Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 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 Maureen Mulligan, deputy director of audit.
No apologies have been received. We are holding the minutes over until the next meeting and there are no matters arising from the minutes.
The next item on the agenda is correspondence. The first category is A, briefing documents and opening statements for today's meeting. We will note and publish Nos. 2536 and 2537 from the Courts Service regarding briefing documents and opening statements.
The next category is B, correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to PAC meetings and other items for publishing. The first two items, Nos. 2476 and 2538, are from Professor Phillip Nolan, President, Maynooth University, dated 17 October and 8 November 2019. The first item includes a request for further information in regard to an anonymous query we had written to the university about. We received an anonymous query and we indicated the last day we would send that to the university for comment. After the meeting, we looked at it again and we summarised the contents because it was felt that if we gave the anonymous correspondence directly to the university, the correspondent might be identifiable within the university, and we felt that might not be appropriate. We gave the university a summary of the key points and it is coming back to us for more information. We will give it as much as we can but I want to hold back on giving it the original documentation because the person might be identifiable within the college. The university says that, based on what it has received so far, it cannot trace the particular issues. In any event, we will provide any additional information we can.
The second item is a response to our queries following correspondence which raised a number of concerns. The following information is provided by the university: the university’s current risk register, as well as any internal or external reviews or audits of this conducted in the past three years, and this is quite an extensive document from the professor; the final accounts in regard to Innovation Value Services Limited, which we have discussed and which is the organisation that went into liquidation; details of occasional staff in receipt of payments for one year, two years, three years, four years and more than four years; and an information note on the research and knowledge transfer plans for 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. Professor Nolan states that the services referenced were procured in accordance with and satisfy all legal requirements and guidelines as set down in the university's procurement policy. The monetary value of the engagements referenced are under the threshold for a national tendering process system and, accordingly, contracts were awarded on the basis of quotations sought from suppliers of the relevant services. We will note and publish this.
The reason we are asking this of every organisation is that we are looking at the issue of non-compliance with public procurement guidelines. It is a matter of form. We will be issuing this to every organisation which has submitted 2018 accounts. In the meantime, there are a number of Votes - perhaps five or six - that are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General where non-procurement issues are listed. We will not get to some of those until well into next year. With the secretariat and the Comptroller and Auditor General, we will look at the annual report and identify those five, six, seven or other number of Votes and, next week or as soon as possible, we will agree a letter to each of those Accounting Officers. We want to complete everything that has been published. Those accounts have already been laid in the Oireachtas and published. Even though we do not get to interview the witnesses at this stage, in advance of that we want to get information in regard to non-compliance with public procurement. We will want to include that topic in a report next year so we will do advance work on it.
There is a lot of information on what are called in the document "occasional hourly payments". There is comprehensive information on the number of staff and on the number of registered students who have been in the system for occasional payments for over four years, which is 126, as well as the range of payments. We asked for the amounts paid to the 158 staff in the six months up to 30 March 2019 where those staff had been engaged over more than four years. One staff member was paid over €20,000 in that six-month period when we are talking about "occasional hourly payments". It seems to be a pattern, which was the purpose of Deputy Catherine Murphy's query. As to how widespread it is, the university has given us the information in regard to people being employed on what it calls "occasional hourly payments". They are not temporary or part-time; they just come and go, and it is a case of, "We will call you when it suits. Here is the hourly rate.". However, for some people, that arrangement seems to be continuing for a period of time. We will note and publish that. I am sure Deputy Murphy will want to comment.
This is a general point rather than a point in regard to Maynooth University. There is a presumption that university people are going to be extraordinarily well paid but, in fact, one will find there is a high level of fairly poor payments and, often, there is a greater level of job security at primary school level than at university level. I do not think we should be surprised that there is quite a low level of payment of between €10,000 and €20,000, even though quite a lot of hours could be put in. The other point is that this also relates to registered students and it is not unusual to see MA or PhD students lecturing on a part-time basis. It is an area that needs to be looked at in its own right, irrespective of this issue.
That would be useful because I believe there are other things that flow from it. The things are flow from it will be things that will catch up on people later on, such as employment rights, holiday payments and all those other things that go with the casualisation of work. It is certainly prevalent. I have spoken to people in several universities and the same profile is cropping up. It comes back later if people end up, for example, getting a welfare payment that is not a benefit but an allowance. There is a circular point about this possibly being almost a subsidy from the public purse.
While the number is not very large, there are 1,300 people and, again, it is not unusual to have people coming in and guest lecturing, and so on, which can really be of benefit to the college. Let us acknowledge things like that. There were 126 with some number of years and 56 with four years, yet they were occasional staff. The term "occasional staff" could mean people are trying to serve their time to end up becoming permanent staff. It is a class of employment we are seeing more of. The HEA would be the body to address this to and I imagine IFUT would have something to say on this.
That is the Irish Federation of University Teachers. We will follow this up because perhaps there is a broader issue. I suspect there is an element of this across many of the third level colleges. I call Deputy Cullinane.
That was my point on this issue.
I agree with Deputy Murphy that it is a class of employment that we have seen, not just in universities but in other areas as well. It may be a big job of work for us but this is just one university. I would imagine the situation is similar across all of them. Would the HEA have that information readily available? Could it send on a breakdown to us for each institution and university?
