Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 May 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.
Apologies have been received from Deputy Deering.
The minutes of the meeting of 18 April have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed. No matters arise that will not come up under correspondence.
We will proceed to correspondence. There are three categories.
Category A is correspondence relating to the briefing document and opening statements. Nos. 2149A and 2150A from the Office of the Garda Commissioner, dated 3 May and 7 May 2019, are the briefing document and opening statement for today's meeting. Is it agreed to note and publish these? Agreed.
Category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers, follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and other items for publishing.
No. 2121B is from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills. It is dated 16 April 2019 and provides information on the arrangements for the internal audit for education and training boards, ETBs, and the steps taken by the Department to resolve any issue. Mr. Ó Foghlú provides an update on the internal audit arrangements of the City of Dublin ETB and the ETB internal audit unit. We note this and will publish it. We know there have been difficulties and we are pleased the Department is starting to give this matter greater priority, attention and resources. We will take this into consideration as part of our periodic report. Mr. Ó Foghlú advises there is an increased budget, as I have mentioned, and that the Department is jointly commissioning a wider review of internal audit in the sector to ascertain the longer-term support required to deliver an ongoing and appropriate internal audit function. We have mentioned this. One unit is based in Cavan and there are difficulties recruiting people to travel throughout the country. The Department is examining this issue, which we welcome, but we will consider this as part of our periodic report because, as I have stated, we have not been happy with the internal audit function in the ETB sector and it is good that it is now being addressed.
No. 2122B is from Mr. John McCarthy, the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. It provides a detailed response requested by the committee to a number of matters raised at our meeting with him on 28 February 2019. We will note and publish this. Any member who wants to comment on it is welcome to do so. We will take the contents into consideration when finalising our report on housing issues. A lot of information has to be incorporated in the report.
Deputies Catherine Murphy and Cassells wish to speak.
I was going to make exactly that point. There is some information that would be useful for the report. In recent weeks, an issue with regard to the cost of turnkey as opposed to direct build was revealed and we should include it. It is something that was raised here and we got an undertaking that the categories would be published separately. On average, it costs about one third more to buy turnkey as opposed to a direct build. Given the scale of the housing crisis, direct build would certainly be a big part of the solution.
How do we intend to go about publishing the report? It was to be a dual report on the national broadband plan and the work we have done on housing. We have had hearings on both. I realise an announcement was made. We had a meeting scheduled yesterday to look at the draft report but a majority of the committee decided not to go ahead with it. What way will we proceed? There is a valuable contribution to be made in the work we have done on broadband, particularly on the forerunner to the national broadband plan, which was the metropolitan area networks. The draft report is a start but there are significant gaps that we need to address. We will have to meet and go through the gaps. Is it intended to publish the housing report separately? Is it intended to have a dual report? What will we decide to do? What is the plan of action?
For the public record, we had a private meeting scheduled for yesterday to discuss documents produced by the secretariat as a result of the various meetings we have held in recent months. One of these documents is on broadband and the metropolitan area networks and the other is on housing. The timescale would have been quite tight with regard to discussing it yesterday and finalising it today - after our meeting with the Garda Síochána - with a view to getting absolute clearance for publication next week.
I always took the view that we could not publish it within 48 hours of the local and European elections. It was always going to be a tight squeeze to get it out eight days in advance of the elections, which is the middle of next week. When the Government announced its intention to appoint a preferred bidder for the national broadband plan, and we can now see there is a highly charged political debate between the Government and the Opposition, I felt that for the Committee of Public Accounts to wade in to discuss and finalise a report on broadband might be perceived as the committee wading into a current political controversy. I took the view that I do not want the committee to be accused of this. We might not have had agreement in any event because different views are held by Government members and Opposition members. I felt the most prudent thing to do was to hold it over. We will certainly complete our work but I felt that in the politically charged debate during these days I did not want to involve the committee at this time. We will certainly complete our work as soon as is practical. As Chairman I felt it was better not to proceed. The secretariat phoned around and two thirds of the committee agreed to postpone. We will come back to it.
