Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 16 November 2023
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The agenda for this section of the meeting is as follows: minutes; account and financial statements; correspondence; work programme; and any other business. The first business is the minutes of the meetings of 9 and 14 November 2023, which have been circulated to members. Do any members wish to raise any matters in relation to the minutes? No. Are the minutes for both meetings agreed? Agreed. They will be published on the committee's web page as usual.
The next business is accounts and financial statements. Four sets of accounts and financial statements were laid before the Houses between 6 and 10 November. I ask Mr. Seamus McCarthy, the Comptroller and Auditor General, to address these before we open the discussion to the floor.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
First, the Donegal Education and Training Board's financial statements for 2022 received a clear audit opinion. Second are the National Training Fund's financial statements for 2022, which received a clear audit opinion. I draw attention to a chapter in my report on the accounts of the public services for 2022, which examines the utilisation of funding allocated to the National Training Fund and the accumulation of surpluses in that fund. Third are the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council's financial statements for 2022, which received a clear audit opinion. Fourth are the Law Reform Commission's financial statements for 2022, which received a clear audit opinion.
As the Department with responsibility for the National Training Fund will be before the committee next week, I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to hold back on addressing that issue. If any members wish to contribute, they should feel free to do so.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
Very simply, if you are spending less than you are taking in, then the surplus will increase. One of the things I noted in regard to contributions to the fund, with the growth in the economy and the numbers in employment, is that the contribution rate had also increased. There was much more money coming into the fund than it was spending. Unemployment levels have also dropped. Training is being paid for out of the National Training Fund, both for people in employment and those who are unemployed. My concern was that there was an accumulation of funds when there are areas that have been indicated as being a priority for spending, like apprenticeship training, which were not being delivered. I wanted to draw attention to that.
The accounts and statements are noted and agreed. As usual, the list of accounts and financial statements submitted will be published as part of our minutes.
The next business is 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. 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.
Before moving on to the flagged items of correspondence, after our private meeting on Tuesday, we considered correspondence No. 2224B, dated 10 November 2023, from Mr. Kevin Bakhurst, director general of RTÉ, in relation to a note for the meeting of 7 May 2020. It is agreed to note and publish the cover letter and the summary of the note to that meeting. It is also agreed not to circulate or publish further the confidential documents supplied. Do members wish to comment on the cover letter or the summary of the note of the meeting received from RTÉ?
I concur. That is a question we have. The note highlights a number of issues for the legal office in RTÉ with the practices that were outlined at the meeting. It underlines the concerns of this committee and will help to inform. It is important we have it. While it has been stated publicly many times that it was legally privileged and came under solicitor-client confidentiality, this was a record of a meeting and what transpired at it. It is damning to say the least. We suspected that was the case from the beginning. It is important that we have accurate information on what took place at that meeting. That will help our work as we move along and try to get the report on RTÉ done.
The next business is flagged items of correspondence. Category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers as a follow-up to previous meetings of this committee. No. R2212 from Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts Gaeltacht, Sports and Media, dated 6 November 2023, provides information we requested on large-scale sports infrastructure projects. It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy has a concern about this because of the criteria.
I am constantly going on about it. On the second last page, under the review of the initiative, it states that the review is expected to be finalised soon and that any issues identified will be addressed as part of the terms and conditions of the next call. I ask that the Department forward us the review when it is completed. We may well look back and forward on this.
The second issue is the statement that there is ongoing engagement with the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform on the funding required to underpin any new round of funding. It would be useful to write to the Department and seek further details on that. I am struggling with the criteria. As I keep mentioning, one criterion was to have, as standard, one swimming pool for every 50,000 people. We are talking about public pools rather than pools in hotels and so on.
However, that is not how the distribution happens.
The other thing is that the funding model very often requires some degree of matching funding. The ability of local authorities to come up with that matching funding may well be an impediment. It could be an impediment in areas where there are high levels of disadvantage, for example. If the need for quality of participation in sports for all users were to be fulfilled, then swimming is one of the activities that goes right across from tiny tots to elderly people. I will be told off for not calling people "older people". Essentially, I do not see where that distribution has a whole lot of bearing on population. I do not see where the criteria outline that or where there is a match.
Swimming pools do not make money and are expensive to run. If there is not the population to support them, they are a drain on funds for other things so it is very important there is that distribution, where there is a sufficient population to warrant a swimming pool. For example, in the area where I live, in the whole of north Kildare, including the towns of Leixlip, Celbridge, Maynooth and Kilcock, there is probably a population of 85,000 or 90,000, but we have a pop-up pool in a GAA pitch that is funded by local industry and a few others, including the local authority through local property tax. That is the extent of it. If there is that kind of glaring gap, are there other places in the country where there is such a gap? Does it mean there has to be a Minister?
