Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 1 February 2024
Public Accounts Committee
Business of Committee
The public business before us this afternoon is as follows: minutes, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, the work programme, and any other business.
The first item of business is the minutes of our meeting of 25 January 2024, which have been circulated to members. If members wish to raise any matter in relation to the minutes they should please feel free to do so. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee's web page.
Four sets of accounts and financial statements were laid before the Houses between 22 and 26 January 2024. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, to address these.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland's financial statements for 2022 received a qualified audit opinion. In my view the accounts give a true and fair view except that they account for the costs of the retirement benefit entitlements of staff only as they become payable. This is standard for many of the health bodies at the direction of the Minister.
The National Standards Authority of Ireland's financial statements for 2022 received a clear audit opinion. The Western Development Commission's financial statements for 2022 received a clear audit opinion. Sport Ireland Facilities Designated Activity Company's financial statements for 2022 received a clear audit opinion. This is a subsidiary of Sport Ireland. The accounts for Sport Ireland have also been signed but they have not yet been presented. I expect them to be presented relatively quickly.
Can we agree to note the listing of accounts and financial statements? Agreed. As usual, the listing of accounts and financial statements will be published as part of our minutes.
Moving to correspondence, as previously agreed, items that were not flagged for discussion at this meeting will 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.
Five items have been flagged for discussion in public today. The first category under which items have been flagged is category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow up to committee meetings. No. R2315B is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Health, and is dated 16 January 2024. It provides information requested by the committee in relation to the national children’s hospital. Last week it was agreed to note and publish this item and to defer consideration until this week's meeting. Do members wish to comment on this?
We note in relation to the national children's hospital that the latest update is that the opening date is projected to be the middle of 2025, with completion in the autumn of this year. We will note and publish this item of correspondence.
No. R2322B is from Mr. David Moloney, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, dated 17 January 2024. It provides a response to questions raised by the committee at the meeting of 16 November 2023. It is proposed to note and publish this item. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy flagged this item for discussion.
There are several issues I want to raise on this. One of these is the midterm review of the National Development Plan 2021-2030. Can we go back to the Department and ask how far advanced the review is? Can we have a date for when it expects to have it completed? I ask because one of the projects is DART+ West, which goes as far as 300 m from the railway station in Kilcock. To get it from there to the railway station requires a different process. We have been told by the National Transport Authority that it is looking at a bolt-on process that could possibly happen in tandem with the project. This is my reason for asking. I am sure others will be looking for this information also.
Another issue I want to raise is one I have been raising continuously. It is Walter Scott House on Military Road, the new Garda national support services headquarters. I am well aware that it is open and functioning as I go past it regularly so I can see it. There was an issue regarding the number of people it could accommodate. Is additional off-site car parking being used and paid for? There are some additional units in there now and they are desk sharing. I do not have a problem with desk sharing but how are they being accommodated?
There was a freedom of information response and newspaper article regarding the national train control centre at Heuston Station which states the NTA will provide the Department with a detailed note outlining how the NTA, Irish Rail and Indra intend to mitigate delays and cost overruns on the project, that this will be discussed at the October meeting of the major projects governance oversight group, and that Irish Rail will provide the NTA with the best case, worst case and most likely scenario of the delays to the project and cost overruns. We should seek this information.
Work is ongoing at the Garda headquarters in Phoenix Park. As we know two other facilities, Clyde House and an Intreo centre on the Navan Road, are being used as temporary facilities for the Garda while this work is under way. It surprised some of the local people when they saw their Intreo centre disappear. Can we request all of the costs to date that relate to Clyde House and the Navan Road Intreo centre, and the status of the project at this stage?
Is it likely to be on time and on budget?
Regarding the National Cyber Security Centre, can we request the business case for the use of Grant Thornton for the provision of procurement consultancy? I understand that cost €137,000. We need to understand why that would be needed. It is a lot of money. I have no problem if it is going to be properly used. Was it decided to do that before or after the cyberattack on the HSE?
We can seek answers to that.
