Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 November 2023
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The business before us this afternoon is as follows: minutes, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, work programme and any other business. Before we before deal with minutes and any other business, there is the matter of the correspondence that arrived late yesterday from Radio Teilifís Éireann, RTÉ. We had some prior discussion on this and the committee finds that the offer from RTÉ to provide a note on the note of the meeting of 7 May 2020 is not acceptable. The committee has discussed its response. We will issue a response to RTÉ and we hope it will revert to us by close of business on Monday. If we do not receive a response by that time, we will consider that we are not getting a response to it and we will deal with it in a different way when we meet on Tuesday. However, we are not willing to accept the conditions set out in the letter from RTÉ. The committee wants to see the original note. We want it without redactions. We will accept a summary that can be used for publication. We have to reserve the right to uphold the constitutional position of the committee. We have to reserve the right to use evidence gathered from this exercise and from any notes that we receive in our reporting. It is our constitutional duty to do that. This will be the full and final offer to RTÉ. Committee members might want to come in to elaborate on any of that. I will bring in members in the order that they indicate. I call Deputies Devlin and Murphy.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. That is a fair summary of the lengthy discussion we had. This offer is too late. It should have come in much sooner to the committee if it was going to be offered in the first place. It is not as if RTÉ has not had ample opportunity in this committee room to divulge and to engage with the committee on how to proceed on this matter. This note of 7 May is extremely important to the committee given our long deliberations with RTÉ.
It all seems to be a central date on which decisions were made. While the offer that RTÉ has put to us at this late stage is not acceptable to the committee, we have had good discussion here and have found a pathway forward if a decision can be arrived at by close of business on Monday.
This tripartite agreement was one of the central reasons we had the hearings and that is why this document is important. It will be important that we are able to refer to it in the report we ultimately write. We all want to bring this whole dialogue with RTÉ to a conclusion from the point of view of the Committee of Public Accounts. We are coming towards that stage now. We are not requesting this document for no reason. We are requesting it because it is really important. I do not think there are any circumstances under which we can accept a situation where we cannot use something in that report. We are used to dealing with information or correspondence that is provided to us and that we view privately, without those documents we refer to ever being made public. That would be the scenario we would be looking at here and that is a very reasonable way for us to proceed.
RTÉ gets substantial State funding. It also collects funding under the licence fee process. It is important that there is full accountability and the decision we have made here today is the correct decision. We want the note to be available to be made public. I refer to the summary but also to our entitlement to see the actual original note as well. While people can say there are particular reasons RTÉ does not want to disclose this information on the basis that it might be doing an investigation on another issue for "Prime Time" or whatever, this is a different issue. This is about the accountability of the organisation. It is not about the accountability of any third party, but about that of the organisation. What we were trying to do as a committee is to try to restore the credibility of RTÉ and the one way we can do that is by making sure there is full disclosure, insofar as possible, of the issues here in order that the public can come back and have trust in the organisation. Not providing the information is not going to create credibility. This is the way to do it and RTÉ should co-operate with us in that respect.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for what I think was an accurate summary of the discussion that happened beforehand. I share the frustration of other members of the committee. We all wanted to put this whole sorry episode behind us and begin that process of rebuilding the trust we absolutely need in our national broadcaster. I agree with Deputy Devlin that this offer is a day late and a dollar short in terms of when it arrived to us and what it puts on the table. It tells us that RTÉ are satisfied that all the salient points captured in the note have already been presented in the public arena. What we want to be able to do as members of the Committee of Public Accounts is satisfy ourselves that this is the case. That is the only reason we want this note. We want to be able to satisfy ourselves that everything that is contained within the note is already known to the committee so that we can draw a line under it and move on.