Yes. It can be taken away. It is rigid enough, but it does not have the changing facilities and is a lot smaller. It is a pop-up pool. It certainly demonstrates a need because it is being used but-----
County Kildare has a population of 250,000 and has two public pools. I am not satisfied that the criteria outlined are correct. It is not that straightforward to get information because there may well be a pool in a part of the country that is there in theory but, if it needs a significant upgrade, is it really there in practice for the level of usage it should get?
On the national swimming strategy, the correspondence states that work on the strategy development is nearing completion and it is hoped to have it published before the end of 2023. It further states that future policy on the funding of swimming pools, including under the large-scale sport infrastructure fund, LSSIF, will reflect recommendations contained in the swimming strategy. However, if the swimming strategy does not have some sort of a population basis, how does it feed it into the strategy?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
One thing that could be done relatively easily would be to find out the number of pools that are supported by the local authorities in each area and match it to the population. The Department should easily be able to provide that, which means that rather than looking at criteria end, you are looking at the outturn. That might provide some interesting information.
That is a useful point as regards the criteria. We would have to write to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to ask it for the number of swimming pools based on the-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The funding is coming through from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media to the local authorities. It should, therefore, be able to get the information directly from the local authorities rather than going round about through the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
We will take that as agreed.
Next is 2214B from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director of the HSE, dated 7 November. It provides further information requested by the committee during the meeting with the HSE on 5 October. It is proposed that we note and publish this correspondence, apart from attachments 3, 6 and 5. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy and I have flagged this for discussion.
I picked out a couple of things in respect of respite services, which is something we are all more than aware of in our areas. The second last paragraph on page 5 of the correspondence states: "However, a significant underlying challenge relates to the latent unmet need for residential and respite care, which exists in our services because of the absence of multi-annual investment during the economic downturn." It goes onto to state: "This is forcing [community healthcare organisations] CHO’s to procure new residential services on a single placement basis only at substantially higher cost than could be achieved through an appropriately commissioned multi-annual investment programme." We will always be playing catch-up with this unless we have that multi-annual investment programme. The correspondence does not go on to expand on that. Maybe we could ask Mr. Mitchell to expand on it. Has the HSE done any work on what a multi-annual investment programme would look like and cost? Has work been done on that in the Department?
The second matter I picked up on, which the Cathaoirleach has repeatedly raised, relates to the number of dentists and the number of dental treatment service scheme, DTSS, contracts as of September 2023. One of the things we looked for and have not yet got, as far as I know - I did not see it - is the current population per CHO area. We talked about that only last week. The most recent figures we have available date from 2011, but CHO 7 was numerically the largest CHO area in the country. While CHO 4 was the second most populous, CHO 7 has had a stronger profile of growth since then so it will be substantially bigger. When we look at the contracts as of September 2023, I would like to match that against something. Matching it against the population criteria is quite important because then we can actually see what is going on. They are just numbers if we do not have something to match them against.
It is also about distribution. The Cathaoirleach has raised the issue of the lack of any dentists in the County Laois area many times. Distribution within CHO areas is a different thing, but we do not have dentists to begin with. CHO 7 has 90 dentists. All the other CHOs are smaller than CHO 7, but CHO 4, for example, has 196 dentists. There is a substantial difference there, yet there is not a great population difference between those CHO areas. The Cathaoirleach will get the point I am making. We need that information to have something to base it on.
The reason I flagged dental in particular relates to the DTSS scheme and the schools scheme. The correspondence helpfully gives figures for 2022, and for 2023 for the year to date up to September.
It shows that a greater number of fillings were done this year up to September than in the whole of last year; 30,000 more were done at that point. The information I was trying to get on the school dental scheme is supplied on page 8 of that document, which states:
The school dental scheme aims to target 3 classes (2nd, 4th, 6th) but is resource dependent. The majority of areas are targeting 6th class only: most are completing the provision of service to children from school year 2022/2023.
Currently, only one dental area has resources enabling them to target 25% of 2nd class children, with no dental area indicating that they have sufficient resources to target 4th class. Two dental areas have not yet completed targeting 6th class from 2020/2021 ... due a reduction in dentists in the past 4 years.
Underneath that, there is a table which shows that the "School year being completed" in respect of Laois is "2019/2020". It is unclear what age the children are and what class they are in. Do we take it that the reference to "2019/2020" is a reference to the sixth class children in that year? If so, those children are now 15 or 16. It is unclear. Similarly, the "School year being completed" in respect of Offaly is "2020/2021". That is the one it is working on at the moment. Again, it is unclear. It looks like it refers to sixth class from that year. Those are now 15- and 16-year-olds. In fact, in County Laois, children are 16 or 17 before they see the dentist for the first time. That corresponds to what I hear in the general area. We will look to have that clarified by the HSE, including the ages of the children it is dealing with at the moment and what year they are in. That table could be read in a number of ways because of the paragraph that comes before it.
