(An tArd Reachtaire Cuntas agus Ciste) called and examined.
Business of Committee
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy. He is accompanied by Ms Maureen Mulligan, deputy director. Apologies have been received from Deputy Catherine Murphy.
The next item is the minutes of previous meetings. Are the minutes of meetings from 15 May, 16 May, 23 May and 24 May agreed? Agreed. There is one matter arising out of the minutes from the meeting of 24 May. It regards category B correspondence, No. 1277, which we discussed last week. The correspondence in question is from Mr. John McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, and he provided much helpful and useful information regarding unfinished housing estates, the local authority mortgage protection insurance scheme, the local authority mortgage resolutions arrears process and the taking in charge of estates. The resolutions process dealt with the number of repossessions obtained by local authorities. People will have seen the figures, which were quite high in some areas but not in others.
I wish to follow up that letter asking Mr. McCarthy to supply information relating to evictions achieved by local authorities. We have the figure for repossessions involving people with shared ownership loans and mortgages - they are staggering in some counties - but we would like to see the figures for evictions achieved by local authorities. We would also like to see which were done on foot of a court order or otherwise, as the case may be. We know people have been evicted for non-payment of rents and possibly other reasons. It would be useful to get that information for each of the past three years, taking in 2015 to 2017, inclusive. I would like to get the figure from the voluntary housing associations funded by the taxpayer as well. It is a matter we have not touched but when we saw the figure for repossessions by local authorities, the next question would be in respect of tenants in voluntary housing associations and evictions achieved. This takes in local authorities and the approved housing bodies. We should get the information and take it from there when we get it. Is it agreed to seek that additional information? Agreed. Members should understand that it is about following up the excellent information provided on the previous occasion.
The next item on the agenda is correspondence. There are three categories of correspondence. Category A refers to briefing documents and opening statements. No. 1333A is from the office of the chief administrative officer, An Garda Síochána, enclosing the internal audit report of the ICT payments process. We will note and publish this. There was a previous report provided to the committee. No. 1344A is from the acting Garda Commissioner, Mr. Dónall Ó Cualáin, providing his opening statement. We will note and publish that.
The next item is correspondence from category B, correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers to follow up previous meetings of the committee. There are a number of items in this category, starting with a letter from Mr. Ciarán Breen of the State Claims Agency, as well as correspondence from the Health Service Executive, HSE. I want to group these together in one discussion as different letters have popped up. We will come to it in a moment but I would like to get the other items of correspondence out of the way. Is that okay?
No. 1329 is correspondence from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Deputy O'Brien had a query about this matter, which regards the contract with the new national lottery operator and assurances given with respect to unclaimed prizes.
This is seeking further information. Basically, we want to know how, when the legislation was being drafted, the confidentiality clauses were included. Who knows about the unclaimed prizes? I presume the regulator knows but is unable to divulge the information as a result of the clauses put in place. I am trying to figure who else knows aside from the regulator. Does somebody in the Department know and who audits those accounts? The Comptroller and Auditor General does not do it.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
It is just the regulator.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
We audit the regulator but not the operator.
I will ask the secretariat to go through, in particular, the Committee Stage and Report Stage debates of the relevant legislation in the Houses when the national lottery was, essentially, privatised. I would be surprised if the matter was not discussed and assurances were not given by the Ministers during the passage of the legislation. Perhaps there was a commitment. If a commitment was given, we want to know if it was followed through into the subsequent contract. The commitment is to go through the transcripts of the debate on the legislation. Deputy Howlin brought it through when he was Minister. I was a spokesperson for the Opposition dealing with it. I have not checked the record but I suspect the item would have come up for discussion. I would be surprised if it did not. Deputy McDonald was probably part of the committee when we discussed the matter. We will go through the debates relating to the passage of the legislation allowing the national lottery to be essentially privatised. We can perform a search for the term "unclaimed prizes" and see what discussion took place and if the then Minister gave any commitments on the matter. When we get that, we can follow through. It is as much as I can suggest at this stage and it is really what I was suggesting at our previous meeting.
I have no issue with that. I just want to know, apart from the regulator, who knows the figure. How is it checked? Are we just taking the word of the operator that this is the figure or will somebody go through it? There was another €1 million that went unclaimed last week.
That is right.
