Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 November 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness. He is joined by Ms Geraldine Mooney, deputy director of audit.
We have received no apologies for this meeting. The first item on the agenda is the minutes of the meeting of 24 October - we had no meeting last week - together with the follow-up questions sent to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Are the minutes agreed to? Agreed.
The next item on the agenda is correspondence. The first items, Nos. 2513 and 2525, are correspondence received from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, including briefing documentation and an opening statement for today's meeting. We will note and publish the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Category B is correspondence received from Accounting Officers and/or Ministers in follow-up on matters raised at meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and other items for publication. At our last meeting we agreed to hold over some items for consideration this week. Items Nos. 2432 and 2465 are correspondence, dated 4 October 2019, received from from Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, enclosing a copy of the post-project review mentioned and referred to in our previous periodic report on the Palace Cinema project in Galway. I will make a number of brief observations.
Recommendation No. 7 on page 3, with which I am sure members will agree - I will highlight some of the recommendations made in what I stress is a 35 page document - is that performance indicators should be established for all grants funded by the cultural division and that data should be collected and collated in a systemic manner. This is a great recommendation, but in my view it does not grasp the point from the Committee of Public Accounts' point of view. This is a project within a Department that went seriously over budget. The Department's view is that within it there should be performance indicators within the cultural division. That is unacceptable from the point of view of the Committee of Public Accounts. Where mistakes like this have been made within a section in a Department, the lessons must be learned, not only within that section but also within the Department and across the public service. We will be writing to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as a result of this report to say it must put a system in place to ensure that in a case where lessons are learned, the results will not be pigeonholed in one cubbyhole in one section in one Department. That is a method that ensures there will be no learning across the public service from mistakes that happen in particular areas. The confining of the recommendation is not acceptable from the point of view of the Committee of Public Accounts.
The Department also states there is to be a Department of Public Expenditure and Reform spending code update. We will ask for a copy of it if it has been completed. The reference is included at the bottom of page 3.
Page 4 of the report essentially refers to the fact that the Committee of Public Accounts dealt with this issue in its periodic report and recommendations and that a post-project review was carried out as a result. We are pleased that that has happened. However, the Department has confined its learning from the mistakes to a very narrow section within it.
On page 6 of the report - this is a theme that arises here every week - the Department states two independent reports were commissioned to examine the demand for cultural cinema in Ireland: the Neil Connolly and Maretta Dillon report in 2001 and the report produced by the English consultants Todd in 2004. We are great at spending money in employing consultants. There is no problem with employing a consultant, but when one has to come along a short time later and employ another to examine a closely related issue, that is where we consider no proper value for money is being achieved. We had representatives of a State organisation here only a few weeks ago that essentially had four consultants looking at the same thing over a two-year period. Our concern is the overuse of consultants. Some may think we do not need them, but everybody can agree that our concern is their overuse.
Table 5 on page 9 of the report deals with the original allocation of €4.3 million for the project which ended up costing €8.3 million. The table shows where funding was received from various bodies. When site costs are included, the project was originally projected to cost €6.26 million, but it ended up costing €10.3 million. Thast is a serious overrun.
We have picked up on this project because the Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted it for us initially. Paragraph 6.5 on page 15 of the report refers to the fifth departmental review carried out in 2018 of the various cost increases over a period of time. It took five reviews to get to the end. In his report the Comptroller and Auditor General outlined some of the issues at which the Department had looked. My conclusion is that after so many reviews and consultants, the response of the Department has been to confine any learning to one narrow section within it. That is a point I have already made. There is to be no learning across the public sector on the issue.
Perhaps Deputy Connolly might like to add something. We will publish this information today, if we have not already done so.
I thank the Chairman for that overview. I was a councillor at the time and perhaps I am zoning in on the minutiae. It would be worth everyone's while to read the report. Who carries out the post-project review? Is it done within the Department?
This is certainly one project where there should have been a post-project review from within the Department, particularly because of the history of involved. When looking at the conclusions and recommendations to give us a flavour-----
I am referring to page 23, where it is stated:
Overall, it is the assessment of this review that the Department complied with the project management framework in place at the time. [That is of concern to me, regardless of whether the Department complied with it ] The final assessment of this review considers that the main problem with the project was the fact that the original project promoters, while very well-intentioned and passionate about cinema, were not sufficiently skilled to manage a project as complex as Pálás. Solas had no demonstrable experience of operating a cinema or managing a large construction project ... [and there was a] lack of relevant experience.
Passion is great. I am always giving out about a lack of passion and a lack of vision, so that is marvellous. I want to take the focus off the people who came forward with passion and vision but who did not have the experience. I will go to the Department, which saw that passion and vision, but did not match it with oversight. In the sentence I have just quoted, I am being told the Department complied with what was in place at the time. I have made notes on it. I am almost about to give up. On the one hand, the Department is saying it has learned something from it while , on the other, it is stating that it complied with what was in place at the time.
Another concern relates to the funding. It has been suggested that the operator of the cinema was the second biggest contributor after the Department. In fact, Galway City Council was the second biggest contributor because it donated the site, which was worth almost €2 million, and it gave €500,000 on top of that. This is not even recognised in this review, which is a matter of great concern.
We knew generally at the time that there were problems with this project. This is what is important. How can projects go ahead if people, including lots of councillors, had concerns? They were demonised and ostracised and told they were not wearing the Galway jersey. This was the type of conversation that happened in respect of this project. We were the ones who endorsed the project in the beginning. We did so with vision. As the problems emerged, we called for accountability. Those who dared to ask questions were told they were not donning the jersey. This is a problem that must be learnt by all public representatives.
Consider, also, the bespoke nature of the project. Perhaps somebody could explain what that means. On page 22 of the review, it is stated:
The bespoke design of the building, while architecturally significant and award-winning, does present Element Pictures with a number of challenges as operators. The Pálás cinema was designed by De Paor architects and has been described as a contemporary moulded-concrete "tower house". [And the description of it is included] ... the facade may be somewhat intimidating to people and, as such, presents a barrier to entry. Element Pictures [who have been left with this baby on their hands now] are working to make the interior as warm and inviting as possible and encourage the public to explore and experience the building. The highly bespoke nature of the building added to the overall cost of the project and over the long-run means that upkeep and refurbishment of the building will be a costly undertaking, as there are a number of functionality issues that make the building less than optimal for its intended purpose.
The Department, which might as well be working for Fáilte Ireland, goes on to give all the advantages to the cinema - which we knew and that is why we have been promoting it - and tells us how important it is for the area of Galway and the cultural quarter. It tells us that there are four houses at the site and that these will be artisan dwellings. The Department does not mention, however, that these houses have been empty since the council purchased them in 2005 or 2006. In a housing crisis, these four houses are empty, but that is not mentioned at all.
Five reviews were carried out. Fair play to the Department - it was good and carried out the five reviews. The reviews, however, were limited and each time they concluded that they had no choice but to go ahead and not have a hole in the ground. They also tell a story that is not quite accurate with regard to the first contractor. The review provided a list of reasons as to why there was a problem, one of which was the recession. Earlier in the report, it cited the design problems, delays and other issues that led the builder to walk from the building. It was not the recession. I welcome the report, and it is a starting point, but we or the Comptroller and Auditor General need to go through it.
The promotion of Galway is unnecessary in this context. It is not part of a project review. Did we succeed? Yes, we did. The idea was to build, and we did build, but it was built over a period of 11 years at a cost of €11 million, with a housing crisis in Galway and a failure to purchase a building across the road that was better value at €450,000. All along the way there were implications for the decision to continue. Element Pictures are the operators now. I wish the company the best and have always done so. I have been in the building. None of this is about personal views, it is about how we got to the stage where a project that was to cost much less ended up costing €11 million. It is about how there was no project manager. Solas was offered a project manager by the Irish Film Board and refused to accept. I am just mentioning some of the issues. There is a list of notes, but I will not delay the meeting any longer.
This project raises so many questions and generally it raises very serious questions about the use of public funds in this manner. There have been five reviews into the project that allowed more money to be paid out. Within this there is also the city council that gave a site worth €2 million and gave another €500,000 even while there was a serious problem in Galway around lack of funds for serious issues. I have gone out on a limb for the arts and I have read the arts reports for the committee. This is not about arts versus something else, it is about making very sensible and practical decisions, with proper oversight from a Department. That did not happen in this instance.