On the number of contractors for the adult DTSS, it is helpful to look at CHO 8. The document states that the number of DTSS contracts there, as of September 2023, is 71. I did not get the answer I wanted about how many are in County Laois, which I asked specifically. I wish to get that information from the HSE about the number in County Laois and in each of the counties in the midlands, including CHO 8, which includes counties Louth and Meath. It covers six counties. We put a lot of work into this locally in the constituency office to try to track this information down. According to my information, there is only one dentist in the county who deals with clients in the DTSS. She is not taking any more patients and has not taken any new cases on. We went over this ground a lot. We have a budget and figures for the CHO area but we did not get a definitive answer from the HSE to say there are no dentists taking on new people under the DTSS. I also want to know the budget in the current year for CHO 8. I do not see that in the document. We want to know the number of dentists willing to take on clients under the DTSS in counties Laois and Offaly, the budget for the midland counties and if a breakdown per county is available. What we have provides some information but it does not give us the level of detail we want.
I welcome the replies we got concerning primary care centres. The HSE has given some indication of where the projects are at and if they are approved. It is useful to have that information because if we are to build Sláintecare, we cannot do it without primary care. Unfortunately, at the moment, we are not good at primary care in the country overall. The midlands mirror that. We must get a network of primary care centres in place and staffed to keep people out of public hospitals, which are clogging up the whole system. I note that reply and that we need to follow up with further detail on the dental scheme. I ask members to note that attachments (iii), (iv) and (v) in that correspondence are not to be published.
Category C is correspondence from private individuals and any other correspondence. No. 2216 C is from Deputy Hourigan, a former member of the committee, dated 7 November. It includes a proposal that the committee schedule a meeting with Teagasc in relation to links between Teagasc and the livestock industry and its involvement in the publication of The Dublin Declaration of Scientists on the Societal Role of Livestock. It is the role of Teagasc to provide research, advisory and training services to the agriculture and food industry. Although Teagasc is accountable to this committee, this seems to be a policy issue rather than related to the accounts of Teagasc and so the appropriate body for this issue is the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I propose that we note and publish this item. Is that agreed? Agreed. If members want to take up this issue, one option is to seek consent from Deputy Hourigan to forward her correspondence to the Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for his response to the matter. We will suggest that to her. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next item of correspondence on the list came in late so it was not flagged but I will read it out anyway. It is No. 2229 C from Deputy Naughten, the Cathaoirleach of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, dated 7 November 2023. The committee invites members of the Committee of Public Accounts to an engagement with Mr. Tony Murphy, president of the European Court of Auditors, next Wednesday, 22 November, in Leinster House. If members wish to attend, please send an RSVP to the secretariat of the joint committee via the contact details provided in the correspondence by the end of business tomorrow. I flag it up in case members are interested. The president, Tony Murphy, is Irish.
That is interesting. It is proposed to note and publish this item of correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. If members want to take that up, that is why it was flagged up and put on the agenda even though it came in late.
Moving onto the work programme, the draft work programme has been circulated to members for discussion, which is being displayed on their screens. We will go through it. On 23 November, we will meet the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science in relation to the appropriation accounts 2022 for Vote 45 – Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and chapter 19 on the National Training Fund. I propose that we also add the National Training Fund to the agenda for this meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed. On 30 November, we will meet the Department of Finance to discuss the Department’s 2022 appropriation accounts and chapters 1, 2, 24 and 25 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report. We will meet the Department of Health on 7 December to examine the 2022 appropriation accounts for Vote 38 and the following specific areas: establishment of 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 the Housing Agency and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage in relation to chapter 11 on the utilisation of land aggregation scheme sites, the Housing Agency’s 2021 financial statements and programme A of Vote 34 – Housing.
At the last meeting, it was agreed to add a meeting with the Department of Social Protection and the Revenue Commissioners to the work programme in early 2024.
However, these are both substantial Votes and there are relevant chapters from the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report in relation to both bodies. I propose we schedule a separate meeting for each a week apart, for example, social protection the first week and Revenue the second. We discussed the logic of bringing them in on the same day but the Comptroller and Auditor General's report has a number of chapters to be dealt with. I will bring in the Comptroller and Auditor General and then we can have a discussion around that.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
As I recall, the idea of bringing them together was to talk about the classification of employment for contribution purposes. The policy aspect of that for PRSI belongs to the Department of Social Protection but Revenue does the collection and administration of it. Having it as a clear agenda item each week with them may be sufficient to make the links and get the information the committee requires.
I was trying to say what the components of it should be. We are not here to debate the policy but there is a financial implication of that Supreme Court case. I am not sure that is sufficient in its own right for two separate weeks with two different bodies. There would need to be other things. That is probably what the Cathaoirleach is saying.
That would be a good start. Are there any other issues members wish to raise for the work programme for now? Okay, just keep an eye on it for the new year. That concludes our consideration of the work programme.
Is there any other public business? Okay. We will move briefly into private session before adjourning until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 November, when we will engage with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.