Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 8 November 2018
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined today by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to the committee. He is joined by Georgina O'Mahoney, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputy Pat Deering. We are holding over the minutes to a further meeting and moving on to the next item, correspondence. There are three categories of correspondence. Category A is briefing documents and opening statements in respect of the meetings. Nos. 1701 A and 1702 A are from Ms Cliodhna Sweeney of the State Claims Agency, dated 6 November 2018, and enclose the opening statement and briefing information for today’s meeting. We will note and publish this. Agreed? Agreed. We will discuss it during our meeting with the State Claims Agency, which will begin shortly.
The next category is category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers, correspondence following up from meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and other items for publishing. We held over a number of items from previous meetings. We can continue to hold some over but I want to take two of them because they have been on our desk for a while. No. 1490 B is from the Government accounting unit in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated 18 July. We have a duty to deal with it because it was received so far back. It encloses a minute from the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform in response to our first periodic report which covered the period from September to October 2017. This might not take as long as it looks like it might because I have gone through it. If members are happy for me to guide them through these they can pick me up on any point. We have to deal with some of these. They are an important follow-up on our own work programme. We have already noted and published the correspondence.
We are now dealing with No. 1490 B from the Government accounting unit which relates to our period report. We had a series of recommendations in that report. The system is that the report goes to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which gets responses from the individual line Departments and comes back with the responses from the Ministers. We will not debate all of these again because we have debated them at length. The first recommendation in the report is B.1. This letter deals with our earlier recommendations and the report we published in respect of An Garda Síochána, the Health Information and Quality Authority, the Industrial Development Authority, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Tusla and the Health Service Executive. I propose to quickly summarise the responses from the Ministers. I will not read them in detail as it is an extensive document but our recommendations have been out there for quite some time.
The first issue related to the reopening of Garda stations. The second recommendation was that the reopening of Garda stations should be included in the Estimates process for 2018. These stations included Stepaside. The third recommendation was that the OPW should carry out a detailed examination of Stepaside Garda station. We recently received detailed information from the OPW. It gave us, for the first ever time on the public record, a breakdown of the costs of the different projects in respect of the Garda stations. It has accepted the response which said that it should be a policing decision. We have received that information since. We note that and move on.
With regard to the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, we recommended that an examination of the cost of agency staff be carried out. We all understand that employing agency staff is more expensive. The response says that the Minister for Health accepts the recommendation with regard to HIQA carrying out an examination. We are now writing to HIQA or the Department of Health as appropriate for a follow-up on that recommendation.
We want an update on recommendation B.4.
We will move on to B.5, which is a request. At that stage, we had asked for additional staff vacancies in HIQA to be filled. The Department stated recently that appointments below the grade of principal officer on the standard scale no longer require sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. The Department of Health can give sanction directly. The Department gave us the numbers, which have increased from 198 at the end of 2016 to 216 at the end of 2017. There has been an improvement and we will return to that issue.
We asked for a breakdown of the consultancy services mentioned in HIQA's 2016 accounts and for further information to be provided. We will ask the secretariat to circulate a copy of the 2017 HIQA accounts and we can see whether the authority complied with that in its 2017 accounts.
The next item relates to IDA Ireland. The committee recommended that IDA Ireland review its methodology to verify the number of jobs created by its client companies. To be put it bluntly, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation does not accept this recommendation. We will discuss this briefly because a follow-up question arises. The Department states that it carries out the employment annual survey, which is done on a voluntary basis whereby companies return the survey. The Department states the survey has a track record over many years of identifying employment trends. I find this interesting because it is a bit like the practice of basing figures on house completions on ESB connections. The argument that it should continue because it has been taking place for a number of years does not satisfy us. To give us some comfort that this survey is meaningful we will write to IDA Ireland and ask what percentage of companies overall respond to its survey. If the survey covers 5% of companies, we need to know that and if it has a 95% response rate, we can have a high degree of confidence in it. We need some information on the survey and on how extensive it is. We will draft an appropriate letter. Maybe it will be fine or maybe there will be a problem, but we do not know based on the answers provided so far.
We will move onto transport infrastructure. This recommendation was about publishing post-project reviews of public private partnerships, PPPs. That has been accepted. Following our meeting on this issue, our recommendation was implemented by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 26 March when it issued Circular 06/2018. The circular provides that all new projects must publish a post-project review within a reasonable timeframe and reviews for current projects must be published as soon as possible. That is ongoing issue to which we will return because PPPs are part of our work programme this year.
The next recommendation was that Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, avail of road safety reports from the Road Safety Authority, RSA, to develop its objectives for future investment. The Department states that TII avails of the reports as they become available and continues to use road safety benefits in prioritising where funding is allocated and improvement works are carried out.
The next item relates to Tusla. The recommendation was to ensure a proper service level agreement is in place with all Tusla funded organisations. At this stage, we will write to Tusla requesting an update on how it is getting on with the recommendation because it was made a couple of months ago. Recommendation B.12, which also relates to Tusla, is on procurement. There are serious issues with procurement in Tusla. The organisation states it now has an internal procurement support section which deals with communications, data access and training. We will continue to monitor that. The recommendation has been accepted.
