Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 March 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined today by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness at the committee. He is joined by Mr. Mark Brady, the deputy director of audit.
Apologies have been received from Deputy Pat Deering.
I propose we postpone dealing with the business of the committee and meet directly with the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. As people are aware, he will be here until lunchtime after which he will go before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. We will probably have a session very early in the afternoon to deal with the routine business of the committee's correspondence and to complete the periodic report that has been discussed several times in private session. That will also be in private session. We will also discuss the annual report that will be launched next week. The annual report is a statistical compilation of all of the meetings and witnesses but does not have conclusions or recommendations. It is just a summary of the work.
Before we begin I want to deal with an issue. We issued an invitation to the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure at Reform, Robert Watt, and in the letter of invitation we specifically asked for Mr. Paul Quinn to come along and for officials from the Department of Health with responsibility for the health Vote to come along. The position, and I am conscious of it, is the first reason we asked Paul Quinn to come along was we received a letter from him some time ago in his role in the Office of Government Procurement. He is also a member of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board. Our interest in Mr. Quinn relates to his role specifically on that board. Members of the board and representatives from the Department of Health have come before the committee but Mr. Quinn was not at the previous meeting. We have requested him to come before the committee. The appropriate time for Paul Quinn to come before the committee is when the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board comes back before the committee because what we want to talk to him about is his role as a director of that board. I do not have the names today but I am inclined to suggest any other public servant on that board should also be here that day. A key element of our work is the interaction between public servants and the State bodies and boards they serve on and the lines of communications with the relevant Minister.
The main issue for today's meeting is capital projects and not the children's hospital. We have dealt with the children's hospital previously and we have agreed to come back to it again as soon as the report on the cost overruns is ready, when the national paediatric hospital development board will come before the committee again. That is the meeting we will need Mr. Quinn to attend in his capacity as a director of the board and I expect he will be here on that day.
I will now throw it open to comment. It is a valid point. We read Mr. Quinn's detailed letter at a previous meeting. Some people may have read it and others may not. His line Minister in respect of his role on the board is the Minister for Health who appointed him to the board. It is a health function. Members may comment. I am laying out the context. As he pointed out in his letter, he has he has no role with regard to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of his membership of the board of directors, as I understand it. People might disagree with this. His reporting structure is to the Department of Health and the Minister for Health. We said this at the previous meeting. Several members have indicated and we will proceed with the meeting. I am most dissatisfied that this invitation was issued a month ago but we learned only late last night that Mr. Quinn was not coming here today. That is a source of annoyance and aggravation.
No, it was from the Secretary General of the Department. All the communication is through the Accounting Officer. As is normal, the Accounting Officer decides whom he or she brings to the meeting. We have never refused to accept a witness that an Accounting Officer wanted to bring. There is respect on both sides. If an Accounting Officer brings in witnesses we respect those witnesses but we also expect respect whereby if we ask for someone specifically that person will come to the meeting. I have considered the matter and the appropriate time for Mr. Quinn to be here is as a member of the board of directors of the paediatric hospital. That is my opening observation.
I do not accept that at all. It is very unsatisfactory that Mr. Quinn is not here today. My first comment in response to the Chairman's observation is we need to be careful we do not undermine our own work. The committee, as a committee, decides who to invite and when to invite them. We decided as a committee that we would invite Mr. Quinn to attend today with the Secretary General of the Department. All of the correspondence sent to Mr. Quinn was about today's meeting.
Sorry, it was to Mr. Watt, but we had been in correspondence with Mr. Quinn also. With regard to the invitation to the meeting we specifically asked for Mr. Quinn. That is a matter for the committee. It is not a matter for Mr. Watt. Neither is it a matter for the Chairman to unilaterally decide-----
-----when it is best for Mr. Quinn to appear before the committee. I have no difficulty if he wants to come in on two occasions, if the Department and the board come before the committee again. If Mr. Quinn wants to come before the committee again as a board member that is fine but we were looking for him as the head of the Office of Government Procurement and somebody who also sat on the board. He is in a unique position.
The Chairman said we learned of this only last night. As members of the committee we have to prepare for meetings. A lot of the preparation was about the minutes relating to Mr. Quinn's involvement as a board member. Some of them relate to the joint committees on construction and finance, where he is cited, including on 30 August 2018. We cannot put any of the questions we prepared for him because he is not here and we learned of it at the very last minute.
