Business of Committee

We will deal with the minutes of our 24 September meeting first. There are no matters arising.

There are a number of items of correspondence from our last meeting that I would like to address separately, but today is not the day for that as we have a busy agenda. With agreement, we can consider them at a future date. Regarding our last meeting, we have asked for certain information from Waterford Institute of Technology and others. We will send a reminder. There may be a need to meet the Secretary General of the Department, Mr. Boland and WIT again. When the information is before members, they can decide.

To clarify a point about today's correspondence, we decided to ask whether the chairman of the Northern Irish finance committee or the committee itself wished to attend this session. The clerk of that committee and our clerk have been in contact and attendance has been arranged for today. The indications from Mr. Bryson are that he is available to give evidence, but that is a committee decision.

I suggest we hear the evidence today and then decide on the steps we wish to take.

Whose evidence?

The decision has not been made. We will make the decision. Today's meeting will be the statement from the chairman of the Northern Ireland finance committee to give us an overview of its hearings to date, after which we will hear directly from NAMA.

We will now deal with correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers. Correspondence dated 18 September 2015 has been received from Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General, Department of Health, regarding the south-east disability foster care review. This is to be noted and published. The issue of the remit of the review was raised by the committee, particularly by Deputy Deasy. We can take it up with the Accounting Officer at next week's meeting. Is that okay?

Yes, it is fine, thanks.

No. 3B is individual correspondence. Correspondence dated 14 September 2015 has been received from Mr. Joseph Hehir on the cost of prescribed drugs on State schemes, to be noted, published and forwarded to the HSE for a note on the matter. I asked the HSE to respond to it in time for our meeting on 22 October, given that controlling the spend on drugs is central to budgeting at the HSE.

Correspondence dated 16 September 2015 has been received from Deputy Shane Ross regarding a commercial water bill issued by Kildare County Council, to be noted, published and forwarded to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government for a note on it.

Correspondence has been received from Mr. Douglas Fannin regarding unfair treatment by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's special investigations unit. This is to be noted and forwarded to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We raised the Fannin case at our meeting with the Department on 18 June. The case raises serious concerns about how Mr. Fannin was prosecuted and we should receive a full transcript of the case and a copy of the report, which was prepared by the prosecuting counsel. It is becoming evident that there is a need for an independent judicial review of the case so all the evidence can be brought into the public domain. When we have received further information, we can review the case.

Last week, I raised the case of Mr. Tom Galvin and went through the process. A commitment was made at a committee meeting, which was followed through on, regarding the meeting, and the new steering group in the Department is examining it and reviewing the case. I have asked personally what the timeline is regarding any decision from the review. Again, I ask the committee to ask the Secretary General when we can expect a decision or some kind of result regarding the review of the new steering group.

I will undertake to do it.

It is ridiculous that the clerk cannot respond to it, although he has probably worked on it during the past week.

He has been working on it and we can take it that the Deputy's wishes will be followed through.

Regarding Mr. Douglas Fannin, am I to take it, based on what the Chairman read to the committee, that we are supporting, recommending or suggesting a judicial review or inquiry?

We must get the information before us. All the information we have to date is pointing in that direction.

We want to get further information to ensure we are on the right track and then make the recommendation clearly to the Department.

I am happy that we are registering our concern. Thank you.

Yes, and the sooner we make the decision, the better.

No. 3C is documents related to today's meeting. Nos. 3C.1 and 3C.3 are the opening statement and presentation for today's second session. All of these are to be noted and published.

Regarding No. 3C, the documents for today's meeting, at 9 p.m. last night, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, wrote to the committee and presented 41 documents running to hundreds of pages, which relate to the NAMA Northern Ireland advisory committee and the interaction between the Ministers here and in Northern Ireland dealing with the NAMA issues. The clerk to the committee received no advance notice that such information was being made available. The release of the information on the eve of the committee meeting with NAMA and, more important, with the chairman of a delegation from the Northern Ireland finance committee, is deeply frustrating and works against all principles of good accountability. I am sure the members would not have had the opportunity to review the documents, which is a pity, given that we are entering public session and the documents are laid before us. The documentation will be available on screen, should the members wish to refer to any of the documents during the course of their contributions.

