Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 October 2021
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The business before us this afternoon is the minutes of previous meetings, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, the work programme, and any other business.
First, we will take the minutes of our meeting of 7 October, which has been circulated to Members. Do Members wish to raise any matters in relation to the minutes?
Next is the accounts and financial statements. One financial statement was laid before the Dáil between 4 and 8 October 2021. It is the HSE's 2020 financial statement, accounting for €20.3 billion. It was previously laid on 1 July but had to be re-laid to correct certain errors. I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to address the matter before opening the floor to Members.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
As you said, Chairman, the HSE annual financial statements for 2020 have been re-presented. There were a couple of typos in the version that was presented originally, and these have now been corrected by the HSE. They affect note 8, non-pay expenditure, specifically the figures given for transport. The HSE has now indicated a different split to what was presented previously. In note 16, inventories, there was an incorrect figure on the write-down on PPE, on the disposal of protective suits. I dealt with that matter in my opening comments when the HSE appeared before the committee.
Could we agree to note the accounts and financial statements? Agreed. They will be published as part of our minutes.
No. 3 is correspondence. There are two items to be addressed this week. The first category of correspondence is from Accounting Officers and Ministers and follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts. No. 817 B is from Dr. Alan Wall, chief executive officer of the Higher Education Authority, HEA, dated 6 October 2021. It is information requested by the committee in relation to third level courses that were provided by UCD, and supported by Tullow Oil, for the professional development of academics or technical professionals employed by the State or regulatory bodies in the oil and gas industry.
We also wrote to UCD in relation to this and considered its response, R0717B, at our meeting of 21 September. At that point we agreed to write to the HEA to inquire as to whether it maintains a register of third level courses funded, or part funded, by the private sector. We also agreed to request that the HEA provide an information note outlining what it requires in terms of disclosures in the financial statements in respect of this matter. We will consider the HEA's reply to that request in due course.
It is proposed to await the HEA's response to our query as to whether it maintains a register of third level courses funded, or part funded, by the private sector, and information as to what the HEA requires in terms of disclosures in financial statements of higher education institutes in respect of this matter.
I will open the floor to Deputy Hourigan, who has flagged this item. Any other Members who wish to speak should raise their hands.
I am totally frustrated by that response. I am none the wiser. Serious concerns have been raised by many Members in recent times about the oversight of universities and other educational institutions. It ranges from academic attendance to partnerships with private companies that act against the public interest. These institutions have a huge influence on society, and they are publicly funded. We must ensure there is no negative influence in State-funded education. Educational institutions also receive huge amounts of money from the Exchequer. The sum of €3.3 billion was received last year.
The partnership between UCD and Tullow Oil is particularly concerning. Tullow Oil paid UCD €2 million to put on short courses for regulators in some African and South American countries. These courses have the stated focus of professional development of academics and technical professionals. We are effectively using the brand of UCD to do that work for Tullow Oil and it is a State-funded brand. The course, as it is described, has all sorts of intersections with regulatory bodies and State-related entities. I have serious concerns over a potential conflict of interest. How much influence did Tullow Oil have on the course content? What is the curriculum and who wrote it? I do not think it is appropriate for companies to use the good name of a public State-funded university to influence regulators. That is different from particular companies having interaction with universities. This is a completely funded course. I suggest that we need to have a meeting with UCD and perhaps the HEA. There are similar courses in TCD for example. This is simply not acceptable. There is no extra information given. There is not full disclosure of what kind of standards the HEA is asking of UCD on the Tullow Oil issue. I do not accept this as an answer.
We have the HEA response, which I read yesterday. It refers to the courses being "for the professional development of academics or technical professionals employed by the state, state related entities or regulatory bodies". That is the part that caught my eye. What we are talking about is the professional development of academics or technical professionals employed in a professional capacity by the State on courses funded by Tullow Oil.
Yes. Presumably the courses in the sector are provided in the area of energy.
The letter goes on to state:
As per our correspondence of 17 June, and with reference to the correspondence from the Committee, the HEA wrote to the higher education institutions, seeking assurances that any partnerships, grants, funding or similar arrangements between publicly funded higher education institutions and third parties do not proceed counter to the public interest,".
Further down, it reads: "Responses from the institutions have been submitted to the HEA and assurances have been provided that higher education institutions are not acting counter to the public interest or the interests of institutions' students and staff by contributing to the climate and biodiversity crises, and that governance requirements are being satisfied." We do not want to make allegations, but the whole thing does not seem to sit right. I have always been concerned about commercial entities funding and shaping the education system and having too much of an influence thereon. Without making allegations against Tullow Oil, this seems to put a company in a position whereby it is funding a course. What input has it into the course's design and content? We need to invite the HEA to a meeting because, although we are discussing an individual institution, this could be happening at a number of institutions around the State.
I take the Chair's point about Tullow Oil and there are a number of examples of partnerships between UCD and the companies that are involved in the Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geophysics, iCRAG. Energy is a contested sector at the moment and using an institution and a brand that have been built up by the State and whose good name is important to the State - in terms of our national infrastructure, having good universities that are respected is important - bears greater scrutiny.
