Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 11 July 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Appropriation Account 2018
We are examining the 2018 appropriation account for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. We are joined by Mr. Peter Finnegan, Secretary General; Mr. Michael Errity, assistant secretary, corporate and members services division; Ms Elaine Gunn, assistant secretary, parliamentary services division and Clerk Assistant of Dáil Éireann; Ms Mellissa English, assistant secretary, chief parliamentary legal adviser, Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers; Ms Máirín Devlin, principal officer, finance division and Office of the Commission and Secretary General.
Seated behind them are Ms Margaret Crawley, principal officer, HR services, Ms Denise O'Connell, principal officer, the Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, Mr. Conor Morrison, finance officer, Ms Angela Branigan, management accountant, and Dr. Finn de Brí, IT digital transformation office. I remind committee members, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery that all mobile phones must be switched off or put on airplane mode, as merely putting them on silent can still interfere with the recording system.
Mr. Finnegan probably wrote this next bit, so I will read it back to him now. I advise the witnesses that, by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence in respect of a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a 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 and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor 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 that, under the provisions of Standing Order 186, the committee shall also refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits of the objectives of such policies.
While we expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and with candour, they can, and should, expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times in accordance with the witness protocol.
I invite the Comptroller and Auditor General to make his opening statement.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
As members will be aware, the primary function of the Houses of Oireachtas Commission is to provide the services necessary to support the functioning of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commission operates under the framework established by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. The commission's accounts are a cash-based record of receipts and payments compared to the Estimates. Funding for the commission is provided for statutorily every three years, with Estimates proposed annually to draw a tranche of the three-year budget. The overall funding approved for 2016 to 2018 amounted to €369 million. By the end of 2018, a total of €363 million had been used. The balance of €6 million is no longer available to the commission.
The commission's 2018 account recorded gross expenditure of €134.4 million, distributed among service areas as indicated in the diagram on screen. Pay-related expenses are distributed across a number of the categories and amounted to approximately 65% of total spending in 2018. Further expenditure related to the operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas in 2018 was borne by some Votes and the Central Fund of the Exchequer. This includes spending by the Office of Public Works, OPW, on the premises used to accommodate the services, totalling an estimated €11.6 million; parliamentary activities allowances paid to political parties and Independent Members, totalling €8.6 million; funding for political parties related to their share of the vote in Dáil elections, totalling just under €6 million; and pensions and retirement gratuities of retired staff members, totalling €4 million. Payments in respect of the pensions of Members of the Houses are accounted for in the appropriation account in the form of an annual grant to Ciste Pinsean Thithe an Oireachtais. This amounted to €11.8 million in 2018. A separate account is prepared in respect of the ciste.
Receipts of the commission in 2018 were just under €2.8 million. This included just under €200,000 remitted to the commission under an agreement governing the operation of the Houses catering and bar services. Those services are accounted for separately from the appropriation account and a summary of the transactions is included as note 7.3 to the account.
Members will be glad to note that I issued a clear audit report in respect of the 2018 account.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I thank the Chairman. A Chathaoirligh agus a chomhaltaí, fáiltím roimh an deis seo teacht os comhair Choiste na gCuntas Poiblí agus cabhrú le scrúdú a dhéanamh ar chuntais Choimisiún Thithe an Oireachtais don bhliain 2018. Is é seo an chéad uair dom a bheith i láthair mar Oifigeach Cuntasaíochta Sheirbhís Thithe an Oireachtais.
I welcome the opportunity to attend before the committee to assist in the examination of the accounts of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission for 2018. This is my first appearance as Accounting Officer of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I am joined by members of my management team, who are sitting alongside me, and some senior colleagues who are sitting behind. In this statement, I propose to give the committee a brief overview on the funding allocation and 2018 appropriation account, some key activities during 2018 and beyond, our corporate governance system, and our strategic goals for 2019 to 2021.
The commission is funded on a three-year statutory cycle basis, as approved by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and paid out of the Central Fund. The 2016-2018 allocation was €369 million. The total outturn for the period was €363 million, or 98.5% of the allocated budget. The unspent allocation of €6 million was not carried over to the 2019-2021 funding period.
The accounts under consideration relate to 2018, which is the third year of the current Dáil and the final year of our three-year allocation. The audited accounts of the commission show that the gross expenditure for the Houses in 2018 was €134.4 million against an Estimate provision of €135.9 million, representing a 1% underspend. Salaries, pensions and allowances accounted for €97.4 million, or 73% of total spend, which can be classified as non-discretionary spend. Interparliamentary activities, broadcasting services, committee expenses, parliamentary printing, legal costs and essential consultancy and administration costs, including office premises, facilities, basic ICT equipment and services, and postal and telecommunication services, amounted to €26 million, or 19% of total spend. This was also non-discretionary. The remaining budget of €11 million, or 8%, provided for ICT, Library and Research Service project spending, and training and development costs. This was the discretionary element.
The committee should note that the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is now a large organisation. We have a total payroll in respect of 2,027 people, catering for the salaries, allowances and pensions of Members and former Members, political staff, MEPs, former MEPs and Civil Service staff, including some former State industrial, officeholder and catering staff. On 31 December 2018, the commission employed 564 full-time equivalent, FTE, staff, comprising 511 Civil Service staff, 17 State industrial and officeholder staff and 36 catering staff, at a cost of €31 million or 23% of the budget.
I will draw the committee's attention to some of the key activities in 2018 and beyond. The expenditure for 2018 reflects the considerable changes implemented in the Dáil reform programme agreed in response to the needs of the Houses and Members. These include the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office; the development of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers to include drafting and advisory services on Private Members' Bills; the increase in the number of parliamentary committees from 15 to 28, including eight specialist committees to date during this Dáil term; the extension of services by the Library and Research Service, Rannóg an Aistriúcháin, the Debates Office and House services; the establishment of the Business Committee, which members will know has become an important support for the running of the Houses; and some incidental and ancillary costs arising from sitting hours, security arrangements, etc.
One of the key areas that we focused on in 2018 was our ICT investment programme. The service made a significant financial investment in new technology and systems in 2018 under its digital transformation programme. This key strategic decision for the service was taken by the commission in 2016. We have invested in our key business processes, systems and in-house ICT expertise, and have mapped more than 1,000 business processes.
We are now developing a parliamentary procedural system and this is being delivered on a phased basis.
Some other notable outputs from our digital transformation programme include: the upgrading of the Wi-Fi system across Oireachtas buildings; a new website to facilitate greater public engagement; and the roll-out of Microsoft Outlook to replace Lotus Notes, which was the email system for many years in the Oireachtas. We have also upgraded the Chambers and committee rooms, adding in simultaneous translation to allow us to host meetings conducted in Irish in any of the four committee rooms. The commission will continue with its investment in digital technology in the coming years to advance the modernisation of the processes and systems.
Another major feature of the spend in 2018 was the Leinster House restoration project, which is coming to an end. This involved essential restoration and structural works to Leinster House and was managed by the Office of Public Works, OPW, on behalf of the commission. I am pleased to be able to report that the sittings of the Houses and their committees continued uninterrupted during this work. The work will be completed in time for the return of the Houses after the summer recess.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Absolutely, and I will provide an update on that point. The OPW briefed the commission on Tuesday and the handover of the building takes place on 2 August. All is on track.
