Wednesday, 7 October 2015
Topical Issue Debate
It is regrettable that the Minister of State's senior colleague is not present, given her proximity to the University of Limerick as a representative for the Limerick region. In any event, the Minister of State will be aware that allegations were brought to my attention in 2012 pertaining to alleged improper payments at the University of Limerick. At the time, I brought that matter to the Committee of Public Accounts and it went through a process. Unfortunately, Members do not have sight of what that process was back in 2012. However, a number of other whistleblowers have now come into the public domain and have made a number of allegations similar to those brought to my attention in 2012. These similar allegations were reported recently in the Limerick Leaderand widely by other media outlets. There is much commonality between all these allegations, but one common theme to emerge is that many people who raised their heads and queried certain payments at the University of Limerick were asked to leave. Many of them were paid off and removed from their jobs. In addition, many of them were asked to sign confidentiality agreements and agree to not speak about their experiences. This is quite serious, given the number of people who now have come forward into the public domain. In addition, other people whom I know and to whom I have spoken have not come forward. These are people of the highest integrity who have professional qualifications and are part of professional associations. Their integrity is beyond question and they also have come forward. The alarm bells are ringing, and Members must sit up and take note in this regard.
On foot of this, the University of Limerick has now issued High Court proceedings against theLimerick Leadernewspaper, which is quite unprecedented, and against its editor, Mr. Alan English, personally. I have a serious issue with this action, because a State-funded institution is using taxpayers' money in an attempt to gag a newspaper and its editor, which are pursuing matters in the public interest that are in the public domain. In his reply, the Minister of State might address a couple of issues on behalf of his senior Minister. Is the Higher Education Authority the competent authority to hold an investigation into this affair? I ask because the Minister of State's senior line Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, stated this week that she would support the intention to have an external examination of this issue and that the reputation of the University of Limerick was hugely important. All Members agree with that and wish to see it protected. She stated that what was needed was someone independent to investigate all the allegations. Is the Higher Education Authority the competent authority to investigate this matter independently, given that it has been involved in it from 2012 right up to the present? Second, if the Minister of State does not agree that the Higher Education Authority is the competent authority, will he or his senior Minister appoint an independent competent authority to review and investigate this matter and report to the Minister independently? There are issues pertaining to social welfare and to the Revenue Commissioners, for example, that must be investigated.
Finally, will the Minister of State join with me on his own behalf and that of his senior line Minister, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, in calling on the University of Limerick to withdraw its High Court proceedings against the Limerick Leadernewspaper and against Mr. Alan English?
While I have great respect for the Minister of State personally, I deplore the fact that the Minister is not present in the Chamber to answer personally on a matter that relates directly to her own constituency. In addition to the cases brought to the attention of Deputy Niall Collins, a number of different individuals have approached me and essentially have told me the same story, whereby people who raised their heads and raised issues about certain payments in particular were literally hounded out. This has happened in several cases that have been brought to my personal attention. It reflects a disturbing pattern of behaviour, and all the investigations that have taken place - that is, the internal university investigations into the circumstances surrounding the situation in which people ultimately were obliged to leave - show a distinct and patent lack of independence. While there are several matters about which I could talk today, one interesting aspect is that in both cases that are in the public domain at present, the university has made an offer to settle on the basis that the two people involved should resign from the university and collect two years' salary by way of payment. That payment of two years' salary involves taxpayers' money, but in both cases the university's so-called and allegedly independent investigator found that the two people had acted maliciously. Why would one pay two years' worth of taxpayers' money to somebody whom one's own investigator, who was meant to be independent, found to have acted maliciously? This matter must be investigated properly and the investigation must be both independent and perceived to be independent.
I also ask the Minister of State what he thinks of the actions of the University of Limerick in resorting to the heavy machinery of the law by employing a high-profile firm of solicitors at what I am sure is great expense to the taxpayer to sue theLimerick Leader, which, like all provincial newspapers, is hardly awash with funds. This proposed High Court action will place a serious strain on an organisation which I am sure is already struggling. In addition, the university's intention to sue the editor personally looks like a deliberate attempt to gag discussion of the matter, put it underground and prevent any discussion in the public domain. The Minister for Education and Skills knows better than anyone else that the Limerick Leaderis the main print medium for both the city and county of Limerick, which she and I represent, and has been so for more than a century. While I do not agree with everything theLimerick Leaderor its editor says, the Minister of State will appreciate that a free press is essential in a properly functioning democracy. I ask the Minister of State to communicate immediately to the Minister for Education and Skills that Members expect her to contact the university and to ask it, as Minister, to call off these legal bloodhounds.
I would like to thank the Deputies for raising this issue. It is certainly a matter of concern to my senior Minister, but she cannot be in two places at the same time so I am answering this matter on her behalf.
In early 2012, a former employee of the University of Limerick informed a public representative, who in turn informed the Committee of Public Accounts, of alleged irregular practices in the finance department of the University, her attempts to rectify them and how she had been dealt with by the university. The issues were referred by the Committee of Public Accounts to the Secretary General of my Department and, at his request, the HEA sought the response of the university. The university informed the HEA that it was engaging with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the issues and had provided all related correspondence to that office. The president of the university also wrote to the Committee of Public Accounts stating that the university was satisfied that it had dealt fully with the allegations made by its former employee as follows:
The University refutes in the strongest possible terms these allegations. The University has at all times paid expenses in accordance with its Travel and Subsistence Policy and is satisfied that the controls in place ensure that payments are reimbursed in accordance with Policy.
