Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Local Authority Performance Indictor Report: National Oversight and Audit Commission
The next item is the local authority performance indicator report 2017 and related matters. On behalf of the committee, I welcome from the National Oversight and Audit Commission, NOAC, Mr. Michael McCarthy and Ms Martina Maloney.
I wish to draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter but they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Mr. McCarthy to make his opening statement and I welcome him back to the committee.
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I want to express our appreciation to the Chairman, the membership and the secretariat for extending an invitation to NOAC to appear before this morning's proceedings. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Martina Maloney, who is the chair of our subgroup on performance indicators, and by Mr. Neill Dalton and Ms Claire Gavin in the Public Gallery, who are here on behalf of the NOAC secretariat.
I thank the committee for its invitation to meet today to discuss the work of the National Oversight and Audit Commission generally, but more specifically, its recent performance indicator report for 2017. The annual performance indicator report published by NOAC is one of its key reports every year. NOAC has the function of scrutinising local authority performance against relevant indicators. The performance indicator subgroup’s mandate is to recommend appropriate performance indicators in respect of local authority activity and to oversee the data collection, verification, compilation and publication of a report on those indicators annually. NOAC believes that monitoring performance over time and against comparable authorities has the potential to encourage continuous improvement in local authority service provision.
Specifically on the issue of performance indicator reports, four performance indicator reports have been published by NOAC since 2014. A number of organisations are involved in its production, including the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, 31 local authorities and various Government Departments. The outcomes of the report should enable best practice to be highlighted so that local authorities can learn from each other for the betterment of the services that they provide for their communities. In respect of the 2018 performance indicator report, the data for which is currently being collected, we have added two new indicators, bringing the total number to 37. Indicators are kept under ongoing review with the purpose of developing more qualitative outcome focused indicators as NOAC acquires a greater understanding of local authority functions through its examination of different aspects of the work that they do. NOAC is also beginning to examine the scope for grouping local authorities for comparative reporting purposes.
Underpinning the day to day work of NOAC is the requirement to see NOAC recognised as an organisation that can deliver real reform. Central to this is making sure that local authorities are delivering real value for money while adhering to proper governance. NOAC also ensures that it supports the best practices that are central to the work of local authorities. Successful transformation requires robust planning, clear and coherent leadership and suitably skilled staff. The impact of increasing demands across local government and the changing landscape in which councils operate mean that planning and oversight have never been more important. Robust plans that project how local authorities’ outcomes and priorities will be delivered and funded are essential to ensuring the sustainability of services for the public. It is important that NOAC be there to ensure that these decisions are taken in a planned and co-ordinated way and that the impact of decisions on communities and outcomes is transparent and also understood. I look forward to the discussion to follow with committee members on the work of NOAC.
I thank Mr. McCarthy and welcome him. I am supportive of NOAC and I am familiar with the overview of it but I am not sure if the public at large is familiar with it. There is a lot of work to be done there in how it promotes itself and how it sets the standards. NOAC clearly has a matrix of standards that it judges people from.
On resources, does NOAC have the capacity and the resources? Mr. McCarthy's predecessor mentioned here previously that there may have been issues and constraints with the resources. I note that NOAC's budget was €200,000 last year and this year again. That is an issue I want to talk about.
NOAC also says that it has a second customer survey for users of local authority services and that this will be completed in a further 11 authorities. The witnesses might tell us when that report is due because that is really important. NOAC also mentions that it is looking at and planning to begin to examine the possible scope and the potential for grouping local authorities for comparative purposes and exercises. What sort of local authorities is NOAC talking about grouping together and what is the rationale behind that? It is difficult because they are all different in size and make up. There is a range of reasons it is difficult but NOAC might look at that.
Is NOAC satisfied that it has sufficient resources to enable it to carry out its work and its future planned programme? The witnesses might explain that to us. NOAC also mentioned in its report that a Government Minister can commission NOAC to do a specific piece of work. Has NOAC been asked by any Government Minister in the last 12 months or the last 24 months to specifically deal with a particular issue, project or piece of research? If so, what was that about and what was the outcome of that? I hope Mr. McCarthy does not mind me asking and he might just touch on that. Does NOAC think that the revised indicators used to measure housing in 2017 are appropriate? I would like the witnesses to comment on that and tell us what the changes are. There are significant variations among the local authorities in processing fire safety certificates within the two month timeframe set down. Can the witnesses explain the reasons for such variance? It is 100% for Cork County Council and 10% for South Dublin County Council. I will leave the witnesses with those questions.
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I thank the Senator for his contribution. I know he has been a strong supporter of local government and to be fair to him he has brought those issues to the floor of Seanad Éireann. He has given a unique insight into the operation of the local government sector across the 31 local authorities.
I will talk about this year's report and the capacity and resources and then my colleague, Ms Maloney, will talk about the rationale for the grouping of the local authorities and the issue of housing. To give a quick and short answer to the question on whether I am happy with the resources NOAC has, the answer is "Yes". I pay tribute to my predecessor in this role who started in 2014 when NOAC was created. It was a different Ireland, albeit it was only five years ago, in terms of how scarce resources were and the financial difficulties faced by the country at that stage.