The timing of the release of the documentation by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, and his Department is very telling. The experience to date has reflected the fact that the Minister has been markedly reluctant to give a full account and to answer questions on all the issues pertaining to NAMA and, more specifically, to the Northern loan book, Project Eagle. In order to be helpful, the documents would have had to have been published earlier this week. It might have proved helpful. They have been published, and I have had the opportunity only to scan them. This leads us to a position in which we must invite the Minister, Deputy Noonan, and his officials to come before the committee at the earliest opportunity so we can examine and question the contents of the documents they have put into the public domain.

Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Mr. Martin McGuinness, MLA, has been in contact with the clerk to the committee seeking the earliest opportunity to come and give evidence, which would be useful. After this meeting, we are to deal with the issue of Mr. Bryson, and we can deal with it then. We also need to consider hearing evidence from Mr. Sammy Wilson, former finance minister in the North, Mr. Simon Hamilton and the First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson, MLA. For the purposes of this jurisdiction, it is unthinkable, having released the documentation at the 11th hour, that the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, would not very promptly make himself available to the committee, along with his officials.

I agree with most of what Deputy McDonald said. It is shocking and extraordinary that the documents should be issued when it is almost impossible to digest them, and they are deliberately and nakedly politically divisive and provide a distraction to what is happening today. I can only conclude that it is deliberate on a day when we are doing important work and when we have invited the MLAs from Northern Ireland here. It contrasts very starkly with the extraordinary decision by NAMA, with the Minister's support, not to co-operate with the inquiry in Northern Ireland. There is a paradox and contradiction in what the Minister is doing by releasing the information at this time, just before this committee meeting, given that he could have released it any time since 2 September and he is not encouraging NAMA, a semi-State agency, to provide any evidence to help the inquiry in Northern Ireland. We should make this point clear to the Minister and NAMA.

Given that it came late last night, it is obviously too short notice for the members to deal with it adequately. We will have to address the situation again and the contents of the documents should be dealt with as comprehensively as possible. This would be an opportunity for the Minister to come before us, and the invitation should be extended to him. If there is material relevant to any other players, the invitation should be extended to them also. The documentation has been received too late to be relevant in a meaningful fashion to our discussions and we should agree to deal with it subsequently.

The meeting today was to deal with the hearing of evidence or rather, a statement from the Northern Ireland committee, to get an overview of its work to date and to get its input into our hearing with NAMA. That was very constructive and the right approach to take. What happened this morning in private session is that we were cautioned as to how we conduct our business. As I said then and repeat now, I believe that every member of this committee has acted responsibly, is aware of Standing Order 163 and understands full well the extent to which we can go with these inquiries. The caution that we received this morning might well have been given to others outside this committee because I consider that to be an effort to frustrate the committee. The releasing of documentation like this, before the hearing today, is nothing short of interference with the work of the committee. We now have those 41 documents as well as an e-mail which has been given to me by the clerk, which I will read:

I am writing on behalf of Martin McGuinness, MLA. Following disclosure from the Department of Finance of papers to the Public Accounts Committee, Martin McGuinness would like to appear before the PAC at the earliest opportunity. Please contact me by return e-mail to arrange same.

We are now faced with these papers being in the public domain and a number of individuals have now asked to come before us. We have been cautioned this morning about that and we need to make a decision on it. However, for today's meeting, we should proceed in the manner in which it was arranged, by having the statement and then by dealing with NAMA. Perhaps after that we can discuss all of what has happened, both overnight and this morning and decide what we are going to do.

Chairman, I apologise but I was outside when Mr. Hearne came in and cautioned the committee. I ask the Chairman to tell us the basis of that caution.

We were just reminded of our Standing Orders and reminded of what I read out before each and every meeting concerning how we take evidence, who we take evidence from and about not making findings, which we understand clearly. Mr. Hearne also mentioned the fact that any aspect of criminality is a matter for An Garda Síochána.

I do not think this committee needs a civil servant to come in here to tell us that. We knew that and I do not think this committee needs a civil servant sitting in the Gallery, watching what we are doing either. I do not understand why he is there or what he is doing there. If ever there was a waste of public money, it is having a civil servant sitting in the Gallery here, watching what we are actually doing. If that is meant to intimidate us, it does not do so. That, added to what the Chairman said already about the purported interference by the Minister for Finance and the fact that we got a letter last week, of which the public may not be aware, warning us that the clerk to this committee is not allowed to speak in public and is, in fact, being muzzled makes me very suspicious that the work of this committee is being frustrated and affected in a way that is detrimental to freedom of speech and transparency. The committee's work is being hindered by hidden hands outside this room.

