Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 11 July 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to the committee. Apologies have been received from Deputies Deering and Aylward.
Are the minutes of the meetings on the meeting of 20 June, 27 June and 4 July agreed? Agreed. I do not think there is any matter arising from the minutes that we will not deal with during the course of the meeting.
In regard to correspondence category A, the committee received Nos. 2310 A and 2313 A from Mr. Peter Finnegan, Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. They are his opening statement and the briefing documents for today’s meeting, which we note and publish.
Category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow up to meetings of the committee and other items for publishing. No. 2301 B is from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, dated 5 July 2019 providing clarification in regard to information previously provided to the committee regarding the Protected Disclosures Act 2014.
I find this correspondence very confusing. Mr. Ó Foghlú is qualifying what he said previously. This goes back to the last Committee of Public Accounts. I would like to hold this correspondence until September and deal with it then. There are a number of issues around analysing what he said at the committee versus what is said in this letter.
We will hold it over for discussion at the next meeting.
No. 2309 B is from Mr. Jim Gibson, acting CEO, Tusla, dated 9 July 2019 providing information requested by the committee at a recent meeting. We asked about the difference in remuneration for social workers recruited by Tusla as opposed to those employed via agencies. He supplied a table, which includes a social worker on the first point at €778 per week giving net weekly pay of €556. He said the difference between directly employed staff and agency staff is €91.24. Nowhere do I see a detailed breakdown of agency staff at an hourly and equivalent rate. I do not follow the correspondence. We need clarification.
The second matter relates to the Five Rivers agency, a private fostering agency operated in Ireland. It has approximately 42 staff and operate nationally with a head office in Dublin. He confirms payment to that organisation in 2018 was €8.457 million. I would like clarification as to whether that figure includes payment to staff and fostering families, and a breakdown of what it costs to run the Five Rivers agency vis-à-viswhat is paid to the fostering families. Presumably the €8.457 million also includes the cost to the fostering families but I do not know and it is not clear from the letter.
We need clarification on that.
We also asked Tusla for a breakdown of the €18 million budget for the 121 family resource centres around the country. That has been provided. We asked for a breakdown of the family resource centres by county, which has been provided in the appendix. We sought a note on the operation of children and young person services committees, CYPSCs, which is provided. We were given a note on that. We will note and publish this documentation but we need to write back.
It is helpful. We all receive representations and I have heard from foster mothers who are at the end of their tether due to lack of back up. Then we have these private companies where there is no procurement and lots of money. My question is on the procurement. Tusla is following up on the Five Rivers agency because that is what we asked about but are there other agencies in addition to that one? We asked for a note on the Five Rivers agency contract to include details of remuneration paid to it and so on. To be fair, that is what we asked for but it begs the question as to whether there are others and what is the value of that. More importantly, what is the value of that to mothers on the ground who are struggling? I could not let that go because I will be meeting the foster mothers again on Monday and I have met them every week as most of us have. They are at the end of their tethers looking for the most basic help from the health executive.
We specifically only asked about one, and perhaps it is the main agency. I do not know, but we will ask for further elaboration. We will note and publish the correspondence and seek further clarification on those items.
This may be a good time to note that we want to put a procedure in place in relation to correspondence received during the summer. We cannot have a situation where correspondence is sitting here for a couple of months and would like some method by which to circulate it. I will make one suggestion. I note that the last day for submission of parliamentary questions is 23 July and further parliamentary questions can be answered by 6 September. What are members' views on that? I am not suggesting that we do it too often during the summer but we could circulate correspondence to members at the end of July and perhaps the end of August or the first week of September. It is not that we will not have to deal with it when we return in September but some of it refers to current issues which we have asked about. If information arrives in next week, it would be dreadful if we, as members of the committee, would not see it.
We are talking about category A, although there will probably be no correspondence as there will be no opening statements, and category B which is from Accounting Officers. We are not talking about category C correspondence from individuals, which we never publish. We are talking about items that would be in the public arena arising from our public meetings, namely, category B. We will do it around the end of July and the end August and we will give the secretariat some flexibility in getting it to us. It would be dreadful if we asked questions today and the answers came in next week but we would have to wait two months for them. I thank the secretariat and we will ask it to do its best on that. There is a system in place for parliamentary questions during recess, so we are not setting and new ground.
No. 2312 B is from the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, dated 5 July 2019 providing his response to our report on the examination of matters in relation to receipts from corporation tax, which we will note and publish. The Minister sent a note during the week. The committee issued this report in June 2018 but I think the ministerial response probably got lost in the mix in the Department. We have received responses from our other periodic reports, Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, and the Department probably spotted that this was not there.
