Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 4 April 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness at the committee. He is joined by Ms Maureen Mulligan, deputy director of audit.
We have received apologies from Deputies Deering and Kelly. Are the minutes of 28 March agreed and can they be published? Agreed. Nothing specific arises that will not come up in the course of our discussions on our work programme.
The first items of correspondence are Nos. 2081A and 2085A, which comprise the opening statement from the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, and a briefing note from Ms Catherine Smith, corporate secretariat, for today's meeting. We note and publish that.
The next items are from Accounting Officers or Ministers following on from previous meetings of this committee. We held over No. 2073B from Dr. Deirdre Keyes, chief executive of Kildare-Wicklow Education and Training Board, KWETB, at our meeting last week. The documentation is dated 21 March and provides a response to information requested by the committee, including notes on independent valuations, meetings of the board held in hotels, leasing of property by the ETB which it previously owned, and details of a rent-free period for the Bray civic centre. Dr. Keyes also refers to a review of all of the ETB's leases and the difficulties it has faced so far in collating that documentation. We noted and published the item the previous day and agreed that we might hold it over to allow people to consider it further.
We will discuss it the next day, and it is up to us to decide whether we have further questions to ask. We have noted and published it, but we need to discuss it. We will make a point of discussing it and make sure, when the documentation is going out, that members are aware that it will be up for discussion the next day.
The next item is No. 2078B from Ms Maria Browne, Chief State Solicitor, dated 29 March, providing a breakdown of outstanding lottery grant cases for the year ending 2018, as requested by the committee. Ms Browne states that the correct terminology is "outstanding files" as opposed to outstanding cases. We are being corrected on our terminology. There were 174 files outstanding at the end of 2018. We will note and publish that. When the Office of the Chief State Solicitor appeared before the committee we asked a question about the number of files it had on voluntary organisations which had made applications for national lottery funds, and were all experiencing some delay. Ms Browne has outlined the details on that. There are quite a few still outstanding. Some of the cases have been dealt with from the Chief State Solicitor's point of view, but third-party solicitors have not yet provided confirmation. The documentation is there.
The next item is No. 2080B from Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, providing information requested by the committee concerning Courts Service statistics. It appears that neither the Department nor the Courts Service are able to provide the number of non-legally aided persons appearing before the courts. We will note and publish this. We had been given details on legal aid cases and we had asked if, as the total number of cases is known, whether we could work out how many non-legally aided cases there were. The Department has said that it cannot do that. The letter says:
Legal Aid certs granted can refer to a single offence or a category of offences. A defendant appearing before the courts could be granted a number of Legal Aid Certs for offences in the one case or could have a number of Legal Aid Certs referring to different cases before the courts.
That is not corrected. The letter goes on to say:
As indicated previously, legal aid is granted by the courts in the majority of indictable offences dealt with in the Circuit, Central and Special Criminal Courts. The Courts Service advises that this would refer to at least 95% of these cases.
In the District Court it advises that approximately 70% of defendants get free legal aid and says that the main reason for that is that cases dealt with there include minor road traffic offences such as speeding, tax certificates or national car test, NCT, certificates not being displayed. That is as much information as the Department has. We will note and publish that.
The next category is category C, which is correspondence from private individuals and other correspondence. There are three items, being Nos. 1872C, 1876C and 1886C, which we will discuss in private session. They relate to the University of Limerick. We will have a short private session before we sit in public session with our witnesses.
The next item of correspondence is No. 2072C from an individual, dated 25 March. The individual raises a number of matters around the governance of KWETB and its failure to respond to questions raised. The correspondence also raises questions about evidence given by witnesses from KWETB to this committee. Do members want to discuss this? We could get the permission of the person who wrote to us to forward the correspondence to the Department where the matters relating to the KWETB are being examined and seek to have a response put before the committee. I propose writing to the chair of KWETB for a collated response to the specific matters in the evidence referred to by the correspondent. Do members want to do that or will we hold it over for consideration with other KWETB correspondence?
It is not necessarily all the same topic. Some of the legitimate points raised are issues for the board of KWETB. Some of them refer to failure at the Department of Education and Skills. Did we forward something to that Department on foot of the KWETB problems?
We have not done that recently. We had done it previously. Do the Deputies suggest that we go through the points and divide them into matters relevant to the Department and those relevant to the internal workings of KWETB? We will not follow up at this stage. It is highly complicated and many issues will arise.