We will send this letter to the HEA because the specifics of it might be news to the authority as well. We will ask it for its views and also ask it to contact the other colleges and ask them to assemble the information. It is not our job to do its job. We will ask it to assemble the information from the constituent colleges and pass it over.
The other issue is on the non-compliant procurement contracts. I am not exactly sure what is being asked of the Comptroller and Auditor General in that regard. Every time the appropriation accounts come before us, we write to the Accounting Officers looking for a detailed explanation which, in itself puts pressure on, which is of value. Let us say, for example, we pick 2018 and have a report on the full picture at each organisation that has submitted its accounts - some have not but most have - and where there was a problem. Is there a possibility of the secretariat then doing some work on this? We have been looking at the areas where there are problems. Some of the problems are benign while others are not. We can examine areas of crossover in terms of the problems. That would be useful because we want to get the parties involved to learn from this. There are two issues at play here. First, the rules themselves may not be fit for purpose. That is one of the issues we may need to consider. The rules may need to be changed. That is not for us to do but it might be the outcome of our work. What would be the way forward in that context? I would imagine that it would not be hugely difficult to do this.
No, it is not too difficult. We are not proposing that we go back to 2016 or 2017 because we have enough data for 2018. The Comptroller and Auditor General has published the appropriation accounts and they have been laid before the Oireachtas. Some of them have these issues. They have already been published and noted by the committee. We are just asking the secretariat and the Comptroller and Auditor General, in the context of the Votes, to pick out those with procurement issues and we will systematically go through-----
No, each of the Departments, because we are talking about the voted expenditure. It is only a minority of them but we will systematically write the standard letter to each of them and ask them to give a detailed breakdown of the procurement issues that are referred to in their appropriation accounts. We will write to all of those organisations whose 2018 accounts have either been examined here or noted and published and acknowledged in the Oireachtas and where there is a reference to a procurement issue. We have done quite a few of them already. In January, we will assemble all of that information, and when that is done, we will break it down into different categories. Some issues may be around extensions of contracts, proprietary products-----
Yes. One theme I have seen is a consistent referral to the fact that the Office of Government Procurement has not established a framework. I can see between four and six different reasons for these procurement issues arising. Some of it is down to bad management, to be honest. When we assemble the information, we will be able to examine and categorise it under the different headings-----
I can see a straightforward path in terms of where we want to get to on this, but we have to assemble the information first. Members should note that on foot of further items of correspondence received by the committee and discussed at our meeting last week, we will be writing to Maynooth University with further specific queries.
The next item of correspondence, No. 2522, is from Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, President, NUI Galway, dated 31 October 2019 providing an information note requested by the committee on the number of non-compliant procurement contracts in 2018. The details are all there. We will note and publish this. Members can use it as they see fit in the meantime, but we will include it as part of our information gathering process as just discussed. We will come back to it. I note that some of the 2018 non-compliant contracts mentioned are no longer non-compliant. The contracts have been corrected. We will keep the pressure on and will assemble the information over the next month or two.
I think our input is going to help in that regard. As Deputy Cullinane said, we must look at areas where the rules may be overly restrictive, for example. We will look at the nature of the frameworks being established by the Office of Government Procurement. Are those frameworks achieving, in the round, the best value for society? Price is-----
We are going to assemble the information over the next month or two. We will then have a list of 50 organisations, let us say, that had compliance issues. We will have dossiers on all 50, and we will ask the secretariat to streamline them into categories such as those for which there was no Government framework in place or those that involved proprietary products. The contract for the locks in prisons is an example of the latter. It was not possible to put that contract out to tender. Other categories would be those where the contracts were rolled over or those where there was no proper system in place. The HSE would be an example of the latter. It gets it consistently wrong.
No. In the first letter we are asking for a detailed breakdown on everything that is covered. We are going to get the full breakdown of all the non-compliance in the first batch of letters. When we get the batch of letters back, we will stream them into-----
I am concerned about the non-compliance but I am also concerned about the suitability of the system. The Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, GRETB, of which I am critical, has raised serious issues in terms of the difficulty it has in complying. Would it be possible to listen to somebody on the ground? Maybe consideration could be given to that.
The big problem is the procurement officers are all individuals. The sectors could possibly do better if they worked as one entity. Ireland is a very small country. There could be an advantage in having one procurement officer for a sector. That is where a lot of the potential advantage is being lost. We are probably also losing Irish jobs as a consequence.
A small school down the country might be getting a delivery of stationery from Dublin. The local stationery shop is not getting the contract. I know that the price has to be right but there is a bit of displacement going on.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
There is a sectoral focus within the Office of Government Procurement, for health, education, local government and so on. The office looks at the nature of what is procured in different sectors and assists with devising a strategy for the optimal way to procure. It might be useful if that office provided the committee with an outline of how it balances issues of local supply and local demand on a regional basis.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes there are, but they do recognise that there are better ways to set up the procurement competition so that we get true competition and small and medium enterprises are not prohibited from competing. Let us take a printing example and a contract for ballot papers for a general election.
