Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 February 2019
Public Accounts Committee
2017 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts
Vote 1 - President's Establishment
Vote 2 - Department of the Taoiseach
Mr. Martin Fraser:
Good morning. I am attending at the request of the committee to assist in its examination of the 2017 appropriation accounts for the Department of the Taoiseach and the President’s Establishment. As the Chairman stated, I am accompanied by my colleagues, Mr. Denis Breen, head of corporate affairs, and Ms Geraldine Butler, finance officer. The committee will have received, in advance of this meeting, briefing documents detailing the 2017 expenditure and outturn of the Department of the Taoiseach and the President’s Establishment as set out in the 2017 appropriation accounts and other supporting documentation. I propose to briefly outline the role and structure of the Department of the Taoiseach and to give an overview of the Department’s 2017 appropriation account as well as an overview of the President’s Establishment appropriation account for 2017.
The Department of the Taoiseach’s work centres on supporting the work of the Taoiseach and the Government both at home and abroad. The core functions of the Department are delivering the Executive functions of the Taoiseach and the Government, providing the Government secretariat, supporting the Taoiseach in carrying out his duties as head of Government including in relation to the Oireachtas, constitutional issues, protocol, the European Council, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, working with the Office of the President and with the Oireachtas and engaging with the formulation and implementation of Government policy mainly through the system of Cabinet committees, senior officials’ groups, the programme for Government office and the parliamentary liaison unit. The Department is responsible for the office of the Taoiseach, as well as providing some support for the Tánaiste and Independent Ministers in Government. The Department is also the site for the Office of the Government Chief Whip, who also has responsibility for the Central Statistics Office. We provide support for the Ministers of State assigned to the Department who have responsibility for Defence, European Affairs and for data protection. The Department also provides the Government Information Service, provides briefing and advice to the Taoiseach on the full range of domestic policy issues and on international affairs, including through the work of the NESC, to which the Comptroller and Auditor General referred earlier. The Department also supports the Government in the formulation and implementation of Ireland’s EU, Northern Ireland and international policies, including co-ordination across the whole of Government. We also deliver support services through our corporate affairs division which includes human resources, finance, ICT and other services.
In 2017, changes were made to the structure of the Department following the appointment of a new Taoiseach and Government. These included new Ministers of State, responsibility for Brexit co-ordination moving to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the establishment of new Cabinet committees. The Department supported the Taoiseach's intensive engagement and negotiations with EU leaders on a wide range of issues, including Brexit. Through the Cabinet committee structure, the Department engaged with other Departments on a wide range of national policy issues, as directed by the Taoiseach, such as housing and homelessness, climate change, health and justice reform, infrastructure planning and investment, gender equality and disability, economic planning and rural development.
In addition to the existing responsibilities, the Department undertook additional preparatory work during 2017 in the areas of pensions reform, Ireland's bio-economy, the national planning framework, the national development plan, Global Ireland - Ireland’s Global Footprint to 2025, and the establishment of the North East Inner City, NEIC, programme implementation board. Press and protocol support services continued to support the large programme of events including the state funeral of the late Taoiseach, Mr. Liam Cosgrave, and visits by Heads of State and senior EU officials. The Department was centrally involved in supporting the Taoiseach and the National Emergency Co-ordination Group in its response to Storm Ophelia in October 2017. Across all areas of the Department’s responsibility, considerable time and effort also went into answering parliamentary questions, preparing material for use in the Oireachtas, processing freedom of information, FOI, requests, answering letters and queries from the public, organising events, preparing speeches, and responding to media queries.
The outturn for the Department of the Taoiseach in 2017 was €27.58 million against an Estimate provision of €36.74 million. This lower than anticipated expenditure resulted in €9.16 million being surrendered back to the Exchequer at the end of December 2017. The significant variations in expenditure relate primarily to programme spending. Under subhead A4 -Tribunal of Inquiry - spending was €3.5 million less than estimated due to the number of legal cost claims settled in 2017 being lower than expected. Obviously, we have no control over third-party legal costs incurred by tribunals and it is impossible to predict the timing of settlement of third party costs or the level of costs falling due at any particular time. Under subhead A5 - Commissions of Investigation - spending was €2.4 million under estimate. The commissions are independent and their expenditure levels depend on the needs and requirements of their investigations.
Subhead A1 - Administration Pay - was also under estimate due to a significant turnover of staff and delays in filling posts at some grades during the year. Just over €15.3 million was expended on pay and administration in 2017, with the balance expended on programme expenditure. As the Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out, quite a lot of our spending is on investigations.
The Department’s 2017 appropriation account was audited by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In his report, the Comptroller and Auditor General noted that, in his opinion, the account properly presented the receipts and expenditure for the Department for the year ended 31 December 2017 and that it has been prepared in the form prescribed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Comptroller and Auditor General also stated that he had no matters to report with regard to the statement provided by me, as Accounting Officer, on internal financial control.
My role as Accounting Officer for Vote 1 is very different to that of Accounting Officers for other Votes. Generally, the Secretary General is the Accounting Officer for the Votes and also the administrative head of the Department and as such can answer for the actions of the Department. Although I am the Accounting Officer for Vote 1, I have no executive or operational responsibility for the Office of the President. This is entirely appropriate given the constitutional position of the President. As the committee is also aware, Article 13.8.1oof the Constitution states:
The President shall not be answerable to either House of the Oireachtas or to any court for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of his office or for any act done or purporting to be done by him in the exercise and performance of these powers and functions.
As Accounting Officer, I obtain assurances that the office operates properly through my direct contact with the Secretary General to the President and from the audit performed by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The outturn for the President’s Establishment for 2017 was €3.6 million against an Estimate provision of €3.9 million. This lower than anticipated expenditure resulted in €294,236 liable to surrender back to the Exchequer. The account for the President’s Establishment was audited by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In his report the Comptroller and Auditor General noted that, in his opinion, the account properly presented the receipts and expenditure of the President’s Establishment for the year ended 31 December 2017 and the audit evidence obtained is sufficient and appropriate to provide a basis for that opinion.
That concludes my statement to the committee.