Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 6 December 2018
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, as a permanent witness to the committee. He is accompanied by Ms Maureen Mulligan, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputy Farrell.
The first item on the agenda is minutes. We are dealing with minutes from a number of previous meetings that have been circulated. I refer to the minutes of the meetings on 11, 18 and 25 October and on 15 and 22 November. There is one slight change of wording to be made to the minutes of the meeting on 8 November, as circulated. I will ask the clerk to the committee to make that one change and re-circulate. I propose we note the minutes. Is that agreed? Agreed. The next item is matters arising from the minutes. If members have matters arising out of the minutes, they might hold them over until next week as they will have an opportunity to go through them.
The next item on the agenda is correspondence. There are three categories of correspondence, the first of which is briefing documents and opening statements for today's meeting. The two items, correspondence Nos. 1771 A and 1772 A, dated 4 November, from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, provide briefing material and an opening statement for today's meeting. I propose we note and publish those documents. Is that agreed? Agreed. We also have No. 1777 A, dated 5 November, from the same Department, providing further briefing material for today's meeting. We have been asked not to publish No. 1777 A and I propose we agree to that request, at least for the moment. I propose we note No. 1777 A. It has been circulated to the committee. Inevitably, it will be discussed here today. On the question of publication of that document, it may contain confidential, commercially sensitive information. We can come back to it. For now, I propose we note, but not publish, it.
We will discuss with the Department what particular aspect it has an issue with publishing. For now, we will abide by the Department's request. We will not publish it at this stage.
The next item of correspondence is in category B - correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to previous Committee of Public Accounts meetings. There is one item, No. 1703 B, held over from the previous meeting. It is from the CEO of the Local Government Management Agency, dated 2 November 2018, in relation to a request from the committee for a copy of its report arising from the value for money review of Irish Public Bodies. The report is subject to a non-disclosure agreement between LGMA, Irish public bodies and PricewaterhouseCoopers dated 2 September 2015. The CEO has written to Irish Public Bodies, IPB, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, PWC, to request their consent for LGMA to release the report to the committee and is awaiting a response. We will keep the committee updated on that. For now, I propose we note and publish that response. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Correspondence No. 1753 B from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director of the HSE, provides an information note requested by the committee on former Console staff. This is an important piece of correspondence that we want to deal with, if we can call it up on the screens. Essentially, we had asked that compensation be made available on an ex-gratiabasis to staff who were not re-employed. We included it as a recommendation in a previous periodic report. We also asked the Minister to examine the matter. The response is good and I want to put it on the public record. The HSE states that it understands from Pieta House there were 55 pre-existing employees of Console in 2016. The HSE confirmed that it offered 52 contracts to staff previously employed by Console. This comprised ten employees of Console and 42 persons, mainly counsellors, on contracts for services or sessional work with Console. Pieta House did not offer contracts to three former Console employees, who included the former CEO and two others who decided to seek employment elsewhere. Of the 52 contracts that were offered by Pieta House, 47 contracts were accepted comprising ten employees and 37 contracts for service sessional work. Effectively, Pieta House has done as much as the committee was looking for on this. A couple of people who did not work there, and, obviously, the CEO, were not offered contracts. They offered contracts to everybody else, most of whom took them up. As for those who chose to work elsewhere, that is their own affair. It took a long time to get to that point. We have been following this for quite a long time. I acknowledge that it is good to receive that information at this time.
The Chairman probably is right. We understand, from Pieta House, that there were 55 pre-existing employees. It looks good that it offered 52 contracts, but these were to ten employees of Console and 42 persons on contracts for service. The Chairman is taking it that they are all included.
I do not know. Deputy Connolly has pointed out an obvious issue. We will ask for clarification on that point. If it is as it appears, that is great. If there is a subtle distinction in the letter that the Deputy has spotted, we need to know about it. We will ask for confirmation of that particular point.
The next item of correspondence is No. 1754 B from Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, dated 27 November 2018, providing information notes requested by the committee on a variety of points that we raised with him at the previous meeting. We will have a second meeting on the housing issue in the new year. Mr. McCarthy follows up on a number of issues. These are the new regulations for short-term lettings; transfer of funds; the prevention of emergency accommodation being used for families; differential rents which accrued to local authorities; findings of the Dublin Region Homeless Executive; funding of family hub accommodation; breakdown of housing expenditure in 2017 and 2018; regeneration programme details; projected number of homes that could be accommodated on local authority housing lands and the extent of loans attached; children in emergency accommodation; annual assessment of social housing applications received by each local authority and the targets set; different organisations and capital loan schemes in the context of the amounts outstanding, capital advance leasing facilities etc. and where there is an overlap of functions of agencies; credit policy governing loan approval, with reference to separated couples; and lending arrangements in place for approved housing bodies.