The next recommendation was that Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report, Audit of Processes and Procedures adopted by Members of An Garda Síochána in Initiating the Provisions of Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, be implemented. That has been accepted. That is following up on a policy issue. The letter we received in July stated that Tusla and the Garda Síochána were currently in the process of agreeing a memorandum of understanding on information sharing and data protection. We need an update on whether such an agreement is now in place. We will probably not receive a copy of the agreement but we want to know whether the memorandum of understanding has been completed.
B.15 deals with the delays in the HSE implementing the process of appointing a lead community health organisation, CHO, in cases where national organisations have a number of agreements with different community health organisations. The HSE is now appointing one CHO region to deal with that, which is fine. We will raise the matter with the HSE when its representatives appear before us again.
The next item was the review being carried out by the HSE regarding non-compliance with public sector pay policies. This is a little dated but the HSE indicated that 745 business cases had been presented by section 38 organisations. Some 351 had been dealt with and 394 were being examined. According to the HSE, given the scale of the complexity of the matter, it would not be possible to bring the process to a conclusion early in 2018. However, it indicated the process should be concluded by the end of 2018. We will ask for an update on that. The HSE accepted our recommendation but we want to see if it is being implemented.
We also recommended making an ex gratia payment to employees of Console employees. The response indicated that the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform was not in a position to comment on the matters arising in respect of the organisation Console, having regard to the fact that this is a section 39 agency and, accordingly, its staff are not public servants. That is fine and we will note that response. We have done what we can. Individual members can chase up on the matter but the Minister is not accepting the recommendation and we cannot make him do so. There is nothing to prevent individual members from continuing to raise the issue.
We will ask the HSE to give us an update, including figures on the original number of staff, the number of staff who transferred and the number who did not transfer. We will at least ask the HSE to provide the current position on the numbers. That is the periodic report. We will follow up on a few matters. We are noting many matters and there are others on which we are seeking additional information.
The other issue I want to deal with is the second periodic report, which covered our work from November to December 2017 and which we launched on 28 March 2018. We received a reply from the Government accounting unit in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 9 August last. In fairness, we cannot allow these matters to go on any longer. If we make recommendations we should follow up on them and I will try to do so on these recommendations. I have read through them and if anyone wants to take up any of the specific recommendations over which I have skirted, that is fine. I made a genuine effort to go through them as quickly as possible.
This report dealt with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; education and training boards; the Department of Education and Skills; An Garda Síochána; the Department of Employment and Social Protection; and the Department of Finance. The first recommendation was for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Members will laugh at this. We talked about planning for major projects such as broadband infrastructure, sustainable energy and landfill remediation. The Department tells us it had hoped to have agreement finalised in respect of broadband infrastructure. I will read the last sentence of the correspondence from the Department. "The Department is working to a timeline of having selected a preferred bidder by September 2018." That is a little ironic at this stage. Broadband is on our work programme primarily for that reason, although we have not covered it yet. This was based on the 2016 accounts, with which we are dealing. It is in the 2017 accounts. The planning process is historical and has been ongoing for a couple of years. Where we are today is a result of what has been done for the past couple of years. It goes without saying that the committee will return to that topic. We will include it in our work programme.
The minute mentions the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and landfill remediation. There are a number of landfill remediation issues in the country. We will ask for an update based on our report.
The next item was oversight arrangements in respect of RTÉ. While an oversight agreement and legislation are in place, the Department does not want to put a service level agreement in place. It states that it would be inappropriate to do so and that it has an oversight agreement.
It has the legislation and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as the regulator but the Department maintains that in the case of RTÉ a service level agreement is inappropriate in view of other issues included into it. We have discussed this at length. I do not know how much further we can go. We have made our recommendation and that is the answer we got. We will just note it, bank it and hold it for another day.
In regard to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, this relates to 71 landfill sites. We covered that in a separate recommendation and we want an update on the remediation of the sites in question.
The next item was the national broadband plan, on which we made another recommendation. The issue is in our work programme and we will deal with it.
The next item is Ireland's potential liability for not meeting its 2020 carbon emissions targets. The recommendation has been accepted and the Department stated it has established an interdepartmental work group, comprising a number of wonderful people, which is examining this issue. It also stated that Ireland is permitted to bank and use surplus emissions credits from the years it overachieved on its annual emissions targets, from 2013 to 2015, to comply with the effort-sharing decision. That is also the case with any surplus due and carried over in the 2008 to 2013 Kyoto Protocol compliance period, thereby reducing the net additional cost to the Exchequer. We will ask for an update of the workings of that interdepartmental group.
Part of the reason there was an overachievement was that there was a significant downturn. It is disingenuous to use that as part of the compliance. Once the economy started to reignite, we essentially went further backwards. That kind of response means we will be significantly exposed in monetary terms, never mind the survival of human beings on the planet. In economic terms, we were told by the Department of Finance that the expectation was that there would be fined €600 million per annum from 2021 onwards because we are not in compliance.
Much of the response refers to purchases of surplus emissions allowances from other European Union member states. Deputy Catherine Murphy is correct in reference to the years of overachieving. Using the word "overachieving" is making out that the recession, and the level of development we did not have at that time, were achievements. That is set out in the document. We will ask for an update on the interdepartmental work group. Members are free to raise these policy issues in the Chamber and other forums. It is a major policy issue. The committee will seek an update on the working group.