I do not know if there is a mechanism for the regulator to ensure that €1 million would go back to be spent for the purposes specified under the contract, including promotion of games-----
It includes general advertising or whatever. The Comptroller and Auditor General audits the regulator. Would it have detailed access to such information, although it might not be in the accounts?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
I would rather not speculate on it.
Have we written directly to the regulator about this?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
The regulator wrote back saying she is not in a position to discuss it.
She could not discuss it because she is bound by a confidentiality agreement. She asked the operator if she could provide the information but it did not allow it.
She must have it then.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
That was our interpretation of the letter.
I presume she does.
She had it but could not share it.
She could not even confirm she had it.
We are not there yet and I do not know if we will get there. We will keep after it and we will not give up yet.
On that, it is a very good idea what the Chair is doing but where are we in terms of staff? This is something I keep asking - have we lost staff, have we a full-time researcher or who have we?
We just have more work.
The work is essential. We cannot do our job without checking things out. I agree totally but we need clarification on a regular basis where we are with staff.
We will have a private session and we might discuss that but the Deputy's point is well taken. The workload is increasing and that is absolutely definite.
The next item is correspondence No. 1330B from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills, dated 18 May 2018 providing a detailed note in relation to the following: the approach to national procurement by the education and training board, ETB, sector, the systems, number of staff and support given to the ETBs on procurement and a response to the final paragraph of the letter from the Chief Executive of Galway and Roscommon ETB to the committee. We will note and publish that and people are free to use that information.
The next item is correspondence No. 1334B from Mr. Derek Moran, Secretary General of the Department of Finance, providing an information note requested by the committee regarding the statement of claim in the proceedings against the Minister for Finance pertaining to the terms and conditions of remuneration and expenses of the special liquidators, and their oversight by the Department. We will note that and we will be discussing that issue in private session today. Deputy Mac Sharry is not here so we will hold it over.
The next item is correspondence Nos. 1336B and 1337B on the CervicalCheck claims controversy and the letter from the State Claims Agency so we will hold all of that together.
The item is correspondence No. 1338B from Mr. Ray Mitchell. This is on a separate issue providing information requested by the committee as follows: Our Lady’s Hospice Harold’s Cross review of general account and fundraising report; Our Lady’s Hospice Harold’s Cross procurement and HR training report; submissions on behalf of the former CEO of Our Lady’s Hospice Harold’s Cross for the report entitled "General Account and Fundraising"; submission on behalf of the former CEO of Our Lady’s Hospice Harold’s Cross for report entitled "Procurement and HR training"; and, letter re Our Lady's Hospice audit to Kane Tuohy. solicitors for the HSE. Mr. Mitchell requests that as Our Lady’s Hospice Harold’s Cross report is subject to a Garda investigation and that we do not publish it in unredacted form or deal with it publicly. Can we note this, we might discuss it tonight but I have looked at some of this? This matter has been aired very publicly on the national airwaves. I am discussing this now briefly and I am asking people not to say anything that might implicate any particular individual because if there are Garda investigations under way we will certainly not cut across those. However, I think there are matters on the internal audit that are smack bang within the remit of this committee to discuss and we will do that so I hope people will understand what I am saying there.
I had raised this first. I had asked that we write to the HSE to request a copy of the audit. I fully appreciate the request that we do not discuss someone in detail for the reason the Chair gave that it is subject to a Garda investigation and some of the individuals involved have a right to protection as well so I have no difficulty with that. The one thing I took from the audit itself and what was in the media reports, because a lot of this is in the media, was the attitude of the organisation as a corporate body to the audit. I found it to be quite shocking to be honest. Leaving aside all the issues which we will not go into, it was the response from the organisation to the audit that shocked me. We see lots of audits and reports where there is a finding or an opinion, whether it is a Comptroller and Auditor General report or an internal audit report and an organisation may not agree fully with the finding or the recommendations. There would be some commentary but it seemed to me that the attitude of the corporate body was "nothing to see here, hands off and how dare you even come in and ask questions". That seemed to me be the attitude so there are certainly issues for the PAC. We always look at process and whether the governance issues that should have been in place were robust and it seems they were not. We have been here before so this is not the first of the section 38 organisations that have been before us unfortunately.
