Business of Committee

We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, as the permanent witness to the committee. He is joined by Ms Josephine Mooney, deputy director of audit. Apologies have been received from Deputy Kate O'Connell. The minutes of previous meetings are being held over and will be cleared next week.

There are three categories of correspondence, the first of which is category A with briefing documents and opening statements. No. 1745 A from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is dated 23 November. It provides briefing notes for today’s meeting on the various chapters, the outturn figures and various summary documents. These are noted and will be published.

Category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to meetings of the committee, as well as other documents for publishing. At last week’s meeting, we dealt with a number of matters held over from previous meetings and left a few to be deal with. No. 1560 B dated 7 September 2018 is from the president of Cork Institute of Technology. It provides a detailed note requested by the committee on the preparation of the terms of reference for the KPMG review of anonymous allegations against Cork Institute of Technology in 2014. We have discussed that. It will be noted and published. We will deal with it as part of the committee's upcoming periodic report.

No. 1637 B from the Office of Public Works provides the managing valuer's report on five historical cases on foot of a preceding submission to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. We have advised the correspondent that we may request a meeting with the individual in due course. This matter has been discussed previously. I propose to note and publish it.

No.1684 B from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, is dated 24 October 2018 and encloses a minute from the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform on the third periodic report of our meetings from January to May 2018. This will take a few minutes as it is the biggest item of correspondence. I ask members to bear with me as we go through that. We will first agree to note and publish the document. It relates to the report the committee published on 11 July 2018 that covered a range of Departments. The document contained 39 recommendations for the various Departments, 30 of which have been accepted and nine of which have not been accepted. I do not intend reading out the document because it is 27 pages long. We will briefly run through each recommendation.

Recommendation A1 was that a business case be made for all proposed major capital expenditure projects above a certain threshold. The Department accepts that and is now updating its guidance as part of the public spending code, which is to be published. We will write to the Department to ask when we can expect to see a copy of that. It is very easy for a Department to accept a recommendation, but we are interested in how it follows through. We want to know when the change to the guidelines will happen.

Recommendation A2 concerns public bodies that do not adhere to procurement policy. It has not been accepted by the Department. The committee had recommended that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform examine "the imposition of appropriate sanctions for public bodies that do not adhere to public procurement policy." The official reply indicates the recommendation has been noted and that the matter raised is for each contracting body, with the Department acting in a supervisory capacity. It is interesting that the Department does not accept the principle involved. It states this is a matter of good governance for each individual Department. We stand by our recommendation and it is disappointing that it has not been accepted.

Recommendations B1 and B2 related to the Valuation Office's national property revaluation programme. The office accepts all of the recommendations. We were not satisfied with the timescales and the delays in revaluations, which was the basis for one recommendation. The Valuation Office accepts that and has a new plan whereby they will do a revaluation every five years.

Recommendation B3 covers the variety of payment methods that should be allowed for ratepayers who, until now, must pay their rates bill in one or two annual instalments. That has been accepted and agreed. The change will be made in the Local Government (Rates) Bill 2018.

Recommendation B4 addressed the sequence of the revaluation and how the Valuation Office chooses the counties to be included in the programme. We asked it to present the logic for tis decisions. The office stated the first revaluation is almost complete and that future revaluations will be conducted on a rolling basis of five to ten years. There were some owner-assisted revaluations and some external contractors also did some revaluations. We suggested the Valuation Office carry out a review to determine which is the most efficient and effective approach. It has accepted that recommendation but states that it "will have to be considered in the context of the overall funding allocation for the Housing, Planning and Local Government Vote Group." The Minister indicated that the Department will make funding available to facilitate this. We will write to the Department to find out how much money has been included in the 2019 Estimates to implement recommendation B5. Recommendation B6, which recommends an independent external review, has been accepted. The Valuation Office has accepted, in so far as possible, all of our recommendations.

Recommendation B7 concerns the National Shared Services Office and the management of salary overpayments. The office accepts the recommendation and has established a new committee to liaise with clients to ensure there is proper agreement and understanding. It wants to root out overpayments at source, which arise mainly from people being absent and notification not being given quickly enough. We note, however, that the office seems to be improving in that area.