The next item related to education and training boards, ETBs. We discussed this issue extensively and requested improvement in the presentation of appropriation accounts to show payments to the education and training boards. We also recommended the strengthening of oversight of the governance of the ETB sector, the implementation of performance indicators for ETBs and that ETB boards be strengthened and comprehensive governance training given. All of those recommendations have been accepted and we are as good as we can be in terms of getting on top of the ETB sector. We made one other recommendation that the chairperson of the ETB boards take responsibility for the submission of accounts. That has been accepted and there has been a major improvement in that regard.
The committee recommends that the minutes of the ETB boards be made available publicly and promptly through their websites following approval by the boards. That recommendation has also been accepted. Some ETBs do that already while others do not. The Department stated that it intends to make this an explicit requirement in the context of its current review of the code of practice of the governance of ETBs. It is good it will be made a requirement from now on because some of the ETBs do not do it. We are achieving something.
We will discuss the acceptance of the specific recommendation regarding the Kildare and Wicklow ETB investigation. The committee also recommended that the outcome be established and agreed between the Department of Education and Skills and Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI. It was also recommended that all future public funding to ETBI be clearly aligned to clear and measurable goals. The ETBI stated that the format of the engagement will be reviewed for 2019 with a view to including more measurable goals, where appropriate. That is good and we will presume that will be done in 2019.
The committee recommended that the Department of Education and Skills carry out a full assessment of the risk associated with an ETB chief executive and the director not being based in the head offices. That has been accepted and, as an initial step, the Department will collect further information from the ETBs on how functions are managed across their offices, the locations of the relevant senior personnel and it will engage further as appropriate. The Department is taking up that recommendation and obtaining the necessary information to help it do that.
Recommendation 15 was to the Department of Education and Skills and referred to the conclusion of a transfer of property - here we go again - from religious organisations to the State under the redress scheme. That job is not being done and we are having to do it for the Department. We have been doing it here every quarter. We are being told that quarterly reports are being produced but they indicate that the dates are being moved out. That issue will not be dropped from our agenda. We are pleased the Department has accepted the recommendation but we want it to ensure it is implemented.
The next item is the published quarterly report of the Department of Education and Skills. We are agreed on that. Some of our recommendations are on the same topic but from different angles. We had a recommendation that the Department of Education and Skills complete and publish the Caranua eligibility review forthwith. The Department stated the review had been completed and published in May 2018, which was after our report was produced.
The next recommendation was to An Garda Síochána. It referred to the Garda internal audit service and improvements in respect of Templemore Garda College. That has been accepted. I can deal with all of these now. An Garda Síochána wrote back to us stating that 11 of our 19 recommendations were completed or closed. The Policing Authority is dealing with that issue but it is no harm for us to ask for an update on the recommendations in the report. There were 19 and 11 had been completed when we received this letter in the summer. We also had other recommendations on all of the internal audit reports. That correspondence will cover it.
In recommendation 21 the committee recommended that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection prioritise the recruitment of additional medical assessors to ensure that cases awaiting medical review are dealt with in a timely manner. The Department states that a further recruitment drive to establish new medical assessors on a panel is proposed to commence in quarter 3 of 2018. Will that add to the problem with disability payments? It could be a different issue. There was a slowness in processing any application that had a medical assessment because there was a shortage of medical assessors. The Department has stated it is recruiting more assessors in quarter 3 of 2018.
The next item was the committee's recommendation that the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection focus social welfare debt recovery efforts on the 5.7% of cases which contribute 60% of the outstanding debt. The Department has accepted that. We also made a recommendation that every amount on its books of under €100 should be written off. To chase those debts would probably cost more than it is worth. The Department has also accepted that and it is looking at the procedure in respect of writing off older and smaller debts. I am sure that the Comptroller and Auditor General will report on how the Department gets on to us next year.
On the medical assessors, I have asked about this in parliamentary questions on a number of occasions. It seems it is not just a question of recruiting additional medical assessors. There may also be a problem of retention. General practitioners, GPs, are the nominated people around the country. We may need to ask if there is an issue with retaining as well as recruiting medical assessors. It is causing delays and they in turn cause costly administrative delays. That is an issue that we might write to the Department about.
We will write back to the Department in respect of recommendation 21 and ask that it give us the number of medical assessors it had, how many have left, how many have been recruited and the net increase. It is fine to say a further three full-time equivalent medical assessors are expected to be recruited by the end of July. That may only be replacing three who have left. We need the full picture so we will ask for that.
Members will remember the use of the word "fraud" in various publicity campaigns by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection whereas we said it should use the phrase "suspected fraud". The Department accepts our recommendation and says consideration is being given to the use of the terminology recommended by the committee. It goes on to say that while overpayments resulting from suspected fraud and fraudulent activity by customers constituted on average 39% of total overpayments in the four years 2014 to 2017, customer error amounts to an average of 43% over the same period and overpayments arising from errors by officials related to 2.75% of overpayments. Obviously, quite a lot is due to error and it is unfair to categorise it as fraud or even suspected fraud. It is important to keep those figures separate and we are achieving that.