They can break it down into a number of printing contracts so it is not one national contract for all constituencies. Similarly, with Galway and Roscommon Education and Training Board, for example, it does not make sense that they would have to procure everything from a national competition. There should be regional delivery because a lot of the demand is going to be local. There are challenges there. It is important that everybody has an opportunity to compete. One needs to look at the conditions that are applied in a competition that can perhaps rule out certain suppliers, for instance if one sets too high a threshold for turnover level a business has to have or the track record of the business. There are protections that come from that, because one knows that somebody is established and not a fly-by-night operation but one does not want to rule out legitimate competition that could actually deliver better value for money.
Is there another ingredient? It is not all about the commercial side. Consider libraries, for example, where books are procured that may be published in another country. One loses some of the local dimension, which is incredibly important from a cultural perspective. This is not a quantifiable one. Is this counted in at all? It is just an example.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
There will be solutions. If certain books are required, maybe for local history or local interest requirements, it is for the library to specify that these are the books it wants and then place the order, as opposed to somebody saying "Here is a selection of books that we offer." It is complex but it is amenable to common sense being applied also.
To get an overview on 2018, the committee may need to look back to some of the big organisations that were through in the earlier part of the year. The obvious one is the HSE where the financial statements would have been noted earlier. This is in case they are not in the trawl that is already being done. The committee may need to add those.
The letter is very important. We will get back information about EU directives and all of our obligations but we are teasing out the balance here and how to get the balance, as the Comptroller and Auditor General has just said. It is about how we tease this out to ensure it is competitive but still of benefit to the local community, that it is fair and that they have an equal opportunity to participate. That is the balancing exercise.
It is a balancing issue. From looking at this issue previously I am aware that Ireland, which is the only island economy in the EU, ends up placing more of its contracts outside the State than other EU countries do. In France 98% or 99% of all contracts given out by public bodies go to French companies. It is the same in Germany, Spain and Italy. Ireland, however, is taking a lazy approach that we just adopted. We all remember the situation some years ago when every leaving certificate examination paper was published in France. They just made the contract so big that a French company got it. The French would never do that. It could have been broken down by subject and made into ten contracts and perhaps ten, six, two or three Irish companies could have bid. It is about how the contract is constructed. This goes back to the scale of the contract and the scale of the turnover and number of people the organisation must have. In my experience, public sector organisations take the lazy approach where they want the bidder to have a big turnover. I have seen how companies or building contractors built housing estates for local authorities and if five or six years later two more houses were wanted in the same estate, the contractor was no longer eligible - having built the previous 20 houses - because the company's turnover in the past two years had diminished during the recession. Things like that do not make sense. There are a number of such cases. In other cases some contracts come up and a company that perhaps has experience in the area does not have turnover. It can set up a joint venture company with some other utterly unconnected business that has a high turnover cashflow. A filling station business with a big cashflow could link up with a builder to form a joint company and then the builder meets the turnover criterion. There are lots of aspects we need to watch. It is easy to construct a company to get the turnover if one sets about to do that. I have seen this happen in practice. These are the issues. In the meantime, the people with the track record are not getting a look in at all. I apologise for that diversion but the members can see where we are at.
We have come at this in the first place because there is an obvious problem. If every second or third set of accounts has a note that there is non-compliance, it means there is a problem. When we have looked at this we have found that the problems are twofold. In some cases it is bad management and a flagrant disregard of the rules. This is one element of it. There are also problems with the system being too rigid and not flexible enough for smaller organisations also. This is where our focus should be. The thematic approach advocated, where it is broken down into the four or five or six themes and reasons why there are failures, could tell us where lots of the problems are. Initially we were hitting all the organisations over the head to say "Why are you not complying?". The system obviously is not working and I believe we need to be looking at that. It cannot be working if every second or third organisation and big Department comes back time and again with non-compliance. Some of it is bad management and we cannot let them off the hook on that one. Some of it is just that they are not complying with fair rules. If there is no level playing field, however, or if it is too rigid, too complex or too difficult - or whatever the problems might be in some areas - then we have a responsibility to find that out.
We will move on from this. I remind members of where we can achieve results. Some years ago we had only one of the 17 education and training boards getting its accounts in within three months of the year end. We brought them all up, went through them one by one and put four of the ETBs in front of us. Hey presto, the following year every one of the ETBs' accounts were in on time. The committee's involvement does help, with the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Having to answer to the Committee of Public Accounts does help. Let us use the bit of influence that we have. No. 2522 is agreed.
No. 2523 is correspondence received from Anne Graham, chief executive, National Transport Authority, following up with information requested at our meeting on 1 October. I will first refer to the headings. There is some shocking information in this, which follows through on the request for more information. Some of it is routine and great information is provided but there is one issue I wish to highlight. Ms Graham gives a breakdown of: the money spent on advertising campaigns for bus shelters; the cost of the Go-Ahead Ireland project vis-à-visDublin Bus; the roll-out of accessibility infrastructure, a list of the towns where that has been completed in the past year or two and the ones that are currently in planning; the proposal to carry out accessibility works in Carlow train station; and the payment by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection for free travel. We had been asking about the issue of free travel. There are five pages on that and we will come back to it in detail because it is connected to the public services card. We will note and publish the correspondence but we are not finished with the issue of the public services card yet. There is a lot of correspondence coming in from individuals on that issue arising out of the committee's discussions here and our meeting with the Department last week.