We asked what savings will be achieved as a result of the establishment of the National Shared Services Office. The correspondence states: "The Minister is further informed by that Office that the process for planning the evaluation of savings from the implementation of the Shared Services model has commenced." The committee will write to the Minister to ask when this evaluation will be completed and seek a copy of the report.

The next recommendation from our periodic report related to the Dormant Accounts Fund, which was a disaster in terms of how it was managed. The key issue was that responsibility for the fund transferred to various Departments over the years. The Minister for Rural and Community Development currently has statutory responsibility for the dormant accounts disbursement scheme. Some good recommendations made by the committee have been accepted. We suggested that a substantial amount of money that had been locked in to older projects that were not going to proceed be decommitted. The Department has confirmed that an action plan has resulted in decommittals totalling just over €16.5 million and these moneys are now available to fund new measures in future action plans. This is very welcome, and it is good that the Department has accepted our recommendation on the Dormant Accounts Fund because it was one of our more important recommendations. The committee also recommended that the fund be maintained by one body to provide a stable platform for its effective administration. As I stated, responsibility for the fund has been moved from Department to Department. The Department notes our response and states that the allocation of responsibility for the fund is a matter for the Government and, ultimately, the Taoiseach. We accept that response and that it is a matter for the Taoiseach to outline ministerial responsibilities.

The final recommendation, B14, concerns reviewing the scheme. This is very important. The committee recommended that the Department review the dormant accounts application process. We felt it was overly complicated. Our recommendation has been accepted and that is good. The Department acknowledged that the assessment and selection procedures, in particular, would appear to be superfluous. It also stated that some of the rules and recommendations go far beyond the normal accountability for Exchequer funds. The Department has, therefore, accepted that some of the procedures were unnecessary and superfluous. It is now dealing with that.

The next item was the decommittal of funds and that recommendation has also been accepted. We will watch this space for future improvement. It has been accepted, however, that some of the application procedures were overly and unnecessarily complicated, and the recommendation has been agreed to that some funds should be decommitted and available for new applications. Those are two good achievements.

Our next recommendations were to a Department that, by and large, accepted very few of our recommendations. I refer to the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. It noted everything we said but does not seem to have accepted any of it. The committee recommended that the flow of funds from central government to local government be reviewed to simplify the process. That was noted by the Department and it stated that the Comptroller and Auditor General has a chart which explains it all. I think that chart highlighted how complex the whole issue was rather than simplifying it. We will be coming back to that Department because, in its answers, it has not taken on board the spirit of what we were saying. It might be understood by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Accounting Officer, but the public also needs to be able to understand these things. The Department has not simplified the issue.

We also spoke of the fragmented nature of funding for local authorities from the different Departments. That has also been noted. The Department also stated that a review group has been established by the Minister to bring greater balance and equity for local authorities. That is the funding model and that is being examined. It was recommendation B18 and we are writing to the Minister to see when we might see that implemented.

The next item is about roads. The Department has stated that it is providing additional funding for serious road accident blackspots. The next recommendation, B20, was noted. That was where the committee recommended that there should be a €5 charge for online transactions for taxing cars and that the excessive charge for the quarterly issue of tax discs should be reduced. The response from the Department states that this would be a charge on the Exchequer. It is being stated by the Department that the cost of €5 for each online transaction is actually closer to €10. That does not tally fully with what we understood from the evidence here during the course of our meeting. In any event, the Department has stated that any such change would require an amendment to section 152 of the relevant legislation. We will note and publish this and if any Member or party feels that it is worth amending the legislation, a Private Members' Bill can be brought forward. We have highlighted the issue now.

The next item is in respect of the housing assistance payment, HAP. This concerns inspections. The Department has accepted recommendation B22 and states that there has been some duplication where local authorities were inspecting private rental accommodation which might also be covered by a HAP inspection. The Department makes a disappointing remark, but I admire the honesty. It stated that while the inspections are being undertaken widely by local authorities, not every local authority is recording data for every HAP tenancy on the dedicated HAP system. Inspectors are walking in and out, saying accommodation is grand and keeping no record. That is a recommendation we need to follow up. The Department admitted that inspectors are not recording their inspections. That is extraordinary.