I also felt that a lot of the information that came out on Tuesday may have been relevant to incorporate in our report, which we would not have been able to sign off within 24 or 48 hours of the documentation becoming available. I felt the prudent thing to do was to let the political side of it get out of the way and then the Committee of Public Accounts would do its work, as it always does, outside of the current political controversy.
I acknowledge publicly that Deputy Catherine Murphy was keen that the meeting should have proceeded as scheduled and I accept this. The majority took the opposite view. I accept that a significant part of the work prepared by the secretariat was on the metropolitan area networks but because it was connected to broadband in the same report I felt we could not go into it in this political climate. The idea was, subject to agreement of the committee, that we would publish two reports simultaneously on the same day.
That is up to the members but I do not think we can produce and publish it before the local and European elections. To publish a report next week we would have to have absolute sign-off today and that time is very tight. As Chairman, I would not recommend publishing a report of the Committee of Public Accounts on housing and broadband in the week of the elections. It was a tight and ambitious timescale.
I want to focus on the correspondence from Mr. McCarthy. It highlights the frustration because there is as much in the follow-up note that could spark a fresh debate as there was in the original debate. In fact, there is even more than in the original documentation. I appreciate the Chairman has said a report will be issued but there is as much that would feed into a fresh debate, in particular the graphs on the local property tax take feeding into housing. It is a point that-----
I am referring to a chart on the local property tax take of local authorities. Deputy Catherine Murphy and I have consistently made the point on the contribution towards other housing aspects. My county is mentioned with regard to the failure of the mortgage to rent scheme. Traveller accommodation is also mentioned. There is a plethora of issues that could be examined.
At our meeting with the Secretary General, I raised points in respect of the local property tax take. The Taoiseach has made a particular pledge that all property tax will be retained locally so that local authorities running a surplus will no longer have to contribute to the equalisation fund. When I asked the Secretary General about this he had no idea how it would be achieved.
In that respect, we are talking about a serious amount of money. It is a serious matter for the holder of the most prominent office in the country to say that and it is an issue that has not been addressed. Political promises have since been made in local election manifestos that all councils under Fine Gael will cut local property tax. When we examine the documents that have been brought forward, we see the strain certain Departments and councils are operating under and their failure to achieve what they should be achieving. I am telling members of the committee that the documents raise even more questions. One could have a fresh debate on them. I look forward to using them in the compilation of the committee's report.
I will cover the two issues. On the housing report, I do not think we should be too precious about the timing of elections because our report was not planned in that way. Having said that, the timing is coincidental; we are not ready to publish it. Will we have one more sitting to clear the report?
We need a timeline for when we will discuss it. Most likely the discussion will take place after the local elections simply because we have not done any work on it.
On the broadband report, for a number of reasons it was correct not to proceed with the meeting yesterday. Obviously, we have the letter from Mr. Robert Watt, that is, the memo that was published yesterday. Given that we now have that letter, how do we intend to deal with it in the context of our broadband report which essentially is unfinished business? I know that it will deal with a lot of other issues also. We have a number of options, including that we proceed with our report as is and deal with the letter separately or we deal with it and the questions it raises as part of an ongoing process and perhaps incorporate our examination of Mr. Watt's concerns into the report. I am looking for the guidance of the Chairman on the best way to proceed.
My view is we had Mr. Watt before the committee a number of weeks ago to talk about capital projects. We listed all of the projects, starting with the national children's hospital and on through ten major projects. We had a discussion with Mr. Watt on the national broadband plan. A member of the committee - perhaps it was the Deputy - asked him whether he thought it should go ahead. He said it was more than his job was worth to answer that question in public. Clearly, he has now indicated publicly. As a result of the discussion we had on capital projects, we are writing to him for an unredacted version of all correspondence because we have previously discussed the particular matter. I think the Committee of Public Accounts will today formally request an unredacted version. When we receive it, we can decide on the next step to be taken. Obviously, there is information he did not want to share on the day and there might now be an opportunity to have a full discussion on that information now that it has been published in the meantime. That is what I suggest.
