The next item on the agenda is the minutes of the meeting of 26 April. Are they agreed to? Agreed. Having had a cursory look at them, I have one observation to make. We had much correspondence to deal with last week and met people about the Probation Service and the building. There were many unanswered questions and we had to issue requests for 27 items of information as a result. Rather than providing full answers, every one of the items of correspondence generated further questions. When officials from the Department of Justice and Equality were here, we had to seek further details on ten matters that were not available on the day. Getting a letter from a Department does not mean that we should accept it at face value, rather we should interrogate it. We will go back until we get the information we require.
Business of Committee
I do not know how the secretariat copes with all of the stuff with which it has to deal. It is doing a brilliant job. When we receive correspondence and there may be a need for follow-up correspondence, would it be practical to be given a reminder of the question, especially if the correspondence arrives on the day? I will try not to come back in, but I know that we had an issue with the Secretary General we were questioning. We dealt with it at a couple of meetings, dropped notes and all the rest, but was the record of the meeting, at which there was intense and robust questioning and so on, adjusted? Was there stuff taken out of the record online?
I do not know. I hope we will have a private session before we finish for the break.
If there was, I would have a problem with it.
Totally. I do not know. We will clarify this in private session.
I just want to tease out the topic. Because I am not familiar with the details, we will do it in private session. We will clarify this shortly. We will move on.
I do not know whether I can ask this question now or later. With regard to correspondence, at my first meeting at the Committee of Public Accounts, there were a number of issues about which we had asked the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the housing assistance payment properties and the inspection rates. I have not seen any correspondence come in yet. Perhaps this could be followed up.
It is guaranteed that we will follow that up if we have not had that. We will come back to the Deputy directly.
I shall now turn to matters arising from the minutes and further correspondence received. Next is No. 1251 from the Department of the Taoiseach, dated 26 April 2018, providing briefing for today’s meeting that was held earlier.
Nos. 1260 and 1264, from Ms Dee Forbes, director general, RTÉ, are dated 30 April 2018. We will note and publish that. The committee will meet representatives of RTÉ at 2.30 p.m. today.
No. 1262 is the opening statement for today's meeting from Martin Fraser, Secretary General, Department of the Taoiseach, dated 1 May 2018. This is noted and will be published.
The next correspondence is from Accounting Officers or Ministers and follow-up to Committee of Public Accounts meetings, as well as other items for publishing.
No. 1239 B was held over from the last meeting. It is from Mark Griffin, Secretary General, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, dated 19 April 2018 and is in response to further information requested by the committee regarding landfill sites, costs and a note on moneys recouped from privately run sites. This is noted. Deputies now have this information to use and deal with as they see fit.
No. 1250 from John McCarthy, Secretary General, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, is dated 26 April 2018. It provides a follow-up on public private partnerships, PPPs, and post-project reviews carried out by Irish Water. This is noted and will be published. We also will come back to the issue of PPPs. We will not get into a debate on this issue now. We have a lot of work to do and this will be part of our work when we come back to it.
I made a proposal that the committee would do a special report on PPPs. Has this proposal been accepted or is a decision still to be made on it?
It is my view that when they appeared before the committee previously, we had asked for the post-project reviews to be carried out, which were never done. A circular went out immediately, within days, to Departments to do that. Realistically it will take a number of months for them to do that. I said that the committee would hold over on our views on PPPs until we get these documents. Realistically, I believe this will be after the summer. I can see it as a significant item of work for the committee after the summer. We will not have any information with which to draw conclusions before the summer. Is this okay?
That is fine.
That will be on the work programme.
No. 1252 from Robert Watt, Secretary General, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated 26 April 2018 is a reply to information requested regarding the national lottery in respect of confidentiality clauses and unclaimed prizes. The company running the national lottery, Premier Lotteries Ireland, will not release the value of unclaimed prizes as they regard it commercially sensitive. This issue had been raised by Deputy Jonathan O'Brien.
I thank the Accounting Officer for the answer but it does not give me the answers to the questions. Perhaps the committee could write to the regulator. The two questions to which I am trying to find answers are whether the regulator is aware of the amount of unclaimed prizes and how does she ensure that they are redirected as per contract?
The Deputy's comments are totally valid and this reply stating the information is confidential is unsatisfactory. It is stated that unclaimed prizes go back into further marketing of the games.
I do not know how the regulator ensures that.
As a best option, the committee has to be satisfied that the regulator has examined it and checked it out and that she ensures-----
And is aware of the amount.
-----and can give the committee an assurance.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
There is an attachment to that letter. A copy of a letter-----
Is it a parliamentary question?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
I believe it says that the regulator asked the service provider and she was told that she could not have the information.
They are refusing to give the information to the regulator.
It is obviously the contract. Do we know if the contract has anything in it that requires-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
No. This is the point. The regulator is not in a position to get the information. She cannot insist on it.
That is deeply worrying.
We are not finished with this topic. With regard to unclaimed prizes, the contract was signed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. They are the people who gave this contract. I believe then Minister, Deputy Howlin was heavily involved in that legislation in the last Dáil. Regulation is in place since. During the debate on that legislation all of these questions were addressed. The committee will request the secretariat to check the debate on this exact issue and see what assurance the Oireachtas was given on this aspect during the passage of the legislation. The committee will also ask the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to discuss the actual contract it ultimately signed.