We have an opening statement from Mr. Watt that runs to 18 pages and he does not mention the national children's hospital once. I accept it is not the basis on which he is coming before the committee, which is a much broader remit, but, at the same time, in the documentation he sent us on the major projects in Project Ireland 2040 the national children's hospital is the second major project listed. It is one of the major projects but Mr. Watt does not reference it once in his statement. This is a clear tactic by the Accounting Officer. I am putting it on the record that from my perspective there is an attempt by some at the top of the public service to kick back against the Committee of Public Accounts and we are seeing it more and more. Here is another example of it. We have to stand our ground as a committee. We do our best. We ask questions without fear or favour. There are a lot of issues and questions surrounding the spend on the national children's hospital and a number of Departments are involved in its oversight, including the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
The Accounting Officer for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is answerable to the Committee of Public Accounts in respect of these issues and we have reasonable questions we want to put. I do not want this to be a game that is being played by senior civil servants. The Accounting Officer is due to appear before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach today. There was an attempt to play one committee off against the other through the media a number of weeks ago. That is not good enough. It is not a good way for an Accounting Officer to treat committees of the Oireachtas. That is my opinion, and mine only. I say that in the context of putting all of this on the record.
I will conclude, particularly as other members wish to comment. I am deeply disappointed that Mr. Quinn is not here. Up to last night, we were under the impression that he would be. We prepared for it and he should be here because he was invited to appear. It is not for Mr. Watt alone to decide who comes before us. He can bring whomever he wants from his Department but, from my perspective, if we make a specific request for someone to be here, then we should be able to expect that he or she will appear.
I agree 100% with Deputy Cullinane. We have reached a stage where the level of contempt with which Oireachtas committees in general are being treated is unacceptable. The notion of pesky politicians having the effrontery to ask questions in the public interest when it comes to the expenditure of public of public money and how that is being treated is wrong. We had correspondence from Mr. Watt, or certainly from his Department, previously stating that the Accounting Officer would decide what team he or she would bring. I had understood that this committee decides who it wants to come before it and they do so. Is that not the case? Do we not decide?
The official position as laid down - and not by me, I am just outlining it - is that the only person answerable to this committee is the Accounting Officer. No one else is accountable. An Accounting Officer is free to come on his or her own if he or she so chooses. Regularly, they bring officials with them to assist the progress of the meeting but that is at the behest of the Accounting Officer. No official below the grade of Accounting Officer is obliged to appear at the Committee of Public Accounts.
Let me finish. I am trying to put the matter on the public record. There is a practice of Accounting Officers coming in here and bringing people with them. There have been several occasions when we named people we would like to accompany an Accounting Officer. On all such occasions previously, there was that level of co-operation and that person came but, technically, it was always at the behest of the Accounting Officer as to who he chose to bring. As already stated, I am of the view that it was disrespectful for us to hear last night that a person we had asked to come us was not going to do so. However, that is at the behest of the Accounting Officer. Paul Quinn or any other assistant secretary or senior officer is not answerable to the Committee of Public Accounts; it is only an Accounting Officer who is answerable to us. I just want to put that on the record.
Clearly, when we are talking about the biggest capital expenditure project in the State, it is probably a good educated guess that the person who is head of procurement for the State might have some value to add. We got a hint in previous correspondence that, in effect, this person would not be made available; it said that the Accounting Officer would decide. That is fine. He is within the rules. Can the Chairman, the clerk or whomever advise on who we should petition to change the rules? If we are examining public expenditure and there are people who are heads of particular functions such as public procurement and the Committee of Public Accounts, because of some euphemistic interpretation of the practice or the rules, is precluded, in a vexatious fashion, from talking to those people, that is wrong. I totally disagree with the Chairman's assessment to the effect that, because this person served on the board, it was a matter for the Department of Health and that we would be looking at that again. I am sorry. It is coincidental that the man happened to be on the board. The reality is that his function is public procurement and when we are looking at matters like tendering and so on, what that individual has to say adds value. If he does not have anything of value to add - I am sure Mr. Watt will be perfectly fluent in answering all those questions to do with tendering later - perhaps there is some other person who could be brought in. I do not care but I see this as proff of officialdom's continued annoyance with the Committee of Public Accounts in the context of its role in asking questions. If we are to put up with this kind of thing, we might as well declare an actual dictatorship - instead of the virtual one in which we are currently living - and abolish committees because the tail is wagging the dog.