We cannot do the work of the board. That is not our function. We have to separate these things out. Perhaps we could go back to the individual and point out the things that are properly within the remit of the board and then strip out the other things. We might then be able to see the wood for the trees.
Perhaps we should ask whether these issues have been brought up with the board. I do not know whether this person is writing to us in desperation. I agree with Deputy Catherine Murphy that we cannot do the work of the board-----
We will ask that question. I have had a look at it. Some items refer to the audit committee and other items ask why board meetings were not held to discuss particular matters before the KWETB's appearance here. That is a matter for the board, not for this committee. I will put on the record that we invite Accounting Officers or chairpersons of boards here every week. It is not a requirement for those organisations that they have a board meeting before they appear here to instruct or suggest to the Accounting Officer or the chairman of the board how he or she should conduct himself or herself before this committee. We would not be happy if that was the case, because it could be interpreted in all sorts of ways. I do not necessarily agree that there should have been a board meeting specifically to discuss appearances before this committee. The Accounting Officer is paid to report here and not to discuss his or her evidence with the board. Does the Comptroller and Auditor General have any observations?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The obligations are on individual chief executives and Accounting Officers to give their own evidence when they come here and not anybody else's evidence or directions. Challenges arose from the 2015 audit of KWETB and they have created considerable difficulties for the current chief executive and the board, as well as the Department. There are questions about the adequacies of the governance systems and the points being raised here speak to the difficulties and challenges. There are lessons to be learned but the question is what those lessons are.
The board needed to address the question about legal advice and why the board was not consulted. If one does not change the culture at board level, change will not happen. It is not here that this needs to be heard but on the board.
There were conditions and a time limit to the direction. It is serious when somebody has taken the trouble to write to us. I do not wish to give the impression that we do not want to deal with it. That is not correct at all. We have given it a lot of time and we will give it more time. The Comptroller and Auditor General said there were issues arising that gave cause for concern to his office, to the Department and to us. The response has been a discussion, the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and a direction with conditions and a time limit. Is it the area of Department or the Higher Education Authority?
There are seven headings. I will not get into any of the specifics because people will understand what we are discussing. The person who has written to us questions why legal advice was withheld from the board, why two audit committee chairs have departed since September 2018, who the parties were to leases on which KWETB entered into agreements, the schedule of meetings between the board and the Department, whether complaints were being dealt with appropriately within the KWETB, if there were appropriate safeguards against abuse of the appointments system in the KWETB, and inaccurate or misleading statements at the recent meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts which the KWETB attended. There are also concerns because the clock is running down, with the board's term of office is due to end with the local elections very shortly. Out of all those, only one is specifically directed to the Committee of Public Accounts. All the others are very much internal matters and relate to how the board operates.
Deputy Connolly's point is important, however. The Department of Education and Skills had a watching brief after the 2012 report. What emerged was a quite dysfunctional board and there is now a Garda inquiry into it. A full independent report has been done so it is not a minor deal. If the Department is going to have a watching brief or if it has issued a circular, we have to be sure it takes it seriously.
I think there are serious questions that need to be answered but I am not sure whether this is the committee to get those answers. When the board appeared before us, there were a number of follow-up items which we requested but, to the best of my knowledge, none has come in, though the board sent in one piece of correspondence.
We got one item of correspondence which we did not ask for, relating to a building which had not even been raised at the committee. Some of what we asked for has not been forthcoming or, if it has come in, I have not seen it.
We got quite a bit of correspondence the last day but members had not fully read through it. We agreed to hold over a discussion on it. If there are unanswered questions we will deal with them the next day - we just have not done it yet.
We have to write to the person who wrote to us to get their permission to do that. There was a reference to inaccurate or misleading statements at a recent meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts and we should write directly to the KWETB about that because evidence given at this committee is our affair.
Yes, it is about legal advice. The chairman gave an answer so we will ask for confirmation or clarification, or maybe a response to that part of the report with the consent of the person who wrote to us. To be clear, we have to get the consent of the person who wrote to us, we will write to the board about the evidence given by the board members and the Accounting Officer to this committee and we will write to the Department for a response about the direction it gave to the board.
The next item is No. 2082, from an individual and dated 28 March. The individual had previously corresponded with the committee to advise us regarding a High Court ruling that is due this Friday, or was due last Friday.