If I remember correctly, when I raised this we had the HSE in some time ago where we discussed generally what improvements were being made and the relationship between the HSE and these organisations. The Comptroller and Auditor General was saying that improvements had been made on the back of our meetings and the work the HSE was doing and that the issues in this audit go back to a period a number of years ago where improvements have happened since. It might be unfair to us to say that there is still a huge problem but these issues still need to be ventilated some way. Maybe I will leave it at that and if we want to deal with it in private session or under our work programme we can but I certainly think we need to examine some of the issues. I am open to how we do that and I am deeply conscious of what the Chair said at the start as well.
I am conscious of that. I want to put one or two things on the public record by way of information in case the public are wondering what we are actually talking about. There are two separate reports and I am not getting into the detail but the key finding of one of them relates to a Spanish residence in Marbella that was bequeathed to the organisation in about 2008 and then there was substantial legal costs to get it transferred into their title and it was sold . These are facts. The property was later sold for €37,500 without being put up for sale on the open market which resulted in a loss based on the original estimated value and the cost incurred. The report goes on to state that it would appear to the audit that the property was sold at a very low valuation considering the sale price was just €37,500 and it refers to appendix B as a way of comparison to properties in the Marbella area at that time.
The report states they lost in the region of €32,000.
In other words they got the property bequeathed to them. They spent €69,703 getting it refurbished and transferred over and then they sold it at €37,500. They did not even cover their costs of taking possession of the property.
There was a loss of €32,000 and I think the internal audit's-----
That was a loss.
-----problem was the paper work. There were no invoices. There was a lack of transparency around the process which is a matter for us. That is a Committee of Public Accounts issue.
It is a Committee of Public Accounts issue because this organisation gets funding through the HSE but it did not even cover the costs of getting the property transferred. They lost money on that issue, not to mind the value of the property and they have included two possibly similar properties in the appendix that were on sale at around that time in Marbella, one was for €260,000 and the other was for €245,000. It is extraordinary to be left such a valuable asset and actually lose money on the sale of it. That is the estimate of that report and we will ask the HSE for a detailed response on that issue so that people will understand what we are talking about.
Without referencing any of the details it is also very clear as well that there are-----
We are not getting into any names or persons.
No, but concerns are raised about the management of conflicts of interests again.
That is on the other report in relation to procurement of human resource training. There are two separate reports and the second one is about potential conflicts of interest and lack of transparent arrangements in place regarding a procurement process so the public will at least know what we are talking about. We are not getting into the detail so we will raise these issues for detailed response with the HSE when the time comes and we might discuss it in private session later on in the course of the day but we will flag this with the HSE that we will want to discuss it at the next scheduled meeting which is in a couple of weeks time in June.
We move on to the rest of our correspondence. That was correspondence No. 1338 from the HSE. The next item is correspondence Nos. 1339B, 1340B and 1341B.
These are all connected with the cervical cancer issue and corporate risk registers. We will deal with the matter in a moment.
Will all of that correspondence be discussed as one item?
Yes. We will discuss them in a minute because this topic consists of five or six items.
The next item is No. 1348B from Mr. John Connaghan, director general of the HSE, on a discrepancy in evidence between the State Claims Agency and the HSE. We note same. We will discuss the matter in a moment but I propose that we finish the rest of the correspondence.
The next item is No. 1284C, dated 9 May, received from an individual on information given to the committee in response to a question raised regarding public moneys being spent on JobPath. The individual believes inconsistent information was given by the Secretary General who attended a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts. Before we make any assessment on this matter, we should write to the Department asking it to explain the apparent inconsistency highlighted by the individual. When we get a response, we will revisit the matter.
This is entirely necessary. That is important because an issue has been raised here, and it is an issue that has been raised by many Deputies in the Dáil. This person has taken great trouble to point out inconsistencies and I am sure that took a huge amount of work. First, we should recognise that fact. Second, we must follow up on the matter. There is a clear conflict or contrast between certain aspects. I will not go into the matter as it has been all set out.
Yes, it is in the document.
The matter needs to be followed up. We must not ignore the matter.
We will revisit the matter.
