Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 28 November 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are continuing with our business, as normal. There is correspondence from Mr. Peter Finnegan, Clerk of the Dáil and Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, on the report on the purchase of the printing facilities. We will deal with it in due course as part of correspondence.
The first item on the agenda is the minutes of the meeting on 21 November 2019. Are they agreed? Agreed. Nothing arises from the minutes that will not come up in the normal course of today's meeting.
The next item is correspondence. There are three categories, the first being category A, comprising No. 2572A and No. 2580A, from the Revenue Commissioners. They are briefing documents and opening statements for today's meeting. We will note and publish them. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next items are correspondence from Accounting Officers and their Ministers and follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and other items for publishing. The first item is No. 2563B, from Ms Anne Graham, chief executive, National Transport Authority, NTA. It follows on from a query from the committee on 22 October. Her letter is dated 19 November 2019. We raised a number of issues. We asked for a note of clarification on what is meant by "value for money" in regard to future projects or investments, including clarification of how it is measured and calculated, in addition to the inputs and outputs and whether carbon emissions are taken into account when calculating it. There is a detailed response to that question covering a few pages. Examples are given of the typical costs and benefits of a project. They are well established. We will publish them today.
We also sought a note on fines for breaches of carbon targets, to include whether this is a factor in the medium and long-term planning of the NTA. It is stated the carbon targets are a matter for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It would not be for the NTA to deal with them.
Third, we sought a note on reports carried out or commissioned by the NTA in relation to an environmental value-for-money calculation. Ms Graham states no environmental value-for-money calculation has been specifically carried out but it is stated there are three headings under which the NTA examines all matters: social value, economic value and environmental value. One combined report is produced covering the three areas, not three separate reports.
We asked for an outline of the models used in calculating future demand for transport. The response provides various graphs showing how the NTA forecasts future transport demand.
We asked for a note on the assumptions of behaviour used when modelling projected demand, with particular reference to the regional cities of Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford. There was a short response to that but the matter is dealt with substantially under note 4.
Last, we asked for a note clarifying whether the NTA employs an environmental economist. The response states the NTA does not directly employ an environmental economist. However, through the consultancy framework agreements that the NTA has made, it has access to economists specialising in the assessment of environmental issues. We will note and publish that.
No. 2565B, from the clerk to the Joint Committee on Health, dated 20 November 2019, acknowledges receipt of our document sent to that committee in respect of public-private partnerships in the health centres. The committee noted the correspondence that we received from the HSE regarding the operation of public-private partnerships for health centres. We will note and publish that.
No. 2566B is from the private secretary to the Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality and is dated 22 November 2019. It provides details requested by the committee regarding the numbers of applications for asylum and international protection for the period from 2005 to 21 November 2019. This information was included in our periodic report. I acknowledge and thank all the members and the staff who participated and thank them for attending at the launch of the report last Tuesday. The information provided was one of the final pieces of information. We were very pleased to be able to include it in the report.
I agree with the Chairman. I welcomed the letter and did so at the launch of the report. I welcome the clarification on the period 2005 to 2019. I urge members to read the documentation to have accurate information when there is talk of a surge in the numbers. There has not been a surge, as the graph illustrates. There is not much difference between numbers in the period from 2005 until 2019. There have been four years with a number higher than that in 2018. It is important to keep this in perspective in view of the narrative that goes out from certain quarters.
The total number, 87,838, in the period is very small by comparison with that for other countries. When put in perspective, the number should be managed easily in a proper way, given value for money and given our remit. We should not have problems in dealing with that number of people.
I have an ancillary point. This is happening at a time when there is very serious pressure on other countries, particularly given what has been happening in the Mediterranean over the past few years. We have got to see this backdrop also.
Absolutely. We referred to that clearly in our report. Figures from several years before 2015 were much higher than on previous occasions. The Comptroller and Auditor General produced several reports on the costs of accommodation and acquiring hotels. Some hotels did not come into use. A previous Committee of Public Accounts discussed accommodation that was not utilised when required. There is a long history. This is not a recent phenomenon. That is the essential point being made. We will note and publish the correspondence.
No. 2567B is from Mr. Pádraig Dalton, director general of the Central Statistics Office, CSO, and provides a link to CSO releases regarding environmental air emissions accounts. The detail is available. We raised the issue and Mr. Dalton has given us the link to the various CSO releases. We will note and publish that.
No. 2569B, from Ms Rachel Downes, CEO of Caranua, dated 22 November 2019, is responding to information requested by the committee regarding eligibility criteria. At our meeting on 14 November, it was agreed to request an information note from Caranua to ascertain whether there are other options open to an individual who has not already received an award or settlement from the redress board or a court. Caranua does not appear to have answered the question and I propose to request that it address this specific point. It refers to the legislation, stating the person had to have received the award or a settlement. We shall ask Caranua to clarify the exact point. It seems to answer it but I would like absolute clarification on the specifics we referred to.
On a related matter, since we had the meeting I received correspondence from a number of survivors who had work done in their homes. The works were carried out by a company, which I will not name, and they were raised in the context of the discussion we had with Caranua. Obviously, works varied from house to house but questions were certainly raised in regard to the cost of the works. I refer to the cost to Caranua and the money that was paid to whatever company was doing the work, in addition to the costs of the materials and the equipment that would have been provided to the homes. I have a query about the financial controls that were in place. Was there tendering for the company? If company A is given the job of doing certain works in a home and provides an invoice, what auditing and controls are in place to ensure the costs are appropriate? From what I have seen, I have concerns. I forwarded a receipt in regard to one of the emails I received to the Comptroller and Auditor General's office.
