Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 21 February 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to the committee. He is joined by Ms Mary Henry, deputy director of audit.
We will hold over the minutes of the last meeting until the next meeting as I just have not had time to review them yet, and we will hold over matters arising.
There are three categories of correspondence. The first item concerns Nos. 1996Aand 1997from the Department of Education and Skills, dated 19 February 2019, which provide a briefing document and an opening statement for today's meeting. We will note and publish that. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Correspondence Nos. 1987 and 1995 are from Kildare Wicklow Education and Training Board, dated 15 February and 19 February, and provide a briefing document and an opening statement for today's meeting. We will note and publish these. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Correspondence Nos. 1978A and 1993 from the Irish Council for Social Housing, dated 14 February and 20 February, provide a briefing document and an opening statement for today's meeting. Is it agreed that we will note and publish these? Agreed.
Correspondence Nos. 1979 and 1994from the approved housing body interim regulatory committee, dated 15 February and 19 February, provide a briefing document and an opening statement. Is it agreed that we will note and publish these? Agreed.
We will move on to the B category of correspondence, which is from Accounting Officers and Ministers, and follow-up to previous meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts. The first item of correspondence is No. 1965 from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills on our meeting with Kildare Wicklow Education and Training Board today. The committee was made aware of this item at last week's meeting and we are formally noting it now. It is important to stress, and we have to be very conscious today when we have the ETB in, that the Thorn report and, I think, the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General have been referred to the Garda Síochána. Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú has made it very clear, and I will read one sentence:
Having regard to the ongoing investigation ... with An Garda Síochána and the Department's legal advice, at the planned meeting, we are in a position to provide the Committee with information and answers on matters in both Dr. Thorn and the C & AG reports, without providing a level of detail which could identify individuals or companies or their activities.
We are not going to compromise a Garda Síochána investigation here today, or any potential legal cases that could go from it. I think we all understand that but I have to just make that point clear. We will note and publish that.
The next correspondence is No. 1966 from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, providing a copy of the Analysys Mason report on pricing and access arrangements for the metropolitan area network. We will note that was published the day before the last meeting. We are now noting this copy. We did discuss that particular report the last day so we are noting this. The Department already has published the actual report but we will publish the accompanying letter.
Given that the publication of that report coincided with a significant reduction in the cost per metre of fibre, had it been published a year ago it would have or is likely to have brought that reduction at that point. We are owed an explanation as to why publication was delayed given that it had that impact. It would be well worthwhile to write back and ask them.
We will write back and ask for a detailed explanation of the timing, from the time the report was completed, and the discussions they had with Enet last summer when Enet expected it to be published within weeks, and what was the particular reason for the delay. We want to come back to the broadband issue in our work programme as well.
The Deputy is right on that. We are writing back to the Department on that specific issue.
The next item is No. 1968 from the Valuation Office and pertains to the Harold's Cross stadium. The Commissioner of Valuation has made it clear that there was no contact whatsoever with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine during the process of valuing Harold's Cross. We have to accept that. He put it clearly in black and white when he said it would be outside its remit and inappropriate to do so. We will note and publish that.
The next item is No. 1972, which was provided by BT at our meeting last week - it is a copy - where BT refers to the Analysys Mason report. We will publish correspondence No. 1972, which we dealt with last week. As I said, we have already acknowledged that the Analysys Mason report was published by the Department. We will publish it on our website as people will want to follow it through our website.
The next item of correspondence is No. 1973 from the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine stating there were no communications whatsoever between his office, and the Department, and the Valuation Office in relation to the sale of Harold's Cross stadium. We will note and publish this. The Department is saying there was no contact so we have to accept that.
The next item of correspondence is No. 1974 from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which provides information on the legislative basis for amending the broadband tender, the decision to extract 300,000 households from the tender and the expert opinion relied on for this. We can note and we will publish this. I want to put that on our work programme as an item we want to deal with. I will make one comment about the letter that he actually sent to us. It is a detailed letter. We asked about the state aid issue. At this point in time we know there is only one tenderer still on the pitch - I will just call it that way - but it had not been formally categorised as the preferred tenderer at this point. We asked about state aid and I will quote from the second paragraph of page 6 of his letter:
A formal State aid notification has not yet been submitted to the EU Commission and a formal decision by the Commission in respect of the notified measure has not, therefore, been made, as this can only be done after preferred bidder stage of the procurement process.
In terms of the broadband issue, which we will come back to because I am putting it on the work programme, the state aid issue, the European Commission has not given its approval yet for this project because they got to see the details of the tender and the preferred bidder, and what is involved. So we are a little bit away, one way or the other. It still has to go to Europe after that stage. We will just park that and publish this because we want to deal with the broadband issue and the work programme in a few minutes.
There is one further aspect to this on which it would be useful to have clarification and which arose on a number of occasions last week. I refer to the mapping process and the possibility of duplication. I think we can go back to them and ask them just exactly what has been mapped because there are public entities that have fibre like the ESB and Bord Gáis. We need to know if they have been included in the mapping process because after all, it would all be public money. As it is for the avoidance of duplication, that would be helpful.
