Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 5 December 2019
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness to the committee. He is joined by Mr. Mark Brady, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputy MacSharry.
The first item on the agenda is the minutes of the meeting on 28 November. Are they agreed? Agreed.
The next item is a matter arising out of the minutes. As a result of the correspondence received from Mr. Peter Finnegan, Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas, which we discussed at the previous meeting, the committee agreed to forward a transcript of the meeting the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Houses of the Oireachtas for a response on matters discussed. At that meeting, we asked for a response by Tuesday, 10 December in order that we could consider it at our meeting on Thursday, 12 December, which we will be our final meeting before the Christmas recess. I propose we ask Mr. Finnegan and a senior representative of the OPW to be on standby in case we decide next Thursday morning that we would like to meet them on Thursday afternoon. We may or may not wish to do so but it will be too late on Thursday morning to ask them. We ask the secretariat, therefore, to put arrangements in place to have them on standby and we will decide on Thursday morning, having received the response, whether we want to call them to appear before us. In case we decide to do so, they will be on standby. Is that reasonable?
We will decide next Thursday what to do when we receive the report we have been assured we will receive before the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next items are correspondence. There are three categories of correspondence, the first of which is category A, comprising briefing documents and opening statements for the meeting. There are quite a number of them because there will be several witnesses today. Nos. 2610 to 2612, inclusive, from the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, are briefing documents and opening statements for today's meeting. We will note and publish them. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Nos. 2561 and 2607 are documents from the Children's Health Ireland for today's meeting. We will note and publish them. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Nos. 2601, 2602, 2608 and 2609 are briefing documents and opening statements from the HSE for today's meeting. We will note and publish them. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2605 is correspondence from the Department of Health relevant to today's meeting. We will note and publish it. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will discuss all the items presently.
The next category of correspondence, category B, comprises correspondence from Accounting Officers and their Ministers in follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts and other items for publishing. No. 2574 is from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, dated 25 November, providing information requested by the committee in respect of evidence required by SUSI in cases following difficult family circumstances. The item has been overtaken by the letter we received from the City of Dublin Education and Training Board last week, which operates the SUSI scheme on behalf of the Department. We will simply note the letter, given that it contains nothing we did not discuss at the previous meeting, and publish it. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2576 is from Dr. Alan Wall, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, dated 22 November, providing information requested by the committee in respect of the use of occasional hourly payments for staff at third level institutions and the use of such payments in place of employment contracts. The HEA states it will liaise with the higher education institutions to collate the information and will provide a report to the committee. We welcome that step and will wait to see the report when it arrives. We have put the issue on the authority's agenda and it will deal with it.
No. 2577 is from Mr. John McKeon, Secretary General of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, dated 25 November, providing information requested by the committee in respect of a perceived discrepancy between oral information provided at our meeting on 7 November and a parliamentary question answered on 12 November. The matter relates to whether data of individuals were being stored outside the State. Deputy Catherine Murphy tabled the parliamentary question.
My issue was that the Department was dismissive and suggested it was not an issue. I received a contradictory reply to a parliamentary question, which has been acknowledged in the correspondence from the Department. I am reasonably happy with the response received.
Somebody has to watch the detail, in fairness, and we do that too. We will note and publish the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 2588 is from Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, dated 27 November, providing further information requested by the committee regarding the Pálás cinema in Galway. We asked about the implementation of the recommendations in the report. Ms Licken stated that while the review has been completed and published only within the past two months, she can assure the committee the Department is working to progress all the recommendations. There was a reference to buildings nearby in the report and she confirmed they are owned by Galway City Council, which Deputy Connolly had made clear to the committee. Ms Licken stated they were referred to in the review in the context of the plans for Galway City Council, as set out in its strategy, namely, Everybody Matters: A Cultural Sustainability Strategy Framework for Galway 2016 - 2025. Does Deputy Connolly wish to comment?
I realise that the post-project review is recent and it is too early to ask about the recommendations. Nevertheless, there is confirmation they are being implemented, which I welcome. I also welcome the setting up of the special unit for 2040. It seems there is ongoing learning in respect of matters but regarding the four properties, the clarification that has been received is unnecessary, given that, as the Chairman noted, the city council owns the properties. My point was that in the post-project review, the council used the four properties to justify a Fáilte Ireland promotion of the area. While I am delighted with that because I am from Galway and love it, the four properties have been empty since 2007. A post-project review to consider value for money for the Pálás cinema includes four properties that have been empty since 2007 but it did not raise one question mark as to why they have been empty since then.