I refer to page 7, in the second last paragraph. We are aware that the public service obligation, PSO, for the free travel scheme has been capped for nine years at €51.6 million. The National Transport Authority also states that it understands that increases were paid to commercial operators. Can the committee write to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to find out exactly what is paid and who the contractors are? We know that over the years, when Bus Éireann was in huge financial difficulties it had to subsidise the difference, which put the company into even further financial difficulty. Bus Éireann had to subsidise the difference between the Government-awarded funding for the free travel scheme and the actual cost. Perhaps we could find out who is getting what and how much the operators are getting from the Department.
It is important to establish if the public transport service operators are being put at a distinct disadvantage. Even with some of the private operators, they are not compelled to have disability access, while public transport operators are and rightly so. It will be interesting to see if they are being awarded more in funding under the free travel scheme.
We will write to them and ask for a detailed breakdown. We asked about that last week. We will double-check and see if they have answered this arising from last week's meeting. If they have not answered that question, we will put it on the list.
There is a talk about a breakdown in advertising campaigns. It is not immediately obvious. Obviously, some of those advertising campaigns will be on buses and bus shelters. It is not immediately obvious who benefits from this. It is probably Adshel. That area is a little opaque in terms of the income from advertising. Does the National Transport Authority, NTA, get it or the commercial company which provides the shelters? That is not immediately obvious.
On the sanctioned headcount, there is a litany of stuff in that which is unacceptable in terms of how the Department deals with it.
We will write to them. We did not ask about the income from advertising on the various bus shelters and who gets it. We will ask the question. We were shocked to discover at a meeting last week that the majority of the staff in the NTA are outsourced and on contract. We have never met a State organisation where the majority of the day-to-day staff are not direct employees. The NTA has a situation where it has 118 direct employees and 148 people sourced through agencies on placement contract. I have never seen this before.
This is an organisation that is in existence for ten years. We got shocked at that and we asked for a breakdown. This is what I am shocked at.
On page 20 of this letter, it states the current employee headcount is 118, which costs €8.7 million. That is an average of €73,728 per employee. That includes PRSI, superannuation and everything that might go with that. The outsourced placements, that is, the 148 persons sitting beside the direct employees doing the same day-to-day work, cost €20.6 million. That is an average €139,189 per employee which is 90% greater than the cost of a direct employee. This is a gross mismanagement of the budget. It is spending 90% more per person than it needs to.
It further states that there was sanction to increase some additional staff. That has been done. At the end of the schedule, it states the board agreed to put plans in place for additional staff to be recruited. It does not give us the numbers of the staff to be so recruited, however. It states its long-term objective is to ensure it has the proper staffing requirements.
Ten years after the organisation has been established, this is totally unacceptable. There is bad expenditure on behalf of the taxpayer of €10 million. There is €20 million on outsourced staff. If these were the authority’s own staff, that figure would halve. Up to €10 million is being spent on outsourced staff to do day-to-day work in that organisation ten years after it was established. It gave all the details about recruitment embargoes over the decade. These figures are such a stand-out. It is a matter on which we will report. We have mentioned that at the meeting. Those of us here were shocked to hear this. That is why I want to put those figures out there now.
Yes, it is on page 21.
It confirms the forecasted headcount is not actually the figure given earlier. It forecasts 140 direct employees and 179 outsourced placements. It will actually increase. The Chairman was looking at page 20 of the letter when the current outsourced claims placement numbers are 148 and will rise to 179 for this year.
A number of them are but a number of them are there on a day-to-day ongoing basis. It is not bringing in a consultant for a project for three months. These are here for the whole time. As the Deputy said, the NTA’s own strategic plan indicates that the figure is getting more serious. Our point is made for today and we will come back to this.
I asked that question innocently and that was the answer. It is one that we should be conscious of with organisations which have been created in recent years. It is a kind of a staple question we might ask to see if there is the same profile.
The Chairman demonstrated the costs with figures and there may well be an adjustment in that. There is another issue, however. If people are on contract, the organisation will have to keep on training new people coming in. Staff retention becomes an issue, as does the viability of an organisation. We can point the finger at the NTA and tell it to get this sorted out. In actual fact, it is the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport that is the origin of the issue.
If we are to take action, we need to write to the Department. It has constantly asked the NTA to outline its requirement. It knows what its requirements are. It can evaluate the work of the people it is employing on a contract basis and decide what is essential employment. It is a bit like the schools building programme. One goes through many stages and one concludes that it is all about spreading money over several years. There is not even a saving in this case with the NTA. As the Chairman demonstrated, it is actually costing more. I do not think, however, we are counting the total cost. I would like us to write to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as opposed to the NTA.
We actually did and I should have said we have the reply. It is No. 2531B. I should have linked this to the other remark earlier. We wrote to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport because we were so shocked that day. We have the reply back from it, No. 2531B, dated 6 November 2019. It actually states under progress in implementation that in December 2018, the NTA received approval from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for the sanction of funding of phase 1 involving 26 additional new positions.
The recruitment of the additional personnel commenced in January 2019 and all new staff are expected to be in place by the end of the year. Phase 2 of the plan was approved by the Department's management board in July 2019, and it is engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the NTA in respect of sanction for phases 2 and 3. Discussions are continuing on the approval of the associated delegated pay sanctions for phase 2 of the plan.
