Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 26 May 2022
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The public business before us this afternoon is as follows: minutes; accounts and financial statements; correspondence; work programme; and any other business. Before we move to the minutes, during the discussion this morning with the HSE and the Department of Health, Deputy McAuliffe referred to a matter on which he wishes to make a further statement.
In referring to recordings made of members of the Department of Health, I referred to the recording as being illegal. It was wrong of me to do that. I have no evidence to that effect. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I want to correct the record and state that I did not intend to refer to them as illegal.
I thank Deputy McAuliffe for that correction, which is noted.
The first item of business is the minutes of our meeting of 19 May. These have been circulated to members. Do members wish to raise any matters in respect of the minutes? If not, are they agreed? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee’s web page.
On accounts and financial statements, no accounts were presented to the Oireachtas Library between 16 and 20 May 2022. We will return to this item at our next meeting.
Moving to correspondence, as previously agreed, items that were not flagged for discussion for this meeting will continue to be dealt with in accordance with the proposed actions that have been circulated, and decisions taken by the committee in relation to correspondence are recorded in the minutes of the committee’s meetings and published on the committee’s web page.
The first category of correspondence under which members have flagged items for discussion is category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to committee meetings. No. 1230 B is from Ms Helen Hall, chief executive, Policing Authority, dated 5 May 2022, providing information requested by the committee arising from our meeting with the Policing Authority on 7 April 2022. At our meeting last week, we agreed to note and publish this correspondence and to hold it over to today. No. 1251 C is from Deputy Catherine Murphy, dated 19 May 2022, and is a related media article. Deputies Catherine Murphy and Carthy flagged this for discussion.
There was a newspaper article that was at odds with the response we got. This piece of work was about a homicide review. At present, the Central Statistics Office, CSO, figures for crime statistics are produced under reservation. Policing plans are constructed based on a range of different things, including crime statistics. However, if those statistics are under reservation that is a problem because there is a reliability issue. It is far from ideal. I believe we have to refer back to the Policing Authority and ask it for a comment on this and how it stacks up with the response we got.
It is that we seek a comment from the Policing Authority because we are getting an assurance in this response and it does not match the experience in that the statistics are produced by the CSO under reservation. There were people who refused to sign off on the report on the grounds that it contained unreliable data and they say they were subsequently excluded from compiling a report on the issue for the Policing Authority. It may not be the Policing Authority. It may well be the Garda Síochána writing to the Policing Authority. However, I just feel the information on the public record is not correct.
Is that proposal agreed? Agreed. Deputy Carthy is as láthair.
Next is No. 1241 B from Mr. Justice Rory MacCabe, chairperson of GSOC, dated 11 May 2022, providing information requested by the committee during our meeting with GSOC on 7 April 2022. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy flagged this for discussion.
Yes, for some additional information. We should ask GSOC if any of the protected disclosures that were made were against GSOC itself. It would be useful to have a clarification regarding those that were assessed by an independent or external consultant and, if so, the cost for doing that. Sometimes it is useful and important that things are done externally. It is just to get that information to give us a more complete understanding of it.
I read it yesterday. There is a good amount of information in it. Thank you for that.
Next is No. 1242 B from Ms Oonagh McPhillips, Secretary General, Department of Justice, dated 16 May 2022, providing information requested by the committee regarding section 102 referrals, including international comparisons and a breakdown of the circumstances in which the referrals arose. Section 102(1) of the Garda Síochána Act 2005 requires the Garda Commissioner to refer matters to GSOC that appear to the Garda Commissioner to indicate that the conduct of a member or members of An Garda Síochána may have resulted in the death of, or serious harm to, a person. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy flagged this for discussion.
We have nothing to measure this against in terms of international comparisons. What would it take to have that type of international comparison? It is difficult to know what one is measuring it against.
Would it be helpful if we made a suggestion to them? If we say international comparison, are we talking about everywhere or would it be useful if we asked them to make a comparison with other European countries perhaps?
Yes, other EU countries. There are tables in it, but I take your point. We will ask for that. That is agreed.
No. 1246 B is from Mr. Pádraig Dalton, director general, Central Statistics Office, dated 18 May 2022, and provides information requested by the committee regarding CSO data sources for the non-profit sector. We requested this information in the context of the termination of the Benefacts database, which we discussed with officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform last week. It is clear from the CSO's response that the data it received free of charge from Benefacts were a valuable data source for the CSO across a range of areas and "helped the CSO fulfil important statistical reporting required under EU legislation". In the absence of the Benefacts data set, the CSO states that it will need investment across a number of areas and even then, under EU statistical legislation, it would only be in a position to make aggregate data available. Unlike Benefacts, the public would not be able to access information on individual non-profit institutes. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. With members’ agreement, we will also request sight of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's value-for-money review or business case of the Benefacts database, which the Department has stated was a factor in its decision to discontinue funding the database. Is that agreed? Agreed.