Fine and I thank the Deputy. An attachment came with the letter with the heading, national broadband plan state aid compliance update on the mapping of Eir's rural extension plan, dated 8 March 2017. There is a suggestion that we do not publish this because it is marked privileged and confidential. However, they have redacted sections of the report, produced by PwC, on pages 6, 7 and 8, obviously in relation to matters that could be commercially sensitive. I propose that we double check with them that we can publish the redacted form. We can deal with the redacted issues separately. From my reading of this report, they have obviously redacted the bits that they consider sensitive. We will get clearance to publish the redacted version of that appendix that came with that letter as well.
The next item is correspondence No. 1977 from the HSE, providing a note requested by the committee regarding the involvement of PricewaterhouseCoopers with BAM. The HSE advises that there is a framework in place for the provision of professional services to assist in the programme for health service improvement. The framework provides resourcing and expertise to be drawn down from PwC as required. So we will note and publish this letter. The HSE is saying that as far as it is concerned, there is no accounting. That is its position. We note and publish that.
No. 1980B is from the office of the Secretary General of Department of Finance stating that he is unavailable for a meeting on 7 March 2019. We now have Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, coming to that meeting. We will reschedule for the Department of Finance as soon as practicable thereafter. The cancellation suited the other meeting. That is noted and published.
No. 1981B is from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It provides an update to a query raised by the committee on agreeing a contract for the position of chief executive of the authority. The authority advises that a contract has been concluded under terms and conditions approved by the Minister. We will note and publish that. We had a particular query on that.
No. 1983B is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, on his attendance at a Committee of Public Accounts meeting to discuss the oversight and implementation of capital projects. Mr. Watt is making himself available to the committee on 7 March. He has drawn attention to three other invitations from other Oireachtas committees. He has also drawn attention to Standing Order 84(2), an internal Oireachtas Standing Order. Members will be aware of this and should keep it in mind in terms of how we proceed. While we all agree duplication should be avoided, the committee has never relied on Standing Order 84(2).
We should deal with the other letters. Essentially, I want to make one thing clear. We have already discussed - it was noted at our previous meeting - the position when we decided to invite Robert Watt before the committee. We specifically framed the invitation around oversight and implementation of capital projects. We want to know the governance and oversight arrangements. We made no reference to the children's hospital. That would have been specific to the Joint Committee on Health and a different Accounting Officer. It is the case that major capital projects will be asked about on the day he comes in, including broadband, Luas lines, light rail, schools and so on. Our invitation was not specific to the children's hospital. He is coming before the committee to discuss oversight and implementation of capital projects. He has asked our committee to notify the other three committee chairmen of this issue even though they were copied with the correspondence.
At this stage - I appeal to committee members to bear with me - we have received letters from two other committees on this issue. I want to note No. 1990B. It is a copy of a letter from Deputy Colm Brophy, Chairman of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, to Robert Watt. His letter to us says his committee invitation predated our invitation. I note in that letter of invitation to Robert Watt he discussed twice the issue of health expenditure and the national children's hospital. He was specifically asking about the children's hospital. We did not ask about that. We asked about overall capital project oversight and implementation and governance of capital projects. I can understand that he might not want to talk on a matter that is specific to one Department. That is a matter between him and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight.
There is also a letter on file from Deputy John McGuinness, Chairman of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. He also says in a letter to Mr. Robert Watt dated 19 February that he accepts the prospect of meeting all four committees on different issues or different aspects of the national children's hospital might be regarded as unduly onerous. He accepts there should not be duplication. However, I want to make it clear that we never invited Robert Watt specifically on the national children's hospital. It is not right to suggest that we were asking about the children's hospital.
I propose to notify the other committees that our meeting is going ahead. We note their specific references to the national children's hospital. That is a different issue from what our meeting is about. The purpose of the meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach in particular is different. I imagine Mr. Watt is accountable to that committee. That committee can deal with Mr. Watt in due course.
We will not get into political argy-bargy with other committees but we have letters and we are proceeding. The wording of the invitation from other committees to Mr. Watt is a matter for them. Our invitation is different and he is coming before this committee. Other committees can take it up with Mr. Watt in due course in their manner.
I remember well the context because I proposed the approach. It was in the context of discussing the national children's hospital overrun that we considered how the process could lead to a repeat of the difficulties in other projects if we did not have some understanding of what happened. It was surely around process. In fact, it was not only the Secretary General we invited. We also specifically made the request to the person who headed up the procurement section. Essentially, it appeared that there was quite rigorous oversight on procurement from that section when it came to purchasing things. We need to understand that role from the point of view of big capital projects. There appears to be a gap in our scrutiny from an institutional point of view, and the idea is to tease out that particular aspect. It is critical not only that Mr. Watt comes before the committee but that we understand this from the broader perspective. We also need to understand it from the perspective of the head of the procurement office. If there is an institutional gap, then there is a process failure and it cannot but repeat itself. It is both.
For housekeeping purposes at this stage we will note and publish the letter from Robert Watt, No. 1983B and the letter from Paul Quinn, chief procurement officer, No.1984B. We also note the letter from the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, No. 1990B and the letter from the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, No. 1991B. We will note and publish those.