I welcome the fact that we did not go out to tender and pay somebody a couple of hundred thousand euro to compile this report. We discussed this project previously and the €11 million that was spent on it. Am I right in stating that it is run now by a private sector company? Is it also correct that it gets a preferential rent? What is the rent?
The report is standard. It is a case of circle the wagons, nobody is to blame, nobody pays the price and Galway has a piece of infrastructure. We are all proud of Galway's culture, heritage and the part it plays. With every respect to Deputy Connolly, however, Galway does pretty well out of public funds when it comes to the arts. As I said at the meeting when we first raised this, it is an abomination. If it was the private sector, there would be disciplinary action and lay-offs, and whoever was responsible would have difficulty in getting into any kind of job in the future. Yet here we have a report that says not only did it cost €11 million, but we built this €11 million building for a private sector project.
The building is so beautiful that people are frightened to go into it. We will not be able to heat it. It will cost a substantial amount of money to maintain it. The building is to be operated for the profit of a different outfit at a preferential rent. That is a disgrace. It is endemic of what goes on in this room. Whenever the State is involved, we put the car into the hedge but nobody pays the price. We put it down to experience and state that we will know better next time. Without tangible sanction for the endemic mediocrity of the apparatus of the State, this is going to happen again. It is probably happening as we speak. Without doubt, the same unit will use its training in the dark arts of circling the wagons and making a bunch of muck look like a bowl of ice cream.
This committee has to make a recommendation. There must be tangible sanction when total incompetence is endemic to the extent that we have spent €11 million for a private sector company to make profit and we have offered a preferential rent. I have nothing against Galway and its great cultural prowess. If we want to spend this €11 million in Galway it would be better spent on light rail or public transport. Galway has a traffic problem that is proportionately 100 times worse than that of Dublin, not to mention housing, health and other challenges. It is a disgrace. We cannot say it strongly enough. This is a good example on a relatively small scale of what we happens on a massive scale with projects like the national children's hospital - we throw good money after bad. The Taoiseach recently stated that the cost of the latter is heading towards €2 billion. The Deputy beside me has said it will cost more than that. God knows who will be in this room to pick up the pieces when it is finished, or how many billions it will eventually cost. The Pálás Cinema must be seen as a classic example of the incompetence of the apparatus of the State and its inability to admit when it is wrong. There must be tangible sanctions to deter such poor management practices in the future. That tangible sanction is what is missing from the work of the State.
I will be very quick because the issues have been outlined well. To find the origin of the problem we have to go back to the original decision rather than the reviews. It was the same building before this started as it was when the reviews were carried out. Over and over again we see a failure to anticipate or understand resource requirements. It is all very well to carry out a review afterwards. That is fine. The origin of many of these problems lies in the decision to take the project on and in the initial scoping. It would be useful to know if that unit of the Department has a function in identifying how those failures can be prevented in the first instance. I keep on saying that we have made a national pastime of creating problems and then trying to resolve them in reverse. In a lot of other countries projects are scoped out, the resource implications are considered, things are planned and governments do not end up with a very costly problem at the tail end.
I wish to make one or two final comments. We will obviously write to the Secretary General of the Department about the implementation of the recommendations listed on page 3. Recommendations have been made and we want to see what is happening. That is a minor point. We should write to the Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform about this issue and send this report to him. There are two issues that have been highlighted here. Deputy Connolly has noted that the value of the local authority's contribution is not dealt with in this report. We should insist that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform-----
Very well. We want to ensure that projects take a whole-of-Government approach if funding comes from various sources and not just the line Department. We also want the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to have a policy on reports. A public spending update is to be published, or perhaps it has already been published. One recommendation is that training should be mandatory. While training is currently provided, it is not mandatory. Some of the people working on projects do not bother to undergo training on the public spending code. That is insufficient.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform should insist that every project review, evaluation or value-for-money report carried out in a Department must include a section on the whole-of Government lessons from what went wrong in the unit in question. Such reports must be considered inadequate without this section. The public service is designed to confine a mistake it to the one unit in which it takes place. We have seen this in the HSE. When something goes wrong in a hospital, there is not even a mechanism in place to share the lessons learned with other hospitals. We are seeing here that when something goes wrong in the cultural division, the issue is confined to that unit of that Department. That is guaranteed to ensure that there is no whole-of-Government learning. We will ask the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure that spending codes include a requirement for every report to have a section outlining the overall lessons for the public service. Unless there is a practice of sharing of lessons learned, the current system is bound to make the same mistakes in some other Department.
I wish to make a final comment. The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht did carry out reviews, which were very welcome. Those reviews highlighted problems. Those involved did try to do this. There is a bigger issue here. This took place in a political atmosphere in which the project had to go ahead. We need to look at that element, as in the case of the national children's hospital.
Perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General could comment on project reviews. I do not know what should go into a project review, but this seems to consist of Fáilte Ireland telling us how good Galway is. The report notes that the city council "owns four properties immediately adjacent to Pálás and intends to develop these". This is a post-project review and nobody seems to have had the wit to ask why the four properties are empty. When that type of review is carried out and not one question is asked about this, one begins to question our whole way of doing things. That might be a bit unfair, but we decided to have a review. The project review says how wonderful the project is for Galway and that particular quarter, as opposed to asking how this happened.
"Wit" is the perfect word. Sometimes the language in this committee is far too politically correct to capture the disastrous approaches that are taken. This is the standard three-card trick of saying how wonderful things are. This is not a bit wonderful. There is nothing wonderful about it.
We have discussed this matter. We will get correspondence back from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht about the implementation of the narrow recommendations, and we will suggest that there should be wider lessons for the Department and for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Absolutely. Given the fact that the unit made reference to this in the report, we want to know what consideration was given to that matter.
No. 2467 is correspondence from Mr. Derek Moran, Secretary General of the Department of Finance, dated 14 October. The letter responds to our request for information on fees paid to barristers. We agreed to note and publish this two weeks ago. This concerns fees paid in respect of the Apple case. We held it over because Deputy Kelly, who raised this matter, was not here. Members will want to discuss this.
My apologies. I came in literally two minutes after the Chairman finished with this item. I was caught in traffic.
This has been going on for a long time. I have been asking questions about this since before last summer. To provide a little bit of context, this information was previously given out in response to parliamentary questions. When I looked for a subsequent update on the continuing costs, it was denied to me under the general data protection regulation, GDPR.
I also asked questions regarding the two-payments system when it comes to public servants, that is, one can only get one payment if, for instance, one works for a university, is a member of a board or anything like that. I understand that a number of people who are being paid under this actually do work in other public sector roles as well. I was absolutely shocked that this information was denied to me. I was further shocked that the Attorney General's advice was that this information cannot be given. I had help from the Ceann Comhairle in this regard, as he felt that questions should be answered. However, when it came to the advice from the Attorney General, that is where it stopped because, as we all know, such advice can never be published.
I brought this matter to the attention of the Committee of Public Accounts because I felt that it was necessary to use this forum to get some leverage as regards how we are going to get this information. Frankly, the volume of money that is being paid is a scandal but nobody knows where the money is being spent, who it has been given to, for what and in what detail. Furthermore, this matter creates a worrying precedent in cases where people are being paid, if they are constituted as individuals. This precedent that has been set by the Government means that if one constitutes oneself as an individual for payment purposes-----
-----one does not have to declare and the payment will not be made public. Consequently, were Sean Fleming a sole trader who was giving advice or doing anything for the State, we will never know how much he is being paid because the GDPR will prevent us from knowing, which is insane. This is not the reason GDPR exists.
I must thank three journalists, namely, Danny McConnell, political editor, Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Elaine Loughlin, who work for the Irish Examiner, for pursuing this matter. Subsequently, they got the Data Protection Commissioner effectively to state she does not understand why the advice has been issued or in what context and that it is not justifiable. The Irish Examinerran a story on this issue earlier this week.
We must pursue this matter in the strongest way possible. These are serious public sums and this will go on for years. A dangerous precedent is being set whereby others will be able to use this loophole, potentially, to not have the amount of the payments made or costs awarded to them for various different items of work being made known. In addition, from a Data Protection Commission point of view, it looks like this situation is not appropriate. I am in the hands of the committee but we really need to pursue this matter because frankly, such a situation cannot go on. It is against the public interest, it is against what GDPR is being used for and we will not know what people are being paid in this case. Furthermore, I suspect the Department uses the non-two-payments rule for public servants to the letter of the law in many cases but yet, when it comes to situations in which people working in public bodies constitute themselves as individuals for other payments, the two-payments system does not apply to them and we will not be able to tease that out. It is a four legs good, two legs bad scenario and that cannot be allow to happen. I thank the Chair and shall take his advice.
