Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 31 January 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We will begin in public session. I am joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, as a permanent witness to the committee. He is joined by Mr. Mark Brady, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputy Deering.
The next item on the agenda are the minutes of the meeting. I want to clear the minutes of the meetings we have had since the beginning of January, namely, the meeting of 17 January, the meeting in private session on the 22 January - those minutes are short - and the meeting of 24 January. Could we note, agree and publish those? Agreed.
Are there any matters arising? We will come to all the relevant items under the correspondence. First, I will deal with category A, briefing documents and opening statements in respect of today's meeting. No. 1898A is dated 29 January and is from the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. It provides a number of briefing documents for today's meeting. We will note and publish them. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1898A also concerns documentsfrom the Department of Health, dated 29 January 2019, and provides a briefing note for today's meeting.We will note and publish that. The opening statements from both organisations were received very late last night so hard copies are being distributed. For the record, we will note and publish both of those opening statements and the Comptroller and Auditor General's opening statement as well. The former documents came too late last night for circulation but we have them here today and they will be published this morning so people can see them.
Next, we will deal with category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers or Ministers and follow-up to previous Committee of Public Account meetings and other items for publishing. First is No. 1761B, which relates to legal advice in respect to NAMA. We will deal with that in private session later today.
No. 1795B is from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, dated 11 December 2018, and it provides a briefing note on the national broadband plan and metropolitan area networks. We agreed to note and publish the correspondence at our meeting on 17 January 2019. I suggest we consider the document further in the meetings we will have on broadband. We have a special meeting coming up which many witnesses will attend. After that we will have to have a final review with the Department when we get assistance from the other witnesses who have voluntarily agreed to come before the committee. It is noted and published and we can consider them at the two subsequent meetings. There is no need to hold it over for today as it will be included at the next meeting.
No. 1816B is from Mr. Martin Whelan of the National Treasury Management Agency, dated 24 December 2018, and concerns the percentage of ownership by the State of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, ISIF, in a company to which reference is made. We do not have the answer to that yet. We will note and publish the letter and wait for the response we sought. I hope to have it for next week. We have concluded that matter but we look forward to receiving the answer to the question we did ask for the next meeting.
No. 1851B is from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, dated 16 January 2019, and provides detailed follow-up information requested by the committee. We published this very detailed, comprehensive document at our previous meeting. We said we could hold it over if somebody wanted to discuss a particular issue. I am sure there will be much interest in the document, even from outside the Committee of Public Accounts. I touched on a few issues at the previous meeting but members might wish to raise other matter.
It is note 3 and it relates to the clean-up of Aughinish, which is under licence to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. I think the Comptroller and Auditor General audits the EPA. The licences are very important.
The licence is very similar to that for landfill. There is a fairly rigorous regime to ensure that even if a company goes into liquidation or becomes bankrupt that, in theory, money is supposed to be there. Does that feature in terms of the audit, and making sure that such measures are properly in place or is it a separate process?
I understand that but there could be a financial problem later on because of the lack of enforcement in the same way as we have seen previously. Where is that captured? Does the Environmental Protection Agency have responsibility for that?
I support the Deputy on this point. I am looking at the detail on page 8 and I would like guidance on the matter. Clearly, we do not want extra work if the matter comes under the remit of the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The whole document is extraordinary in the sense of the mounted costs for the taxpayer to clean up. That is certainly an issue for this committee. Is that not so? It is about the clean-up. That is what we are picking up. It applies to private and public lands. When would the EPA come before the committee?
The great concern is that is exactly what will happen here. We have to be careful. Representations have been made to us about serious pollution. One line in the document states that the EPA issues integrated pollution licences, among other documents. One of the requirements of the licence is that sufficient money is set aside to address any difficulty that may arise. It is something like an escrow account. The question is whether that is adequate and who decides on that. Experts within the EPA or whoever the agency draws in tell the agency what is adequate. We are here today to discuss a different issue on which we see things are not adequate. As a first shot, we should look at the EPA.