We can make a quick note of it but much of it relates to items in the public domain. We will continually come back to issues such as corporation tax.
Our first recommendation was on the concentrated nature of corporation tax receipts. We had asked for a special report but the Minister stated that one had been conducted by Revenue over the course of finance discussions some time ago. He said the matter was under review and we will all be keeping it under review. We will note that.
We asked for details of PAYE paid by participators in close companies. The Minister said:
To a large extent the close company provisions are designed to modify behaviour by preventing certain activities. Revenue statistics provided to the Committee indicate that approximately 4% of close companies paid the surcharge in 2015 and approximately 4.3% of close companies paid the surcharge in 2014. These figures indicate the effectiveness of that provision and Revenue is satisfied that the application of close company rules is achieving its intended purpose.
The Minister has given a two-page response but I am only reading out his concluding paragraph. We will note and publish this.
I am on the bottom of page 5. If any member wants to take up this issue, that would be useful as we approach the next budget because this information can be used in discussions of tax matters. It is not exclusive to the Committee of Public Accounts.
We recommended separating the carry-forward losses for corporation tax between losses forward and capital allowances. We asked Revenue to distinguish between those and have a separate line on tax returns to capture that information. The Minister does not think this would provide much additional information. However, Revenue has since written back to us to say it is a legislative matter. It has separately told us that it cannot seek information to which there is no legislative basis, so if members want to achieve that, it would require an amendment to the Finance Bill. The committee has taken this issue as far as it can. It is now up to individual Deputies to decide if they want to bring it to the Oireachtas as part of the Finance Bill.
We made another recommendation on the sustainability of corporation tax. The Minister had previously prepared a paper on this for the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, which he has attached. It is a live issue, and we note that.
On double taxation agreements, we concluded: "The Department of Finance should ensure mechanisms are in place to verify any claims for double taxation relief made in Ireland by companies that are non-resident In Ireland." The final paragraph of the Minister's response states:
While Revenue do have information from corporation tax returns on the number of non-resident companies who file returns in Ireland and the amount of corporation tax paid, they do not have available information in relation to any claims for double taxation relief made by these companies in their country of tax residence. In practical terms it would be difficult to obtain such information and, as it is the country of tax residence that would be granting relief for Irish tax already paid on the same income, it would primarily be a matter for that country to verify the claim before granting the relief.
These companies are non-resident in Ireland for tax purposes and the Minister says the onus is on revenue authorities in the countries in which they are tax resident. We made a fair point and that is probably a legitimate answer.
We asked about the effective rate of corporation tax and recommended: "The Department of Finance should examine this matter such that there is general agreement on a single most appropriate method for calculating the effective rate of Corporation Tax on company profits." In his response, the Minister refers to about five different methods of calculation. Two or three of them are from the OECD but every international body has a different definition of the effective rate of corporation tax. The Minister says each report can add value because they all have different nuances. He does not agree that there should be one effective rate because there is no international agreement on the matter.
We referred to real estate investment trusts and stated: "The Department of Finance should carry out a review of the Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) regime to ensure that domestic and EU ownership is being encouraged appropriately." Our concern was many of these REITs are from outside the EU. The Minister's conclusion states:
REITS provide a number of benefits for investors when compared to direct property investment, including diversification of risk, increased liquidity, lower entry costs, and regular income streams. They were designed to provide investors with access to investment in real estate without buying property directly. This reduces the risk to both landlords and tenants that results from the more common model, in the Irish residential property market in particular, of an individual landlord owning one or two heavily-leveraged rental properties.
The role of REITs which come into Ireland to buy up entire blocks is a big political debate. Local people cannot buy anything because everything is being bought by REITs. We will note the Minister's response and put it on the record. These are all policy issues, which we will be discussing.
REITs were recently described as the gift that keeps on giving. While I accept this is a policy area, we will return to this issue in time and ask if the REITs were value for money. Rather than seeing it in hindsight, we can see forward with 20:20 vision. If one could make that prediction now, we would say the REITs are clearly not value for money. It is extremely frustrating that we can see that and that it is happening in real time.
The legislation for REITs, through the taxation method of incentivising investment, is a form of social engineering which attempts to move Ireland towards rental accommodation and away from home ownership. Some might agree that is a good policy and some might not, but it means there is an incentive for a large number of properties coming on stream to go into the long-term rental market as opposed to being owned by people.
We will note the Minister's response and members can use that information in debates both now and in the future.