Let me add one point to what the Chairman said because it is very rare for memos and reports of these types to be published. It is good that there is robust engagement between that Department and others. Then there is the response of the Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, which is a welcome development. The Comptroller and Auditor General had, in fact, called for that type of reporting and such issues to be published in advance of major projects being completed because the Government decides based on all of the information it has received what is the best course of action. This is the first time I have seen a letter that is so stark in its critique of a project which at that point had not been signed off on. As this is new, how do we as a committee examine it? It is a political decision that was made at Cabinet level, but at the same time fundamental questions were raised about value for money. Value for money is exactly what we consider which normally involves a look-back. Obviously, the Comptroller and Auditor General also engages in a look-back, but now that the issue is live and given that the letter was so stark and Mr. Watt was so clear in his concerns about the project, we need to look at it in a way we have not done before. We have not seen such a robust letter from a Secretary General before.
I concur with Deputy Cullinane's views. It is good to see this happen and nice to know that not everybody sings from the one hymn sheet. It is also good to see one line Department challenging another. That is useful and it is good that this information has been published. The correspondence is very important and if there is further correspondence from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment that was not issued, we will want to see it as it will help to inform our consideration.
In case people ask why is the committee which normally looks back looking for a contract, the reason is that significant expenditure has been incurred on this project in recent years. Therefore, the national broadband plan, the cost of tendering, the cost of consultants, the cost benefit analysis, the first draft of the plan and the revised draft when the European Union forced the Government to remove the 300,000 houses Eir stated it would cover have had implications in terms of further expenditure. We are looking at the expenditure that has been incurred to date and want to see whether what has been done to date will result in the achievement of value for money. Obviously, that will have implications for future expenditure. We are absolutely acting within our remit in looking at all expenditure incurred in previous years lest anybody doubts why we are doing so.
I was one of the members who agreed that the meeting should be deferred, partly for personal reasons in that I was attending a funeral, but I did not agree to it being deferred for political reasons. That would have been wrong. I think the Chairman is doing himself an injustice in that regard. It would have been the wrong precedent to set. The meeting was scheduled to take place yesterday and I agreed that it should be deferred for two reasons, the other being - it is also important - that we did not have enough information and that information was coming out. I also felt we would not be able to complete the reports yesterday as they were unfinished. There are many aspects involved, particularly the national broadband plan, at which we need to look. The wrong message would have been sent.
In fairness to the Chairman, we should never ever cancel a meeting for political reasons. Quite the contrary, it is the very day we should go ahead with it. We need more information. Broadband provision is an extremely serious matter. In fairness to Deputy Catherine Murphy who asked for it to be placed on the agenda, we learned an enormous amount which is not reflected in the report which is a working document that needs to be changed.
I take the Deputy's point. Clearly, the meeting was not cancelled for political reasons but because of the volume of information that had come out in the previous 24 hours. To enable us to produce a report, I thought we needed to assess the information that had only became available before we would sign off on it. The Deputy is correct. The meeting was not cancelled for political reasons-----
The sitting of the Dáil had to be suspended for a time because the data only came out at 2 p.m. I do not want to labour the point. The aspects related to the metropolitan area networks, MANs, are very important because they give some insight into the cost of broadband provision. The Analysys Mason report was very helpful from that point of view in terms of the lack of transparency. There is a range of issues that are really important in informing how one should proceed in the future. That involves a look-back. In competing the report there will obviously be a debate. There will be a debate over a considerable period of time on the contract. On the Committee of Public Accounts being helpful, the meeting with the Secretary General should predate publication of the report. We are likely to have something additional to be included in the report which will be both important and useful.
I think we might revisit the capital projects because the Secretary General does refer to the national children's hospital and there are some insights in the documentation that has been published that may well be helpful in terms of other advices that might have been given in that regard, or perhaps other contracts.
Exactly. Roads are more predictable, and local authorities, which very often lead the development of roads, have fine-tuned the work on those.