I wish to make a wider point. I realise we are dealing with the letter from the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I will deal with that in a moment. I raised this matter at the last meeting and I need your guidance, Chairman, on how we will proceed with it now. When we first dealt with this we discussed the matter with the Secretary General of the Department, his officials and members of the board. At the time, we did not have any of the minutes of the board meetings or the sub-committee meetings. We got those after the fact. We did not have the reports from the independent examination carried out. As it happens, they shed some light on some of the issues. Again, we had a false meeting whereby we had the Accounting Officer and the board before the committee but we did not have the information we now have. That would have enabled us to put the questions that we can now put. I suggest we get them back in again, because we are now armed with the information.
It may serve as an example to other Accounting Officers in the sense that when this happens we are not going to accept being kept in the dark about reports or accept having to drag information out of people. They come in and we do not get a chance to put questions that we should be able to put because we do not have the information. We need to think about this. Many of these issues centre around boards making decisions on information they do not have. The Committee of Public Accounts ends up in exactly the same position. Even after the fact, we do not get information to allow us to do our work. That is a strong point that we should make in response to the correspondence.
Mr. Watt will come before the committee. I realise there are sectoral committees. I have no inclination, nor do other members of the committee, to step on the toes of any sectoral committee. However, if we are to be honest, there is an element of jockeying for position from some of the committees. Those sectoral committees have a job to do and good luck to them. They can bring in Ministers. We do not seek to bring in any Ministers.
Yes, but primarily the Minister is responsible to the sectoral committees. The Accounting Officer, who is the Secretary General, is accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. We are dealing with issues to do with process failures, systems failures and procedural failures, all of which fall under the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts. There are times of course when they also fall under the remit of sectoral committees but let the Minister come before those committees with his or her officials and deal with them. We have to do our job as well. I do not think we should accept that.
I wish to make another point. I am not criticising you, Chairman, but I learned in the media at the weekend that there was an invitation or offer being made to other committees to sit with us to discuss some of these issues. I believe that was a mistake because it devalues the Committee of Public Accounts in some respects.
This committee has a separate function from the sectoral committees. I understand the context in which the Chairman made that offer. He was trying to be helpful. However, it would have been better if that had been discussed here. That is not a criticism, because I know the Chairman was trying to do the right thing.
It was done for the right reasons.
In regard to the responses from Mr. Watt and Mr. Quinn, it is not acceptable for Mr. Quinn to simply say that the Accounting Officer, that is, the Secretary General, is coming in so that covers him. The Accounting Officer did not sit on the board, Mr. Quinn did and he is the person who must answer the questions. How can the Accounting Officer answer questions for somebody who sat on the board? That is not going to happen. We should write back to Mr. Quinn, thanking him for his response but insisting that we want him here along with the Accounting Officer. We should set a session aside for the board to appear again with the Secretary General of the Department so we can put the questions we should have been able to put to them the last time. If anything, we should do this as an example of what happens if they do not give us the information that they should before they come before the committee.
I concur. I have a couple of observations. Obviously, these letters from Mr. Quinn and Mr. Watt are co-ordinated. We asked Mr. Quinn specific questions. He writes: "I refer to your letters of 8 and 12 February. I will respond to the issues raised therein in due course." It is a bit worrying that he has not responded already. He should be able to answer these questions pretty quickly. I would have thought they are pretty basic questions. Why has it taken so long?
I want to emphasise that as a committee we do not bring Ministers before us. I think that has only happened once. Dealing with this issue is definitely within our remit. Mr. Watt's letter reads:
I understand that you have also invited Mr. Paul Quinn, Chief Procurement Officer, Office of Government Procurement, which is a Division of my Department, to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts. As is normal, I will notify the Committee secretariat of the departmental officials attending with me in advance of the meeting.
To whom is it "normal"? It is not normal to us. When we invite certain Departments and Accounting Officers, they can bring whoever they want. On many occasions, however, we have asked specifically for certain officials. This is not just about the national children's hospital. The gentleman in question is head of the Office of Government Procurement, OGP. While the OGP is within the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, it is an office in its own right. Mr. Quinn is the most senior procurement officer in the country. We are concerned with issues about the children's hospital and how it was dealt with, but there is a wider issue concerning processes which we need to investigate. If what has happened with the children's hospital is in any way exemplary, there are wider process issues in the way major contracts are awarded, dealt with and managed.
Mr. Watt will appear before the committee. We must specifically insist that the head of the Office of Government Procurement appears as well. I do not mind whether he appears with Mr. Watt or in a separate session. In fact, appearing in a separate session might be a good thing. It is for this committee to decide which sessions we want people to attend, not for anybody else. We decide the format of our meetings.
In addition, as part of this discussion we need to hear from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Office of Government Procurement. We will obviously ask questions concerning the hospital, but we should also ask about the process that is followed with all other projects.
It is the full-time job of several officials in the Department of Health to manage the health Vote. I would also like those officials to attend, along with their Secretary General.
Sorry, yes. There are officials in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform whose full-time job is to manage the health Vote, one of the largest Votes in the Government. I am specifically requesting that the committee invite them to appear if we can find out who they are. I think there are two of them, but there may be one. I am open to correction.