In recent times, we have had an increase in capacity of the secretariat and I am satisfied that the Minister has provided resources for us. We rely on the various talents and skillsets of the members of the board, especially for the project-specific work undertaken by the subgroups. Much of that is done pro bonoby the members of our subgroups. We tend to do as much as we can with resources that are sufficient but also finite. I am therefore happy that a capacity and resource issue does not arise. Building up the profile is a significant challenge for us. It is to reflect the work that is being done in our interaction with local authorities, with the Department, with the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, and with other stakeholders. Since my appointment last September, I am endeavouring to meet as many of those stakeholders as I can to ensure that we are doing what we can to extend that network and reflect the amount of work that is being done.
With regard to the question about ministerial requests for a post, the answer, in short, is "No". I suspect that may change in the future. I do not have any firm knowledge but I suspect it. It is prescribed in the Act. We are open for business in that context. The challenge in building the profile is always there. All our reports are published online. Significant work by a number of stakeholders goes into putting them together. The Senator will find in his own experience in Leinster House that when one produces a volume of work, it is sometimes largely neglected by some organs of society. I am not pointing a finger at anyone in particular but sometimes there might not be an appetite to ingest the news of the day in that report versus, for example, the topical current affairs issues that will always dominate the airwaves and print media.
Ms Maloney will address the rationale between the grouping of local authorities and the housing issue. Ms Maloney is a former chief executive and has extensive experience. She has contributed significantly to the work of the performance indicator report and the operations of NOAC as a whole.
Ms Martina Maloney:
The rationale behind the approach to grouping counties arises for the very reason the Senator mentioned, namely, it is hard to compare counties. One can hardly compare Dublin city with Leitrim because one is dealing with two very different areas with different geography, topography and demographic considerations. There is no doubt that some counties are comparable. When we interact with the chief executives, they would have identified that there are counties that they automatically compare with. If one looks at Monaghan and Cavan, there is strong competition between them to see which is the best at different things. They compare with one another. The large counties along the west coast tend to compare, including Donegal, Mayo, Galway and Kerry. There is a rationale behind that comparison. Some of the midland counties, including Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath, would be comparable. We are trying to instil in local authorities the requirement to use the data that we have gathered from all the councils to improve their own performance. We would ask them to look at their performance over time, including whether they are improving yearly, and to use the data for comparisons with comparable local authorities to see if there is something they can learn from similar local authorities on which they can build and improve and learn from their practice. That is the purpose for which we group authorities. There are some authorities which are difficult to identify partners for, for example, Dublin City Council, which is somewhat unique.
The Senator's second question focused on the issue of housing indicators. We have quite a number of indicators in the housing area because we see it as a very important dimension of the work of local authorities that impacts much of our citizenry. We look at changes to the housing stock owned by local authorities throughout the year, with regard to new acquisitions, new construction and disposals under the tenant purchase scheme and otherwise. We also look at housing vacancies in the council housing stock because we are anxious to encourage councils to give the best performance they can in not having properties vacant and turning them around quickly. Over the four years NOAC has been producing this report, we have seen a significant improvement in the level of occupancy of local authority housing. If I go back to 2014, the figure for vacancies was 3.8% of social housing stock throughout the country. That figure for 2017 was down to 2.72%. That is a significant improvement. In 13 local authorities, the vacancy rate was less than 2%. The lowest rate in the country was 0.43%. A real effort is being made by local authorities in delivering on occupancy levels, and also on turnaround times when a house becomes vacant, to make it habitable for the new tenant. There has been a significant reduction in that over the last four years. It is now running at 28 weeks, on average. The quickest turnaround time is 6.8 weeks in one local authority.
Part of what we do is trying to encourage best practice. Where we see really good practice, we try to spread it. We hold an annual conference in collaboration with the LGMA. One of the showcases was a local authority which had managed to cut that turnaround time down to the minimum possible. We look at the cost of housing maintenance per unit of accommodation. We also look at private rented inspections and how many houses are being inspected by local authorities. We look at the question of the long-term homelessness. We try to address a number of important dimensions for the housing service that the local authority carries out. We changed the indicators relating to housing output for the 2017 report, reflecting the changes that come about through Rebuilding Ireland. NOAC has to be dynamic and to respond to changes in Government policy. We have included indicators under housing assistance payment, HAP, and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and housing delivered through approved housing bodies, AHBs, rather than housing delivered through local authorities themselves.
The Senator asked about fire safety certificates. There is certainly a disparity in the figures for how fire safety certificates are processed. They are a very important dimension in the work of the local authority. I would not pretend to understand the dynamic behind the processing of the fire safety certificates. We encourage the audit committees at local level to look at the performance indicators for their particular local authorities and to review them vis-à-visother local authorities, and to ask those questions at local level. As we meet the chief executives of local authorities, we raise with them the questions that arise about performance under the different indicators. It is a question that is best referred to the local authority concerned.