Regarding the point that Deputy Cassells made about the local property tax, the more complicated one makes something, the more one gets away with it. Local government funding is just so confusing. The Government in the last general election talked about not introducing any new taxes. No new income taxes were introduced, but there are things in this that really should be a cause of concern. I do not think that when local property tax was introduced there was an expectation that it would fund housing or roads. It was not sold as such. The point has been made that it is a local property tax, is wholly retained in one particular area and is not a replacement for subvention for projects that comes from central Government. We now have a Committee on Budgetary Oversight. We were told that the purpose of that committee was that if the Opposition makes demands for things to be done, and Deputy Cassell's party has been criticised by Fine Gael quite heavily on this, the committee would have a responsibility to look at them to see if they are possible. Why do we not ask the Committee on Budgetary Oversight to have a look at what the cost would be of making this a wholly local property tax, as opposed to a replacement for the grants that come from various Departments? That would be a valuable and ongoing piece of work for that committee. I know we are supposed to leave our politics outside the door when we come in here, but we in the Social Democrats did our own budget, as other parties do, in advance of the budget being announced. We included in our budget an amount for the cost of precisely such a proposal. However, it is only when one goes looking at this that one realises how costly it is, so we should do that. We should ask the Committee on Budgetary Oversight to look specifically at the local property tax. If it were to be made wholly local and were not to have an equalisation fund, what would that cost be? We should look at the self-fund aspect, which is about councils funding roads and housing, which was not what the public expected of local property tax. We could ask the committee to look at that aspect and ask them what the dynamic would be if it were taken out.
I will make just a quick point. This topic frustrates me. We should spend a month on it because we deal with it maybe once a year. The Comptroller and Auditor General in his report always refers to the myriad funding going into local government, but the matter comes in and out of here in half a day. We should spend a whole month on it because it has the biggest impact on local people's lives bar none. That self-funding aspect for housing and roads was a huge sleight of hand that the ordinary person would not have understood in the context of aspects of local government that were previously funded through a central fund from the Custom House. Counties such as Meath, Kildare and Dublin were now having to fund this themselves out of people's local property tax, as opposed to the funding coming from a central fund. That was a huge issue, and the impact is of course that there is less money to spend on some other aspect of local services. People ask where their local property tax is going, but suddenly these moneys are being used to fund what had previously been funded through a central Government fund. That is the sleight of hand. These are the kinds of things that need to come out into the public domain in order that people can understand the significance of what is being done in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and the impact it is having on local services. It is a question of how one squares the circle of promising people there will be no increase in their property tax, that the Government is actually going to reduce it, and that counties such as Dublin and Meath can retain all their property tax but the Government will somehow find the money to fund services in Leitrim and Longford as well. It is voodoo mathematics.
That will be a budget day matter. We will note and publish this documentation and incorporate it into our report on housing.
The next item is No. 2123B, from Mr. Martin Fraser, Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach, dated 17 April, regarding our request for details on the whole-of-government approach to risk assessment. We will note and publish this document.
Give it half an hour.
The next item is No. 2124B, from Mr. Denis Breen of the Department of the Taoiseach, pointing out what the Department sees as an inaccuracy in periodic report No. 5 regarding the filing date for the Appropriation Account 2016 for the President's Establishment. Our report states that we drew attention to the fact that the Appropriation Accounts were filed in September 2017. I have Vote No. 1 of 2016 in front of me here, and the issue was that the statement of internal financial control was signed on 14 September but that the actual Appropriation Account had been submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General-----
-----by the end of March, within the time. We are happy to note that and put it on the record. When we get a report back from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding our periodic report, we will reconfirm the matter at that stage and discuss it again. I am delighted to see every line we write is scrutinised so closely. I am impressed. It is good. We will come back to this as part of our assessment of the response from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
There are three items related to our inquiries regarding the ongoing review of matters in Waterford Institute of Technology. No. 2125B, from Mr. William Beausang of the Department of Education and Skills, gives an update requested by the committee on the next steps regarding the independent review of the spin-out and sale of companies from telecommunications software systems group at Waterford IT, which was not completed for legal reasons relating to the remit of the Higher Education Authority. The Department is prepared to examine issues by the contributors to the HEA report if contributors give their permission to forward their information to the Department. In parallel, the Department is continuing to examine matters in the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report on the development and disposal of intellectual property in FeedHenry in Waterford IT and has raised a number of questions about WIT's governing body. Mr. Beausang advises that the Department will keep the committee updated when there are further developments.