That is across different local authorities, of course.

The Department is stating that it accepts that it is not recording but-----

No, it accepted-----

I know the Department accepted that but it is not accepting that it should do anything to change it.

The last paragraph states that the Department accepts the recommendation and it highlights the particular problem which I just explained. The Department continues by stating that it is expected that by the end of 2018 sufficient progress will have been made to integrate the recording systems and provide an inspection status on all active HAP tenancies on an ongoing basis. We will write to the Minister requesting a copy of that report early in the new year.

How will that work?

The Department has said it is working on it, so we will follow up on that. I thank the members. We are getting there. Next are the recommendations in respect of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. There were several recommendations in respect of the Galway art house cinema. The Department has accepted all of them, that is, recommendations B23, B24 and B25, and stated that it has learned many lessons. It is a historic issue at this stage but lessons have been learned from that. The Department has also accepted that it should have had more oversight and that is the system it is planning to use for future projects.

The recommendations we made to Department of Finance are next. The committee recommended that the Department prioritise the production of a consolidated central government financial statement. That has been accepted and the Department is working on it with the help of the OECD. Recommendation B29 was to bring forward proposals to improve co-ordination in Government accounting, including the various State bodies. That has been accepted and is also part of the review being undertaken with the OECD.

We recommended also that the Minister for Finance should endeavour to make sure progress was made in respect of the use of gross national income (Star), GNI*, for measuring activity in national income. The Department accepted that measurement is very clear but stated that it is not a European rule. The official reply stated several times that there is no legal status for GNI* as it is purely a domestic measure and it is not defined in the European system of accounts. We understand that. The Department stated that the consent of all of the other European Union countries would be needed to change the European system of accounts. It added, however, that the European Commission, while it uses the normal GNI and not the Irish GNI*, does take the GNI* measurement into account when dealing with Ireland. GNI* does not, however, have legal standing and to change that would require a European Union change. It has accepted that the point was well made at this committee. GNI* is only a domestic figure and not an internationally accepted figure but the European Commission does take it into account.

On that, it is important to restate that the European Commission might take GNI* into account in that it accepts that is the figure that is used, but that is meaningless. It is the gross domestic product, GDP, figure that is used to calculate and implement the fiscal rules, or any rules. The application of any policy is based on GDP.

It has been accepted that-----

I am just saying that the European Commission might understand why GNI* is used in Ireland in respect of a better and more accurate reflection of the Irish State's accounts but-----

I will read the sentence. It states that while the fiscal rules will continue to be based on GDP, the European Commission also acknowledged in its assessment of Ireland's 2018 stability programme that GNI* reflects more accurately the income-----

-----standards of Irish residents and the public debt sustainability. It continues by stating that it also needs to be assessed against complementary indicators such as debt to GNI*. It is accepting everything that has been said, but the rules are the rules, and they are European rules. The GNI* measure is taken into account when the stability report for Ireland is being issued but the measure still does not have legal standing.

What they are saying is that debt to GNI* is a better and more accurate reflection of debt in Ireland than GDP. The problem, however, is that the EU fiscal rules use debt to GDP and not debt to GNI*. In the presentation of reports, therefore, the European Commission might reflect the fact that GNI* is more accurate. My point, however, is that it is meaningless in respect of policy.

I refer to a European level.

Far more importantly, our contribution to the EU is based on GDP and not GNI*. This is costing Ireland, therefore, several hundred million euro each year that our GNI*-----

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

GNI is the indicator.

But not GNI*?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

It is not GNI*.

That means our contribution is not actually based on what is more appropriate to Ireland. It is based on the EU-wide standard, which in reality means Ireland is paying a higher contribution to the EU each year because that contribution is based on the European legal definition rather than our domestic GNI* measure.

Although, if I am right, I think it is being said-----

There is an outcome and a consequence of this.

There is and so that this is on the record, and we can check this, I think it was being said that because we use GDP and not GNI or GNI* in working to the fiscal rules, the fiscal space is actually greater because of that. I think it was being said that it should be less. Perhaps we should not shout too loudly.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

In fact the GNI* is a much higher debt burden.