I agree with the previous speaker. Members of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board appeared before this committee. We need to question its members again, along with the Secretary General, in the very near future. Given the volume of information that has since entered the public domain, the questions we asked and the answers we were given are no longer the totality of what we need to know. We need to go back there again.
Our issue with Mr. Quinn, which he has not dealt with in the two weeks since it was raised, is that he never informed us in his previous letter that he was a member of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. I found it disconcerting that he was involved and he never told us. He still has not told us two or three weeks later. That is the first issue. When he was appointed to that board-----
The Comptroller and Auditor General might be able to clarify this for us, though not necessarily at this moment. Perhaps he can send us a note tomorrow. When Mr. Quinn was first appointed to the board, was he an official of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform or was he in a separate body?
He had just got the post - that is fine. We are agreed on Mr. Watt's appearance here. We are specifying that we wish for Mr. Paul Quinn to attend, because we have written to him separately. We also want to hear from the officials who will be the liaisons between his Department and the health Vote, who would often be here in any event. In relation to the comment, I made a suggestion at the weekend of not pursuing it. It was just a suggestion on the day. That was an effort to prevent unnecessary duplication.
There is no need for any duplication. There should be more collaborative work. There is very limited time for us to ask questions here, and whatever comes up in other committees can be delved into more deeply. If we bring something up, it can be delved into more deeply on the relevant committee. There is absolutely no need for the type of letters that are coming in. The committee should be grasping the opportunity to delve-----
We have recently received letters from the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality asking us to look at matters. We have heard from the Joint Committee on Health. I am making it clear, as Chairman of the Committee on Public Accounts, that each of those committees had an opportunity to deal with these issues long before they ever came before the Committee on Public Accounts. They deal with these matters at their Estimates hearings. There was nothing preventing those committees from dealing with the prison Vote or the capital plan for the HSE as it relates to the children's hospital when they were discussing their Estimates in recent years. I do not know what level of discussion they had, but the issues have now landed on our desk. They all had the opportunity to raise these matters long before they landed on our desk, had they chosen to do so.
At some point, we will report on the initial hearing we had with the Department and the board. I cannot sign off on that report because I do not think we were able to do our job. Furthermore, as was said by Deputy Kelly, whatever discussions we had are almost insignificant now because of all the information that emerged afterwards.
We have to have that meeting again. The contributions made by Teachta Kelly and I were not dealt with. I cannot sign off on any periodic report dealing with the national children's hospital unless the Department and the board come back to the committee.
To be very clear, we are going to deal with the work programme shortly and will definitely discuss that aspect as part of it. The correspondence is noted and will be published. We have decided on the appropriate action to be taken.
Item No. 1990, correspondence received from the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, and item No. 1991, correspondence received from the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, are noted, as is item No. 1984, correspondence received from the Chief Procurement Officer.
Item No. 1985 is correspondence received from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, providing an update on the review by the OECD of valuing capital assets and moving to accrual accounting. We will note and publish the correspondence. In addition to it, there is an attachment, item No. 1985(2)B that deals with the report on employer contributions under the single public service pension scheme which some people will find interesting. Now that the public service has moved to the single public service pension scheme there are issues as to whether some State bodies are included in the scheme. The report confirms that relevant authorities - confirmed as being authorities mainly financed directly or indirectly from the Central Fund - do not have to make employer PRSI contributions. The report lists various bodies in the schedule, Appendix No. 1, which we will publish. Appendix No. 2 deals with 24 bodies which have been confirmed as mainly self-financing but which are liable for the making of single scheme employer contributions. The 24 bodies include the National Milk Agency, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and the National Standards Authority of Ireland. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported that they should have been making contributions since the Act was passed in 2013. Some of the bodies have made provision for the contributions, but the last paragraph on page 4 is disconcerting. It reads:
In total, 20 bodies have agreed to remit arrears in respect of prior years. However, there are four public service bodies that did not provide an employer contribution for pre-existing public service pension schemes, but are deemed liable for employer contributions under the Single Scheme. These bodies did not set aside amounts to meet the Single Scheme employer contributions. These are the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), the Dental Council and the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAl). Issues arising in respect of the payment of arrears of employer contributions by these bodies are currently under consideration.
The committee will ask that the issue be dealt with and finalised in the current year. Will the Comptroller and Auditor General like to comment on it?
I presume that is part of the reason this issue features very often when the committee looks at audit opinions and this aspect is highlighted for the relevant bodies. I picked out the same paragraph. What is the liability? Is it likely to have an impact on bodies' ability to deliver services - for example, the Residential Tenancies Board - and is there a repayment schedule for them? Have they even agreed to one?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I think that is the point made in the paragraph. They are in discussions on how this matter will be resolved. They have not yet made decisions. In many cases, because they are recovering their costs from those who pay fees or charges, one would expect to see an increase in fees or charges in order to make the repayments.
For the purposes of clarification, the National Standards Authority of Ireland and the Residential Tenancies Board have agreed to make the repayments, but the amounts have not yet been finalised. The Dental Council of Ireland has not yet finalised its agreement - I think of all the orthodontic treatment being provided - while the Health Products Regulatory Authority has agreed to remit an amount which has not yet been finalised. It will have to be finalised as part of this year's audit.