I do not know whether that is what the Department is accepting. One of the issues we discussed was that its reporting of these issues of overspend was fraud and error. That is the language used. It did not separate them. If it is accepting the recommendation that it should use the term "suspected fraud", that is fine, but that could still be "suspected fraud and error". When we probed the Department officials, 70% of the issues were error, some on behalf of the State itself and some committed by customers or citizens. Can we get some clarity on that? Are they separating those two?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
They are on schedule to appear at the committee. There is a chapter on payments in excess of entitlements, so it is a perennial issue. They have tried to change the language and I think they may have addressed the issue raised by the committee. There is still a judgment call to be made when they identify a payment in excess of entitlement and they look to the cause. In general, they have been, if one likes, erring on the side of caution and not determining that something is a fraud, or even a suspected fraud, unless they have some piece of evidence that suggests a deliberate action was taken by individuals. They will generally treat an error as a genuine error.
We will write back to them on that because they will be appearing before us in a routine manner shortly. We will write back to them on the basis sought by the Deputy and they can send that on to us in the meantime. It is an issue that comes up quite often.
Overpayments are due to a variety of factors, full stop, and it is not just fraud. We are agreed. We will write and ask for the position on that.
The committee recommends closer co-operation between the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the issue of outstanding debt relating to redundancy in employers' insolvency schemes. It is no coincidence there are similar figures. It is said that two thirds of the companies are insolvent and the money is unlikely to be recovered. The recommendation states that a dedicated debt management team should engage directly with employers with a view to recovering debt. We are writing to them in this regard. We want details of the number of staff and the work programme of that debt management team. I got the impression they might just send out a statement once a year but we want to know the detailed work programme carried out by that team and the breakdown of the work. We understand that many of these companies are gone but they are not all gone. There is money out there that I do not think they are properly and actively pursuing. That is why we suggested talking to Revenue. We should be able to get details from Revenue in regard to those companies that are still trading and making returns for VAT or PAYE. We will see if that can be done and it is something we will come back to in our work programme. In the meantime, we will ask for the detail on the team.
The next item concerns the special liquidator for IBRC, on which we had various recommendations. Since then, the work of the committee has overtaken the various recommendations we had on that issue and we have discussed it at recent meetings with the Department.
The next recommendation was that there be a Dáil debate on the utilisation of NAMA’s projected terminal surplus of €3 billion in view of the fact EUROSTAT and the EU have no rules on this due to the unique nature of NAMA. That €3 billion we mentioned then was €3.5 billion when NAMA came before us during the summer, and it issued its most recent quarterly report yesterday, with media reports today saying it expects that terminal surplus to be €4.5 billion. The Minister accepts the recommendation on a Dáil debate and we can discuss whether the committee initiates it. The recommendation states: "However, the intention has always been to use such receipts from the resolution of the financial sector crisis to pay down our national debt and reduce our debt servicing costs." That is the stated position.
There is a second recommendation that, "a Dail debate takes place on the orderly wind down of NAMA or the possible consideration of use of NAMA for other specific purposes." It is made very clear that, under the European Commission approval for the establishment of NAMA, it has to finish its functions by the end of 2020 and that any extension of NAMA's functions could breach existing state aid approval. It got state aid approval exemptions to 2020 and, without EU approval, the Government cannot go beyond that. That does not preclude using the expertise in NAMA for some other purpose in regard to the housing crisis, however, which is another issue. We will note this. We have done our bit so far.
Do we know whether there was an expectation of surplus, although I hate to use the word "surplus" because, in fact, it is a huge loss, or a surplus on a huge haircut. Do we know if there was a figure? Does it matter that it goes beyond the expected surplus in terms of the EU insisting on it being used to write down debt? Is there an ability to use anything that was over and above this figure in a different way?
I sat through all the meetings on that issue. The mission of NAMA was to recover what it paid. The fact it is a surplus rather than a deficit is good. NAMA's projected surplus has been increasing over the years. That is not a Government target. It is just NAMA announcing what it expects. The legislation only expected it to break even.
The surplus is increasing. It is clear it has not yet realised that surplus because there is still money and debt to be collected. However, based on how it is going and its knowledge of what is to be collected, it is projected it will have a surplus of at least €3.5 billion. This is very important. When we had the Department of Finance in here some months ago as part of this debate, we asked about the use of these funds and I asked whether there were any EU rules on it. The answer is no because NAMA is unique at the European level. It is a once-off. While, as I read out earlier, the intention has always been to use such receipts from the resolution of the financial sector crisis to pay down our national debt, that is just the Government position, not an EU requirement. It is just the Government's intention. Europe is not telling it to do that. Let us be very clear. The use of the surplus is a matter for the Government, although it will probably have to clear it with Europe and Europe would probably love it to be used for that purpose, knowing Europe. I am just saying the Government is not required to do that.
The fiscal treaty limited what we could do in terms of expenditure, deficits and all the rest, but there is the potential of that surplus being used.
There does not appear to be a restriction on the surplus being used to build thousands of extra houses, for example.
As I understand it, a surplus can be used to pay off debt. The limit is not on the amount of the surplus but on the amount by which we are allowed to increase expenditure. Under the fiscal rules we could not use the €3.5 billion for house construction. If we did that, we would be in breach of the fiscal rules. The surplus could be spread over a couple of years. We could not spend it all over one or two years because in doing so we would be breaching the fiscal rules rather than the state aid rules.