I raise the issue of capital works for flood relief. Item No. 18 in the response refers to Mountmellick flood relief scheme including the timeline and additional funding. It did not answer either of the questions on the additional funding for that. We also looked for a detailed report on Midleton and Rathcormac; I think Deputy O'Connor raised that. It is a problem to give a general note on what is committed to - the overall planned flood-relief works of €1.3 billion. That is all welcome and a number have been completed to date. They are included in tranche 1 of funding which is all to the good.
However, the Mountmellick flood-relief scheme has been in development since 2018. The town was seriously flooded in 2017. The reply states that the Mountmellick flood-relief scheme is currently approaching the end of stage 1. At that rate, it will be the second half of this century before anything is in place. I know that Laois County Council is anxious to push it and I am sure the same applies to the other schemes mentioned by other Deputies. To be approaching the end of stage 1 six years into it is awful. That is not progress at all. It stated that the Mountmellick and Midleton schemes are tranche 1 schemes and work on design for the scheme at Rathcormac went through as part of the national development programme.
Studies have been done. The public meetings and open days have been held. It is all welcome that there has been local consultation. There are still problems in the Derrycloney area and that needs to be resolved with local residents. The public cannot get their head around the fact that it has taken six years. This started out as a €3 million project and the last figure I heard was €8 million. One of the Deputies earlier mentioned construction inflation. The longer this goes on, the higher the cost will be. In our response back to the Department, we need to ask what it is doing to try to expedite these schemes. To take six years to get to the end of stage 1 is just not good enough. The town is at risk of serious flooding every time there is heavy rain.
We have had a number of them in Kildare. Some were successfully delivered and held up when they were under pressure with severe rain. I am familiar with the cost-benefit analysis that goes along with that. Sometimes these processes are about managing expectations and filtering money as it is available. In addition to asking about specific schemes, it might be worth asking how many are at stage 1. How many stages are involved? How many are at each stage? What is the costing of them? That would give us a better overview.
Many of those construction projects have four main stages and a number of smaller stages within those four stages. We are being told six years into it that it is approaching the end of stage 1 for a large town at risk of flooding anytime. It is under the Slieve Bloom Mountains and anytime it rains heavily, three hours later the water flows off the Slieve Bloom Mountains down into the middle of the town.
Terrible damage was done in November 2017 in Mountmellick. We should ask the Department what it is doing to try to accelerate these. This is not about pushing environmental regulations to one side. I accept that proper planning, environmental studies and public consultation need to be done. However, there must be a shorter timeline for all this.
Deputy Dillon wants to come in. We are dealing with correspondence, No. R2322.
When officials from the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform appeared before the committee previously, we discussed their remit as the competent authority to sign off on the consents in relation to projects covered by the Arterial Drainage Act. They then outsourced that to external environmental consultants. The real difficulty lies with the timeline that-----
The Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform.
When these consultants return their report and analysis, it then takes time for the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform to interpret the results and then get ministerial approval. The real frustration within the Oireachtas is that there is no accountability for these environmental consultants. In the case of the Crossmolina flood-relief scheme, they have requested the Office of Public Works officials to provide supplementary information which they deemed to require another public consultation because the extent of the environmental impact studies did not meet their specific needs and requirements. That has significantly added to the timeline.
In 2015 Crossmolina was devastated with flooding. Now in 2024 we are no further on with it. When we look for progress updates, the Minister discusses it with his officials and they are none the wiser as to where it is at. That consent needs to be taken from the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and placed with a more relevant Department, such as the Department of environment, where it can be monitored and assessed.
I am not sure what governing body, but the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform officials failed to explain the difficulties they were having. We need a briefing on that consent piece. I ask for the timelines on various projects that are in progress and how long it is taking for the Department to get consents through on these projects.
The people in Mountmellick heard in 2018 that there would be a flood-relief scheme and that money was there for it - €3.4 million I think it was at the time. Six years later there is still no flood-relief scheme. We have read today that it is approaching the end of stage 1. While it is not confirmed in this correspondence, the last figure I heard was that it was now going to be in excess of €8 million for the same scheme. I accept that these studies identified some extra works that needed to be done over and above what was envisaged in the first assessment. With that snail's pace approach, it would take 20 or 25 years to get it in place.