In the brief discussion we had the last day when this matter arose in Deputy Kelly's absence, I made many similar points. At best, we are seeing the politically opportunistic use of legislation that was not intended for that purpose. At worst, and as with actions we saw in the Dáil during the week, through the use of articles of the Constitution on money messages, it defines life in a dictatorship disguised as a democracy. I do not know what actions are open to us as a committee, but the system is all-powerful. The Office of the Attorney General is effectively the commander-in-chief in respect of all matters of definition. The intended integrity of elected representatives and the institutions within the Oireachtas itself - committees, the Dáil, the Seanad and everything else - are being undermined hand over fist as a result of legal advices, be they from the Attorney General's office or, sometimes, the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, OPLA, which sees the system as its client rather than the messengers of the people, those being, the elected representatives who try to raise these issues and ensure that information is made available to the public regarding the amounts of money paid to individuals, companies or whatever on their behalf or who exercise the will of the people through the tools available to us.
The money message issue, which is not the business of this committee this week per se, and the issue before us, which can only be described at best as the politically opportunistic use of GDPR, are deplorable and need to stop immediately.
We cannot have accountability without transparency, and the absence of transparency opens up questions that might not even be valid. No group of people are better able to advise themselves on the law than the legal profession. They are in a commanding position. I have received replies to parliamentary questions on consultancy firms advising various Departments on GDPR. The committee must get to grips with this issue, given that it will become the new “commercial sensitivity” element. We have been getting responses about “commercial sensitivity” for years.
Now, GDPR is another component of that. I am an advocate of people having their rights to privacy protected but there is a balance to be struck that reflects the public good and the public purse. We need to get to grips with this aspect, since it will continue being rolled out. For years, we have seen that doctors’ practices-----
----got the largest amounts. That was unfair sometimes, given that they could be practices with the most patients with medical cards when other practices were not accepting such patients. Some practices also had other stuff, so how the figures were presented were not entirely fair.
How is it that one profession can be in the public domain when another is not? As this will be a continuing problem for us, we had better get ourselves some good advice on GDPR.
The issue needs to be teased out. I am struck by how all of the financial arrangements and payments in respect of the Legal Aid Board, including criminal legal aid, are published. The names of the barristers and solicitors involved are set out, as are the moneys they receive. I am unsure as to how that has been the practice-----
To conclude, I will make two points. I have been at this for six months now. The Data Protection Commissioner and the Information Commissioner have effectively stated, in layman's terms, that this is rubbish and should not be done. The latter cited two examples of how this situation could be addressed. The Data Protection Commissioner, who appeared before us not so long ago, cited something as well. Mr. Graham Doyle cited, in information provided to us in written documentation, payments to individuals such as barristers for the advice that the commission took post GDPR.
I propose that we send the particulars of the case that are subject to parliamentary question and further discussion to the DPC, which appeared before us recently, as a follow-up issue that has arisen. We will ask for the DPC’s opinion on it and a letter in reply. My opinion is that, if GP practices’ figures can be published, then others can be published. If it is intended to interpret GDPR so as to ensure that no payment to any individual can ever be published again, then it would be an abuse of the legislation.
The legislation was not introduced to prevent every payment to every individual from ever being disclosed again. It was not intended for that. To be straight about it, I see what is happening in respect of the non-disclosure of fees paid to barristers, on the advice of the Attorney General, as the legal profession in the employ of the State and the barristers who are working on behalf of the State working together to protect one another. It is as simple as that. In the letter from Mr. Derek Moran, he referred to it being necessary and proportionate. Regarding the test of what is proportionate, if someone is saying that a person getting €1 million from the State – some barristers at tribunals got €2 million or €3 million over time – is not proportionate in the public interest and that it would be disproportionate to the individual who received a cheque of €3 million to have his or her name published, that is an abuse. I know what is happening. The legal profession is happy to spend the next five years in the Supreme Court and wherever else it goes to ensure that this does not come out. It just wants to run down the clock, during which time it will continue seeking not to publish the figures.
In the first instance, we will get a response from the DPC. Arising from that, the Committee of Public Accounts, of all the committees in the Oireachtas, has an absolute duty to verify to whom taxpayers’ money is being paid and for what purpose. Our committee will have a role. If we are ultimately satisfied that the legislation is not sufficiently drafted to ensure public accountability for public funds, that issue will have to be revisited. We will have a little bit of a road to travel first, but the intention of GDPR is not to protect barristers. It is an abuse of the system by the legal profession, full stop. It is the most powerful lobby and would not have been as quick were this about doctors’ fees or payments to other individuals.
I thank the Chair for his advice. I appreciate it. We will write to the DPC and travel a road in respect of this matter.
When I first started asking these questions, my motivation related to the two-payment situation. I know of many good people who have served on boards and worked in other public service jobs who adhered to the non-second payment principle. That is fine – they contribute, which is good, as we know that it can be difficult to get people to join certain boards. However, we now see a situation where information that was being made public is no longer being made public. I believe that is because the fees are so vast. As a result, GDPR is being used. In response to information being sought on the two payments, they have used GDPR as an excuse and have created a dangerous situation, one that will have to be unlocked.
I will make a final point. We might suggest to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that, where all public expenditure is concerned, tenderers should be told that their fees and costs will be public information. They would be entitled to know.
That could be a recommendation of the committee as part of our work this autumn, for example, when people make submissions for tenders, they should note that the information can be accessed under freedom of information legislation. Everybody-----
We may make a recommendation to the effect that, if anyone tenders for any public job, this note about information will be stated on the tender document. If people do not want their names published, they should not apply for the job.
Where any group is concerned, we should be careful in what we say. The issue is extremely important. I fully support the issue. We are dealing with a letter from the Department of Finance rather than maligning a whole profession.
I will put it this way – I take Deputy Connolly’s point completely. In this day and age, it is probably not politically correct to say what one believes. I am one of those people who, even if it verges a little further than some people would like-----
On that, it is difficult for me. I am an ex-barrister, so I am inclined to keep my mouth closed. Generally speaking, this committee commented before but the issue in question is much more important than the comment. It is extremely important, and we should be going right to the core of issues. I support this issue completely.
I take on board Deputy Connolly’s point. We have a road to travel on this matter.
Next is No. 2482 from Dr. Deirdre Keyes, chief executive of the Kildare and Wicklow ETB, providing information requested by the committee regarding non-compliant procurement of €1.8 million as set out in the 2016 audit accounts. We will note and publish that, as we are doing a body of work. Perhaps Deputies would like to comment.
What jumps out at me relates to the bog standard things that are involved, for example, cleaning services, schoolbooks, IT and transport by bus companies. There is nothing of a specialist nature. Actually, perhaps the IT element is. It might be a roll-over. None of this is the type of thing one should expect to find where there is not a competitive process.
Fine. We will hold this over because we will shortly be making a comprehensive compilation on this issue.
Next is No. 2483 from Mr. David Gunning, chief officer of the National Paediatric Development Hospital Board, dated 18 October, in respect of our request for an update on project costs of the new children’s hospital. We will not have a long discussion on this issue now, since the board will be appearing before us in three or four weeks’ time, but a paragraph in the letter reads:
As reported to the Public Accounts Committee in January 2019 and in May 2019, there are a number of exceptions that have always been outside of the approved budget, and for which there cannot be price certainty at this point, or for the duration of the project.
To date, we have been told that what has been tendered for and the cost overruns are within the overall budget figure. Now, however, it is clear that a number of exceptions have been outside the approved budget. We have a dual system. There is what is within the budget and a parallel system of exceptions outside the approved budget.
There is the published approved contract under which everything was to come in, but there is a separate list of exceptions for items not in the approved tender. This is where the overruns will be. The letter states that they cannot be priced at this stage or how long doing so will take. It is an extraordinary admission that there are a whole lot of items outside the general contract that will not or cannot be priced at this stage. We must get to the bottom of this. The board will be before us in a couple of weeks’ time. I will allow brief comments now, but we will not labour the point. The sentence had to be put into the public arena in light of recent comments.