I will check that. If it was not sent, I will forward it. I believe it was sent. I would like us to consider this matter again, initially through correspondence with Caranua. What companies were engaged by Caranua? What financial controls had it in place? I will consider the information received.
I am being careful of what I say as there are companies involved and I am not alleging any wrongdoing by anybody. I just want to see what financial control is in place.
My essential understanding of the arrangement with Caranua is that the individual had the contractual arrangement with the contractor. Caranua was not engaged directly in most cases because it wanted to maintain the person's privacy and dignity rather than going to a contractor and stating Caranua would pay.
I ask the Deputy to liaise with the secretariat and we can send a letter to clarify the particular point. We will happily send on that letter to Caranua for clarification. We will note and published the letter received today.
Correspondence No. 2570 was received from Ms Carol Hanney, chief executive of City of Dublin Education and Training Board, CDETB, dated 22 November. It provides a further comprehensive note regarding the processes and procedures in SUSI for grant application cases involving difficult family situations. We will note and publish it.
For absolute clarification, we received a previous note and we were not happy with some particular aspects of how sensitive cases are dealt with. This letter clarifies for the information of the committee that CDETB "is the statutorily appointed national grant awarding authority designated by the Minister for Education and Skills to administer student grants. SUSI is an administrative unit of CDETB". Some people think SUSI is part of the Department or an independent body but in fact the City of Dublin Education and Training Board is the designated statutory authority to deal with grants and SUSI is a division within that organisation.
With regard to the point I raised regarding the correspondence note we received, and Deputy Connolly also made the same point, we asked for information on how SUSI deals with sensitive issues. We explained that in cases of family break up some students have immense difficulties getting information from both parents; that it is often not possible for them to get the information; that grant applications are not being approved in these situations; and, that people are losing out because of sensitive family situations. The note mentioned the issue of barring orders. We were very alarmed to hear SUSI might be looking for details of barring orders because that would affect third parties. They come from the family law courts and are not meant to be in public. It would probably be a breach of a court order to provide the information.
I will now read from the letter from the chief executive of CDETB:
In particular arising from your letter of 7 November, I wish to clarify that barring orders and decisions of the Family Law Courts are neither specifically requested nor required by SUSI in any case. However, and based on experience in practice of the documents that can and have been provided to SUSI to date where it has been necessary to evidence relevant family circumstances in order to determine grant eligibility, barring orders are currently included in the indicative list of documents that is provided for the information and guidance of students in such cases.
The letter states barring orders are not specifically requested but they are included in an indicative list the applicant can provide. This is important. The Committee of Public Accounts has achieved something. The next sentence states:
Having regard to the views and concerns expressed by the Committee, the reference to barring orders will be removed from the indicative list of documents for the future.
We have been on the case and SUSI took on board what we said. I wanted to make this point as people often ask whether we achieve anything here and this is something. It is a small but important point. We will note and publish this information.
I welcome this. I do not know how it ever included barring orders on an indicative list. Certainly if it has learned that much it is to be welcome. I welcome that barring orders have been removed. In the letter Ms Hanney states, "I wish to clarify that barring orders and decisions of the Family Law Courts are neither specifically requested nor required by SUSI". The letter then makes the point about barring orders being removed from the list. I presume it is the same for judicial separations but I do not know. It is a bit disingenuous. Perhaps SUSI does not intentionally mean to be disingenuous. It has taken out barring orders but has it taken out judicial separation orders and divorce? I do not know.
We will go back for clarification. I am trying to come at it from SUSI's point of view. It might be helpful for an applicant to prove his or her case but the mere listing by a State body of information on barring orders and family law courts is not correct to start with.
It belongs to the two parties. I am not sure how a child who is now a student could be asked to get information on anything like a barring order. The basic application form requires income information from both parents, who are not the applicant. The essence of the entire process is finding out information in respect of the income of the parents but it went a step too far in asking for details on family law proceedings. It will have to find another way, such as solicitors' letters. It has to verify.
In the absence of this information how would SUSI make a determination? We do not want to end up excluding people who should be funded for college places. We might ask about the challenges in doing this where an exception is made.
This is the essence of where we came in at the beginning. Sometimes students just give up because they think they will not be able to get a grant. We will ask SUSI what other mechanism is in place. Perhaps a declaration can be signed by the parents and witnessed by a peace commissioner or commissioner of oaths. I do not know. There needs to be another mechanism to facilitate SUSI verifying it and facilitating the students.
The student will say that his or her father does not live in the family home any more and that his income should not come into account. SUSI will then ask for this to be proved. Then there is an indicative list of documentation stating a barring order would be acceptable.
We will clarify that with SUSI.
Correspondence No. 2571 B is from Mr. Maurice Buckley, chairman of the Office of Public Works, providing a further update requested by the committee on discussions between the OPW and the landlord of Miesian Plaza. There was a meeting in October and the OPW is following up some matters. I propose we request a further update of matters not yet concluded. We will note and publish this.
Correspondence No. 2575 B and No. 2578 B are from Mr. Peter Finnegan, Secretary General of Houses of the Oireachtas Service. We will hold these until we come to dealing with No. 2581, which is the letter we received this morning. We will note and publish them.