We will start on that basis because EPA representatives appeared before the committee periodically to deal with the annual financial statements. Those meetings dealt with governance, enforcement, costs and so on.
The document we got from the Department is welcome. It provides the information we are seeking, but it is also an education for the taxpayer. The question of governance comes back to us in terms of Aughinish and landfill sites. Are the procedures in place sufficient and adequate to prevent problems happening and to save the taxpayer? That is really what it is about and that is what I would like to see from the EPA.
On that basis, we will add the EPA to our work programme. We will come to that shortly as part of our work programme. I addressed this at the previous meeting when I hit on some of those points. There is great information available and I advise people with an interest in it to examine the document. I read out all the headings and topics in the letter the last day and I will not repeat them today.
I recommend that members of the public look at the document on the committee website because they will find it educational. We have dealt with that now and we will put the EPA on our work programme.
The next item of correspondence received since the previous meeting is No. 1864 from the private secretary of the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. It provides an update on ongoing work being undertaken by the Department to revise procedures regarding local authority land purchases and associated borrowings. It is a short letter, which states the Department is preparing a circular which will be forwarded to the committee when it has been issued. There has not been much activity in that area in recent times.
No. 1888 is from the Louth and Meath Education and Training Board dated 22 January 2019. It provides an update on information requested by the committee with regard to invoice redirection fraud. The letter states that all the board has recovered today to date is €284.50. What was the scale of this? Can anyone remind me of the amount?
The letter concludes with the director of organisation support and development conveying his apologies again for not having reverted last September. This is because we keep following it up. He states a further update will be provided once the board has a final decision from its insurers regarding the losses incurred. We will note this correspondence. We want a reply or update within three months. We will let the board know that we want an update by the end of April. We will move on and note that.
No. 1889 is from the Secretary General of Department of Defence and includes information requested by the committee on cases taken under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997. I propose we send a copy of this to Senator Craughwell, who raised the matter with the committee. We will note and publish that and forward it to the Senator.
No. 1892 is from the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. We asked the Secretary General to deal with the fragmented nature of funding for local authorities from different Departments. His reply states that there is no cross-departmental review under way but the matter is being looked at in the broader review of the local property tax being led by the Department of Finance. He says that once that matter has been concluded and the outcome announced, arrangements will be made for details to be forwarded to the committee. We have raised the issue, which is tied in with the local property tax review. The outcome of that process will be made public in due course. That is all he is telling us.
The second item we requested related to inspections of properties under the housing assistance payment. The Secretary General is saying that the councils' information technology systems do not adequately record all the HAP inspections carried out. He explains that prior to HAP being introduced, some local authorities had separate inspection databases that logged inspection related activity. That would have been for private rented properties. As a result, local authorities need to disaggregate inspection information relating to HAP properties from their broader inspection databases to enable a single national report to be extracted. The Department is telling us that it does not have a database on HAP inspections. The letter goes on to say that the Department is following up the matter with a number of local authorities and will provide the committee with a report in the coming weeks. We note that we will get a report in March. It is a shambles.
We have no database of the inspections. It is a shambles. Moreover, we raised the matter at this committee previously. To my knowledge, the legislation requires that an inspection take place. If it has not happened in the previous 12 months, it should happen within the first eight months. The Department has utterly stood down in the implementation of that legislation and has referred to its target of 25%. The legislation refers to 100%.
I think there is a world of difference if houses are being procured under the rental accommodation scheme. The local authority has a responsibility in those circumstances because it is essentially the landlord. In contrast, when a house is procured under the housing assistance payment, it is the tenant who finds the accommodation. A certain mindset is at play here with local authorities protecting themselves in case there is liability. When something is set in law there is a different mindset and it is really obvious.
There is another point. The Local Government Management Agency has a building on the quays called Local Government House. It is all for county managers. The organisation does the design for the software for systems that are rolled out so that each local authority does not have separate software and a collaborative approach each taken. If there is a collaborative approach, I cannot understand why there is no single system from which we can extract the information that feeds into a general system.
This is very big money.
