Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 March 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
Having met the representatives from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform this morning, we now turn to the next item.
Are the minutes of 28 February agreed and agreed to publish? Agreed. There are no matters arising that will not be dealt with in the course of the meeting.
There are three categories of correspondence. The first relates to briefing documents and opening statements from Departments. These are Nos. 2034 and 2037, which we discussed this morning. We note and publish them.
The second category relates to correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts. No. 2013B, dated 25 February 2019, is from Mr. Barry Donoghue, Deputy Director, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, providing information requested by the committee as follows: details relating fees paid to prosecuting counsel; public sector organisations that can initiate District Court prosecutions; delegation of prosecuting authority to An Garda Síochána; and statistics relating to outcomes of indictable cases. We will note and publish this.
I draw attention to a matter which surprised me. By way of information, there are 21 agencies of the State that can initiate prosecutions in their own right. We all thought that only the Director of Public Prosecutions and one or two other agencies could do this. The Health and Safety Authority, the Consumer Protection Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, the Data Protection Commissioner, the Central Bank, Road Safety Authority and the National Transport Authority may do so, while An Post may institute court proceedings in respect of television licences. Gas Networks and ESB Networks may do so where people interfere with meters and equipment. The matter arises of the general direction to An Garda Síochána. The latter deals with many of the cases in the District Court. That is probably the background to that. In the context of indictable cases, the Garda has sent us trial outcomes by year. In 2018, there were 2,588 cases, with 2,410 convictions, a rate of 93%.
The correspondence contains details of fees paid to counsel under the following headings: Circuit Court; confiscation of assets; asset-seizing in the High Court and Supreme Court; the Central Criminal Court; books of evidence; consultations; the High Court; higher brief fees in judicial review cases; Supreme Court; High Court, Court of Appeal or Supreme Court bail; Court of Appeal (criminal); sea fisheries - District Court; health and safety - District Court; and conferences. Fees and refresher fees are given for senior and junior counsels. People may read this and decide if it is a good profession to join.
No. 2016B is correspondence from Ms Maria Browne, Chief State Solicitor, providing information requested by the committee. We asked about annual operating costs for the cost recovery unit which we are given. We asked for details of the number of vacancies within the Chief State Solicitors Office including the length of time the vacancies have been open. There is a detailed list of the 15 pre-existing vacancies and the status of efforts to fill posts. It says Garda clearance can take a couple of months in some cases. We understand that they must be particularly cautious.
We have also been given a note on the arrangements regarding lottery grant approval. We raised this with the Chief State Solicitor's office. When dealing with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and, in particular, the Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport, we have all encountered cases where grants could not be approved because they were with the Chief State Solicitor’s Office. We have been given the figures we asked for. In 2017 there were 89 cases but in 2018 there are 264 cases, probably because the lottery applications were open in that year. To date this year there have been 19 cases. We will write back and inquire further because we have not been told how many cases were outstanding at the end of the year. It is fine to tell us how many cases were received but we have no idea of how many were processed and how many are outstanding. We have discussed delays. The Chief State Solicitor's office gives various reasons for the delays but it does not give us a breakdown of the numbers outstanding at year’s end.
No. 2018B is correspondence from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director, Health Service Executive, HSE, providing follow up information on procurement arrangements for section 38 and 39 organisations and a note on any conflict of interest that may arise in relation to any former managers of the HSE being employed by section 38 and 39 organisations. The note is a page and a half long, which we note and publish.
No. 2019B is from Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General, Department of Justice and Equality, dated 27 February 2019 and providing information in respect of the operation of the criminal justice operational hub, including the timetable for its completion. The hub will provide a centralised facility to allow for data to be exchanged between the existing ICT systems in the criminal justice agencies and accessed in an anonymised format for the purposes of researching and developing evidence-based policy. He also provides a breakdown of compliance with data protection legislation and so on, which we asked for when he was before the committee. We acknowledge his detailed response.