Another notable feature of the spend in 2018 was expenditure on legal proceedings. During 2018, the O'Brien and Kerins Supreme Court cases were managed by the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers. The judgments were delivered in 2019. Liabilities arising from the Kerins case remain to be quantified and should fall due for payment during the current three-year funding allocation period 2019 to 2021.
A major feature of our work during the past three years has been our public engagement programme. When the Ceann Comhairle took up his position he spoke about a Parliament of the people. We have pursued that during the past three years. Part of this involves the Vótáil 100 commemorations during 2018, which provided the opportunity to increase public understanding and improve perception of the Oireachtas, especially the role of women in our national Parliament. The programme of events reflected positively on both the Oireachtas and on the service and provided an appropriate platform for the Dáil 100 programme, which is ongoing. In addition, our public engagement programme included a significant parliamentary education programme which is delivered by our education officer, Conor Reale. This has been strengthened significantly following Conor's arrival in the Oireachtas.
In 2018 we published a new policy on dignity and respect. The parliamentary community, which comprises Members, their staff, civil servants and service providers, have signed up to the dignity and respect statement of principles and policies which developed over the course of the past year.
I will turn briefly to corporate governance. The main policies and procedures for corporate governance of the service are outlined in the governance framework. This includes the assurance framework that sets out the key sources of assurance, internal and external, underpinning the governance arrangements and activities of the service. A review of the management committee was completed in 2018. A new structure of management board and strategic committees evolved that focuses on providing strategic direction to oversee and account for the performance of the service through collective leadership. The board reviewed the risk and corporate governance controls of the service. We are now in the process of further professionalising our governance functions to include a chief risk officer, chief financial officer and a qualified internal auditor. Our new chief financial officer is due to start at the beginning of September. The commission's audit committee advises me on financial matters relating to my functions and advises the commission on matters of corporate governance relating to its functions. The reports are published in the commission's annual reports.
For the next three years up to 2021, the budget allocated for running the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is €422.3 million. The commission adopted its strategic plan last Tuesday and has identified four key strategic goals. These are: the development of an effective Parliament; an open and engaged Parliament; a digital Parliament; and a well-supported parliamentary community.
I wish to acknowledge the support and assistance provided by the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach and members of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. My colleagues and I in the Houses of the Oireachtas Service take immense pride in serving our national Parliament and its members. We look forward to contributing to its development during the period 2019 to 2021. I am now happy to take any questions members of the committee may have.
Thank you, Mr. Finnegan, for your opening statement. The lead speaker for today's meeting is Deputy Alan Farrell, who has 20 minutes. The second speaker has 15 minutes. All other members have ten minutes. Members have indicated in the following sequence: Deputies Farrell, Jonathan O'Brien, Cullinane, Cassells, Connolly and Catherine Murphy.
I thank the officials for coming in and I will start by complimenting them. That is probably not a surprise but I wish to compliment the officials on the centenary celebrations of the Oireachtas because they have been exceptionally well performed or pulled off or whatever one calls it. In particular, the Dáil 100 events were well managed and some of the finances for this were expended in 2018. There have been some well-put-together programmes, especially in respect of public engagement. As this is the only opportunity I will most likely get to note that, I think it appropriate to do so.
I will turn to a somewhat less important matter but it is probably as important for the persons who use the bar in this establishment. There has to be some pun thrown into the debate this morning about rats. There was mention of a certain dish being on the menu today. I will put it out there. It would be interesting if the canteen put on ratatouille. Equally, with a slight element of seriousness, I appreciate the building is old and various works have been undertaken. It is a concern to all those individuals who are on the payroll, including this one, in respect of expenditure on pest control and so on. I have a genuine concern about it and I imagine the officials share this because of the proximity of all the services provided by the catering unit and bar and so on. It is not a question but a badly-performed pun on my part.
I will comment on the information and communications technology side of things because it is probably the only really point in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report that is worth discussing. I note that the commission has come in under budget. The commission is consistent in that regard. I understand the commission was significantly under-budget in the previous year - the figure was €13 million. This year the figure is €1 million. I am citing the figures from memory - I read the material yesterday. One thing that jumped out at me was the provision for certain expenditure programmes compared with the actual expenditure. There was a significant disparity. The figure that jumped out was for ICT. There was provision for €14.6 million but the commission spent €22.7 million. I appreciate a great deal of work has been done. My office was reissued with new laptops for the first time since I was elected in 2011 and I thank the commission for that. There was expenditure on software licences and so on. Can Mr. Finnegan be specific about where the overrun came to pass?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Before I answer that question, I thank the Deputy for his kind words on the commemoration. I will pass that onto the team. It was truly a team effort. It was a great privilege to be involved and to be in Leinster House at the time of the centenary of the Dáil.
The ICT expenditure has exceeded the budget but this was due to a conscious decision taken by us in the first quarter of 2018. We track our expenditure carefully. We have monthly management meetings and it became apparent to us that we were going to have a significant underspend in 2018, which was the last year of our financial cycle. Under the funding regulations that apply under the Act, we cannot carry forward the allocation to subsequent years. We took the view that the most appropriate thing to do was to invest €8 million further in services and essentially bring forward expenditure that we had planned for later years. That is why we did that.
We consider the ICT programme to be very important. The background is that there was significant underinvestment in ICT in the Houses, probably for 15 years. Statistics indicate that one should spend in the region of 10% of one’s annual budget on ICT, but we hovered around 6% or 7% and that dropped during the downturn. Our systems were quite old and outdated and we needed to significantly upgrade them. One of the things of which we are conscious in terms of ICT expenditure is our ability to support Members. We have a new generation of Members within Leinster House, with 70% having spent fewer than ten years here. All of our Members use modern ICT in their work and we need to be able to support that, particularly things such as mobile devices.
The second big issue relates to what we discussed earlier, namely, public engagement. ICT is a key strategy in our engagement with the public because it allows us to reach out and it allows the public to reach in. It is about having a Parliament that is accessible to the people. That has been a strong objective for us over the past year. Understandably, there has been criticism of the Oireachtas from time to time, but our view is that unless people experience it and see the work being done by Members, such as at committees, it will be impossible to change that perception. People who come to Leinster House are invariably impressed. The type of ICT investment we are making will allow people to do things they do anyway on their phones. If one is going home on the bus in the evening, one will check the news and weather and one might look up real-time passenger information for the next bus. One can also look at what is going on in the Oireachtas, including the committees. It is very important to be able to showcase the work that is going on in the Oireachtas and allow people to form an independent view of it.
One of the things from which Members and their staff have benefited is the upgrade from Lotus Notes email to Outlook. I cannot remember for how long Lotus Notes was used in the House of the Oireachtas. It was a very clunky system.
A long-serving member of staff in my office is also a long-serving member of the political system. On some mornings, it took an hour before the computer started up and one could get into it. The upgrade was desperately needed.
On personnel and payroll, I wish to specifically address overpayments. It is a problem across all Departments and I am sure it is commonplace elsewhere also. There are payment plans in place for a number of overpayments to personnel, with the exception of in six cases. Has progress been made in that regard since the end of the 2018 financial year? A sum of €12,122 was carried forward on 1 January 2018 in regard to six overpayments for which recovery arrangements were not in place. It is a very small sum, but the principle is important. I ask Mr. Finnegan to enlighten me. If he does not know the answer, he can revert to the issue.