Can the committee write a letter stating that we are not happy there is no oversight or scrutiny? It is not good enough for them to say no.
We have done that and we have had a reply saying that the contract is commercially sensitive.
We still should say that someone has to respond.
We will make the point that as Premier Lotteries Ireland has the monopoly, is the only operator and has the contract for at least 20 years, releasing information does not compromise its position because there is no-one else in competition with it. We will follow it up.
I note that we will also write to the Minister to make the point. The difficulty is the clause in the licence. The Chairman is right that these issues were flagged well in advance of any licence agreement being put in place. We will do a periodic report. This is one issue that should be flagged as a potential flaw in the agreement made. I do not know how long the licence runs for but when a new licence is being put in place a recommendation could be made on this issue.
It is a 20-year contract.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Unfortunately we are not long into a 20-year licence and there is nothing we can do.
The bottom line is that the committee will ask that a research officer would check through the debates on this topic. I would be shocked if it was not discussed during the passage of the legislation. I was involved during that and I am sure it was discussed. We will also take it up with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We will ask how the assurances given in the Dáil translated to the actual licence signed by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Was there any kind of assessment? There would have been a prior history of the amounts of unclaimed prizes.
Yes, that would all figure.
Did the Department conduct an assessment of that particular component when the contract was being framed? There is only so much money that can be put into advertising these games.
We could also ask whether or not clause 20.6.1 intended that this information would remain confidential.
There will be another way of getting the information. The legislation specifies the amount of the gross proceeds to be paid out in prizes. If that percentage is met, it is as far as we could possibly go. If what is being specified in the legislation is being met, there is a little bit of ground for us to cover yet in that regard.
I have a difficulty with it. When reading the reply to the parliamentary question I am not clear whether the regulator even knows the amount of funds.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
My reading is that she probably does. I just wanted to correct my interpretation there. The regulator said that the information is the licensee's confidential information and therefore, under clause 20.6.1 cannot be disclosed by the regulator. The regulator would have to have it in order to be in a situation to disclose it. Obviously the regulator cannot disclose what she does not know. The regulator requested permission from Premier Lotteries Ireland to disclose it and it was not available, but the regulator knows the information.
There are a couple of points; the regulator has the information-----
The regulator is prevented by law from giving that.
Yes but she might be able to give us some assurances. The questions are valid and the committee will write and follow up the transcript of the legislation around the issue of unclaimed prizes, and we will see how it translated into the contract.
Does unclaimed money go-----
It goes back into promotion. The contract says that it goes back into promoting new games and it "may" go into topping up prizes, not "shall" go into topping up prizes.
May it go into the back pocket of the company?
No, I specifically stated it can only go into the promotion of games and it may go into top-up prizes. The unclaimed prizes can be spent on marketing but it cannot be taken out in a dividend.
What about the oversight of that?
The reality is that if a good few euro were not claimed this year, it would mean it would need less of an operational budget for marketing next year. In effect, it is going into the back pocket.
We have a little road to travel on this one and we are not finished with the topic yet. The Comptroller and Auditor General audits the regulator's accounts. Does Mr. McCarthy know whether the accounts of the lottery operator are published in Ireland?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
I do not know offhand.
We will check that out.
Correspondence No. 1253, from Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, provides an information note on the models used to protect capital investment by the State in privately or charitably owned institutions. We requested this information following correspondence on Clonkeen College's school playing fields. I propose we note and forward a copy to the individual who raised the matter with the committee. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Correspondence No. 1254, from John McDaid, the chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, provides a response on the procurement of goods and services by the Legal Aid Board outside of a competitive process. He gives a detailed explanation on each item and the effort being made to improve the situation. We will note and publish it and people can take it into account.
Correspondence No. 1258, from Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, is a note on the progress of the Haulbowline remediation project in Cork. People can note that and we will publish it.
Correspondence No. 1259, from Derek Moran, Secretary General of the Department of Finance, provides a note on a sunset clause for the duration of the carry forward of losses relief, including international examples. We will note this and consider it as part of our corporation tax report, on which we might have a very quick discussion shortly. We will note this and publish it.
Correspondence No. 1263, from Professor Patrick O'Shea, president of University College Cork, provides an unabridged version of Cork University Foundation's financial statements for 2016. We note and publish them. There we go. Last week we were presented with an abridged version and we said it was not good enough and that we wanted the full version.. If one does not ask one does not get. Heretofore it was not made public, but because we asked we have it now and it is good to have it for the public record.