It reads: “As reported to the Public Accounts Committee in January 2019 and in May 2019, there are a number of exceptions that have always been”. That is the bit that gets me.
I do not remember it. It states: "...always been outside of the approved budget, and for which there cannot be price certainty at this point, or for the duration of the project." There can be any price rather than price certainty.
There are two issues. There has been an escalation in costs at a significant scale in the space of a few months. Within five months, there has been movement from €314 million to €397 million. In any other case, there would be a national outcry over such a scale of increase but the public is conditioned to this now.
We now have a contract for construction et aland we also have, in a very convenient way for the Government, a separate process that cannot be costed on an ongoing basis and will only be revealed in years to come when the project is finished. That cannot happen.
The public deserves to know on an ongoing basis all of the costs related to this. We must remember when we spoke about this previously we were told the costs that were outlined, which had been signed off by the Government - and the Taoiseach put the figure in the public domain - were outside of issues such as fit-out and IT.
A significant number of months ago I stated the project cost would exceed €2 billion. In the Dáil, the Taoiseach did not reference me by name but said that people who were saying this were exaggerating. I now ask him to guarantee it will not exceed €2 billion. Given what is written here, the scale of the increase within a few months and the fact we now have a totally separate stream that will be uncosted, when the NPDHB is before us in a couple of weeks, we absolutely have to go through this in a level of detail that has not been seen before on behalf of the taxpayer because it is out of control. We do not know where it will end.
I do not have much to add to this but I had picked it out and underlined the relevant sentence. Effectively, it amounts to a blank cheque. The Taoiseach had signalled this earlier. It seems, if we are to believe it, that we are about to write another blank cheque for broadband provision. This is a significant concern. We are continuing down an endless road in respect of the costs of this project. They got it wrong from the beginning. They handed out the contract to the man before the house was designed at all and God knows where it will end because there is not a person in the Oireachtas who will be able to say how much it will cost until it is finished, and I would say it will be significantly more, as Deputy Kelly said.
One of the factors was flagged earlier. Wage inflation may well be a reason for an even further overrun. This is not Monopoly money and we must have serious concerns about cost control. There is an opportunity cost in what is not going to be able to be done. There is a degree of spin about this that no other project will be impacted. We have to keep a close eye on this because there is a pattern where some contractors come in low and there is an add-on. This contractor has that type of profile. The NPDHB will come before us in the coming weeks but we need to have somebody come in and speak to us about the cost control side of the project at this stage because unless we maintain a grip on it and interrogate the additional bills coming in, we will run into even bigger cost overruns.
I agree with everything that has been said and our role is to keep an eye on the costs. To go back to the Pálás Cinema, we had the exact same issue. The project started at a certain price and there were cost overruns. All of this was set out in the report. Costs arose in parallel with it, which the architect for the Department subsequently said were justified.
I forget which witnesses who came before us were asked whether the cost would stay below €2 billion. They were not in a position to say it would not. They were very upfront and told us they could not state that.
Our role is just to keep an eye on it, to check and to ask questions. The bigger picture, and excuse the bad pun with regard to the Pálás Cinema, is that once it is decided that a project will going ahead, it will go ahead regardless. In Galway, we were told we could not have a hole in the ground and it had to go ahead. In Dublin, we have been told we need the children's hospital without any analysis of the consequences of continuing with the decision or looking at an alternative or the implications for the health of children in other hospitals. Sometimes it is very difficult to see the wood for the trees.
We will note and publish it and, as I have said, the NPDHB will come before the committee in a couple of weeks.
No. 2484 B is directly related so we will not have a extensive discussion on it. It is from Ms Eilish Hardiman, chief executive of Children's Health Ireland, CHI, and is dated 17 October 2019. It is in response to our request for information relating to each consultancy project undertaken by CHI since 2016. This is also in connection with making sure that while the building is built that it will work on behalf of patients. CHI will come before the committee. It is interesting that Ms Hardiman has said there is a lot of work involved in gathering the information on the consultancy projects. We will have the information at the end of next week. We will note and publish this. CHI will come before the committee shortly. There is another stream of major costs with regard to the hospital that will pile up into a major amount. These are non-construction costs. This is why we need an overall picture of where things stand when it comes before the committee in a couple of weeks.
No. 2485 B is from Ms Carol Hanney, chief executive of City of Dublin Education and Training Board, providing an information note on the processes and procedures in SUSI for grant application cases involving difficult family situations. We are all aware of cases where families have fallen out, a son or daughter might not be in good communication with the parents and an application for a SUSI grant is held up. We have asked what SUSI does about these hardship cases and this letter makes for difficult reading. It states the applicant can provide information to confirm parental divorce or separation by providing the separation or divorce agreement, a court order or a barring order. We are talking about GDPR and SUSI is requesting college students to provide details of a barring order issued in the family court, which is a private matter, to a Government body to achieve a grant. Talk about abuse not just of GDPR but the family court procedures. For SUSI as a State body to ask for detailed information about third parties, as the student is the applicant, with regard to a barring order between two other individuals is outrageous in the extreme. We are asking it to reconsider this.
SUSI states the student can provide details of the dissolution of a civil partnership, whether a parent is in receipt of a deserted wife's allowance or a one-parent family payment. Sometimes people go their way without a legal agreement for separation or divorce. In this case, a student can get a letter from a solicitor confirming that legal proceedings are pending or from the family mediation service, and separate utility bills to show they are living apart. No wonder people experience difficulty when they are being asked for proof of barring orders. It does not address the reality of students in houses where there is no communication between all of the original family members. It makes it worse to speak about getting copies of family law court barring orders as evidence.
I had this marked and the Chairman has addressed it.
The proceedings are held in camerafor a reason. Children are being asked to get a copy of the order and bring it in. What is being asked beggars belief. It is important to show something, however. Therefore, there is an issue, but it should not be addressed in this way. Where are we going with it?
This came from City of Dublin Education and Training Board. It is the public body that processes the applications on behalf of SUSI. This rule probably comes from the Department of Education and Skills. We need to write to the Accounting Officer of the Department for his comments in light of what has been said here and try to find a better way of assisting people who should be entitled to a grant. We have often dealt with students who were just not able to go to an institution because they could not provide information of the kind in question. On exceptional basis, maybe an interview or something could be done, behind closed doors or whatever. There has to be a way to give students the grants. There is a part designed to ensure they cannot meet the conditions.
There is one other issue. We have all come across it. When dealing with these at constituency level, we give people advice on how to proceed. There are many people who will not present and lose out on an education. This also needs to be pointed out to the Department. Irrespective of what comes back to us, there has to be some public understanding that if there is a difficulty, applicants will not be excluded.
I would be shocked if we let that through the House without addressing it.
No. 2486 B is from Mr. Graham Doyle, head of communications, Data Protection Commission. It relates to various issues we raised at the committee. We will note and publish the cost of the investigation by the Data Protection Commission in regard to the public services card. We will be talking to the mother Department for the card, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, during the course of the day. We will be raising these issues at the meeting. We sought a breakdown of details on complaints, the role at EU level and the amount of time spent investigating public bodies. We also sought the legal costs awarded against the Data Protection Commission. The names of the cases are given. I do not believe that the letter we were given gave the names of the people who were paid the fees, however. We also sought information on outstanding reports being completed under the 2018 legislation. I suppose that when the legislation changed, the infrastructure for producing these reports was different. We will note and publish the information.
The correspondence was very useful. It is quite interesting that this is coming from the Data Protection Commission. There is quite a sizeable amount of information naming people. It jumped out.
We will be back here in a short enough time in respect of this. When the representatives were in front of us, we asked them whether they have the resources. They have lead responsibility in regard to the technology sector in particular. It has a European dimension. They got a fraction of what they looked for in terms of the budget they anticipated. If they are not able to do the job, there will be failings, and we will see those failings here. This is typical. We will be interrogating and asking why certain things were not done. Let us mark this moment in time. One cannot proceed without the resources.
We will note and publish this. All these replies will feed into our next report. We may be here in the new year to deal with that.