It was recommended to the Minister for Finance, who has replied that he accepts the recommendation. In light of the Minister's agreement to a Dáil debate on the use of the NAMA surplus, the secretariat will draft a motion in that regard for next week's meeting.
This committee has to pass the motion requesting the debate next week, following which it will be sent to the Business Committee. We will deal with that motion next week. The Department of Finance has already agreed to the debate. It will probably take place on a Thursday evening, which is when committee reports are usually dealt with. It is useful to have a debate on the issue in the Oireachtas, particularly for this committee in terms of the amount of work it has done on NAMA.
The next item is recommendation No. 5, which is a general recommendation rather than one specific to the Departments. It provides that the chairpersons and boards of every public body be asked to ensure that their financial statements are submitted on time. This has been accepted by Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. Good progress is being made in this regard.
Recommendation No. 6 is that the appropriation accounts be re-appraised and that additional notes be provided with the accounts identifying sectors and outlining expenditure on all public organisations. This is accepted. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is currently examining the layout of the appropriation accounts with a view to enhancing the information provided to assist the readers of the accounts. There have been some improvements this year in regard to the listing of all of the organisations under the remit of each Department, which we never had before. Having the information Vote by Vote is not only great for the committee, it is good for everyone else. We will monitor the layout of the reports each year.
The final recommendation is that the engagement of consultants or professional advisers for any public contract should have a time limit attached. Open-ended contracts are an issue because we cannot prove value for money if there is not a regular retendering process. This recommendation has been accepted in principle but as what is proposed does not always happen we will continue to monitor the public contracts.
We have completed our discussion on several months' of last year's work. Many of our recommendations have been accepted and implemented. We are seeking further information on the ones that have not been accepted. We are also seeking verification as to whether additional information is being sought from various Departments on a number of the recommendations that have been accepted.
We move now to correspondence received in the last week. Correspondence 1682 is from the chief operations officer of Teagasc providing follow-up notes requested by the committee at the meeting with Teagasc a couple of weeks ago in regard to advisory fees, regional analysis of viable farming, increasing financial charges, a comparative note on pay and pensions, the percentage of land owned by Teagasc that is in forestry, details of consultancy costs and a breakdown by county of farm debt. Is it agreed to note and publish this correspondence? Agreed.
Correspondence 1683 is from Mr. Niall Cody, chairperson of the Revenue Commissioners, providing follow-up notes requested in regard to forecasting tax receipts. Is it agreed to note and publish this correspondence? Agreed. The Revenue Commissioners are scheduled to appear before us next week to discuss two chapters. We will ask Revenue if it can also deal with the Vote at next week's meeting. If it can, it would save it a further visit. If not, we will deal with the Vote separately. When it comes to Revenue, there are four or five big items that it might well be capable of dealing with in one meeting.
There are two chapters in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. We have already written to Revenue asking that it appear before the committee to deal with those two chapters on smuggling of tobacco and high wealth individuals but I think it would be possible to deal with the Vote as well. Discussion of the chapter on high wealth individuals will stray into other areas. It would be helpful if we could deal with the Vote as well at next week's meeting. In general, when we are dealing with a chapter in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report we try to also deal with the Vote if the Department concerned is not too big, otherwise we are bringing officials here on numerous occasions. There is a limit to how many meetings we can hold.
Correspondence 1684 is from Mr. Robert Watts, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, dated 24 October 2018 enclosing a minute from the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform on the committee's third periodic report from January to May 2018. We dealt with the two previous reports in the last half hour. We will note and publish this correspondence for now. We will come back to it as soon as I have had time to read it in detail. I will try to examine over the coming days, with a view to the committee being able to clear it next week.
Correspondence 1685 is from Mr. Maurice Coughlan, principal officer - finance and accounts section - Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, dated 25 October providing evidence of engagement between the Department and major partners for delivery through partnership and shared vision. We did not note this correspondence at our last meeting, but we did receive it that day.
I still believe that what we have received is insufficient. The programme states, "build, acquire and lease". We need information under each heading. The Department should consistently provide information in this way.
We are all in agreement that we need the information broken down in that way. If the response is that that cannot be done, that speaks for itself. The information should be available.
Correspondence 1686 B is alsofrom Mr. Maurice Coughlan, in regard to correspondence provided to the committee during our meeting on 25 October 2018 dealing with the 2017 expenditure breakdown and overview of homeless exits. The information provided at our last meeting did not include children. Is it agreed to note and publish this correspondence? Agreed.
Correspondence 1687 B is from Professor Willie Donnelly, president, Waterford Institute of Technology, dated 25 October 2018 regarding the review of the spin-out and sale of companies from telecommunications software and systems group, TSSG, at Waterford Institute of Technology. Is it agreed to note and publish this correspondence?
Professor Donnelly states in the correspondence that he is looking forward to appearing before the Committee of Public Accounts to talk to the report. I think he may be referring to the HEA report. At some point, we will receive the special report from the Comptroller and Auditor General and I imagine we will be asking him to appear before us in regard to that report once it has been published. On the issue of the Department seeking advice from the Attorney General regarding the powers of the HEA and the committee's commitment to follow up on this matter, has the committee followed up on it?