Therefore, if one were to substitute that, one would be in a much tighter fiscal space.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

That would be my interpretation.

Maybe we should not shout too loud.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Yes.

At the same time, it is costing Irish taxpayers money, in extra contributions each year, based on that.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

It is kind of swings and merry-go-rounds. One takes in more corporation tax as well-----

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

-----which is the thing that is driving the GDP.

Yes, it is complementary.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

One cannot just look at one aspect and say that is a problem, while one is benefitting on the other side. It needs to be looked at as a holistic exercise.

The Committee of Public Accounts has done a good job in highlighting the matter. During the course of our meeting very useful documentation was put into the public arena, which would be of interest to the people who follow those things. We fulfilled the role-----

-----in terms of public accounts by dealing with this matter publicly.

The next Department is the Department of Justice and Equality. We said: "The Committee recommends that the Chief State Solicitor's Office ensures its oversight mechanisms are sufficient to prevent reoccurrence of this unacceptable waste of taxpayers' money". That relates to where the Probation Service took over a building in Wolfe Tone Street in Dublin but the building was never occupied. We were told that advice from the Office of the Chief Solicitor was based on "legal professional privilege", and it is good. They accept this.

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has replied in writing that, "The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will commence a process with relevant law officers to examine how legal professional privilege will be protected in future in a manner which is, so far as possible, consistent with the accountability role of the PAC." The Department has accepted that we have a valid point, that it will go as far as it can to meet that in future but there will always be the issue of legal privilege. However, the Department has accepted it needs to go the road with us, in terms of public accountability, which is good to see.

The next item is the Toland report on the Department of Justice and Equality and that Department accepted the view of the Committee of Public Accounts. We know there is an ongoing programme for change in the Department. We will continue to raise this matter when the Department comes before us again. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended a number of steps to monitor the follow-through in terms of this matter, and the Department is doing so. We can return to this matter, at any stage, when we deal with the Department again.

The next section deals with the strategic communications unit in the Department of the Taoiseach and that Department accepted our recommendation that "this process should proceed in the manner outlined by the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach in his review of the operation of the Strategic Communications Unit." We accept the review conducted by the Secretary General. The Department of the Taoiseach made matters clear, in terms of implementing that review, and I will read a couple of the points it made. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended "that public bodies should always ensure that they retain the right to sign off" on documentation. The Department stated that the following guidelines concerning paid content are now in place:

(1) Any sponsored or paid-for feature articles should continue to be clearly identifiable ... and they should state clearly that the copy is 'advertorial', 'advertisement', 'sponsored' or a 'commercial feature'

(2) Where media partnerships or agencies (third parties) are used, final editorial control or 'sign-off' must be by the relevant Department

(3) Should anyone be interviewed for an advertorial or infomercial, they should be informed of the purpose and their permission sought.

That means people welcoming issues but not knowing that it is part of a paid advertisement. The final guideline is as follows:

(4) Politicians and public representatives should not feature in any paid-for content by Government other than relevant office-holders (Ministers).

That clarifies the entire issue.

The final matter is RTÉ and its licensing system. The minute states that a working group was established, that there were proposals before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment, that it has sent proposals to Government and on 28 July a working group was established, arising out of the pre-legislative scrutiny by that committee. The working group will report to the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The working group will also consider the possibility of the collection of the licence fee by the Revenue Commissioners or contracting externally for licence fee collection as provided for in the Broadcasting Amendment Bill. There is no commitment; it is just being examined.

Finally, RTÉ has accepted the final recommendation we made about the Eversheds report.

Yes, RTÉ has accepted it. I asked at the last meeting that we write to RTÉ seeking an update on the implementation of the Eversheds report-----

-----and its recommendations that existing contracts would be reviewed. As I said, several employees contacted me a number of weeks ago because RTÉ's management still has not contacted them. At our last meeting, I sought a breakdown of the 157 reviews in terms of the 433 contracts. I also asked what was done, how many people were contacted and, if not, why. I sought that information last week because the workers have said that if RTÉ accepts the recommendations then the recommendations should have been implemented.