Correspondence No. 1267, from the Comptroller and Auditor General, Seamus McCarthy, dated 1 May 2018, provides a draft note on the submission of the 2017 financial statements of public bodies to his office. We will discuss this now as part of the work programme. The key item the Committee of Public Accounts must ensure is that proper systems are in place in all of the organisations subject to public audit and that proper corporate governance arrangements are in place for all these organisations. The board of directors, or whoever the most senior people are, have a duty to ensure that proper procedures and systems are in place to account for public money. One of the first basic elements of accounting for public money is to provide accounts that can be audited and discussed in public at this committee. The Comptroller and Auditor General has done various reports on a number of organisations that were slow in producing their annual accounts. Unless we receive financial statements from these organisations we are not even in a position to discuss what is going on in them. Last December, at the request of the committee, I issued a letter to the approximately 250 organisations audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General stating we wanted them to comply with their statutory requirement to have their accounts with the Comptroller and Auditor General by the end of March. The Comptroller and Auditor General has given us a list, which I will summarise but I will not read it all out. We have been dealing with this every week for the past couple of weeks. Out of the almost 300 accounts audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, only 37 accounts have not been received by his office.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
They had not been received by 30 April.
This means 87% of public bodies have submitted their accounts, which is a major improvement on last year, as a result of us highlighting that issue. Only 13% have not done so. The sector of public bodies in Ireland that was most in arrears last year and all previous years was the education sector and the education and training boards. Last year, only one submitted its accounts on time. This year every single one of them had its accounts in on time. This is as a result of our public hearings with the education and training boards. There has been a dramatic improvement in the third level education sector.
To emphasise the point, we stated that when we came to this point, we would write to each one of the 37 bodies asking for an immediate explanation as to why their accounts have not been submitted for audit. We also stated we would bring in a number of the organisations, be it the chairman of the board or the chief executive, for a brief meeting to explain why they are not meeting their statutory obligations. There is a list in front of members and to speed it up, I suggest we invite in five or six. We will have a separate-----
How many years behind are the 37 bodies? Are we speaking about one year?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
It is the financial statements for 2017, which should be submitted to me so I can start the audit.
Did they comply in 2015 and 2016?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Yes. All of them are in for all previous years. The list shows the ones we are awaiting and there are 37 in total.
I have a question about previous years.
I will finish a point and Deputy Catherine Murphy can come in then. Last year there were organisations that did not have their accounts in for the previous year. Not only are they now up to date but the 2017 accounts are also up to date. I can think of some off the top of my head that were a couple of years behind and they have made major progress.
I specifically want to ask about the Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board because it did not come before the committee. Are its accounts in for this year?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
The problems with the previous years-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
We still have to complete the-----
They are still outstanding.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Yes, they are. We still have to complete 2015 and 2016 and now we have 2017.
The audit has not been completed on those.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Even though the accounts are in.
I want to telescope this for a minute and I will call in members then. We will have one special meeting on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening later on in the month because we will have to give these organisations a bit of notice that they have been invited in. There will be very short sessions of 20 minutes for each of them, and we can do five or six organisations in one session. It will make a very prominent public point to all of these organisations. The Accounting Officers for the Local Government Fund and the National Training Fund must come in. The Local Government Fund had €1.8 billion in the account the previous year. The Accounting Officer is the Secretary General personally responsible for it.
I have a question on this, because we heard about it last week. Some of it is transferred from Revenue.
That is the local property tax element. Will that be captured?
This will only capture 2017 and we will ask that question on the day.
Just to make sure-----
There will be changes in the structure of that account for 2018 onwards. We will be dealing with 2017. The National Training Fund is collected from employers by the Department of Education and Skills. There should not be a delay there. I propose we invite it to come before the committee.
I propose to turn over the page with the list on it, because we have to be very selective. I suggest we pass on the third level institutions because we had quite a grilling with them last year. Dundalk Institute of Technology is the biggest institution that has not come before us yet. It came before us last year, when it was in the position of not being able to appoint a chief executive. It knows precisely the issue it had and it also had bigger issues. Rather than bringing it back a second time, I suggest we pass on it. We will write to them all.
The issue of the patients' private property accounts is an obvious one on which to invite in the Accounting Officer. Perhaps Mr. McCarthy will give some information on this. There may be a reason that its accounts are not in yet, as there are two sets of audits.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
There is a complex process. Obviously the accounts are decentralised. There are many care homes where patients' private property is held. A firm of accountants is used to carry out work on a cyclical basis in the care homes, and it is involved in the preparation of the accounts. It is a complex process. It is something the committee has examined in the past 12 months anyway.
It takes longer to get them into shape.
They really have to get an accounting certificate before it goes to the Comptroller and Auditor General. They might at that stage. I suggest we invite the Abbey Theatre. It does not have its accounts in and its turnover in the previous year was €12.5 million. I refer also to the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. It has €12 million. Does anyone want to add or object to that list? We have the Local Government Fund, the National Training Fund, the Abbey Theatre and the ESRI. The ESRI is meant to be the expert. That is four so far. Are we happy to go with them? I think we will make our point, with just one evening session for those four. Is it agreed to issue letters to them?
Can we just-----
We are inviting the Secretaries General for the Local Government Fund and the National Training Fund, the chief executive and chairman of the board of the Abbey Theatre and whoever is the Accounting Officer for the ESRI. I do not know if it has a board or what its corporate structure is.
We will not have terms on which to question them because they will not have had their accounts in.
We can only ask them why they do not have them in.
We are bringing them in to highlight the fact that they have not complied with their statutory duty. They might have them in by then.