Correspondence No. 2579B is from Mr. Colum Walsh, deputy commissioner at the Data Protection Commission, providing the commission's view on the Department of Finance and other public bodies providing details of fees paid to barristers. This is a very comprehensive and useful response to the matter raised and it appears that the Data Protection Commission shares the committee's view that the need to provide transparency overrides privacy concerns about fees paid to individual barristers. I want to refer to this letter because it is a very important issue. I acknowledge this arises from issues raised by the Vice Chairman, Deputy Alan Kelly, who raised this matter through parliamentary questions and brought it to the committee, resulting in the committee making a recommendation in our interim report last week. For the benefit of the public, and especially for the Department of Finance and the Minister for Finance whose view we received in the last letter on this, Mr. Walsh's letter states the practice of disclosing the names of barristers along with fees paid to them by Government Departments and public bodies is long standing.
Such disclosures have arisen, for example, under the Freedom of Information Act and parliamentary questions. The voluntary disclosure of certain payments is part of the public service reform plan. The commission is stating that it is not clear what precipitated the apparent recent change in practice on the part of certain Government bodies and that it is not required under GDPR rules specifically. The letter goes on to mention that there is a legitimate interest to be transparent and accountable financially as a public body funded by the Exchequer. It said that when the commission is processing information, it must be conscious of the processing of the data subject, namely, the individual concerned, where such processing would represent a disproportionate interference with the subject's rights. The letter goes on to talk about how the commission believes the balance is in favour of public disclosure and accountability. The letter then states that the commission noted that during the course of its deliberations, the Committee of Public Accounts suggested that a recommendation be made to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that tenderers for publicly-funded contracts should be told that their fees and costs will be disclosed as part of the process and that the commission supports that recommendation. It is very clear that people should be informed of it at the very beginning of the process. That should deal with the issue. The letters says the commission supports our view on the matter. The matter is not yet closed. I think we will send this letter to the Department of Finance and ask it to study it and respond accordingly. Deputies MacSharry and Cullinane have indicated they wish to speak.
I agree with the Chairman. I thank the Vice Chairman, whose parliamentary questions did us a service in terms of raising this issue. The letter from the deputy commissioner is unequivocal on this matter. I and indeed others made a proposal some weeks ago, which is in our report, that all public contracts include this. It is a point made regularly by Deputy Connolly. The belief that the public must be protected from the truth is wrong. It subverts democracy. If I am tendering for a State contract, I am sure that I would be happy to win a contract and get paid and that I would not be worried about the argument about something being commercially sensitive, which is often used in here. The more that prices and fees are out in the public domain, the more pressure and momentum can be built to achieve value for money for us and perhaps bring prices down. I described the Department's explanation as to why these fees would not be released as political opportunism at best. The unequivocal response from the deputy commissioner bears that out absolutely. I thank the deputy commissioner for his response and Deputy Kelly for bringing it to our attention. I very much hope that the Department moves swiftly to implement the committee's recommendation that all future public tenders inform tenderers that this information will go into the public domain and that the public is entitled to no less.
It was the small item from last week. It was correspondence from the Secretary General of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection regarding his last visit here. I posed a number of questions to him regarding JobPath and its overall cost, which I think has been over €70 million. I asked specific questions about referrals. I asked whether it was possible for somebody to be referred a third time and he said "No". I think he said it was almost impossible for somebody to be referred a third time. My colleague put down a parliamentary question only to find out that not only were people referred a third time, some people had been referred a fourth time. There is a cost involved every time somebody is referred. Can we go back and get a breakdown from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection as to how many people have been referred once, how many have been referred a second, third and fourth time, the total cost and why? We are spending significant amounts of money on this and if it is the case that somebody is being placed for a third or fourth time, something is not working. I would like that clarified. Although the Accounting Officer may not have known, he was certainly very clear. I think he said that it was almost impossible for somebody to be referred a third time. In some cases, it was for a fourth time.
We will write to the Accounting Officer directly on that basis and seek full information and clarification on that point. I am proposing to hold over category C - correspondence from private individuals to next week's meeting.
I will return to No. 2581 B from Mr. Peter Finnegan, Secretary General, Houses of the Oireachtas Service, which incorporates No. 2575 B and 2578 B.No. 2581 B is the report received this morning from Mr. Peter Finnegan, Clerk of the Dáil and Secretary General, Houses of the Oireachtas Service entitled, "Report on the purchase of the Komori printing press and related matters for the Committee of Public Accounts". This report was only received this morning so I will ask the secretariat to make arrangements so that within the hour of us concluding this matter, the report will be published on the committee website. Because members do not have access to it, I ask them to bear with me for a few moments so that people watching understand what is in the report before we start our discussion. They will understand our discussion better if we put the contents of the report on the record.
It is an eight-page report. Do not worry; I will not read it all. It outlines the print facility and the background. The print facility has operated since 2007 and is used extensively by Members and to a small extent by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service for some of its work. The average number of documents printed per year is 2,357. This is an average of ten per Member or thereabouts. The report states that the annual expenditure in recent years for the print facility for ongoing services has averaged between €550,000 and €600,000, plus staffing costs for 2018 of approximately €610,000. The report states the facility can only be used by Members with regard to their parliamentary duties. It cannot be used for any other matters and it has standards in place to ensure Members do not print anything unconnected with their parliamentary duties. The report also states the porters will deliver the finished print jobs to a Member's car or Members may pick them up directly from the print facility. I also wish to add that major print jobs such as newsletters are collected by arrangement with a Member, who will pay for a van to collect them directly from the print facility. Not everything will fit in the boot of a single car. Most of the large items are collected by couriers and transported to wherever a Member has requested. There is a print users' council comprising four Members - two Deputies and two Senators - and four members of staff. One print manager and eight print staff are employed and the print facility is located in the basement of Kildare House across the road from the Kildare Street entrance to Leinster House.