Of course.

Months have elapsed yet many of the workers have not heard anything. One way or another, can we follow on these matters?

As indicated, I think that-----

Did we follow up?

On last week?

Did we get a response?

No. These matters were brought up only last week. We have written to RTÉ.

Yes, it was only last week so we can wait another week.

Yes. We will follow up on the matter. We will note on our review of the report to follow up on the matter. The report is long and extensive with some good stuff.

The main issue is that we have to contact the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, which just noted our items but did not accept any of our recommendations. Most of the other Departments accepted the vast majority of everything that we recommended and we are following up on the implementation of those recommendations. That completes our consideration of the largest item of correspondence.

The next item of correspondence is No. 1703, from the CEO of the Local Government Management Agency, LGMA, on a request from the committee for a copy of a report arising from a value for money review of Irish public bodies. The report is subject to a non-disclosure agreement between the LGMA, Irish Public Bodies, IPB, insurance and PricewaterhouseCoopers. The CEO has written to both bodies to request their consent for LGMA to release the report and awaits a response. The secretariat of this committee will keep an eye on this matter and we will update the committee on the current position in December. We note and publish that. I think we have mentioned this matter in public session before.

No. 1725 is from the Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills regarding the structural assessments carried out in schools constructed by Western Building Systems. We agreed to note and publish this item and to request a briefing from the Department when we meet them in the New Year. When the Department of Education and Skills appears before use we will raise this matter with its representatives. We will note and publish the document that we had here last week.

No. 1731 is from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, dated 19 November 2018. This is the signed performance delivery agreement between the Department and Galway 2020. We noted an unsigned version of this document at last week's meeting so we note and publish this now.

No. 1737 is from Ms Jackie Maguire, chairperson of the County and City Management Association, dated 20 November 2018, in relation to the committee's request for a representative to attend a meeting on housing. The association has provided some information on housing but has declined our request to attend. We have already requested the association to review an earlier decision. The association states it will provide information and assistance to the Accounting Officer, that is, the Secretary General of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, who is the accountable person to the Committee of Public Accounts. I believe that members are very disappointed that senior public servants in local authorities, who are at the front line when it comes to dealing with the housing crisis, have decided not to make themselves available, on a voluntary basis, to assist the Committee of Public Accounts in its examination of matters pertaining to housing. We note and publish it. We asked for advice and assistance and never suggested that those concerned were within the remit of, or accountable to, the Committee of Public Accounts. We stressed that attendance was voluntary. I am very disappointed that senior public servants chose not to attend. We will return to the issue because we will have a second meeting to discuss the housing issue early in the new year.

I call Deputy Cullinane.

I want to note that it is unacceptable that the public servants have decided not to attend. Representatives of a number of bodies have volunteered to attend our meetings.

For example, representatives of private nursing home providers and RTÉ have done so.

We have just dealt with RTÉ issues. The non-attendance is an act of bad faith and it is not good enough to just furnish us with information. We want to examine the issue of housing and one of the biggest issues is the relationship between the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and local authorities. That is one of the obvious links, and especially in an environment where Ministers and the Department have put some of the blame and responsibility on local authorities for maybe not moving quickly enough or not being ambitious enough in terms of their own plans. I refer, for example, to local authorities not using the money that the Department claims is available. The public servants not have done themselves any favours by not coming here. They have said they will furnish information but their non-attendance here feels like a slap in the face for this committee.

As the Chairman has said, these people are not just anybody. They are CEOs and representatives of local authorities across the State. I do not think that we, as a committee, should just accept their correspondence and note it. We need to contact them again and say we have a job of work to do in terms of our evaluation of housing and processes.

They have a valuable role to play. It is instructive in terms of our work and the engagement we want with them. However, I do not think we should just note and accept this.

We will-----

We cannot compel them, or, rather, we can, but we cannot force them. We have to point out to them they have to come before us.