That will be useful feeding into our meeting and report on housing in the new year. We will certainly note and publish the correspondence for now. We will hold the matter over for discussion on that day.
There is, however, one issue that is wholly unsatisfactory. I specifically tabled parliamentary questions asking about the credit policy used by local authorities to determine whether a person is eligible for a loan under the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme. We all know that approximately 50% of people who apply do not get it. Many Deputies have raised the matter. I raised the matter as a Topical Issue and through parliamentary questions. I was told the matter was confidential and commercially sensitive. I was told the requested information could not be released and so on. When the Secretary General was before the committee we asked him for a copy of the document. If it is the basis on which taxpayers' money is being advanced to people who are purchasing loans, then we are entitled to see the nature of it.
The Secretary General has given us a document. The reference number is 1754 and it is document number 4 in that group. I wish to put on record that this document is totally unsatisfactory and I want the public to know the response we got from the Department. Committee members can bring up the document on their screens. Pages 1 to 3 are fine. Then, we get to page 4. There are already redactions relating to fixed rate loans and variable rate loans. Two paragraphs are fully redacted. That is unacceptable from our point of view. Page 5 seems fine. Page 6 contains serious redaction and we do not know what it is about. Those responsible have blanked out page 7 in its entirety. Page 8 has serious redaction relating to the source of the applicant's equity. Page 9 has another serious redaction relating to the employed applicants. There is another serious redaction on page 9 relating to self-employed applicants. Page 10 seems okay. They have blanked out pages 11, 12 and 13 entirely. Page 14 seems okay. Pages 15, 16 and 17 are fine. Page 18 is blanked out in its entirety. Page 19 is substantially redacted and blanked out. Page 20 is blanked out in the section dealing with exceptions to policy. People would like to know what the exceptions are. There is an evaluation report at the end and explanatory notes as well.
Information was sought by the Committee of Public Accounts in the interests of the public from the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government relating to the credit policy for 2018, which is drawn up under SI 25 of 2018. The response is wholly and totally unacceptable. We have been told that traditionally the Department does not give people access to credit policies and banks may not make such policy. However, in this situation what is at issue is public money. We are going back to ask the Department to reconsider the matter and provide more detail. We are going back to ask for the full unredacted copy to be supplied to us.
If the Secretary General has issues in that regard he should, in respect of each redaction, give the specific reason he has chosen to redact each sentence as well as the pages that are blank. Half of the document has been blanked out. It is no way for an Accounting Officer to treat the Committee of Public Accounts. I hope he gets that message. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am amazed because this is my fourth attempt to see the document. People will know that, especially with 50% refusal, there is much in the blanked out document that is preventing the Rebuilding Ireland home loan scheme from achieving what we and the public believe it was meant to achieve in the first place. Anyway, I have made the point.
I wish to make one point on the home loan scheme. I agree with all that you have said, Chairman, in respect of understanding the workings of the scheme. There are people who have gone through the whole system but still have not been allocated a loan, because the local authority has to negotiate with the Department. It seems that each local authority has to do it. We have found this in Kildare and perhaps you find the same in Laois, Chairman. We find that there many applications to buy coming from other counties. We might have more because of value or the price of houses. Anyway, some people have got through the whole system but the money is not available to allow the mortgage to go ahead. It is inhibiting a good scheme.
I wish to make a broader point – I will conclude on this – on the concept of having a credit policy drafted by the Department to be implemented by 31 different local authorities, 31 different housing officers and all the staff under them. All those involved have varying levels of training on how to process applications. Some counties have small numbers while others have big numbers. The expertise within the local authorities cannot be consistent throughout the country, almost by definition. I am not calling for the administration to be centralised but we are guaranteed inconsistency in the delivery of the scheme if it is being farmed out to 31 local authorities. We all know it. The staff who are administering the scheme were probably in the motor tax office last year, in the planning department the year before and in water services the year before that. They may not have spent time in the housing or finance department, as the case may be. We do not necessarily have people with financial competence in the area of granting loans or dealing with applications in the various local authorities. Consistency is another issue. I am sorry but committee members can see that I am annoyed by this. This is my fourth attempt to see the document.