We will come back to it as part of our work on housing. Some of the city and county managers will be coming before us soon, as will representatives of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. We are not finished with the housing topic yet. The Deputy is right to keep it in focus. Furthermore, in relation to HAP we asked for data on the number of individual landlords or their agents in receipt of multiple HAP payments. The reply states that 40,835 landlords were in receipt of HAP payments-----
Sorry, there were 40,835 HAP properties. There were 24,456 landlords who had one single property while 4,010 had more than one property. A total of 3,402 landlords had between two and five properties, 308 landlords had between six and ten properties and 300 landlords had in excess of ten properties. There was one landlord who had 241 properties in the HAP scheme. We will put that into the mix and will note and publish the correspondence. We will discuss it further as part of our forthcoming meetings on housing. Some of the information supplied is incomplete but we acknowledge receipt of the data.
The next item of correspondence, No. 1895B is from Mr. Ray Mitchell of the HSE regarding the transfer of properties to the HSE from religious congregations under the redress scheme. In terms of the 2002 offers, Mr. Mitchell's letter states that there are still two properties outstanding. One belongs to the Sacred Heart order in Cappoquin and the other is also in Waterford. There was an issue in relation to title. In the latter half of 2008 progress was made with regard to one of the properties and the HSE expects to have the closing documents within the next few months on the other one. Progress is being made but we will continue to monitor that. In terms of the 2009 offers, there are two outstanding properties. One is Bláithín on the Gracepark Road. The HSE is still waiting to hear from the owner's solicitor. It wrote to the solicitor three months ago but has had no response to date. We will ask the HSE to follow that up. The National Rehabilitation Hospital is a big one which the HSE says is complicated. It will require the establishment of a new trust. It will be signed over to the HSE but there will be a lease-back arrangement involving a new trust. That is taking a considerable amount of time and the HSE says that it will take another few months to complete. We will keep an eye on this until the process is complete. That is just the HSE element. Separate progress reports are coming from the Department of Education and Skills intermittently. We will keep on top of both elements. We will note and publish the correspondence and keep the issue of those transfers on our agenda until they are all concluded. Nobody else seems to be following it at this stage.
The next item is No. 1897B from Mr. Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer at the Office of Government Procurement, dated 25 January 2019 providing information requested by the committee regarding the role of the National Development Finance Agency and the Office of Government Procurement in the procurement arrangements for the national paediatric hospital. We will note and publish this. There is no substantial or significant information therein, from our point of view. It states that not everyone has to follow the standard procurement process rules and that exceptions are set out in Circular 33/06. Regardless of exceptions, however, the contracting body must do all of the procurement work in the proper manner.
We were trying to find out what the role of the Office of Government Procurement was because we wanted to find out about the guidance on procurement, particularly for capital projects. It is one thing to say that there is guidance that can be followed in a particular way. The guidance covers goods, services and works. The whole idea of setting up an office like this was to secure the best value for money and to ensure that the process involved is fair and robust. I am not at all clear on the role of the Office of Government Procurement or if there is an institutional gap here.
My reading of the letter from the Office of Government Procurement is that there is a procedure in place but if a project is specific and unique and does not fall within the routine terms, it can seek a "derogation" from going through the normal procedures. Mr. Quinn's letter says that a derogation, if agreed, does not approve the approach or strategy of the contracting authority but simply acknowledges that the circumstances are such to warrant a different approach to the usual, standard approach. It goes on to say that it is a matter for the contracting and sanctioning authorities - with whom we will be meeting shortly - to satisfy themselves as to the adequacy of the approach with regard to compliance with procurement rules and to ensure that the project procurement is in accordance with the public spending code. The contracting authority is still fully responsible for everything even if it has a derogation-----
The contracting authority is the body responsible and we will be meeting the contracting authority in public session shortly. We will have to concentrate on it because ultimately, it is responsible. It sounds as if the Office of Government Procurement is good for the little jobs but if a big job comes along-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I have looked at the letter, yes. The Chairman asked a question previously, when there was discussion on the hospital, as to whether the NDFA would have had an advisory or other role in relation to the hospital. Mr. Callihane is explaining in his letter the extent to which the agency has been involved in the development of the project.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Under the public spending code, as I understand it, any project that is in excess of €20 million must engage with the NDFA. I have not looked at the specific requirements but Mr. Callihane explains in his letter the extent to which the agency has been engaged with the hospital project.