I do not know about the judgment. It concerned an individual who sought information under freedom of information on value for money in respect of Irish Public Bodies Mutual Insurance Limited. It was granted by the Information Commissioner but the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, refused to issue it, which became the subject of the High Court proceedings last week. Did the court-----
We will get it because the correspondent wrote to this committee on account of the fact that we were dealing with insurance claims. The State Claims Agency came before the committee and indicated that it had taken over dealing with all the section 38 organisations. It received approximately €4 billion in State funding for its activities and it is welcome that this has all been centralised under the State Claims Agency. Local authorities were also here and I asked them if they had discussions about doing the same for local authorities, which also get approximately €4 billion. There are a lot of claims but there is no visibility or transparency as to how they were being dealt with, while there is at least some of that with the State Claims Agency.
Arising from that, Ms Dorothea Dowling, whose name is on the public record, wrote to the committee to compliment us, inquire about the matter and explain that she had been on the case and that it was due to be heard by the High Court. We both have independently expressed a keen interest in the issue. When we receive the ruling, we will consider it as part of our next interim report when we are dealing with the State Claims Agency, although I think we have to finalise our work in that regard.
Yes, I am pleased that we have reached a conclusion on the matter because we had raised it.
The next item is No. 2084, from an individual we dealt with last week in respect of No. 2070, on the election observation roster. The individual has provided a correction. The briefing last week stated the individual was not granted a place on the roster and has taken an appeal to the High Court, but the correspondence states this is not correct. The individual has stated the Department had made a number of complaints about him to the Information Commissioner in the High Court but that he was appealing it. He stated that taking the High Court judgment to the Court of Appeal has caused him great personal cost. I am happy to put the correction on the record, although I do not believe that it changes our decision that the selection process for the election roster is not a matter for the Committee of Public Accounts. I thank the individual for correcting the matter and we note the correspondence.
While I agree that observation rosters are not a matter for the Committee of Public Accounts, I have a question on the procedure in place. I cannot discuss the matter now, however, because I have two letters to examine. I wished only to clarify. I have raised the issue repeatedly but I do not raise it effectively enough. I will re-examine the matter and revert to the committee. It does not concern the letter to which the Chairman referred.
In the third periodic report, which was published in May 2018, one aspect that we examined was RTÉ and the Eversheds review. I have been contacted by somebody to say the person is one of the people affected but that nothing has happened almost 12 months later. Can we have a full update on the progress on that in order that we can follow through on the matter? The committee had an engagement with RTÉ but we could not deal with some of the issues because we were waiting for-----
My recollection is that RTÉ told us it was addressing the issue in the case of all new contracts, but that people were concerned about all the employees who had begun work there before the change of policy. We did not have the impression the latter set of employees was being addressed. We need an update.
There was an expectation but almost 12 months later, nothing has happened. I presume that we will write back to RTÉ to seek an update and inquire whether there will be a full implementation of the report. Perhaps RTÉ will assure us in that regard.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next item is accounts and statements received since the last meeting, and four slides will be shown on the screen. The first concerns Letterkenny Institute of Technology, which has a clear audit opinion. The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland has a clear audit opinion but the issue of superannuation entitlements is mentioned, as it is in accounts throughout the health sector. The Law Reform Commission 2017 has a clear audit opinion. Ordnance Survey Ireland, OSI, has a clear audit opinion and recognises a deferred pension funding asset. Will Mr. McCarthy explain that?
Before we do the work programme, there are two reports that we expect to deal with. One relates to the national broadband plan and there is a time issue with that. When are we likely to receive a draft of it?
I have asked that we be in a position to issue it at the end of this month, which allows the secretariat a couple of weeks. There will also be the recess for Easter. We hope that it will be issued immediately after we return from the recess. The report contains two sections, which relate to broadband and housing. We will bring those two items forward.
It will be one report which deals with two items and that will comprise a chunk of the next periodic report to be completed. Our target is for the end of this month. I reiterate what the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment stated because the people did not fully grasp it . There was a debate in the Dáil last week with the Minister on the issue, where he stated the Department was dealing with one tender and that he would bring a proposal to the Government in the near future. That was picked up by the public and many people interpreted it as suggesting there would be a decision on the contracts. The Secretary General, however, made it clear at the committee last week that the only proposal that would be made to the Government in the near future would be to appoint Brendan McCourt, or not, as the preferred bidder. When the preferred bidder status is given, the Government remains under no contractual obligation. It is not a contract for rural broadband. It gives the Government certainty in order that it can then negotiate its infrastructural agreements with Eir and other bodies. It now has some certainty to finalise the detailed costs.