The Department's effort to date, even in respect of the 26 additional staff, has been minuscule and it has not dealt with the issue. Given that it is now in talks about phases 2 and 3, we will write to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because it is involved in the sanction. The sanction it should consider relates to ensuring that it has the adequate complement of staff rather than continually paying contracted staff, who cost €140,000 each as opposed to the average salary of €73,000. If the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has the remotest interest in the issue of cost, that is what it should consider, rather than arguing whether 24 or 26 additional staff should be appointed. It is symptomatic of where we are.
It would be remiss of me, as Chair of the Irish language committee, not to mention there are serious implications for the Irish language and Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla, which will provide that 20% of all new recruits will have Irish, although, presumably, that will not cover outsourced jobs. Serious implications will arise from that type of Government policy.
We will write to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of what we have just discussed and provide the transcript. The implications should jump out at the Department. It should not talk about phases, grades or whatever. Its efforts to correct the circumstances have been paltry. I could accept it if it were years one, two or three, but not in year ten.
No. 2524 is correspondence from the HSE, dated 5 November, providing information on the national integrated staff records and pay programme, NISRP. The letter states it is a programme to facilitate access to comprehensive employee data, consistent support and business information throughout the HSE, and to fulfil the Government direction to establish and develop a shared services model. It indicates that the overall cost of the programme will be €27 million over the course of its lifetime, to 2023. We will note and publish the correspondence.
I raised the issue a number of weeks ago because there have been many complaints. There is not a problem with there being a single platform but there may be a problem with how it operates. There have been many staff complaints about the matter. It will be rolled out gradually. My concern is whether it is fit for purpose or whether the complaints relate to what are just teething problems. Much information has been provided in the letter. The complaints suggest that people are not being paid properly and payments are weeks overdue, and they have been submitted by everyone from porters to hospital consultants and ambulance drivers. The system has to be flexible. I cannot understand how it would not be flexible and it may be that it is a matter of how it is being used. I would like us to satisfy ourselves that the programme is fit for purpose. Otherwise, we could be talking about it again in two years.
The letter states, "For the vast majority of HSE staff, the only change experienced will be the introduction of the self-service tool". That means employees will download their own payslips, which is fine for salaried employees and so on. However, the letter continues:
For a smaller cohort of staff (specifically those involved in capturing staff hours worked, payroll and staff records processing) there will be more significant changes to processes and systems used. The Programme undertakes an extensive change management exercise (including engagement, communications, training and post ‘Go-Live’ support) ...
We will request details of the problems experienced to date.
We will reply and request details of the specific issues we have highlighted.
No. 2527 is correspondence from the clerk to the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, acknowledging correspondence we sent to the committee. We will note and publish the correspondence.
No. 2528 is correspondence from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, dated 6 November, regarding correspondence we sent to him on the alleged misuse of special educational needs allocations and resources. We asked about the Department's oversight of school expenditure and the school grant system in this regard. The Department makes clear it allocates special education teachers. There is no allocation of funds and, therefore, that is not an issue.
The Department states that since the system was introduced several years ago, 88 reports of potentially inappropriate use of special education teaching resources have been made to the Department, comprising 71 in primary schools and 17 in post-primary schools. It states the figures should be viewed in the context of more than 13,500 special education and training posts and 4,000 primary and post-primary schools, that there have been 1,500 school inspections, and that the majority of the issues arose having been uncovered by the Department during its own inspections. It states that in respect of the numbers we mentioned, 34 schools have confirmed they use the allocation in accordance with the guidelines, 29 schools have replied to say the allocation is being reviewed, replies are awaited for a further 20, while five schools are yet to be in a position to demonstrate compliance.
The Department is addressing the 88 schools that have been reported and goes on to state that, ultimately, the first responsibility is with the board of management, which must satisfy itself that proper controls are in place. It indicates that the board's income and expenditure accounts must be prepared for the end of each school year and must be properly audited or certified. All schools' accounts are available for audit by officers of the Department, officials and the Comptroller and Auditor General, if requested. There are 4,000 more schools, therefore, that the Comptroller and Auditor General can audit if he wishes.
I will say that in my reply. There were some cases but we are clear that the problem is not with staff. Perhaps the schools are doing something else. There have been 88 complaints and most of them were uncovered by the Department. While some were not, it is systematically reviewing them. We will note and publish the correspondence, and reply to the person who wrote to us.
No. 2529 is correspondence from Ms Colette Drinan, secretary and director of audit at the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, dated 7 November 2019, responding to a query regarding vacancies at that office. The information was requested by the secretariat and will feed into our next periodic report. There will be some good news for some of the staff at the office. The letter states that as of 31 October, the office had 181 full-time equivalent members of staff and no vacancies, which was the result of ongoing active recruitment, especially at the trainee auditor grade. Consequently, the office has more trainee auditors than the complement but fewer senior auditors than the complement. It is expected that a number of internal promotion competitions will re-align the numbers at an early stage. There will be some promotions, therefore, for some of the people at the office, which is good to note. It shows that when we examine accounts, even though the Comptroller and Auditor General appears before the committee every week, we do our work straight and ask straight questions, and we received good answers in this case.