We will ask whether the agency has a statutory responsibility to get involved. Mr. Callihane is saying that the agency has not been involved since 2014. He said that it was involved with the issue in the context of the Mater Hospital site, where funds had to be written off.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes and there was an element of engagement when the HSE was looking for financing from the European Investment Bank, EIB, for the children's hospital but Mr. Callihane says in his letter that the agency has not been involved since 2016.
He actually says that the NDFA has had no involvement in the project since 2016, when the agency's formal engagement as adviser to the HSE ended. We will write back to the NDFA and ask it to outline the circumstances in which that engagement ended and to explain why it ended. We will also raise the matter directly with the HSE. We will ask the executive's representatives who will be with us later today why the HSE ended its engagement with the NDFA. We will note and publish the correspondence from Mr. Callihane.
The next items are in category C, comprising correspondence from and related to private individuals and other correspondence. We will discuss these items but will not publish them. The first is item No. 1860C, a letter of complaint from an individual dated 17 January 2019 concerning the committee's consideration of Vote 1, the President's Establishment. The individual expresses the view that the timing was deliberate. We have said already that we will be dealing with Vote 1 in the normal course of events at a forthcoming meeting with the Secretary General of the Department of Finance. We will make sure that it is done on a routine basis every year from now on. Previous Committees of Public Accounts had not looked at the Vote over many years and it came as shock to some when this committee decided to do so.
The correspondent makes an interesting point, with which I would take issue, which is that this individual has a greater concern now that members of the PAC will use their position to influence European and local elections. As Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, I reject entirely the idea of anybody suggesting to us that we cannot discuss anything in connection with local authorities or involving the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Transport, Tourism and Sport and Rural and Community Development, all of which fund local authorities, just because there are local elections coming up, or that we cannot discuss anything related to European affairs or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in regard to its expenditure because there are European elections coming up. That person will try to close down the Committee of Public Accounts and will probably then say that because there will be an election some time, we should discuss no Department.
It is private individual correspondence, No. 1860, under section C. We will note it and publish it. That is my response to the broader point in that I could foresee people trying to continue the debate that started last year that suggested the Committee of Public Accounts should not discuss anything because it might influence something else down the road. We are not going there. We will deal with the Vote in the normal course of events.
The next item is No. 1865 from the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, in regard to information requested by the committee. It seems to be more of a constituency query in regard to Laois. For some reason, it came back through the Committee of Public Accounts rather than through my constituency office. We will note that and I will deal with it.
The next item is No. 1868 from the managing director of the regional Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland in regard to a meeting. An invitation has issued and we have received confirmation they will attend the meeting when we are dealing with broadband.
The next item is No. 1887 from an individual regarding wards of court. This person has been in contact with the committee over a considerable period. The matter remains unresolved and members are free to raise the matter. I propose we note the item and write to the individual explaining that the decisions to be made in regard to wards of court do not fall within the remit of this committee. The correspondent is watching our debate every week and is fully aware of that.
However, we will come back to the issue we raised with the State Claims Agency. We got very interesting information that the majority of funding it pays out in regard to major injuries is paid before the award is actually granted in court. The HSE applies for wardship of court in regard to the individual and sometimes the parents do not understand this as it happens in the final few minutes of protracted court proceedings. The money is then handed over for the permanent care of that person to those administering the wardship, which comes under the Courts Service. It might be a policy issue but I do not see why the State Claims Agency should be handing over hundreds of millions to another State body to invest it when the NTMA is meant to be the expert in regard to managing and investing funds. I know there is an issue of the independence of the courts and that is beyond their remit. However we will come to that issue of the transfer of funding when we are dealing with the State Claims Agency, which we will be coming back to as part of the medical negligence issue. Much of this comes out as a result of medical negligence cases.