No. 2487 B is from Mr. Ray Mitchell of the Health Service Executive, providing information requested by the committee. There is quite a bit here. The HSE witnesses will be here in a couple of weeks so we will be able to interrogate them further on these matters, but we will note and publish the correspondence for today. An information note has been provided on risk analysis in respect of decision-making for public private partnerships, PPPs, for health centres. Regarding the chapter in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General for this year, the witnesses will be coming in to deal with this in a couple of weeks. I will confirm what else is in the letter, sighing in the process. There is a reference to cash advances to section 38 organisations. Deputy Kelly mentioned this matter. On the top of page 3, there is a reference to the total payments to the section 38 and 39 organisations in 2018, amounting to €3.258 million for section 38 organisations and €1.025 million for section 39 organisations. We asked for details on cash advances. The letter is internally self-contradictory because it states all cash balances are to be neutral at the end of the year and then it states there was €73.6 million outstanding at the end of 2018. The essence of what is being said is that one gets an advance during the year that is to be paid back by the end of the year. They give us the year-end outstanding balance saying it will come off next year. Therefore, it is not neutral in the year, although that is the impression the HSE has been giving us up to now. We will tease this out further.
There is further information on the cross-border initiative and its cost. There is a note on the arrangements for holiday cover in respect of home help. I will raise this myself again. It is a new departure to cancel cover for people. Cover is provided when home helps go on holidays on a priority basis. That was not the case in the past. We will be coming back to this with the HSE in a couple of weeks.
Page 2 gives a list, with seven headings as to what are deemed significant risks. The responses are unreal. With regard to Nos. 1 and 2, pertaining to planning and design, the first line states the planning risk transfer was reduced as the HSE had received planning permission. There was limited risk as opposed to significant risk. With regard to No. 2, design, the State had already done the design so, again, there was limited risk, not significant risk. No. 4 concerns operational risks or events that could lead to the facility being unavailable, including failure to have the rooms in the facility heated to the correct temperature, leaks, vandalism, or failure to have the facility adequately cleaned. None of these is deemed a significant risk. Is the HSE saying a project is classified as a PPP project because of the risk that a radiator might not be working or that a tap might be dripping? Even in regard to the building being cleaned, do all public buildings not have cleaners to clean them? It is pure nonsense. On legislation, the correspondents more or less state in response to No. 7 that they should obey the law. It is totally unsatisfactory and pretty much a nonsense that this is their justification for PPP classification. Could we get a very detailed breakdown, in advance of the witnesses coming in, on who the contractors were, the operation costs, the companies, the duration of the contracts, the building costs, etc.?
In regard to the PPP projects, we will ask for a detailed breakdown under all the various headings the Deputy mentioned so we will not be asking for the information on the day and getting it after Christmas. We will ask now to have it supplied to us in the briefing material in advance so we can examine it before the witnesses come in and discuss it in detail with them on a PPP project by PPP project basis. Some projects are in bundles. One contractor might be doing three or four in some cases. They are in the middle of a tendering process for more, I understand.
First of all I think the clerk should forward this correspondence to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health because there is an element of crossover here. Second, with regard to the section 38 and section 39 organisations, which I have been raising for over a year, this is complete and utter garbage. It is actually riddling the books. A number of these organisations are on the edge and cannot sustain themselves. Basically, what happens is the HSE gives them so-called loans or cash advances to function. This used to happen after the summer but it is now happening in the first or second quarter of the year. Are they insulting our intelligence? They are trying to insult our intelligence by saying that this will be cash neutral. It is not going to be cash neutral. These organisations have huge deficits. They are basically doing the work of the State but they have been starved of resources. In many cases, their services are weakening and in some cases, they are going to close down. There is an avalanche of these issues coming. In advance of our meeting and in order to help this committee in its deliberations and questioning, I want those figures broken down further. I would also like a breakdown of how much has been given in cash advances over the past two years, in tabular form, to each organisation and when the advances were given. In another column, I would like to see the total spend per year for each organisation in 2017, 2018 and the following year. This is just rolling on and getting worse every year. We need that information in advance. We do not want to be asking for it at the meeting and having the witnesses tell us that they will come back to us with the information. Let us ask for it in advance and then we will be able to go through it cumulatively and individually for these organisations.
We need to list the agencies. The HSE has no problem publishing in its annual report a list running to dozens of pages of payments to these organisations. It publishes this information every year in its annual report so we are not asking-----
Just in case people think we are being prurient, we are not looking for information on organisations for which the HSE does not publish global figures on an annual basis. It lists the organisations in its reports so there is no secret as to their identity. However, we need the information to be a bit more manageable because there are hundreds of organisations. Perhaps we should look for figures for those organisations that receive in excess of €500,000-----
There are a number of issues I wish to raise. We have talked about this particular issue previously and I agree with what has been said. These organisations are losing clinical staff because they cannot pay the same rates as the HSE. In many cases, the services being provided should be public services but often the charities are more flexible and are being paid less by the State for comparable work. There is a real issue there. I ask that before the representatives come in, they provide us with some context for the table on page 7 on home support services in the various CHOs. Expenditure in the year to date is one thing but we need to know what the waiting lists are like. Just giving us those figures is not enough. It looks like one area is doing better than another but the size of the catchment area for the CHOs provides a context, as does the length of the waiting lists. There may be a much longer waiting time in an area that seems to be under-provided for than in an area that appears to have a lot of money. I do not think the table on its own is sufficient. I would like to see that additional information before we meet them.
Also in relation to each of those CHOs, people are approved for home help but are put on a waiting list. Patients are approved but the HSE does not have the money. We need to know how many have been approved and put on waiting lists in each of the regions. There are many such people out there.
We all get letters from people who have been approved for home help but are on a waiting list until funding becomes available. We need that figure, broken down by CHO region too.
The next item of correspondence, No. 2502, is from Mr. Ronan Murphy, the chief executive of Horse Sport Ireland, HSI, dated 23 October, providing a detailed response to a request for a timeline for the implementation of the recommendations of the Indecon report, Review of Certain Matters relating to Horse Sport Ireland. HSI states that the recommendations were implemented between August 2017 and 2018. We will note and publish this. There is a lot of data there so I suggest that we note it for now and if any member wants to take it up in further detail, he or she is free to do so.
The next items of correspondence, Nos. 2503 and 2526, are letters from Mr. Jim Meade, the chief executive of Irish Rail, dated 23 October and 6 November, respectively. The correspondence relates to the public services card and in particular, to a case that was referred to at our meeting on 26 September. Included in the correspondence is some detail on how suspected fraud is dealt with by the organisation. The letter is claiming that what was said at the Committee of Public Accounts meeting was untrue and inaccurate. Based on the information given at this meeting, everybody here acted in a totally reasonable manner and assumed certain things. There is criticism of me in the letter but I was giving Irish Rail the benefit of the doubt that when it issued a bill, notice or charge to somebody it did so on the basis of knowing how many trips were taken. I was giving the organisation the benefit of the doubt rather than suggesting that it was issuing bills willy nilly, without knowing how many trips were taken. In the letter received, Irish Rail says it is untrue to say that it had details of the trips taken by an individual, which is surprising. The follow up correspondence, No. 2526, states that Irish Rail issues a fixed penalty notice in circumstances where a free travel pass is cancelled but a person continues to use it. This has highlighted the fact that there is no proper exchange of information between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the CIE Group in order to make sure that free travel cards do not continue to be used when they are no longer valid. It takes months for this information to be provided to Irish Rail and Mr. Meade refers to the fact that people can be using withdrawn cards for years. There is something very seriously wrong in the co-ordination between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the CIE Group on this matter. Understandably, this has been a learning process for everybody. The letter explains that a fixed penalty notice is based on the period in which the card was being used. If it is, for example, four months since the card was cancelled, Irish Rail sends out a notice for four months although the individual may not have ever used the card. Irish Rail says that there is a separate situation whereby a passenger who fails to deliver up a valid ticket on a specific day when requested to do so by an authorised officer will be issued with a fixed penalty notice. This is separate from a debt, which is a civil matter. The correspondence to which I originally referred related to an actual debt. On the debt issued, we do not have the exact details of how that was calculated and Irish Rail has not offered those details. We asked for details on the fixed penalty notices that were issued in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the amounts paid and the payments outstanding. In summary, the situation for last year was that 12,000 notices were issued and 6,000 were paid. The value of the fixed penalty notices issued was €1.7 million and the amount paid was €0.7 million. Less than half of the fixed penalty notices are paid but more to the point, we want details on the bills that Irish Rail issues, that is, what it calls debts. It issues bills for what it terms "a debt due" and we want the same type of information on those bills, namely the number issued for each of the three aforementioned years, as well as the amounts paid and the amounts outstanding. It will be helpful to us when we get that information. We will also ask the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection later today about the exchange of information. We were told at a previous meeting that the travel companies know the details of all the trips taken using the card but do not know the name of the person. The number on the card is anonymised but the Department can relate the number back to the public services card and it knows how often it was used. The CIE Group of companies and Irish Rail are saying that they do not have details of the person's individual travel.