I ask that they look at it again. That is an alarming situation with fire safety. We discussed issues with fire safety with various people here a few weeks ago and I will not repeat them. People raised serious concerns and allegations about one of the local authorities and it got media attention. We should look at it. There are more than 980 county councillors and they are a conduit to be used better. I find that I am asked to send councillors NOAC's report. It is rather strange. NOAC has an opportunity to engage. The witnesses are talking about chief executives, the council and having conferences. Remember that the elected representatives, sitting county councillors, are the closest politicians to the people on the ground. There is an opportunity to engage better with them. I suggest that when the witnesses produce reports, they are circulated then. I have had a report sit on a chief executive's desk for two months before being circulated to elected members. The whole thing is mad. It applies to local government audits too but that is a matter for later. There is also the issue of sanction. What sanctions can the witnesses impose other than reporting about shortcomings? What powers and sanctions do the witnesses have? Do they want more powers or the ability to sanction local authorities? Will they share their views on that?
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I will take up the point about councillors and the conduit that they are. I have mentioned a number of stakeholders, including the joint committee, the Department, the LGMA and the County and City Management Association, CCMA.
The Senator is correct that in a few weeks we will have over 900 new members across the 31 local authorities. That is an avenue I will follow up on in terms of using that skillset. From our point of view, we can do what we can, but there is much credence and merit in the Senator's proposal regarding a local knowledge. I agree that the elected members of the local authority are best placed to interrogate what the issue might be and to have a particular insight into that, which we will never pick up by meeting the executive team. That is something I will take up.
There are no sanctions and penalties. Our role is specified in the Act. It is an oversight role, by and large, without the carrot and stick. There is a little carrot, and the Senator will have heard the point Martina Maloney mentioned regarding the number of voids. That used to drive me bananas as a public representative in a previous life. I could not understand why the voids were allowed to deteriorate to the level they had reached at that point in time. There has been a reduction in the overall figure from 3.8% to 2.8%. We believe that is a direct response to our site visits and reports. It places a pressure. I will take up the Senator's issue with regard to the councillors, the network and the association behind that because there is a particular skillset within that sector which I believe will be of great benefit to NOAC in how it discharges its functions.
I welcome the witnesses. Martina Maloney is a former manager and she is extremely helpful and proactive. She is one of the best and most dedicated public officials with whom I have had the pleasure of working. Her wealth of experience, that of the chairperson and the work they do are highly valuable. I am here to be fair to everybody and I acknowledge the expertise and the good work throughout the country, but I have an issue of concern and I hope NOAC can examine it. It is about oversight of the way people with disabilities are being dealt with across local government.
It continues to be my concern, and I emphasise that this is no reflection on any individual or local authority, that we are not showing due respect for people with disabilities when we deal with their problems. For example, a case was brought to my attention this week. The letter is written to the mother of a disabled child and the person who has the disability is referred to in the third person throughout the letter as "the disabled person" rather than "your son" or "your daughter". That is disgraceful. It makes me very angry that people who fight for rights for their children are treated disrespectfully. That is the reason I raise it here. It made me angry yesterday because when I arrived here there were two rows of people in wheelchairs outside the door of Leinster House who are not getting the home care packages they need. That is not the concern of the witnesses but it is my concern. They were outside in the rain. It is absolutely unacceptable that people with disabilities who need care and attention are not being treated properly. Their rights are being disrespected.
The difficulty with the case I have on hand, and this person cannot be recognised from what I intend to say, is that the person has a visual impairment, complex physical and intellectual difficulties and requires percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, PEG, feeding and frequent suctioning. The person has nursing care at night but requires 24-hour care. The HSE wrote to the council on behalf of that person asking that the person be given a special bath and hoist because of the significant disabilities. Where the council refers to the person in the third person, it absolutely ignores the person's needs. The last line states that the application is hereby refused. It treats the person with great disrespect. This is just one case, but it should not be happening.
I ask that the NOAC, as a matter of urgency, examine the language that is used in letters to people with disabilities. If it is disrespectful, the council should be dealt with severely. One cannot treat people like that. Second, if somebody has complex disability needs and has a HSE report from a physiotherapist and doctors stating that the person needs something, it is not good enough for the council, which owns the house, to tell the mother that the council does not install such hoists, to hell with the application and it is closed. Incidentally, in the last line, it tells the mother that if she wishes to appeal the decision she can do so within 21 days and it provides the address to which the appeal should be made. That is wrong and I totally reject it. Much of the work the NOAC does is constructive, but one thing it could do, as a matter of urgency, is examine the letters that are sent by the councils, meet with the officers who deal with them, who I presume are the chief executive officers, and work out a language that is respectful, understanding and takes special care with people with disabilities.
