RTÉ, which again does not fully clarify the matter. They are all just talking around the system. We asked a direct question and had the debate here about putting the RTÉ 2+1 channel up on the Sky platform and we have now established that the channel does not even exist. It may get permission and then make the channel; I do not know the details of the technology. We will hold this over because we are expecting further correspondence to clarify what I thought was a simple question.
I will get home to watch my RTÉ 2+1 channel if I get out of here. That item is held over until the next meeting.
The next item, correspondence item 1387B from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, dated 12 June 2018, is held over to the next meeting.
Correspondence item 1388B received from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, dated 5 June 2018, relates to the local government funding baseline review and consultation process. We note and publish that. I encourage all members of the committee and all Members of the Houses to make a contribution to that consultation process because it exercises the minds of many public representatives.
Correspondence item 1389B is from Mr. Tadhg Daly, chief executive officer of Nursing Homes Ireland. The document is a formal agreement between the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, and Nursing Homes Ireland. This was provided at last week’s meeting. We are just noting and publishing that.
In the discussion we had with that body, its representatives said that the CCPC had basically given Nursing Homes Ireland a clean bill of health. I made the point that it did not resolve the question of whether issues of price fixing were discussed by Nursing Homes Ireland but were never actioned. Because they were never actioned, no action could be taken by the CCPC. It actually states here that it can confirm-----
I am on paragraph with the heading, NOW NHI AND THE CCPC HEREBY AGREE AS FOLLOWS. It states "NHI hereby confirms that NHI and, to the best of its knowledge, its members did not at any stage implement any collective actions..." Therefore we know it did not implement any, but the question was whether it was discussed.
The document continues to state: "NHI hereby undertakes..." All of the undertakings are the issues that were in the public domain that appeared in the minutes. It is quite interesting. Essentially NHI is saying it promises not to implement what it said it did not talk about. We need to note that we were stonewalled. The witness had a right not to answer questions when he was here. However, the CEO was not in a position to confirm or deny whether the word "boycott" was used. He simply said he did not use it. This document indicates there was an agreement with the CCPC that it did not action what was potentially discussed at that meeting and that it would not do so in future. It is set out in the document. It vindicates us in pursuing this. I acknowledge that there is now a written legal agreement that it will not. However, it certainly raises questions for the organisation about it putting itself in that position in the first place. It ended up having to sign such an agreement with the CCPC.
The Deputy's point is clear. Why is there a commitment not to discuss a certain issue if there was not a feeling it had been discussed? That is the point he is making. In any event that is now published by Nursing Homes Ireland here as a result of last week's meeting. The point the Deputy makes speaks for itself. We note that and the Deputy's comments are also recorded.
Correspondence item 1390B is from Mr. Ray Mitchell of the HSE dated 15 June 2018. This is a briefing note requested by the committee regarding the organisational structure of the national screening service. We note and publish that. Correspondence item 1391B from Mr. Ray Mitchell of the HSE dated 15 June 2018 providing information requested by the committee on-----
Let me read out what it is about and then we can discuss it. It relates to a note on the lab screening data; copies of emails or other correspondence from the national director of acute hospitals in which he forwarded correspondence received on 13 July 2017 from the CEO of the University of Limerick group; and a note on the contract with the laboratories and whether there is any provision which gives recourse to the State to pursue a laboratory where an indemnity to the patient is invoked.
I do not know if a written question was sent by the clerk to the committee or the secretariat to the HSE but we had already received the laboratory data for 2013-16 when its representatives appeared before the committee. We were looking for the laboratory data from 2008-12, which we have not received.
The HSE sent us data we already had in answer to our question, and that is playing games. The Accounting Officer stated that the HSE would send us the data we were seeking as quickly as it could. It is a bit rich to send us data we already have in order to pretend that it was answering the question or providing us with information. We should write back to the HSE in very strong terms. We already had those data and the HSE should know that. We are seeking the data for 2008-12.
We expect to have it in the next few days, possibly tomorrow, because the response issued last week. We will note and publish that and wait for the rest of the information.
Correspondence item 1394 is from Mr. Ray Mitchell of the HSE in regard to a matter raised at our last meeting regarding offering open access to all records to Dr Scally. What does that letter say? It is a short note. We will note and publish that.
In correspondence category C, items 1342C, 1355C (i) to (vi) and 1362C in regard to wards of court were held over from our last meeting. We will hold them over until our next meeting.
Item 1347, relating to GoSafe cameras, was held over from the last meeting. Some members who are not present asked that it be held over as they are not here.
The next item of correspondence is 1350. It was received from an individual regarding a submission to the committee on protected disclosures in the Irish Prison Service. I was asked by members who are not present to hold that over to the next meeting.