The next item of correspondence is from Mr. Derek Moran, Secretary General at the Department of Finance, providing a response to matters raised at the meeting in May. It is a detailed response and I thank him for it. It is a good example of being on top of one's brief, as were the representatives of the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, who were here last week. They were very professional in answering questions and the meeting went off without a hitch. I ask all Departments to follow suit in order to make life much easier both for themselves and the committee.
Parts of this response from the Department of Finance relate to the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, which we will be discussing in private session this afternoon. Mr. Moran provides a note on the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. He also gives details of the two sets of litigants in the cases taken regarding the liquidation of IBRC, including a note on the cost of defending these cases. He provides a history of the case taken by Mr. David Hall and also mentions that Mr. Paddy McKillen has issued a second plenary summons in relation to a different matter. That is on the public record.
Mr. Moran provides details on the advice of KPMG in relation to the IBRC liquidation, including terms of reference and dates of contact. He confirms the following: "As part of the preparatory work leading up to the Special Liquidation of IBRC, Kieran Wallace was consulted on a confidential basis as set out in the engagement letter dated 7 February 2013 between the Department of Finance and KPMG." That was around the time the special legislation went through. Mr. Moran further states: "A copy of this letter was provided to the Committee on 19 January 2018 and sets out the services provided to the Department in relation to general restructuring advice and acting as Special Liquidator."
The next issue we asked for information on was the Minister's decision not to follow the recommendation of the Committee of Public Accounts to establish a committee of inspection on IBRC. Mr. Moran gives a detailed response stating, essentially, that the purpose of a committee of inspection is to protect the unsecured creditors. He confirms that, ultimately, the only unsecured creditor in this case will be the State and that the Minister for Finance, as the shareholder, will deal with that. The Department of Finance isde facto the only unsecured creditor and Mr. Moran believes nobody else could be on an inspection committee, as there is no other unsecured creditor. Only the State and the taxpayer will be at a loss. Special legislation was enacted to set aside the normal provisions in the Companies Act because, ultimately, only one unsecured creditor was to be expected at the end of the day. It is a policy matter, as the issue arises from the legislation and that is the essence of what we will be discussing this afternoon. Our concern is the lack of oversight by the Department, which is not doing as thorough a job as a committee of inspection would normally do, as we have highlighted. It is not providing adequate resources and is only monitoring what comes in.
I will read on. A note on the Exchequer borrowing-----
I will do my best. I have had a glance of this only in the last 20 minutes. Essentially, in a liquidation the unsecured creditors, which can include trade creditors, come together and employ the liquidator - Revenue is regularly involved - to look after their interests and recover as much money as possible for them. The Minister is saying that when the Department came to the IBRC it had been nationalised. The Government decided to liquidate it, and it was clear at that stage that the only unsecured creditor likely to be standing at the end of the liquidation process was the State, which is now the case. The Minister is saying there is only one unsecured creditor, namely, the Minister for Finance acting on behalf of all the citizens of Ireland. The Government is therefore saying it disapplied the Companies Act committee of inspection provisions that would apply in a normal liquidation because this liquidation was different in that there was only one unsecured creditor, namely, the Minister for Finance as the shareholder. He is therefore saying he is the committee of inspection and the only one looking for money at the end of this process to come back to him on behalf of us. He is saying the Department took over the job of the committee of inspection. That job would normally be done by a committee of several creditors. I am explaining this as best I can. I am not defending the Minister's position but outlining it to Deputy Connolly as I read it. The Oireachtas agreed to this, which is the other point.
-----and we got it at 10 p.m. The criticism was that there was inadequate time for scrutiny before the Bill passed all Stages. In fact, the very point that was made was that we were missing things in the Bill by virtue of the fact that we did not have the time to scrutinise it properly and we were advised that it had to be adopted before the markets opened in the morning. It is very easy to miss things in such a scenario, which is important to say if we are saying the Oireachtas passed the legislation. In the normal course of events it is a court that supervises a liquidation. This is the biggest liquidation in the history of the State. The point the Chairman made is the point we have been trying to make, that is, that it is a matter of scrutiny and oversight. Let us consider the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA. The Comptroller and Auditor General audits NAMA and has a number of people within the agency with oversight of what is happening. This was Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society. While we are probably getting the best return available from anything that was disposed of, we do not have sight of that to the same extent as we have sight of-----
-----assets that are disposed of by NAMA. It was an enormous amount of money. The Minister is certainly not going to accede to a committee of inspection - I see the point - but there remains a deficiency in the oversight.