They might bring them with them on the day.
I think we will make a point with those four bodies. All of the others will receive a stern letter from me as Chairman saying the deadline has been missed and they should get them in immediately. We will ask for a detailed reply.
We might review the position when the correspondence comes in.
We will. We will have the replies from the other 30 plus bodies.
How helpful has this been to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General? Is he saying that if he does not get them in, he cannot prepare the audit for this year?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
That is correct. I cannot even start the audit. There has been a significant improvement across the system because of the interest of the committee.
That is my point.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
The issue of timeliness has been taken seriously. We have produced and published two reports. We have a third one ready for 2016. That is the spectrum from receipt of accounts to their submission to the library here. It has been a lot of work. It is like turning a big ship or perhaps a flotilla of small ships. Together we have achieved something.
It is working.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
It is making the work of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General easier?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Yes, it is.
They are all coming in quicker.
We might need to get the Comptroller and Auditor General more staff.
To put the matter in perspective, it is the 2017 report that is missing?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Is this the first time some of the reports have been late?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
I think a number are-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Yes. Part of it could be that I am not in a position to deploy audit teams immediately. In the case of some of the smaller ones in particular, it would be May and June before I could get an audit team into them. We focus on the bigger and higher value accounts. The accounts of the Department of Finance, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners-----
Bhí mé ag breathnú go háirithe ar on gCoimisinéir Teanga agus cuireann sé iontas orm nach bhfuil na cuntais isteach.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
De ghnáth bíonn cuntais i mí na Bealtaine. Tá mé ag súil go dtiocfaidh siad go tapaidh.
Go raibh maith agat.
Will the Deputy advise me whether the letter should written as Béarla or as Gaeilge?
I will have to get the Deputy's assistance. Somebody will have to give me some assistance in writing it as Gaeilge. We are inviting the four bodies mentioned and it will be just one special meeting to make a good point.
Item No. 1255 is from Mr. Niall Cody, chairman of the board of the Revenue Commissioners, providing a response to matters related to the racing industry raised by an individual. I propose that we forward a copy of the correspondence to the individual who raised the matter. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Item No. 1256 is from Deputy David Cullinane, dated 26 April 2018, about CervicalCheck. We were to deal with this item last week and are formally noting it now. Item No. 1257 is also from Deputy David Cullinane about the same issue. We have also received item No. 1259, dated 2 May 2018, from Deputy Marc MacSharry about CervicalCheck.
It is very difficult for this committee to talk about any of these issues. Our job is to examine systems, practices and procedures and costs to the State. I am conscious that the most important issue is the cost to the women involved, of which we are all aware and conscious. We have a specific role in that regard. It might seem cold to people listening, but we can and have to examine where there might have been systems failures, process failures and procedural failures and how they could have cost the State money. The first obvious one is that the system was outsourced, it seems against advice. That outsourcing could potentially have cost the State money. If there is a redress scheme, I imagine there will be a cost to the State. A circular was issued to general practitioners, GPs. We do not know who made the decision to issue it. That seems to have been a failure that could cost the State money. To say the very least, there were certainly breakdowns in communication. There are allegations of a cover-up made by the solicitor of the lady who took the court case. If that is the case and it costs the State money, it is obviously a difficulty. Then there is the role of the State Claims Agency. One of the issues at the heart of it is, unfortunately, that the woman concerned was dragged through the courts. She had to fight every step of the way to get information that should have been made available to her.
We are back to the point made in the earlier discussion with Mr. Martin Fraser. The system seems to be at sixes and sevens in even being able to give us any information. Either intentionally or unintentionally, deliberately or not, with the public, we are not in a position to get answers to questions. The matter has been debated in the Dáil and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health will examine it. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach will also look at it. We have a very specific remit which we need to use because people need to be held to account. There may be scoping reviews and, at some point, other investigations and examinations, but we have a particular role to play. The starting point should be where process failures cost the State money. I refer to the State Claims Agency and its role in fighting the case at greater cost to the State. That is also an issue for us. That is my recommendation to the Chairman. I emphasise as strongly as I can that while I am talking about a cost to the State, I am deeply conscious of the cost to the women involved which is the most important overriding issue. However, our remit is financial. That is why I am emphasising that aspect.
Deputy Marc MacSharry also has a letter. We will come to everybody who has indicated.
I see my own email included in the correspondence listed. I agree fully with Deputy David Cullinane. This committee purely discusses value for money related issues. Similar to Deputy David Cullinane, when the decision was made, if it was based on there being sufficient capacity, was there an examination of the scaling up of resources in the area of pathology, as opposed to having tests carried out abroad? Could that have been done in parallel in order that we could have saved money? We could be gearing up for other clinical programmes where there is already a lot of testing for various illnesses and there are plans for more. Was that done and, if so, what did it show? Was there a robust public procurement process to select the laboratories to be used? What assurances about the level of competence were given in selecting the laboratories? Did they form part of the procurement process criteria? What is the nature and terms of the contracts in place?