The project to upgrade the printing equipment began in 2017. It was approved by the management board and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The report states that the original equipment, which was 12 years old, was fully depreciated and expensive to maintain. Provision was made in the 2018 Estimates of €1.5 million to cover the expected costs, which included decommissioning of the existing equipment. It was expected that the new printing press would cost approximately €850,000, excluding VAT. It was expected that there would be savings due to not having to service the existing machines, the machines having trade-in value, spare parts costing less and a movement to a greener production facility rather than the old machine, which was over 12 years of age. The report also stated that it would facilitate the printing of a new range of printed products for Members and staff, i.e., A5 booklets, which could not be printed on the original printer. I ask members to bear with me. I want them to understand the system.
The dates involving the procurement process were: 15 August 2017, when market soundings meetings took place on the Leinster House campus; 5 March 2018, when the request for tender was published on eTenders and in the Official Journal of the European Union, OJEU; 21 March 2018, when there was a site visit for interested parties; 29 March 2018, which was the deadline for receipt of clarifications of information; 5 April 2018, which was the closing date for receipt of tenders; 12 April 2018, which was the date for the evaluation of tenders received; 19 April 2018, which was the date of the post-closing clarification meeting; 27 April 2018, which was the date of consideration by the Oireachtas contracts committee; 27 April 2018, when contracts were awarded; 31 May 2018, when contracts were signed; and 18 June 2018, when the contract award notice was published on eTenders and in the OJEU.
It is stated that when they took the market soundings in 2017, three suppliers attended in Leinster House and subsequently, it was decided that to facilitate open access by SMEs that the tender would be split into five separate lots. I will spell out the different lots. The big one was lot 2, the Komori printer, which was the main item. On that, it is stated that as part of the visit, the company which visited asked about clearance and the response provided was that there was a false ceiling and there was another 35 cm, approximately 12 or 13 inches, of room.
On lot 2, the main printer, the head room from the Press, it was stated, was limited. They subsequently sent a number of documents, email dated 25 April, including a one-page drawing which showed the existing ceiling height of 2.5 m and the recommended ceiling height of 3.16 m. "However, at the time of writing this Report", Mr. Peter Finnegan states, "I have yet to establish how ... this information was processed within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.". Therefore, the Komori company highlighted this issue and Mr. Finnegan is not yet clear how that was processed within the system at this stage.
The contract was signed on 31 May 2018. A drawing of the machine and a sketch of the proposed location was provided at that stage. On 30 May 2018, they contacted the Office of Public Works.
Mr. Finnegan goes on to state:
In an email dated the 15th August 2018, the OPW Architect stated that having carried out a review of the specifications an issue regarding the head room had been identified.
The initial consideration of the brief by architects and engineers concluded that the proposed location in Print Room 1 would not be advisable.
Then it was agreed to locate the printer, which they had intended to go into print room 1, in print room 2. The OPW had structural engineers involved and a survey was concluded in January 2019. The letter states, "Following the survey, it was confirmed that print room 2 was feasible for the loading required" but the OPW also took the opportunity to carry out additional works on the fabric of the building to include replacement of obsolete air conditioning.
The final plans for the layout of the room were signed off in June 2019 and a key aspect was to ensure that the existing printing facilities would continue in operation during the installation works. A work programme was agreed with the contractors and suppliers, the main works commenced in August 2019 and the print machine was delivered on 28 September 2019.
The printing equipment is now installed and commissioned. Training has yet to take place as the Houses of the Oireachtas Service and SIPTU are in discussion to address concerns raised by the print facility staff.
On the money aspect of this, as we mentioned already, the job was broken into five separate lots. The five separate lots came to a total of €1.369 million, including VAT. It was broken down as follows: The plate making device was €105,000 plus VAT; lot 2, the main printer, was €848,000 plus VAT less trade-in valued at €40,000 for the old equipment; the folding machines were €100,000, excluding VAT; the guillotines were €63,500; and the pile turner was €37,000. That adds up to €1.369 million, including VAT. Then the works carried out were €229,000 plus the construction rate of VAT, that is €260,000, giving a cost of €1.625 million to date on that work. The OPW carry out additional work on the ventilation at a cost, including VAT, of approximately €220,000 to date.
The Secretary General stated that this matter was referred to in the Appropriation Accounts 2018. He mentions that there was a prepayment of costs totalling €1.793 million, which is greater than the figure I mentioned but includes laptops which were purchased that have not yet been brought into commission. With the Comptroller and Auditor General, as part of the audit, it was agreed that these could not be included in fixed assets because they were not in operation. They had been paid for, they were sitting here but were not in operation and the Comptroller and Auditor General stated they cannot come into fixed assets. This prepayment of €1.793 million was mentioned in the accounts.
In the conclusions - I am at the last page now - Mr. Finnegan stated that there is a large number of documents printed every year and, of course, any national parliament should have its own printing facility. I do not think people disagree with that.
Mr. Finnegan goes on to state:
However, the requirements of the building and other regulations in relation to 'head height' were neither understood nor examined during the critical early stages of the project. A project of this scale and complexity requires specialist expertise (particularly architectural and engineering) on the project team at all stages and this must be a consideration in all future projects.
Mr. Finnegan is clear in what he is saying there. He states:
Given the printing requirements in the Houses of the Oireachtas as expressed in the Request for Tender Document, it is my opinion that significant structural adaptations would have been necessary in any event.
That is the conclusion of Mr. Finnegan's report.
I will take comments. Deputy Cullinane is first up and will be followed by Deputies MacSharry, Munster, Catherine Murphy and Connolly. That is the sequence. We will try to have a brief discussion. It goes without saying we have some of the information here today and we have not heard from the OPW, which carried out all the work, or its contractors and tenders. We have some of the information today but we want to hear from the OPW separately as well.