On personnel of a different type, secretarial allowances and overspends relating to assistants for non-office holders of the Dáil and Seanad, there are significant sums involved and I am somewhat confused about it. I would have thought that overtime would be fairly consistent in respect of those employment categories. By looking back at previous years, one could probably extrapolate the sort of expenditure to expect in any given year. A cumulative sum of €1.5 million or €1.6 million is significant. The report states that the estimate relates to pay increments and overtime. Obviously, the staff are on a scale and, as such, I would have thought it would be fairly easy to predict the increases. Why was that prediction not accurately made?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
In the course of dealing with that issue we analysed the number of people who were working those types of hours. Approximately two thirds of secretarial assistants work at least eight hours overtime per week, which is a significant amount. They are a hard-working group of people and it is the nature of the job that they are required to be flexible and so on.
Yes. I will move to a slightly more concerning matter related to something referenced in the 2017 accounts. An allegation of fraud was made in respect of salary increments over a period of 18 months. It was to be classified whether it was a matter for the Garda to pursue. Is there any update on the matter? I assume that Mr. Finnegan put in place a more robust arrangement to ensure that increments are carefully reviewed.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I can address our response in terms of controls. Following the emergence of that issue, we carried out a detailed examination and now have six or seven additional controls in place which apply to that system of incremental credit. They were agreed with the relevant associations and I am satisfied that we have the appropriate controls in place to avoid a reoccurrence of that issue.
I appreciate that. On expenditure, unusually, there is a nil expenditure for the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association. Only €51,000 was set aside for it, but nothing was spent. Is that due to the fact that the Stormont Assembly is not operating?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Yes. One of the great tragedies of the fact that the Assembly is suspended is that that association, which had very much begun to find its feet, is not currently functioning. The Ceann Comhairle is very anxious to keep North-South links alive and has taken several initiatives. He regularly contacts the Speaker of the Stormont Assembly, Mr. Robin Newton, and hosted a talk in the Members' restaurant in May on Edward Carson to reciprocate a talk which took place in the Assembly in January to commemorate the First Dáil. We hope that the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association will be back up and running once Stormont is.
On the theme of interparliamentary associations and communications with other parliaments, it is an integral part of what we do in terms of our ability to learn from what others are doing. I am the head of the delegation for the OSCE, for instance. I am also involved in the parliamentary friendship group. I compliment the Ceann Comhairle and Mr. Finnegan on the supports that have been provided because we cannot sit in these offices and learn about the world. Sometimes we must physically be there. The group is very beneficial and many Members engage in the process. The supports that are provided are appreciated.
On the obvious impacts that Kerins and O'Brien cases will have, my only question relates to provision for future expected liability that will befall the commission and, from an accounting perspective, whether it is being ensured there is adequate provision for that in future budgets or the budget for this year, next year or whenever it might be. Is it possible for the Oireachtas to quantify that as of yet? I know it has been mentioned in the accounts that it is not.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
It is, yes. We did a review of that recently - our managed IT service. That review demonstrated that there was value for money. It brought forward recommendations in terms of how we might approach the service next time around. I feel, overall, that it is a good service. The feedback from Members on the technical support - it is Fujitsu Siemens that is the company concerned - is very positive. It provides a good service nationwide to Members.
Yes. I cannot fault it, to be quite frank. In terms of the upgrade of Leinster House and all of the work that has been done over the past year or so, which I know is being managed by the Office of Public Works, did the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission or OPW incur the cost for the movement of the Seanad Chamber to the National Museum?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The commission incurred some costs relating to the move to the Seanad Chamber. One of the big costs that was incurred in that related to the arrangement that was made between the Houses of the Oireachtas and the National Museum. In return for facilitating the Seanad, we agreed to provide funding towards the provision of a lift within the National Museum. We transferred that amount - it was €500,000 - at the end of last year, and that will be used now in terms of the capital programme for the museum.
That is not surprising, I suppose. I compliment the Houses of the Oireachtas on the work that it has done in the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, and the legal services that have been provided. It is important to note that. There was a time in 2011 when I started drafting a Bill. It was only through the assistance from the Library and Research Service, which I believe was beyond the normal scope, that I was able to put a Bill together. That was very strange. I was brand new to the building and I thought it was very odd that there was no direct support. I had to go to the Law Library to get additional assistance. The situation is different now, which should be noted. I compliment Mr. Finnegan on it, particularly the Parliamentary Budget Office and the periodic reports it issues, because they are very helpful. Again, without the normal opportunity to raise these things, I use this opportunity to do so. As Mr. Finnegan has been given a clear audit and nothing of major significance jumped out at me from the pages, I am very pleased with the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and thank Mr. Finnegan for appearing this morning.
Very good. I will start with the accounts on page 12. Mr. Finnegan touched on some of it in his opening statement and I ask him to expand on the matter. I refer to line (e), under administration, "Office equipment and external IT services". The 2018 estimate was €14.6 million. Is that right?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
To answer the Deputy's last question first, the increase of €9.7 million resulted from a strategic decision that we did because there was funding available in the final year of our three-year budgetary cycle. The service basically recommended to the commission that we bring forward ICT expenditure. Hence the reason the extra €8 million was invested in ICT.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Yes. In terms of the programme itself, the programme came in at €11.36 million. Software maintenance, which would include things like Microsoft licences, came in at roughly €2.6 million. Our managed serviced support with Fujitsu was €1.37 million. On printing equipment, we replaced our printer and the print unit came in at approximately €1.3 million. Hardware was approximately €864,000. Our sound contract came in at €678,000. That would be the sound contract in the Dáil, Seanad and four committee rooms. Our network expansion, which would be our Wi-Fi and so forth, came in at €618,000. The final items within that overall figure of €22.7 million would be things like consumables and stationery for the Oireachtas, the cost of our website, servers and backup units, our managed print service, office equipment, and some kinds of minor miscellaneous costs.
Mr. Finnegan might supply the committee with a detailed note, if he can. I do not have a quarrel with a decision being made to upgrade the systems. Where it needs to be done from an ICT perspective, it should be. I am looking at the outturn for the headings and most of them are either under budget or on budget, so this heading is one that jumps out and where there is a significant overspend. If we could have a detailed note of the exact breakdown and what exactly the money was spent on, that would be useful for us.
On page 19 of the report, it talks about variations in expenditure and with regard to office equipment, external IT services and office premises expenses, it says the overspend arose through additional costs incurred due to the relocation of the Seanad to the Natural History Museum. It only deals with that at paragraph length which means we cannot really get under the bonnet of exactly what it was all spent on unless we ask questions or get a more detailed note. What was the cost overrun on that project?
My next questions are on the refurbishment of Leinster House and conservation works. We all look forward to that being completed and opened. If there is a grand opening, we will all be there. I just want to look at the costs. While I do not believe everything I read in the newspapers, no more than anyone else, the initial reports on the project in an article in The Irish Timesof May 2017 were that it would cost €8 million. The article stated:
While the final cost of the work has yet to be determined, the OPW said last December that it would be at least €8 million.
At what point were the initial costs worked out? Was that figure accurate and was the OPW accurate in saying it would be at least €8 million? Was that an estimate or what was that based on?
I know that. We will get to that in a moment. I am going back first and we will work towards what the actual cost was. Back at that point, a number of newspaper articles were talking about a cost of €8 million. Mr. Finnegan says there was a very rough estimate by the OPW of €8 million. It would be better if we did not have rough estimates because once figures are put out like that, if it costs more, we are into the cost overspend territory.
I downloaded the following from a website. It is on Leinster House restoration and conservation works and was published by the contractors, Duggan Brothers. It refers to works over a 12 month period and an Office of Public Works contract with a value of €10 million.