They were bought at an astronomical price and have remained empty in the city which comes last in reaching its targets, although that is a matter for another day. Should I put my hands up at this point and give up?
It was not just not the full picture. "Misleading" would be a strong word but it was used to colour the Pálás Cinema as being at the centre of this cultural area of four houses. It was used to give it a particular colour rather than describing it in black and white terms.
Grand, that is good. As I say, there is a follow-up item of correspondence from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to post-project reviews coming up in a moment. It follows on from us getting on to the Department about its role in post-project reviews and the learning process. We will come to that in a moment. It is a related item of correspondence. We will note and publish this item and issue the letter we have mentioned.
The next item is No. 2589B from Mr. David Leahy, chief executive officer of Galway and Roscommon education and training board, ETB, providing information requested by the committee regarding non-compliant procurement recorded in financial statements for Galway and Roscommon ETB. We will note and publish this item and use the information as part of the work we will be doing in the new year, if we are all here, with regard to public procurement and compliance with public procurement rules.
People may consider this boring but it is the role of the Committee of Public Accounts. We are actually really on the job when we are doing this type of work and compiling information in respect of every single reference to non-compliant procurement in 2019. It is an issue to which we will return, time permitting. We are doing an important job and we will continue to do it diligently. We will note and publish that.
The next item of correspondence is No. 2590B from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director of Health Service Executive, dated 28 November 2019 providing further detail requested by the committee regarding the national integrated staff records and pay programme. He recognises that there were some teething problems with the system when it was introduced. These issues affected approximately 200 staff, which equates to 1% of the people involved. He gives a comprehensive response. Does Deputy Catherine Murphy want to comment?
I do. There is another item of correspondence, No. 2585C, on the same topic. We are being given an assurance. The whole point of asking this question is to find out whether the system is flexible enough and fit for purpose. There will always be teething problems. I acknowledge that. It is not about trying to resolve the problems of an individual or group of individuals but they represent a good test of whether the system is working. The HSE tells us "There is no change to how staff are paid in this regard and the system is fully configured to calculate and make these payments." It essentially says that there were teething problems. Correspondence we received from people on the other end of the system tells us something very different. It tells us that SIPTU is involved in trying to resolve a problem. I understand that this system is being rolled out incrementally. That is a very good way to do things because, if one is going to run into a problem, it is better to find out before a great number of people are affected. We are told that things such as the rate of overtime can vary depending on whether the payment relates to a Saturday or a Sunday and that there are problems with that. People were to be given smartphones so they could input-----
I see. This is the attachment to the Deputy's item. We will note No. 2585C, which comes from the Deputy herself. We are discussing the attachment to that document in conjunction with the letter from the HSE. We will note and publish the Deputy's letter as well.
If staff work an additional 12-hour shift outside their rostered hours, they are paid at a rate of time and a quarter instead of double time. These are agreements. It challenges what the HSE is saying. The allowance for working on a Sunday has been cut by more than €40. We are being given very practical examples. I am only using these to demonstrate that what one side tells us about the system working well is being challenged by the other side. We are told that SIPTU is involved and that it cannot get the issue resolved. My question for the Committee of Public Accounts is whether this system is fit for purpose. Is there an input problem? I do not think we can take the HSE's word that there is no problem now and that it was just a case of teething problems. There appear to be ongoing problems in this regard. The last thing we want is some sort of industrial relations issue because problems are being caused by a system that exists to improve things.
The HSE says that this system "is fully operational in HSE East since June 2019", which is only a few months ago. We received this correspondence in November. We are not going to publish the Deputy's correspondence because it includes the name of an individual.
The HSE says it went live in its eastern region this summer. We can write to the HSE to ask what issues arose as part of this roll-out, what lessons were learned, whether the problems have been solved, and what the timetable for the further roll-out is.
We want to know if it is fine-tuned. That is fine. The HSE did say "There were specific concerns raised in relation to payments of overtime, public holidays and premium pay" and that one of these required a systems reconfiguration. It accepts one of those issues.
Something here intrigues me. The HSE says that "The introduction of the new system has had a particular impact on the 400 Time Returning Officers". I do not know whether this is a full-time post or just part of someone's job. If everyone is directly inputting their own information, what are the 400 time returning officers doing now? The HSE also says "In addition, staff in the payroll and staff records departments, spend less time on manual data entry and increased time on data validation." Where is the saving if these staff are not doing the inputting but are spending more time checking what everyone else has done? I would have thought the purpose of a system like this was to-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
It is that 400 staff who would make claims are regarded as time-returning officers. They must input the times they work so they can get paid the correct amount. That is my interpretation but I could be wrong. These are people who do not work standard hours and they must input their hours. It is like fobbing in and out.