I want to get my head around an aspect of the issue. The bodies have to recover an amount from external sources. On the expected liability on those who purchase the services, for want of a better description, is it the case that the bodies will have to go back to service users to ask them to pay more than they had expected to pay?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
It is because it goes back to 2013, but it was only determined in 2016 that the moneys needed to be collected. However, the matter has not yet been resolved. In the individual audits of the agencies we were picking up that there was a matter in dispute. As the quantum had not been determined, provision was not made in the financial statements. We did not know how big the problem was because the full scope was not clear. The fact is business continued from 2013 without the collection being made.
They do not specifically have to go one by one. It might be helpful to members if I indicated the scale of the moneys to which we are referring. The lowest amount I can see on the list is for the Teaching Council of Ireland, for which the figure is €60,000, whereas the Commission for Communications Regulation had to make arrears payments totalling €1.13 million. The repayments for the organisations can be in the hundreds of thousands of euro or less, but they will have to fund them and it is an issue for them.
I have a further query for the purposes of clarification. For example, the income of the Residential Tenancies Board comes from landlords' registration fees. Landlords who registered paid the registration fee and were legally right in what they did; it is the landlords who do not register are the problem. The ones who registered were told that the fee was €150 or whatever it was. Now the RTB has to go back and state the fee should have been €155 or €160. That is a highly unusual position for an organisation to find itself in. Essentially, in the absence of the RTB being able to do so, I am concerned that it may affect its ability to deliver in its gigantic body of work, the volume of which is greater than it is currently able to carry out in a timely way.
We will not just leave it at that. We will follow through and write to the four groups mentioned in the schedule about the issue. I thank the Deputy for following through on the point.
Item No. 1969 is correspondence sent to An Garda Síochána by the organisation Former Local Authority Members Éire, FLAME, about the winding up of the Association of Municipal Authorities of Ireland. We note the correspondence which is extensive and was copied to us. The committee needs to take no action on the matter.
Item No. 1970 relates to property purchase and a decision made by the Property Registration Authority. The individual is unhappy with the outcome. However, the matter is not within the remit of the committee. The person concerned had an issue with how the Property Registration Authority had dealt with title deeds and took the case to the Ombudsman.
She wrote to the Ombudsman seeking assistance on the matter but because the Property Registration Authority of Ireland, PRAI, had said in its response that she could appeal to the courts it looks as if the Ombudsman said she still has an option. However, that is not an option in the public service. What I want to do is write to the Ombudsman to ask not about the particular case but to set out the process on how it deals with cases from the PRAI. I will ask what the office deems a case it can take up or whether it requires people to go to court before coming back to the Ombudsman. That should not be the case. We will write to the Ombudsman for a general note on how it deals with cases in that organisation, but we are not dealing specifically with the case at hand. We will note that.
No. 1986C is from Deputy Jonathan O'Brien in relation to the national paediatric hospital development board. The paediatric hospital will be on our work programme so we will note it and agree to discuss it in our work programme.
No. 1988C is a copy for the committee of correspondence with the solicitors disciplinary tribunal. That is not under any circumstances within the remit of the committee so we will note the item.
Next, we will deal with statements and accounts received since the last meeting. We will move quickly through that.
I wrote to the committee regarding an issue that has been going on since Adam was a boy. It relates to a report on companies in Cork Institute of Technology, CIT. I have requested on numerous occasions a report on the CIT companies on which a commitment was given at the committee. We have written a number of times. I have again written to the committee asking for the report because it is outstanding for so long it is ridiculous. It did not come up under correspondence.
I am advised that the secretariat, on receipt of the letter, followed it up directly with the Higher Education Authority, HEA. I am told the report is almost finalised. Next week, we will formally give a deadline of two weeks to have it on our desk.
No, I must insist. This could be going on for up to a year. It is going on at least six months. It is strange that it did not come up in correspondence. The report has been promised on a number of occasions and there has been a number of deadlines. There should not be a major delay with the report and it is deeply concerning to me that it is taking this amount of time. Could we please write a final letter to CIT saying we want the report by next week’s meeting?
We got the full list and list of subsidiaries, all of which are consolidated into the financial statements that we get. None of them stands outside. We will come back to the issue when discussing our work programme.
Next, we will discuss the accounts received since the last meeting and then we will go on to the work programme. We had the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities, which got a clear audit opinion. Athlone Institute of Technology got a clear audit opinion. Blanchardstown Institute of Technology got a clear audit opinion. The national Economic and Social Development Office got a clear audit opinion. The Local Loans Fund, which is winding down, got a clear audit opinion. The Adoption Authority of Ireland got a clear audit opinion. The Travellers Protection Fund Investment Account got a clear audit opinion.
The main purpose of our meeting is to deal with the Kildare Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB, 2015 accounts. We will deal with the comments about lapses in controls and non-compliance with procurement in a moment in the public session.
Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology got a clear audit opinion, but attention is drawn to the fact that the institute has incurred deficits in each of the past six years and had an accumulated deficit of €3.9 million at 31 August 2017. That is worrying.
Okay, that is good to hear.