The Deputy is absolutely right. When one stands back and looks at this it is clear that, as a result of the banking crisis, we put most of the debt into NAMA for it to manage and to get the best return for the taxpayer. NAMA is a public body audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General. It has come before this committee and the finance and public expenditure committee. There is total public scrutiny of NAMA's activity. This was part of the same exercise. There were bank debts but a special liquidation process was set up without public scrutiny, auditing by the Comptroller and Auditor General or oversight from the finance committee of the Houses or the Committee of Public Accounts. In hindsight, perhaps there should have been a subsidiary of NAMA set up to oversee the liquidation. It is too late to have that conversation now but, in retrospect, I think all the oversight we have over NAMA could have been achieved in the case of this body had we taken a different route from that of the special liquidator. However, that is a policy matter. At this stage, one of the biggest criticisms is probably that we took the liquidation of IBRC away from public scrutiny and transparency. We did not do so with the other bank debts. We put them into NAMA. That was a big call, and that is probably the essence of the reason we continue to debate this issue. There is a lack of transparency and oversight.
I was just trying to clarify the matter. What the Minister is saying in response is that the committee disallowed that part of the Companies Act such that there is no such provision now. They went out of their way. That is my interpretation.
Now we have Mr. Hall taking proceedings to bring clarity, supervision and oversight that should have been there from day one. I used the term "fáinne fí", a vicious circle, yesterday in the Dáil. This is certainly a fáinne fí. We set the body up, we take it out of scrutiny and then we place the burden of securing scrutiny on a member of the public. We are going around in circles. It really is mind-boggling. This is not to mention getting one's head around the language alone. I am thinking of people watching these proceedings. We cannot sit here and say there is proper scrutiny of this process.
Obviously, this will come up in the context of the Department of Finance, which is audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, but what would have been the difference between the Comptroller and Auditor General auditing this and auditing NAMA or being embedded in the same way? Would there have been a difference? Was the Office of the Attorney General even consulted?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
No, we certainly were not consulted on the matter. It is hard to say. In a way, the audit of NAMA in itself is somewhat exceptional.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes, so a special arrangement was made. I would not be involved in an audit carried out in the normal way, whereby there is a commercial trading and a commercial activity. That is the standard. There is an expectation that market disciplines would drive commercial decision-making. Therefore, it is not necessary for the audit to be carried out by me and for there to be oversight by the Committee of Public Accounts. I think that is the logic of the distinction that is made between my auditing State-supported activities on the one hand and, on the other, commercial or quasi-commercial activities such as the ESB, Bord Gáis, Coillte and so on.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
That does not necessarily mean that they are being sold for less than market value. That is really where the driver is expected to be - the trading or the disposal of assets on a market basis. That is the obligation in the law. That is what applies in the case of NAMA as well, of course, and there can be disputes in certain situations as to what is the best commercial return, as we know.
My understanding is that IBRC, as liquidated, is required to sell to the highest bidder. That had not been the case, as demonstrated in the pre-liquidated entity. That is why we are having a commission of investigation.
If we think back to the NAMA legislation, it went through quite a lot of Dáil debate and discussion. The Minister had some documents out there well in advance. It was highly teased out. I am sure there are still flaws in it. We spotted the flaws in section 172 here as a result of our work ten years on, or perhaps it was known much earlier in the Department, but the Dáil did not seem to pick it up. This was emergency legislation that was rushed through. We can see the consequences now, but my recollection is that the Department was willing to come in and talk about that. Kieran Wallace, I think, was due to come before the committee as well. However, the initiation of court proceedings stopped the meeting from going ahead. One could argue that the reason we do not have the level of scrutiny at the Committee of Public Accounts is the court case. The Department said it was most anxious to come in, and the liquidator was most anxious to come in and speak as much as he could. However, once the court case was initiated, it stopped them coming in. It is a pity there is not public scrutiny here.
We will have a private meeting this afternoon with David Hall and others specifically on this topic. Our concerns have been well ventilated here. The next notes in this correspondence are 5 and 6, which relate to the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, which will be noted and published but we will discuss it in private session.
Note 7 is the Exchequer borrowing requirement to refinance the commercial Irish Water loans.
Note 8 is the year-on-year decrease in loans to the Housing Finance Agency, HFA, between 2013 and 2017, to include details of any impact on the ability of the HFA to deliver new housing stock. We will note this. People can comment on that and use this information.
Note 9 is on the possible fines that can be levied against Ireland by the European Commission in respect of missed climate targets, to include details of the availability of carbon credits and their potential to offset fines. We will note this and specifically cover it in our periodic report during the week.