There has already been a cost to the State in legal fees, communications fees and other fees. We are only at the beginning of the crisis. Clearly, there are going to be substantially more costs. Within the contract, is the State eligible for compensation, as well as the individuals affected? I refer to the cost and fallout of the problem. The State will have to divvy up a huge amount of money, not just for redress but also for costs because this happened. Do we have any comeback against the laboratories if, in fact, they are responsible?
I heard some criticism in the media today that the body politic is, with manufactured anger, jumping up and down to try to deal with this process. However, if any of us can contribute in some small way to the very important need to restore confidence in testing and so on, we need to do so as quickly as possible. Quite separate from scoping, commissions of investigation and whatever else is happening, we should do so pretty quickly because once this process starts, whatever form it may take, the shutters will come down and there will be no information at all for the public. We have a small role on the value-for-money side that we could usefully fulfil, as Deputy Cullinane has said. Other committees will focus on other aspects according to their responsibilities, but we should fulfil our role.
I call Deputies Catherine Connolly, Catherine Murphy, Alan Farrell and Bobby Aylward.
I think Deputy Murphy was before me, in fairness-----
Sorry. I might be confused with all the hands going up.
We discussed this matter last week in the context of the HSE and open disclosure and we decided we would have both the HSE and the State Claims Agency before the committee to try to make some sense of why we are not seeing open disclosure to the extent that we would expect to see it. I think every one of us will reiterate the point that there is not only a human cost to this, but also a loss of confidence on the part of people who are not directly impacted. There could end up being a healthcare cost due to people avoiding screening, which in turn could result in another cost. If one is talking about saving money, sometimes cutting corners, as opposed to investment, is not the way to do it. It is valid to consider the aspect of outsourcing from an economic perspective because it feeds into the human cost dimension of it.
We received a paper last February from the HSE on open disclosure. There is a contingent liability. That was not in that paper, but there is a contingent liability of-----
There is a contingent liability of €2.6 billion. This came to the committee from the State Claims Agency on 31 January.
Then we got the document from the HSE, which told us the current position and how this flowed out of a study that was done on patient care and safety. That document told us that 20,000 of the HSE's staff were trained in this. The Health Service Executive has about 130,000 staff, and it is not that every one of them would need to be trained in this. Is that the extent of the training? There are things like that that jumped out, the fact that some of these things were established as pilots. We need to understand how the process was then rolled out, and we need to understand the interaction with the State Claims Agency, which appears to be taking a different approach, judging by the apologies that are made outside the courts on a routine basis. I still think, regarding the interaction between these two bodies, if they are not acting in symmetry in respect of the open disclosure approach, we do not have an open disclosure approach but an adversarial approach. We need to square that circle or see where that conflict is happening because it is very obvious that it is playing out in public.
The other point we were talking about is how we reduce the legal costs in respect of settlements and stop putting people through the torment of court. We absolutely need a State Claims Agency, and there will be claims that are put in that need to be challenged, but I think there is a conflict there and that is the substance of the piece of work we should do. I think the other aspects will fall within that.
I call Deputy Farrell.
I thought Deputy Connolly was next.
Sorry. I am confused.
Like Deputy Cullinane, who highlighted this at the outset, I am acutely aware of the sensitivities of this matter in what is primarily a crisis of confidence in the entirety of this scheme and the implications that this has. In our role as members of the Committee of Public Accounts, sometimes we have to look at the bare figures as opposed to the overarching issues, which fall within the remit of other committees. Our role in taxpayers' money is very clear to all. The matter at hand goes back to a policy decision that, I understand, emanated from 2008. It was interesting that a current Member of the House spoke at length, and it was up on social media the other day-----
No, it was not my dear constituency colleague; it was the Labour Deputy from Limerick. Her name escapes me.
Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.
I thank the Chairman. Deputy O'Sullivan made some remarks in 2008 during the debate on this matter. I went back to the transcript to see what others had said and it was interesting that one Member, who was not known to me, said this was a decision that was penny wise and pound foolish and shortsighted. I suppose we are now seeing the appropriateness of that remark - during a Second Stage debate I think - in terms of the prospective cost to the taxpayer. As members of this committee, it should be important for us to note that the precise nature of the settlement of the case in respect of the extraordinarily brave Vicky Phelan was met by the US lab and not the taxpayer. That is the first thing and it is an interesting point for us to note in the context of the discussion on a redress scheme being established. Deputy Cullinane hit the nail on the head when he asked whether the laboratory will meet the cost. Is there redress for the State? These things will have to be discussed in the context of the HSE or the unit appearing before this committee. As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts, I am acutely aware that if wrong has been done - clearly it has - the committee, I am sure, does not wish to interfere in the establishment of facts, which is not for this committee, respectfully. To Deputies Cullinane and MacSharry I say I am all for the HSE coming before the committee and answering questions on this subject matter, but at the same time we have to give, as I think the Taoiseach said, space and time in order that we can actually make the decision. That decision will be made by Members of the Dáil in consultation with the leaders and spokespersons and that is the most appropriate thing. With that small caveat, I entirely support the call by Deputy Cullinane.