I share the frustrations of everybody else here on the committee. As I said to RTÉ representatives on the day, this note either backs up their case or it undermines it. Their case is that this meeting, and the key decision to underwrite, was the crux of the entire issue, and who knew what on that. Therefore, for RTÉ not to provide it puts a doubt in our minds that this position is not correct. For RTÉ to provide it to us by the way of a summary that is somehow sense-checked by two legal people, is an affront to the elected members of this committee who have a constitutional obligation and duty. I respect the position of legal privilege but it is only of at least the same value as the democratic responsibilities we have for the protection of public money. I agree with the committee engaging with RTÉ but it cannot be without any prejudice to our right to see that key note that should be made available to us as Members of the Oireachtas. As I say, it is only a matter of backing up or undermining RTÉ's own case. On one second point, the idea that evidence would be made available to us but that we could not in some way consider it in our conclusions, is preposterous. It is akin to telling a jury that it will see a key piece of evidence such as the murder weapon but then is not allowed talk about it. Would you tell the jury members on the O. J. Simpson trial that they can see the glove but that they are not allowed to take it into account in their decision? It is preposterous that evidence could be made available to us and that we would be instructed not to consider it in the formation of the report. I could not stand for that and I do not think any of the members of this committee would.
Okay. I thank members for those contributions. I will be clear that this has dragged on over the summer period and it is something that should have been sorted out a lot sooner. We have tried to engage and resolve this matter but in the absence of the key witness, the former director general - and I am not making any judgment on that but the facts are she is not able to attend and is not here - this raises the importance of the notes of that meeting. I find the description of a legal advice unusual. First of all it was legally privileged and then it was resiled from that position. I find legal advice even unusual in the context of a third party, the actual party they were negotiating with, being present at that meeting. They would be very unusual circumstances in which to get legal advice. Maybe there is legal advice in the note but it is very unusual circumstances in which to get legal advice. If there was legal advice given as part of that meeting, and it is in part of that note, it is diluted to the point of being like low-fat milk at this stage. It is useless because it is already compromised by the fact that other parties were present and are aware of what the legal advice was.
In summary, during the discussion, RTÉ has shown some willingness to engage. Its representatives need to be clearer that this is not something that will drag out beyond the middle of next week. We are absolutely clear as a committee that this needs to be sorted out and sorted out fairly soon. RTÉ representatives have until close of business on Monday to respond to it. What they are responding to is that the offer that has been put forward to us is not acceptable in its current form. If they want to send us a summary, that is fair enough but we want to be able to use that or publish any part of it we see fit. We want the original note without redactions for this committee to see in private as we do every week. We see private documents every week such as these ones here which never see the light of day once the meeting is over. We reserve the right to use the information and evidence gathered in our reports. This is full and final. There will not be any other opportunities. This is the minimum we have to do to uphold the constitutional position of this committee and our duty is to report to the Houses of the Oireachtas and indeed that the public see that being done. If everybody is happy, we will proceed on that basis. Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank members for their co-operation with that.
We will move on to the minutes of the meeting of 26 October 2023, which have been circulated to members. Is everybody happy that they are accurate? Does any member wish to raise any matter in relation to the minutes? I take those minutes as agreed and they will be published on the committee's webpage.
Moving on to No. 2, accounts and financial statements. Seven sets of accounts and financial statements were laid before the Houses between 23 October and 3 November 2023. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, to address these before opening the floor up to members.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
No.1 is the Health and Social Care Professionals Council's financial statements for 2022.
They received a qualified audit opinion. In my view, the accounts give a true and fair view except that they account for the costs of retirement benefit entitlements of staff only as they become payable. That is a standard situation in many of the health bodies.
The Medical Council received a clear audit opinion for 2022.
The Social Insurance Fund is one of the largest accounts I audit, with a turnover of over €15 billion. It received a clear audit opinion. However, I draw attention to four chapters in my report on the accounts of the public services for 2022, which I already outlined when I presented the Department of Social Protection Vote, so I will not delay the committee.
The National Library of Ireland received a clear audit opinion for 2022.
An Foras Teanga, or the Language Body, is one of the statutory North-South bodies. The financial statements refer to 2021 and received a clear audit opinion.
The Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board received a clear audit opinion for 2022.
The Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland received a clear audit opinion for 2022.
Are the listing of accounts and financial statements agreed? Agreed. As usual, they will be published as part of our minutes.
Next is No. 3, correspondence. As previously agreed, correspondence that is not flagged for discussion at this meeting will continue to be dealt with in accordance with the proposed actions that have been circulated to members. Decisions taken by the committee in respect of correspondence are recorded in the minutes of the committee’s meetings and published on the committee’s web page.