On this matter, as I recall the previous discussion about this, it was less than €1 million per year. I think it was €0.9 million for the last year of its operation. It appears to be a relatively small amount of money. I note the correspondence and what the CSO said about it regarding the benefit it was to that office. It seems that the reason for closing this down and terminating the arrangement that existed has had major consequences. The amount of money being saved is very little. As I recall as well, the area it was looking at, the voluntary sector, has a spend of €14 billion. Was it €14 billion of a spend in total?
I have to say I get angry when I think of this because it is a complete waste of public money. We had a system that was working well and was being well used. What is coming back from the CSO is explicit about the benefit. The CSO is also saying that Benefacts data addressed many of the coverage issues that the CSO had in respect of the not-for-profit sector. Essentially, it had positive outcomes from EUROSTAT audits. How are we going to provide EUROSTAT with the same level of information? It was satisfied with the information that was being provided. We could see how it compared.
For example, one could have funding streams going to one particular organisation from multiple sources. That kind of oversight was easily found. It was a heavily used database. Once it is closed down, just repopulating it or backfilling it would be very hard to set up again. It does appear, however, that now there is the potential for complete duplication. Another Department now wants to set up something similar but less comprehensive. The Indecon report commissioned in 2017 highlighted that the benefit outweighed the cost. The first few pages of the Indecon report tells us that. It said that if it was to be decommissioned there would need to be a transition arrangement to make sure that there was not a gap. All of this was very black and white.
When reading the briefing note last night in relation to the CSO, I noted that: "From 2017, the CSO received quarterly extracts of the Benefacts database at no charge, most recently in February 2022." The note went on to list the information supplied, the use of that, and the different headings and the variables. It is very detailed information. The briefing note also stated: "The Benefacts database has helped the CSO to fulfil important statistical reporting required under EU legislation..." and lists the various compilations. From the public point of view, I do not see the logic in the termination. I suggest that, along with writing back, we would note and publish the correspondence, and that we would also write to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to request sight of the Department's value for money review and business case for the Benefacts database, which they used to discuss its continued funding. In that correspondence we could point out that we have this information here from the CSO, which is just one body that would use the database, and highlight that it is an enormous benefit to the CSO.
There is one particular aspect. We could have the Department of Health and the HSE in every week because there are so many streams of things that we would really like to get at. There is one particular paragraph in the CSO 's correspondence: "Use of the Benefacts database has helped the CSO to establish the universe of such organisations [We are aware that section 38 and section 39 organisations is outsourced] and has enabled the capture of all non-HSE income and expenditure of these organisations for inclusion in the System of Health Accounts, ensuring that estimates for health expenditure in Ireland are comprehensive. " That in itself is of value. I get the impression that there are people who are happy to see this closed down because it would limit the amount of information.
It would seem someone wants to see the back of it. Having this document since yesterday, that is certainly the impression I got. Would it be in order to bring this document to the attention of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and correspond with them?
I would be inclined to go beyond the Secretary General. It was completely frustrating in here last week. I recall something said in the Dáil some years ago by former Deputy Joe Higgins. It was "like trying to play handball against a haystack". That is what it felt like. One felt like screaming.
We will ask for that business case and the value for money review from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That is one thing we can do. If the Deputy is suggesting we should go beyond that, and I believe that we should, then we need suggestions. What can we do in relation to raising this? Will we bring it to the attention of the Minister and the Department of the Taoiseach? It is a relatively small amount of money in the context of the overall spend. If it is oversight of the voluntary sector, which takes in a lot of the bodies that are funded by the HSE and various other-----
The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Okay. We will ask for the Department's response on that and ask them if they are aware of this. We will also bring some of this information to the Department's attention. Is that agreed? Agreed.
No. 1247 B from Ms Mary Hurley, Secretary General, Department of Rural and Community Development, dated 18 May 2022, provides information requested by the committee regarding the public funding of Benefacts. The Secretary General states that the termination of Benefacts was a matter between Benefacts and Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and that the Department of Rural and Community Development was but one of many stakeholders. However, the Secretary General then goes on to outline that “under a separate initiative, unrelated to anything previously developed by Benefacts, the Department of Rural and Community Development is exploring options for the establishment of a centralised grantee database for the community and voluntary sector”. It is proposed to note and publish this item of correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
When I see words like "exploring options", it could all be a long way away. That is specifically in relation to their funding.
They do not refer to Amárach, which would just be a consultation rather than anything else. They do not refer to that. It is referred to in another piece of correspondence. I believe it is in the CSO correspondence.
In the correspondence they also say: "The Department of Rural and Community Development has never had a funding relationship with Benefacts." That is their answer on that. It is proposed that we will note and publish that. Is that agreed? Agreed.
We shall move on now to correspondence from and related to private individuals and any other correspondence.
No. 1255 C from Deputy Catherine Murphy dated 20 May 2022 is a proposal to the committee that it engage with the Department of Foreign Affairs. With the Deputy’s agreement, we will now turn to the work programme and discuss it in that context? Is this okay with the Deputy?
No other items of correspondence are before us for consideration today.
The following engagements are confirmed: the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on 2 June; 9 June is a non-sitting week; and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board will be on 16 June.