I raised this matter with the Accounting Officer when he came here. I was not satisfied with the response and it was obvious that the matter was never really followed up. Two service providers are involved and we asked how much each of them received. We were told that we could not get such information even though one knew what the other was getting because the overall amount was given, which was nonsense. We were given the runaround. We were told that we could not have the information due to commercial sensitivity and all of the rest. The matter is shrouded in secrecy. Let us not forget that public moneys are involved and many concerns have been expressed about this programme. Leaving aside the concerns that people have about the programme, it is problematic if we cannot get basic information on how taxpayers' money is spent. I ask that the committee revisits the matter as part of our work programme. I was dissatisfied with the responses that we received.
Plus the way they operate has been a matter for discussion in the Dáil. There has been a proposal to amend how to deal with people but that is a separate issue.
I have a specific question for the Comptroller and Auditor General. I know that he has reported on the Department of social welfare or social protection. Has he examined the matter?
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
We are looking at it in the context of the 2017 audit. I have not made a determination yet whether I will report on it but we are looking at JobPath and the kinds of issues that are raised.
In the meantime, we will seek a reply to the correspondence. When we receive that, we will revisit the matter and we will keep the individual informed.
Correspondence No. 1285C is from an individual and is dated 9 May. It is on the non-payment of farm grants. We received a response from the Department, which we forwarded to the individual, in which it stated that the individual is now fully up to date with his payments. I propose that we note the item.
Correspondence No. 1312C, from Deputy Catherine Murphy, is on the Road Safety Authority. We will hold this matter over. The Deputy has sent her apologies for being unable to attend today’s meeting.
Correspondence No. 1316C is from an individual and relates to a meeting of the committee to discuss the Cork Institute of Technology. We will hold such correspondence over until private session when we will discuss the best way to proceed.
Correspondence No. 1331C is from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan. It relates to the committee’s discussions on the review of the protected disclosures policy that is taking place in the Irish Prison Service, the process to appoint a protected disclosures manager, and the reporting procedure to be adhered to. Is it agreed that we note and publish this response? Agreed.
Correspondence No. 1332C is Ms Ann Marie O'Grady, chief executive, Leopardstown Park Hospital, on the draft financial statement and the delay. We will note and publish. We have received a number of similar letters. We will have a report on the up-to-date position concerning the matter at a meeting on 14 June. I wish to advise that as a letter went out in my name, I got letters back yesterday from ten organisations or covering ten organisations, primarily in the Department of Finance, saying that all of the accounts had been lodged last week. The letter has woken up some people. We will get an update report on those 37 organisations. At this stage, many of them are in since we last discussed the matter. We will get an update in a fortnight. There are probably a handful of organisations that have particular difficulties that the Comptroller and Auditor General will have to work through.
Mr. Seamus McCarthy
Yes. I think this letter from Leopardstown Park illustrates that in a small organisation, where individuals are unavailable because of illness or whatever, it can have a significant impact.
Yes, when some of the key staff are out. We will be in a strong position to close that topic when we get the final report next week or at the next meeting.
The next item is No. 1335C and is correspondence, dated 24 May, that alleges the falsification of data by University College Cork about disabled access. I propose that we write to the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to draw attention to the alleged issue and request a note on what constitutes a part-time and full-time student. We will also ask the HEA whether it is satisfied that UCC adhered to the requirements in terms of declarations about the number of part-time and full-time students. Is that agreed? Agreed.
The next item is No. 1342C and is correspondence from an individual, dated 24 April, about the wards of court fund. This person has written to us on several occasions. The individual appears to be asking whether there is some way that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts could examine the wards of court fund, even though it is a private individual fund. We have discussed the matter at length several times. I am inclined to hold over this matter because Deputy Catherine Murphy, who is not present today, seems to deal with this particular group regularly. I think we should hold over the matter because I would not like to conclude a discussion without the Deputy being present to make an input. Is it agreed that we hold the matter over until the next day? Agreed.
Correspondence No. 1343C, dated 15 May, is from an individual who refers to concerns following on from a protected disclosure. He is recording his warnings and concerns with the committee. Can we note same? Noted. The matter is connected with a protected disclosure in the Irish Prison Service, as has been mentioned. I do not propose that we publish the matter at this time.
I wish to declare that I have met a prison officer who also works in Mountjoy Prison. That prison officer wants to make a protected disclosure. The matter concerned seems very similar to the issues that have been raised. As soon as I get the disclosure I will forward it to the committee. I will talk to the secretariat on how that can be done. It seems that there are issues and we have more than one matter. There seems to be a crossover of issues so we may have to examine or find some way to examine them with the Irish Prison Service.