I might provide a copy of that and it might be confirmed if it was a VAT difference. To cut to the chase, was there an overspend on that work? What was the estimated cost and what is the estimated total outturn? Has there been an overspend?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I would not describe it as an overspend. It is under negotiation between the OPW and the builder but it is in the public domain at the moment that the final project cost will come in at roughly 15% above the figure of €14.78 million. That is attributable to the fact that some of the items that resulted in additional cost could not have been foreseen when the tender documents were being done. There is only a certain amount of surveying that one can do with a historic building. It is when one actually gets in at it that one knows precisely what-----
I am reading from an Irish Examinerarticle. Again, it is just newspaper articles and if they are wrong, Mr. Finnegan should feel free to correct the figures. This was published on 8 July 2019, which was this week in fact. The article says the total cost of renovating Leinster House will top €17.5 million. Is that incorrect?
I ask Mr. Finnegan to explain in a little more detail so that people can understand it. Why is there an overspend in the first instance? If it is approximately 15%, how much is that in money? What is it directly related to?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
It would be brickwork, chimneys, additional fireproofing, and addressing some of the voids that were discovered in the structure of the building that were not known when the surveying took place. There was an extensive amount of surveying done to the building beforehand, but it is impossible to catch everything as part of such a process. There will be a number of items that remain undiscovered right up to the point at which one moves on site.
I will quote something back to Mr. Finnegan that I found extraordinary. I will not name the individual because I do not think he is in the role he was in. It was the Superintendent of the Houses of the Oireachtas and he was quoted in The Irish Timeswhen it was asking about the costs. He said "As Michelangelo said to the pope, 'It will cost what it will cost'." That is not really an appropriate response when somebody is asking genuine questions about how much a project will cost. I put it in the context of all the other cost overruns, which are outside of Mr. Finnegan's control, involving State money. People take these issues seriously so when a question is asked and the response is "As Michelangelo said to the pope, 'It will cost what it will cost'," that is a very flippant response and almost sounds like saying "Whatever it is, it is." However we are talking here about our money - taxpayers' money. Did Mr. Finnegan see that quote in the first instance?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
It is unfortunate to make that comment. We have been particularly conscious of cost control on this project. We have our own internal team that works on it. That team meets every month. The commission is getting progress reports from the OPW and the management of public money on the project has been a key priority for us. Of all institutions, the Houses of the Oireachtas must ensure that public money is spent appropriately and that there is proper management of resources.
Regarding my final set of questions, it would be remiss of us not to ask about our own expenditure and what we incur. My first question in that territory is on the funding for political parties. It is something that is largely misunderstood. There is an obvious logic to it as it reduces the dependency on corporate donations, which we have very strict controls on, thankfully, in the State. I am personally in favour of State funding for political parties, groupings and Independents. How does it work? As we do during the so-called silly season, we will have any number of articles on expenses for politicians and how much political parties and Independents cost the State. That is all grand as we all have to be held to account. Sometimes, however, the facts underpinning it are not always put out there. How does it work? How are political parties funded and what was the total cost for each grouping in 2018?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I preface my remarks by saying it is a very important source of funding because it really is the funding of the democratic system. This funding is not administered by the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The way it works in broad terms is that there is a sum of money - I think it is €61,000 - for the first ten Members and it is on a sliding scale.
I will come to that shortly because I want to ask a question about the difference between allowances for party leaders and Deputies and allowances for Independents. I believe some changes were made to those recently but I will come to that.
Mr. Finnegan gave headline figures in his opening statement as to State funding for political parties. Will he remind us of that?
I extend a warm welcome to Mr. Peter Finnegan and all the team and thank them for their work. I refer to page 4 of Mr. Finnegan's opening statement. He referenced the Kerins Supreme Court case, which involved this particular committee, and the ramifications of it. Additionally, Mr. Finnegan wrote to all the members last night setting out his thoughts in respect of the establishment of a working group that would examine this particular Supreme Court case and the need for Oireachtas committees to have clear terms of reference and to remain within them. One of the points he made in his letter to us was about the conduct of meetings, the conduct of hearings by the committee as a whole and the supervision of such hearings by the Chair. In terms of the implementation or scope of these changes, who will be policing who? My fear would be about the ethos of the group and how far it would be prepared to go in terms of the implementation of changes.
In recent committee hearings we saw the Irish Greyhound Board, which is in receipt of huge amounts of public money, and the need for proper scrutiny of the expenditure of that public money. We have seen, in recent committee hearings, witnesses from the Football Association of Ireland stonewalling in respect of questions and citing legal cases in that particular week as a defence. In the end, it lost its State funding but the fear is that this working group would go so far in trying to rein in committees that we would not have that proper scrutiny of public expenditure. In the context of the letter he sent us last night, I ask Mr. Finnegan for his views on the ethos of this working group and how far it is prepared to go.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
As an initial remark, in its judgment the Supreme Court identified four particular areas that it recommended the Oireachtas examine in order to safeguard constitutional rights. They were remit, clarity around invitations, the conduct of meetings and remedies. Following the issuing of the Supreme Court judgment, the Committee on Procedure of the Dáil met and established a working group which reports to it. That working group is chaired by Elaine Gunn, who is on my left.
The purpose of the working group is to consult with all relevant parties within and outside the Oireachtas. The group has written to all the party leaders. My letter last night was to alert individual members to the work of the group. A key part of the group's work will be to undertake a broadly based consultation of all the stakeholders involved. Having done that, it will take the views of people within the Oireachtas and people who come before Oireachtas committees. It will do its analysis. It will take its advice and report to the Committee on Procedure of the Dáil. The Seanad Committee on Procedure and Privileges will also be involved in the process. Any decisions in respect of the matters concerned are a matter for the committees on procedures of both Houses.
Across the Oireachtas, people are acutely aware of the need to find the correct balance. People have spoken about the issue of a chilling effect on Oireachtas committees. That is not what this is about. This is about addressing issues that have been highlighted to us by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has essentially said to the Oireachtas that it has a wide margin of appreciation in how it conducts its affairs but it must safeguard the constitutional rights of third parties. That is what this is about. It is finding that balance, working with people who sit on committees and with people who come into committees and bringing forward recommendations.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
They would be far below that. These are major constitutional cases that required very senior legal teams. To explain the representation for the Oireachtas in the courts, on the Angela Kerins case we had two senior counsel, namely, Paul Gallagher and Brian Kennedy. Paul Gallagher is a former Attorney General. We had two junior counsel. We did all the in-house solicitors' work ourselves in the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, so there was a considerable saving on that. We also had two senior counsel in the Denis O'Brien case. That is in recognition of the important constitutional dimension to both of those cases. Where we are involved in normal litigation cases, the costs would be nothing like that but such were the issues at stake we had to ensure that the position of the Oireachtas was well argued by some of the top legal brains in the country.