Note 10 is on the €14.5 million recovered from Aughinish Alumina, to include details of the deposit account in which it is being held and any fees or interest applicable. There also is a detailed note on that. A hearing took place on this on 2 April 2019 and a judgment is awaited. The money - approximately €15 million - has been left in a general zero interest account, or thereabouts, and is lodged with Danske Bank after a recommendation by the Comptroller and Auditor General some time ago. Note 10 is on the internal scoping exercise being carried out by the Department, to include details of the start and completion dates. This relates to the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report on Ireland's transactions with the EU. That is all noted.
The following notes, 11 and 12, are schedules and breakdowns on categories and grades of staff set out.
Note 13 is on the public interest directors as appointed to various banking bodies by the Minister, to include clarification of the role, structures, recent appointments and when any outstanding appointments are due to be completed. Members can read that information. We covered that subject generally at the meeting.
Note 14 is on the surge in corporation tax receipts in recent years and the development of GNI* to include the effect of multinational activity on Ireland’s EU contributions. There is a detailed note on this and the figures are given for 2016, 2017 and 2018. The correspondence refers to the budget contributions and a paper that has been commissioned in this regard. Mr. Moran stated in his correspondence:
Finally, it should be noted that the Minister for Finance has commissioned a paper to highlight some of these in-built vulnerabilities and to quantify where possible, the impact of such a shock. [This is a reference to the corporation tax issue] Potential solutions to this are presented in order to prompt a policy discussion around how best to mitigate against this emerging over-reliance [on corporation tax]. It is the Minister's intention to give consideration to these - and possibly other suggestions - with a view to making recommendations to Government in the autumn. [That obviously means before the budget]
This review of the potential over-reliance on corporation tax is being reviewed and we would expect to see information on that published before the autumn. Members should note that for the end of September. We need sight of that before the budget.
Note 15 is on the projected changes to Ireland's EU contributions and money received in the event of Brexit. Mr. Moran does not give the figure because he said it is sensitive information currently, but I believe a figure was mentioned by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade yesterday.
The final item in Mr. Moran's correspondence is note 16 on An Post National Lottery Company entering voluntary liquidation after the sale of the franchise to include details of the winding-up process, the transfer of unclaimed prizes and any difficulties encountered. The board has liquidated all of its assets and cash in hand, but the transfer of expired unclaimed prizes did not impact on the matter because they were now defunct. That fund of unclaimed prizes is managed and controlled by the Regulator of the National Lottery. While Premier Lotteries Ireland - the private operator - sought these expired unclaimed prizes to supplement lottery prizes to supplement its lottery prize money the Department considers that the proper and legal course is that these moneys should be returned to the Exchequer, in support of the subvention of good causes, and Mr. Moran's Department has written to the national lottery regulator accordingly. The regulator has sought some additional information from the Department, which has recently been provided, and the Department currently awaits the regulator's decision. That issue of unclaimed prizes is being dealt with by the Regulator of the National Lottery and the Department is looking for the money to be returned to the Exchequer for good causes. They await a final outcome from the regulator on that. I apologise for all of those long documents but it is good to clear them.
We will move on to category C, which is correspondence from private individuals and other correspondence.
No. 2253C is from an individual, dated 16 May 2019, requesting the committee to make an inquiry regarding the University of Limerick student records system. A significant level of detail is provided in this correspondence and at our committee meeting on 20 June 2019 we decided to hold it over for further consideration. We had previously requested the University of Limerick for a response and the reply from the university stated there was no record of a submission from the individual concerned. It goes back a number of years to 2011 and 2012. As the matter is highlighted the individual has come forward stating that the grades she received in 2011 and 2012 were not adequately recorded. The individual has written again to the committee and it appears that she brought the matter to the attention of certain individuals at the college but not through the normal proper structures to have a regrading looked at. The individual is now saying that the college is not going back to 2011 and 2012. This matter is not within the remit of the committee and I do not see how the committee can help any further. We have exhausted this with the university directly. I propose to advise the individual that if she believes she was not treated fairly, she should contact the Office of the Ombudsman, if she has not already done that. We have taken it as far as we can. We are disappointed we did not get satisfaction but we cannot take it any further. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2299C is anonymous correspondence in respect of Maynooth university. At our meeting on 27 June, the committee considered the 2018 accounts and statements of the National University of Ireland Maynooth and noted a provision of €750,000 relating to impairment of a loan to a loss-making subsidiary company that was set up to commercialise intellectual property and to provide consultancy and training services. Will the Comptroller and Auditor General indicate whether it was a provision or a write-off?
Right. We are not getting into the essence of the details of the correspondence No. 2299C. Yesterday I received two other anonymous letters in the same vein, which I have given to the secretariat. All three of them were essentially on the same issue with regard to National University of Ireland Maynooth solely as result of us raising the matter here last week.