I agree with you, Chairman, and I had the document earmarked. I do not understand why it is redacted. At the very least the Department should have explained it to us. It is a credit policy. I do not understand it. Maybe the Comptroller and Auditor General might help us on what might be sensitive in what is a document of general policy.
That is one point. I agree with you on that, Chairman.
I appreciate all the information the Department has given us. Thank you for following up on it, Chairman. I want to make a point about the waiting list.
Yes. Committee members will see the net need figures. There is an inset with the information. The figures on the waiting list have reduced. The total number of qualified households in 2018 has reduced significantly from 2017. That should be a good news story but it is important to clarify this. Let us consider the criteria set out on the page. Who is left out of the assessment? Anyone receiving the housing assistance payment is left out of the assessment. We know the figures for HAP doubled last year and the allocation became €300 million. The figure for next year will be €431 million. Those in receipt are in the private market with no security of tenure. It is costing a fortune in taxpayers' money – that is why we are mentioning it. They are excluded completely and so are those in the rental accommodation scheme. It is the exclusion of people who are still in need. That is really what is difficult. They are on a waiting list but when they go into these schemes they are off the waiting list but they are put on a transfer list.
I know we abolished limbo, but limbo is alive and well somewhere in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. We need to put this in context. When we see these figures reducing, it should be a good news story except that the figures are not reducing in any way. While the figures in the document are going down, other figures have gone up.
Absolutely, and the figures for any other schemes should be added too. Other schemes include the long-term leasing and short-term leasing schemes. We can get lost with all these schemes. We need to know the criteria and any other schemes the Department is not including.
I understand that but I am saying we will come back to HAP and all those areas in January.
During a meeting with officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection the housing representatives attended. It was extraordinary that we were not able to get from the departmental officials information such as how many people were on HAP transfers. They said they did not have it; the local authorities have it. We are trying to get the local authority managers to come before the committee and they are refusing to do it. That all needs to be settled before we come back in January and deal with this in a more substantive way.
In fairness it was an assistant principal from the Department who might not have been in a position to answer all the questions we had anyway. Even at that, I found some of the responses from the Department extraordinary. This plays into it. Before we come back to this in January we need to look at the information we sought but did not get because they did not have it. We need to get some response from local authorities. It is not good enough for the Department to claim that the local authorities hold the information but it has not asked them for it. We have asked representatives of the local authorities but they will not appear before the committee. We are missing a big piece of the jigsaw.
There have been calls for the Central Statistics Office to get involved in dissemination of information on housing and homelessness because of the unreliability of information. It is really important for us to identify the shortcomings in that process. If we cannot measure something, how can we deal with it competently from a policy point of view? It is important for us to get the figures and understand the totality of the issue for the meeting we will have in January.
We will do that. We will ask the Department. It is the Department's responsibility if we cannot get the 31 chief executives here. It is the conduit to those. We will not accept any answer on that date suggesting it is a matter for the local authority. They are the Department of----
They might attend. We need to get the breakdown by local authority.
On the credit policy, I am told it is historical. They never published it in the past. The tradition is alive and well. It may be a Victorian rule not to tell the people what is going on; I do not know.
Correspondence No. 1755 is from Mr. John McKeon, Secretary General, Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, providing information requested by the committee. It relates to our periodic report No. 2. He has come back with details of medical assessors and overpayments. I do not believe that relates specifically to last week's meeting, but to a previous request for information. We note and publish that.
Correspondence No. 1756 is from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, providing information on historic landfill remediation sites, moneys recouped in respect of these and the working group on greenhouse gas emissions. We note and publish this. Members can raise it with the Secretary General in public session today.
Correspondence No. 1757 is from the general manager of Tusla, stating that an item which we dealt with last week as correspondence No. 1738 is not complete and that we will get a full response shortly. We note this and publish that correspondence. We await the full response.
Correspondence No. 1758 is from the Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, providing information requested by the committee on the decision-making process on the acquisition of the Harold's Cross Stadium site; how the final sum was agreed; and the circumstances which gave rise to the Department contacting the Valuation Office with reference to the protocols for transfer. We note and publish that. Obviously we will have a discussion on this.