The outcome of all of this is troubling. Whether it is a fixed payment notice or a debt, Irish Rail is issuing bills to people that are not connected with the number of trips those people should not have taken and for which they did not pay. Those bills were issued on a time basis or some other method. We will come back to this issue. We will get some information from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and then we will conclude our work on this matter as soon as we have that further clarification. I will continue to pursue this because I raised this issue and I was referred to in that letter. We will get further clarification. We will note and publish the information.
No. 2504 B is from Mr. John O'Sullivan, chief executive and Commissioner of Valuation, Valuation Office, dated 23 October 2019, providing the further information we requested regarding appeals, adjustments to valuations in 2017 and 2019 and the rateability of car parks in supermarkets and shopping centres. These issues have been mentioned and there is interesting reading in this document. Mr. O'Sullivan makes a distinction between his role as the Commissioner of Valuation and his entirely separate role as Accounting Officer. I can understand how people interested in filling stations along the motorways have an interest in this area. A letter was written to Mr. O'Sullivan on this matter and he is stating that there is misunderstanding of his separate roles of Accounting Officer and Commissioner of Valuation. Is that a valid separation of duties?
The Commissioner of Valuation is replying in his letter stating that there is confusion when people speak about his role. He is stating that people who have written to this committee do not take account of the distinction of the Commissioner of Valuation being independent in carrying out functions under the Valuation Acts and the entirely separate role as Accounting Officer in the context of public financial procedures. Is Mr. O'Sullivan the Accounting Officer?
That is fantastic. People deal with Mr. O'Sullivan and I can understand how people in that situation, dealing with Mr. O'Sullivan as the head of the Valuation Office, can think they are dealing with Mr. O'Sullivan in his separate legal role of Accounting Officer for the Valuation Office. Mr. O'Sullivan is stating that people should not confuse writing a letter to him as the Commissioner of Valuation as opposed to writing to him in his separate legal role of being the Accounting Officer for the Valuation Office. That is lovely stuff.
Mr. O'Sullivan must have two halves to his brain that do not communicate. According to this letter he has two separate roles, or perhaps two separate hats might be the best way to put it. We will note and publish that information and people may be interested in it. Many people are interested in this topic and in car parking for supermarkets.
Yes, it is guidance. There is an interesting note on the valuation of car parks in the context of shopping centres where the main supermarket or property company may own the whole thing and there may be an anchor tenant and other tenants. Individual rates may not be paid but there would be a reflection in the rents. The bottom line for the people who operate the car park is that it is rateable. That is interesting for people involved in that trade and we will follow up on that outstanding item of information.
No. 2505 B is from Mr. Dave Walsh, chairperson, An Bord Pleanála, dated 25 October 2019. It provides information requested by the committee at our meeting on 3 October 2019, including a breakdown of the 2,800 decisions made by the board, encompassing the number of decisions made by the full board and those made by a partial board. Mr. Walsh states that 88% of all meetings comprised the full board. That is my understanding of the answer given to our first question. The second question concerned categories of decisions where the chairman felt that it was an appropriate matter to bring to the full board. Mr. Walsh refers to that as category one.
It is also noted that we asked two questions that are more appropriate to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, namely, the number of times in which the Minister has invoked section 181 powers to grant permission and the issue of gender balance on the board. Those are matters on which the Department will have to reply to us.
Mr. Walsh gives further information on the current status of the 101 recommendations of the 2016 report. That information is here. Our fifth query concerned a breakdown of the categories of respondents to the consultation regarding An Bord Pleanála's website. That response can be read and includes details on the type of people who access the website.
A note on gender balance is also included and the Minister will be asked to answer that query. Copies of the resumés of all of the board members are attached, as is a breakdown of the number of decisions of the board accepting an inspector's recommendation. People will be interested in this topic. Mr. Walsh has stated that in 89% of cases the report of the inspector is accepted but not in the other 11%. An acceptance rate of about 90% is fairly high and it would be inevitable that the board would be entitled to make its own decision on some cases.
Mr. Walsh's letter next addresses the issue of strategic infrastructure decisions. Some 84% of all such applications are granted, with 16% refused. That is interesting because there is a presumption abroad that under the strategic infrastructure process, if there is a meeting with the board, the details of an application are gone through and that application is then submitted on the basis that confirmation would almost be certain. That is not quite the case, as some 16% of applications are refused at the end of the process.
Our next query dealt with the number of cases that have been with An Bord Pleanála for more than a year. There are 74 of those and details are given in the correspondence. Some of those instances are referral cases and some involve complex legalities. All of the information is given in the correspondence.
We also inquired about the number of oral hearings upheld by the board. Mr. Walsh informs us that oral hearings were held in nine planning cases in 2018 and the planning authority upheld decisions in eight cases.
Our 12th question regarded cases where the decision of An Bord Pleanála contravened a county development plan. The correspondence states that An Bord Pleanála does not gather such information. It makes its decision and is aware of the county development plan, but An Bord Pleanála does not gather statistics on cases where such decisions are made. We know An Bord Pleanála takes such information into account, but it is not legally bound to follow the county development plan. That is because things are often put into a development plan for good local reasons that would not stand up to the scrutiny of An Bord Pleanála.
That is good information, it is good to get it and I thank An Bord Pleanála for supplying all of the information requested. We will note and publish that information.
That final question is important. The county development plan interrogates a wider scenario than an individual development. It is a wider framework and not just about the development of an individual site. It takes into account whether there are water and public transport services and similar aspects. I refer to a breach of the county development plan. New wording has gone into county development plans on foot of court cases where it has been directed that there should be compliance with it, as opposed to having regard to it, but An Bord Pleanála has a different standard. That is really significant in respect of problems that will arise in the future. It is not for this committee to deal with, but I will not be in silent consensus with the idea that information is not gathered. That is a really worrying issue. There will be a cost if the services available are not measured and then they have to be retrofitted. There may well also be services provided in another location.
It is a good letter and Deputy Murphy's point is quite right. The information referred to is not being gathered by An Bord Pleanála, so we might write back and ask it to put a procedure in place from now on to see that is done. It is important for the local and regional authorities and the Department to know this information. It would appear that somebody should be collecting this information, so we will pass this information on to the other sectoral committee when we get it. The reason I am commenting is that I have seen county development plans that have stated there should be no mobile phone masts within 200 m of a house. That stipulation was put in in the full knowledge that it was only for local consumption. Sometimes things get into local development plans that everybody knows will not stack up, but sometimes the right decisions are made in these types of situations.
I also note, however, that I raised issues regarding the management of the process that deals with appeals from local authorities and the validity of that process. I refer to the process not being corrupted, and I mean that in a generic sense rather than any reference to individuals-----
It is important to ensure the process is not upset or corrupted because of the fact, as we have been told publicly, anonymous objections are getting through not just the local authority but An Bord Pleanála whereby somebody is objecting in somebody else's name and paying the fees involved but the person does not exist. What is startling is the fact that the chairman of the board said there is more than one case of that. We know of one case, which has not been answered. I ask specifically about that. We might write to the board to ask it what it will do to ensure the integrity of the process and that such corruption of it, which can have a massive impact on certain locations, can never happen.
-----to both of them. We will thank the board for the letter and follow up those particular points.
No. 2506, is from Moyagh Murdock, chief executive officer of the Road Safety Authority, dated 25 October, providing information regarding the policing by the authority of the foreign registered vehicles working in this State. Two and a half pages of a letter have been provided giving details of inspections. For those who have an interest in this matter, the best thing we can do is note it today and publish it. They may come back to us but we are not experts on the inspections of vehicles, whether they are registered in Ireland or outside the State. A legitimate point was raised with us regarding the regime of inspections. There is a reply there, which we will note and send to the organisation that contacted us on the matter and perhaps we will have further communication from it at a later stage. That is agreed.