The final item of correspondence is No. 1345C from Mr Pat Leahy in the Department of Finance. He has provided an update to the committee on the Apple escrow account. He has said that €1.5 billion has been received recently and the Department expects €13 billion. It is a very short report. We asked for an update on the Apple escrow account. The Department of Finance has confirmed that the total amount of the contested state aid involved is €13.1 billion, plus interest. The Department has said that €1.5 billion, including EU interest, has been paid into the account and it has confirmed that the timescale for when it expects to receive the balance of the amount is the end of September 2018. The correspondence is very short, concise and to the point. Will we note and publish? Agreed. The money has been lodged into an escrow account so we cannot get our hands on it yet. There will be a big queue for that money whenever the matter is resolved.
I note that €1.5 billion been paid into the escrow account.
That is not bad. The money has been lodged in an escrow account and people know it is being managed.
It is €1.5 billion.
Neither the Apple company nor the Irish Revenue Commissioners can access the account in the meantime.
No statements of accounts have been submitted in the past week. The only item on the work programme, and I will return to the main topics of correspondence later, is our meeting with the National Treatment Purchase Fund and Nursing Homes Ireland on 14 June. No further changes have been made.
I will return to discussing the various items of correspondence that have been received in terms of the cervical cancer issue. I will work in reverse. I note that Deputy Darragh O'Brien has indicated. Yesterday, we received a letter from Mr. John Connaghan, director general of the HSE. Interestingly, he was the interim director general last week but he has written his signature above the title of director general on correspondence that was issued this week. I believe he has a big job ahead of him. We were concerned because we were given evidence that people had informed the State Claims Agency that all of the women involved had been informed about their audit, whereas the State Claims Agency wrote back last week and said very straight that this was inaccurate, so we asked the HSE to respond accordingly. We need to discuss the matter, which is a culmination of some of these issues in CervicalCheck. I ask the secretariat to display the letter, No. 1348, on the screen so everyone has it in front of them. People can view the correspondence on the screen now. It reads:
At the request of the HSE, SCA officials met with officials of the HSE, including Mr J Gleeson Programme Manager CervicalCheck.
The purpose of the meeting was to clarify the apparent difference as to the content of a telephone call between the SCA legal team and Mr J Gleeson which occurred during the trial of V Phelan v HSE and another. The context of the telephone call was to discuss matters pertaining specifically to the case. The issue of all the other women (the subject matter of the audit) being informed arose as a brief discussion issue.
While Mr Gleeson cannot recollect the specifics of the conference call with the SCA in April 2018, we clarified Mr Gleeson's understanding was consistent with the record of the call. Mr Gleeson's understanding of the communication with the women was that at the time he assumed the women had been informed by their treating physicians. We now know that this was not the case.
Hence the HSE and SCA are satisfied that the apparent difference around the understanding of the communication with the women has now been resolved.
Obviously that is to the satisfaction of the HSE and the State Claims Agency.
My issue, as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, is we are given very definitive, categoric evidence in public session and immediately afterwards we find it is not the case. That is a problem for the committee in terms of witnesses appearing before us. It is not about the cervical cancer issue; it is about evidence. The committee has to have an absolute assurance that evidence given here is correct because if it is not correct we are all on the wrong track. That is the issue I am concerned with. Deputy O'Brien indicated he wished to speak.
I am not happy with this and I will tell the Chairman why. The issue is not whether Mr. Gleeson was of the understanding the women had been informed or not. The issue was he sat in that chair and said he did not have a conversation with the SCA and he did not tell them that all of the women had been informed. It is not an issue of whether he was of that belief or not. He categorically said he did not speak with the SCA and neither did anyone from CervicalCheck. That is the issue. He cannot now come back and say that he had the conversation, that he told them this, that he was under that belief and that is now resolved. The issue around the HSE and the agency may be resolved in the context of the apparent difference in understanding of whether women were told or not. I do not want to use the word "lie", but we have somebody who came before a committee and who did not give us accurate information and even denied having a conversation, and now we know that not only did he have the conversation, he said what we all knew at that meeting. The other issue I have is that we had the director of communications from the HSE at the same meeting state that he was-----
Committee of Public Accounts meeting.