We will try to keep the debate brief. I am sorry for taking so much time to read the report but people have not seen this published, bar somebody leaking a copy of it this morning. I want people to understand the context of this discussion.
We only got this report this morning and we are still reading through it. It is a seven-page report. We would not have this report had it not been for a freedom of information, FOI, request by a journalist of The Irish Times. That is the first, and obvious, point to make.
Mr. Finnegan was before this committee for the first time on 11 July of this year. I asked him specific questions in relation to one of the broad headings in the Appropriation Account which was office equipment and ICT expenditure. There was an overspend of approximately €9.5 million and Mr. Finnegan's response at the time was that there was a three-year cycle, money had to be spent at the end of that three-year cycle and, as the Chairman referenced, there was a contract that was brought forward to replace laptops which nobody had a difficulty with. Mr. Finnegan mentioned the printer unit and the €1.3 million cost. What he did not mention was all of the other issues contained in this seven-page report, including the reference to the lack of understanding and not proper examination in the critical early stages of the project in relation to requirements.
The report essentially states that the initial contract - I suppose, the initial intention - was to locate this printer in printer room 1 and then that was not possible because of sizes, maybe because of mistakes in measurements or whatever happened. We still do not know. It is not clear from this report. It is clear mistakes were made but it is not clear in this report who exactly made the mistakes. When Mr. Finnegan refers to a lack of expertise, exactly what is he talking about?
In his report, when Mr. Finnegan is giving the costs, it is VAT inclusive when it comes to the machine itself and VAT exclusive when it comes to the adaption works that had to be done. What is the total cost?
The proposed account for the works to be carried out was €229,000 plus VAT at 13.5 % because it is construction, which brings that up to €260,000. That brings the cost, excluding the works on the ventilation system, to €1.629 million.
My point is none of that was offered up to us when the Accounting Officer was here. Mr. Finnegan states that there was no attempt on his part or the part of anyone else in the Houses of the Oireachtas to withhold any information. None of us is accusing him of withholding information, but he was here and he was made aware of and knew about the difficulties in locating the printer in the room for which it was intended; as he states himself, there were difficulties in "the critical early stages of the project.".
This is a printer that cost significantly more than it should have because, it seems, mistakes were made. We know from the freedom of information, FOI, request that a memo was sent to the Clerk at the Dáil in December 2018 outlining all of these difficulties and challenges. I am also aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General would have been aware as well of some of the issues, problems or challenges with the fit-out. The Comptroller and Auditor General knew about the challenges. Mr. Finnegan knew. We had a discussion about the accounts. I specifically asked about that broad heading and the printer was mentioned, but we were not made aware of it.
When Mr. Finnegan states that there was no lack of candour or no withholding of information, there certainly was not a volunteering of information. While it is the case that we may have come to know about it when we looked at the accounts for next year or the year after the fit-out costs were mentioned, we expect Accounting Officers to give us all the information. It is not credible for Mr. Finnegan to say that that was the case when he appeared before us. He is a civil servant of long standing and someone I have a high regard for, but when Accounting Officers are here, they need to account fully for all of the issues. When specific questions were asked on this overspend, and the questions we were asking were quite clear in relation to the overspend, at the very least we should been made aware of the challenges that were in play here as to the additional costs, and we were not. Now we are, and have a seven-page report. We still do not have the full costs. There may be more costs. I have spoken to some of the staff as well so there are no HR issues with the staff. Let us very clear about that. There are no HR issues with the operation of this printer. There are training issues. It is a printer that is twice the size of any printer the staff have ever used before. They need to use a forklift in a very tight space to load up the paper. It has to be done in the turn machine, that turns the paper. It has to be brought in in a forklift, loaded up, printed on one side, and then the forklift brought back out again to a different room and brought back in again. There was no consultation with the staff - none whatsoever. Training has not taken place yet.
This was a mess from start to finish that has cost us more money. Yet despite all of that, we were not informed when the Accounting Officer was here. For me that is not good enough. Mr. Finnegan has to appear before us again to account properly for all of this. Yes, we have his report, but it is our job to hold him to account fairly and give him the opportunity to respond. He has given his opinion. I am giving my opinion. Other members of the committee will have their opinion. My opinion is very clear: this was a mess, Mr. Finnegan was not as forthcoming as he should have been, and as a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I am not happy with that.
There are a number of issues and I will try to add to what has been said, as opposed to going over old ground. At the end of the report it is stated, "A project of this scale and complexity requires specialist expertise". I find that comment insulting, and it takes members of the public for fools, not least the members of this committee. I agree with Deputy Cullinane on the lack of candour. These are the kind of things that should be brought to our attention. If it is a small note in the accounts, it can be easily missed given the volume of stuff we are dealing with. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has a good reputation for doing its business well, particularly when costs had to be cut during the time of austerity and the crash.
A couple of questions arise. First, and I think the public is entitled to know this, was the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission apprised of this and what role did it play in taking the decision in the first instance as to why new printers were required, the cost etc.? It may well have been, but I believe the public is anxious to know why we are spending €1 million or thereabouts on a new printer in the first place. Second, what is the Oireachtas contracts committee, who is on it, and would this committee like to talk to us? I never heard of it and I am interested to know who is on it and what role it played. Third, there is the print users council. As a former member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and of that council itself, I want to know if it had any role. My understanding from the short period I was on it is that its role is oversight in terms of the eligibility of content requested for printing, in order that it is not overly political. Was this council involved in this process? Those are three groups that I am interested in hearing from: the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which includes Members of the Oireachtas, the print users council, and the contracts committee.