I accept that often the local authority may not have the money to do the work required. It is the Government's job to ensure the money is provided. However, within that, there must be far greater emphasis on the rights of people with disabilities and their families. Never again do I wish to visit a house and hear that a family with a huge issue is being completely ignored and left in a dreadful situation which must be dealt with now. I am not disrespecting the people who wrote that letter, but they must be trained in appropriate language. There must be a far more respectful and empathetic relationship. That is very important.
The other point I wish to make relates to NOAC's reports. I am not nit-picking but we do not have a particular report to discuss with the witnesses today. If I understand it correctly, the NOAC has indicated its report will be available later this year. Perhaps the information I have is incorrect.
When it is ready we should meet straightaway and go through it because it will be hot, live, available in black and white and people will pay more attention to it.
My other point is on how people generally interact with their local authority. I have always believed that if somebody has an issue, he or she should be able to discuss it privately with the local council. Some councils have rooms available and some do not, but it is very important. Let us say there are four or five windows where people can ask for assistance. The person should be able to respectfully say, "I would like to speak to somebody privately about a matter". Otherwise, it is in a public place and other people can listen to everybody's problems and issues. Where somebody has a serious matter he or she wishes to discuss it is important that he or she can go into a room and talk to the person concerned. That is respectful of people. It is wrong that people should have to stand in line to discuss their business in a public place, where anybody within earshot can hear everything they say. We should address that. If it means making more rooms available to the public, we should do that. It would show respect for the individual at the point of interaction.
I wish to raise another point. According to the public press, there is a significant problem between the administration and the elected representatives. I am not referring to a particular place. Does the NOAC deal with that? If there are ongoing significant and serious difficulties between a manager of a county and its public representatives and they do not appear to be resolvable, what solutions, if any, can the NOAC offer for that? Is there a best practice the body could suggest? Let us say the NOAC is doing its audits of councils. In those audits it could perhaps review the press commentary for the previous six months to see what is happening and what the issues are. It might be able to sort out the issues that arise. There might be cases where senior officials or the senior official will not attend meetings in a particular town.
There may be good reasons for this. I do not know because I am not on that particular council, but it happens and it is not acceptable that it should continue to happen. There should be a way to intervene. I am not necessarily saying it should be NOAC but somebody should be able to say it is the role of the manager and the council to work together, and, without attributing blame, state a council is dysfunctional if it is not working and then make it work. It is a serious issue. I know it may be a rare issue but it is happening and it needs to be addressed.
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I thank the Deputy for raising these issues. With regard to the first issue he raised, when I was a Member, I had a similar issue and it happened to be with regard to a local authority. It was quite a complex housing case. It did not involve the standard housing application and verification; it was very different and reflective of how fast society changes. I felt as aggrieved and angry as the Deputy does now regarding the outcome. It involved a family whose eldest daughter was on the autism spectrum and no additional consideration because of the specific needs was given to the application. Once it was interrogated it was obvious that it was not a run-of-the-mill case. To be fair to the local authority, there was nothing in its remit that could have resulted in the case being treated differently. The local authority was courteous and polite but there was no outcome. As a result, in 2012 I introduced the first autism-specific legislation in the House, which the Deputy will recall. It won cross-party political support and I believe it is now being dealt with in the Seanad where Senator Reilly, the former Minister for Health, is pursuing it in all but name. The Bill would require organs of the State to adopt an autism strategy and, therefore, certain statutory legislative obligations would mean that if the same family went through the system following the enactment of the legislation, there would be a requirement for the local authority to act differently regarding the housing needs of the family because of the autism.
While I accept and welcome this - and it is excellent and I praise it - in this case the authority is saying someone is a non-person who does not even have a name. It is stating it does not deal with the problem so the person should go somewhere else. I did not make this point earlier but the HSE is stating it is a matter for the local authority while the local authority is stating it is a matter for the HSE. Meanwhile, the poor mother is in a dreadful situation. I accept and acknowledge it is an exceptional case. I do not put the blame on any individual but the system is rotten if it cannot deal with it properly. If everything else is so perfect, why can we not have a process in a case such as this whereby the fundamental training of the individuals concerned in the local authority and health board would mean they pick up the phone to speak to each other about it? This is not happening. NOAC should audit this and highlight the need for constructive engagement that is respectful and gets the action that is needed. I appreciate the good work being done and I am not taking from it.
Audit the files and ask for them from the local authorities. Will NOAC ask for the files on those cases that have been refused? That is where the problem is. Those cases that are refused are what I am concerned about because they are exceptions. It is bureaucratic madness.
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I will give the commitment to take it back to the NOAC board to tweak the performance indicator to include it for this sector.
In my opening statement, I set out the functions of the commission. We do not have a role where there is conflict between the executive and elected members. I am not entirely sure there is an appetite for this. We have set out clearly what our role is. Today's agenda is the 2017 report and I believe members have copies of it. We are nearing completion of the 2018 report and we will come back in due course to discuss it. I will come back to the Deputy on the other issue.
My next question is for Ms Maloney as an administrator. Could a mechanism be put in place to refer these cases automatically? If a case is refused, there should be a referral to somebody who may have greater knowledge of the specific area.