No. 2530 is correspondence from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, providing information following our meeting with Caranua. I specifically asked for details and we have received details of properties. The letter states it was indicated that four properties would transfer to public bodies, the Department or the HSE, as the case may be. The four cases referred to are Cloughmacsimon, County Cork, offered by the Rosminians, who took cash of €101,600; in Portlaoise, the Congregation of the Christian Brothers gave a cheque with a value of €2 million in lieu of property; in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, the Congregation of the Christian Brothers paid €412,665 in cash as opposed to property-----
The final property to be transferred was Moate national school, for which €650,000 was received from the Sisters of Mercy. In each case, ownership and title issues arose, and it was a requirement of the indemnity agreement that the property transfer with good market value for each title. There are issues with trusts in those cases. I am told that in some cases the orders had to revert to the Vatican to have the trusts corrected and it was easier to hand over a cheque.
That was strictly only in the cash and the funds received were placed in the special account used to fund the awards made by the Residential Institutions Redress Board and associated legal and other costs. We will place that on record. We will remind Deputy Connolly that the letter is here because it is relevant to our ongoing discussions on Caranua. People understand the reason that some properties were offered but could not be transferred. We have been following that. We will note and publish the letter and we will make sure that Deputy Connolly is made aware of its existence. She can raise it next week or at some other future date because there is more correspondence dealing with Caranua. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2531B is from Ms Ailish Neville at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have dealt with the matter which concerns the NTA.
It does. When I was reading the letter from the NTA, I knew I had read that other correspondence but it was further down the list. I was speaking from recollection.
No. 2532B is from Ms Rachel Downes, CEO of Caranua. She provides a lot of information. We will note and publish it but we will hold it over.
There is one issue I would like us to clarify with Caranua. We are aware that a number of people have met Mary O'Toole, who is reviewing cases where there is a dispute about the length of time involved due to the lack of records. It is not clear if an amount has been retained, but there is no point in doing the review if there is nothing in the budget to deal with it. Could we clarify the position as it is not immediately obvious?
We will ask for a note, but Caranua made it clear that it expects to have €2 million or €3 million extra at the end of its work that would allow it to reopen some of the old cases. A deadline for closing off cases was introduced. Some cases arrived after the deadline and they were not taken into account. Based on the average payments made to date, Caranua knows that if it pays what it has in its system, there will be a surplus and it might be able to look at some of the cases that arrived late. We will note and publish this and we will hold over a discussion on the document until next week if Deputy Connolly wants, particularly as it is Caranua. We will associate the other letter from the Department about the properties with it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2533B is from Mr. Gerard Dollard, CEO of the Irish Greyhound Board. He is providing a response on whether it is standard practice to perform post mortems on dogs that die on tracks. The board stated that it has not been standard practice, but it is its intention that it will be the practice in the future. The board has been dealing with the veterinary medicine department in UCD in Belfield and it is its intention to do that from now on. Is it agreed that we will note and publish this? Agreed.
No. 2534B is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We wrote to Mr. Watt asking for information on the full list of public bodies that are using the public services card and an information note outlining what stage the project is at. He referred us to the Government website which shows the public bodies that are currently using the card and the stages the project is at. There is also information on the website on whether the card is currently live or is planned for introduction in the near future. We also asked for a detailed implementation and costing plan and he said the Department does not have that; it is a matter for each implementing body. First, he referred us to a website and, second, he referred us to every other Department. We will note and publish that. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2540B is from the Courts Service and is dated 11 November. It provides a note on the recording of wards of court fees in the appropriation account. Can we agree to note and publish this item? We will discuss the matter later with the Courts Service. Is that agreed? Agreed.
We now move on to category C correspondence. No. 2517C is from Mr. Michael McGlynn, communications and research executive with Nursing Homes Ireland. Mr. McGlynn provides a statement issued to the media. The organisation has called on the committee to question the HSE and the Department of Health to achieve full disclosure regarding the costs to bring HSE nursing homes up to the required regulatory standards. We will note that question for the HSE, which will be here in three weeks' time. We will put that on the list and tell the HSE we are going to ask that question. I propose that we ask the HSE to provide an information note on that. We will note that. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2518C is from an individual. I propose to hold the discussion in private session because this is a letter I received following our meeting with Caranua. An individual whom I think was too late in applying for the first tranche of funds saw there might be funding available. I think a person had to get an award from the redress board before he or she could go to Caranua. I will hold this letter over for the private session because it contains personal information. We will come back to that in due course. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2520C is from an individual asking what the Committee of Public Accounts is going to do about Deputies' expenses. I understand that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is examining the matter of expenses. That is important. We will note this item. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2535C is from an individual and is dated 6 November, requesting the committee to investigate expenditure management in Irish Water. Irish Water does not fall within the remit of the committee but it receives money from the Department. We will send the correspondence to the Department and ask it for a response in respect of its oversight and governance of Irish Water regarding the matters raised. The Department is a funding Department and it is answerable to the committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.
When the officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection were in with us, I asked about a CV builder and it being hosted in another jurisdiction. I was told that was just a newspaper item.