Tote Ireland Limited got a clear audit opinion. Tote Arena Limited got a clear audit opinion. Irish Thoroughbred Marketing Limited got a clear audit opinion. HRI Racecourses Limited, which is an investment holding company, it is not trading and with no turnover, got a clear audit opinion. Fairyhouse Club Limited got a clear audit opinion. Leopardstown Club Limited got a clear audit opinion. Cork Racecourse Limited got a clear audit opinion. Navan Races Limited got a clear audit opinion. Tipperary Race Company got a clear audit opinion. Mr. McCarthy must be an expert on the horse trade after all those audits.
The National Museum of Ireland got a clear audit opinion. The Legal Services Regulatory Authority was established on 1 Oct 2016 and this is its first set of financial statements covering the 15 months to 31 December 2017. It got a clear audit opinion. The Law Reform Commission got a clear audit opinion. Oifig Chomisinéir na dTeangacha Oifigiúla got a clear audit opinion. Mary Immaculate College got a clear audit opinion but attention is drawn to non-compliant procurement of €524,000. The Comptroller and Auditor General refers to the matter at the end of the financial statement.
Next, we will discuss the work programme. Today, we have the Kildare Wicklow ETB financial statements and the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report and also the Thorn report. The witnesses will come in shortly. The matter is subject to Garda investigation and we must be careful in that regard.
In the afternoon session we will deal with housing issues. We will have representatives from the Irish Council for Social Housing and the Approved Housing Body Interim Regulatory Committee.
Next week, on 28 February, we will deal with housing matters again. We will have the Secretary General before the committee in the morning to discuss housing matters and in the afternoon we will deal with the remainder of the Vote concerning the Local Government Fund. At that point we will conclude this section of the work on housing and we will include it in our next interim report. We had a meeting with them some time ago, today's meeting is helpful, and we will conclude then after that with our interim report.
On 7 March we will have Robert Watt, Paul Quinn and others to discuss oversight and implementation of capital projects. Paul Quinn will specifically discuss the role of the Office of Government Procurement, and officials in relation to the national paediatric hospital development board.
On Thursday, 14 March we have a small matter we did not get to include in the discussion on the Vote for the Department of the Taoiseach on the previous occasion, relating to the Central Statistics Office, CSO. I propose on that day we finish our work on broadband and have the Department back in. We had it in on 6 December and we had the private individuals in. We have received correspondence outlining the position in regard to state aid and we will ask for further information. There is no point in us closing the stable door after the horse has bolted in the sense that the tender has been out there since-----
It is proposed for 14 March. The CSO is coming in for one slot and then we will try to complete our examination of the broadband programme, insofar as we can. I do not want it dragging on. Time is of the essence and there are moves afoot.
The week of 23 March is a non-sitting week. The only other matter we have formally on the agenda, with a provisional date of 4 April, is the Department of Justice and Equality. That is the work programme for the next couple of weeks. We will meet with the national paediatric hospital development board on 28 March.
Yes. We will slot that topic in and perhaps next week we will confirm the exact topics.
We will pencil in 28 March for the national paediatric hospital. In case there is any doubt, that contract was signed in 2017 so it is part of the audited statements before this committee and it is 100% within our remit. That is not a new item, it is an existing item. That is generally the work programme for the next couple of weeks.
Deputy Mac Sharry mentioned two points.
Back three years ago it was the case that members could indicate and say they had done a lot of work on a particular issue and would ask if they could lead on that issue. Somewhere along the line, a good while ago, we decided that it was strictly turnabout so I sat back then and just waited for my name to pop up. Sure enough it has not been popping up and that just occurred to me but I got a call last week to ask if I would be second speaker on a particular matter so I agreed and I asked the member of secretariat who called me what way that works now. I was informed that some members had expressed a special interest in a particular matter so they were the leads on that. I said that I did not really realise that rule had been reintroduced and if that is the rule that is fine, we will all be up early in the morning and pick the meetings that we want to be leads on. I certainly would have had an interest in the Irish Prison Service, for example, and I stayed on that evening to get extra time and that is fine. However, funnily enough I was told at that meeting that I was pencilled in to lead on the meeting of 7 March and I noticed that two colleagues are in for 7 March, ironically from the same party as me but I am sure that is coincidental. The identity of the witness for that meeting is not being lost on me and it is probably appropriate to mention the contents of a newspaper article last Sunday about a report being commissioned by two other committees which seemed to be about this committee and something of a co-ordinated effort to question the Committee of Public Accounts, its remit, its performance, the styles of individuals and all of that kind of stuff. Is the Chairman aware of-----
I have no difficulty with anybody doing a report on it yet. I think one of the committees in question is the Business Committee. I understood that the Business Committee sets the business for the House and determines that there will be statements on X on such a day and on Y on such a day, that this speaker will have two minutes and lead spokespeople will have ten minutes etc. so I wonder what remit it has in procuring a report on the Committee of Public Accounts and what terms of reference were laid out on that? I know the Committee on Procedures and Privileges may have a remit in that regard but as a committee we are entitled to know what is going on, what terms of reference are being used, who prepared the report and what is the modus operandihere. That is an aside and I am finished with that issue.
On lead speakers, let there be one rule or let there not be one rule and if it is turned about it is turned about or if we can express that we want to lead then tell us we can do so because I was phoned and told I was in on 7 March and I notice that I am not here now. I do not particularly have a problem with that but we should decide what we are doing and stick to it because we do not want the perception that lead speakers are being managed. I could be forgiven for thinking that might be the case.