I do not believe the Department has given us the information we requested. That is my assessment. I get very frustrated with the Department of Education and Skills because that seems to be its modus operandi. The answer we got is not sufficient at any level. We asked the Department how the valuation was arrived at. The response we got was that was what the Valuation Office arrived at, but no rationale behind it. We know it arrived at that figure, but wanted to know the reason for it. We wanted to know how it arrived at the €23 million figure which seemed to coincide with the Irish Greyhound Board debt. As the reply is not sufficient, we should go back to him and say he is stating the obvious, but that is not what we asked.
I agree with the Deputy that we have no information on how the final sum was agreed. It just refers to the protocol for transfer. We are writing to the Valuation Office. The Valuation Office came into the process because it is a transfer between two State bodies and the Valuation Office acts as an independent arbiter of what is in the overall interests of the taxpayer - not necessarily either Department. It could involve transferring IDA Ireland land to a local authority for housing. There are many factors.
We are writing to the Valuation Office asking for a list of each property it was asked to value in 2017 and 2018 to date involving the transfer from one State body to another. We want a summary of the number of hectares and value per hectare it set. If we see this €23 million is the norm for valuations of other transfers between State bodies, it is well and good. If it is an outlier, we will want further information on that.
Does the Comptroller and Auditor General know if there are many of these transactions every year? Would there be dozens or hundreds?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I would not know offhand, but I think there would be a difficulty in comparing one to another because obviously circumstances will differ. A valuation in Harold's Cross for X amount of land would certainly be very different from the same amount of land on the outskirts of the city or in a provincial town. The missing piece seems to be the basis of the valuation, as opposed to the-----
When there are significant variations, we do not know the rationale for the Valuation Office arriving at the figure of €23 million. We were looking for that analysis and all we got from the Department was that the Valuation Office arrived at the figure. As we already knew that, the Department has not answered the question at all.
We will focus on the narrow question first - the specifics. Sometimes when asking a specific question, it might throw up a broader issue. We may come back to that if we are not satisfied with the response to this.
It was also dependent on the acquiescence of Dublin City Council agreeing a material contravention. That was all assumed in advance. As it was for a school, it may not be an invalid assumption that councillors would support a material contravention for a school site. We agree most councillors would. However, we need specifics and the comparisons used. I take the point that when we get that answer there may or may not be a broader issue at that stage. We will ask Valuation Office the basis of the valuation and the comparisons it used to come up with that valuation. We note and publish that. That letter will go to the Valuation Office.
Correspondence No. 1761 is from NAMA on Project Nantes giving a breakdown of the €24 billion in asset sales categorised by the jurisdiction of purchaser and the application of section 172 of the National Asset Management Agency Act. We will put that up on the screen. There was the issue of the €11 billion from loan sales and the €24 billion from asset sales. NAMA stands over the original information it gave on the jurisdiction and origins of the entities or persons that became the ultimate beneficial owners of assets. As of now we will accept that in good faith.
The detail it gives on section 172 of the National Asset Management Agency Act will be of interest to some people.
The second paragraph on page 2 states:
In summary, the legal analysis concludes that the acquisition of these loans by a company, of which the person concerned is one of five directors, was not a contravention of Section 172(3) of the NAMA Act, 2009. Neither was the transaction in any way "illegal" ...
We did not go there. Somebody else may have said that. Essentially it states the acquisition of these loans by a company, of which one of the persons concerned is a director, was not a contravention of the original definition of what was covered by section 172. Maybe that was always the original intention. I do not know. It states what it did was not a contravention.
That may well be the case but I ask that we hold over this correspondence. I want to look at it in a bit more detail. I had seen it and I had the same interpretation as the Chairman but I want to give it a bit more attention. I asked the Comptroller and Auditor General about Project Nantes because a number of pieces of correspondence have come our way. I do not have the resources to be able to delve into a lot of what is coming our way. Much of it could be irrelevant. We do not know. The Comptroller and Auditor General said that in the course of auditing the NAMA accounts, Project Nantes will come across his desk anyway. Is it something of which he is aware?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Project Nantes is an historic transaction at this stage, as far as the financial statements go, but we have asked for information and received a considerable amount of information on it. I have not examined the papers yet but I will do so. When I have done it I will consider whether I need to move formally into an examination process or otherwise if I am satisfied.
My understanding of this section of the NAMA Act is the original intention was that the Department would define and set out protocols but this did not happen and NAMA set out the protocols itself. Is the Comptroller and Auditor General satisfied they were as robust as they should have been? Would it have been better if they had been set for NAMA to follow? Should there have been other oversight?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I do not think I should prejudge the answer to these questions without going through a process and putting points to NAMA. I do not necessarily disagree with the Deputy's interpretation of the legislation but I have not formed an opinion yet and I would not like to prejudge it.