Correspondence No. 2140B - as I said, there are three items related to this topic - is from Ms Stephanie Goode of the Department of Education and Skills, confirming that the Department has received responses mentioned in the last item from the governing body of Waterford Institute of Technology to the questions posed by the Department. Ms Goode advises that the responses are currently under active consideration by officials in the Department. It is agreed that we will note and publish this.
Also related to this matter is No. 2136B from Mr. Paul O'Toole, chief executive officer of the Higher Education Authority, regarding the authority's draft report on WIT regarding the development and disposal of intellectual property in FeedHenry. The HEA previously advised the committee that it was unable to complete the review as it did not have the legal powers to do so. Separately, the HEA did not agree to release the draft report to the Right to Know group following an FOI request. Mr. O'Toole advises that this decision was partially overturned by the Information Commissioner on appeal. That is good. Somebody was doing their job. The Information Commissioner determined that chapters 1 to 4 of the draft report should be released. Mr. O'Toole enclosed a copy of this document for the information of the committee. He does draw our attention to possible legal difficulties if the Right to Know group or others, such as this committee, publish this item.
I propose that we publish Mr. O'Toole's letter but that we do not publish the related document at this time. We might get agreement to that. There is a lot there.
I agree with that recommendation. I welcome that Mr. Beausang's letter responds to the concerns in our letter. We ended up in a situation where we had the draft report, which was redacted with all the conclusions left out. Essentially, all we got was the context, the terms of reference and so on. We did not get any of the conclusions or recommendations that would have formed part of that report. Mr. Beausang's letter indicates that the Department may follow through with some form of examination of this issue themselves. Mr. Beausang sets out the powers that the Department of Education and Skills and the Minister have. My reading of what Mr. Beausang has said is that the Department has not concluded yet and that it has not settled on what the course of action will be, but that it will make some recommendation to the Minister, which may be to appoint under the Act a special investigator to investigate the claims.
There is a bit of a worry, however, in the reference going back to the whistleblowers and those people who came forward and made protected disclosures, which is fair enough. The Department indicates that the advice is to go through the normal procedures in Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, to make protected disclosures. I believe that the horse has bolted pretty much on that. I have no difficulty with this being set out as an option, but the people involved have already made protected disclosures to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and we have to protect the integrity of the process. There would be a concern if people came forward, made protected disclosures to a State body and then were told to go back to the institute. This, however, is set out as an option. The correspondence states also that the individuals can resubmit their disclosures to the Department, which would in turn inform whether or not the Department advises the Minister to appoint a special investigator. It seems that an awful lot of responsibility is being put back onto the whistleblowers and onto those people who made disclosures. I assume these are all busy people and are concerned that they were left hanging. The committee will be aware that some of them have been in contact with me. They may decide that they will not follow through on this. We do not know. It is a little bit unsettling that the correspondence seems to be putting a lot of onus on what the whistleblowers and those who made disclosures should do rather than on the Department following through. I suggest that this committee recommends to the Department that it proceeds with appointing an investigator. We wanted a report. The issue of concern for us was that the HEA did a report that was outside the scope of its powers. That is acknowledged. The Attorney General has acknowledged this. The Department, however, has set out that it has the power under the Act. None of this has ever examined the details of the private company and what it did. It was at all times the activities of the institute and the interactions between the institute and the private company. This is what Mr. McCloone had looked at, what the Comptroller and Auditor General had looked at and what this committee looked at in our hearings on the matter. I would suggest that we strongly recommend that the Department does this. I am aware the Department is awaiting responses from WIT but that is in response to-----
They separate them out. In fairness to Mr. Beausang's letter, the Department accepts that the Comptroller and Auditor General's report was a very narrow focus and that the McCloone report was a much wider review. Notwithstanding whatever response the Department gets back in response to the Comptroller and Auditor General's report the other issues stand.
One of the last things that Dr. Graham Love told this committee when he was here was that the facts were not in question. In Dr. Love's view, Mr. McCloone had established facts but the problem was the HEA could not publish the report because it was outside its scope and powers. The facts have not changed and some mechanism is needed to ensure those facts are put on the public record. At this point, appointing an investigator is probably the only way to do that.