I find the phrase "A project of this scale and complexity" insulting because what we have done here is to have applied the children's hospital approach to public procurement. Let us buy it and stuff it in. Another sentence reads, "I have yet to establish how or if this information was processed within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service". That is Mr. Finnegan's reference to the lack of understanding of the headroom. In the tender document it said that it must be able to fit in the room. The report tells us that there were site visits and further liaisons. That is a basic requirement. If it does not fit in the room, how does an applicant win the tender? If an applicant did win the tender and it did not fit in the room, how did the applicant get paid? There is a reference to there being a lack of understanding. Sixty-six more centimetres were needed, they would get 31 once the false ceiling was removed, but they were still 30 plus centimetres short. The printer did not fit. That was another problem. They brought in the OPW then, and for all its wonderful expertise, it had no structural engineers. They had to bring in external consultants. This has been a total pig's ear.
As always happens at this committee when matters like this emerge, and there are a few at least every year that capture the media's attention in a major way, and I have said this many times here before, there are no tangible sanctions when we have blatant incompetence. It can be dressed up as being very complex, but there was correspondence today from the chairman of the Office of Public Works about the disaster that is Miesian Plaza. I am still laughing about the day when I asked at this committee if there was a disciplinary process on foot of it, and I was told it was not a disciplinary matter. When I asked who was to blame, the OPW witness said he probably shared some of the blame because he signed off on it.
Would such people last the rest of the day in the private sector? They certainly would not be there after a month. In this instance, people are entitled to look for a head. We cannot have a level of autopilot that leads to waste and a loss of money that is down to pure incompetence. There is nothing complex about this at all. It is basic cop-on. No university degree, masters or PhD qualification is required, just simple cop-on. The seven-page report may as well be thrown into the nearest shredder as far as I am concerned. It is an utter disgrace and it is going on in every aspect of Departments and State agencies. We blame it on systemic failure in a very complex process, where very specialised people are required to advise us on this. Either we are populated as a State by a bunch of incompetents, ourselves politically included, or people start accounting for their actions and their responsibilities. That is how the world operates in the private sector, and it needs to begin in here.
I know enough about how this happened. There are people in responsible roles in command. Let someone tell us now who is responsible and what disciplinary action is going to be required. In another room in the Houses of the Oireachtas at the moment, there is a hearing of committee to consider tangible action for wrongdoing, and rightly so. It is about time our public services and individuals who are paid high salaries, ourselves as politicians included, had to answer and face tangible sanction for blatant incompetence.
I was flicking through the report that we received at 8.27 this morning, at the 11th hour, to say the least. On page 7 in the report, in the last paragraph, Mr. Finnegan states that: "I was advised that the estimated cost was €230,000", but he does not say when he was advised of that. Did he know about this when he was before the committee on 11 July?
In the next sentence, Mr. Finnegan states: "As you will be aware no discussion arose on the cost of the works in the course of my appearance." Is he saying that because questions were not asked about refurbishment works which we had not been informed of, he was under no obligation to answer on that, even though he knew the committee was not aware of it? The information came out only through the freedom of information request. Alternatively, is he saying he did not have to answer on that because the refurbishment costs were not strictly in the 2018 budget? Mr. Finnegan would know full well that the focus of this committee is on the systems, practices and procedures that underpin public expenditure. He would not need us to tell him that. It appears he omitted to give that information knowing that it related to an overrun. This amounts to a breakdown in the process that has caused an overspend of upwards of €500,000. There are some serious questions to ask.
I read the Official Report of the meeting on 11 July and in response to a question by my colleague, Deputy Cullinane, about an increase of €9.7 million, Mr. Finnegan said: "To answer the Deputy's last question first, the increase of €9.7 million resulted from a strategic decision that we did because there was funding available in the final year of our three-year budgetary cycle." The next sentence seems very casual on reading back: "The service basically recommended to the commission that we bring forward ICT expenditure." The casual way he says let us blow this on ICT expenditure hints that this was a rushed job and that would most definitely explain the complete and utter hames that has been made of it. There are lots of questions and Mr. Finnegan should be invited to appear before the committee.
I wish to declare that I am also a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and I expect that there will be another discussion at its meeting next week on this because some of the information would not have been fully appreciated or declared.
The purchase of this printer from my understanding is to replace two old Heidelberg printers. They were 12 years old and cost in the region of €150,000 annually in repairs and maintenance. Printers have a lifespan. We also have to question the extent of the printing. There does not seem to be a forum that deals with that and that is a very obvious gap at a point where we communicate very differently now, using social media and other platforms. Even if we are not dealing with its detail we should be identifying the thinking about the requirements for the future as a point of oversight. It appears to be an extraordinary amount of printing and it is only when we see it captured in the report that its full import is obvious. My understanding is that some of this expenditure extended over two years and that is part of the reason we did not see it. We need to have it categorically stated that it is likely to be in two sets of accounts.
I think it might span three years. The cheque was written in 2018, the works were done in 2019 and, as we speak at the end of 2019, the machine is not yet in operation. It may well be 2020 before it is in operation.