In defence of the two civil servants, they are simply doing what they have been instructed to do and the Deputy needs to understand that.

Correct, and I have no personal problem with any member of the Civil Service but I do not see any reason that somebody should send in a civil servant to sit in the Gallery and see that we are doing what he or she wants us to do.

Given the work programme for today, we can deal with these matters later today or at another meeting. I would like to get to the agenda. Deputies Deasy and Perry have indicated that they would like to speak but I remind members that they should be brief so that we can get back to-----

We are not doing the talking. I am not sure how one can characterise the release of documents to the committee as an attempt to frustrate the committee. If people have an issue on the timing, that is fair enough. If these documents had arrived this evening, then the Chairman would have a legitimate issue. We should ask the Minister for Finance and the Department to explain their reasoning and to come before the committee. I cannot speak for them with regard to what their response might be but we should just get on with this hearing now. We are agonising over issues that have been talked to death, to be honest. We should just get on with our work.

I am amazed at how political this meeting has become this morning. The allegation that this committee is being muzzled is extraordinary given that the documents have been released. When one looks at the documentation, one can see that this meeting was not going to deal with all of the issues therein. I have scanned through the papers. We must be honest about the fact that politicians often get briefs with very little notice. It is not in any way unreasonable to expect, given the backup provided to all of the parties here, that we could scan the documentation enough to know what is contained therein. I totally resent the accusation of outside interference by the Minister. We do not want to pre-judge the outcome of the meeting with an inference that information has been provided in order to interfere with today's proceedings. That is far from the case. I was Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts for over two years and laid great emphasis on the importance of impartiality. We are here to investigate the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Obviously there are limitations on the role of the committee which have been in place since the foundation of the State. There is no point in pre-empting the debate that will take place. The fact that there are witnesses who are prepared to come from Northern Ireland is entirely at their discretion. Nobody who has been asked to come before the committee has declined to do so. We must look at this in the context of the matter before us. The allegations that are being made relate entirely to the Northern Ireland jurisdiction. We cannot be accountable for allegations related to another jurisdiction. We must be very careful in how we handle this.

I want to put on record that it is 10.37 a.m. now. We have been here since 10 a.m. but have not yet done any of the business that we are here to do. We had a private meeting beforehand which I fail to see the reason for if we are now discussing what was discussed in private. It is very unfair to point fingers at civil servants who are here and are only doing their job. That has happened before and I do not think it is fair that elected representatives would do that. I must say that I joined this committee last year thinking that it was a non-political committee that had a job of work to do. Today's meeting is very political and a lot of people here are playing to the press gallery. It is now 10.38 a.m. and we should start. That is all I have to say.

I think it is obvious that we will have to deal with the documentation later. Just to make it clear, there is no issue with the documentation being published. That is correct and proper. It is a matter of the timing and the motivation for the timing. I entirely agree with Deputy McFadden that it is not fair to point fingers at civil servants. I do not think that is what was intended but it is important to say that this looks and feels like a manoeuvre by the Minister, via his officials, in advance of the meeting. That is most unfortunate and it is important that when a manoeuvre such as that is pulled, those in question, in this case the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, have their cards marked and that it is acknowledged. It is important that he and his officials present themselves before the committee and we can investigate and consider those documents at that stage.

We will now move to No. 4.

(Interruptions).

Sorry, we have agreed to deal with those matters at a later date. On No. 4, I will ask Mr. McCarthy to comment on some of the exceptional items in the audit of the various agencies that is before us.

Chairman, before we get into the business, I would like to raise an important issue which relates to something the committee dealt with previously. At this very moment, 600 residents in Longboat Quay are threatened with evacuation.

It is something that we on this committee dealt with before. Some 12 months ago the matter came to our attention and it was mentioned at that time that there was a serious fire safety issue. The DDDA undertook to look into that matter and I understand it put in a sum in the region of €1 million towards remedying the situation. Other issues have developed since then that have shown this to be far more serious, with the results that the 600 plus residents in 300 apartments may have to be evacuated if the faults are not rectified. The initial work was carried out by the DDDA, which was the planning authority. The question now is who will take care of the €4 million that is required.