I have read this opening statement and, frankly, the most political of political speeches by any Minister in the past, from whatever party, would barely be as good at blowing one's own trumpet in the context of policy. We are not interested necessarily in policy today, as Mr. Watt well knows. We are interested in the intricacies of why €1 billion of the public's money, which this time last year was not going to be needed, is now needed and all we have is an 18-page document from the chief officer responsible to this committee in which he manages not to mention the national children's hospital once. That is tantamount to giving a Harvey Smith to the committee. It is giving us the two fingers and stating, "We will do what we want, when we want". The document also lists a series of suggested improvements that will be made at some stage in the future but, as always, there is no accountability to the public.
I was the one who asked for him to come in given that he is the head of the Office of Government Procurement. We had a discussion about this last week and, essentially, this is entirely within the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts because it is about process and failures of process. We need to understand those failures. It appears that there is an institutional gap and yet we cannot explore that with this official in the context of his exact remit. For example, would he be looking at industry norms relating to bids for a contract in terms of whether it is good tendering practice and what advice he might be able to give us. There is no point in having the head of Government procurement, who effectively can control the purchase of biros, give advice and ensure that proper procurement happens if we do not have people controlling the big projects about which the public will be concerned relating to the way tendering happens and how a particular type of arrangement happens. I refer, for example, to a special committee and the control there is of that. It would be enormously helpful to us given that he has the dual roles of being head of the Office of Government Procurement and also having been on the board of the national children's hospital. He is in a unique position to give us that insight. We said that this morning would be about capital projects and control of capital projects. One would have to ask whether he has a role in this at all. I would have liked to ask him about his role. I have to say I am deeply angry that the decision has been made to essentially exclude him from that discussion, which I believe is a very valid discussion.
We will ask Mr. Watt why Mr. Quinn is not here. I think I am up first so I will be asking him that direct question. Mr. Quinn gave written evidence to this committee on 25 February and that came on headed paper from the Office of Government Procurement.
It did not come from him as an individual or as a member of the hospital development board. It came on the headed paper of the Office of Government Procurement. He made a number of assertions in that written correspondence, which I personally would have liked to have tested today given that he is the person in charge of Government procurement. As far as I am concerned, this is the meeting where that evidence should have been tested because we are dealing with major capital projects - tendering and procurement.
Mr. Quinn is the person who has the answers to those questions. It is unfortunate that we are not able to test evidence from a witness who has given written evidence to the committee. Mr. Watt will have to explain why he did not choose to bring Mr. Quinn to this meeting. I hope for Mr. Watt's sake that he has all of the answers to the questions we are going to be asking. If he does not, it was he who decided that the very person who does have those answers was not needed. That was a judgment call on Mr. Watt's behalf and it remains to be seen whether that was a good decision. We will know that at the end of the proceedings today.
There are two aspects to this issue and they have been touched on already. The first is that, as a committee, we cannot invite somebody such as the head of Government procurement here and expect him to come. That is news to me. I accept what has been said but we need to change that situation.
-----we cannot ask him questions any day where his Secretary General decides that person does not have to come to the meeting. That is not right. There is something wrong in the rules if that is the interpretation. We are going to have to change the rules because that is not transparency. I know Mr. Watt well since he worked with us in Government previously. We will ask him many questions and I am sure he will do his best to answer them. On the specific detail, however, Mr. Watt will not be able to delve down to the same level in his answers as the man who has been sitting on the board and who is also head of procurement for the whole country.
We have one arm tied behind our back. This is a real issue. Regarding the work we are meant to do today, and I presume the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach will be getting the same steer, we will not be able to get into the level of detail that we to, on behalf of the taxpayer, regarding the spending of hundreds of millions of euro. That is the first part.
We found out today that, as a committee, we cannot ask somebody such as the head of public procurement to this committee. If we asked one thousand times and were told "no" each time, then that is it. There is nothing we can do about that. We need to change the rules. That is the first thing.
My second point is that the Secretary General, Mr. Watt, wrote to this committee and stated that he, as Accounting Officer, would decide who comes with him. That is fine. I have no issue with that. That was some weeks ago. It goes beyond what is reasonably fair, or the right way in which to act, to send a letter the night before a meeting. We are after spending a long time preparing and expecting that we would have the head of public procurement in Ireland in front of the committee. The Chair has expressed his annoyance at that. Before we start today, however, I expect, and ask, the Chair to make it very clear that it is not an appropriate way to deal with things.