Moving to the Leinster House renovation programme, Mr. Finnegan outlined earlier the potential final figure. He referenced areas of overspend that could not have been envisaged when the initial scope was done. At every point when additional work was required, was that referenced through Mr. Finnegan's office? Did he sign off on that as well, in terms of working with the Office of Public Works, OPW, in that respect?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
We are, in a sense, the client. The OPW is acting on our behalf but we have a steering group that oversees the project, which Mr. Michael Errity chairs. That group meets on a monthly basis. It was presented with monthly reports and all of those issues would have come through. We also brought in our own expert to work for us who gave us a good independent take on what was being done as part of that project.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I do. Having been in Leinster House for the duration of the work, having walked the site on many occasions, having been up on the roof and in the basement, and having seen every part of the building, I know that an enormous amount of work was involved in the project. It is detailed work. At any given time, 80 construction workers were on site - everybody from electricians to stonemasons. It is good value for money. The building was constructed in 1745 and we are coming up to its 275th anniversary next year. The sum of €17 million has been the only major capital expenditure on the building and its restoration. If that is averaged out over 275 years, it is outstanding value for money. One nice aspect of the project is that there will be a building for the people at the end of the project. We want people to come in and see the building because the work is to a very high standard. Ultimately, we say it is the people's Parliament and it is their building.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
No, not on PR because our communications unit does all the internal communications. There are some consultancy services for information and computer technology, while there are procurement services for facilities. There was some spend on communications around the time of the Dáil 100 and Vótáil 100 programmes as well as some spend on the library, human resources and internal audit.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The full cost of Oireachtas TV is in the region of €1.3 million. That is over and above the normal day-to-day spend. In the broadcasting area, 75% or 80% of the spend would probably arise in any event because we televise the in-House proceedings. On any given day, six studios cover the two Houses and four committee rooms, and the feed is fed to all the major broadcasters. Somewhere in the region of 35 people work on it. The issue with Oireachtas TV is that the content is there in any event and the additional expenditure arises from some of the transmission costs we incur. There is also a small element for programme-making.
Within the communications spend, for a number of years there was a provision for the Houses of the Oireachtas to be broadcast on local media too. I refer to regional newspapers and local radio stations. Proceedings in the Chambers were broadcast every week on local radio in order that, as Mr. Finnegan noted earlier, there could be public engagement and the Parliament could be accessible.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The commission has considered this and there were meetings. The Ceann Comhairle met people who availed of and benefited from the service time ago and listened carefully to the points they made, which were valid. It was subsequently brought to the commission, which decided to go in a different direction for local media. The issue with the local media service was that it worked for a category of Members. Our estimates are that 27% of Members were covered by the previous contracts. On the local media platforms, only four of 19 local radio stations were covered. We now seek to design a service that has much broader coverage for Members generally, where there is more equal access to the service. We are also trying to get nationwide service on the local radios and so on that pick up the service.
It is very disappointing that the service was effectively ended and I made that point to the Ceann Comhairle when he convened those meetings. Local radio and newspapers are an important part of democracy in allowing people access to what happens here. Rather than allowing the contract to end, the provision should have been rolled out to the full 19 local radio stations and the local newspapers. On behalf of Members and for local media, I reiterate to Mr. Finnegan that it should be pursued. Local media is under significant pressure in an age when social media, which is not subject to proper kinds of press regulatory mechanisms, effectively skews the news. The Houses need local media engagement and I ask that Mr. Finnegan seek to provide it.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The Deputy's point is well made. To reassure him in respect of the local media element of the new strategy, there is a considerable local media element and it will involve engaging with local media organisations every quarter and bringing them to Leinster House at our cost. We will facilitate meetings with Members and allow radio stations that wish to broadcast from Leinster House to do so. We will provide them with training on the web in order that they can access much of our material, given that so much of it is now online.
Cuirim fáilte roimh na finnéithe. Is iontach an rud é go bhfuil cothromaíocht inscne i gceist inniu. Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an tseirbhís sa chomhthéacs sin. Is rud neamhghnách é dúinn bheith ag cur ceisteanna ar oifigigh Thithe an Oireachtas agus ag éisteacht le freagraí uathu. The witnesses are very welcome and I thank them for making an effort with the Irish language. Go raibh míle maith acu. B'fhéidir go mbeidh tuilleadh Gaeilge le cloisteáil sa ráiteas tosaigh an chéad uair eile.
Ag fanacht le sin, I turn to the Coimisinéir Teanga's report that was published today. I accept that Mr. Finnegan will not have had a chance to read it, nor have I. Nevertheless, the headline figures are extraordinary. Of 21,000 members of staff, 3% have a competency in Irish. I do not know whether Mr. Finnegan had a chance to hear that but they are the headline figures. Some 550 of 21,000 have a competency in Irish. I, too, have yet to read the report but the figure is 3% or less.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I have not seen the report but the figures do not surprise me. As the Deputy will know, we have tried to promote the use of Irish around the Houses and we adopted an Irish language strategy a year ago, which we have been implementing. On our own organisation, bilingual staff in Rannóg an Aistriúcháin provide a translation service, bilingual staff work in the Debates Office, and Irish language skills are required in individual areas such as the committees-----
I accept all of that. Most of the 550 people are in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht or other areas specifically associated with Irish. The question is unfair, in a sense, given that the report has just been published but it would be remiss of me not to mention it. Is the figure of 3% not a huge problem?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Very much so. I would be interested to have a read of that report later to see what exactly it has to say. It is a stark reminder of where we are at in the public service in terms of Irish. We have to do better because it is our first official language. In our own organisation we are trying to do better in terms of the promotion of Irish by organising Irish language classes. We have Irish language social events and we set up taisce na leabhar, a virtual library.
Rather than me digressing into the Irish language, I would love to come back to Mr. Finnegan on it another time. If people are not taking up the classes, we need to look at that. There is an inverse relationship between the amount of empathy and sympathy for and delight in the Irish language and the rate of its decline. We have a serious challenge but I will park the issue for the moment. On the rats, I take comfort from the fact that they have not deserted us. The ship is not sinking yet. It looks like we might be back and there is no election looming.
On the accounts, I will address the fraud issue first. On page 4 of the report, Mr. Finnegan states in note 6.2 that he has disclosed an alleged fraud but he cannot really say much about it. When did it come to his attention?
Okay. The service has put in new controls. We hear this all the time; after the event, the controls go in. Mr. Finnegan mentions six new items, I think. Why were they not in place beforehand? I welcome that they are in place now but week after week, we hear about something being put in place after the event.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The Member who is the employer has to verify all of the references. That is recognised by the signing of the application. The signature from the employer also ensures that our Members HR unit is aware that the application is in process. On receipt of the signed application, our Members HR unit sends an email to the employer. Essentially, there is a double lock system confirming that an application has been received. After the application has been confirmed or denied, Members HR again contacts the employer by email informing him or her of the outcome.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Yes, it is historical. If the Deputy looks at page 28 of the account, those costs are highlighted in note 1. I should say in respect of those costs that because of the nature of Leinster House and the demands it imposes on people, there is a requirement for a facility like this. It would be what many employers would provide to their staff.
I am not going to go into the ins and outs of that. I am looking more at the control mechanisms that are in place. On page 3, six points are highlighted. There is a credit policy implemented now, automatic credit and debit deductions. The next two points are particularly important. An internal audit was carried out in 2018, giving a reasonable level of assurance. This begs the question as to whether that was after a drink or two. What does "a reasonable level of assurance" mean?
Okay. The next point is the financial results of the bar and restaurant. It states: "The Commission has procured the services of an external auditing firm to carry out a financial audit of the Bar and Restaurant Services 2018 Account." Has that been done?
I will move on to the two cases involving Mr. O'Brien and Ms Kerins. I am glad the Secretary General made reference to a chilling effect because I am really tired of the phrase. I read the judgments and listened to Ms English's briefings. The Supreme Court judgment has anything but a chilling effect on the way we run our committees. We want to get that message out. I would like to hear from Ms English again on the key points. That would be helpful and educational for all of us. The wrong message is going out, perhaps for reasons that suit those who are putting it out. Mr. Finnegan cannot tell us the contingency cost that has been put aside.