Correspondence item 1386C is an anonymous letter from an individual who made a protected disclosure in regard to wrongdoing at a location in Limerick. It requests that the committee make inquiries with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Again, members not present have asked for that to be held over.
Correspondence items 1398C and 1399C, dated 18 June 2018, are from Deputy MacSharry and draw attention to issues in regard to the selection and operation of the election observation roster by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This matter was dealt with during our engagement with the Department this morning. The Department has a panel which is expiring. The Department representatives said they hope to establish a new panel but that will not be done until the end of the year, so the current panel will remain in place until then. The Department will publish criteria in the next two weeks and invite interested members of the public to put forward their names for consideration. A new panel is about to be established. Is that of benefit? I am summarising what was said this morning when that topic was specifically discussed. We are to receive a detailed note on why the current panel was allowed to expire without this action being taken in advance. The witnesses stated that there were staffing issues. We asked for a detailed briefing note this morning and we will receive that shortly. We will note and publish that item and wait for the response.
I will return to correspondence item 1316, received on 11 May 2018 from the former vice president of Cork Institute of Technology, CIT, regarding matters discussed at the committee meeting on 22 March 2018. We held this item over. At our meeting on 22 March in regard to public private partnerships, PPPs, a number of points were made regarding the former vice president and his role as contract manager at CIT’s National Maritime College, which he says were untrue or misleading. He has written to the committee to state that he was not here to respond to those points. We are providing this opportunity for him to correct the record. At the request of the committee, the clerk has liaised with the individual to summarise the main points of his letter. It is an extensive letter and I do not wish to read it all, so will just give the main points. I ask any member with observations on what I am about to read into the record to listen carefully and take me up on it if he or she so wishes.
First, the individual clarifies that he was not the contract manager during the construction phase and accepts that, as a scientist, he would be unlikely to have the skills to oversee the construction phase. The committee acknowledged that already at our meeting on 24 May. Second, following the hand-over of the building, he oversaw the operational phase on request of the Department of Education and Skills. He believes it is not accurate or fair to say that he did not have the relevant skills to oversee the operational phase. Third, the individual states he was never employed by companies that were subsets of the college. However, the committee notes that he was an unpaid director. That was put on the record on the last occasion this was dealt with and we again note it now. Fourth, following retirement, he was employed one day a week by Cork Institute of Technology to support the college in a number of areas but that what was involved required attendance in the college on three or four days a week. Fifth, in respect of his retirement party, he states that CIT did not contribute to this but that it was paid for by friends and colleagues who attended. Sixth, he states that any problems with the building were the responsibility of the PPP company and it was required to meet the costs. That was also stated at the meeting on 24 May. In summary, the individual was greatly upset by what he believes were false and misleading statements made about him while he was not present to defend himself. We have now provided an opportunity for the record to be corrected. Can we note and record that item of correspondence? Noted.
The committee has received five items of correspondence from an individual regarding matters arising from the amalgamation of Kiltoghert Co-operative Agricultural and Dairy Society and the North Connacht Farmers' Co-operative Society in 2000. These items have not been circulated. The correspondent makes a number of allegations in regard to irregularities in the amalgamation process, procedural and behavioural matters relating to the Garda and procedural failures by officials of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The substantive items in regard to the amalgamation process of co-operatives and allegations in regard to the Garda are not within the remit of the committee. For informational purposes, issues relating to the amalgamation should be addressed to the Registrar of Friendly Societies in the Companies Registration Office and allegations in regard to the Garda should be dealt with by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, not the Committee of Public Accounts. Given that serious accusations are made about specific individuals, with the consent of the committee I propose that the items not be circulated and that we inform the individual that we will not consider the matter further. I propose that we return the documentation to the individual. If any member wishes to see the documentation before it is returned, he or she may contact the clerk. Is that agreed?
Yes. These events occurred 18 years ago. There are allegations about the amalgamation process, comments about the Garda and specific allegations in regard to an individual. It is not within our remit so I propose, with the consent of the committee, to return the documentation to the correspondent and say------
We will return the documentation to the correspondent and tell him that matters in regard to the amalgamation should be referred to the Registrar of Friendly Societies in the Companies Registration Office and matters in regard to the Garda should be dealt with by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission. We will inform him of the two agencies with which he should make contact. If any member wishes to view the documentation, he or she may contact the clerk in that regard but we will return it to the correspondent after the weekend.
Deputy Aylward knows that it was 18 years ago. There is enough to do at the moment. We will move on and return it with that covering note, explaining those two points.
The next item is statements and accounts received since the previous meeting. The first one is a clear audit opinion on Dublin City University and the usual issue around the third pension funding in the public sector. That is normal.
The next item is a clear audit opinion from the Commission for Communications Regulation.
The next item is from the Health Information Quality Authority, HIQA. A qualified opinion has been given because of its retirement benefit entitlements, which are only met as they become payable. That is a regular issue arising in respect of public sector bodies concerning payment for pensions.