We have followed up on the matter but we have not yet received a response. Is it agreed to note and publish this correspondence? Agreed.
Correspondence 1688 B is from Mr. Neil McDermott, system funding, Higher Education Authority, dated 26 October 2018 providing clarifying information in regard to the Waterford IT review which was discussed at our meeting on 18 October 2018. Is it agreed to note and publish this correspondence? Agreed.
Correspondence 1691 B isfrom Professor Sarah Glennie, director, National College of Art and Design, dated 25 October 2018 providing follow-up notes requested by the committee on its non-competitive procurement, governance compliance and the discontinuance of the HR management project. There were a lot of issues surrounding the financial reporting and corporate governance of this organisation, but it appears to be making a major effort now in this regard.
Can we agree to publish it? I will ask the secretariat to redact some items because it deals with staff who are named in the appendix. We might just exclude the appendix and I hope the report will be sensible without it. We will not put staff names in the public arena. I will ask the secretariat to publish what is fair and reasonable. I have a copy of it here. We will not publish staff names.
I know. It happens.
No. 1595C was held over.
No. 1601C is correspondence, dated 21 September 2018, received from an individual about wards of court. The correspondent has contacted the committee on a number of occasions. I can update committee members on where we are on the issue of wards of court. The lady who has corresponded with us has also been in touch with the justice committee which, as I stated, compiled a detailed report on the issue. In view of the fact that the matter was before two committees, the Ceann Comhairle asked to meet me and the Chairman of the justice committee. He was keen that there would be a Dáil debate on it. The justice committee will seek time to pass a motion on its report on the wards of court issue. The debate is moving to the Dáil based on the report of the justice committee. I encourage members of this committee to participate in the debate when it takes place. The justice committee has taken the lead on the issue, even though we were dealing with a lot of correspondence on it. It has completed a report and we will certainly not duplicate the work it has done. There will be a Dáil debate on the report in due course once the Business Committee allocates time for it. That is where we are on the matter. We will forward the correspondence and let the person know that this is what has been scheduled to happen.
No. 1678C is correspondence received from Mr John Connaghan, director general of the HSE, providing an information note on West Kerry Community Hospital. I propose that we note the correspondence and forward it to the individual who raised the matter. Our consideration of the matter is now closed. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1690C is correspondence, dated 27 October 2018, received from the Irish Thalidomide Association, forwarding previous correspondence on thalidomide litigation to the State Claims Agency. The association has asked the committee not to forward the correspondence in question so as not to compromise ongoing litigation. While related matters will be raised during this meeting, members should be careful not to identify any individual case. The association is asking us not to forward the correspondence we have received to the State Claims Agency in the event that it compromises ongoing legislation. We will raise the issues with the State Claims Agency but not the specific cases at the request of the association. In fairness, the agency will be at a disadvantage today because, as members of the committee, we have received correspondence that we have not been given permission to share with it. It will be in an awkward position in responding to something we have been requested not to give it on a matter we have raised with it.
It does not have sight of the letter. The only issue concerns the record of the Committee of Public Accounts. The other issues can all be raised. The only issue on which Mr. Breen will be at a disadvantage is being asked to correct the record without seeing the letter. The issues raised in it are valid.
The letter states the State Claims Agency's role in the thalidomide litigation is to oppose the interests of thalidomide survivors, in accordance with its charter to minimise costs. There is an issue with the culture.
Its legislative requirement is to keep costs to a minimum and then we give out when it is not generous. The Oireachtas has told it to keep costs down. That is the other side. That is its legislative mandate, but it is for the agency to answer. The Deputy can raise the matter with it.
My focus was too narrow. It has a broader focus and I accept the correction. We can deal with the issue shortly.
No. 1694C is correspondence, dated 19 October 2018, received from an individual who alleges that some hospitals are putting pressure on patients to use their private health insurance in availing of publicly available services. The individual is asking the committee to deal with the issue of the principle of consent with the HSE and recommend a cooling off period in giving consent. I propose that we write to the HSE, with the individual's permission, to look for a detailed response. This is an issue about which we all know.
I raised it previously when representatives of the HSE were before the committee. I discussed the case of somebody whose blood pressure had increased and who required a medic because she had been put under so much pressure in being chased around with a clipboard. The HSE was to come back to us. That was months ago, perhaps even a year ago. If it is continuing to happen, the HSE has not dealt with the issue we raised with it.
We will follow up the matter.
No. 1695C is correspondence, dated 25 October 2018, received from Deputy John Lahart requesting the committee to make inquiries about procurement by the HSE in the engagement of two companies to provide services. The Deputy has asked the committee to request the Comptroller and Auditor General to report on whether the HSE and the National Ambulance Service are operating within procurement guidelines in the case of these two companies and the committee to look at the procurement process. I propose, in the first instance, with his permission, that we forward the Deputy's correspondence to the HSE and seek a full response on the matters raised. When we receive it, we can decide on how to proceed. We will ask for a response and take it from there. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I will hold No. 1696C to be discussed in private session.