The Comptroller and Auditor General does not propose to share them with us because they identify people and entities by name. The Comptroller and Auditor General has access to the information. What I propose is we note and publish this but hold it over for discussion at the next meeting.
That is in train.
Correspondence No. 1765 B is from Ms Dee Forbes, director general of RTÉ, dated 30 November 2018, and provides an update requested by the committee on the Eversheds Sutherland report. I want to read this into the record so people who are listening will understand what is in the letter.
In keeping with the Eversheds Sutherland review, the detailed analysis continues on a case by case basis. To assist in completing the analysis phase, discussions will commence over the coming weeks with those concerned and this process will continue into the New Year. As you can appreciate each individual case has its own set of circumstances and full due diligence is required in reaching the appropriate determination as was communicated on publication of the review in June.
A policy has been developed which will take effect in January 2019 and is currently undergoing internal review. We will share with you once finalised.
As the Chairman knows, I have been following this up for some time. I have to say I am not pleased with this letter. It raises more questions than answers. It does not answer the questions we asked. It does not state how many of the individual cases have been dealt with so far, which is the substantive question that was asked. A total of 157 cases need to be examined. We do not have any detailed analysis. The letter states ongoing detailed analysis is being done. What detailed analysis? How many cases have been done?
What is more important for me is that it seems to suggest this issue has to do with individuals, that it is being looking at on a case-by-case basis and there is a review of each individual case. Where is the review of management practices? Where is the review of HR practices? These 157 people found themselves on self-employed contracts. We had a hearing and we heard from RTÉ. Even one of the RTÉ presenters who had been speaking to staff said these people were not given a choice. They found themselves on these contracts and not because they wanted them. This is not about putting the responsibility back on the 157 individuals. The question is why were they put in that position. Was it a management practice by RTÉ? Are HR issues raised here?
It is disingenuous, to say the least, to try to suggest in the letter that the issue needs to be resolved by looking at it on an individual case-by-case basis. Potentially, it was a more systemic managerial issue that led to these people being on these contracts in the first place. The letter does not give us the information we sought, which is how many of the 157 cases have been dealt with and how many people have been spoken to. This needs to be done to determine whether they should now be on proper contracts. Where is the review of the management of RTÉ and its HR processes? We need to get this. If it means having Ms Forbes back before the Committee of Public Accounts then so be it. That is what needs to happen. I am not at all satisfied with this response.
I was in contact with staff in RTÉ who are on these contracts. Some of them contacted me before today's hearing and told me they still have not been contacted. They are waiting to have their cases adjudicated upon. They have not yet had that opportunity. It is unfair. It is a long time since Ms Forbes came before the committee and it is a long time since the report was published. I do not know what the foot dragging is about or why it is taking so long.
I understood in advance of today's meeting that we had a letter from Dee Forbes on the Eversheds review. I stated publicly yesterday we would have the report today. I was disappointed to learn subsequently it is only a letter stating we do not have the report today. To anybody who felt we were going to receive the report, I apologise. I inadvertently assumed we would have it today. In any event, we will write to the director general asking about the points raised by the Deputy. The last paragraph states, "A policy has been developed which will take effect in January 2019". Regardless of the specifics of individual cases RTÉ has looked at its policy and now has a new policy. We want to know what led to the change of policy. We are not looking at the individual cases. We want to know what was the previous policy, what are the changes, what policy is taking effect and why has there been a change. There are specific circumstances for individuals. RTÉ seems to accept that a new policy is required for January 2019. We want to know why it came to this conclusion and give us the details and a copy of the new policy.
Given that, I do not see why we should not invite Ms Forbes to come before the committee again. Let us get the letter first and then we will decide. If we get all of our answers in the next letter, well and good.
I know but we are not letting it go. We will come back to this. A letter is going out on the issue on which we will follow up.
Correspondence No. 1767 B is from the clerk to the Committee on Procedure, dated 30 November 2018, forwarding a complaint on matters raised by the committee in advance of the recent presidential election. The complainant believes the committee raised the matter of presidential expenses in order that it would become an issue in the election and be used as a weapon to damage the chances of the incumbent being re-elected. As Chairman, I reject that entirely. We will note and publish the item.