The most important thing for me is how we prevent this from happening in the future and how appropriate mechanisms are put in place. That is what was lacking. It was not this particular committee but the previous one which acted outside of its remit and went beyond the invitation that it issued. There was no existing mechanism to put manners on it, for want of a better phrase. Is that right?
In those particular circumstances, for that particular meeting of that committee at that time. The message is not a chilling effect telling us to stop asking robust questions - quite the opposite. The court is saying it will not interfere with committees if the mechanism is in place and that it will only do so when it is forced into it by a lack.
Ms Mellissa English:
They are only set of papers that I appear not to have brought with me for today but that is absolutely fine since we have done this briefing on a number of occasions. As the Deputy rightly points out, there have been messages out there about this chilling effect on parliamentary committees, which is absolutely incorrect. The court is at pains throughout the decisions in both the Supreme Court judgments in Kerins in this regard.
As the Secretary General said, the court is asking Parliament to set up a system that will rebalance the rights of non-Members when they appear in front of committees. It is stating that if we put procedures in place to provide an avenue of redress for people who believe they have been unfairly treated in front of committees and that if such a system includes remedies that will come into play when a Member or a committee acts unlawfully, the rights that need to be given to non-Members will have been rebalanced. It is stating that when such a system is in place, the Judiciary and the courts will give Parliament a very wide margin of appreciation in how it runs its business. It is far from a chilling effect. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, a number of errors occurred in that case in terms of remit, the letter of invitation and how the hearings were actually run. When the working group has finished its consultations and reported back to the Committee on Procedure, a system will be put in place. We hope Standing Orders will be amended to allow for a redress system. In such circumstances, things should operate much more smoothly in the future.
Some Chairmen are coming under pressure from the press because of how it is being interpreted. It might be helpful to do this on a more regular basis. I thank the witnesses for setting out the functions of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The efforts to make Parliament more accessible are very welcome. I would like to know more about the key performance indicators, to use the jargon we have learned from the Comptroller and Auditor General, that will be used as efforts are made to make Parliament more effective. Money messages come to mind, but we will leave that matter for another day. However, I welcome the efforts being made to make Parliament more effective and open. Oireachtas TV has been an eye-opener for me. Many people watch it. We are empowering people and it is money well spent. Those who watch Oireachtas TV can see for themselves what is going on in their Parliament without having to rely on social media. It is important for them to be able to learn directly.
Before I refer to specific legal cases, I thank the staff on the ground. If the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is to learn anything, it must listen to the staff on the ground. When I leave here, my abiding memory will be of the ushers. Any visitor I have ever brought to the Oireachtas has spoken about them and the staff in the restaurants. They sell the Dáil to the people and us. In addition to officials like Mr. Finnegan, they made us comfortable from day one. If Oireachtas officials are to avoid misunderstandings and cases in the future, they should listen to people from the bottom up. There should be a mechanism for reporting issues that are arising and the things happening on the ground. That would help to improve matters.
I would like to ask about the extraordinary amounts paid out in compensation and on legal cases. I am referring to note 6 on page 25 of the briefing documentation. Will Mr. Finnegan explain why there were legal costs of €547,000 for six claims by employees and three by members of the public and that no legal fees were awarded? I am looking for clarification in that regard.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I would like to bring something to the Deputy's attention before I clarify the matter she has just raised. We discovered late last night that the cost of €62,000 for claims made by employees, as set out on the page in question, included a cost that should have been included in a figure further down the page. The cost in question arose in a case in Rannóg an Aistriúcháin that involved the non-translation of Acts. The correct figure for legal costs for claims made by employees is approximately €10,000. I apologise for the discrepancy.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Yes. The overall figure is correct, but the breakdown is incorrect because approximately €50,000 was included in the figure at the top when it should have been included in the figure at the bottom. Claims made by employees are typically human resources-related that arise when people exercise their rights under relevant circulars. Sometimes cases end up in the Workplace Relations Commission, which means that costs have to be met for the representation of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.
The same point applies to cases involving members of the public. Why does the document state nothing has been awarded in compensation? Are the cases still pending? Where are we at with them? Who can clarify the matter?
There is. I hear about processes all the time, but I cannot judge it. I do not know what the percentage is without looking at it. Every week we hear about processes and process failures. In private session earlier we heard about a case in which the process had become abusive. It was in another situation, into which I cannot go. That is my opinion and I would say it is the opinion of my colleagues. When we read about the process in the other situation - it has nothing to do with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission - we found that the actual process had become an instrument of abuse. We are left looking at and dealing with it, which is not really our remit. There are messages to be looked at.
Great. Go hiontach. B'fhéidir go mbeidh an tUasal Finnegan in ann na sonraí a thabhairt dom. Cá bhfuilimid anois maidir le cúrsaí aistriúcháin agus an córas aistriúcháin? What is the reason for the delay? Where are we in dealing with it? Who provides the translation service for Comhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOileán? Has it been outsourced to a company?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
We are scaling up the staffing in Rannóg an Aistriúcháin. To give the Deputy some sense of where we are in staffing terms, we have had competitions for grád I, grád II and grád III. We have made offers to two people for grád I positions, we will make offers for grád II and we have made offers in grád III, so we will have three posts in clearance by September. We are making progress.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Correct. I refer to the Ó Murchú case, which was settled around Christmas time. As part of the settlement, we committed to eliminating arrears over a five-year period and ensuring that all Acts are translated effectively on a current basis. We recognise that it would take us time to put in place the resources to do this and we have been doing that in recent months. It is not easy because there are a lot of very attractive options available to translators out there. I refer to jobs in Europe, etc. The other issue we are contending with is that for legislative translation we require an exceptionally high standard of Irish. We are undertaking recruitment. As part of that process we are looking at options if we cannot get people recruited through the normal means, so we will look at issues-----
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
We were working on it anyway. We had PwC undertake a capacity review to look at the resourcing of Rannóg an Aistriúcháin. We recognise that the Rannóg has been under-resourced for some time and that to address that issue we had to do a detailed analysis of the work and the staffing levels needed to translate Acts on a current basis and then to translate the arrears of Acts. That was ongoing at the time of the High Court proceedings. On one level, therefore, we were fortunate that that process had started and we were able to use that work-----
Ms Elaine Gunn:
To clarify, they go back to 1992, so we are talking about in the region of 620 Acts right up to the end of 2018. It is a significant body of work. They are all translated but they are not edited and finalised for publication. The recruitment is aimed at trying to go current. The objective is to treat 2019 as year one and to go current, so the publications should start hitting the shelves from next year. However, we have to get the staff numbers up to a critical mass. At this point we have 18 staff out of a target of 39, so we have a way to go.
I have to declare a conflict of interest because I am a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, but most of the questions I wanted to ask have been asked, which removes the issue to some degree. I will be leaving in about ten minutes, so excuse me if it appears that I am walking out, but I will be here for the answers.
I refer to page 17, note 2.5, which concerns prepayments. We know that some of that related to the print equipment. When was that received? When was it paid for? It accounted for €1.8 million. What did the other €4 million relate to?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The figure for prepayments represents the goods and services we paid for in 2018 which we had yet to receive. In other words, we had not received the benefit of it. The figure includes payments for insurance cover, software licences, maintenance contracts, consultancy, advance fees, and subscription and membership fees.