This is in addition to staff in the payroll and staff records department. They are different staff. There are time-returning officers and next sentence mentions the staff in the payroll and staff records department spending less time on manual data entry and increased time on data validation. I would have thought something like this would lead to some efficiencies and release staff hours for other work. They are just doing a different job. We need to ask that question.
It is stated that to minimise the reoccurrence of the issues, additional training was provided to a targeted group of time-returning officers. We want them to spell out who are the time-returning officers and the staff in the payroll and staff records department. We want a more detailed view. This correspondence will come back to us when we get that information.
The next correspondence is No. 2591B from Mr. Terry Sheridan, principal in planning policy and legislation in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, providing information relating to gender equality and the appointment of board members to An Bord Pleanála. It gives detail of how many people were nominated, with 37 male nominees and 23 female nominees. Four men and three women were appointed to the board. The board now comprises seven men and three women in comparison with the position before 2017, when there were nine men and one woman on the board. We will keep after this but that provides some clarification.
No. 2592B is from Mr. Ray Mitchell of the HSE, dated 29 November 2019, providing information requested by the committee on the Irish Wheelchair Association and the Cuisle holiday resort. We will note and publish this but we will hold over discussion. Deputy MacSharry raised the matter of the facility in Roscommon the last day we met and we can give him an opportunity to discuss it next time.
No. 2596B is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, providing information requested by the committee regarding the post-project review of the Pálás cinema project. We will note and publish this. It is interesting as, essentially, we were critical of the post-project review and the Department's response that a particular section in a particular Department would get this report to learn from it. We said there is no Department-wide learning process and, far more important, there is no learning across the wider public sector from such post-project reviews. We wrote to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to determine its role with respect to learning from these post-project reviews. We also asked Mr. Watt about the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service, which was referred to in the report but which most people had not heard of before. He gives the detail of this and we will publish that.
There was a second recommendation that spending codes should include a requirement for every post-project review to have a section outlining key learning for the public service. It was suggested that an appropriate way of communicating such learning to all public bodies be explored. Mr. Watt's response is that the recommendation is being addressed in the forthcoming update on the public spending code, a guide to evaluation, planning and managing public investment, which is due to be published shortly subject to Government consideration and approval. It appears that after all these years this type of process will be included in learning through the public spending code. Where mistakes happen or learning should occur from a particular project, there should be a system-wide learning experience. It is similar to the HSE experience with State claims. Everybody makes a mistake, gets something wrong or does not do something the best way but people seem to do an internal report and do not tell anybody else about it. We would like a little more openness and the correspondence is indicating we will get there. We will keep an eye on that new code whenever it is published. We will note and publish the correspondence, and at least it is a positive response to a recommendation that there should be learning across the public sector from these reports.
Next is correspondence from private individuals and other correspondence. We can deal with these but we will not publish them because they are from private individuals. The first is from the Irish Road Hauliers Association, IRHA, dated 5 November 2019, responding to recent correspondence from the Road Safety Authority, RSA, on its functions that have an impact on the licensed road haulage sector. The IRHA expresses doubts about the capacity, competence and the effectiveness of the RSA in enforcing regulations and controls in the haulage sector. The president of the organisation also states that it is not inclined to participate in meetings with the RSA. We will note that item. The matter has been well aired.
Fine. It is a transport matter but RSA issues have come before the committee. This is another element of much previous correspondence. We will just note it and we are not taking any further action on it.
No. 2573C is from an individual, dated 6 November 2019, requesting the committee to enquire about the international numbering system and procurement relating to the public services card. The committee requested information regarding procurement following the recent meeting with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I propose we forward a link to the transcript of the meeting to the correspondent and we will make further inquiries regarding the numbering system. At our meeting next week, we will also have the response on matters raised with the Department and we can also forward this to the correspondent. There is information on the way from the Department about the public services card and we will have it next week. We will inform the individual accordingly.
No. 2582C is from an individual and is related to the school transport scheme. The individual has previously corresponded with the committee. At our meeting on 21 November 2019, we agreed to request further information from the Department regarding the accounting arrangements for the scheme. I propose to note this item for the time being until we receive the further information from the Department. We have asked the Department whether the scheme is in surplus and the details arising from the Comptroller and Auditor General report. When we get the reply from the Department, we can forward it to the individual.