Ms Martina Maloney:
The Deputy has raised a number of issues with regard to the particular case. The description he gave is of a customer service issue and customer service is one of the elements in which NOAC has a remit but we do not deal with individual cases. We have a remit to review the customer service provided by local authorities. NOAC has completed two surveys. One is a tenant survey conducted in December 2015, the outcome of which was quite positive. The other is the local authority satisfaction survey completed in 2018. Another survey has been completed with regard to 11 local authorities that will be brought forward this year. My understanding is that local authorities in general have a strategy for dealing with people with disabilities and each local authority has a strategy. We could review the case in the context of customer service or with regard to the support provided by local authorities for people with disabilities. Our role is oversight and not looking at individual cases.
Notwithstanding this, and I accept that is what the role is, NOAC could review at customer level the type of letter that is sent, whether the person with the disability is always named, which is essential, and whether there is a referral. If the answer is "No", there should be further referral in the system to see whether all aspects of the case have been looked at and whether the conclusion is fair and accurate. This is the type of oversight is essential.
NOAC's board is probably appointed by the Minister. Does it have an advocate or a person representing people with disabilities? If not, it would be useful to have such a member of the board. That person would give a perspective that is essential to the functioning of local authorities.
I apologise for being late. I have a couple of comments and will then ask questions. I commend NOAC. I am a big fan and supporter of the work it does. Those of us on the committee who have spent a lot of time trying to get a read on what exactly is going on in local authorities value NOAC's annual reports and wait for them with anticipation, which probably says we need to get out more often. It is very valuable information. Sometimes I think organisations such as NOAC, which put significant time into collating and publishing information, wonder whether anybody is listening or paying attention. Many members of the committee do so and if we could get more of this type of information more frequently, we would all be much better off. I genuinely compliment the witnesses on this.
It might be useful to bring NOAC before the committee soon after the 2018 report is out. Obviously this has been said. We have started to do this with a number of agencies. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency publishes important reports and it has given a commitment that when a report is published, it will let us know in advance and we will schedule a meeting with it. Normally, we schedule two or three months in advance. If we know the date NOAC intends to publish the 2018 report, we can try to schedule an appearance before the committee as early as possible. The 2017 report is great but it is a little dated for our purposes.
If we bring NOAC before us to discuss the 2018 report, it would be good to have an opportunity to flag issues that some of us would like to have addressed in the 2019 report. We are doing this with some of the agencies to see what information we think would be useful to track. I torture many local authorities with freedom of information requests to get additional information. For example, I am researching the number of houses being built and in stock that are fully wheelchair accessible. Most local authorities can tell me how many adapted houses they have but they cannot tell me whether houses are built and designed for people who live in them with wheelchairs. In fact, some cannot give me any information. I have some sympathy with what NOAC struggles with.
My experience is there is a mixed bag of quality in the responses from local authorities to information requests in that some give good quality information and some very poor information. Is that fair comment? I do not ask the witnesses to name individual local authorities but is there anything we can do to assist in our engagement with the Department to improve the quality and consistency of information, which is key for NOAC? In either the 2016 or 2017 report, there was a problem with the return of data on household completions, which meant NOAC did not feel in a position to authoritatively say what was the output of local authority houses. If the commission cannot do it, nobody else can. Is there anything we can do to assist in that regard?
Second, we have been having a conversation inside our party about the audit element of local authorities. For example, the Committee of Public Accounts has significant powers to hold Accounting Officers and Departments to account. No similar function exists for local authorities in respect of public scrutiny. Does NOAC have views on how to strengthen not just the oversight role and data publication but also that accountability role? There are audits of local authorities and they are published on the Department's website but they then just quietly disappear and nobody pays any attention afterwards. Does NOAC think there is a role for the Oireachtas? Could there be a stand-alone committee that would have functions similar to the Committee of Public Accounts but specifically looking at local authorities? Is that something NOAC has thought about or teased out? Can the commission give those of us who would like to see greater scrutiny advice? We would like to commend those local authorities that are doing a good job, and there are many doing good work, but also challenge them where there are some issues.
My final question concerns a sensitive issue, namely, how we deal with allegations of improper practice or fraud in local authorities. I will not outline any particular instance but serious allegations have been made against local authorities on planning matters, for example, or on payment of contractors and subcontractors. My understanding is that in those instances there is a kind of in-house process where the local authority investigates and if those matters then need to be handed on to other appropriate authorities, they are handed on. Where such allegations are made, does NOAC have views on what is best practice and whether there is need for legislative reform or institutional reform? There has been a high-profile case in one local authority in the north west, which has been widely reported in the newspapers. The Department has been investigating this for a number of years and the case was in the High Court. For somebody who is trying to get to a conclusion of a case like that, it is a very opaque and impenetrable process. Have the witnesses thoughts they would like to share with the committee in this regard?
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I thank the Deputy. I want to deal with the issue regarding the reports and I will then deal specifically with the issue of a Committee of Public Accounts-style audit process, and with the question of planning issues and allegations. Ms Maloney will deal with the quality of replies and data collection.