I will make just a few final points. Many of the areas have been covered. As a member of the commission, I know that we are briefed continually on the building works in Leinster House. Not only that but visits of the House are available and there are photographic updates and so on. What surprised me were the risk of collapse and the risk of fire that were discovered.
That was discovered and it was inevitable that work had to be done. At least, it is not being done because of a catastrophic event. We must get value for money. The project comes within the remit of the Office of Public Works. It jumps out at me how impossible it is to estimate accurately the cost or produce a tender because the contingency is limited to a certain figure.
Refurbishing an historical building is not the same as refurbishing a modern building because the same set of circumstances does not pertain. It is important to learn from this, not on the side of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service but rather in terms of how the OPW has a profile of appearing to underestimate figures when it is almost impossible to be right in a scenario involving an historical building. It is an important point and an amendment should be made in that regard.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Yes. It is a standard contract and, as the Deputy correctly notes, the OPW has had to work with a contingency figure of 10%. The reality is that for a project such as Georgian Leinster House which has seen major restoration, the contingency figure could be up to 40%. It is very important to have realistic contingency figures built into the contract as otherwise they can be very misleading. I take the opportunity to acknowledge what I regard as the absolutely outstanding work of the OPW. We have had a superb team of architects, led by Mr. Ciaran O'Connor, the State architect. It has been a labour of love for them and I have seen the level of commitment and hours invested in the project by the team. Sometimes the public sector is criticised correctly on projects, but this is an example of a project that has gone well and been well managed. It will leave a lasting legacy for generations of Irish people who will come to Leinster House.
On a personal level, I am really looking forward to the building being opened in order that people can come to Leinster House to see the outstanding work that has been done. We will have tours at weekends in the autumn once Leinster House is reopened as I anticipate a very high level of interest in coming to see the refurbished building.
We have discussed the Oireachtas television service quite a bit. Some of us here do not get to see all of the programming and might hear people saying they were watching us on a Saturday morning or Sunday evening, for example, which is good. The delegation can send us a note if the information is not to hand, but where is the channel hosted? Is it hosted on Saorview, Sky or Virgin Media?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
It is hosted everywhere. In designing and rolling out the service we were really conscious that people should be able to watch the proceedings in the Oireachtas no matter what platform they used. It is hosted, first and foremost, on Saorview, which is a free service. That is important as many people have it as a second service within their household. We also have it on Sky. The signals are transmitted to the satellite and down again. It is on what is now called Virgin Media and also available on the web. It is carried on every platform operating in Ireland.
"Oireachtas Report" used to go out on RTÉ at 11 p.m., midnight or 12.30 a.m. The case has been made that the numbers watching it were quite low, but the programme was useful as it summarised proceedings on the day after a little editing. Now people can watch us to their heart's content for several hours. What work is being done to discover the numbers watching these television channels?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The television service must be looked at in the context of our overall communications strategy, of which it is one of a number of elements. It is interesting as some of the recent poll findings indicate that the level of trust in the institution has gone up by quite a considerable amount. It has increased by four or five percentage points in the past few years. I am not saying it is attributable entirely to what we are doing-----
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
No; it is independent research carried out by Eurobarometer. The level of trust in the institution has gone up considerably. It is due to a number of factors, but I would like to think part of the reason is what we are doing in opening the Oireachtas to the people in order that they can see for themselves what is going on. A very strong objective is people should be able to access the Oireachtas on whatever platform they choose. Younger people will use their mobile devices and look at proceedings on their way home on the bus or in the evening, but older people are in the demographic who predominantly watch television. We are trying to create an offering for all segments of the population in order that they can see the work being done in Leinster House.
We will go back to the big issue mentioned, the Angela Kerins case. There is a committee working to report to the Committee on Procedure, etc. Will Mr. Finnegan run through the four points in the letter? The Supreme Court mentioned remit.
As Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, I fully accept the decision and have no issue with anything stated. I have said several times that it is not a "chilling effect", that it could give us an opportunity to be proactive and improve how we operate.
I see nothing negative with the overall issue. Some people might present it in that way; that is their affair. Does the Secretary General fully accept the Supreme Court decision from point of view of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service?
I think we can agree on this. The remit of the various committees needs to be looked at. Whether that means people working within their remit or whether their remit needs to be enlarged or narrowed, there is quite an issue to be looked at there.
I have said this publicly several times. Witnesses get invitations. The Secretary General will know that over the decades no member or Chairman of a committee has ever seen the invitations that went out to the witnesses. We have never had sight of that. That needs to be addressed among other things in terms of the content. There clearly was a failure, which I am acknowledging. I accept the Supreme Court ruling that the issue of the invitations needs to be dealt with. The Supreme Court felt it was a sufficiently significant issue to deal with. Every committee Chairman in this Dáil and previous Dáileanna must have felt, "What are we talking about? We never saw an invitation." Clearly that issue needs to be dealt with, not only making sure members are familiar with what is in the invitation but also that it is clear in what it says. We are agreed on that.
The next issue is the third issue.
It should not have taken the Supreme Court to tell us that in an Oireachtas of 218 Members with 28 of them being elevated to a position of Chairperson there should have been a programme of training to be a committee Chairperson. In the Oireachtas we have all been collectively remiss in not having any programme for training Chairpersons. The Supreme Court felt it was such an important issue that it specifically highlighted it. It is good. We will do it now. Having heard from the Supreme Court it is blatantly obvious we should have done something about Chairpersons getting some training. I am sure that if somebody within the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is promoted to a role he or she never held before, there must be some element of training of what the new role is about. We accept that that is long overdue and very necessary.
Is it correct that there were no remedies in place where there was a problem for a particular witness?
I will summarise and give my view. The Secretary General may concur. Everything that the Supreme Court found should be the case was patently obvious. There is nothing one could quibble with. That is how I see it. Mr. Finnegan is working to implement that.
I would make one suggestion. Given that the Oireachtas has been told to deal with these four issues, we could take a very restrictive view and deal with the four specific issues or use the opportunity of the Supreme Court ruling to see if there is anything else we need to do. Rather than taking a very restrictive reactive approach to the Supreme Court decision, perhaps we could take a more proactive approach in terms of issues that need to be dealt with because we do not want to deal with these four and find in eight years' time another four are mentioned that we should have picked up on at this stage. I am saying we should learn not just the specifics but the broader lessons.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Yes. That is a very fair point. By virtue of the fact that we are doing a consultation process with the committee Chairs and also members of committees, one would hope that if there are other issues out there, they will be identified as part of that process and we would be able to deal with them.
Mr. Michael Errity:
The OPW through its own statutory arrangements carries out what it calls a Part 9 planning process, where it puts up the normal information boards, etc., that one would associate with planning permission and then an independent assessment is carried out within the OPW, taking in the views of people such as Dublin City Council and anybody else who would come forward with submissions, the same as any other planning permission, the only difference being it is the OPW as a State body that makes the decision rather than the relevant local authority.
There is nothing wrong with what is being done, but it is a bit unusual in this day and age that an organisation that carries out the work is the organisation that gives itself the permission to carry out the work. I just leave that out there.