Related correspondence No. 2315C is another anonymous document on this and No. 2299 also poses some questions on the matter. Essentially the individuals say that the matter was well known for a number of years and ask why it was not highlighted before now. The correspondents ask why the governing body of the university did not know about it, why the Comptroller and Auditor General did not know about it and why was it not made known long before now. No. 2315C also alleges an issue of some 800 part-time staff being employed on zero-hour contracts and with no proper employment rights. These are three letters following on from the €750,000 provision query. I propose that we ask the secretariat to write to the college summarising the points of the three letters and to ask for the college to deal with these before it replies - we had written to the college asking for an explanation around the €750,000. The committee has now received additional information in the recent days. We must write a second letter summarising the points made and asking the college to deal with the issues raised in this correspondence as a result of us highlighting the matter last week. Is it agreed to allow the secretariat to proceed? Agreed. We will circulate a copy of the letter that issues to the university to the members if they wish. They will be up to speed on the matter if it arises.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The governing authority decided in the context of the 2017-18 financial statements that having examined the business of the subsidiary, it was unlikely they would have the loans returned in full. They then made the provision. I understand that the subsidiary was established only in February 2016.
It has not been up and running for long. It was anticipated that it would take some time before it came into a situation where it made a surplus or a profit. It is fully consolidated into the university financial statements anyway, so the outgoing has already been taken and presented on the consolidated side. It is only a question of the position as between the university and subsidiary. I understand, as the Chair has said, that the committee has written to the university and it is really for the university to provide more detail on the matter. I have not presented a report on it. I drew attention to it. I am constrained in being able to say anything more about it at this stage.
The onus is on the college to deal with this issue. We have written to it and will send further correspondence supplementing the earlier correspondence. We will ask it to respond to all the issues raised when it comes to reply. We will circulate the letter that we intend to issue to the members of the committee.
The other issue that was raised was that 800 employees are on zero-hour contracts. Many of them are tutors. It is quite shocking that there is such precarious employment. Would that become obvious in a set of accounts?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
No. One would not normally expect to have information about employment practices at that level of detail. My understanding from the documents that have been provided is that it refers to part-time casual employment. These are people who may be hired to tutor for a couple of hours a week or it may be on an episodic basis. There may be other colleges where a similar practice arises. A number of years ago, there was concern about contracts of indefinite duration on which people were being hired, usually on contracts for specific research projects. That position was regularised as a result of legislation in 2013 or 2003. I cannot recall offhand. Legislation has resulted in a number of employees of third level colleges being given permanent contracts with the entitlements that come with that.
As that issue of part-time staff is referred to in the correspondence we received, it will be in the letter that we write to the college.
The next item of correspondence is No. 2300C, from an individual, referring to the "broadband farce". That is the individual's view. I propose that we send the individual the copy of the sixth periodic report in which we made our recommendations on broadband. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I propose that we deal with No. 2302C in private session.
No. 2303C is from Deputy Catherine Murphy and relates to properties such as embassies owned by the State outside the country. The Deputy submitted parliamentary questions on this issue. There are 159 of them.
There are some very curious things if one compares one year with another. There may be good explanations. For example, there is a large amount of money for London but it does not look like that was purchased. We could usefully put this on our work programme for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to maybe get some proper explanations-----
We will put it on the work programme. The Comptroller and Auditor General will issue his report at the end of September so we will have that on our work programme next year when addressing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We will note and publish that. Is the Deputy happy for us to deal with it when the Department comes in?
No. 2304C is from the chairman of a group called the Renewable Gas Forum dated 5 July 2019, which wants to highlight a provision in the climate action plan regarding the provision for agriculture-sourced biomethane in heat. The matter raised is a policy matter, which is a matter for the Department. We have issued a report on climate change as it relates to us. This has come to us because of the discussion happening here. We will send this to the Department for a response. We might not analyse or comment on the response but we will ask for information on that. It might ultimately be a policy matter. Let us get the information and if it is a policy matter, we can decide who will deal with it at that stage.
No. 2305C is from Deputy Kelly following from the HSE meeting here about the capital plan.
It was not the HSE but the Department. I asked a range of questions and the Secretary General made commitments that he would come back to us quickly with answers. It has not happened. A week or two weeks is fine but I want answers before we go into recess. Can the Chairman write to him or ring him? These are basic questions.
Three weeks ago. I could be wrong and it could be two weeks. They are pretty basic questions that he said he would come back to us about straight away but he has not done so. For me, as somebody who is trying to create a jigsaw with many little pieces on a number of issues, the fact that he has not replied is worrying. I would like direct answers to my questions, please.