Finally, I think there are some questions that are perhaps not appropriate for this committee but I will put them out there anyway. The overall cost to the taxpayer versus the provision of the service in this State was the point I read from the 2008 debate that I found most interesting. It was a very common theme across most Members of the House, other than the Government, of course, but that is unsurprising. The point was whether we had the capacity to provide this service within the State in an efficient manner. As someone who looked at the options that are available to the women of this country in terms of the results of the smear tests, it is quicker to send them away. There is a question there as to whether it might take longer but cost less and whether it is something that is extraordinarily time-sensitive in the context of this screening process taking place. These are questions that we have to ask about the remit of this committee and whether it might not be more appropriate for us to at least have a State agency, a State-owned agency or a firm operating in this State to be able to come before us in the future, for instance, if we were to vary the policy as a result of the controversy surrounding this particular matter.
I support Deputies Cullinane and MacSharry. Deputy MacSharry has set out his serious concerns in his email. I will not repeat them but they are clearly set out. There are issues that must be looked at. We should consider bringing the State Claims Agency in before the committee. It comes under the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, which has also come before us. That is one avenue we could immediately look at to get clarification generally.
With regard to being penny wise and pound foolish, I sat on a health forum for ten years. I was there when the decision was made to privatise the service. I come from a city that had a first-class laboratory, which was used to roll out the first phase of the cervical smear tests because the laboratory was so good and it had such capacity. The problem arose for two reasons. First, the capacity of the public system was deliberately run down and the expertise was lost and second, a policy decision was made through a Progressive Democrats philosophy that outsourcing was good, cheaper, quicker and better. I must clarify this because it is about more than being penny wise and pound foolish. At the time we knew it was not. This was not me; it was the experts who were busily engaging with us in 2008. We clearly put this on the record, not because I was saying it or because I was on the left of the political spectrum, but because the experts were telling us that the decision was dangerous, wrong and would come back to haunt us. It is a fact that these opinions were absolutely ignored. Since then I have had details as to the expertise of the service. Even I was not aware of how expert it was and that it was chosen as a pilot project.
On the role of this committee, I do not know how we are to tease this issue out. Perhaps the Comptroller and Auditor General might help us. In value for money terms, nothing was presented to us to show that the service was more efficient or faster. No evidence of the sort was presented to us at the time. I would like to see the documents for the business case for changing the service providers. As with the business case for the strategic communications unit, what underpinned this outsourcing other than a philosophy that privatisation was best? There is scope for us to look seriously at the State Claims Agency or the NTMA, or whichever is the appropriate body, to come in to the committee. It is unacceptable that practical aspects were not answered two days ago in the Dáil. It now transpires there were 21 cases. Ten are active cases, six have initiated proceedings, four have written letters and there is one other case. The case numbers are rising on a daily basis. None of that practical information was available in the Dáil. I just wanted to put this into context.
I welcome any investigation that could shine light on this issue. There are women in Ireland who are physically and mentally under pressure because of what has happened during the last ten years.
How far can this committee probe and investigate? HIQA is currently conducting an inquiry and there will also be a public inquiry. Will the information be sub judice? If Members of the Oireachtas ask questions about the issues while an investigation is ongoing - whatever sort of investigation is set up by the all-party group of Opposition spokespeople - how far can we probe? I understand when a similar situation arose in 2008 there was no screening for cervical cancer until then. The then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, brought it in during 2008. I understand that there were many laboratories in Ireland at the time that did not have the international accreditation to be able to carry out the tests, that they did not have the capacity to do them in Ireland and this is why the service was outsourced. That could be right, that could be wrong, I do not know. I am told the laboratories did not hold the international accreditation to carry out the tests and that this was part of the criteria for doing the tests.
How far can an Oireachtas committee go with regard to investigating this and will our hands be tied? Will we cross over into a danger area if an inquiry is ongoing when set up by the Dáil? Any light that can be shone on the issue or any relief that can be given to the ladies of this country will help. I wonder about how far we can go or whether we will have to get legal advice. Will our hands be tied on what we can ask and what we cannot ask? Will there be certain aspects we can visit or not? I would like to know how far we can go.
We can only tie our own hands. We have a very clear remit and we should do stay within that but I completely agree with Teachta Farrell that we should not trespass on the work of any other committee's remit. With regard to the sectoral committees, the Minister for Health is responsible to the Joint Committee on Health and the Accounting Officer is responsible to the Committee of Public Accounts. On the costs to the State, Vicky Phelan's settlement cost was incurred by the service provider in the United States of America. If a redress scheme is set up, I cannot see how a redress scheme set up by the State or by a Minister can force a private company to do anything. It would be a civil matter between the private company and the individual. I imagine that a redress scheme would look at the State's failure and the HSE's failure and how it impacted on women. That will be a cost to the State. Redress costs will not be borne by any private company. There will be parallel processes with private civil court cases between the company and individuals, and the redress process looking at where the State messed up or, what the Taoiseach described as a cock-up. That will be a cost to the State.
It might have been a case that my mind was moving faster than my lips. By suggesting the taxpayer, I was inferring that if the fault is not with the State and the majority fault is primarily with the laboratory, the redress scheme would have to be funded via a settlement via the State taking a case against the laboratory. I should have made myself clearer. I must point out that I would not wish to block any proposal for a redress scheme. As members of the Committee of Public Accounts, however, we should be acutely aware that if taxpayers' money is to be used the committee and the Houses should look directly at how the redress scheme is to be funded.