The next item is No. 1890 from Deputy MacSharry, dated 21 January 2019, regarding canteen services for prison officers. The Deputy provides information and a reply he has issued to certain people. Does Deputy MacSharry wish to comment?
No, I just wanted to bring it to members' attention. The union had engaged in a small media campaign, which seemed to be something of a red herring along the lines that the work here was in some way trying to undermine canteen services available to prison officers. The email which I had received was sent to the media and followed up with a radio interview with Ocean FM, the content of which was broadly similar to the email sent to me by the union. I gave a detailed response, which I would like published for the benefit of members, who will see there is no basis to any accusation that we were pulling the figures from the sky or basing it on anything other than the information that was provided in questioning and other documentation that I had in my possession.
It came from the Deputy personally rather than from a Department. We will publish that. The one remark I would make is that this information clearly outlines the extensive background in regard to the canteen or mess facilities, as they are called. We asked for that on the day. As Chairman, I am disappointed because I am satisfied that the witnesses could have provided information to the committee when we asked on the day.
On the day, when Deputy MacSharry asked about the mess committee, the issue was raised with several witnesses from the Prison Service and no information of any significance was forthcoming on the day. Now, it appears the matter was dealt with by the Labour Relations Commission in 2011 and there are massive negotiations between the union and the Prison Service on the matter. I feel all of that information was known to the witnesses who were present the last day and it was not made available to us in the public session. It would have been helpful had they done that. We have it now, thanks to Deputy MacSharry, and we have written to the committee for a detailed breakdown of information. It would have been helpful had they given us the information they were aware of on the day, given they knew about it. We will get a more detailed reply in writing in regard to the mess committee. The Comptroller and Auditor General might respond at that stage, although he will probably wait to see the reply. It is an issue the Comptroller and Auditor General is keen on. We will note and publish that. When we get the reply, we will come back to it.
When time allows and when the information comes, we should do so. From my perspective, it is a certainty we will be asking them all back in again to deal with a number of issues, not just that but other matters to do with governance and oversight.
We will come to that when we receive a reply, which I presume will not be too long more in coming.
The next item is No. 1891 from the managing director of BT Ireland, who is not available to attend the meeting but will have representatives here on the day, which is fine.
The next item is No. 1894 from an individual, dated 24 January 2019, in regard to information provided by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment regarding electricity interconnectors. As the correspondent recognises in his email, this is a policy issue and not within the remit of the committee. I propose we forward the item. Members are free to raise the matter outside of the committee if anyone wants to follow it up directly.
The next item is No. 1909 from Deputy Alan Kelly, dated 29 January, requesting that the committee invite the acting chief executive officer, CEO, of the HSE to today’s meeting. Time was tight and this would be minimal notice. We had agreed to have the hospital board, the HSE link person, the Secretary General and others here today.
There is a tracking system to make sure we get replies.
The next item is a report on the accounts and statements received since the last meeting. We have not done this since December so we are playing a little bit of catch-up here and we will have a bit more catching up to do next week to be fully up to date. There are 15 accounts and statements for review this week. Item No. 41 is the travellers' protection fund and the travel agent and tour operator bond account.
That is a clear audit opinion.
The next items are clear audit opinions for the State Examinations Commission, the Institute of Public Administration and the Kerry Education and Training Board. In the case of the last, there is again non-compliance with national procurement rules and concerns regarding the lack of appropriate contemporary financial and human resources management systems, as well as a potential impact on internal controls. The ETBs are improving their situations but some have highlighted these problems.
There are clear audit opinions for the Citizens Information Board, the National Council for Special Education, Waterways Ireland, the environment fund and the Marine Casualty Investigation Board. All of these accounts are in respect of the end of the 2017 financial period.