We are also told there is a management board which worked on the business case. We need to know the job titles of those involved. I do not imagine the Clerk of the Dáil would be micromanaging this. We need to see where the problems arose in the decision making. We are seeing some of that in the procurement process in respect of the head of communications. One of the dates that jumped out at me reading this report is that the contract was signed on 31 May 2018. The day before that, 30 May 2018, the facilities unit in the Houses of the Oireachtas service contacted the OPW. At the same time it was known that there was a headroom issue. Why was the headroom issue not brought to the OPW's attention from the time that the procurement process opened? That is the critical timeline. I understand that there may have been a fire safety issue and we need to know if that is the case, and if that was ancillary work done at the same time. We do not want Kildare House to go on fire. Has there been any outsourcing in the interim when one machine had to be moved out to fit another one in? Is it costing more? That is an obvious question we should ask.
I do not know how we quite capture the issue on the extent of the printing but I absolutely want that captured. I do not think the Clerk of the Dáil is the person who will deal with that. That is a political issue. We need to find a way to decide what the requirements are, even though this machine has been purchased. It may be possible to print some of the material that is necessary in the Houses and goes out for printing. There is another contract with Cahills for the day to day material. It may be possible to achieve some cost savings if the machine has sufficient capacity.
I do not agree with Deputy MacSharry's comments on the private sector. If it was subjected to the same scrutiny, it would be very interesting. Unfortunately, it is not. In addition, the public purse has repeatedly picked up the mistakes of the private sector at great cost and with great implications for housing and health and many other things.
I have seen big companies hide lots of stuff in previous lives. I have had the privilege of being in different roles and have seen many mistakes hidden, quiet pay-offs made and all sorts of other things.
We need a vibrant and effective public service. I will stand behind the public service. I will not stand behind its mistakes but I will not have it demonised in the guise of praising the private sector.
I am not standing behind any mistakes in the public sector. I am putting the matter in context and saying we should not demonise one sector and sanctify another whose mistakes to date I and all other taxpayers are paying for.
Doing so is much more difficult for some than it is for me.
I welcome this eight page report, which was put together very quickly. Unfortunately, it is only the first step. For me, the key part of the report is the fact that the person writing it says he does not know all the details. Previous speakers also referred to this. The report notes that Komori highlighted the problem. The author of the report states: "However, at the time of writing this Report I have yet to establish how or if this information was processed within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service." Perhaps he needs more time to look at that. The issue was raised but not dealt with. That is the process we need to look at. Week after week, we hear about processes that are theoretically in place but that in practice are not actually working.
A business case for this purchase went before the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which presumably approved it. We are always talking about the lack of business cases at this committee, but in this instance, one was made. Two pages of this report give us the background, which is very welcome in a democracy where Deputies and Senators are benefiting from a printer in the interest of democracy. Those two pages are necessary but I would have preferred two pages on what happened with the process failure. Perhaps there was not enough time to look into that but I would like to go back and get a report on the processes.
My colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy, raised outsourcing, which is mentioned in the report and must be clarified. It is stated that a contract is in place, and that the facility will outsource jobs and so on. It is not clear to me whether the service has already availed of external printing, given the problems with this machine. Is that just for the future? It is not clear to me whether there are additional costs involved.
I welcome the list but it is extremely basic. More than one site visit took place, as Deputy MacSharry noted. I agree with him on that. Issues were raised by Komori, the Office of Public Works and the architects. They raised issues, yet nothing was done and no review of the matter was undertaken.
On the storage price-----
It may have been mentioned in a press release or some other document I read, but I do not see it on this page of the report. One thing I have learned from this case is that this committee is only as good as the questions we ask and our attendance rate. However, one would expect candour from a body that comes before us to give us information. That should not be dependent on our questions. Given the price and the importance of the printing, it should have been explained to us that problems had arisen, what those problems were and that the printer was in storage. That would have fostered trust and accountability. Mistakes are made on occasion, but it is how we deal with them that gives me the greatest cause for grief week after week in this committee.
As Deputy Connolly knows, I am a great fan of hers and agree with her most of the time. However, I do not want my contribution to be misrepresented to suggest that I was sanctifying the private sector while rubbishing the public sector. I started by praising the Oireachtas Commission, as a former member of it. I was one of the people who prevented it from establishing a CEO of the Oireachtas, in order to ensure we had a Clerk of the calibre of Mr. Peter Finnegan. That said, my point was that in the private sector an employer cannot afford to tolerate this sort of incompetence, or the company would go out of business. That is the point I am making.
The issue is that a mistake was made. We need to address, with the appropriate people and as quickly as possible, why that mistake was not noticed, what processes were in place and how they failed.
The second last paragraph on page 4 of the report clearly states that all the information on responses to the tender is not known at this stage. Establishing that information is key. We need due process to take its course to ensure fair procedure. Where does the OPW stand on this? Members of this committee are aware that it has a chequered past in terms of managing property. It lost €50 million through the rental of the Miesian Plaza.
Apologies, it was €20 million. The amount of money needed to make the room ready for the printer would build a significant four-bedroom house in Mullingar. It is a huge sum of money. There is great public interest in this issue because of the figures involved. We need to get to the bottom of it, and procedure must also take its course.
I also want to voice my concern about this matter. It is a comedy of errors. This is taxpayers' money. No one seems to worry, be held accountable or take the rap when taxpayers' money is being spent. An eight page report is written and then it is forgotten about. I do not think it should be forgotten about. Lessons should be learned here. This was a simple thing but it all went wrong. Two old printers were decommissioned because they were decrepit and we decided to buy a new, modern printer, which is a simple thing. One does not need a master's degree to go into a room, get the dimensions of the new printer and figure out how to get it in the front door and place it. It is a simple thing, yet it went all wrong. It has cost hundreds of thousands of euro of extra money. Someone must be accountable for this because someone is responsible for it. The public is right and as my colleague, Deputy Connolly noted, despite the crises in housing and health, money can be wasted like this and no one seems to care or be responsible for it. It is our job to ensure proper accountability when public money is being spent. This needs to be accounted for and someone needs to stand up and take the rap for it.