For the committee's information, we have sought from the HEA a registry of courses that are provided and funded or part-funded by private entities. Perhaps we will wait to see what the response is and we can then take it from there. This is a matter that we need to examine more closely. As the Committee on Public Accounts, it is public funding that we must examine, but if a company is funding a course that is directly involved in an area that the company has an interest in and that is its main line of business, which is energy or oil in this case, we should examine it in detail. Is the Deputy satisfied to wait for the response?
We will pursue the matter further at that point.
The next category of correspondence is C, correspondence from and related to private individuals. No. 813C is dated 30 September and is a request to the committee from mise as our Chair to consider making inquiries with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners regarding the recent tax settlement with a company called Perrigo, which concerned the tax treatment of income arising from the sale of intellectual property. It has been reported that the settlement was agreed at €297 million. Revenue's original tax bill for Perrigo was €1.64 billion, which I understand was the largest tax bill ever issued by Revenue. The settlement represents a reduction of over €1.3 billion. To assist the committee in understanding the settlement, I propose that we write to the Office of the Revenue Commissioners to request a detailed note setting out the rationale for the settlement, how it was arrived at and how Revenue was satisfied to settle for €1.3 billion less than its initial assessment. While we understand that, for various reasons, Revenue might not be able to get 100% of a tax bill, this was a major write-off. Why did it settle for that? I also suggest that we write to the Tax Appeals Commission for its take on the matter, as it may have had a role in this.
To go from €1.64 billion to €297 million represents an 84% write-off for Perrigo. How did that come about? It was originally the largest tax bill in the State's history. The State is under the spotlight in terms of our corporation tax rates and collection rate. While progress is being made in that regard and, regardless of the fact that many of us do not like it, we will now be tied to a rate of 15% under the OECD's proposal, the question over what we are collecting is the greater issue. To go from €1.64 billion to less than €300 million is a major reduction by any standard. Many PAYE workers would love to have such a reduction. Does any member wish to comment on this matter or propose an action? I suggest that we write to Revenue and the Tax Appeals Commission.
We will write to them.
We will move on to our work programme. Next week, on 21 October, we are scheduled to engage with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, on its 2020 financial statements. The Dáil is not scheduled to sit the following week, 25 to 29 October, which brings us to 4 November, when we are planning to engage with RTÉ regarding its receipt of Exchequer funding, which is now the responsibility of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Is it agreed that we invite a representative from the Department to participate also? Agreed.
Last week, we agreed our work programme to the end of the year and updated work programme documents have been circulated to members and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Having discussed the sequencing of the engagements with the clerk so as to ensure that we have related correspondence and relevant reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General available to us, it is proposed to proceed in the following order: Tusla next week; RTÉ on 4 November; the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media on 11 November; the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on 18 November; the Department of Transport on 25 November; the Office of the Revenue Commissioners on 2 December; the Department of Social Protection on 9 December; and the Department of Health on 16 December. Is it agreed that the secretariat work to schedule the engagements in this order and that we revisit the work programme for the new year in late November or early December?
If members look down the list and decide there are specific issues they wish to address with these bodies, they should let the secretariat know. The clerk will then be able to include those issues in the invitations and the bodies will be able to prepare. We must be careful to ensure that the invitations reflect what we will discuss with bodies. This has implications for the committee, but it is also beneficial for members, in that it allows them to get more information.
As we are in a position to give the Accounting Officers a significant amount of notice, we would not expect the schedule to change substantially, but the clerk will advise of any necessary change. There may need to be movement in the schedule to suit the witnesses. Some may want a different date for a particular reason. Does any member wish to raise other matters regarding the work programme?
We can of course. We will put the Department on the list.
Under the heading of any other business, I wish to raise a matter. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications appeared before us at today's meeting. During that, there was a discussion with the programme manager of the national broadband plan. His broadband actually dropped; his connection collapsed in the middle of the meeting. Apart from being unsatisfactory for committee members and anyone who was watching, it underlines the need for the national broadband plan to be accelerated and brought on stream quickly.
The committee should be insistent with senior officials at the very least.
The main item today, which was flagged, was the national broadband plan and the principal person dealing with that was not on site, be that in Leinster House or the Department in Adelaide Road. While other Deputies may wish to comment on this, as a member of this committee that is not okay to me. The senior official should have been in Adelaide Road or on the grounds of the Houses of the Oireachtas if he were joining remotely, or preferably sitting in one of the seats in the committee room. I propose to ask the clerk to the committee that every effort should be made to have witnesses attend on site. If they are not on site, they should be at their headquarters, be that a Government Department or an agency. They should at least be in their organisation's headquarters with a good connection to the Internet. The senior official was upstairs in the dormer room of his house.
It is awful. I make that proposal now and hopefully after 22 October, with Covid figures going well and everything else being equal, we will have witnesses present in the committee room.
There are a couple of matters to bring to the members' attention, the first of which is our report. The secretariat will circulate a document setting out the current status in advance of the next meeting. I propose we consider it in private session at the end of that meeting. Some reports are at various stages of completion and members need to be aware of that. We should also be in a position to consider the draft report on our engagement with the Department of Social Protection at that time. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The second matter involves considering the format and content of the appropriation accounts. It is proposed to circulate a briefing document on this and to consider the matter in private session at the next meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed. Are there any other matters which Deputies wish to raise?
I have a question that perhaps Mr. McCarthy will answer. Do we receive an estimate of the underspend in each Department, after the budget or at the end of the financial year? Is there a document that details the underspend of all Departments?