The Deputy made his point and I do not need to add to it but on this occasion I will because I look at it and it is extraordinary to see what has happened. I do not appear anywhere on anything either as first, second or third lead. I have a particular interest in many issues but that is neither here nor there. The system of working in turn was very straight and just. Members take their turns and sometimes we have a particular interest in an issue and sometimes we do not but it makes us do the work anyway if we have a particular interest rather than picking and choosing.
We have an issue here because if we call a spade a spade, 7 March is an important topic for us and an important topic for this country. There are two members from the same political alignment on that, and I am not referencing those individuals, but there are also members who rarely ever turn up here-----
I am not finished. In fairness, we regularly get phone calls on this. I often get called and asked if I will step in and be first speaker or second speaker because a member is not going to turn up. That is not really fair because one has to prepare 24 hours beforehand. I have done it many times where I was not meant to be the first or second speaker and I am sure-----
I am proposing for the next meeting, and we might discuss this in private session or in public session, to ask the secretariat for a list of every meeting since the Dáil resumed last September to see who was the first and second speaker. I want to see that. We had the view that it should be done by rotation so that everybody gets an equal opportunity. There will always be somebody who is in line for a meeting and they cannot make it so they phone in and somebody has to step in but they should really be swapping and moving back down the list. We have a job of work to do to get this end of it right.
I am very interested to know why they changed, when they changed and why, since last week, have I been relegated from 7 March to 4 April? There is obviously some reason for that and I am sure it is perfectly explainable but I am interested to know.
The other point I will make which I am sure members will all agree with is that on no occasion should the first and second speaker be from the same party. That is logical. There should be rotation and no party should get the first two spots but they can come in later on. Do we get where we want to go with this? Let us not over analyse this because the secretariat probably just made a stab at it and it-----
I want to make the point that I am happy to go along with whatever rule so long as we all understand it but if, for example, it is a question that the Chairman will be looking back at rotation, one does not get a fair reflection if members have not turned up and one is filling in.
That aspect has to be captured if we are to have a fair system, not only just for now but for the future as well because we could all turn up for something for an hour and not do all of the work. That frequently happens and there is a sizable amount of work in the Committee of Public Accounts.
That was just one of the three issues I wanted to raise. There was that issue and there was the issue of the reports being done on us which the Chairman might come back to us on. The third issue is the Irish Prison Service. We got the response last week and I raised some issues and further issues have arisen since. I wanted to respectfully ask that we pick a date for a meeting of decent length. I do not know if members will have the time and I know the schedule is tight but we need a dedicated meeting on issues that have emerged. The document that has come back falls well short of the sort of response that we need. I will not hold up the meeting and begin to list them because we would be here until 4 p.m. but we need a full day on the Irish Prison Service and we should not bury it within the appropriation accounts of the Department overall. It should not be on the day we are dealing the Department of Justice and Equality Vote because there are too many matters there. I ask that a date be scheduled for that in early course and that might be communicated to us.
We can do that but the first step we would always take having got a letter where there are issues that are not adequately dealt with or not dealt with at all is that we would immediately write back. We always do that and then we go on from there.
With respect, we can enter into an administrative merry-go-round and we will be here until next week.
People's individual styles aside, there is nothing better than a good conversation to cut out six weeks of correspondence and toing and froing. While that is the norm, unfortunately, what we know of the Prison Service so far is well outside the norm and, in fairness to the secretariat, I would not expect it to begin to undertake to write a letter as long as would be required to reflect the issues that remain outstanding.
I have two issues I want to raise and we may come back to them next week. Is there any update on the issue that Deputy MacSharry raised about the committee of oversight for IBRC? We are talking about a very large amount of money. Mr. McCarthy might remember there is a court issue and there was to be some consideration given to whether there could be a more satisfactory arrangement whereby we would look at this as opposed to it proceeding in the courts. Can we have an update on that?
This is the largest liquidation in the history of the State. The oversight of it is with the Department of Finance as opposed to being supervised by the courts. It is a big issue and sometimes we deal with issues that are relatively small, in monetary terms in comparison with something like this. This is a big item and I am unhappy that we have not arrived at a conclusion at this stage about whether there should be an expansion, for example, in this committee having oversight or there being a committee of oversight.
The Comptroller and Auditor General confirmed to me that Irish Water was another case where a significant amount of assets, €11 billion worth, were transferred from the local authorities to Irish Water. There is a big capital budget. Mr. McCarthy told us before that negotiations are ongoing between the Department and his office about the extension of oversight by the Committee of Public Accounts of Irish Water. When does he think that will come to a conclusion? There is a gap there in a fairly significant organisation.
To be helpful, I support what Deputy Murphy has said there. This committee formally recommended the establishment of a committee of inspection in one of our work reports. To my knowledge, that recommendation has never been responded to. I asked the Taoiseach in questions on promised legislation in the Dáil if he could give an update on that and if it has happened. He said he was not in a position to tell me but that he would ask the Minister to respond and we have heard nothing since. I support Deputy Murphy.
