Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 21 October 2021
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The business before us is the minutes, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, work programme and any other business. At the end we will briefly go into private session to deal with one or two small items.
First is the minutes of our meeting of 14 October, which have been circulated to members. Are the minutes agreed to? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee's webpage.
The next item is accounts and financial statements. Some 12 sets of accounts and financial statements were laid before the Dáil between 11 and 15 October. I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. McCarthy, to address these before opening the meeting to the floor for members.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
I thank the Chairman. I will quickly run down through the accounts.
The first is the Insurance Compensation Fund for 2020. It is a clear audit opinion and I draw attention to chapter 14 of the report on the accounts of the public services 2020, which examines the controls over the assessment and collection of the Insurance Compensation Fund levy.
Nos. 2 and 3 are related. The first is the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, for which there is a clear audit opinion. Related to that is the Broadcasting Fund, which is a separate account but is managed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and again there is a clear audit opinion for that fund.
No. 4 is TG4 for 2020. I draw attention to a case of significant non-compliant procurement in that case. This related to an ICT contract to develop a system for use by TG4 but it was not competitively procured.
No. 5 is the Social Insurance Fund and it is quite a significant account. I can see that there is a typo there. The turnover of the fund should be €14.8 billion not €14.8 million. There is a clear audit opinion on this but I draw attention to two chapters from the report and the accounts of the public services. Chapter 9 deals with regularity of payments and chapter 11 takes a deeper look at the pandemic unemployment payment scheme, the bulk of which was charged to the Social Insurance Fund.
Nos. 6 and 7 are related. These are the Hepatitis C and HIV Compensation Tribunal special account and the Hepatitis C and HIV compensation reparation fund. There is a clear audit opinion in both cases there.
No. 8 is the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, which gets a clear audit opinion.
No. 9 is the Crawford Art Gallery Cork Limited, which gets a clear audit opinion.
No.10 is the Environmental Protection Agency, which received a clear audit opinion.
No. 11 is the Heritage Fund for which there is a clear audit opinion.
No. 12 is the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI. I gave it a clear audit opinion but I draw attention to the recognition of a deferred pension funding asset on the basis that this asset will be payable. The NSAI raises almost all of its funding from charges to service users and does not draw on the State but, as I said, it is accounting on the basis that the asset will be payable by the State in the future.
Regarding the Insurance Compensation Fund, the Comptroller and Auditor General referred to chapter 14 of the report on the accounts of the public services 2020, which examines the controls over the assessment and collection of the Insurance Compensation Fund levy. Will he explain that fund and who runs the show there? What is the issue at stake?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The fund is managed and accounted by the Central Bank of Ireland. The collection is managed by the Revenue Commissioners on behalf of the Central Bank. The moneys in the fund are used in the first instance at the direction of the High Court where there is potential for a default in insurance compensation. The levy is at a rate of 2%, is charged on all relevant insurances on business in Ireland and is payable into the fund to meet the compensation. To meet the compensation in the first place, a loan was issued from the Exchequer. I think the figure was about €1 billion in total. As the levy proceeds are collected, they are being used to pay back the Exchequer.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The total amount that was lent from the Exchequer was €1 billion. It is difficult to say but maybe after about seven years, we are down to €600 million. From memory, I think the amount collected is about €100 million, so assuming there are no other funds to be met, we are probably looking at another five or six years at least before the full Exchequer refund is made.
Is everyone happy? Can we note the accounts and statements? Is that agreed? Agreed. As usual, the listing of accounts and financial statements will be published as part of the minutes.
One item of correspondence has been flagged under correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts. No. 834 B is correspondence from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director, HSE, dated 18 October 2021, providing information requested by the committee regarding mental health facilities in Cork. While this was received after the cut-off for this week’s correspondence, and the clerk raised this with me, it has been added for today’s meeting because, as pointed out by Deputy Hourigan, it is a time-sensitive matter, particularly with regard to the proposed closure of the Owenacurra centre. Essentially, the HSE’s position is that there are a range of unacceptable deficiencies and issues with the premises and it states that investment of significant funding into the building would still not bring it up to an acceptable accommodation standard for residents. On that basis, the decision was taken to close the centre. I do not know if Deputy Hourigan is with us. I do not think she is. Do any other members wish to speak on that?