The first category of correspondence where members have flagged issues is B, starting with No. R2189B, from Mr. Ciarán Breen, director of the State Claims Agency, dated 19 October. It provides information that we requested during the meeting of 21 September. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Murphy has flagged this.
Next is No. R2198B, correspondence from Mr. John McKeon, Secretary General of the Department of Social Protection, providing information that we requested regarding the Department’s views on the data protection impact assessment of the public services card. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Murphy wished to discuss this correspondence.
The Data Protection Commission ran an investigation into this matter. It would be important to have the Department before us again. I hope that would be early next year, given that our timetable is full to the end of this year. The assessment is one of the issues that it would be important for us to discuss.
I am straying into our timetable, but there has also been a significant Supreme Court case that affects the Social Insurance Fund. This matter relates to RTÉ and reviews by the scope section. The Supreme Court case had to do with Domino’s Pizza and whether people were contracted. In our report of June 2021, we recommended that the Revenue Commissioners take a series of actions to combat the activity known as bogus self-employment, including an independent investigation into the financial and sectoral implications of an agreement signed between Revenue and the courier sector in 1997. Following what was a significant court case, it would be useful for us to have the Revenue Commissioners appear before us at the same time as the Department of Social Protection so that we might address the issue. I formally propose that we do so.
Next is No. R2199B from Ms Fiona Ross, group chair of CIÉ, dated 27 October. This correspondence provides information requested by the committee regarding the CIÉ superannuation scheme. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I flagged this matter for discussion. There are people pensioned out of CIÉ who are in the unusual position of their pensions not having increased for 15 years. Some of them are in receipt of very small pensions and some are slipping below the level of the State pension. Many of them have no alternative pension entitlements, for example, the mainstream State pension, because they spent their working lives in CIÉ. While that was okay at one stage and the pension payments were above the State pension, the situation has reversed.
Along with the reply, information was sent about the 1951 defined scheme. According to the reply, the average pension payable over the past five years on a normal salary for those executives retiring was €87,000. Unfortunately, the pensions of the general workers, drivers and other assorted grades who have retired are a fraction of that. There has been a Labour Court ruling on the matter as well as a back-and-forth with the trade union group. The letter from CIÉ’s management outlines a deficit of €400 million across the 1951 scheme and the rail workers’ scheme and raises questions about the pension schemes. However, it has been set out to me – if the committee is agreeable, we should probe this with CIÉ – that although wages have increased by 25% to 30%, pensioners have seen no increments whatsoever even though there is €1.6 billion in CIÉ’s pension funds, including €110 million in an emergency fund. CIÉ can correct this information if necessary. What is that emergency fund being used for? This is an emergency situation. Pensioners are slipping into dire poverty and have not seen an increase since 2008.
CIÉ’s overall deficit has reduced from €950 million to €400 million. The direction of travel indicates that the deficit may reduce further. I understand that the State took €40 million out of the pension fund during the crash. The current surplus in the pension schemes is not clear. If the committee is agreeable, I ask that we write back to RTÉ regarding these five questions.
This is a key issue for those workers who have been caught by it through no fault of their own. Some of them had worked in the company since they were 15 or 16 years of age and now they find themselves in their 70s or 80s with very small pensions and nowhere else to go.
If the committee is agreeable, we will do that.
These people are in an unusual position in that they do not have the State pension either. They are not like Bord na Móna workers or county council workers, for example, who have the State pension and superannuation. These workers find themselves in a situation in which this is the only income they have. They are really vulnerable. Thank you for that, Deputy. We will reply to the management of CIÉ and put those points to them.