I meant to make an additional point when I earlier referenced the meeting we have agreed to have with the board of the national children's hospital and the Department. There are various sub-committees in place. We will have the board and Secretary General here but are there heads or chairs of those sub-committees? They should be here because some of them are very relevant. I meant to make that point earlier. It is not just the board. Is there a finance sub-committee?
I have two additional points and one new point. Following on from what Deputy Cullinane said, and to be clear, we need one session with Mr. Watt and, in the same session or another one, the head of procurement. We need the two individuals who are over health spending in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We need the board to come back in and the chairs of the sub-committees, the Secretary General of the Department and the new chair. We also need the assistant secretary of the Department of Health who did all the work on this. I hope that is agreed. Is that agreed?
I know we have a tight schedule but I want to say to Deputy MacSharry that the issues relating to the Irish Prison Service are pretty seismic. We need a session to deal with those and as soon as possible.
I was going to raise the following issue last week or the week before. This committee, through the secretariat, has done a whole range of periodic reports. This is more than a week's work but maybe by St. Patrick's weekend we can go through those reports and send letters to all the relevant Departments to follow up on the recommendations or actions in those reports. We do not know if they have ever been dealt with. I went through a number of them recently and I have no clue whether the recommendations or actions have been taken on board or acted upon. Is it a case of drift with those reports? We need to do a piece of forensic work in following up on the actions and recommendations of the hundreds of hours that have gone in here to bring those recommendations and actions about.
For the benefit of the Deputy, some work has been done on that. We have got a detailed response from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on each point of every report we have issued so far with however many recommendations contained within across different Departments. I think we went through the recommendations in public session, point by point, as to whether they were accepted. We were not happy with the responses of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on several occasions.
The only Department that noted our recommendations without agreeing to them was the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. Practically all other Departments have accepted and implemented the recommendations of this committee's reports. We need to do a summary on it and we will.
It will not happen between now and St. Patrick's Day. The next point is that the periodic report for the committee's work from September to December is due and the secretariat hopes to circulate its work on that electronically tomorrow to the members of committee. For people watching proceedings, that will not be a report of the Committee of Public Accounts that any committee member has an input on. Rather, it is the secretariat's summation of the work to date. That draft working document from the secretariat will be circulated tomorrow and we need to have a special meeting to discuss that which does not interfere with our Thursday meeting. The only available slot is next Tuesday at 11 a.m. It will take a second reading after that. We definitely have to publish that before we break for St. Patrick's week. We are telling everyone to get their reports in on time. This report runs to the end of December and we are not going away in March without our report on last year's activity completed. I ask committee members to pencil that in. I ask members to try to read the report when they get it.
It is next Tuesday at 11 a.m. to discuss the periodic report from September to December. When we come to discuss it here with the working document from the secretariat, from then on it becomes the members' document, once we start giving our input, and there will be no further email versions of it issued until the day it is published because these documents have leaked in the past. Members who want an input into that report have to be physically here to give their input. The secretariat will then go away and draft the report and we will then finalise it. We will not be circulating any of our draft report until the day we publish. We will clear it in private session and then publish it as we have done for our most recent reports.
We do the three Dáil periods - from September to December, from January to about Easter and from Easter to the summer.
It would be too far back if we let it run for six months, the reports would be too large and people would not pay heed. It ties in with the Dáil's sitting period.
We have received a letter. If there are aspects of the letter that were not adequately addressed, I will examine them with the secretariat. Without looking at it, I know that answers to at least three questions indicated that information would follow. We want to receive that information, given that it has been indicated that we will receive it. We always write to witnesses to seek further information in advance in order that when we meet in public session, we will not ask for answers that could have been provided in advance. We have correspondence which we must tease out before taking the next step.
Last week, I noted that one specific aspect of the correspondence was not credible. How many weeks do we need to mull it over? If we write back indicating we do not believe it is credible and asking the Prison Service to expand further, it will take another two weeks and we will receive a reply explaining that this is the information that was received.
One of the matters that was clear at the previous session was that the witnesses were not in a position to answer and they said they would convey the information to the committee, in fairness to their good intentions. The letter states that local management was contacted and this is the answer, namely, that all vehicles are accounted for. Part of the potential issue is that with the best will in the world, the Secretary General is the Accounting Officer, while the head of the Prison Service in County Longford is not, perhaps, fully up to speed with what is going on and he is dependent on local management which may not be as candid as it should be in answers to certain questions.
It would be useful for us to get on with a good exchange at the committee. I promise to try to temper my tone to keep the media and certain former witnesses happy-----
We will put the matter on the work schedule but before we do that, we have a duty. We have asked questions and received replies, and we have a duty to analyse those replies. The committee has always done that.
I refer to the whole committee. I have stated that three items of information are to follow and we need to have them promptly. We must highlight any issues we consider inadequately addressed, even where replies have been given. Why wait three, five or six weeks until the Accounting Officer appears to tell him this? We want to have the information. We are replying to the Department of Finance.
We will hold the meeting but we have a duty to examine the correspondence we have received before that meeting. It will not delay the meeting because that will be a few weeks away in any event. At the next session, there will be a date for the meeting, while the correspondence will be addressed in the interim.
I propose that we go into private session before we resume in public session and invite our witnesses.