Does the Deputy want to ask a specific question on the Crossmolina scheme along with the Mountmellick one when we look for that from the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform along with the suggestion of taking the environmental assessment out of the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform?
My only issue with that is that most local authorities are the lead authority in this regard, which means there might be an issue in respect of the requirements of the Arterial Drainage Acts regarding the independence of an external authority or Department and the issue of consent. The independence aspect might be an issue.
The schemes that have been carried out in my constituency impacted big centres of population. We are talking about towns here. I cannot commend highly enough the work that was done by the local authority in bringing the schemes to a point where it was almost designing the solution. Then the cost-benefit analysis is looked at in terms of prioritisation. Every time there is a big flood and people's homes or businesses are flooded, there is a humanitarian response. In the case of Midleton, businesses received up to €100,000. The cost is not just the cost we are talking about here; there are those added costs as well. Then there is the question of people not getting insurance and the whole issue of whether people should reinvest in a building that has been flooded if it is going to be flooded again. There is all of that to consider. We all know this well from our own areas. It strikes me that given the profile of climate change, there needs to be a sea change in how we deal with this issue. It will be the OPW, under the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, that deals with it. There should be some level of in-house expertise. Why are we putting the work out to expensive consultancies?
The Deputy is right that some good work has been done under the flood relief schemes but we cannot have a situation where it takes five or six years to be approaching the end of stage one. That is ridiculous. Deputy O'Connor, who also raised this, is not here. We will look for a timeline, specifically on the Midleton scheme, which the officials did not give. I do not have much knowledge of the situation but we know the town was badly flooded in recent months. We will ask about the Midleton, Mountmellick and Crossmolina schemes. We will also raise the specific suggestion about the environmental assessment role being taken out of the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform.
We will add that to it.
The next correspondence is R2323B from Mr. Graham Doyle, Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, dated 18 January. It provides a response to questions raised by the committee regarding the national monument on Moore Street. The correspondence was not flagged but I ask members to agree that we write to the Moore Street Preservation Trust seeking rebuttal of the points raised by Mr. Doyle. It is important that we seek a response before closing off the matter. We have the letter from the Secretary General. I propose that, for information purposes, we send it to the Moore Street Preservation Trust and ask for a response. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is important that the national monument is protected.
The next two items of correspondence relate to an engagement with RTÉ. I propose that we consider them together. The first is R2342 from Ms Siún Ní Raghallaigh, cathaoirleach of the RTÉ board, dated 25 January 2024. It sets out the situation regarding the willingness of the RTÉ board to engage with the committee on Toy Show The Musical. It is proposed to note and publish the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will flag it for discussion.
R2339 from Deputy Catherine Murphy, dated 25 January, concerns our further engagement with RTÉ. It is proposed to note and publish the correspondence. The report on Toy Show The Musicalcame out last week. It is important that we engage with RTÉ on it. I said at the time that if we had the McCann FitzGerald report, we should bring RTÉ back in on both matters. In light of what came out yesterday in the McCann FitzGerald report, which showed serious irregularities in how business was done, it is important to have RTÉ before the committee as quickly as possible.
In view of what has transpired in the past eight days, I propose that Ms Eimear Cusack be added to the list of invitees. It is important that she and Mr. Jim Jennings be there, along with people from the board. Breda O'Keeffe is no longer an employee of RTÉ but we should request her to attend. I will also request again that Dee Forbes attend. The last we heard, late last year, was that she was still not medically fit. I hope she is medically fit now. She plays a role in the latest report and certainly her name comes up a number of times and she looms large in it. It is important that we invite her in because I think there will be contradictory evidence from people who come before the committee. We even see in the report that there is some attempt to say, "Somebody else is to blame, not me." There is a good bit of that running through it.