No. 1699C is correspondence received from Deputy Willie O'Dea. He has forwarded an item from an individual who made a protected disclosure in the University of Limerick and believes legislation on data protection and protected disclosures has been breached. I propose that we write to the individual to let him know that we will be returning to matters related to the University of Limerick and Sligo Institute of Technology on receipt of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. However, if data protection legislation has been breached, he should contact the Data Protection Commissioner and if protected disclosures legislation has been breached, the appropriate body to deal with the matter is the Workplace Relations Commission. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will tell the individual that we will deal with the matter when we receive the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Breaches of data protection legislation are matters for the Data Protection Commissioner, while breaches of protected disclosures legislation are matters for the Workplace Relations Commission, not the Committee of Public Accounts.
There is another item with which I want to deal. Some items of correspondence sent to the Committee of Public Accounts have not yet been circulated to members. The secretariat was concerned about circulating various items and I want to go through three or four of them. I will not identify them, but I will tell members the nature of what we have received and why they have been held. The secretariat has copies if any member wants to see them, but we think it is appropriate not to circulate them. I will give a summary.
No. 1532C is correspondence, dated 24 July 2018, received from the same individual who sent No. 1595C. It raises concerns about the procurement of training services at Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross.
It has not been circulated as it makes defamatory allegations relating to specific individuals regarding HR training procurement. We have received some items of correspondence that we have noted and agreed to deal with but this letter is defamatory and we cannot give it parliamentary privilege so I am asking the committee to agree that we do not circulate it. If anyone wants to see the letter, he or she can contact the secretariat directly but I propose that we do not circulate it because it will only cause trouble for us if we do so.
We will not circulate it. We will ask the secretariat to say the committee has decided not to circulate it because of that reason and send it back to the person in question. If they want to write to us without items such as those in the letter, we will happily accept a letter without those issues.
That is a good suggestion.
Nos. 1596 C, 1597 C and 1604 C are pieces of correspondence from an individual who is alleging cover up by senior HSE and Tusla staff regarding retrospective allegations of abuse and with regard to his own employment. The correspondence refers to specific individuals and contains a considerable amount of personal information relating to the individual and his employment with the HSE. The case is complex and goes back a number of years. The correspondence includes copies of a complaint made to the Office of the Ombudsman that refers to court proceedings instigated by the correspondent against the HSE and Tusla. The correspondent was advised by the Office of the Ombudsman that his complaint did not come under its remit. The individual contacted the secretariat in October to inquire about the status of the correspondence because we had not dealt with it in public session when we received it and mentioned there was a case before the courts related to the matters raised in the correspondence. I propose that we do not circulate electronically and that we write to the correspondent to advise him that it is not within the remit of the committee to deal with matters that are before the courts or to deal with individual employment matters. Is that agreed? Agreed. The correspondence is available from the secretariat should any member wish to see it.
No. 1639 C is correspondence from an individual, dated 4 October 2018, relating to St Munchin's Community Centre, Kileely Court, Limerick. The correspondence is submitted as a protected disclosure and relates to an employment matter. It has not been circulated electronically because it contains a number of possibly defamatory allegations. The correspondent states a complaint has been submitted to the Workplace Relations Commission. Members will recall that we have received another item, No. 1396, from an anonymous source regarding St Munchin's. It is not clear whether the two items are linked. Regarding the item today, I propose that we do not circulate it and that we advise the individual that the committee does not generally investigate matters that are being investigated elsewhere and that it is not within our remit to investigate individual employment matters. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is an employment grievance that is before other State bodies and some of the correspondence is possibly defamatory so we cannot circulate it. It concerns St. Munchin's Community Centre in Limerick. We have already received one item of correspondence from an anonymous source concerning St. Munchin's and we now have correspondence from an individual whose name is there. They may or may not be connected. We cannot know because one is anonymous. This correspondence contains potentially defamatory material. The Deputy can inspect the correspondence, which is available from the secretariat, and if he wishes to bring it up next week-----
We will hold this over in case anyone wants to examine that correspondence and come back to it next week.
No. 1692 C is a copy of correspondence sent to the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General from an anonymous correspondent, dated 18 October 2018, regarding governance issues, control failures and misuse of public funds and employment matters relating to the last interim chief executive at the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland. The correspondence was not circulated because the anonymous correspondent encloses a private third party email without the permission of the author or the persons named within. I stress that we have only received a copy. I think the matter originally went to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Can we agree not to circulate the item and take no further action because, again, it names other people without their permission? Agreed.
The next items concerns statements and accounts received since our last meeting.
No. 1528, which is correspondence received on 17 August 2018, was held over. It concerns the national director of the HSE. I raise this matter because somebody contacted me and because it is something we have all raised about the original slides in the cervical screening programme not being released to the women. We were given assurances. The contract for the two laboratories states that the ownership of the slides resides with the HSE and they can be returned within three days. I have a note of that. According to an article in The Irish Mirrortoday, a solicitor dealing with one or some of the cases is harshly critical of the delay in releasing these slides. I raise this issue because we previously raised it here and received assurances that there would be no delay. This correspondence seems to talk about a process to ensure the integrity of the slides and minimise risk and I agree we want that to happen. We do not want any damage because the slides' integrity must be preserved. However, if this is being used as a reason to delay releasing slides and is causing additional stress, and I am told it is, it is unacceptable.