We will ask today to be provided with that response immediately.
No. 2308C is from an individual with some comments regarding the recent media coverage of the greyhound industry. I know the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine discussed that at length. We will definitely have Bord na gCon on our work programme in the autumn. We will get the annual accounts from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the agriculture Vote will be at the end-----
I know that it is very topical. Deputy Catherine Murphy has raised it before and asked for Bord na gCon to be brought in. I support bringing it in about the issues within our remit, which relate to how it spends its money and its corporate governance, not about animal welfare, which is more an issue for the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.
We will put it on the work programme. I received another item yesterday which I will pass on to the secretariat shortly. It has arrived for me as Chairperson and I do not want to sit on it for the summer. It is a letter from the Irish Petrol Retailers Association regarding the Valuation Office and Valuation Tribunal. We had a discussion about the Valuation Office here on 27 June. The association states that more than 1,000 appeals are waiting to be heard and that service station members have no faith in receiving a fair decision on appeal. It states that the Valuation Office is refusing to release any data on the external audits carried out in 2017 and 2019 following freedom of information requests. I propose, with the committee's agreement, that this is circulated with normal correspondence. We will ask the Valuation Office and Valuation Tribunal for a response to the letter, which I received last night and do not want to sit on for the summer. We can deal with it straight away.
I wish to raise one other issue. A number of weeks ago, we received a reply about companies in Cork Institute of Technology, CIT. I was never happy with it. I spent a few weeks trying to dig down into it. I have done much analysis. With the permission of the Chair, I will ask some questions of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, and CIT. I will put them in writing to committee members so that I do not take time here and I would appreciate if the Chairman forwarded them on. I think that the submission sent to us does not deal with the questions that we asked. I have drilled down into the companies. I cannot find information on some of them or details on some of the questions I asked. It is a bit of a whitewash and I want to go back and ask a number of questions. I will keep it to as low a number as I can.
The next item is the statements and accounts received since the last meeting. They are coming up on the screen now. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, representatives of which will be before us in a few minutes, had expenditure of €134 million. Microfinance Ireland, which had a turnover of €539,000, received a clear audit opinion. I am proposing that we put the Charities Regulatory Authority, which received a clear audit opinion in respect of its accounts, on our work programme for early in the autumn. We will include the charity funds in that meeting, if appropriate. The National Standards Authority received a clear audit opinion. All of the NAMA accounts-----
The NTMA accounts received a clear audit opinion. The Comptroller and Auditor General has highlighted non-compliant procurement in respect of the NTMA administration accounts and, in the case of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, has drawn attention to weaknesses in internal controls relating to foreign currency hedging which resulted in a loss of €721,000. We will write to the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund on that. The various NTMA accounts we are formally noting are the administration account; the national debt of Ireland account; the post office savings bank fund; the State Claims Agency, to which we will come back in the autumn; the Dormant Accounts Fund; the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, which we have just mentioned; the National Asset Management Agency investment DAC-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
These are the NAMA subsidiaries.
These are all subsidiaries. The other subsidiaries on the list are the National Asset Management DAC; the National Asset Management Group Services DAC; the National Asset Loan Management DAC; the National Asset Property Management DAC; the National Asset Management Services DAC; the National Asset JVA DAC, which is a special purpose vehicle set up by NAMA; the National Asset North Quays DAC; the National Asset Residential Property Services DAC; and the National Asset Sarasota LLC. All of those subsidiaries have received a clear audit opinion. It is a big list. We will note all of them. Representatives of NAMA will come before the committee at an early stage. The Comptroller and Auditor General is doing a special report on Project Nantes. We will wait until we have that in our possession in the autumn so we can deal with both issues on the same day.
The next item is the work programme. I want to make some suggestions. I will explain how this works practically. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report will be out at the end of September. We will have to give people at least a week to come in. We might speak to the Comptroller and Auditor General closer to that time about who we might invite in. Maybe that will happen in early October. We will probably have three meetings around the end of September and the beginning of October before we have a chance to deal with the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. I suggest that in the meantime, pending the Comptroller and Auditor General's documents, we should hear from certain organisations that have not been here before or have not been here for a long time. I think it could be very useful. Maybe we will ask the secretariat to arrange such meetings for dates around the end of September.