It is important that we have the central players in the room. We will try to get them in. It is unfortunate that, to date, we have not had Ms Forbes before us. I have said that a number of times. The two latest reports really highlight the urgency of her coming before the committee. I suggest that we should be flexible in how we approach it. The fact we do not even have correspondence from her is very disappointing. In light of the McCann FitzGerald report, it is also really important that Ms Eimear Cusack and Mr. Jim Jennings are here. We should also hear from the appointed board members who were there during the Toy Show The Musicalperiod and who are still there.
Deputy Murphy wants to comment on R2339.
In addition to the people the Cathaoirleach talked about, and I agree with those, we need to think out who it is we need to have in. It is important to note that both reports we are discussing were commissioned by RTÉ, some on foot of the engagement they had with this committee. Certainly, some of the transcripts of the committee's proceedings are included in the McCann FitzGerald report. This is not something additional to what we would have expected. Once we have discussed the two reports, we should close off the matter because we will have done as much as we are going to do. We just need to finalise our consideration of some of those things.
In regard to Toy Show The Musical, Rory Coveney was a key person in that and it would be important to have him in.
Okay. Is Anne O'Leary on the list? We have heard about the so-called combo meeting of the audit and risk committee, the board and a programme sub-committee. We particularly need to hear from the audit and risk committee and the people from the board who were hand-picked.
Those who attended the combo meeting need to be here. I am not sure of the names of some of them. There has been speculation, but it is important that those who were present at that meeting come before us. The meeting was key to what transpired.
Yes. It would be important to invite the former chair of the board, Moya Doherty.
I remember raising this point when the show was under way and I looked for a business case because it was jaw-dropping stuff. We all know how big the convention centre is. All of us remember every seat in the convention centre. One would never want to be at a committee or Dáil meeting there ever again. We were acutely aware of how big it was and how many people would be needed to fill it. We were acutely aware of the number of shows that were cancelled and the climate at the time. We asked for a business case and got an eight-page reply, as others might remember, in January 2023. It told us that we could not have the business case because RTÉ has a commercial side. I do not think there is any reason why we could not have that business case now. I would like to see it in advance of the meeting we hold. That is an additional point.
We will ask RTÉ for that. It is important to note the financial calculations, the attendance required and the number of shows intended. From what we have seen from the documentation produced last week by Grant Thornton, the figures did not stack up. Even 35 shows with a full capacity would only move RTÉ near to breaking even.
From the point of view of governance, there have been references to net figures and a briefing as opposed to a requirement for a decision. We will need to deal with all of those issues. We will require the current director general. We are not going to be able to name the people who were hand-picked from the executive and audit and risk committee because they are not named in the report. It brings me back to experiences I and others had with local authorities whereby we would get stuff at the last minute and would not get all of the details and with a gun to our heads, would have to make a decision. It all feels as if people were hand-picked because they would say "Yes".
On the timeline, we know the situation regarding the extension of our remit. It is a process we have to go through, and we have discussed the extension previously. It is unfortunate. We would love to get witnesses in because we need to finish our report. We have concluded a lot of it but it is being held up because of these two reports. The sooner we can complete our work the better. We need one hearing about McCann FitzGerald and Grant Thornton reports. If it has to be an all-day hearing, it will be.
I would envisage difficulty with the committee's questioning and interrogation of the Grant Thornton report in that it is currently redacted and the names of people are anonymous so we do not know who knew what or who is referenced in the report. An enormous amount of time will be taken up with person 1, person 2, person 3 and the 26 different people involved. If the committee is extending its remit and oversight on the issue of "Toy Show The Musical", would it not be in our interest to seek an unredacted publication of this report, especially if it was initiated by RTÉ? We should request an unredacted document in preparation for our engagement, especially if the committee gives us approval to seek oversight in this regard.
I concur with the Cathaoirleach and Deputy Catherine Murphy regarding the list of invitees. It will again be immensely frustrating if we do not have key witnesses in front of us. We will certainly hold our breath to see who comes before the committee. For us to issue a report into the findings, arrive at conclusions and make recommendations, it is critical that those who were involved are here. Otherwise it becomes difficult to establish.