I agree with that. We all say that whistleblowers are valuable and important, which I completely accept. They have to see, however, that there is follow through and that it does not fall back on them. We cannot be in a situation where they do something and then ask "What was the point?". I believe the same is probably felt in Limerick. I understand it is a separate issue but there is the whole area of the HEA and its powers, to which we have drawn attention. Was the Department of Education and Skills to come back to the committee on that aspect or have I a flawed memory of that?
They are looking at that. On Deputy Cullinane's suggestion, I would say that we have so much going on here even if we go through the whole process the only possible good outcome at the end is that the Department or the Minister appoints an inspector, so why not do it now? We can go around in circles. They have come to the conclusion that the HEA did not have the authority to commission the report. As the Deputy said, the people who made the disclosures are swinging in the wind, and at some stage somebody hopes that either this will go away or that the Minister will appoint somebody to investigate. Will the committee recommend this to the Department?
I am recommending it. This benefits everybody. It will benefit the research institutes, the governing body, the president of the institute and all those people who came forward. I stress again that 50 people engaged in that report but different opinions were expressed as part of that engagement. There were different views on what was happening within the institute so for everybody's benefit, it would be good to get the facts out there in order that this matter is not left hanging. I would strongly recommend that we push the Department on this appointment.
Can we get agreement just so everyone understands? The HEA commissioned a report into the Waterford Institute of Technology. The report was completed but there was an issue because at the end of the day it transpired that the HEA may not have had the legal authority to commission that particular investigation. The authority to carry out such an investigation is only vested in the Minister and the Department. In the meantime, all those who contributed to the report and who had given information, which is out there, are swinging in the wind because they have no recourse as a result of everything they said. They are still employed in the organisation. The Department has confirmed that the only people who absolutely have the power to commission the investigation are the Minister and the Department. Can we agree that the committee should write to the Department at this point asking it to move to appoint an investigator under the relevant section of the legislation? We can have the technical matter clarified around the relevant section under which the inspector can be appointed. Is it an inspector or investigator?
An investigator. This has been going on for a couple of years at this stage and it will continue. They can wrap up those other things as they go along. What has already been done may or may not be able to feed into this new situation, but at this stage it is the only way of bringing the matter to a conclusion.
Is that agreed? Agreed. I remind members that earlier we had said that the committee would not publish that report, which was received, in case it prejudices anything or in case we attach parliamentary privilege to a particular document. That attached correspondence will not be published.
No. 2128B from Mr. Martin O'Brien, the chief executive of the Louth Meath Education and Training Board, ETB, provides an update on the invoice redirection fraud, which we had been monitoring. Mr. O'Brien advises that the ETB’s insurers, Irish Public Bodies, are covering the loss in full and that no loss is therefore incurred by the ETB. I put it to the committee that ultimately the ETB would receive its funding from the local authorities. All the funds paid out by the ETBs in such cases come from premiums paid to Irish Public Bodies, which is fully funded by the Irish taxpayer. It is coming out through that bank account rather than the Louth Meath ETB. I wanted to make the point that Irish Public Bodies is not a private insurance company coughing up. It is a mutual company. Mr. O'Brien has asked for the committee's patience until the matter is brought to a conclusion. We will note and publish this correspondence in the meantime.
No. 2129B from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, provides follow-up information requested in relation to the metropolitan area networks and the national broadband plan. The committee has discussed this and will incorporate all this information into our report as soon as possible when we come back to dealing with our report on broadband, which also specifically deals with the metropolitan area networks.
Is it agreed that we will note and publish this correspondence? Agreed.
No. 2130B is correspondence from the director-general of RTÉ, Ms Dee Forbes, providing an update regarding the review of the 157 contracts highlighted as at high or medium risk of having attributes akin to employment. This was a recommendation in the Eversheds Sutherland report. Ms Forbes expects the review to be completed in the second half of this year and advises that RTÉ has developed a revised policy guideline regarding the engagement of contractors. The director-general gives an undertaking to keep the committee updated on the matter. Is it agreed to note and publish the correspondence?