No. 2507 is from John McKeon, Secretary General of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, relating to our request for the business case for the public services card. He makes it very clear in his letter there is no single business case document relating to the development of the SAFE identity authentication process for the card. He sets out that the Comptroller and Auditor General covered this in his report three years ago, and it is analysed time by time. The Secretary General will be before us later when we will discuss the public services card. We will note and publish that correspondence and discuss it later.
No. 2508 is from Steven Sheridan of the Housing Agency responding to a request for a list of approved housing bodies, AHBs, registered with the interim regulator. He clarifies the regulator's office operates on a voluntary code and AHBs are signed up to it rather than registered. There are 275 bodies signed up to the code. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is responsible for maintaining the register of all AHBs, of which there are now 551, but we know that 95% of the assets are in the bodies signed up to the code. The information is set out in a link to the website.
No. 2512 is from John McKeon, Secretary General, of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, who will be here shortly, regarding grants paid to travel operators in respect of free travel. That arose from discussion on the matter. We will discuss the public services card and free travel with him. We will note and publish that correspondence and it can be discussed later.
Some category C correspondence has been held over for a little while. No. 2464 is from an individual, dated 14 October, on behalf of a group based in Donegal called the Great Arch action committee, which is requesting the committee to investigate a planning decision by Donegal County Council regarding a proposed pathway to a viewing point for the Pollet Great Arch, Fanad. Local authorities are not within the remit of the committee. We must write back stating that it is not within our remit to examine that matter and directing the group accordingly. It has obviously talked to the local authority, the ombudsman or whoever it believes is the appropriate body but it is not this committee.
No. 2479 is from persons calling themselves B and C, dated 17 October. Members will recall the individuals had previously corresponded with the committee regarding the University of Limerick, UL. The committee was copied with correspondence that was sent to the Minister for Education and Skills. We have had other correspondence relating to UL in recent weeks. While there has been an effort to conduct a mediation in the college it seems it has not reached a successful conclusion. I propose we add these matters relating to third level colleges, including UL, to our work programme. The UL issue seems to be ongoing. We will not get to complete that issue between now and Christmas but we can have it on our work programme for the new year.
No. 2488 is from Deputy Bríd Smith, relating to an inquiry into Our Lady's Hospice, Harold's Cross. At our meeting on 19 September, we noted an update from the HSE that the case is currently with the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, who is addressing some further queries with An Garda Síochána and there was no further information at that time. The HSE is scheduled for a meeting with us on 5 December and we will request an update on this for that meeting. Members will note the matter is with the Garda and the DPP. This committee will not have a role in it but we will get an update on it from the HSE as our meeting with it in a few weeks time.
No. 2490 is from an individual, dated 20 October, who raises some points about the Government's spending policies. The individual raises issues that have been before this committee on several occasions previously. He refers to the cost of providing broadband and the cost of the children's hospital. We will note it and circulate it to members of the committee. It is not for publication but members can take it into consideration. We will not be specifically following it up but it relates to spending of Government money on matters already covered by the committee.
No. 2491 is from Deputy Cullinane, dated 21 October, regarding media allegations that RTÉ is facilitating tax avoidance. Perhaps the Deputy would like to speak on this topic.
This relates to an arrangement, which I have raised previously, regarding top presenters who can set up companies for the purpose of paying a portion of salary as corporation tax and not as income tax. The issue was examined in other areas of the public sector in the past where there was a mix of public and private. It is timely it has come up today given the announcement by the director general of RTÉ that there will a 15% pay cut for these top presenters, which most people will welcome. The Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment is the first port of call for the director general. We have examined this issue in the past and established that more than 50% of RTÉ’s funding comes from the taxpayer.
Given that significant pay cuts, voluntary redundancies and the closure of services in Limerick and elsewhere are to take place at RTÉ, it might be an issue that we would want to examine because when the Accounting Officer appears, they cannot answer questions on those issues. They can only answer for the money that is transferred from the Department to RTÉ. I appreciate we have a heavy workload and that the sectoral committee will examine this but it might be something we could also consider. This correspondence relates to an article in The Sunday Business Post that put a focus on these types of schemes, which are not available to the vast majority of workers. I was seeking that we write to RTÉ to ask what is the practice. Let us establish the facts because we do not want to be unfair to anybody but let us find out how it works and how many staff members are involved in this practice. I imagine it is people at the very top. I doubt very much it is anybody earning less than €40,000 a year. I want to get a sense of how widespread the practice is. I imagine it involves a small number of staff, most likely the highest paid. We should establish how it works and why RTÉ engages in it. If we could get a note on it from the organisation, we could take it from there, if that is acceptable.
I have not mentioned this yet but because I raised it, I have had some correspondence from some staff members who have been interviewed. They were not happy with the process or with the contracts they were subsequently offered. Some of them were found to have been on the wrong contracts. They were self-employed but should have been on proper contracts. They are being offered proper contracts but at less than what they were on. There is dissatisfaction with that. It is a vindication of the issue raised in that it was a practice used by RTÉ to save money and to avoid its responsibilities as an employer in terms of holiday pay and sick pay. This practice should not be used by any organisation funded by the taxpayer.
I am conscious that the director general does not have to come in. She is not an Accounting Officer. I made the point that there is a debate about funding public broadcasting. RTÉ is very clear that it needs more money and a reform of the licence fee. I accept that is primarily a matter for the sectoral committee but there is an issue regarding accountability. I do not believe we can stand over more money going to an organisation where the director general is not accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. I see that as one of the principles that needs to change. There is a mix of public and private investment to come but it was established-----
It has changed from year to year. In the good times it had much more advertising revenue and when the advertising revenue dropped, the proportion of licence fee was more than 50%. The point is well made. We will come back to that.
No. 2494 is correspondence from Deputy Catherine Murphy, dated 29 October, in respect of matters raised with the Department of Justice and Equality by a whistleblower in the Prison Service.
That is fine. We will keep it under review.
No. 2497 is a matter that should be dealt with in private session.
Nos. 2500 and 2511, dated 23 October, are from an individual with an inquiry regarding the school transport system. We have already written to the Department requesting a note on whether Bus Éireann's auditors and the Department are satisfied that the scheme profits are not or have not been used to cross-subsidise Bus Éireann since the scheme began. I propose we note the correspondence and wait for the Department to respond.
There was an article in a Sunday newspaper on 3 November in which it was stated that three Oireachtas committees are seeking answers to school bus scheme profits claim. The Committee of Public Accounts is on the case. We have mentioned it. The Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport is looking at the matter from a Bus Éireann point of view and the Joint Committee on Education and Skills is also examining it. We are not going to do any more. I do not believe in three committees of this House dealing with one item of correspondence so this committee will take no further action. If we get a response to the last letter, well and good, but it is not fair on the Oireachtas to have three different committees working on the same topic. I understand what is involved. The matter affects the Committee of Public Accounts, Bus Éireann and the school bus service but there needs to be a system here to ensure that members of three different committees are not reading the same correspondence at three different meetings in the one week. We will wait for a response.
We are nearly there. We said that we would have the witnesses come in about now. The next item is the financial statements and accounts since the previous meeting. A few have been received. The first relate to Fáilte Ireland, the National Tourism Development Authority . Its turnover for the year was €140 million. It received a qualified audited opinion on the basis of its deferred pension asset. Fáilte Ireland's accounts do not recognise pension asset funding in respect of its pension scheme. We have seen that previously. It is a standard one.
Next is the Mental Health Commission. Again, this is a qualified audit opinion. The cost of the superannuation entitlements are not properly recognised versus international accounting standards as the standard of qualification in the health service.
The next one is Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, ETB. It is a clear audit opinion. Attention is drawn to non-compliant procurement of €698,000 and the board's concern is regarding the adequacy of the internal audit resources. They have all mentioned that latter point. We are writing to them for a detailed report on the non-compliance with public procurement and to request them to give us the details of the contracts and the measures that are in place and as to why that happened. In the new year, we hope to compile all the sets of accounts that have come to us in order to deal with that topic. For now, it is a compilation of information. We will not ask people to rework it at this stage.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I want to put on the record that there is a page missing from the statement on internal financial control, which is the relevant page in respect of the matters to which I have drawn attention. We have alerted Galway and Roscommon ETB to the fact that that piece is missing. It is seems to be just something in the copying of that page.