It is a very good exercise that we are in front of the joint committee and I had this discussion with Senator Boyhan. NOAC has a particular challenge to raise the profile of what we are doing. There is a very good board and a very good mix of skillsets. Our subgroup on performance indicators is chaired by Ms Maloney and it has burned the midnight oil in putting in the effort to collate the data to present in the reports. With regard to the Deputy's point on the upcoming 2018 report, I will contact the secretariat and let the Deputy know what chronological stage that is at, so he can tie that in with another visit by NOAC to the joint committee. It is good that we are having a conversation. Nonetheless, I take his point on the 2017 report, given we are now in quarter 2 of 2019.
A Committee of Public Accounts-style audit system reflects a number of viewpoints held by those of us in NOAC and those outside it. I spoke about the commission's functions in my opening statement. It is very much about scrutinising and the oversight role and there is no direct role in regard to sanctions. We take a very proactive approach. In terms of visits to local authorities, we find out what they are doing well. We know from similar visits that other local authorities are not doing as well and we balance that information in the mix. Those reports become embedded in the local authorities and we put them up on the website and send them to the local authorities. This ties in to the challenge we have in terms of our own profile. The Deputy's question has a lot of merit, in particular in regard to a forum with a Committee of Public Accounts-type focus on that aspect of local authorities and the chief executive's role.
In many ways, NOAC was born out of that kind of discussion in the 2013-14 period. I had a discussion with the Minister on how we can progress that. We are at an embryonic stage in terms of a forum that can meet those demands and requirements. For example, something along the lines of the Policing Authority, which has public sittings that are televised and online, and having that element of oversight and transparency, would be good for the commission and it would also be good in terms of showing the outside world the discussions we are having with the chief executives. While that is at a conversational stage for the moment, it ties in with other issues and reflects the views of a number of people. There was a discussion in the Seanad last November where the prospect of such a forum was raised and, as a result, I had a discussion with the Minister along those lines.
We do not have a role in regard to sanctions or allegations. Suffice to say that the Office of the Planning Regulator has been established in recent times. I do not even profess to know whether they came within remit role of that office but, again, it is another layer of accountability by which people can pursue that. I share the Deputy's frustrations. I was that soldier. A Deputy puts down a parliamentary question looking for information and is trying to collate the data, but when a reply comes in there is still significant work to be done. NOAC is very open in terms of its interaction with the joint committee to provide that element of reporting. A finished report is a very important piece of work for someone like the Deputy who is building that knowledge in that sector and across local authorities. We work in conjunction with other stakeholders in collating and compiling that data. We want to be sure this is as widely available and widely read as possible. As members will be aware, people put a huge effort into putting together a piece of work and it is almost dismissed or ignored, which can be quite frustrating. With regard to the 2018 report, we will get a note back to the secretariat to give the committee an idea of the chronological stage we are currently at, so we can tie that in with a visit to the joint committee to discuss the report in a timely manner.
Ms Martina Maloney:
I will deal with the Deputy's questions on data quality issues. I have a certain sympathy for local authorities, which can be working on archaic systems at times. As the Deputy has identified, the provision of data that are accurate and timely is very important to us. We have put in place a system over the past four years that is now working quite well. I am much more confident in regard to the quality of the data we are getting in for the performance indicators. It has been a journey for us. The way we approach it is that, every year, we issue guidelines to the local authorities regarding how to calculate the particular indicators we are looking for. If we have any queries in regard to interpretation, the secretariat deals with them. We also do a random audit of different local authorities in regard to data gathering. We select a number of indicators each year and we go to six local authorities to go through the indicators with them to make sure the processes underpinning them are accurate and to verify the data we are getting is accurate. That has certainly been very beneficial for us in improving the quality of the data.
The issue with the housing data in the 2016 report arose because of the changes associated with the implementation of Rebuilding Ireland, changing requirements and changing definitions. That is why, when we tried to balance the figures independently against departmental figures, some issues were thrown up for us regarding what category each aspect was in. It took us a year to resolve that but we are now very satisfied with the robust system we have in place for the gathering of housing data and, hence, they were published in the 2017 report.
I thank the witnesses. This committee would like NOAC to have a higher profile in the debate because of the information it provides.
A couple of issues for future reports, particularly given some of the new requirements in terms of the nearly zero energy building, nZEB, requirements, is to start providing some data on that and on the BER ratings of the public housing stock. The Central Statistics Office, CSO, does some of that work but it is not necessarily as clear as some of the reporting of the commission. That would be helpful. We have the 2018 and the 2020 requirements in terms of public buildings and the nZEB requirements. I tabled questions to both the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Communications, Climate Action and Environment and both replied that it is not their job to monitor compliance with those legal requirements of the EU legislation. It is not clear whose job it is to monitor it. The Department of Housing Planning and Local Government produces the planning guidelines, whereas the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment produces some of the supports, but nobody tracking them. It might be a useful role for NOAC.
