Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. As my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien said, we support the thrust of the Bill but it needs some tweaking and a bit of work. However, it is a positive move with a solution, and not an idea that has been dreamt up. Much has been said about accountability and responsibility as well as value for money. What has happened seems to be systemic across many Departments over the years. The Bill strengthens the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General, and while it will not allow the office to foretell the future, through experience, it could possibly predict the future to the extent that sometimes overruns can be flagged in the system before they happen. That would be a positive step, show prudence in dealing with taxpayers' money, and ensure they get value for money. I do not understand why the Government would oppose the Bill. I recently read an article in a medical journal, which I will quote from to show how bad the system is even across the health sector. This goes back to accountability and responsibility.
The Health Service Executive’s ability to effectively manage a budget remains a concern. Despite the introduction of Activity Based Funding and Performance and Accountability Frameworks, according to a review of spending in the "challenging" acute hospital sector by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. This is a clear indication of the lack of financial management within the sector, and highlights the need for enhanced reform initiatives to drive efficiencies and productivity, according to the review.
Let us take that in the context of the Bill we are dealing with tonight in terms of giving the Comptroller and Auditor General the power to flag issues and the authority and strength to challenge issues as they arise. Like many of us, the office would learn by experience, and nobody sells that. Those involved in the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General have been dealing repeatedly with such issues. We have heard in many debates in recent weeks that certain overruns were flagged but the advice was ignored. Now we do not know whether we are starting with the original €600 million or if we are going to €1.7 billion. Are we getting value for money? Certainly not, but it is an opportunity to do the right thing, as Deputy O'Brien said. We are supposed to be here to legislate and drive things forward. As the Minister of State said in his contribution, the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General "is to provide independent assurance that public funds and resources are used in accordance with the law, managed to good effect and properly accounted for and to contribute to improvement in public administration". That is very welcome. He went on to refer to the obligation on the Comptroller and Auditor General "to publish reports on important matters selected at his [and her, to be politically correct] discretion relating to value for money and the administration of public funds".
Deputy O'Brien referred to the new section 9A(2) to be inserted, which encourages the Comptroller and Auditor General to signal if he thinks something is wrong and has concerns about a minor or major overrun being imminent on a given project. The measure could be strengthened on Committee Stage. This has to stop, which means reverting to giving value for money for taxpayers. People want and need value for money. Capital projects cost a lot of money. Irrespective of the accusations hurled across the floor by the two main parties, 99% of projects come to fruition. Being prudent and giving the Comptroller and Auditor General a bit more control and additional powers could only be a forward step. I commend the Bill and ask the Government to withdraw its objection to it to allow it to move to Committee Stage. Let us progress the Bill and do things right.