At the same meeting, he told this committee he had a conversation with the SCA outside this room and, according to him, the agency told him personally that it was two individuals from the HSE who had informed the SCA that all of the women were informed, yet he could not remember the names of those individuals. The issue for me is not whether he knew; it is whether he sat in the chair here and denied even having that conversation. He needs to be brought back before the committee to give an explanation for that rather than this back and forth with correspondence.
I want to be fair. We are all in the same space. Members should be careful about the language they use and about using the word "lie". It was definitely incorrect but the word "lie" probably implies it was deliberate. Perhaps there is a memory blank.
I did not want to use the word "lie".
The Deputy did not want to use it. We will not use it.
The Deputy qualified what he said.
Let us be absolutely fair. We have a conflict-----
I said he gave incorrect information.
That is a fact. That is our concern. I call Deputies Kelly, Cullinane and Connolly on this topic.
There are two issues. First, without prejudice, what he said here was inaccurate. It may have been inaccurate because he just could not remember. My question about the letter is that it is written almost as if the SCA agrees with it. Is the SCA 100% in agreement with this letter?
It is my understanding that the agency is agreeing with the point that the individual who told it was under the belief-----
The first action is to write to the SCA.
May I help on that question? My reading of that letter is, in straightforward English,-----
-----is they met to discuss the discrepancy. The SCA had given its official position to us in writing and it is now saying that Mr. Gleeson's understanding was consistent with the agency's record of the call. The agency is now saying, as I interpret it, that Mr. Gleeson is saying the agency was correct.
It is signed by Mr. John Connaghan so we need-----
We need the State Claims Agency to verify it.
We should write to the agency referring to the letter and ask it if it concurs 100% with it or does it now need to make further clarifications or anything like that. That is the first issue.
That is agreed. We will do that.
The second issue is that we are dealing with the biggest health crisis in decades. In this situation we all know the issues relating to management in CervicalCheck and confidence and so on. The programme manager came in here and gave us information which we now know to be inaccurate. In that scenario, we have to question having confidence in a management team that appears before the committee and gives information that, for whatever reason, is inaccurate. Not alone is it inaccurate but it is based on a case that was in the High Court. This is pretty serious stuff and we will have to have a discussion about what we do about this. If the SCA had not written to us last week, we would be none the wiser. It begs the other question: what else is inaccurate? What else do we not know about? It raises a serious question for Mr. Connaghan. What will he do about it? He has a management team, previous and current, that has given inaccurate information to the Committee of Public Accounts based on a High Court case. If Vicky Phelan had signed the confidentiality clause, we would not even be talking about it in the first place. This raises deeper questions. We should write to the SCA, verify that it agrees 100% with the context and the way in which the letter was written and ask if it has any other further clarifications or information it wants to give to us. Second, we have to seriously consider the impact of being given information like this which is completely inaccurate for us and which is based on other evidence given to us. Dr. Scally is doing his report but we have to consider what our next steps will be as regards actioning something on this.
We will make a decision shortly.
I want to separate out a couple of issues in my head. I agree with Teachta Kelly's analysis. Regarding these emails, we had two polar opposite viewpoints at the same committee meeting from individuals within two different organisations.
Yes. One being the State Claims Agency and the second being CervicalCheck. They were polar opposite views. Mr. Gleeson was strident in his view that the SCA was never told that all women had been informed. This was not just a miscommunication around a misinterpretation of the meaning of what was said. His view is that, as Teachta O'Brien said, there was no conversation and there was no information of that nature given to the SCA. What has happened since - and I want to be careful how I frame this point - is we had two polar opposite viewpoints, then we had a meeting between individuals of the two organisations and we now have a common position.
That concerns me. I could put it a different way but I want to be careful in what I say.
It troubles me that we heard from two organisations that had polar opposite views on what is a very sensitive issue. Conveniently — if I can use that word — we now have a mutually agreed position. As I simply do not accept that at face value, I believe Mr. Gleeson has to appear before us again.