No. 2584C is from an individual, dated 28 November 2019, who is making some points about the Oireachtas printing equipment, as many people have. We have arrangements in place for more detailed information to be submitted to the committee in advance of next week's meeting. The Secretary General and the Office of Public Works are on stand-by in the event that the committee decides it wants to meet them next Thursday afternoon. That matter will be discussed in correspondence at a minimum next week.
The particular correspondence asks if the machine is used by Deputies to print election posters. The answer is a categorical "No". The letter asks what is going on and states this is another scandal, etc. The machine does not print any election material and that is specifically prohibited under legislation and Oireachtas rules, and by the Standards in Public Office Commission. I assure everybody that nothing related to any election can be printed in these buildings.
It is important to acknowledge that although this is one letter, the committee is concerned about the matter. Ideally, we would reach some conclusions next week rather than allowing this to run to the new year. We need that kind of urgent response.
I am assured we will have responses by 10 December, which is next Tuesday. We will have the opportunity to consider them before next Thursday's meeting. As soon as we come in on Thursday, we can decide if the replies are adequate or if we want to meet the persons concerned that afternoon. We all recognise the comments and correspondence from the public on the matter. We want to achieve finality on this when we get all our facts.
The next correspondence is No. 2585 from Deputy Catherine Murphy, dated 26 November, regarding the HSE's new payroll system. We have already discussed this.
Next is No. 2586 from Deputy Cullinane, dated 25 November, providing details of the methodology for the application of commercial rates to Irish Water. We discussed the global valuation regarding Irish Water at our meeting on 21 November and have requested that the Valuation Office provide further information on the rateable valuation of Irish Water apportioned to each county from when it was established to when the global valuation was determined. We will note Deputy Cullinane’s correspondence and wait for a response. It is clear from the document provided to the committee by the Deputy that the apportionment is done strictly on a population basis and is not based on the facilities in a particular local authority's area.
It was unfortunate that the revaluation of rates in a number of local authorities - South Dublin County Council, Dublin City Council and Waterford City and County Council - happened after Irish Water was established. The Valuation Office had no choice and had to value the water assets in those local authority areas. Waterford was given an allocation of €4.7 million, but when the allocation was based on population, that figure dropped to €1.3 million. It was a substantial cut in funding to the councils in question, and that is something of a sore point. There were winners and losers. Some local authorities gained substantially. There is an unfairness, given that the figures are locked in. Local authorities had that funding since 2013. Now they have to increase rates to make up the difference.
I am seeking more information on the matter and a justification as to why the Valuation Office used this process. It is generally used for large infrastructural utilities.
There is a logic to that. In 2013, Irish Water paid the rates. From 2014 to date, it was paid by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the form of compensation to each local authority. That is why I am seeking clarity. My understanding is that there was a change in the legislation through the Water Services Act 2017, one that means Irish Water will pay the rates from next year onwards. I wanted to clarify whether my understanding was right.
We have issued correspondence to the Valuation Office. We might also have to write to the relevant Department about the Deputy's point concerning the legislation and when its provisions are coming into effect. The Valuation Office might not cover those points in response to what we asked last week. We will ask the relevant Department to provide that information.
That is my point. It is a policy issue. I imagine that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform had intended or hoped that Irish Water would be more commercial, but because of all the difficulties, Irish Water was not in a position to pay the rates or rates were not applied to it. Instead, the Department paid the rates for the local authorities. It has discontinued that payment now, leaving some local authorities high and dry and substantially down funding.
It happened because water infrastructure had been nominally rated up to that point. It was just money in, money out. Through no fault of the local authorities, the Valuation Office had no choice but to rate the water infrastructure. Waterford services the south east with wastewater treatment plants, but the apportionment is not based on those. Rather, it is based on population. The change was a kick to some local authorities.
I want to make three points. I continue to be dissatisfied that we do not have oversight of Irish Water. There were major transfers of infrastructure involved. Somewhere in the region of €11 billion in assets - some of them were liabilities - went to Irish Water. We need to examine Irish Water's income, which is primarily from public funds. It has an income from commercial water services, but we do not know what the collection rate is. There are many elements that we need to examine. Some local authorities applied significant development contributions that were used to build up those assets. Now, they have found themselves with sizable deficits.