The letter goes on to say that the university was in correspondence with the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General on the matter, and continues:
The University is subject to rigorous auditing on an on-going basis. This includes external audit, internal audit and oversight by the Governing Authority's Audit and Risk Management Committee. The area of expenses is generally reviewed annually as part of the annual audit. A recent report to the Governing Authority Audit and Risk Management Committee by the University's external auditors confirmed that there were no weaknesses identified in relation to the controls in place regarding expenses.
In June this year, two employees of the university, who were employed in the finance department, requested of my Department to make a disclosure under the protected disclosures legislation. They were directed to the CEO of the Higher Education Authority, as that person is a prescribed recipient under the legislation. The CEO, Mr. Boland, met with the employees on 5 May 2015. An agreed minute of that meeting was provided to the president of the university for his observations. It is important to say that at the meeting no specific allegations were made of financial irregularities in the university. However, the employees outlined a series of events which they considered amounted to bullying and victimisation of them by management and colleagues in the university. They stated their view that this arose because of their questioning of what they saw as irregular practices in the finance department. The employees in question have not, to date, set out specific allegations, pleading a lack of confidence in the university to properly inquire into them. The university, in response to the HEA, refuted the claims made by its employees. It stated that the allegations of bullying and victimisation were not substantiated, and that the employees had refused to co-operate with various inquiries and had been found by one inquiry to have made malicious claims. Both employees are now subject to disciplinary proceedings.
More recently, the former employee has contacted the HEA repeating her initial allegations. At her request, Mr. Boland met with her last evening.
The Department has concerns on a number of levels. First, in the case of the employees and the former employee, they continue to feel victimised for having, as they see it, challenged irregular practices. Second, as the university is an important institution regionally and nationally and the current controversies are potentially damaging to its good reputation, as the Deputies have said, they need to be dealt with comprehensively and conclusively as soon as possible. Third, the demands of public accountability are such that the truth of any allegation of misconduct in a higher education institution needs to be established beyond reasonable doubt. Having regard to these considerations, the HEA, in consultation with my Department and the university, will now put in place a process of review. The precise terms of reference will be established within the next few days. However, I stress that the review will be independent of the university's processes and will cover how the initial inquiry into the allegations of irregular payments and the allegations of victimisation and bullying were dealt with by the university. A final report will be concluded by the end of November. If that is not possible, an interim report will be provided.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. It is fair to say that we are moving in the right direction concerning this matter, and I want to acknowledge that. The Minister of State has indicated that he intends to establish a review. It is important that, in the first instance, this review should not rule out any wider investigation if it concludes that such is required and merited.
The imminent report, whether it is a full or interim one, should be referred to the Minister for Education and Skills, not to the Higher Education Authority or the Department. I await the terms of reference with interest, because they will have to be broad enough to include the whistleblowers to whom both Deputy O'Dea and I have spoken. Their allegations and stories are not in the public domain. They will also have to be afforded an opportunity to speak in confidence to the review panel. That is critical, because there are more people out there who are saying the same thing. They cannot all be wrong.
The Minister did not address the request made by Deputy O'Dea and myself about the High Court proceedings against the Limerick Leaderand against Mr. Alan English. That is a critical point, because taxpayers' money is being used to gag a provincial newspaper and a newspaper editor personally. Jobs could potentially be at stake. By the way, the University of Limerick has issued the proceedings. It is a corporate body, not an individual, acting against a newspaper. It is a big State-funded university against an organisation that is providing a lot of jobs, which is an important point. I ask the Minister of State and the senior Minister to call on the University of Limerick to withdraw their High Court proceedings.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I want to get clarification on one point. He states that there will be a review of the circumstances surrounding this specific case. However, a number of other people have come to public representatives such as myself and Deputy Niall Collins making similar complaints. Will the investigation be able to take evidence from those people, in view of the fact that they have already been forced by the university to sign confidentiality clauses concerning settlements that were made at the time of termination of their employment? It is critical that their story should also be heard so that the total context will be available to the independent investigator.
Second, will the Minister of State ask the Minister for Education and Skills to request, or tell, the University of Limerick to withdraw the legal proceedings against both the Limerick Leaderand the editor, Mr. Alan English? The proceedings are both inappropriate and excessive.
Third, can the Minister of State give us an assurance that the employment of the two employees in question in this particular case, who are currently suspended, will not be terminated before the conclusion of these proceedings?
The full terms of reference will be available in the next couple of days. I can have them sent on to the Deputies. I presume the terms of reference will be wide in order to cover all this. The Department, the HEA and all involved are anxious that this be dealt with fully and conclusively. There is no point in having a review that does not cover all the concerns and alleged wrongdoings, so those will be dealt with as well.
My understanding is that only one person signed a confidentiality clause and that person has come forward with more allegations, so I presume there will be space there to deal with them as well.
I was only aware of one. The Deputy will appreciate that I do not have all the information on the full case. I can check for him, however, and will get that confirmed. The hope is that this review will deal with all this one way or the other. That is why it will be dealt with quite quickly. As regards the Deputy's concern that the review may prevent a further investigation, I do not think it will. Naturally, however, we cannot prejudge what it will come out with, but I presume the review will make recommendations. It is the right process to deal with the matter first of all.
As regards the Deputy's other question, under the protected disclosures legislation of 2014, the HEA is the right channel to go through, in conjunction with the Minister, the Department and the university. I will confirm that for the Deputy.
On the question of the High Court proceedings, it is my own view that it is always best to avoid these where at all possible, but it is not in my gift to lecture anybody on what they should or should not do. However, I will certainly raise the matter, and express the Deputies' views, with both the Minister and the Department.
I have given my view on it. It is not in my gift to ask them or tell them to do that. It is my view, however, that it is best to avoid High Court proceedings where possible. We will see how this review comes on, but I will discuss it with the Department as well.