We should not, however, miss the bigger point, which is what An Teachta Kelly was getting at. I am giving my opinion from what I have heard. We look at process failures and systems failures but there is a sense that a deliberate strategy was put in place to limit the number of women made aware of the results. That is the bigger issue. In my view, Mr. Gleeson was at the core of the decision-making in that regard. I do not believe that issue should be lost in the confusion over emails and what was said or not said. The Committee of Public Accounts should produce a report from that perspective and should not encroach on the work of Mr. Scally or anyone else. We have had a number of meetings, however, and cannot just bookend them saying we have had discussions with witnesses because we have our job to do.
There were three elements to the strategy. One was to limit the number of women who knew. The second was to get those who knew and who had legal recourse to sign confidentiality clauses. Where that did not work, the third element was to drag it out through the courts. Ms Vicky Phelan rumbled all that. That is my sense of it. It is only my sense of it so I am not speaking for the committee. I do not believe we can forget the strategy.
As the Chairman knows, some of the women involved were in Leinster House again yesterday. Some of them are still taking cases in the High Court. Women who are dying are still in the High Court fighting the system. We have to have their backs. Deputy Fleming, as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, promised them that we would fight their corner for them so we cannot just drop the matter and say that is it. At the very least, we have to produce a report and give our view on whether we feel there were systems values. I know the word "cover-up" was used by the solicitor for Ms Phelan. That is still an allegation. I do not believe Mr. Scally will be looking at that. I would imagine that if there were failures he will come back and state that. Then we will need a commission of investigation. If that happens, it will be locked into a two-year process whereby nobody will be able to talk about the matter again. That is what happens with these commissions. We have been here before with all these issues. I am just making the point that we started a process and made a commitment and promise to the victims at the centre of this. Not only because we made a commitment, but because of our responsibility, we need to see it through.
I find the letter shocking. I have serious questions over the fact that the director general has put his name to this. I am not given to extreme statements but am inclined to make one when I see a new director general coming forward in a situation like this, where there was clear evidence from the State Claims Agency, to say he decided to bring the two together to have a meeting. We have no minutes of that meeting. He refers to an "apparent difference". There was nothing apparent about it; there was a difference. Now we are talking about apparent differences, assumptions and consistencies. There is something seriously amiss. I find this letter totally unacceptable. The last line states: "Hence the HSE and SCA are satisfied that the apparent difference around the understanding of the communication with the women has now been resolved." As a member of this committee, I believe nothing has been resolved for me. There was no "apparent difference". It has already been said this is a very serious issue. We have only a very limited, specific role in it. When we are given differing accounts as evidence, it is then up to us, not the HSE, to make decisions on how to resolve it. The representatives of the organisations in question, including the director general, need to appear before us again. We will hear what has been said and we will make conclusions in our report. We have no choice but to do that. I say that most reluctantly because there is a much bigger issue here for the women. We need an investigation as quickly as possible. This is now undermining confidence even more.
I call Deputy Jonathan O'Brien. We will bring this to a conclusion.
There are two issues here. First, we now know a conversation took place between Mr. Gleeson and the State Claims Agency.
They keep mixing dates. They do not even say when it happened. They just state-----
Yes, but even in this letter Mr. Connaghan says Mr. Gleeson "cannot recollect the specifics of the conference call". He told this committee that there was no conference call. Those concerned are being very cute with how they are playing with words here. There was an apparent difference regarding a misunderstanding over whether women had been informed. Mr. Gleeson told the committee it was his understanding that all the women had been informed. If the HSE is saying that is the misunderstanding and that the State Claims Agency and HSE are now happy it has been clarified, that is the end of the matter. The issue for me, however, is that the programme manager of CervicalCheck is not even recollecting that there was a telephone call in the first place. He appeared before the committee and said he had no communication whatsoever with the State Claims Agency, and that no one in his organisation had any either. He appeared before the committee towards the start of May, two or three weeks ago, and he could not even remember a telephone conversation he had two weeks previously.
I have a suggestion. Obviously, we have agreed to write the letter. We are back here in two weeks so for an hour at the beginning we should bring in representatives of the State Claims Agency. May I make a suggestion?
There are three people mentioned as witnesses or as having been part of the conference call. The three should be brought in. The head of the State Claims Agency, as well as Mr. Connaghan, Mr. Gleeson and Ms O'Keeffe, who is over Mr. Gleeson, should be brought in. For one hour, let us get to the bottom of what is going on here.
We can agree to that for this day two weeks.