It was about a CV builder in the context of Seetec or JobPath. When I asked a question of the officials of the Department when they came before the committee, I was informed that it was just a newspaper item and that there was no issue arising. I tabled a parliamentary question subsequently. It is not a big deal, but it is an issue relating to accurate information that is being given. The reply stated:
I am advised that in late 2017 an issue was raised concerning specifically the CV Builder element of ...[a particular] software package and where relevant CV data was stored. Seetec were requested to remove the capacity to store CVs on the ... platform and this functionality was replaced ... [and people have it] ... on an optional basis.
There was a basis for the question I asked and it is very annoying that it was batted away. I got a perfectly acceptable response then but I am surprised that I was given that kind of response.
I ask the Deputy to pass on the parliamentary question to the secretariat and we will write to the Accounting Officer, who was here only last week. To keep the record straight, we will give the transcript of what was said and the reply to the parliamentary question and ask for a response. We will do that. I thank the Deputy.
On Irish Water, I highlighted the broader aspect of this issue a number of weeks ago in terms of the change that was going to be implemented. We saw this week, on the front pages of our national newspapers, that it has come home to roost. There was a drop of some €35 million in the Local Government Fund and there was a change in terms of the Irish Water situation in that its contribution would be based on population. As a result of the changes, this week we saw that Dublin City Council now finds itself in receipt of some €8 million less in funds. Previously, commitments had been given that loss in revenue would be resolved through a Government subvention but the Government has back-tracked on that commitment. I made the point to the Comptroller and Auditor General that it would have serious implications for the funding of local government. I accept that is not within our remit but it goes back to the changes in local government funding, which has now resulted in €8 million less going to Dublin City Council, and that is just one council. I am trying to ascertain the figures for the various councils across the country at the moment because it is having a major impact. I ask that we would look at this again because that one change will have a major net impact on the operation of local councils.
The Chairman will correct me if I am wrong, but the assessment is based on population rather than the network and we saw this week how that reappraisal has cost the administrative centre of the city of Dublin some €8 million in lost revenue.
The city manager had said he understood it would be counteracted by a subvention from central government. That is not forthcoming now and the council is down some €8 million. It is in a budgetary process whereby it is trying to pass on the cost through parking charges, increases in rent and so forth. My point, which is a broader one, is that we still do not know the net impact across all the councils in this country and where this will leave them.
I know. The problem is that it is like a rabbit hole. The work is fantastic but it relates back to the frustration. That is why I would like the letter to be sent. It is these kinds of issues, which are all separated out, that can have such a major impact. The one in question is a huge one.
We will ask for the reply within ten days. I believe that is normal anyway.
We have held over some correspondence connected to Caranua in case members want to discuss it. We published it but held it over for further discussion. There was a late item of correspondence, No. 2543, from Deputy MacSharry, in connection with the Irish Wheelchair Association.
A number of Deputies, from all parties and none, and members of the public have raised the announced closure of Cuisle Accessible Holiday Resort. It is a very important part of Irish Wheelchair Association infrastructure that is available to wheelchair users throughout the country but it is to close imminently. We all know the association is an important organisation and that it does excellent work, which we support. It probably does not get enough resources but, that said, it did get €40 million for the current year. We should invite in representatives of the Irish Wheelchair Association and the relevant Department. While the association is a section 39 organisation and is well within its right to decline the invitation, it might be happy to send representatives along to talk to us about the matter along with officials from the Department. There are 48 jobs involved. Apart from that, the infrastructure is unique. It is a policy issue but we should be seeking to have more such infrastructure to facilitate those with disabilities rather than seeking to close one of the facilities we do have.
On Deputy MacSharry’s point on not limiting the amount of infrastructure, while the centre is based in the west it has been accessed by people from all over the country. I support the efforts of Deputy MacSharry, Deputy Eugene Murphy and others from all parties in supporting this call today.
It is clear-cut. We can write to the HSE for a note on the compliance and service-level agreement it has with the Irish Wheelchair Association. I am sure this must be covered in the agreement. HSE representatives will be before us in three weeks. I understand the health committee agreed yesterday to invite members of the Irish Wheelchair Association. Can we double-check that? The representatives should not have to appear before two committees on the same issue. We will invite them if the health committee has not done so. If that committee has already agreed to invite the representatives in, we will let them go to that committee. We will not duplicate each other's work. In the meantime, we will contact the HSE, the funding body, regarding its service-level agreement with the Irish Wheelchair Association.
There are only two sets of financial statements in front of us. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has a clear audit opinion and the Social Insurance Fund has a clear audit opinion. Attention is drawn to Chapter 12, on the regularity of social welfare payments, which we discussed at length here last week. I am formally noting the accounts we discussed last week.
On the work programme, there is no significant change. We can keep it under review. Is there any other business?
The chief procurement officer of the Office of Government Procurement. I do not know the answer but we will find out. We will discuss it in private session in a minute and raise it on the record afterwards during public session.
We will discuss it in private session.
The other issue concerns business cases for infrastructure. I saw on the eTenders website at the weekend that Irish Rail called for a consultancy to develop a commercial business case to secure support for the expansion of the DART. I am not getting into policy areas. The issue was announced about three times. On the record of the Dáil in 2015, there is a reference by the Minister to the then updated business case for July 2015, and now we are calling for another business case. The public is quite rightly expecting that it concerns the expansion to Kildare, Drogheda and so on given the commuter crisis and rail-capacity crisis.