The Dublin Docklands Development Authority, DDDA, is about to become part of Dublin City Council. Quite clearly Dublin City Council is at risk from the charge.

The property belonged to Bernard McNamara who went into receivership. It is incredible that somebody can walk away. It would be similar to what happened in the case of Priory Hall. The person who is responsible for the damage caused is now one of the people who will probably not have to pay to have it rectified. I wonder if NAMA has a role, given that NAMA would have taken over those properties when Bernard McNamara went bust. I wonder whether it would be appropriate to ask NAMA some questions on this at a later stage. In the first instance I propose that we deal with NAMA in respect of it.

Second, the flaws have only appeared in this property which was built in 2006, some nine years ago. What about all the other properties built during the Celtic tiger years in the Docklands and elsewhere?

We will get a report from the clerk in respect of the Docklands in due course. Can the report be extended to include a survey of the various properties that were built during the Celtic tiger years when only cursory compliance was required? It was not until 2014 that strict regulations were put in place that require a quantity survey and an architect.

The DDDA report is at an advanced stage and we can include a commentary, as Deputy Costello suggested in that report as well as some recommendations in regard to the issues at Longboat Quay. Deputy Costello can certainly raise the issue with NAMA, as part of its accounts. We will come back to these issues under the DDDA report. Does Mr. McCarthy wish to comment on the audit?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

In respect of the accounts that are presented for the attention of the committee, Nos. 4.1. to 4.5 are the accounts for the semi-State sector. I am drawing attention to the ongoing Garda Síochána investigation into the theft of some valuable artefacts from the National Museum of Ireland and the steps being taken by the museum to prevent further thefts.

No. 4.6 is the finance accounts, the account of the Exchequer Central Fund and is one of the major accounts for the attention of the committee. In my report on the accounts of the public services for 2014, I have a chapter that is based on the finance accounts with additional material, drawing together information in relation to assets and liabilities of the Exchequer.

Nos. 4.7 to 4.47 are the Appropriation Accounts for all of the Votes that were presented on Tuesday. Again, they will form the basis of work for the committee for the forthcoming year. There is a clear audit opinion in respect of all of the Votes. What has been outlined in the schedule in front of the committee is the relationship between the Appropriation Accounts and the Chapters in the report on the accounts of public services. One of the recurrent items to which I am drawing attention is instances of material non-compliance with procurement rules. It is something to which attention has been drawn previously. I know it is a matter that continues to be of interest to the committee. I also draw attention to cases where there have been significant control failures that are explained in the statements of internal financial control at the front of each of the Appropriation Accounts. There is an item in Vote 20 - Garda Síochána in relation to a lapse in control in the oversight and authorisation of claims and staff absences in An Garda Síochána.

In No. 4.31, Vote 31, there is disclosure of irregularities in relation to the manner in which public funding was applied by three local development companies. The grant funding in respect of those was a charge on Vote 25. I think most of the remaining items relate to chapters, which I expect the committee will be dealing with in detail.

Finally, Vote 34 in relation to the National Gallery of Ireland is the final Appropriation Account for the National Gallery. It will continue with more comprehensive annual financial reporting in the future with its funding coming from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The Comptroller and Auditor General mentioned irregularities within local development companies in No. 4.31. Is the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General looking at this or is it being looked at in the Department? At what stage will we get more information? Do we know which development companies are involved?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Certainly they are known to the Department. It is a disclosure which relates to 6.8 in the Appropriation Account for the Department. It relates to three Leader groups and the local development companies they are funding.

Do we know the scale of the irregularities?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The amount that is disclosed in the note is €691,000. It is a matter that can be taken up with the Accounting Officer.

Is that the sum involved between the three of them.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Yes.

Who are the three companies?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I do not have that detail and it is not disclosed in the note, but I think the Deputy can raise it with the Accounting Officer.

We can raise that matter. We note the accounts

We will now proceed to Nos. 5 and 6, our work programme. We have agreed the Department of Health will be followed by the HSE. Next week we will deal with Vote 29 - Health, Chapter 13, Irish Blood Transfusion Pension Scheme and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, financial statements 2013.