The next item is the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board, ETB. It should be remembered that these are the accounts for 2015, so they are a bit behind times. We highlighted last year that there was a specific problem with this ETB. Attention is drawn to the disclosure in the statement of internal control. An invoice redirection fraud on the board in November 2017 resulted in the loss of an estimated €246,000. That is shocking. We have to write to the ETB for a fully detailed report as to how that happened. There is also a question of weakness in the board's control regarding accumulated PLC fee income and bank accounts. There is a further on the delays in finalising the financial statements in 2015 due to changes in senior personnel in the ETB. We were made aware of that in public here last year when the ETB appeared before the committee. We need to write to the ETB for a detailed note about that loss of €246,000 and the invoice redirection fraud. I do not know anything about it, so I believe we need detailed information about it.
The next item is the Clare and Limerick ETB. It has supplied its audit opinion and, again, there is a level of non-compliance with national procurement guidelines. We will have to come back to that issue across the entirety of the public service because it is cropping up every week.
The next item is from Waterford Institute of Technology for the year ending 31 August 2016. Attention is drawn to the going-concern status of the institute, which had an accumulated deficit of €4.4 million to the end of August 2016 and which did not provide for pension benefits in the financial statements. That is normal, but the issue of the deficit still arises. The accounts were prepared on the basis that the institute will continue to receive State funding. That is probably a reasonable assumption. However, the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot give a cast-iron guarantee that that will happen. He has to draw attention to the fact that this place can only continue to trade if it continues to get funding.
If the Deputy considers the local authorities, the money being borrowed by the institutes of technology is not big money relative to other public bodies. Local authorities borrow much more than that. That is not a big amount in terms of organisations of that type.
Institutes of technology cannot borrow. They are not allowed to borrow. They are also not allowed to have deficits. That is the difficulty here. Waterford Institute of Technology is not the only offender, but it would be useful if the committee wrote to the Higher Education Authority to ask for a breakdown of the finances of each institute of technology to ascertain which were in deficit. This would give us a picture of how Waterford Institute of Technology compares to others. Can that be done?
In the case of Waterford Institute of Technology, we should ascertain the up-to-date position. The accounts presented were from 2016. I know that containment measures were put in place, so it may well be out - or close to being out - of deficit.
I thank the Deputy; I was not aware of the borrowing restriction in the legislation. It is important we get updated accounts. We will ask for a report which covers all of the institutes of technology.
The next item is a clear audit opinion from the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland.
The next item is a clear audit opinion from the HSE. The attention of the committee is drawn to some non-competitive procurement, inadequate monitoring and the oversight of grants to outside agencies. The statement of capital income and expenditure shows a surplus from 2016 of €15 million brought forward even though sanction was not obtained to do so. The HSE is on the work programme for this committee and it is due to appear here on 5 July. We can discuss all of those issues on that day. We will note it in the meantime.
The next item is a clear audit opinion from the National Asset Management Agency.
The next item is a clear audit opinion from the language body. Its accounts have been jointly audited with the Northern Ireland Comptroller and Auditor General.
The next item is a clear audit opinion from Trinity College Dublin. However, attention is drawn to the deferred pension funding, and the disclosure of a cyber fraud on the Trinity Foundation in 2017, at a cost to the university of €975,000. That is staggering. We have found out about two educational bodies today that were subject to cyberfraud or invoice redirection fraud, being Louth and Meath ETB to the tune of €246,000, and Trinity College Dublin to the tune of €975,000. That is €1.25 million of taxpayers' money.
We are going to write to Trinity College Dublin and ask for a detailed note. If we see any further examples we will have to look at that specifically. We have seen two examples of fraud. The money taken from the foundation may not have been taxpayer money but rather money from donations, but if the foundation loses money the deficit will have to be made up eventually.
The next item is the work programme. On Thursday, 28 June, the Tax Appeals Commission and the Revenue Commissioners will appear at the second session at 11.30 a.m. to deal with tax debt write-offs, withholding taxes and the appropriation accounts. The Tax Appeals Commission is a new organisation. There has always been a tax appeals commissioner, but there is a new structure in place. It is a new organisation with a separate Vote, so it will be dealt with separately. On 5 July, the HSE will appear before the committee. On 12 July, the National Treasury Management Agency will appear before the committee, including the State Claims Agency and all the organisations under its remit.
Is there any other business? I want to refer to one item of business in private session. Can we go into private session for a moment? Is there anything else to deal with in public session? We have to deal with two issues in private session, namely, one item of correspondence and the discussion document circulated by the committee secretariat about preparing information for a periodic report. It depends on how much time people have had to look at the document in advance, but we do have to clear it quite quickly. It does not have to be finished today.