I am sorry, it is the Accounting Officer. It would be very helpful to have Mr. Quinn appear. As it stands, however, we need to address those questions to the Accounting Officer today. I think it would have made sense to have Mr. Quinn here. He is particularly important. As has been stated, he has communicated using the headed paper of the Office of Government Procurement where his title is given as the Chief Procurement Officer. Mr. Quinn also sat on the financial sub-committee, as well as the procurement sub-committee of the board of the national children's hospital. I accept the remit of this committee and that it has to be the Accounting Officer who appears before us according to the rules. The Chair has a duty to lay that out as he has done. How we can see if the governance is working, within that restriction, is the question.
The nominee of the State had a particular role on that committee. He stated that he was there in a personal capacity but he actually had a particular role to report back. He set that out and I thank him for doing that. He set out on 25 February the circumstances within which he would have to go back to his Minister in that situation. I refer to where there were serious weaknesses in controls or a strategic or reputational risk etc. We know there was a serious reputational risk. It would be helpful, therefore, to have Mr. Quinn here today. It will be interesting to see how the Accounting Officer can deal with these questions without having Mr. Quinn. I think we should proceed with the meeting and find out how Mr. Watt can deal with the obvious gaps.
This is quite unusual and I normally would not do this. Given what has been reported, however, this needs to be aired here. A journalist tweeted that he overheard Mr. Watt, following a conversation with the Chair outside of this room, state that the Chair should control the mob, that mob being the Members of this committee. I think that is outrageous, if that is the case. I am stating that is what has been reported. It feeds into what was said earlier about there being serious push-back by senior representatives. If that was said, it is completely unacceptable. That occurred before the Accounting Officer had even come before this committee and he is appearing on foot of reasonable and genuine criticisms put forward by members of this committee. I stress that is what has been reported. We will put it to Mr. Watt when he comes in that he has referred to members of this committee as "a mob".
That is outrageous and unacceptable, if it was said. It sets a bad scene now for this meeting. It has already been sullied by the fact that the person we wanted to appear before the committee is not here. The Chair also has a duty to protect Members of this committee. Did the Chairman meet Mr. Watt?
This is new information I am just seeing now online. I have a problem with that but bring in Mr. Watt and let us go ahead with the meeting. I have no difficulty with that. I do, however, ask the committee to consider this. This may not be our practice or within our authority under the existing flawed rules, but I suggest to Members that we consider a special session next week where we invite Mr. Quinn, in his role as the Chief Procurement Officer of the State, to appear before this committee on his own. If Mr. Watt wants to overrule that decision, then let him do so publicly.
I have not seen that tweet. By way of public information, I want to state that this is highly frustrating. The public are watching this. I am on public record for the last fortnight stating that Mr. Quinn was coming before this committee today. We had understood that and had issued the invitation to the Secretary General as the Accounting Officer. We had also named Mr. Paul Quinn. There has never been a situation, that I can recall, where a named senior official requested to come before this committee has not appeared. We are in very strange territory. It was discourteous to this committee for the person not to be here and also to only hear about this late last night.
I want to state this as well in respect of that matter. When we all received this letter via email yesterday evening, a member of this committee, or at least one, immediately sent that to a journalist. The journalist then rang me and he had our letter. I have no idea who that member was, but someone on this committee immediately forwarded that letter to a journalist the minute it arrived last night. I will give another similar example of what has happened with a member of the committee in the past week or so. An item of correspondence was received by the secretariat and circulated to the members. The officials later spotted an embarrassing typing mistake in that particular document. I use those words carefully. The officials immediately phoned the relevant Department, stated the document had been received and circulated but that there was an embarrassing typing mistake, from the perspective of the Department.
However, the Department stated it had already had an inquiry from a journalist on the matter. Within an hour of our correspondence being circulated to members of this committee, a member forwarded our correspondence to journalists so that a journalist could contact the Department. A member of this committee gave it to the journalist and it was not the journalist's fault. Our interim and periodic reports are not being circulated because one member forwards them on to journalists the minute he or she gets it. This is dreadful. I have no idea who this member is but this is what we are dealing with. Some of the fault for the item being seen on Twitter or in the papers lies within this committee.