Likewise, we on this committee have done a great deal of work on the underspend on Traveller accommodation. Deputy O'Dowd raised disability issues and I referred to wheelchair accessibility. While the headline figures are important, we need to start tracking those sections of society. Even as housing output is increasing, although not as fast as many of us would like, groups in society could still get left behind. The more information we have about those sectors, the better.
The other major gripe that many of us have is voids. NOAC produced an important report, published in 2017, which exposed the scandal of long-term voids. The great aspect of that report was not just the headline figures but NOAC was able to outline a timeline for how long these properties had been void and so on. We have ended up in a dispute with the Minister over what the Department is now calling voids. Mr. Brendan Kelly from Dublin City Council came before the joint committee and told us that in last year's housing output figures, no long-term voids were returned to stock, but what they had were standard relets or casual vacancies, some of which came under the €40,000 refurbishment figure. Others cost more than €40,000, but in his view they were all casual relets.
According to the Department's figures, 500 voids were returned to stock. The important distinction is that a casual relet is not an addition to stock and, therefore, in the annual output figures there is no net increase in casual relets, whereas casual relets are reclassified as voids, they are classified as additions to stock. When we questioned the Minister on this after Mr. Brendan Kenny's attendance at the joint committee, he said that the Department had given extra funding, and if it had not done so, the units would have become long-term voids. From a statistical point of view, that is a peculiar way of counting. I am very clear on this. For something to be considered a long-term void, it would have had to have fallen out of stock for quite some time and require significant money and work to be brought back into stock. The value of the NOAC report was that we could see short-term, medium-term and long-term voids. That is one area where some clear independent data from NOAC would be helpful. I tabled a number of parliamentary questions asking about the time the units were vacant, because that is a key determinant. The Department will not give us the data, as it states that it does not collate them at departmental level but it would be useful for NOAC to examine this, if not in the upcoming report, in future reports.
I am finding an increasing number of anomalies between how local authorities and the Department categorise units. I will not ask Mr. McCarthy to comment on this but I am clear that at departmental or some other level political considerations are infecting classifications which should be done statistically. We had it with the house completions. It was given to the CSO so now we have a good dataset through which we know the annual number of completions in the sector. There are other streams of housing data in which we need to do that and NOAC is well placed to provide some of that information.
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I thank the Deputy. I share his frustration on the voids issue. We had this discussion earlier. I agree with the Deputy's definition of a void, which is a property that has been vacant for a long time and has fallen out of stock. That is my 100% definition of a void. In a previous incarnation, we had a number of issues in the electoral area that I represented on a local authority at one stage. It went on for years. There was no doubt that in the local community one could see the structure, which had not changed in appearance bar its deterioration. There was lost revenue in terms of the differential rent that should have been collected and a number of tenants or a family were not being housed because of that inertia. It is particularly good work on the part of NOAC that we have concentrated on the voids issue. The Deputy knows my definition of a void. The figure has reduced over a period of years from 3.8% to 2.8%. That is not the silver bullet but at least it is heading in the right direction. I want to give a commitment regarding how we progress that work. We will continue in our data collection to make it easily discernible to other people who are in that space to build a sufficient bank of knowledge on that topic in an objective and accurate manner.
The responses to the parliamentary questions tabled to the Departments of Communication, Climate Action and Environment and Housing, Planning and Local Government are an issue. Again I was that soldier. It can be utterly frustrating. That is a point I will take on board in how we tweak the performance indicators. As we go forward, the circumstances will change, some issues will become topical and others will become less topical but we are going to tweak and add the performance indicators as we make that journey.
NOAC is here to do the job it has to do. I am particularly encouraged to see somebody of Deputy Ó Broin's standing as both as a researcher and writer but also as a Deputy who has a very strong interest in building that data reflect what we are doing. We are available to him in that capacity in any way that can be constructive and that can add to the outcomes in building the data. We will get that note to the secretariat on where we are at with the 2018 report so that we can get it to the Oireachtas in a more timely fashion. If one sees a report dated from two years ago, circumstances will have changed in the meantime and there will have been developments. It is in all our interests to be more timely.
I acknowledge the valuable work of the NOAC reports. I wish they were acted on more quickly than what they are. The commission has provided a significant database of information, which we are allowed to access and get a better understanding on the workings of the local authorities.
On the specific area of commercial rates, NOAC states there is an improvement in the commercial rates collection across the country and I ask Mr. McCarthy to elaborate on that. An issue that has arisen in my county, which recently went through a revaluation process, is a slight anomaly where the utilities are globally valued in the same year and the local authority does not get the benefit of the global revaluation because they cannot increase the revenue generated from the commercial rates. It is having an effect on us. Is there a policy that we could look at for the future?
I found out that local authorities report on bad debt provisions differently. Some local authorities present the commercial rates as the total that is available for collection and then at the end of the year one sees how much one collects compared to that figure, whereas for social housing rent, some local authorities give a figure that has bad provision built in and the collection rate is slightly skewed because the figure that one is presenting in the estimates is net of a bad debt provision whereas in commercial rates in some local authorities it is the full 100% and one can then see the exact figure they are providing for bad debt. When one looks at collection rates, one sees high social housing rent collection rates but that is because the headline figure includes the bad debt provision.