I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General. I appreciate that.
The next set of accounts is Traveller' Protection Fund and Travel Agents' and Tour Operators' Bond Accounts. There is a clear audit opinion in this regard.
Next is the National Concert Hall, for which there is also a clear audited opinion.
Next is Bord na gCon. It is a clear audited opinion but attention is drawn to impairment losses totalling €20.6 million recognised in the financial statements of five subsidiary companies following the board's review of impairment for 2018. We had representatives from Bord na gCon before the committee recently. We went through these impairments and the company's revaluations of its assets, but we are formally noting that. The accounts have since been laid before the Oireachtas. That is why we are noting it but we did discuss it at length. That is the end of that particular topic.
The next item is the work programme, in respect of which we will have a very brief discussion. Before us today are officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Next week, on 12 November, we will have a private meeting from 4 p.m. Tomorrow morning, the secretariat will issue a working paper to members of the committee in respect of the work it has carried out in assisting us with our consideration and drafting of a periodic report. No report has been drafted and one will not be issued. This is a working paper from the secretariat. It has had no input from any member of the committee. It is not a Committee of Public Accounts document. We will consider that working paper at our meeting on Tuesday next, 12 November. I plead with members to try to read the document, which contains many pages, because it would be great if we could get through our first reading in the one meeting. Otherwise, we will have to keep coming back to it and we want to get this report out as soon as is practicable. If members have anything in particular to say, they should make a note rather than starting to read this document when we arrive for the meeting.
I will come back to the work programme but Deputy Cullinane has indicated. We had suggested a meeting on the following Tuesday, 19 November, to deal with the Department of Communication, Climate Action and Environment in respect of greenhouse gases and carbon taxation. I propose that we do not proceed with the meeting on that date and that we will re-schedule it for a Thursday afternoon. Three Tuesdays in a row is a bit too heavy for us. We do much work on a Thursday so we will try not to have that third Tuesday meeting.
The secretariat do it fairly so I have no problem with that but what happens when Government representatives who are allocated their speaking time as leader or deputy leader do not take their slots? How is it then allocated? I do not mean to make this as a political point but it is becoming a habit that Government representatives are being allocated lead and deputy lead positions and then do not turn up. I have seen that a couple of them are noted as being not available, which is not acceptable from my perspective. There has to be fairness in how those positions are allocated. The secretariat or the Chairman might be able to inform us as to how it is done.
We might discuss it in private session in a moment but, at the beginning of this Oireachtas year, as Chairman, I went through it with the secretariat and, other than myself, we listed all the 12 members in strict order and then moved on to-----
No. If a person said on the Tuesday that he or she would not be available for the Thursday, the secretariat would ask somebody else on the committee to do a swap. That meant they lost the slot they had the next month by taking the slot on the Thursday. The question is-----
The reason I am raising it is not so much that they do not turn up; that is a matter for them. I am not going to pass judgment on who does or does not turn up but when people are informed that they could be leader or the second lead-----
-----not enough notice is given. For those of us who take our positions here seriously, when one is lead speaker, a lot of research has to be done. We have the support from the secretariat, which is great, and from Billy Carrie, who gives us support also, but we do our own research as well and a day or two days notice does not suffice. We should look at the way that is done to do ourselves justice.
We will discuss it in private session in a minute. I know who attends and does not attend meetings. If we check the record over decades, Government Deputies may not always have been the best attenders at meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts, possibly because they are taking on their own Ministers' line Departments week in and week out.
Be that as it may, I felt it was appropriate that each of the 12 members be given an equal opportunity to be lead speaker. However, as the Deputy said, the problem arises when they do not show up. Can we hold over that matter for discussion in private session?
We might consider the sports capital programme at a future date. It is, I hope, very cost-effective, but I do not know if we have ever looked at the process by which it is operated or the application process or conducted an analysis of the outcomes. The programme has been ongoing for a significant period of time. I do not expect to go back forever in time, but perhaps we might look at how it has operated in the last few years or the last two allocations. By the time we do so, the next allocations will have been made. Perhaps we might look at that allocation and the one before it. I want to examine the process by which the progamme is operated and the changes that have been made which have been significant in the past few years, as well as the outcomes. I have seen an awful lot achieved with small amounts of money, but we need to see how projects that receive larger sums are performing. It is an issue to which we might come in the future.
We will do that. The sports capital programme was looked at by the last Committee of Public Accounts. The most interesting point made was that there was no sunset clause. I do not know if there is one now. The issue was that grants were approved, the officers of organisations changed and projects never proceeded. The Department had no mechanism in place for taking back money and it was very slow in going back, say, after three years to ask if organisations were going to complete projects. It is important that if they are not proceeding, that we get back the money allocated.
That is one of the issues about which I have a concern, that the process continues for such a period when there is a change. The second point concerns how the application process works and we ensure grants are disbursed. I want to examine both the process and outcomes.
We will write today to the Department for a detailed briefing document on the issues the Deputy has raised. We should be able to receive it within a reasonable period. We can then schedule the carrying out of further work.
Let us get the information first, given that there have been changes to the scheme.
The work programme is the same as it was last week. We have representatives of the Courts Service scheduled to appear on 14 November. On 21 November we have representatives of the Charities Regulator before us. We have agreed to have representatives of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment before us that afternoon, rather than hold a special meeting on the Tuesday evening. Those sessions might not take too long and we might put a time limit on both. On 28 October we will have representatives of the Revenue Commissioners before us in what will be a very important meeting. On 5 December - a big day - we will have representatives of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, the Department of Health and Children's Health Ireland before us. We will have a separate session with representatives of the Health Service Executive to deal with the development of primary care services. We have asked for updates because the representatives of the HSE has already been here to discuss its financial statements. Therefore, it will be a second round and the HSE is asking what specifically we want to discuss on that occasion. It would be helpful if we did not just go back over what we did before the summer. We have mentioned a few items, for example, measures to reduce the incidence of cases involving clinical negligence that may lead to State claims, matters related to CervicalCheck, the oversight of section 38 and section 39 bodies and home help services, including the changes made during the year. I also want to receive an update on private ambulance contracts which have been in place for years and not renewed. I have asked parliamentary questions about this issue. They went out to tender and there was a two-year process, but I believe that process has collapsed. I do not know what has happened. Any member will be able to raise an issue in order that representatives of the HSE will be prepared on the day.
On the point about being prepared for the meeting with representatives of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board and the Department of Health, we are learning lessons that we need to be as well prepared as possible and receive as much information as possible in advance of meetings. I know that can be problematic because when we receive information, it is then leaked beforehand. Perhaps that is why they will not send it to us until the last minute. However, there have been additional claims submitted. Before the witnesses come, we will need the most up-to-date information on the additional claims made, what they were for and the areas in which they were made in order that we will not be trying to drag it out of them and not spend half the session dragging out information that should have been presented to us in advance. I do not mind if we receive it one day beforehand because at least we will have it, but we need this information. What happens at times is that we end up wasting an awful lot of the time of the lead questioner, whoever it might be, in trying to obtain information that we should receive in advance. I ask that we make that request.
That is agreed. If there are particular issues members want to raise at that meeting, they should contact the secretariat. The HSE witnesses will say they were here to discuss the annual financial statements and that if there are further specific issues the committee would like to raise, they want us to tell them what they are. It would be helpful if they were to be given advance notice in order that we could receive the briefing material in advance. As they will be here in the afternoon, it will be a long day. Representatives of the the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board will be before us that the morning, while representatives of the HSE will be before us in the afternoon. I ask members to mark the date in their diaries.
In the morning session we will have representatives of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, the Secretary General of the Department of Health and representatives of Children's Health Ireland and the HSE before us. In the separate second session we will discuss the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on primary care centres, to which Deputy Munster referred, and other matters we did not deal with specifically.
We will discuss the financial statements of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, not the HSE. In the morning session we will discuss the national children's hospital, while in the afternoon we will discuss primary care services with the HSE, not the Department of Health, and other specific items we will raise with the HSE in the meantime. We had a general discussion on the HSE's financial statements and this will be a follow-up session.
There being no other items to discuss, we will go into private session for a few minutes. We will then take a five-minute break and start public session with the witnesses at about 11.15 a.m. A lot has been covered in the last two hours. Sometimes the first two hours can be important.