We have not been asked by the Committee on Procedure to respond to that letter, but we may choose next week to respond or to note and publish it. If it identifies the private citizen who has made the complaint about the Committee on Public Accounts we will ensure that his or her name, or any information that could identify him or her, is redacted but I think we should publish the substance of the complaint. We are big enough to take complaints on the chin and we will not publish them. People often make remarks that we may or may not agree with. I will ask the secretariat to scrutinise the letter to ensure there is nothing therein which if published would identify the correspondent. I would like the substance of the complaint published even though it is not flattering from the committee's point of view. We may decide to respond or not, as the case may be, next week.
Exactly. We will discuss it further next week, following which, if agreed, we will publish it. We will not hide a letter just because it is critical of the committee but we will ensure the identity of the complainant is protected.
Correspondence 1768B is from Mr Ciarán Breen, director of the State Claims Agency providing further information requested by the committee regarding medical negligence, open disclosure and CervicalCheck-thalidomide-related litigation. If there are no issues arising, we will note and publish this correspondence.
They were requested by the women's solicitors and they were to be provided by the laboratories to a laboratory in Ireland, through their solicitor. We were told previously that the women had to wait 22 days to get their slides. We were not told there was a dispute ongoing. The slides of 18, possibly 30, women are now acknowledged as delayed since last April. The committee was misled. I hope we will definitely be coming back to this matter.
We will come back to it next week. I am told we have a letter on the issue, which will be dealt with at next week's meeting. If we are not satisfied with that we will take it up further next week. On the letter regarding open disclosure, we are coming back to the issue of medical negligence because we have not yet completed our work in that regard. We will hold this correspondence as part of our ongoing work on that issue. There is interesting information in this documentation regarding the processing of claims. We will note and publish this correspondence but it will form part of our future work.
Correspondence 1769B isfrom Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills providing information on the potential risk caused by the weaknesses in the accounting system following the transfer of the training centre accounting system from FÁS and the internal audit function for each of the education and training boards. We will note and publish this correspondence, which makes for detailed reading in regard to the ETBs. According to the correspondence, which I read yesterday, the ETBs were established in 2013 and they hope to commence phased implementation of the payroll shared service next year and to commence phased implementation of the financial shared services system in 2020. Seven years after these organisations were established they are only centralising these services. They accept that the number of people in the internal audit function, which is based in Cavan, is not sufficient and they had recruited a number of additional staff but three of them left because the amount of time spent travelling from Cavan to Waterford, Wexford and Cork and so on did not suit them. They now have a minimal staff complement, with three staff on contract from a consultancy company. They accept that they did not have adequate internal audit facilities available in 2017. It is a factual letter, setting out the position warts and all, acknowledging failures and the difficulties involved in terms of making improvements. They also acknowledge how long it has taken to get to this point since the establishment of the ETBs in 2013, which is a lesson we are learning for all new public bodies. There was a similar issue with the establishment of the Tax Appeals Commission. When a body is being established nobody comprehends there will be an increase in workload. This is a previous example that also is coming back to haunt us.
The ETBs have appeared before us previously. They have moved from only one having its accounts for audit within three months of the year-end to all now being on time. We met four of them recently, when we highlighted this issue extensively. The ETB network in Ireland has acknowledged the work of the Committee of Public Accounts in putting pressure on the Department of Education and Skills to provide additional resources and so on. We have achieved a lot in this sector.
Would Mr. McCarthy like to comment?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
In regard to the 2017 accounts, a lot of the ETBs are drawing attention to the difficulties around the financial management systems and the inadequacy of internal audit resources. Looking at the compiled accounts, the scale of absence in regard to internal audit was way under what is required for a sector on that scale and with that level of complexity. As the Chairman said, it is good to have that type of information at a co-ordinated level. As can be noted from the financial statements, one of the ETBs has recently submitted for 2017, in which, again, it draws attention to the same points.
They acknowledge the difficulties and they state that they have different systems that came in from FÁS and they have to manually create spreadsheets to transfer information and they must spend a lot of time checking at year-end. My view is they should be doing this throughout the year and not only at year end. They are aware of their problems, which our work has helped to highlight. Hopefully, they will be provided with the resources to resolve those problems.