No. 2021B from Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll provides information requested by the committee on the number of people who are not covered by free legal aid in cases before the Circuit Court, High Court and Supreme Court. The letter states that 72,684 free legal aid certificates were granted in 2018. I was curious about how many cases there were where that was not the case and am shocked that the correspondence states: "The Courts Service advises that it does not have statistics in relation to the number of persons appearing before the courts who are not legally aided." That means that it seems it does not have the total number appearing before the courts. If it had the total number and knew the number who got free legal aid, the difference is those whose cases did not get free legal aid. If it cannot provide that, it must not have the total figure. The letter continues: "It further advises that the position is that the majority of indictable offences dealt with summarily or on indictment in the Circuit and District Courts are covered by legal aid, however, most civil cases dealt with are not legally aided." We need to write back and ask for the total number of cases processed through the different courts, including the District Court, Circuit Court, High Court, etc. I would have thought that was a basic figure. It may have it. We just need an indication of the scale and we will write back about that.
No. 2023B is from Mr. Paul O'Toole from the Higher Education Authority, HEA, dated 28 February 2019, providing information requested for our next periodic report, with regard to the independent Thorn review in Limerick. It states:
[The] University has implemented 9 of the 10 recommendations from Dr. Thorn's report on the University of Limerick. The remaining recommendation is in progress.
It continues with regard to the Attorney General's advice about the review of spin-out companies. We got a letter about that at the previous meeting and are aware of that. It continues with regard to Cork Institute of Technology and certain named companies:
A draft report of the review has been prepared by Mazars consultants. The HEA is reviewing this draft and will revert to the Committee at the earliest opportunity.
We can incorporate that into the next periodic report. We will note and publish that.
No. 2024B is from Mr. Brendan McDonagh, chief executive of NAMA, providing an update requested on the Player Wills and Poolbeg sites. We will note and publish this. We had considered this at the meeting before Christmas and asked for an update on both sites. He makes it very clear with regard to the Player Wills site that the loans attached to the site were fully repaid at par value by the borrower in late December. NAMA has nothing further to do with that site. It is good news that the taxpayer got all the money back at par value. I know many people hoped that site would be developed for housing or other purposes. It is up to the private owner to develop the site but it is out of NAMA entirely. With regard to the Poolbeg site, we mentioned the delays and he states:
It is a matter of public knowledge that the Poolbeg West Planning Scheme is currently awaiting approval from An Bord Pleanala. NAMA would welcome An Bord Pleanala's planning decision on the Poolbeg West Planning Scheme in early course as without that no proposed work on the site can commence.
He hopes the committee can be of assistance with the matter. The point is that the delays associated with that are not NAMA's fault so we will not include any of that in our periodic report. We will note and publish that.
The next item is from Mr. Maurice Buckley of the Office of Public Works, relating to the premises in Galway that was mentioned when it looked at the Miesian Plaza for the Department of Health on Baggot Street with regard to measurements. He states: "The annual rent being paid reflects the final agreement reached between the OPW and the Landlord and therefore the OPW are satisfied that an overpayment of rent has not occurred." We will take that as written to us. We will note and publish that. It is relevant to our periodic report. There was an issue but it says it is satisfied. That is as far as we can go. We cannot tease that.
-----the chief commissioner told us that this was a very complex calculation. I outlined on the day why it was not a complex calculation and that it had agreed a price, divided by the old mechanism for measuring, and then multiplied the area by the new mechanism and came up with a higher price. I asked if there were any disciplinary proceedings under way and who was at fault. The chief commissioner said he supposed some of the responsibility was his. He said that it was not a disciplinary matter. That is the theme of everything here. There are never disciplinary proceedings or tangible outcomes. Repetition is, therefore, not deterred and is quite likely. I think the OPW is something that we need to return to. I was not happy with that as an answer. The OPW said to leave the matter to it and that everything was tickety-boo. It was not fine at the meeting and there was nothing in that letter to say why it now is. Maybe I am reading it wrongly.