I suggest that an invitation be sent to the Data Protection Commissioner because data protection is a big issue in Ireland now. We have big European responsibilities here. We want to check the Data Protection Commissioner's governance and arrangements. I do not think An Bord Pleanála has been here for quite some time. People might want to see how An Bord Pleanála is being operated. The Charities Regulatory Authority has not been here for quite some time. Having gone through a list, I have decided to suggest those three organisations for early invitation. We are not waiting for the Comptroller and Auditor General's report in those cases. We will ask all three bodies to have up-to-date financial information. It will not look good if they do not have their 2018 accounts audited and available to us. If such accounts are not available, we will go ahead with the meetings anyway. The bodies in question will be required to provide draft information or something on which we can have a meaningful discussion. We need up-to-date information, even if it is awaiting publication or final sign-off.
It has been mentioned that Bord na gCon will be in at an early stage. When we get the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, we will see if there is anything on Bord na gCon in it. There are some other items that have been on our work programme for some time, but are not specifically listed for a meeting. We have said we will come back to the issues of capital projects, procurement and public private partnerships. The issue of protected disclosures is hanging around across many Departments the whole time. I think we will try to start with the Data Protection Commissioner, An Bord Pleanála and the Charities Regulatory Authority. We will consider those types of subjects. As soon as NAMA is ready with Project Nantes, officials from NAMA will be asked to come in as well. When we get the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, we will be able to move into other areas in early October. We want to let the secretariat make some arrangements over the summer so that meetings will have been arranged for us when we come back. I went through a good list before settling on the organisations I am suggesting. I think it would be useful to invite them in.
Sometimes we are delighted with its decisions and sometimes we cannot understand how its decisions are made. Things have changed somewhat with regard to An Bord Pleanála's finances since it was given a slightly different role in strategic planning applications. There is probably a larger amount of money involved now. It would not strike me as an organisation that is screaming out to be interrogated from a public accounts point of view. Maybe something is showing up in its accounts.
We will not be getting into planning decisions. An Bord Pleanála receives €17 million of taxpayers' money directly from the State. I think that is a big threshold. It is a bigger threshold than the Charities Regulatory Authority, which receives approximately €4 million. The Data Protection Commissioner receives State funding of-----
I understand that. I am probably making my point very badly. The Comptroller and Auditor General's reports throw up anomalies and things that really need to be interrogated. That is where the first call is. Sometimes, there are very big amounts of money that probably do not get the same level of scrutiny as relatively big amounts of money that are small by comparison. I am more inclined to think we should go back and look at the report to make sure we have covered the things that stand out as-----
I support the Chair in this regard. Obviously, there is a threshold in relation to the volume of spend here. While we cannot go outside our remit, there is an issue here in relation to how that spend is dealt with. Very few people here in the committee know that there was a review done of An Bord Pleanála which has been published, but as far as I remember has never really been looked at or received any airtime. It was a review of the way in which An Bord Pleanála operates. It was nothing to do with decisions. I accept that we can never go there. I agree with that principle. We must ensure there is transparency in relation to how it operates, not in relation to how it comes to its decisions or anything to do with that. People do not know how it operates. I think we would do the public a service by fleshing through how An Bord Pleanála works, why it has to exist and why it has to operate in the manner in which it operates. There is a significant threshold of money here. People need to see how transparently it is being spent.
This has been a very hard-working committee for the last year or two. We have gone through every chapter in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report for last year. The only chapter that has been held over relates to the Courts Service. We had to postpone it because we brought forward the HSE the other day. Only one chapter is left. We are up to date with every special report the Comptroller and Auditor General has issued, with the exception of a small report on education capital projects. We will deal with capital projects. We have gone through Votes systematically. Last year, we picked out groups that had not been brought in before. We brought in the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is in today. It was never in before. The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General had never been in before. We brought in the Office of the President and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. We have done a very comprehensive trawl of all the big Departments. The only non-departmental agencies with big spending issues are bodies like IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Transport Infrastructure Ireland. They were here less than a year ago. We can put them on the list. They would be the biggies among the bodies that are spending large amounts of money. It is important to let An Bord Pleanála and every other public body know that it is liable to be brought in here at some stage if there is a case for doing so.
We brought in the education and training boards. I do not think the smaller public bodies should feel they will never be brought before us.
I would like them all to realise they must always be alert. I have outlined an extensive list that includes the Heritage Council.
We will add it to the list. I want give a bit of flexibility as some of these people may not be available in the last two weeks of September. We need to have meetings scheduled when we return after the recess. People need a month's notice for their diaries and to prepare, which is why I want to give flexibility to the secretariat.
We have mentioned five or six organisations and we will work with the secretariat to line up whatever meetings we can. Some will not be possible but we need to have a few on our agenda when we come back. We will analyse the Comptroller and Auditor's Report and identify the Departments we want to meet at that stage. I suggest that we go into private session to quickly discuss one or two items of correspondence.