I have one observation on that. I fully agree with the proposal. On a point of clarification, however, I understand there were a number of legal people involved in the conference call that was referred to. Were there not?
Was it subject to privilege?
It was. In our correspondence the previous week, we were told it was subject to legal privilege because it was taken by the legal team.
I am only pre-empting what the response might be. Given that legal people were party to the conference call-----
Is Deputy Kelly saying they should be brought in also?
Let us thrash that out. They can refuse to come in-----
Whether they come in or not, I am just trying to-----
I propose the following, bearing in mind that we are starting from the public accounts perspective. We are not investigating everything. Members will have noticed I have included a new paragraph in my opening statement to witnesses in the past month or six weeks. I state specifically that we expect witnesses to answer questions put to them clearly and with candour. As Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts - I believe I am speaking for all members - I did not believe we had questions answered clearly and with candour on the last day. It am referring not just to one person. I just left the meeting with that feeling. I was disappointed with the quality of some of the evidence. I suggest that Mr. Connaghan, Ms O'Keeffe, Mr. Gleeson and whoever they feel the need to bring with them be invited. I refer to one session, not two separate sessions. Also to be invited are Mr. Breen, from the State Claims Agency, and the people he feels are appropriate. We will ask him to bring his legal advisers. We may choose, during the course of the meeting, to go into private session if he wants to say something that cannot be put on the public record. He should be prepared to have part of the meeting in private session, if necessary, if he wants to say something that cannot be said on the public record. It might not be necessary.
May I make a point on that?
Sorry, but in the transcript from 17 May, which is up on the screen, Mr. Gleeson states, "I do not think anyone from CervicalCheck could have said that because it would never have been our understanding [...]". He denies even having the conversation, and that is the issue for me. It is not the information that was relayed within the conversation but the fact that there was no conversation.
My only point is that our quarrel, issue or source of contention concerns the individual from the State Claims Agency who answered the questions and Mr. Gleeson. The more people we involve, including legal people, the more difficult we could make it for ourselves to have a meeting. I am just saying we need to consider this carefully so we will not be cut off at the pass.
We will ask him to have his legal people available in the building-----
That is fine.
-----not necessarily to close down the meeting but available if they are willing to allow us to speak to them.
We are agreed on this. People will ask why the Committee of Public Accounts is following this matter. We were dealing with this as a result of the 2016 financial statements and following through these contracts. The committee had good reason to test the evidence of the witnesses from the HSE. We had verification from a number of people including Vicky Phelan and the State Claims Agency. We now find that the evidence given in public session by the HSE to this committee does not stand up. That is an issue which the committee has to address. We must make it clear to all witnesses coming before the PAC that their information has to be accurate. We cannot just get a letter stating the issues have been resolved.
I agree completely with the proposal. However, the director of communications needs to be here as well. He made a claim at the meeting which is now not true. He needs to explain the basis of that claim he made on the record.
I absolutely agree.
In private session, can we have a discussion around the wider issue of what led to the circular being issued and the decision-making on open disclosure? These are important issues and deal with what Teachta Kelly said earlier.
We will have a private session when we finish public session today. At the end of the meeting in two weeks, the committee may formally bring its end of it to a conclusion and hand over to Dr. Scally before he completes his work. We should not let it just hang there. We will be focused as to why the witnesses are here.
All the reference numbers to the items of correspondence I read out are included in this correspondence discussion. We had intended bringing in the National Treatment Purchase Fund also on that day. Does the committee want to deal with this HSE visit first?
Let us be realistic. It will probably take two hours.
We will schedule it for 9.30 a.m. after correspondence.
Can we postpone correspondence and deal with it early?
We might get correspondence out of the way. We will schedule the meeting for 9 o’clock. When we are finished with that, we will have a short recess and then continue with the business of the meeting with the National Treatment Purchase Fund and whoever else is scheduled to come on that day. We will finalise the timing arrangement in private session.
If they are not available on that day, we should make it for another day that week.
Deputy Jonathan O’Brien is quite right. We will have a discussion on timing in private session shortly. The availability of witnesses is important.
I forgot to reference correspondence No. 1346C from Deputy Cullinane.
Was I leaving prematurely?
I was giving the Deputy credit for sending an email directly on this.
There are no account and statements this week.
We will now suspend to allow witnesses to take their seats.