The Oireachtas Committee on Health is also dealing with this matter. I do not think that committee has seen the correspondence we received so I think it should be made available to it. Should both committees be dealing with this? Should a decision be taken about which committee should focus on it rather than two committees dealing with it?
There is a proposal that there would be a visit to the centre, and that proposal will come up in a meeting next Tuesday. It would be helpful if the correspondence we received was made available to the Committee on Health.
Notwithstanding the point made by Deputy Burke, I am just becoming aware of this issue. Deputy Buckley raised it with me in recent days. The report we have here is quite concerning. It appears to me the problem is as a result of a historical lack of investment. Time and again we see services are depleted to such an extent that the HSE then tells us they must be removed because they are in such a poor state. It is quite concerning. Obviously, we have a different role from that of the Oireachtas Committee on Health because our job is to look at public expenditure and whether there is value for money. In line with Deputy Burke's proposal, I suggest we forward the correspondence to the members of the Oireachtas Committee on Health to make sure they have it and possibly request that committee to indicate whether it is planning to pursue this issue and whether it sees a role for us that would help it in its deliberations. I agree we do not want to duplicate work but we have an obligation to ensure this issue is investigated fully by the Oireachtas.
A delegation from the Oireachtas Committee on Health will visit the centre. I came across a very similar situation in another part of the country. There were 27 residents in that facility. Nine people died during a two-week period because of Covid and because there were six people per room. I am not talking about the Owenacurra centre in Midleton. It was a geriatric psychiatric facility. Nine people died in a two-week period. That facility is undergoing refurbishment.
All of the inpatients had to be moved out for a period of more than 12 months because of extensive renovation work that is needed. My understanding is that the renovation work is going ahead in that facility.
It is proposed to note and publish the correspondence. We will also forward it to the health committee and include the question from Deputy Carthy as to whether, in that committee's opinion, this committee is required to examine the matter further. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next business is the work programme. The Dáil is not scheduled to sit next week. That brings us to 4 November, when we are planning to engage with RTÉ on its receipt of Exchequer funding, which is now the responsibility of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. A representative from the Department will be in attendance.
When we agreed our work programme to the end of the year last week, I mentioned that we might need to reschedule some engagements depending on availability. The secretariat received a response from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to advise that it is scheduled for oral parliamentary questions on 11 November, which is the date on which we wanted departmental officials to attend. Representatives of the Department of Transport were scheduled for 25 November but have agreed to swap with the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media on 11 November. The secretariat has requested that the officials from the Department of Transport make available to the committee the information we have requested on MetroLink, BusConnects, the DART and the strategic rail fleet review no later than 5 November, to ensure we have it before the meeting on 11 November. I note that there is information flagged up regarding the search and rescue service, which is included in the invitation to the meeting.
Accordingly, the schedule, which is reflected in the work programme circulated for today's meeting, is revised as follows: 4 November, Exchequer funding of RTÉ; 11 November, Department of Transport; 18 November, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; 25 November, Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media; 2 December, Office of the Revenue Commissioners; 9 December, Department of Social Protection; and 16 December, Department of Health. At our meeting last week, we agreed to revisit the work programme for the new year in late November or early December. I suggest that we do so at the end of November rather than letting it go on too long. The list of engagements to the end of the year has been circulated. Does any member wish to raise any other matter relating to the work programme? As no matters have been raised, that concludes our consideration of the work programme.
Finally, under any other business, I note that we have work to do on a number of reports, which we will discuss in private session. Do members want to raise any other issues? As there are no other matters to discuss, we will, as agreed, go into private session, after which we will adjourn until 4 November, when we will engage with representatives of RTÉ on Exchequer funding.