The review arose out of our deliberations on this issue. The Eversheds Sutherland report states that there may be issues of bogus self-employment and that RTÉ must engage with the individuals involved. It is only last week that the process of meeting some of those staff members began, which is frustrating for the people involved. There are issues still to be resolved in this matter. We had several Secretaries General discuss those issues with us at the committee. As I recall, it was the Secretary General at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment who acknowledged that the practice of bogus self-employment is illegal. There are also taxation issues that have not been addressed. The facts surrounding this issue must be established in a public way. RTÉ management is meeting the staff and making arrangements to put them on the appropriate contracts. However, if it is the case that RTÉ was intentionally putting people on contracts in such a way as to engage in the process of bogus self-employment, that is very serious for the organisation.
Given that we commenced this process, we must follow through on it. I propose that we go back to RTÉ management to establish whether or not it accepts there were people on bogus self-employment contracts and, second, whether there are taxation issues arising from that and, if so, whether RTÉ has been in contact with Revenue or intends to make such contact. I would like an assurance that there will be full disclosure following all the meetings with the individuals concerned as to whether or not such practices were happening in RTÉ and to what extent. It is an ongoing issue in several sectors and a growing problem. If illegal practice did take place, we must respond to that and any taxation issues must be dealt with. None of that is established in the letter.
I propose that we to write back to the director-general acknowledging her correspondence. She has indicated that the original timeline of the end of June for completion of the review will not be met until the second half of the year. I agree that the issues Deputy Cullinane has raised should be incorporated into the review. There is no point in doing a review without dealing with those issues. That is all we can suggest.
My concern is that RTÉ could accept on a non-prejudice basis that there was an issue and simply move people onto new contracts, sidestepping the fact this was potentially done intentionally and there was a practice within the organisation to have people on bogus self-employment contracts. If that was the case, it was an illegal practice and, second, there are taxation and Revenue issues. We should be alerting RTÉ to its responsibilities, as outlined by the Secretary General at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, that there may be both legal and taxation issues. We need to know whether the director-general is aware of them and what she is doing to address them.
The Deputy has made his point well. We will include a transcript of his comments with our letter. That will ensure Ms Forbes knows precisely the issues he has covered, rather than just incorporating them into the letter.
We must keep this issue under review. We should ask the director-general to keep us updated on progress in the context of the new timeline of the second half of the year for publication of the review. Another issue that strikes me is that I would have expected this matter to be picked up by the auditors. We should not have to do it for them. Do we know which auditors were employed by RTÉ?
To protect the committee, I wish to clarify that we are not saying there was such practice taking place in RTÉ, but there are allegations from several staff members that there was and that it was done deliberately, which is what led to this examination. We want the facts to be established. If it is established that there was intentional practice to that effect, there are consequences for RTÉ. We are not saying there was, but there needs to be a process to get to the truth of the matter.
We move on to correspondence No. 2131B from Dr. Donal McManus, chief executive officer of the Irish Council for Social Housing, dated 15 April, providing a breakdown requested by the committee of all tenancies. The information provided refers to 29,803 housing units offered by approved housing bodies, including a clarification of the length of the tenancies, the number of tenants with tenancy for life status, and those on four-year, six-year and ten-year tenancies and so on. This information will inform our consideration in regard to housing. I would like time to digest this very interesting information and therefore propose that we hold it over for discussion. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2137B is correspondence from Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, dated 25 April, providing information requested by the committee following our recent meeting. It is a long and detailed letter. Is it agreed to note and publish it? Agreed.
No. 2138B is correspondence from Ms Rachel Downes, CEO of the Residential Institutional Statutory Fund, Caranua, dated 25 April, providing an update requested by the committee on the current financial position of that organisation. I have not had time to read the update, so I propose that we hold it over and come back to it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2142B, dated 30 April, is correspondence from Mr. Niall Cody, chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, responding to a request from the committee for information on final agreements regarding cases that were appealed and now closed. Mr. Cody states that Revenue cannot provide the level of detail we requested. Is it agreed to note and publish the correspondence? Agreed.