There are clear audit opinions for Irish Water Safety, the Charities Regulator and the charities fund. Will the Comptroller and Auditor General tell us the difference between the authority and the fund?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The €4 million expenditure of the Charities Regulator concerns expenses of the regulator in the carrying out of its functions. The charities funds are held in trust for charities or for charitable purposes. For example, where a charity is folding, there may be surplus funds which can be held for distribution for similar charitable purposes. The regulator provides an oversight for this. It is a small fund and is in a wind-down situation. In the future, the charities fund account will be empty.
The next item relates to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The Comptroller and Auditor General issued a qualified opinion in respect of the costs of retirement benefits only when they become payable. This does not comply with Financial Reporting Standard 102 which requires financial statements to recognise the full costs of retirement benefit entitlements earned in that period.
There is a clear audit opinion for St. Angela's College Sligo and for the Dublin Dental Hospital board. The latter’s accounts were prepared in accordance with the accountancy standards for the voluntary hospital sector and approved by the Minister for Health.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
There is a distinction there in that many of the agencies just deviate on the pensions point. There is a wider extent of deviation for hospitals. They operate a capital income and expenditure account as well as a normal recurrent income and expenditure account. Depreciation is not applied and so on. It is a clear audit opinion but in the context of a particular accounting framework.
The next item on the agenda is the work programme. Next week we will be dealing with the Department of the Taoiseach group of Votes. I propose we have one session to deal with Vote 1, President’s Establishment, and Vote 2, Department of the Taoiseach, another session to deal with Vote 4, Central Statistics Office, and a third session to deal with Vote 3, Office of the Attorney General, Vote 5, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Vote 6, Office of the Chief State Solicitor. However, there may be an issue with the availability of the Accounting Officer for the Central Statistics Office due to him being abroad next week on Government business. We may have to re-arrange that session. The office said the deputy head could come in but I would prefer if the head came in. We can come back to the Central Statistics Office another day.
On 14 February, we have a meeting with broadband providers. On 21 February, we will meet the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board. On 28 February, we will be back dealing with housing. We will meet the Irish Council for Social Housing, the approved housing body interim regulatory committee and, in a separate session, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. We will also meet the chief executives of some local authorities.
I propose then that we write immediately to the Department of Education and Skills asking that the report would be published in advance of our meeting on 21 February. It would be pointless having a meeting if the report has not been issued to us.
We did have the unsatisfactory situation the last time where financial accounts for some third level institutions were with the Department and had not been cleared by the Minister. We are not going down that road with this meeting. If there is a report, we need to see it. If it is not published, we will have to reschedule.
We have agreed provisionally to meet the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality on 4 April. We have several outstanding matters and we are adding on the Environmental Protection Agency.
There are several gaps in March. We will ask the secretariat to start slotting meetings for March.
Deputy MacSharry raised the issue of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, last year. There was to be some engagement but there was a court action. It was the largest company liquidation in the history of the State and a committee of oversight was being sought. Has there been any movement on this? I introduced legislation, for which I got into a bit of trouble, to extend the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General to have oversight of IBRC. A court case was also taken to have oversight. A significant amount of money is involved. The Department of Finance has oversight, which is unusual.
We will write immediately for an update. I have heard nothing on it in recent times. We can raise the issue when we deal with the accounts of the Department of Finance on 7 March but we will ask for an update now. In the meeting we will take Vote 8, which is the voted expenditure that funds the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Comptroller and Auditor General is not the Accounting Officer but the Accounting Officer will be present on the day.
The Vote is taken in the Estimates of the Department of Finance. I do not know whether the Department of Finance wants to sit with the Accounting Officer. We may slot the meeting into the session we had earmarked for the Central Statistics Office, CSO.
We will arrange the timetable so that there is no crossover between the topics. They will have separate sessions. We will deal with the Vote of the Comptroller and Auditor General on 7 March, the same day the Department of Finance will be in.
Irish Water was set up with the intention of it being a semi-State utility not under the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The nature of the organisation has changed, however, and a lot of money flows through it. Was there any engagement with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the question of bringing Irish Water under its remit?
There is one other item of correspondence, which we will deal with in private session after we conclude our meeting with the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. It will not take very long but there are two or three items we have to deal with, one involving legal advice.