If we are granted the extension, we will have powers of compellability. We do not want this dragging on forever and a day but if it seems we will have to conclude our report without having key witnesses here, I would be on for pursuing that by using our powers of compellability. We should compel people, whether they are still working for RTÉ or not, to come before us. We should pursue those options and get legal advice in that regard.
I concur with Deputy Dillon. The terms of the Grant Thornton report we received were particularly protectionist. I do not think it is acceptable. God knows how much it cost. That there was no finding of fact and all of that is very protectionist and we should have an unredacted version, given that the public purse was paying.
There is no resistance. It may be useful to have both board members and management in the room at the same time. There may be value in that, particularly as we get into a line of questioning. It is agreed that we will seek that follow-up information.
No. R2327C is from an individual and is dated 18 January. The person stated that pension increases paid in October 2023 under the Building Momentum agreement to pensioners who previously gave satisfactory service as adult education officers have been withdrawn as of 1 January 2024. It is proposed to seek the consent of the correspondent to forward this item to the National Shared Services Office and the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery, and Reform for response, instead of the Department of Finance as previously proposed. That is a change. Is that agreed?
That is to try to get a response for our correspondent. That is perfect.
The next section of our meeting relates to the work programme. A draft work programme document, which is displayed on screen now, has been circulated to members for discussion. On 8 February, we will meet the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, on the 2022 financial statements. Resourcing of GSOC and the timelines for the processing and completion of complaints by GSOC have been flagged as areas of interest by the committee.
We will meet the Department of Justice on 15 February on the 2022 appropriation accounts for Vote 21 – Prisons and Vote 24 – Justice. The resourcing of GSOC and the International Protection Office have been flagged as areas of interest for this meeting.
On 22 February, we will meet the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Sport Ireland and representatives of the FAI and the Schoolboys/girls Football Association of Ireland. Last week, it was agreed to request that the chairperson of the audit, risk, compliance and finance committee of the FAI board attend. I propose that we discuss this meeting further in private session. If anybody wants to comment now on a matter that is not sensitive, that is fair enough.
Well we had somebody from the board of the FAI here this morning.
On 29 February, we will meet with Tusla on its financial statements for 2022. On 7 March, we will engage with Inland Fisheries Ireland regarding financial statements for 2022. Following the March recess, we will meet with An Garda Síochána regarding its appropriation accounts 2022 and specifically regarding Vote 20 – An Garda Síochána. There is one area I want to flag, and which we should add to the list of the work programme, is the University of Limerick. There are issues arising and being reported on regarding the purchase of 20 houses in Limerick. Further issues are arising regarding matters we have discussed with the University of Limerick before. Obviously, we have not scrutinised the issues that have been highlighted yet so I want to try to be fair but serious issues are being thrown up relating to this 20-house student village in Rhebogue, Limerick city. These houses are in Castletroy, 2 km from the university. The issues that are highlighted there, which I have been contacted about as well, are of a serious nature, Given that and other matters such as the Dunnes Stores site around which issues are arising, we need to bring representatives before the committee. If members are agreeable, I propose we bring in representatives from the university fairly early.
Yes, absolutely. I discussed this with the clerk to the committee since we last met and we have looked for extra slots in the committee rooms. There are more than 20 committees and rooms are booked out but we will try to get a slot as soon as possible if we can do that.
Yes, we will get it as soon as possible. Some of it hinges on that decision of the Oireachtas. If any of the members have influence in that Department on that committee, and both groups have people on it, they could hopefully talk them about it to try to get this through. Is it agreeable that we add University of Limerick to the list of the work programme and that we invite its representatives in? Agreed. I thank members.
If there are any other areas, members can flag them for the next meeting. That concludes our consideration of the work programme for today. Under any business then, there is one last item. This is relates again to the Rhebogue housing development and it has been dealt with. We will now move into private session briefly before adjourning until 9.30 a.m. on Thursdaym 8 February when we will engage with GSOC. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.