In the 2017 report, there are variations in how the local authorities recorded the Part V units. Will Mr. McCarthy expand on that?
I have an issue in respect of the fire certification process. It states clearly that many local authorities do not deal with the issue within the two-month period. What happens if it is not dealt with within that timeframe? Is this because there is no statutory timeframe for dealing with it? Does it prevent building work commencing?
What are the implications of it not being dealt with within the two months? Do we have any figures on that? Perhaps the witnesses have figures. Do we have any figures on how many inspections of properties are carried out with regard to fire certification after building has been completed? That feeds into the other matter of improved planning inspections. When the witnesses talk about planning inspections, are they referring to building control or planning itself because there are two different parts to that? Could the witnesses give me an insight into that?
I wonder whether compliance with the drinking water regulation should continue to fall within the remit of the local authorities. It is still in their remit when it should be the responsibility of Irish Water at this stage. Could the witnesses comment on that? In its reports, NOAC says that the number of inspections of properties is inadequate and insufficient. Of those that have been inspected, 79% were non-compliant. It is staggering to think that we are not inspecting enough properties and 79% of the ones we are inspecting are non-compliant. Could the witnesses expand on those few points?
Mr. Michael McCarthy:
I will address the last point first. As members are aware, Ms Maloney is chair of our performance indicator subgroup. She will explain the terms of the indicator and the remit we have around that indicator, for example, in the areas in which we are constrained. Regarding compliance with the drinking water directive, there is merit in much of what the Vice Chairman said but our role is, again, an oversight one. While we have a role in terms of the implementation of national policy, that is really an issue for the Minister or Government of the day. I can see the merit in that.
Before I call on Ms Maloney, who will talk about rates, we did go to one particular local authority, which recorded an improvement in its collection of commercial rates. It was just after the economic crash. It was a county that had not done as well during the boom as other counties on the eastern seaboard and down in the south west. Therefore, when the recession came, it has hit particularly badly. Many businesses struggled - if they were lucky enough to stay open - while the vast majority of them closed. The local authority's finance unit met those who were still in business. Its modus operandiwas to keep the doors of the remaining businesses open on the basis that if they closed, there would be a loss to the local area, an economic loss and the outstanding commercial rates would never be collected. There was a discussion with the finance department, which entered into arrangements with businesses whose accounts had fallen into arrears and which were just about keeping their doors open. That was at least in part responsible for some of the upturn in the collection of commercial rates in that local authority area. The point is important. Across the 31 local authorities, we will see some local authorities doing business very differently from their neighbouring local authority. The Vice Chairman's experience in Kildare or someone else's experience in Kerry or Galway would vary greatly. This is why, in collecting the data, we try to understand how they arrive at that. We present the data in a way that is easily discernible. We can use those data to improve service provision in other areas. Again, the role is prescribed in the Act, which prevents us from having certain functions around that other than expressing a point of view. It is venturing out of our zone.
Ms Martina Maloney:
To clarify matters with regard to the collection of commercial rates, the local government sector implemented a comprehensive debt management programme that involved improved processes, alignment of reporting methods and training for staff with regard to the collection of debt because during the recession, a significant amount of debt had built up in the area of rate collection. To be fair to local authorities, the collection percentage continues to improve. The 2017 report revealed that 21 out of the 31 local authorities had shown an improvement on previous years. The mean level of commercial rates collection increased from 82% in 2016 to 83.6% in 2017 so there is evidence of improved performance. Regarding the position on bad debt and the figures we utilise for this process, we are very clear in the guidelines we issue with regard to how bad debts are utilised in calculating the percentage collection. Bad debts must be excluded, in other words, they are written off in advance of the calculation we have here.
Regarding the fire certification process, the indicator we have is trying to identify the level of certification that is achieved within two months. In the event that it is not achieved within two months, there is a statutory provision that allows for an extension of time from the applicant because, on occasion, the local authority will need to go back to the applicant looking for further information. That accounts for some of the reasons they are not all delivered within the two-month period. We have no indicator with regard to post-inspection. After the building is constructed and the fire safety certificate has been issued, we do not have an indicator to measure performance in that area.
Building control was mentioned. NOAC has highlighted this area in the report in that the level of inspections in some local authorities does not meet the minimum one would hope for. Certainly the issue raised around the 79% level of non-compliance is significant. From our interactions with individual local authorities, it has emerged that some non-compliance is relatively minor in nature and is resolved within a reasonable period. It might be related to the absence of smoke alarms or fire extinguishers. The inspection brings what needs to be done to the attention of the owner of the property. According to the information we have been given in interactions with the local authorities, the issues tend to get addressed.
As the drinking water performance indicator is for the schemes that have not transferred to Irish Water, it involves the group schemes, which remain the responsibility of the local authority.