As previously agreed, we will engage with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage on 23 June to examine its oversight of local government expenditure of central Government funds. The Department has confirmed its availability for that meeting.
At our meeting last week we also agreed to schedule a meeting with An Bord Pleanála. That would leave two meeting slots between now and the summer recess. There are a number of possible items for then. In terms of matters reported upon by the Comptroller and Auditor General, there are a number of outstanding matters for examination with the Department of Education.
With respect to the Department of Education, there is the Comptroller and Auditor General's Special Report 112 on financial governance and reporting in the education and training boards, as well as chapters on the management of school estates and the purchase of sites for school provision. Separately, there is also an outstanding chapter from this year on the assessment and collection of insurance compensation fund levies, which presents an opportunity to engage with the Governor of the Central Bank and chairman of the Revenue Commissioners.
On Deputy Catherine Murphy's proposal to examine the latest accounts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the three-year reform programme for the passport service, if we are bringing in the Governor of the Central Bank regarding the insurance compensation fund, which is a single issue, I suggest we also discuss the issue of credit unions with him. We dealt with this matter recently and there are outstanding issues concerning the credit union movement. The Central Bank is the regulator and the oversight body for credit unions.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes, but there is a limited accountability of the Governor to this committee. While I carry out the audit of the financial statements of the Central Bank, the Governor is specifically not accountable regarding matters that are in the financial statements. There might be a jurisdictional issue, which the Chairman would need to establish.
We can do that. That would be useful.
There is also interest in a further engagement with Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board. It is not certain that the latest set of accounts will be available for the committee before the summer recess. Is there a level of accountability in regard to Horse Sport Ireland?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Yes. I signed off on the financial statements for Horse Racing Ireland for 2020 only on 28 April of this year. The standard procedure is that the financial statements would be presented to Government before being presented to the Dáil. There is that process and the Chairman may need to engage with the Department to get a view from it on that. It is a long time since the end of the period of account. The Chairman would have to get information from the Department as to when it expects to present them.
We will do that. We could have representatives of Horse Sport Ireland appear before the committee at the same time if they are willing to come in. We cannot compel them to attend but we could request that they attend on the same day. That could be interesting.
We would have to bring in officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine if we were to do that. I had an issue I was pursuing relating to a particular grant of money but when I sought accountability on how that money was spent it was very problematic. If the Chairman were to seek to raise an issue with the Department, I suggest it should be its level of oversight of when funding is provided. The Department will tell the Chairman that the organisation is a separate body and that the Department provides the grant aid but it is the oversight that is the problem.
Absolutely. On whatever day we invite in a representative of the organisation in question, it would be normal practice to also invite in an official from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We will check that with the Department but it most likely it will be autumn before we will be in a position to issue that invite.
As usual, if there are any specific areas or bodies members wish to raise with respect to the work programme, they should inform the clerk to the committee. They should make sure they have reasons for bringing in organisations. We do not want to request them to come before the committee for the sake of doing so. It is important we have a clear view as to why we wish to bring a particular entity before the committee.
My proposal to the committee to invite in the Department of Foreign Affairs related specifically to the Passport Office. There may be other elements of that Department we should be examining. There was an investment programme in the Passport Office, some of which has delivered dividends, for example, in respect of automatic renewal. However, there are other issues with the passport service. There has been a problem for the past year and it has become a bigger problem recently. I accept a very large number of passport applications have been made. We should ask what are the returns on the investment that has already been made and whether it represents value for money. Many applications are rejected on the basis of the photograph submitted. It is accepted by the technology but not by the human being dealing with the application. That raises the question as to whether the technology is fit for purpose.
If we bring in officials for a three-hour meeting, it would be helpful to indicate we want the passport issue to be part of the engagement. Passports are a problem and a number of things have happened. We all forgot to renew our passports because we forgot we would ever need to leave the country again when we were dealing with Covid. Hopefully, we have reached the end of that now. I know from replies to parliamentary questions that the Department has a programme of reform and investment in place and is recruiting extra staff. It would be timely to have officials from the Department before the committee.
We do not need to discuss the detail of the current problems. An investment has been made and we can note the profile of it to date but some of it does not appear to be robust enough in terms of the-----
In terms of capturing an image, is more investment needed or would we be duplicating investment? That is an aspect we need to examine. People in the Passport Office are run off their feet. I am in contact with staff routinely. There is another aspect of this that we need to examine. That is what I would suggest.
That is a good move on the part of Deputy Murphy.
Another aspect is eligibility with respect to the qualifying criteria for a passport. Perhaps officials in a section of the Department of Foreign Affairs that could address that aspect might also appear before the committee on that day. That would be interesting given the sharp rise in the number of people applying for an Irish passport following Brexit. I have no doubt that is not helping to reduce the queue. It would be informative and helpful to include that aspect in the discussion.
We will do that. If there are any other matters members would like discussed with the Department of Foreign Affairs at our meeting, they should bring it to the attention of the clerk to the committee.
As there is no other business, we will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 2 June when we will engage with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.