Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Public Accounts Committee

Business of the Committee

4:30 pm

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Apologies have been received from Deputy Neasa Hourigan. Are the minutes of the previous meetings on 7 October and 8 October agreed? Agreed. The minutes will be published. I propose that we go into private session to deal with some housekeeping matters and then resume in public session to deal with correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The committee went into private session at 4.32 p.m. and resumed in public session at 5.22 p.m.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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The first category of correspondence is category A, briefing documents and opening statements. We have received a briefing document relating to our meeting with the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, tomorrow. We will note and publish this following the meeting. The opening statements from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NTPF for tomorrow's meeting have been circulated and will be published following the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The next category of correspondence is category C, correspondence from and related to private individuals and any other correspondence. This week's correspondence is mostly from members of the committee and was dealt with last week when we considered the work programme. I have flagged No. R0149 for further consideration. This is a later dated 8 October on the issue of bogus self-employment. The previous committee considered correspondence regarding the matter raised and decided not to take the matter further in light of the fact that various State organisations have already dealt with it. The correspondent was advised of these outcomes. We agreed last week that we would include the issue of bogus self-employment on our work programme as part of our engagement with the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We advised the correspondent accordingly. We have set out this course of action, but I do not think we should rule out inviting the correspondent to appear before the committee to deal with that issue again. Is that agreed? Agreed. The witness has previously been before the Committee of Public Accounts and seems to have imparted a lot of information regarding alleged bogus self-employment. It might be worthwhile for the committee to have the opportunity to hear what he has to say. It is a very serious matter and involves the possibility of hundreds of millions of euros of uncollected revenue.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I wanted to be sure of what the Chair means by not ruling that out. The correspondent is absolutely right that there is a serious issue here. Was that report signed off on?

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I understand there was a report but it was not completed. The previous committee considered correspondence regarding the matter and decided not to take it any further in light of the fact that various State organisations had already dealt with it.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I suspect it might have been included in a periodic report, as opposed to being the subject of a report in its own right. Might that be right?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy:

The Deputies may be at cross purposes here. The witness did not appear before the Committee of Public Accounts. He appeared before the Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. A report of that committee is being referred to here. My recollection is that the correspondent presented to the committee in October 2019. The Department and the Social Welfare Appeals Office appeared before the committee in November. The committee may have been working on a report but that would have lapsed on the dissolution of the previous Dáil. As such there will not be a report from that process of engagement.

On another point, the previous Committee of Public Accounts dealt with the chapter relating to inspections which I published in September 2018. There was a periodic report of the previous committee on that chapter and the hearing addressed by the Department. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform issued a response to the periodic report. That ministerial minute was issued in May 2019. Some actions were indicated on which there may be progress. Perhaps when the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Revenue are before the committee they can give an update on those matters.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for that clarification.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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To keep the issue active in the meantime, perhaps we could look at the actions suggested in the periodic report and write to the two Departments requesting updates. The issue is not exclusively a concern of those two Departments. We certainly dealt with it in the context of RTÉ. However, that would be a reasonable action to take. We can assemble a range of resources to create a profile of the issue.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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We can do that. It is proposed that we advise the correspondent that the committee has decided to examine this matter and it is on our work programme. If we feel it is appropriate, we can invite this individual before the committee. We are undertaking a piece of work on this issue with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and Revenue. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Are there any other items of correspondence for which members disagree with the actions proposed?

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I sent a piece of correspondence concerning Pieta House.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Yes. The Deputy's proposal was noted.

A meeting with the HSE was added to the work programme last week. We have requested a briefing on this matter in advance of that meeting. That is what is proposed.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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It is probably a more general point but this is not the only organisation affected. It is an example of the kind of pressure vital services are under. It is a matter of services being delivered by a charitable organisation rather than a public body.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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We will now move on to financial statements and accounts received. One set of accounts was laid before the Dáil between 5 October and 9 October. These are the accounts for the State Examinations Commission and they have received a clear audit opinion. It is agreed that these accounts be noted? Agreed.

We will move on to the work programme. We had a wide-ranging discussion on the programme last week and we agreed to proceed with a number of meetings. The secretariat has commenced the work of scheduling these meetings and next week we will have an indicative schedule of meetings up to the end of the year. Members will see in the minutes of the meeting of 7 October the proposal for the work programme. The dates will obviously be subject to the availability of the Accounting Officers from the various Departments and agencies, but the programme is to include meetings with the Department of Education and Skills, the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. The clerk has been asked to ensure that the land aggregation scheme is on the agenda for that latter meeting as it comes under that Department. We are also to have meetings with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Irish Prison Service. There is to be a meeting with the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection at which the main issue to be discussed will be JobPath although members may wish to include other issues on the agenda. The Revenue Commissioners will be invited to a meeting to deal with the issue we have just discussed, bogus self-employment, and there is to be a meeting with the HSE regarding procurement and agency staff.

The schedule is fairly full. Some meetings will probably have to be broken into two hearings given the two-hour restriction we are operating under. There are a number of other issues to be considered including third level and further education, which was raised by a number of members. This schedule is just to give us a plan for the rest of the year and to ensure that we deal with the main issues highlighted by members both here and in correspondence with the clerk.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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The OPW acquires property for Departments. If its representatives come before the committee and we then have, for argument's sake, the Department of Justice and Equality in two weeks later, how then are we to deal with issues relating to buildings acquired by the Department through the OPW? While the Department gets the benefit of the building, the OPW manages the purchase.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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If the OPW is responsible for the acquisition and associated contracts on behalf of the Department of Justice and Equality, the OPW would ultimately be responsible.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Cork North Central, Fine Gael)
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Okay. I just wanted to clarify with regard to the issue I raised earlier. I believe that it will come under the OPW's remit rather than that of the Department of Justice and Equality.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Are there any other questions? Are we happy enough to proceed with the work programme? As I have said, the secretariat has commenced the work of scheduling meetings. We will have the indicative schedule for the rest of the year next week. We have got off to a fairly quick start. We have already had a number of successful meetings, including public hearings.

Cormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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Following on from our previous meeting, was any consideration given to the committee potentially meeting online, even if only to deal with correspondence? I understand what the Chairman is saying with regard to the schedule every second week but has there been any update on the possibility of online meetings?

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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It was considered but there are logistical problems as regards the availability of neighbouring rooms given that there are 24 committees. There are also some technical issues. If we are to go off site, things would change as regards privilege and so on. There are a number of logistical problems. The clerk, the secretary and I discussed these to see if it was a workable option, but there are problems with it. We felt it was best to proceed with potentially three hearings per fortnight and another public meeting to deal with the business of the committee and correspondence, subject to members' agreement of course. Is that okay?

Cormac Devlin (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I have no problem with that but we should consider it as an option, depending on how much work we get done. I would not close the door on it completely and would keep it under consideration. As I said on the previous occasion, I do not want the committee to be held back by the two-hour restriction. If we can get other work done online, even business that does not involve witnesses, such as the meeting the Chairman spoke about regarding the work of the committee, it would be a great help.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Deputy. That is the work programme. Do members have any other issues they wish to raise? They have the opportunity now. Is everyone happy enough? Okay. Our next meeting is tomorrow, when we will be dealing with the National Treatment Purchase Fund regarding its financial statements for 2018. We will also resume our consideration of the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report No. 110 on the nursing home support scheme - the fair deal scheme.

Verona Murphy (Wexford, Fine Gael)
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The next meeting is tomorrow.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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Yes, it is tomorrow at 11.30 a.m. The important thing is to be early.

The committee adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Thursday, 15 October 2020.