Many contributions have been made and there are many views on what has happened here. We should come to an understanding of where we want to take this because it is a much broader issue. Deputy Connolly made a point about the processes, on which we need to agree.
Pictures of Mr. Peter Finnegan have been splashed across all the newspapers in the last few days, as he is the Accounting Officer, but a much deeper analysis is required beyond such a simplification of the issue. Point 2 of the analysis and conclusions stands out for me, where Mr. Finnegan says: "the requirements of the building and other regulations in relation to 'head height' were neither understood nor examined during the critical early stages of the project." The key question is to whom that lack of understanding refers. The OPW came in waving a red flag on 15 August. It is right and proper to raise a debacle such as Miesian Plaza and the money lost in that case because there was no acceptance of guilt from the OPW when we discussed the matter at this committee. The simple focus of the OPW in that project was that its job was to deliver X, which it did, and it did not anticipate the HR problems that would result in it being in cold storage for a long time. As Deputy Burke said, that cost us €20 million. That seems to be the accepted practice. We have to ask where the buck stops with such projects. We cannot let processes go on in those circumstances, because here it is repeating itself again today.
According to the timeline in the report, a valuation of tenders was received on 12 April 2018, which the Oireachtas contracts committee considered on 27 April.
However, it was flagged in an email on 25 April that there were problems pertaining to the height issue. The committee should formally ask, by email, whether that issue was on the table at the meeting. I do not accept that the issue was flagged on 25 April but the report states: "However, at the time of writing this Report I have yet to establish how or if this information was processed within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service." An email must go to someone. We can simply establish to whom it was sent. We could find out this morning to whom the email was sent and the action that was taken. It may have been forwarded to someone else. If so, the electronic system would have recorded that. These are simple questions which would not involve a detailed process of investigation. We should establish whether the email was considered at the meeting on 25 April.
I wish to know what expertise is on the contracts committee in light of the report stating that the requirements of the building had not been anticipated. I have walked the floor of the print room many times. When I started out as a student journalist some 25 years ago, I visited the former print facility of The Irish Timeson D'Olier Street. When the Meath Chroniclerequired a new printing press, it was obvious that the confines of the old print room were unsuitable, so it built a new printing facility. The printing facility in Kildare House is very tight on space. It is extremely limited in terms of height requirement. I wonder what discussions took place with the people who operate the facility. They have the expertise in terms of knowing how to operate a print facility. I have been there several times. The limited space in the room should have been a basic consideration in the evaluation of the contracts.
We should establish whether the email flagging the issue was discussed at the meeting on 25 April, ascertain the expertise of the committee and identify who was engaged to analyse that.
I wish to bring the matter to a conclusion. It is clear we need to send a transcript of this session to the Clerk of the Dáil. The points made will be well enumerated in the transcript and will enable him to respond.
We should write directly to the OPW regarding its role, tendering process and advice, as well as clarifying when it became involved. Reference was made to the issue of head height and that it transpired the room had to be changed entirely. I do not know why the head height in the room into which the machine was subsequently put was not identified in the first place. We need to know the reason for changing rooms. I will ask the OPW to supply that information as well as further detail on the cost of its work, the tendering process and the designs and processes it had in place. We need to know whether the figure supplied is final and when the Oireachtas will receive the final bill.
It is worth noting an issue that has arisen in other instances dealt with by the committee. The job was separated into five lots related to the various aspects of the machine. One tender was received in respect of each of the five lots. One would think there would have been more than one expression of interest in a printing contract of this scale at a European level. Three companies visited the premises initially and the contract was then broken down. Three companies successfully tendered to provide various parts but it seems that only one response was received in respect of each of the five lots. Although it went through a competitive process, the market did not produce any price competition. The Oireachtas only got one submission for each lot. We will get clarification on that issue.
I thank Mr. Finnegan for presenting such a comprehensive report within a short time. It does not answer all the questions on the matter. This is stage one, but it is a very good start given that the issue only came to light in recent days. He acknowledges there are some unanswered questions. He has not had time to answer every question in the few days he had to prepare the report. We wish to give him time to so do and to respond to the points that have been raised at this meeting. Similarly, we will write directly to the OPW for its full input regarding tendering, costs and its role and advice on the matter. I will give Mr. Finnegan and the OPW until 10 December to respond because the last meeting of the committee in 2019 will be on 12 December. I am not saying it will be necessary for the parties to appear before the committee, but we need this matter fully closed off before our last meeting of the year, which is on 12 December. We want both organisations to have submitted a report to us by 10 December. When we see the responses to the questions, we can then decide what to do next. We are still gathering facts and information, which is very important.
The committee should consider how we conduct our business in terms of how easy we make it for people to be fully open with us about mistakes that have been made. This issue may not be the greatest example to use. There is a genuine cultural issue in respect of what happens to people who put their hands up and admit they made a mistake. The committee should give that consideration.
Members will appreciate that the introductory remarks to witnesses, which I introduced, ask for candour in all cases. I do not know whether the Chair of any other committee makes such a request. Witnesses are encouraged to volunteer information and give us the full picture. We deal with organisations such as the HSE and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection which turn over billions of euro each year. The committee cannot be expected to know the minutiae of every aspect of their accounts. If there is an issue, we would appreciate it being brought to our attention.
I will hold over the rest of the financial statements and any other items in our work programme until next week because we should begin our engagement with the Revenue as soon as possible.