Was the document from the State Claims Agency published?
I am coming to that now.
I join with members in expressing deep concern and sympathy to all the ladies involved in this situation. The picture is unfolding every day and we do not know what is going to happen next week. I met some ladies last night and they have told me that last weekend they were afraid of every unrecognised number that rang on their phones in case it was a doctor or consultant ringing them with bad news. They were in fear of phone calls coming from strange numbers last weekend. That is understandable. We are only starting down a very long road.
We need to focus on what we can do in the meantime. It was agreed by the Oireachtas, by the Government, by Opposition parties and spokespeople and leaders that decisions on scoping exercises or commissions of investigation will happen though the Chamber and not through the Committee of Public Accounts. We cannot do anything to conflict with that. Issues of redress are interesting but that is way down the road and above our paygrade. That will be decided at Government level. It is no harm to flag it but that is a little bit down the road.
Since last week's committee meeting, we have written to the HSE to ask what lessons have been learnt from this case, and noted that the discretion extended to informing patients versus the patients' right to know. We also asked for a copy of the circular that was sent to clinicians regarding the use of the judgment, and we asked for details of procedures to deal with errors in the system when they occur. That letter was also sent to the Department of Health and to CervicalCheck.
We have discussed clinical negligence before. The Committee of Public Accounts received a letter on 31 January from the State Claims Agency on the broader issue, not on this particular case. The letter was from Ciarán Breen, the director of the State Claims Agency. If people would like to follow up on the correspondence it is reference No. PAC 32-1-708. It was interesting because we had asked the State Claims Agency about the management of claims. In that document, the agency told us that it had €2.66 billion worth of claims on its books at that stage. The vast majority of those claims related to clinical negligence.
The letter continued to give a breakdown of the payments in 2017. In line with other years, approximately one third of the total payments were legal costs. It is interesting that the letter from the State Claims Agency, which I have re-read in recent days and will republish it or let people know that it is on the system says: "injury as a result of a clinical negligence event must be compensated appropriately and as quickly as the circumstances of their cases permit." The agency states that "it has a duty to act fairly, ethically and with compassion in all its dealings." The agency also states that some cases are very traumatic and that it wants to avoid people being cross-examined in court. The letter continued:
So why does it happen? Sometimes, it happens because the case is so complex that liability or causation have been difficult to determine or are in dispute. But it mostly happens in cases where settlement demands made by plaintiffs' lawyers are significantly overstated.
It goes on to repeat that point heavily in the following page.gives one example of a lawyer who sought too much money. The State Claims Agency has bluntly told us that the reason many of these cases go to court is due to greedy lawyers and not the people concerned. The agency has stated here, in public evidence, that there have been several cases where the injured party was happy with the settlement but the solicitor or legal team representing the legal party was unhappy so they went to court on those issues. We are very far removed from dealing with the person who is the victim or the person who has suffered in these cases.
I would like to know how many plaintiffs did not settle because of the obligation to have a confidentiality clause.
It would be interesting to get such information.
We will specifically add that question. The letter continued to quote chapter and verse about open disclosure, which was launched in 2008. On 8 February, this committee received a letter, reference No. PAC 32-1-707, which was about open disclosure, plus a 96-page document on open disclosure, pilot schemes, a review of pilot schemes and training. It is not happening yet, ten years on. We have the 96-page document on our desk and we have been dealing with this topic. We will contact the State Claims Agency again and specifically ask about the confidentiality clause. I do not think the State can spend taxpayers' moneys on preventing people from disclosing settlements and it would never want to take somebody to court for disclosing what was done and spend money on preventing that information from coming out. That has been part of the problem.
For the information of the Chairman, I have just learned that the State Claims Agency will be before the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach next Tuesday.
I was unaware of that. A date has been set.
I wish to advise Deputy Cullinane that I have just been informed that this morning the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach has invited the State Claims Agency to appear before it next Tuesday.
We have a job of work to do anyway, which we decided.
Yes, a meeting is on our work programme in any event.
It is wider than the cervical screening issue, which is evolving. Therefore, it should be on our work programme, and it should be around open disclosure, system failures and whether we are getting value for money when so much money is being spent on legal fees, which may be the difference in being able to provide services.
Yes. I call Deputy Cullinane.
We should have a two-pronged approach. I recommend that we do it next Thursday if we can, not with standing whatever else we have to do, because of the importance of this matter.
Second, irrespective of what the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach does - good luck to it, it has its role - we have a wider remit and we should invite in the State Claims Agency based on that, and based on the circular we got and the information we got which raise questions.
When one reads the circular and juxtaposes it with how Vicky Phelan has been treated-----
-----it does not sit well with me. We need to notify the State Claims Agency that we want meet with it. Second is the obvious failures in the systems, practices and procedures that date right back to the outsourcing.
That is a matter for the HSE and all of the officials who have knowledge of and responsibility for that. There are many issues and we should arrange a meeting with the State Claims Agency Many and the HSE, either a morning or an afternoon session. I want both of the entities to attend, in terms of our remit.