What are the rules? How many business cases do we need? It seems that the dogs on the street could pull the business case together. We were talking about numbers of staff earlier. If we are putting this out to tender, I presume it costs money. I do not know whether it will be hundreds of thousands, millions or tens of thousands of euro, for what seems to be the third business case for the expansion. With all the staff we have, and with the expense involved, are we really saying the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Irish Rail, the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland are so lacking in appropriate expertise that they cannot produce the business case for a DART extension? I believe there is an administrative merry-go-round. Everybody needs plausible deniability and no one is prepared to take a decision. I can understand that regarding more spurious issues. With the public services card, there was no business case. We all had an issue with that. When it comes to public transportation, however, we do not need much convincing that certain things are needed. So many years on, we have just gone to tender for what appears to be the third business case. Two issues arise in this regard. Why do we need external consultants to produce a business case? Why do we need a business case at all? While I know I can be accused of being facetious from time to time, I fully understand that any Minister would want to secure value for money. As we heard at a meeting of this committee, there were not too many business cases for reopening Stepaside Garda station, yet, while the DART extension is a much greater and more pressing issue, we are looking for the third business case, effectively six years after it was announced by the then CEO of Irish Rail, Mr. David Franks, as something Irish Rail intended to produce. There is not a commuter in Ireland who could not write the business case pretty quickly.
I agree with a lot of what has been said but at the same time I believe we have learned lessons about failing to plan. We need to know the ingredient that is different. There is reliance on the likes of the DART upgrade going ahead and on building capacity into treatment plants in regard to the zoning of land.
Many of these are interconnected. For instance, headroom is needed if the DART is to be upgraded, which involves rebuilding bridges and so on. All these components are important in understanding the timing. What components are being examined and do they differ from the original proposal? Is that detail part of a business case?
The point raised by Deputy MacSharry is much broader. We should consider how the business case is made for major infrastructure projects or their expansion and the documents that are examined by consultants. Some weeks ago when Ms Anne Graham from the NTA was before the committee, I raised the flawed business case that was written in 2011 relating to the Navan rail line in my constituency. Where are all the documents that they are examining? They are lifting them from the senior planners in every county. As Deputy Murphy noted, they are only looking at the development plans, projections for land zoned and so on. Every senior planner in the country is writing the same document. The senior planner in my county has written the business case for the extension of the train line that is required and I am sure that is the same everywhere, whether it is to address congestion in Galway or whatever. These people are paid by the State in the first instance. The duplication of this work is a waste of taxpayers' money. I am frustrated that a senior planner is paid money to write something only for his or her work to be re-examined by a consultant who is paid out of the public purse by the NTA to just lift the planner's work, stick a cover on it and give it back to the authority. It is bananas. The people who are employed by the State in the first instance know the nuts and bolts. What frustrates me even more is that some of the consultants come in and reject what the senior planner said originally. Who do we trust more? I trust the senior planner who is employed by the State and knows the nuts and bolts a damn sight more. Deputy MacSharry's point about the processes that we go through to produce a document to put on a Minister's desk, who is prepared to make a decision and who is the fall guy if something goes wrong is pertinent. It is worthy of much more discussion, perhaps when we consider the chapter on local government and State agencies again. I fully endorse those points.
I just want to add to Deputy Murphy's remarks. Perhaps circumstances are changing and there is a need for more planning or whatever but we have legislative powers. Section 181(2)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000 empowers the Minister to gazump the law in an emergency, but when is an emergency an emergency? There is no doubt that if we want to continue to obsess about covering one's ass, for want of a better expression, we will never get anything done. If a business case is done and a decision made, that is the leadership we look for from the Executive, yet we are going around in circles when it comes to commuters. This does not even relate to my constituency but to that of Deputy Murphy and others.
I am also on that committee, as is Deputy Catherine Murphy. We can also ask there but I think it is an issue of public expenditure. This is going to cost money. Let us ask the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport why agencies under its remit do not have the expertise to make a commercial business case. If the answer is that they do not have the expertise, then there are recruitment problems and the HR policy approaches are wrong. If someone does not know the commercial case for rail expansion and they work for the NTA or Irish Rail, those organisations are not fit for purpose. The next question is: how many business cases are needed? Someone will always take issue but someone needs to take a decision and say that they have the two or three quotes, that they are happy that this is what is needed and a decision will be taken to do it.
I do not know who will be Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport by the time any of these projects come to fruition if we continue along these line.
We were critical of the lack of a written business case for the public services card. We need business cases. I agree that we do not need to keep repeating them for the same project. Can we find out if there is something different for this? It has a bearing on the kind of rolling stock that is bought if there is not an electrified service and we do not want to do that. This has knock-on consequence.
In 2013, the then CEO, Mr. David Franks, sought the support of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications for that project. It is now sever years later. I agree with everything Deputy Murphy said but a couple of deadlines should be set and stuck to. Let us get on and do these projects. Congestion costs the State a lot of money in lost time, accidents and so on. By the time the 2013 vision comes on-stream, it will probably be ten or 15 years behind the curve anyway. We need to up our game.