It is useful to get information. I acknowledge that the ETBs do very good work and that amalgamations are not easy. That said, we do not learn lessons. The committee's work is, in part, reviewing processes and process failures. These are not going to be the last amalgamations. It appears that in such processes, consideration is given to only a small number of issues rather than the broad sweep of issues arising. The Chairman mentioned the Tax Appeals Commission. We heard from officials of the commission that its computers were bursting into flames. How do we ensure that in an amalgamations process, consideration is given to a broader range of issues by a range of Departments such that we do learn some lessons?
Earlier this week, the Government announced the establishment of the Office of Corporation Enforcement. I anticipate that we will face the same problems in regard to this organisation as we faced with the Tax Appeals Commission. I suggest that when the legislation for the new body is being drafted it include a section devoted to how it is to be resourced and funded. Currently, legislation is being drafted to give organisations the statutory powers to establish a board and hire a chief executive, with no detail as to who is to do the job. Our interim report specifically referenced that the Department of Finance had failed in its planning in regard to the establishment of the Tax Appeals Commission on an independent statutory basis.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform must learn from that lesson and draw up a plan in respect of any new such bodies. I am conscious that one was announced two days ago. There will be an opportunity for those organisations, especially Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, to learn in advance in respect of any new organisation. That is my observation of where we are at now.
I want to make two points, one specific and a general one related to Deputy Murphy's comments. I welcome this from the Department. The education and training boards, ETBs, are saying openly that they have no staff. They are identifying the problems, so they are coming forward. The committee has a role in encouraging people in that regard. We cannot have good governance if they do not identify the gaps, inform us and then put pressure on the Department. If that is a process that has started, I welcome it. It is difficult to be on the ground and hearing about problems with computers and shared systems that should be sorted out but have not been sorted out, through no fault of the staff.
On the general point, we are about to amalgamate Galway city and county councils on no other basis than that bigger is better. We certainly are not learning-----
We are about to go through it again. The interim report which recommends the amalgamation included a condition precedent that we deal with staff and resources first. The report states that staff and resources should be dealt with and it would seem that the cost implications, depending on one's interpretation, will be greater for the amalgamation. The ETBs seem to be learning but are the powers above this committee also learning?
That is an important point. I know from a briefing I received on the merger of the Waterford and Carlow institutes of technology that the last big piece of the jigsaw being looked at is the change management strategy. It would be interesting for us to look at whether there is a separate change management strategy for each of the mergers, for example. They are all different because we are looking at corporate headquarters and so on, but it is the governance model in which I am most interested. What is the relationship within the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and that process? Will the governance model be consistent because we have had inconsistencies across the board in the past? I know that is a separate issue but, in the same vein, it is something we need to be watching, as the committee was across the technological university process in terms of cost. Governance will be a critical piece that the technological universities will have to get right.
On that, there is supposed to be a regulatory impact assessment. Some of them only run to a page. If there was a regulatory impact template was in place, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform could do a post mortem, as it were, on organisations that have been merged. We could then end up having issues placed on that template that would not otherwise have been thought of. As a country, we do not do this type of follow through.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I suggest that, after Christmas, when the committee turns to look at Kildare-Wicklow ETB, that process might be an opportunity. We are still trying to finish out the 2015 financial statements for them. There were issues that caused the delay. That would give the committee an opportunity to look at the operation of an ETB and the systems that are in place since the amalgamations have taken place. Taking that, with the Department, and looking at areas like internal audit and the development of financial management systems might be focus for a related meeting.
Everybody is on a learning process and it is important that we share what we pick up here.
Next, we will deal with correspondence C from private individuals and other correspondence. No. 1728 is from persons referred to as B and C in University of Limerick, UL. They continue to have concerns about the current work environment and want to engage with the committee. We heard recently from the president of UL in respect of the implementation of the Thorn report and I propose we forward that to the individuals in question. We have also placed the two reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General on the University of Limerick and Sligo and Waterford Institute of Technology, respectively, on our work programme for the new year. We need to plan those engagements, which may involve meeting some of the individuals who have been affected by related matters. Can we agree to that?
Yes. I propose that next Thursday we agree a work programme for January and February. There will definitely be a meeting or two on the third level education sector. We can discuss next Thursday whether we should have separate meetings for some of the whistleblowers. That will form our work early in the new year.
No. 1770, which is related to the previous correspondence, is from an individual and it relates to University of Limerick. The person has requested a meeting with the committee. We will consider that request when we discuss our work programme next week.