The OPW is saying to leave the matter to it. At that meeting we seemed to have secured the information that there was higher rent. One of the excuses being given was that it was talking to the owner of the building and was trying to retro-negotiate to cover its own mistake and get a return. We do not have any detail on that other than that the OPW is happy and, therefore, the committee should be.
It came up in the context of the draft periodic report. I asked for an update and that is the update. I agree with what Deputy MacSharry is saying in the sense that that is what it is telling us. That is where we are and what it is telling us.
With regard to the periodic report, we will come in strongly on the Miesian Plaza because it is more current. We will note and publish that.
The next item is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated 28 February, providing information requested by the committee on the costs of public tribunals. To the end of December 2018, the cost of inquiries was €457.6 million.
He states that the figure for the tribunals of inquiry is €341 million, €28 million for commissions of investigation, €82 million for commissions to inquire and €5 million for reports. In 2018, the cost for public tribunals was €8 million, the commissions of investigation cost €4.3 million and the commissions to inquire cost €688,000. The total estimated cumulative figure to date is €457 million and some are not completed. It is a useful reference point for this committee.
Correct. We will note and publish that. The third category is correspondence from various individuals and other correspondence.
Nos. 2020C, 2027C and 2028C are from a consultant rheumatologist and physician, dated 27 February and 2 March, on the selection of the site for the national children's hospital. Attached is a copy of an email sent to Deputy Micheál Martin. We will note it. He thinks the hospital should be somewhere else which is a fair point but we are not-----
That is a fair point.
No. 2022C, dated 19 February, is from an individual who has queried the employment of staff from outside the country by the Housing Agency.
It is difficult to understand the point being made but we will note that.
No. 2026C, dated 1 March, is correspondence from Ms Orla McBreen, director of the civil society and development education unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in which she provides information on the election observation roster that was also sent to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. We will note and publish this. I propose that we forward it to the individual who raised related matters with the committee. However, we agreed previously that the matter was closed and are forwarding the item for information purposes only. Is that Agreed? Agreed.
No. 2029C is correspondence fromMr. David O’Flynn, registrar at the Dental Council, in which he provides information requested by the committee on the new public service single pension scheme. We will note and publish this. We sought this information in the context of our periodic report. There was not clarity with regard to this organisation last week but we have that clarity now. A sentence on it will go into our periodic report, which we will deal with shortly in private session.
No. 2039 is dated 6 March but has just been received. It is an update requested by the committee on Miesian Plaza and the basis for measurements to determine the rent. Mr. John McCarthy states that, at the time of the finalisation of the report, the OPW stated that it had engaged with the landlord with a view to rectifying the matter. The response is up on the screen now. As members can see, it says that the matter is still under consideration by the OPW and discussions with the landlord have not yet concluded. That response is from Mr. Maurice Buckley, chairperson of the OPW. We will note and publish that and incorporate it, as necessary, into our periodic report.
In terms of statements and accounts received since the previous meeting, we have received two, both of which received clear audit opinions. One is from the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority for 2017 and the other is from the Private Security Authority, PSA. We will note both of those.
The last item on the agenda is our work programme. It is possibly a surprise to some but the Dáil is not sitting next Thursday so we will not be meeting on that day. Obviously, the Dáil will not be sitting at all the following week. We will be back on 28 March and will deal with the broadband issue on that date. We also will deal with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in respect of its appropriation accounts. We will deal with the Department of Justice and Equality the following week. There is quite a bit to be covered in that meeting. Representatives from the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board will be in the week after that. We have also received confirmation of attendance by An Garda Síochána. We will return to our work programme at our next meeting and finalise it. I am just referring now to the next few meetings that have already been arranged.
We have now concluded the public part of today's business. Our next public meeting will be on 28 March, when we will meet officials from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and resume our consideration of that Department's 2017 appropriation accounts. The Department will also provide an update on the national broadband plan. We will now go into private session.