The next item is No. 2204 B, from Ray Mitchell, assistant national director, the Health Service Executive. It is dated 31 October 2023 and provides information we requested regarding the staffing deficit in each of the community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas. It is proposed to note and publish this item. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I have flagged this item. I do not know if other members want to comment on it. They will see the staffing deficits in it. From the information that is provided in the graphs, tables and so on that the HSE has supplied, if I am looking at it correctly, table 3 outlines the gap to staff ceilings in CHOs. In CHO 8, which encompasses the midlands area, it looks like there is a 40% gap in community care; in medical and dental care there is a 10% gap; in nursing and midwifery there is a 30% gap, which is concerning; and in health and social care professions there is a 31% gap. The one I am taken aback by is management and administration, where there is plus 34. It appears from this, then, that management and administration have more than what they need. Maybe that is not the case, but that is what the HSE has presented here. General support is up 11 as regards the requirement. I might ask the HSE to clarify those points and give a breakdown. CHO 8 was of particular interest to me, particularly because of the dental care situation. Child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, is another one where there are shortfalls in staff. This correspondence seems to indicate that there are significant shortfalls across the board, but we will ask for an explanation or a breakdown of the figures for CHO 8 if the committee is agreeable. We will also ask the HSE to explain why there are 34 management and 11 general support staff in addition. There may be a very good reason for that but I would like to hear it.
Yes. I take them as headcounts. It states:
Table 3 below details the 'gap to staff ceiling' by Staff Category for each Community Healthcare Organisation. The gap to staff ceiling is the distance from/over target i.e. the minus figures.
The figures are colour-coded. Members will see that the management figure is listed in red at plus 34. Is that agreeable?
We will see if we can get that information. It might be useful as well to ask the HSE, on the basis of the new health areas, what the population would be, as per the last census, in the areas that have seen their boundaries drawn. Has the HSE calculated what the-----
Yes. We will ask the HSE to give figures because it has drawn the boundaries, I understand. I am not on the Joint Committee on Health, but my understanding is that that piece of work is done, so, whichever counties are in each CHO, we should be able to determine what way that will break down across the country-----
Population and budgets - that is what we are watching. Thank you for that, Deputy.
Moving on, No. R2208 B, from Graham Doyle, Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, dated 26 October, provides further information requested by the committee during the meeting of 1 June. It is proposed to note and publish this item of correspondence.
I noted this item and flagged it for discussion. I do not know if any other members wish to come in on it. I wanted clarification regarding the figures for the cost of housing, including direct builds and local authority housing, which is coming in at a national all-in cost of €365,000 for a three-bedroomed apartment and €318,000 for a three-bedroomed house.
The other key piece of information in this correspondence is that it gives a county-by-county breakdown of the number of homes built by local authorities using the design-and-build model last year, which was 1,666. Members will see that at the bottom of page 2. As regards approved housing bodies, capital advance leasing facility, CALF, turnkey acquisitions numbered 2,538. Those detailed figures are in the correspondence for members, and they can look at the figures for their own counties there. In a number of counties, including Kildare, Deputy Murphy, no housing was built by the local authority. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown was the same, as were Longford and Louth. Roscommon had two. Laois had 43 direct builds. Members will see those figures in the correspondence.
I am aware that Kildare County Council has been acquiring houses on turnkey and long-lease bases. It may well be worthwhile looking at how this compares to the housing waiting list, including the housing assistance payment, HAP, lists to see what they were at a point in time and what they are now. The most expensive way to acquire a house is to long-lease it, and you have no asset at the end of it. You are effectively paying a mortgage. Some terrible decisions are being made.
I think questions have to be asked of Deloitte. If the local authorities have been given extra staff and four councils are coming in with not a house built by the local authority last year, it raises serious questions. We will have the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage back in again in a few weeks' time, and the reason I flagged this is that we should raise it with the Department again at that meeting to suss out what is happening with these acquisitions.
Moving on, No. R2207 B is from RTÉ, dated 31 October. It provides further information requested by the committee during the meeting of 12 October. It consists of responses to 18 requests from the committee. It is proposed to note and publish this item of correspondence.
I have flagged this item. If any members wish to come in on it, they will see the correspondence. It is No. R2211 B. Basically, RTÉ is reverting to us to say there are some suggestions that it suppressed information and did not make it available.
Sorry there are two bundles. The minutes are No. 2207 which the Deputy has before her, it is an extensive bundle of paper, and then there is No. 2211. Does anyone want to say anything on the minutes of the meeting that were provided by RTÉ which the committee requested? If they do not, we will move on to the other bundle, No. 2211. The Deputy was speaking on that.
She is all right with that. RTÉ is saying it wants to clarify that there were no such internal report generated at any point. For the information of members, the letter states:
By way of additional update, I would like to advise that Grant Thornton and McCann Fitzgerald have requested a further modest extension in terms of their investigations into the Voluntary Exit Scheme payments [in RTÉ], and Toy Show the Musical. Both are likely to be available closer to the end of this month.