Do we have a reply from NAMA? We will follow it up. We have not seen the reply. Our first letter to it asked questions and we had to write a second letter to it about Project Nantes. That only went out when we-----
That was the second letter we sent out so we will follow that up.
The next items concerns statements and accounts received since our meeting last week. There are three such accounts and statements. The list is being put on the board. One is the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board. There is a clear audit opinion. Attention is drawn to a material level of non-compliance with national procurement rules in respect of goods and services that operated in 2017, the adequacy of the internal audit resources available and the significant organisational challenges and potential control weaknesses of having a multi-system ICT environment. Are the details in the report or do we need to-----
I will ask the secretariat to circulate the statement. If anybody wants to follow it up in detail next week, we will do so. There is no point in writing to it for information if it is already in its annual report, which is available to us.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Essentially, that third point is a common issue in education and training boards, ETBs, where, effectively, the training centre accounting system, which was transferred from FÁS, is not integrated with the ETB's main financial system so it does pose a risk for accounting and control.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
They are. It is one of the legacy issues from integration and the establishment of the ETBs. Five years on, they are still working with a multiplicity of systems rather than having an integrated system.
There is a project for shared financial services - a financial management system - that the Department is bringing forward. As I said, it is four or five years on and it is still in a development phase.
I do not know. As a result of our work here, some extra resources were given for the finance function for various education and training boards, ETBs. That is really as a result of our work in the past 18 months in the sector. Additional staff have been appointed to the finance sections in each of the department to try to deal with the matter.
There are two matters. The first is the adequacy of the internal audit resources, which is a practical matter. Without adequate internal audit resources, we are going nowhere. Separate to that is the information technology programme.
We need to write to the Department to ask for the number of internal audit programmes or work carried out for each of the education and training boards. We can then see where are the gaps. We need to get that.
It is Dublin and Dún Laoghaire today and a couple of weeks ago a significant number of education and training board accounts were presented on a particular slide, with the same recurring theme of poor controls. I noted a number of recurring cases. It was not once-off and it was across the board and a cultural occurrence. After five years, what is the opinion of the Comptroller and Auditor General? Can he see it changing? I know he has had personal engagement with a number of the chief executive officers, who have themselves complained about the challenge they face. Will it change?
The chief executive officers are telling the ETB boards of directors that they have problems. They are telling the Comptroller and Auditor General that they have problems and the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports tell us that as well. Who will eventually grapple with the problem of what is happening? These are major organisations in the delivery of education throughout our country. Nevertheless, we are here with the reports and the same problem is occurring throughout the country. It is not just in regions or on a once-off basis but throughout the country. Who is going to grapple with the matter?
The Department is leading on this. Knowing what we do about education and training boards and some of the failures, it is difficult to visualise anything being led in the Department. We are seeing things being remediated when failures are identified. Are people in the Department specifically dealing with these matters? If there are not, nothing is being led.
We must accept the Department of Education and Skills was very poor in not getting timely financial statements from education and training boards in the first place. It will say this always happens in the merging of organisations and there is always a couple of years of build-up. However, that excuse is now well worn, to be honest. We have been on the case to get the accounts done and that has resulted in some additional work as a result of that pressure. We are hearing that around the country but we are not there yet. We are now realising the internal audit function has not been adequately resourced, and that is the next step.
We have all been informed about the delay in rolling out information technology. They are struggling on that level. I am the first to be critical about a lack of governance but these matters are beyond the ETBs currently, in fairness to them.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Dún Laoghaire has been mentioned and the specific point is the level of internal audit reporting has been considered. Representations have been made in this regard to the Department of Education and Skills over the past number of years, with sanctions sought for the appointment of a dedicated internal auditor. Whereas this application was not granted, Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training board recognises the efforts being made by the audit unit and notes the increase in audit activity that has been outlined for future years.
We want to know what happened in 2017 and 2018, as well as the plans for 2019, and we will say that in our letter to the Department. That will give us a good and clear picture of whether there is improvement.
The other two items are financial statements before us. They are the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority clear audited opinion and the Heritage Fund.
I do not know if the document relating to the report on the Office of Public Works, OPW, has been circulated. There was certainly an article in The Irish Timesabout it and the reporter had sight of the document. Is there any reason it has not been circulated?
We got the document on the OPW from a senior employee in the organisation. As there were some possibly defamatory remarks or a suggestion of possible corruption, we decided not to publish it without considering redacting it. The document was circulated to members. That was several days ago. I am not talking about the second letter and I will come to it in a moment. The document was circulated to members and some member leaked it to the media. I got a phone call from the journalist about the report and I commented on it. I indicated the Committee of Public Accounts made the decision not to publish the report but the reporter said he had it. He got it from a member of the committee. I said it had not been published and we would invite in the person in question. At a previous meeting we agreed to invite in the author but some member of the committee circulated it without the consent of the committee and knowing it was not published. There we go again. I hope that answers the question.
We circulated the correspondence for this week over 24 hours ago. There is nothing else in the work programme we cannot discuss next week. We will just move on to today's business but before bringing in the witnesses, we must go into private session to discuss one item of correspondence.