No. 2144B, dated 26 April, is correspondence from Chief Superintendent Dermot Mahon of An Garda Síochána, responding to a request from the committee for information in regard to financial matters in Templemore, the tax treatment of the living allowances for students at the Garda College and an update on moneys owed from the neighbouring golf club in Templemore. I propose that we note and publish the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2145B is correspondence, dated 1 May, from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, providing a response to the committee in regard to the Department's guidance on business cases for capital expenditure projects, a note regarding a public sector efficiency recommendation on the property revaluation programme ICT system, and an update on the evaluation of the National Shared Services Office. Is it agreed that we note and publish the correspondence? Agreed.
Moving on to category C, correspondence from and relating to private individuals and any other correspondence, No. 2119C, dated 27 February, is from the Louth Environmental Group asking the committee to make inquiries into a public infrastructure project at Bellurgan, Dundalk, County Louth.
The group believes the works undertaken were not fit for purpose and involved excessive costs. I propose to request an information note from the Office of Public Works on the project. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The second item in this category is No. 2120C, a letter from Deputy Mattie McGrath, dated 16 April 2019, requesting the committee to meet a lecturer from Maynooth University regarding the proposed new Court of Appeal. This matter is a policy issue and not within the remit of the committee. I propose to forward it to the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality for any action it may deem appropriate. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank Mr. McCarthy for the clarification but I was simply relaying the content of the letter.
Correspondence No. 2126C is from a medical doctor, dated 18 April 2019, with questions for the committee regarding the national children’s hospital. We will be meeting members of the hospital board next week. We will note this item and raise it next week, as appropriate. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Correspondence No. 2127C is from Deputy Mattie McGrath, dated 19 April 2019, requesting the committee to arrange a meeting with the HSE in relation to fees paid to private and voluntary nursing homes. The Comptroller and Auditor General is working on a related report which is expected later this year. I propose we await the report before taking any further action. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Is it agreed to hold this over until the report is published? Agreed. We will not take any further action at this point.
No. 2132C isa copy of an email sent to a number of people from an individual, dated 24 April 2019, expressing concern regarding the enrolment policy of a school in Navan, County Meath. This matter is not within our remit. We will note the item.
No. 2133C is correspondence from Ms Clare Rice, dated 22 April 2019, regarding the publication of her research paper on public accounts committees. While the focus of the paper is on the committee in Northern Ireland, Ms Rice obtained information from the previous Committee on Public Accounts here which fed into her research. I propose we thank Ms Rice for sharing her research with us. I encourage members to read it and learn lessons from it.
No. 2134C is from an individual, dated 29 May 2018, requesting the committee to investigate any public interest issue arising from a decision of the Information Commissioner regarding a freedom of information request. It is not our role to adjudicate on decisions of the Information Commissioner. There is an appeals mechanism inherent in this process and I propose to advise the correspondent accordingly. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2139C is correspondence from an individual, dated 26 April 2019, requesting the committee to inquire about the payment of a severance package by Wexford Local Development Limited, as recommended by the Labour Court. The correspondent states that exhaustive efforts have been made to resolve this. This matter is not within the remit of the committee and I propose we inform the correspondent accordingly. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I will deal with the final two items and then ask Deputy Kelly to take the Chair.
Okay, I will continue.
No. 2141C is from an individual, dated 29 April 2019, regarding recent commentary in the media on the rural Ireland action plan. Again, this matter is not within the remit of the committee and I propose we note the correspondence. Finally, No. 2143C is from an individual, dated 30 April 2019, regarding contractual arrangements relating to a tourism start-up project in Cork involving Cork City Council. I propose to advise the correspondent that city and county councils are not within the remit of this committee and he may wish to pursue the matter through the Local Authority Audit Service. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Moving on to statements and accounts received since the last meeting, there are four for review this week. The first is from the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA, which received a clear audit opinion. We will note that. The second is from An Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which also received a clear audit opinion, which we will note. The third is from the Heritage Council, with a clear audit opinion, apart from non-compliant procurement of €690,000.
The final set of accounts came from the Property Services Regulatory Authority, which also received a clear audit opinion. We will note that.
On the work programme, there is one key change since Easter. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been added to the schedule for 20 June 2019. There may be some changes to the final three scheduled meetings but we expect all three to proceed.
We will now suspend to allow the witnesses to take their seats.