No. 1762 dated 30 November 2018 is from an individual and relates to illegal records of legal visits. This is a copy of a letter sent to the Taoiseach’s office asking that the committee address the matter. While the issue raised is potentially very serious, it does not fall within the remit of the committee. I believe this is the matter raised in the media last week about prison staff and the recording of what people understand to be legally privileged meetings and visits in prisons. We are scheduling for next week a meeting with the Prison Service before we break for Christmas. We will raise that with the Prison Service and the Department of Justice and Equality when their representatives are here in person shortly before Christmas.
No. 1766 dated 30 November 2018 is from an individual and concerns land zoning and planning in County Kerry. Planning matters or matters related to the possible losses to a local economy are not within the remit of the committee and I propose that we inform the individual accordingly. We will not get into planning matters. Is that agreed? Agreed. There have been parliamentary questions on the matter raised and any member is free to pursue it in that context.
That is the final batch of correspondence. We move on now to the statements of-----
There is no reason we should not have that information by next week. We requested a detailed breakdown in respect of the way various contracts were selected and the procurement process involved. We will follow up on that tomorrow.
The next item is statements and accounts received since the last meeting. There are five sets of accounts, the first of which is for St. James's Hospital and is a clear audited opinion. Attention is drawn to the significant level of non-compliant procurement on goods and services. That is in the Comptroller and Auditor General's statement of-----
The next statement of accounts is for the Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board for 2017. It is a clear audited opinion. Again, there is a material level of non-compliance with national procurement guidelines and concerns regarding the adequacy of internal audit. We will see that in the annual statements for many of the ETBs.
Yes, and that is confirmed in the letter from the Department in that it accepts there has been inadequate internal audit resources available. The Department recruited staff but three of them have since left because the amount of work involved in travelling throughout the country to do internal audits was very difficult for the small group of people involved. They were away five days a week.
There is a big issue, and we cannot expect people to work under those conditions. I am not saying that. However, it ends up costing more money with reports following reports. Something has to be done in terms of an employment package to attract people. That is not our area but it becomes our area because it ends up before us in the form of more and more reports. We had the Thorn report. We have a list of reports with which we could paper a wall. That is the message we have to try to send out. As we have seen everywhere - there is no point in repeating it - it costs more money and the taxpayer ends up paying.
We are on a bit of a journey here. Two years ago, nobody was paying any to the non-submission or very late submission of ETB accounts. We have stepped it up and are getting them in. Now we have an internal audit problem. That is probably the next phase for us. The Department accepts that but I think it is involved in a new recruitment process.
The next one is Kilkenny-Carlow ETB, for which there is a clear audit opinion. Again, it proactively highlights the difficulties relating to internal audit and welcomes an expansion of that function. It is proactive in highlighting the issues so the message is beginning to get out there.
The next item is the Special EU Programmes Body. This is a North-South body which administers EU-funded grant schemes and is jointly audited between the Northern Ireland Audit Office and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. There is a clear audit opinion.
The next item is the Defence Forces canteen board. This supervises and ensures financial control over bars, canteens and officers' and non-commissioned officers' and privates' messes. Turnover in 2017 was €1.8 million. There is a clear audit opinion. We probably wanted something like that in respect of the Garda Síochána College in Templemore over the years. The Army had separate accounts, separate funds and separate reporting whereas-----
If something similar had existed in the context of the Garda Síochána College in Templemore, some of the issues relating to the college would not arisen over the decades. It is a learning point. We will keep moving.
Our work programme for the next meeting is on screen. We will be meeting representatives from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
Next Thursday, we will deal with the special report on the provision of school transport - the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report No. 98. Representatives from the Department of Education and Skills will attend that meeting. When was the report published?
We will ask the Department to provide up-to-date information. We will not just deal with the report as originally prepared. The topic will be the provision of school transport and the special report but we will ask the Department to immediately ensure that we have up-to-date information to help us in our work on that. In other words, we want to discover what lessons has the Department learned from the report, which was completed over a year ago.
On Tuesday, 18 December, representatives from the Irish Prison Service will appear before us following the recent meeting with the whistleblower. We will also meet representatives from the Department of Justice, which is the Accounting Officer for the Irish Prison Service. This will involve Vote 21 - Prisons. The only time available during that week for a meeting is 9 a.m. on Tuesday, 18 December. Members wanted the meeting to happen before the end of the year. I am very pleased that the secretariat and the Department have agreed to facilitate our request to meet that week. The meeting will last until lunchtime at the maximum because the room is only available up until then. The issue of a quorum arises.