When that is all put together, after whatever period of time, the Government can consider signing a contract, or otherwise. There have been cases in the past where preferred bidders have been approved by the Cabinet, circumstances change, and ultimately the contract is never signed at a loss and cost to the preferred bidder because there are no contractual obligations. The proposal to the Government is not to sign the national broadband plan contract but rather only to appoint the preferred bidder. While it is a significant step along the way, it is not the entire process. I am sure people understood that from the debate that emanated from the Dáil last week, but the debate on the issue at the committee's meeting was more specific. I am putting it on the record because the Deputy has raised the issue, and it might clarify the matter for the public. Our target is the end of this month, which is only a few weeks away.
Our report will have to include clear signposts and signals in respect of the tendering process that has been ongoing since the end of December 2017, to ensure value for money in public expenditure. We will have the opportunity to discuss that only after the Easter break, but we will try to deal with it as quickly as possible at that stage because time is of the essence.
I do not wish to labour the point but a related matter is that some of the fixed wireless providers contacted some members of the committee after some of our hearings, when there was a headline figure on the per metre costs. Some people told me they expected a reduction at wholesale level following their dealings with Enet.
If that is an issue, we need to address it. We will write and make sure we get an answer on that. When we make our report in several weeks, it will include what is being suggested now. We will need certain points of clarification before we conclude our report. That sounds like one of them.
I thank the Deputy. That deals with the accounts and statements. Details of our work programme are now appearing on screen. Today we will hear from the Department of Justice and Equality. Next week we will hear from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. We have received a request for a meeting on the national children's hospital from Professor Chris Fitzpatrick. This could be done in private session. Do members want to proceed with that? An offer has been made. Professor Fitzpatrick is a paediatric consultant. I am not sure with what hospital he is associated.
The letter is on screen. Part of our next periodic report will deal with this issue. We will not be dealing with it in the report at the end of this month, which will only address two topics. Before we complete that report, if we want to invite-----
I have a different opinion on that. I am of the view that we should hear from him. He has gone to the trouble to write. The letter is very well written. The issues are set out. Meeting him would do no harm. What we can do about it and whether it is relevant are valid questions. It would not take a lot of time and it could be done in private session. I do not mind. I am open to suggestions.
I was out of the room for a second. I refer to the issue of incontinence wear, on which we heard from a family. I unofficially facilitated a meeting between the HSE, the family and the Brothers of Charity on the committee's behalf. That took place last Monday and I very much hope the situation has been resolved.
That is fantastic. It was a difficult situation. We will discuss the matter in private session. On 18 April, we will be dealing with the Environmental Protection Agency and then there are non-sitting weeks after Easter. That means it will be early May-----
It appears that it will be the beginning of May before we conclude the report on broadband and housing, unless we want to meet in the first week of May. The latter is a non-sitting week. We could meet then if we have prepared a draft report and members want to come to Dublin to discuss it. However, members might not want to travel during a non-sitting week. I am not recommending that, I am just making the point. We will come back to that matter.
On 9 May, we will deal with An Garda Síochána. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report on overtime is relevant to that. On 16 May we will resume dealing with the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board's financial statements. We expect to have considered the PwC report in advance of that meeting. We will meet the Courts Service on 23 May and on 30 May we will meet with representatives of the Department of Finance to deal with a special report from the Comptroller and Auditor General on EU transactions. We will meet with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on 13 June. These are provisional arrangements. The following week, the annual report of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, will be published. That will deal with an awful lot of issues on behalf of the State. The HSE financial statements should be available in advance of 26 June. We will try to deal with those before we go break for the summer. After that, we have a scheduled meeting with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. We want to do that before the break as well. That body's annual report will be out around the end of June. It is just as well to have sight of its annual report before meeting with its representatives. I thought we might have done it earlier, but the annual report will be out at the end of June. The Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission will be at that meeting.
These are provisional items. We can come back and address others. That is an approximate programme which is subject to change. There are a couple of items to discuss in private session before we call our guests from the Department of Justice and Equality.