For the information of the public, approximately 40 or 41 Votes are approved by the Oireachtas for Estimates each year and there are 15 Secretaries General or Accounting Officers. An Accounting Officer is often the Accounting Officer for a group of Votes within a Department. Mr. Robert Watt is the Accounting Officer for the Office of Government Procurement. Mr. Paul Quinn is not an Accounting Officer and is not answerable to this committee.
We know that. I know the Chairman is quoting the letter of the law but if that was the case, this committee would have 40 witnesses annually and nobody else. Would the work of this committee, including the positive outcomes for which it has been responsible in the past, have been possible if we had limited our output to 40 individual witnesses, namely, the 40 Accounting Officers for each Vote? With respect to the clerk to the committee, this question is for the Chairman. If we want to take a literal interpretation, that is fine. I asked a question of the clerk at the beginning but got no answer. How do we change these rules if we are not happy about them?
I was speaking a moment ago. We have been dealing with the point Deputy MacSharry raised and we dealt with six different Votes in the group of Votes for the Department of the Taoiseach recently. We had all the legal officers in on one day, such as the Attorney General, the Chief State Solicitor and a group of other bodies. We have regularly combined groups within a Vote and an Accounting Officer covers three or four Votes. The head of the Prison Service was here recently with representatives of the Department of Justice and Equality. The Secretary General of the Department is the Accounting Officer for the Prison Service, and technically the head of the Prison Service did not need to come.
We have an exact and specific remit from the Committee on Procedure and Mr. Robert Watt is the Accounting Officer for the Office of Government Procurement. One of the reasons we spoke about Mr. Quinn was that we wanted to ask how they got a derogation from the Office of Government Procurement in relation to the national children's hospital. The letter we got details the fact that the derogation was granted by the Government contracts committee for construction at a consultative committee forum for the discussion and development of policy in the tendering and contracting of all aspects of construction projects. The derogation was granted by the Government contracts committee for construction, the chairman of which is here today as a witness, namely, Mr. David O'Brien. Mr. Paul Quinn was not part of that process. We have the chairman of that office and the Accounting Officer for the Office of Government Procurement present today and we will have Mr. Paul Quinn here in a matter of weeks when we get the report on the cost overrun.
They are the rules of the House relating to who is allowed to be here. I find it discourteous that the specific request we made was not granted but, by the same token, if the committee was so minded, we could have told Mr. Robert Watt that he had to be here on his own and without back-up. A level of courtesy should work both ways. We are disappointed but they are the rules. If people want to change, it is a matter for the Committee on Procedure.
We can do our work today and deal with Mr. Quinn at another time. I am not being technical because of what has happened recently. I understood, all along, that Mr. Quinn was responsible to the line Minister relating to the cost overrun. The line Minister appointed him to the board and he was the Minister for Health, not the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.
I do not want to hold the meeting up but I also do not want people to be under any misapprehension that members of this committee do not understand the rules. We perfectly understand the rule that the Accounting Officer is Mr. Watt. He can come on his own but Accounting Officers often bring officials with them to help. We have had Accounting Officers from universities and institutes of technology on questions of finance and they brought their finance officers. I believe there is a reason Mr. Quinn is not here today and that it was a decision taken by Mr. Watt. We will ask him when he comes in.
Nobody was under the impression that Mr. Quinn was an Accounting Officer, that he had to be here or that he could be compelled to be here. However, he was asked, in a courteous way through Mr. Watt, to be here. We can blame members of the committee for leaking information and we know it happens but the Department was also quoted in the media which I have seen. The Department is well able to spin too and to brief the media. Let us not put all the blame on members of the committee. There are undoubtedly members who unfairly leak documents, of which I and other members have to learn through the media. One of these was the story about Mr. Quinn not coming in, which we received media queries about. The way we found out about the decision not to allow him to be here was discourteous.
We have made the point and we must now proceed. We have to finish at 1 p.m. because Mr. Watt is scheduled to meet another Oireachtas committee and that committee is entitled to its slot. The situation is unsatisfactory but I spelled out the remit of the committee because members of the public are watching and they may not have been aware of it. Other Members of the Oireachtas may also not have been aware of our remit because they say that we are always going beyond our remit when we do not. I hope those Members are listening.