We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, and the deputy director of audit, Ms Patricia Sheehan. No apologies have been received and we will deal with the business to be transacted by the committee tomorrow in the normal manner.
The topic on the agenda for this meeting is matters related to the submission to the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of financial statements for 2017. This is an issue we have been watching closely since the last general election. It came to light on a couple of occasions when people were before to discuss accounts that, in some cases, were three years out of date. We found that to be an unacceptable practice, but it does not apply to any of the organisations represented today. We took a detailed look at the time organisations were taking to submit their accounts for audit. The Comptroller and Auditor General has produced a couple of reports in the past couple of years on the timeliness of organisations in submitting their financial statements for audit and there has been an improvement. Last year's report highlighted the education sector as being the worst in the public sector in the submission of accounts and some time ago we decided to meet the organisations concerned. It was noted that of the 16 or 17 education and training boards, only one had submitted its financial statements for audit by the end of March of the following year. That was unsatisfactory and we invited four boards to come before us, including the one which had met the deadline to show that it could be done. We asked for the position to improve across the public service and were pleased to note at the last meeting that every single education and training board had its financial statements for 2017 in before the end of March this year. That is a fantastic improvement.
As the year progressed, I sent a letter to all of the organisations the accounts of which are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General to remind them of the importance of getting accounts in on time, saying we would follow up in the new year. We waited until the end of April, when the Comptroller and Auditor General informed the committee that there were 37 organisations which had not submitted their accounts for audit before the end of March. The committee decided to invite four organisations to explain why. We picked the four that are represented today based on the fact that they were substantial organisations with a major turnover. They are the Local Government Fund, the National Training Fund, the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Abbey Theatre. We are grateful to their representatives for coming. We wrote separately to the other 33 organisations to ask for a written explanation as to why their accounts had not been submitted on time.
We believe the submission of annual financial statements is an essential element of good corporate governance which in any organisation starts from the top. When an organisation does not submit its accounts in a timely manner, it raises a number of questions about it, which is why we are here. We are joined by the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills in respect of the National Training Fund, the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government in respect of the Local Government Fund and the directors of the ESRI and the Abbey Theatre. I do not expect this to be a long meeting, but I am grateful to the witnesses for coming. Part of the purpose is to demonstrate that the Committee of Public Accounts is taking a proactive role in improving corporate governance in the submission of accounts and financial information because we cannot do our work if we do not have accounts to examine. We are joined by Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, who is accompanied by Mr. Maurice Coughlan, principal officer; Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, who is accompanied by Mr. Keith Moynes, principal officer; Professor Alan Barrett, director of the ESRI, who is accompanied by Mr. Charles O’Regan, company secretary and head of finance; and Mr. Neil Murray, director and chief executive officer, the Abbey Theatre, who is accompanied by Mr. Denis Reeves, interim director of finance and administration.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence.
They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the provisions of Standing Order 186 indicating that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government, or the merits of the objectives of such policies. While we expect witnesses to answer questions put by the committee members clearly and with candour, witnesses can and should expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times in accordance with the witness protocol that has been circulated.
I thank the witnesses for submitting their opening statements and the progress in respect of the matter at hand. I understand the Department of Education and Skills has submitted the accounts for the National Training Fund for audit on 15 May 2018. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government submitted the accounts of the Local Government Fund for audit on 17 May 2018. The ESRI has submitted the accounts for audit on 10 May 2018. The Abbey Theatre submitted its accounts on 4 May 2018. From the public accounts point of view, mission accomplished.
We, as the Committee of Public Accounts want to send a signal to all public bodies that we expect accounts to be prepared not for the sake of producing financial statements but as an indication of the level of corporate governance, because as the Secretaries General all know, it is a function of the Secretary General or Accounting Officer or the board of directors to submit their accounts for audit. Failure to do so in a timely manner does not reflect well on corporate governance. That is what we are clear about.
We will take the four opening statements in the following sequence. We will start with Mr. McCarthy from the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, to be followed by Mr. Ó Foghlú from the Department of Education and Skills; Professor Barrett from the ESRI and Mr. Murray from the Abbey Theatre.