All I am saying as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts - this is nothing unusual - is that this committee does not share Mr. Errity's confidence in the ability of the OPW. This project started at whatever it started with and now it is whatever it is. OPW officials have appeared before this committee and there is a special report by the Comptroller and Auditor General on moving the Department of Health from Hawkins House to Miesian Plaza. We found the procedures were not as good as we would have expected. I can understand some people saying that the OPW is very competent, but the Committee of Public Accounts has not always found that to be the case. I would not be able to share Mr. Errity's 100% confidence. That is not a reflection on him; it is a comment about the OPW in respect of what we find when its officials appear before this committee. Just because it is the OPW it does not mean it is right in everything it does.
Leinster House is exempt from the normal planning process, which is fine. Would the same apply to a fire certificate? In the same way that all public buildings need a fire certificate from the local authority, would each of the buildings in this complex have a fire certificate?
Mr. Michael Errity:
There is not a fire certificate for this building, because some of the parts of the building existed before the building control legislation, but the OPW has its own central arrangement for fire certificates and carries out its own fire tests. It has a parallel process to, what one might call, the private sector fire certificate.
However, again it is issuing fire certificates for buildings for which it does the work. We are back to the same moot point. I am not saying there is a problem, but I am pointing out the difference in approach.
What is the energy rating of the building that we have just spent €17 million on refurbishing?
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
I know from talking to some of the people on site that when one is dealing with an historic building there is a limit to how much one can achieve in terms of energy rating.
On the overall issue of sustainability, etc., one of our key goals over the next three years is to develop a sustainability plan for the Oireachtas. As recently as Tuesday, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission agreed to a biodiversity plan for Merrion Lawn which is going to be implemented over the coming months. We are acutely aware of the need to make progress in this area. We are in discussions with the OPW about installing electric charging points for cars. We aim to basically progress these initiatives over the course of a number of months alongside our sustainability plan.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
On the energy, let me just go to this before I answer the Chairman's question. Basically for 2018 our facilities unit reported a 27.8% saving on energy efficiency.
This is the energy indicator used for reporting to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and will comprise the data included in that authority's annual report. A key focus of the energy-management activities of the Oireachtas has been the participation in optimising power at work. There is an energy-awareness campaign in place in 300 buildings owned or leased by the OPW. It aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by reducing energy consumption in the public sector.
Gas and wood pellets. I will ask Mr. Finnegan to send on a note in regard to the energy rating of the building that is being fully refurbished and the form of fuel used to heat or cool it, as the case may be. There is a lot of hot air. We could generate quite a bit of that sometimes but it has to be cooled as well. Consider all the talk about climate change, bearing in mind that we have had a climate change committee and are setting up a new climate change committee. Representatives of the Department responsible for climate change were here and we asked them what changes were made in their head office. The answer is a bit like Mr. Finnegan's. There was not an answer. I am just saying that, somewhere in the public service, we have to begin to practise what we are preaching. That is all I will say about saying that.
With regard to the security of the building, last year and whenever, there was one or two occasions when Members could not get out through the front gate. Any national parliament should be able to have guaranteed access. It has not happened on every occasion. Sometimes the protesters were allowed up to the gate. Maybe the numbers were higher than expected or maybe there were not enough personnel on duty outside. I presume that is on the risk register.
I am aware of that but that is why I asked the question. I want to get it out in the public arena. The delegates will send us a detailed note that we can publish because the public would like to see the information.
Rather than going into it now, could Mr. Finnegan send a breakdown of the categories, including retired Members, retired staff, etc.? Could the numbers pertaining to Members' staff and civil servants be translated into whole-time equivalents? I see there are 564 on the payroll here and 450 members of staff. I cannot work up to the 2,027 that Mr. Finnegan mentioned in his statement.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The figures are as follows: political pensioners and former MEPs, 235; former Members - pensioners, 418; Civil Service and catering staff above junior clerk, 340. We have a weekly payroll that consists of political staff, clerical officers, staff in the bar, catering staff, ushers, service officers and cleaners. They total 815. There are 218 Members. We actually have one MEP.
Mr. Finnegan referred to the new IT system, which I am sure is very good and is being rolled out as we speak, and stated it has many benefits. What training has been offered to the staff in order to upgrade them? Was it in-house? How was that done?
I am happy for Mr. Finnegan to send it on. We do not need it now. When I saw the 2,000 figure, it just did not gel with me. The big issue I want to raise over training – I am making a practical suggestion that I do not believe would cost much at all – concerns staff. There are two categories of staff: the Civil Service staff, which Mr. Finnegan looks after, and the Members' staff. The latter are not civil servants and can kind of toddle along as they like. The group I am most concerned about comprises the Members' staff who operate in constituency offices. They have zero personal contact with Leinster House, other than when they ring extension 4444, if they want to avail of an IT service. An assistant goes down, wires up what is required and then leaves. I suggest it would be a big help to the operation of the Oireachtas if a programme could be put in place, even for half a day per year, to visit the constituency offices to train the Members' staff there. They have no access. They will not come here from all over the country for a day's training twice per year. All it would take is one of two of the people doing the training to create a programme. As Oireachtas staff install the equipment, all it would take would be for someone to give a few hours' training a week later.
Things do change. Staff will say a service was on the old system but not on the new one, for example. What I suggest does not represent a big cost. Staff are being sent around with the hardware and should also be sent around to give a bit of help with the software. The constituency staff are Oireachtas staff and are making the whole system work. They are the utterly poor relations when it comes to training. I realise Mr. Finnegan will say emails go out offering training but I am more interested in the take-up of training. The delegates might consider that.
My view could be echoed by many Deputies whose staff are not based on the premises.
Let us consider the additional research staff and the Parliamentary Budget Office staff. I thank the Library and Research Service for giving me yesterday the research document I asked for a couple of weeks ago. How many staff are involved in research by comparison with the Parliamentary Budget Office staff? We regularly get very good updates from the Parliamentary Budget Office. The committees could do with some dedicated research resources across the board. I feel the Parliamentary Budget Office and the committee it works with have a very high level of research staff available. We see material emerging weekly or sometimes much more often whereas many of the committees could possibly do with a slice of that research facility. Could Mr. Finnegan talk to me about that.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
The Parliamentary Budget Office, which is now in its second year, has 13 staff in total. Its director is Ms Annette Connolly, who is at assistant secretary level. It has one principal officer, Ms Denise O'Connell, who is just behind me. There are five assistant principal officers, five administrative officers and one clerical officer. The office provides a service for all of the Oireachtas. It works with the budget oversight committee on budgetary matters but its publications are available to all the Members. On committees, the overall number is about 81.
Mr. Peter Finnegan:
Absolutely. It is a positive reflection on the Houses of the Oireachtas because it helps us attract staff but it does mean that we have this turnover. We are interested in bringing in the best people we can. They may stay with us for a short period or a longer period. If they stay for a short period, they move on and we try to replace them.
Will Mr. Finnegan look at the research facilities for committees because certain committees have some, while others have none. Some members of staff can be very good at this. It makes for a better Oireachtas if Members are more prepared. That is only a suggestion.
We have completed our questioning. We are well ahead of the Vote so that is good. There is nothing contentious. I thank all the staff for coming before us. We meet on the corridors most days and it is good to meet in a formal setting. Mr. Finnegan and his team have been as friendly, courteous and helpful today as they always are when we meet in the normal course of our work. I thank the witnesses from the Houses of the Oireachtas Service for their attendance and the information provided for today's meeting. I also thank the Comptroller and Auditor General and his officials. I wish everyone present a pleasant summer. It is agreed that the Clerk of the Dáil will follow up on information and actions that have been requested.