Other committees will do other work.
Other committees will do their work.
The Joint Committee on Health will also work on the issue.
The Dáil will do its work.
Other committee will work on the issue.
There will be statements, parliamentary questions and topical issues. The Committee of Public Accounts has its remit and if we stick with that then we will be doing our job.
We had already pre-scheduled the State Claims Agency to come in with the HSE.
Has the State Claims Agency been invited to attend?
The agency has been on our work programme from weeks ago. They were not scheduled to come in until July because the agency's annual accounts for 2017 will not be ready until June. We had already planned to bring them here in July to discuss the sum of €2.6 billion for starters, among other things. How do Deputies wish to proceed?
I have a proposal that we meet next Thursday with the HSE, the officials who have responsibility for CervicalCheck and the State Claims Agency.
Yes. Yesterday, I tried to find out the budget for CervicalCheck. The national screening programme covers CervicalCheck, BreastCheck and BowelScreen programmes and I think the figure is about €60 million. I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to help me because I could not find the figure anywhere.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
There is a difficulty in identifying the precise spend on the screening services. The Chairman is correct. The figure from a budgetary perspective is of the order of €60 million. From information that we have been able to glean fairly quickly from a variety of cost headings, it seems cervical screening is of the order of €32 million in 2017 but one will not see a specific figure or subhead. Is there anything else?
We want to invite the HSE and State Claims Agency to a joint meeting to discuss these issues. We will try to aim for next Thursday, probably in the afternoon. Who are we meeting in the morning?
Clerk to the Committee
We have the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform all day.
We will try to slot in a meeting as quickly as possible. We will liaise with the secretariat this afternoon to get a date.
Will the agency and the HSE be brought in together or will one be brought in for a morning session and the other for an evening session?
In terms of the State Claims Agency, the vast majority of the work relates to clinical negligence cases of which CervicalCheck is a component.
What is on our programme for next week?
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.
Can we defer our meeting with the Department?
Plus procurement in the afternoon. I will ask the secretariat to work it this evening and by tomorrow morning we will know whether we are-----
The secretariat can take guidance from us.
This is our committee.
As worthy as those issues are, they are not life and death matters.
Do members want next Thursday's matters set aside, if needs be?
Yes. We must prioritise these issues.
Yes. We can come back to the other matters in a separate meeting, if that is the way things work out. I ask the secretariat to inform us of any developments tomorrow.
Have we not agreed to write to the agency and HSE inviting them to attend next Thursday?
The Clerk to the Committee will check their availability directly. Then we will issue a letter of invitation and ask the State Claims Agency in terms of all of its clinical negligence cases. It is a follow up to the correspondence that both entities issued to us. I refer to the correspondence dated 31 January 2018 from the State Claims Agency and the letter about open disclosure, policy and the document the HSE sent to us on 8 February 2018. We do not believe these policies have been implemented. The meeting is a straight follow through of our ongoing work.
The next item of correspondence is No. 1261 from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills. It relates to health and safety concerns forwarded by the committee about a building project at St. Conleth's Community College, Newbridge, County Kildare. Mr. Ó Foghlú said that all of the concerns had been addressed by the contractor and that the building will be completed by September. Can we note and publish that? Agreed.
The next item is statements and accounts received since our last meeting. Members should be able to see the information on the screens in front of them. There are only a few items. Trinity College Dublin-----
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
We brought that forward from last month.
Yes. We had it last week but held off on the issue of the audit report not being part of the document? What is the position? Is it part of the document?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
I think the committee was communicating with the Department. Was that not the decision?
So we have had no reply.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
The committee was asking the Department.
The matter has not been resolved so we will still hold that over. We received Trinity's set of financial statements but there was no audit certificate from the Comptroller and Auditor General in the document.
We just want to know why. The audit certificate has been completed, but it did not work its way into the document supplied by Trinity College Dublin to the House. We are holding it over until we have the issue resolved.
The next item is the clear audit opinions for the Irish Museum of Modern Art; the account of receipt of revenue of the State collected by the Revenue Commissioners and the National Library of Ireland. With the work programme, we have prepared a note on the upcoming meeting with the National Treatment Purchase Fund and I suggest we deal with it in private session. Is there anything else on the work programme?
We dealt earlier with bringing in the four people to make an example of them for being late in the submission of their accounts or whatever else. That is grand, but will we still have people in from the third level institutions?
Yes. It will be a short meeting.
That is okay. I just wanted to make sure it would happen. There seems to be a missing week, the week of the referendum.
We do not know what is happening yet.
Is that the only reason - that we do not yet know whether we will be meeting?
No, we have not yet slotted people in. We can deal with some of the educational issues. There are gaps in the work programme and we want to discuss in private session precisely what we want to do about third level institutions. The clerk has a note to give us in private session on the matter.
I am not sure there is a level of coherence surrounding the third level education issues.
We will discuss the matter in private session. As I said, a note has been prepared on it.
Will we receive it in advance?
It will be circulated. We will go into private session to discuss committee business and then suspend the sitting until 2.30 p.m. when we will meet representatives of RTÉ.