This all feeds into the question of the funding of local government. While the issue under discussion is a specific one, we have been told numerous times that a cross-departmental group was working on local authorities' baselines, that there would be winners and losers and that the distribution of, for example, local property tax to fund local authorities would be reconfigured. We were told by the Department earlier this year that the reconfiguration was imminent. Even though a report has been provided, however, we are being told that the Committee on Budgetary Oversight must consider it before decisions can be made. This is a gigantic issue in terms of the impact on local authorities' budgets, particularly in areas with rapidly growing populations.
We will await the information from Irish Water. This matter will be before us again, if not at next week's meeting, then in January. We will ask the Department to clarify the matters that the Valuation Office will not be able to. I have not seen this useful table that Deputy Cullinane has forwarded to us before. It seems to have come from a report entitled, "AFM Report 29 Compensation Calculations - Rates Income Leakage and Irish Water rating". Is this an Irish Water report?
I ask that we write to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government about the consideration of local authorities' baselines. When will the cross-departmental group make decisions in that regard?
Members can note that Galway County Council has been one of the least funded. That is accepted. It was even set out in the report that recommended amalgamation that the councils should not proceed with amalgamating until their funding had been increased.
There are eight significant losers. Based on this chart, they mainly appear to be Dublin and some of the other cities. A number of rural counties seem to have benefited. That is a fact. That is why we will publish the table and let people see it if they have not already. We will note and publish Deputy Cullinane's correspondence.
The next correspondence is No. 2587 from Mr. Ray Mitchell, who has been a busy man in the past week sending us all of these letters.
This correspondence is in response to a specific case in respect of paediatric home care packages. We will note it and forward it to the correspondent who raised the matter with us. We cannot publish it, given that it is a specific case. Does anyone wish to comment?
I will speak to the privatisation of health services generally. Paediatric packages are being provided by a number of agencies, from whom the majority of children are receiving them. That is a separate issue, I suppose.
We will ask the secretariat. I will give an indication of the headings in the schedule: paediatric home care packages; procurement framework for paediatric home care services; service-level agreement for paediatric home care services; service-level arrangements; CHO oversight; management of complaints; national oversight; and quality improvements. We have all encountered cases like this one. In some instances, the agencies are providing 24-hour nursing care depending on the particular-----
It is certainly worth looking at. Could it be published with the personal material taken out?
There is a note stating that the person in question was incorrectly directed as to where to make a complaint. The person was told to make a complaint to an officer whose position no longer existed. I refer to practical things that should not be happening, along with the general information here about the privatisation of services. Finally, I do not wish to comment on any organisation but was Resilience the same organisation that was involved in the "Grace" case and mentioned in a number of the reports we got? Does that name ring a bell?
We will look at where we left the issue. The "Grace" case was the first case but 47 other people were also involved. "Grace" was the first name everybody mentioned. We will get an update on that and if we need to follow it up at the next meeting we will do so.
Obviously that concerns paediatrics, but one of the matters we are likely to examine with the HSE is the matter of outside service providers. Along with other Deputies I was at a meeting with our community healthcare organisation, CHO, at which it was confirmed that the HSE is carrying out a major audit of a lot of the big providers. There is clearly an issue around value for money here. We would benefit from knowing what progress has been made on that audit and perhaps having sight of it.
Sections 38 and 39 arrangements are on the agenda for our meeting with the HSE this afternoon. Deputies can ask about that and we can seek that information. It has been specifically noted as an item we will raise. We will ask the secretariat to publish No. 2587 with any personal information redacted because it is useful to put that out there.
The next item of correspondence, No. 2593, is a letter from an individual concerning the public services card. We discussed previous correspondence from this individual on 14 November and advised the individual accordingly. We provided details of who was at the meeting in question, as requested. We will provide the information requested now that this correspondent has replied seeking further information.
The next item of correspondence, No. 2594, is a letter from me, dated 13 November, providing a reply to a parliamentary question on carbon taxes for the information of the committee. On foot of that, we might write to the Revenue Commissioners seeking details of the carbon tax collected under various headings in 2019. We will request those figures as soon as possible when Revenue has the year-end figures in January. Revenue always has the figures very shortly after the end of the year. We will also request Revenue's projections for 2020 if we have not already asked for them. We will discuss carbon tax collection and the use of those funds as soon as possible. We will request those in January. We will write to the Revenue Commissioners now asking for this information. Revenue supplied information which was up to date at the time in response to that parliamentary question, but that was not at the year end. That concludes our correspondence.