There is another item from RTÉ, No. 2211, which would have been very useful had we had it months ago. It is a copy of a letter from Richard Collins, former chief financial officer, sent on Sunday 18 June at 7.27 p.m. to Siún Ní Raghallaigh, the cathaoirleach of the board. The letter, referring to the Ryan Tubridy situation, says that the current contract is for five years from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2024. The annual fee in the contract was €440,000 per annum. In addition, RTÉ underwrote and guaranteed a side deal of €75,000. This was not mentioned in the contract nor was it reported in the published earnings for 2020 or 2021. It is confirmed in an email from NK, that is, Noel Kelly, to the RTÉ director general, the previous chief financial officer and talent contract lawyers dated 16 January 2020. The previous contract had also been for five years and ran from on 1 September 2015 to 31 August 2020. This was terminated five months early when the current contract replaced it. At the end of the contract, loyalty bonus payment of €120,000 due under this contract was not paid. Instead it was rolled into the annual fee in the current contact. The document sets out the annual fees. He wrote that he had examined the payments to Ryan Tubridy over the two contracts and had concluded that Ryan Tubridy was actually paid €251,250 more than was published over the period 2017 to 2021. He set out that the reasons for that were twofold. The €120,000 bonus due under the 2015 to 2020 contract was credited against earnings in 2017 to 2019. There is no logic for this, he wrote in the letter. The bonus was not accrued in those years. Ryan Tubridy invoiced RTÉ for this and was paid the full amount of his full contractual fee. He gave no subsequent credit note nor did he repay any amount. RTÉ ended up being liable for the side-deal fee in the current contract. This was paid through the barter account that sat outside the normal accountancy and internal controls systems. The fees were recorded in the books of RTÉ but camouflaged as a sponsorship credit note and two consultancy invoices.
It is regrettable that we did not have all that back at the end of June. The date on the letter is 19 June. It would have been helpful had we had that then but we have it now in black and white. Does anybody want to comment? Are they happy enough?
Moving on to correspondence category B - from and related to private individuals. No. 2205 from an individual, dated 31 October 2023, is in relation to bogus self-employment and the decision of the Supreme Court in the Karshan case regarding delivery drivers. I propose that we note and publish this item.
I think we should have both the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection before the committee in the early part of next year in respect of this issue. It is a substantial finding.
I think we can agree on that. As all Deputies are happy with that, we will move to the work programme.
Members have been circulated with a draft work programme discussion document, which is displayed on screen now. On 16 November, we will meet with the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform in relation to its 2022 appropriation accounts, chapter 5 of the Report of the Accounts of the Public Services and the format and content of appropriation accounts. The following have been flagged as areas of interest: format and content of appropriation accounts; the delivery of the national development plan; and the public spending code. On 23 November, we will meet with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in respect of the 2022 appropriation accounts for Vote 45 – Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and chapter 19 on the National Training Fund. On 30 November, we will meet with the Department of Finance to discuss the Department’s 2022 appropriation account and the four relevant chapters from the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report. We will meet with the Department of Health on 7 December to examine the 2022 appropriation account for Vote 38 and the following specific areas of interest: establishment of the new regional health areas; budget controls and governance; budget outcomes; agency costs; and service level agreements with section 38 and section 39 organisations. On 14 December, we will meet with the Housing Agency and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in relation to chapter 11 on the utilisation of the land aggregation scheme sites and the Housing Agency’s 2021 financial statements. It is proposed to include only the Housing programme from Vote 34 on the agenda as the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage already appeared before us on 26 October in respect of the full 2022 appropriation account. A lot was discussed that day. We had Uisce Éireann in with them too. We felt that when they came in again, we would focus on that narrower area. Are there are any other areas members wish to examine with the Department? If there is something they think is important, they should send it to the clerk and bring it to the committee's attention. Are people happy with that?
At the one meeting. The two at the one time. That is agreed.
The last item on the public agenda today is any other business. As there are no other matters, we will go into private session very briefly before adjourning until a private meeting next Tuesday.