The next item for discussion is the financial statements and accounts received since the last meeting. They are being projected on the screen now.
Before the Chairman continues, there was an outstanding matter involving Bord na gCon and an Indecon report. I was not the one who raised it but I am interested in that report. The Chairman advised that it was circulating but apparently it was not. Could the Chairman clarify where it is?
Yes. This was mentioned before. Vodafone and St. James's Hospital were fined by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, because of their failure to purchase and surrender carbon credits before the deadline. We encountered that some time ago. We asked the EPA's representatives about it when they appeared before the committee. It has now appeared in the financial statement for St. James's Hospital.
That is fine. We will note that as well as the issue of non-compliant procurement to which our attention has been drawn and the EPA fine.
No. 4.2 is the clear audit opinion for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. The item following that, No. 4.3, is Pobal's 2018 accounts, which also feature non-compliant procurement. We will send the standard letter to Pobal regardless of the fact that its representatives will be before us next Thursday. Chapter 16 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report examines Pobal's administration of the early learning and childcare funding programme. That chapter is on our agenda for next week.
No. 4.2 is the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board's 2018 financial statements, which we will discuss in public session in a few minutes. The statement notes that the cost of superannuation entitlements is accounted for as they become available rather than in the year of entitlement, as is standard for health bodies. We will raise that question in public session very shortly.
The next matter for discussion is the committee's work programme. Pobal's representatives will appear next Thursday to account for that organisation's expenditure and we will discuss the chapter from the Comptroller and Auditor General's report dealing with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. We will decide on Thursday morning whether to have a separate session dealing with the Oireachtas printer and related matters.
For the first meeting in the new year on 16 January, we have pencilled in an engagement with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Our second meeting will be with the Department of Education and Skills. A meeting with the Office of Public Works has been provisionally arranged for 2 February. There is a gap on 31 January next year, for which we will have a proposal next week. That is as far as the work programme for next year has got.
Chapter 8 of this year's report from the Comptroller and Auditor General deals with controls over humanitarian assistance funding. Irish Aid operates a humanitarian assistant programme which falls under Vote 27, international co-operation, and is managed by the Department. In his report the Comptroller and Auditor General acknowledges the challenges in effectively distributing aid in such circumstances. The total amount involved was €792 million in 2018. We can very easily examine everything that happens here in the jurisdiction but it is important to occasionally examine how taxpayer's money is spent overseas. The difficulties in Syria and Yemen account for approximately a quarter of the total aid. In light of that, I suggest that in the new year, if we are all here, the committee should consider a visit to one of the overseas aid projects. We did that some years ago. Perhaps at this point we can agree in principle to let the secretariat make some provisional arrangements.
It would be helpful if we agree, in principle, to let the secretariat make provisional arrangements. There is no decision to go yet. We will see how the provisional arrangements work out and they can be discussed here after the break. We may chose to go or not to go. As I said, it is that part of expenditure that is expended outside the State, which is worth intermittent scrutiny not every year but on occasion, and we can decide to do that.
It was very educational to meet the committee and compare notes. The members of that committee appreciated meeting us. It was useful to see the projects on the ground but also to see how the system worked over there. We met the Tanzanian equivalent of our Comptroller and Auditor General and its Public Accounts Committee. It is worthwhile for the committee to look at.
For the record, we did a report on the visit and published our findings as part of our periodic report. Everything was above board, fully transparent and we issued a proper report when we came back on the activity.
We will ask the secretariat to look at provisional arrangements and we can come back to them. We will give them the clearance to examine the matter. That is agreed.
I do not think there are any other items for discussion, and we said we would finish at 10 a.m. I propose that we suspend for ten minutes and when we resume we will deal with the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board.
I want to clarify one matter on our work programme for next week. Representatives of Pobal will be here next Thursday to deal with Pobal's annual financial statements. It works for various Government Departments. Its main Department is the Department of Rural and Community Development. I inadvertently suggested that we would be dealing with Chapter 16 - Early Learning and Childcare Programmes, which is a matter for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The chapter in question will not be the specific item for discussion next week. Deputies can read the chapter and anything relating to Pobal's administration of the scheme can be discussed next week. I want to confirm that officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will not be here next week. They can deal with childcare programme issues at a separate meeting of the committee. Pobal, which covers a range of Departments, will be the primary focus of our examination next Thursday. Any of the schemes it administers under any Department can be discussed at that meeting. I just wanted to clarify that.