The Deputy is quite right. While we will publish the letter, the committee is dissatisfied with the response. We will come back to the matter because we will be discussing housing after the Christmas break. We will see what mechanism can be used in having some people who are on the front line dealing with this issue because they deal with the housing assistance payment, HAP, the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and several issues involving taxpayers' money, never mind the building programme and approving applications for approved housing bodies. It is a slap in the face to the people that the chief executives of the local authorities would collectively decide not to appear before an Oireachtas committee that is discussing housing. We will come back to that.

We could have gone directly to a number of the bigger local authorities-----

And we might.

-----and asked the CEOs to come. However, we went through the proper channels. That point should be made. We did the right thing. This is the body that represents all the CEOs of local authorities. It has a clear function. I imagine one of its functions is to help policymakers and help the Oireachtas. Why is it there in the first place if it is not prepared to come before the committee?

The Deputy is quite right. Our second letter specifically stated that individual chief executives of some local authorities might come, not representing the County and City Management Association, CCMA, but in their own capacity to help us. That option is still available and we will discuss it again. They may not come wearing the CCMA hat, but we need to see the chief executives of some local authorities here when we come back to discuss housing. That is the status of that.

Correspondence No. 1738 is from Tusla, dated 19 November, providing an update on service level agreements with third party funded agencies. We noted that the HSE has service level agreements in place with its funded organisations. Tusla had a problem in that regard and it is now fully on top of that.

Correspondence No. 1739 is from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated 16 November 2018, providing follow-up information notes requested by the committee on a large number of items.

This relates to sick days.

Sick leave, yes.

We need to be careful how we respond to this letter. It relates to people who have applied for sick leave. I do not want to cast aspersions on any individuals. The figures may point to issues in the work environment in some State bodies. The average number of sick days across the public service is 10.1. I look at those organisations with above average numbers. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is at 13 days. The Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission is at 12 days. The Prison Service is at 15.7. I do not think that will come as a surprise to some of the members here given that a whistleblower appeared before the committee in private session. Is that related to work practices? That number of 15.7 represents three full working weeks.

Some of them could be as a result of assaults.

It could be and there might be issues.

There are many of them.

Three weeks is still high. Revenue at 11.4 represents two weeks. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is at 11.2. I ask the secretariat to take a note of those that are above average and we can put them to officials from those Departments when they appear before the committee. We need a response from them when they appear. There are significant variations. For example, the Department of the Taoiseach is at 3.5 and yet Revenue is at 11.4. How do such variations arise? There might be a reason, but I would like to know the reason.

There is an excellent chart at the end of that document. It shows the number of days lost in each Department with the average being ten. There are clearly some outliers and some Departments with very low numbers of days lost to sick leave based on the 2017 figures. We will publish that.

I wish to be clear. I am not saying anything is wrong with the public servants who claim sick leave. I am just looking at the variations. The Chairman made the point that the number for the Prison Service is high for very obvious reasons. That highlights the need to look at the environment in which these people work. These are public servants who deserve our support and protection. The sick leave is high in some areas, with the Prison Service being one. In others it is less obvious why the number is high. We need to get an understanding of it. Are there problems in Revenue and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection that we should know about?

Officials from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection will be here in half an hour. After the Prison Service, that Department's level of sick leave is second highest at 13. We can put that question to the Secretary General as soon as the witnesses come in.

Protected disclosures are buried in the middle of that letter. In recent years there have been no protected disclosures in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Members might be able to help me. My memory of that exchange when we asked about protected disclosures in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform was that it was more about the Department's role in enforcement and oversight when they are not being handled well elsewhere. It deals with the action to be taken if it is not being handled well and monitoring. Based on the committee's experience of protected disclosures, we have found issues with how they are handled, the perception of people reviewing themselves etc. Maybe I am wrong, but that was what I was expecting back from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

We will come back to that topic. The Department recently issued a report on the operation of protected disclosures. It was one of the poorest reports I have ever seen published. It had no engagement with any person who had made a protected disclosure. It looked like a desktop exercise among senior officials. We will come back to that. We have noted it before.

We can address the absences with the line Departments as the officials come along. We have no problem coming back to that issue again. We note and publish that.

Correspondence No. 1743 is from the chief executive officer of IDA Ireland, providing information requested by the committee regarding the annual employment survey. We had asked for details of the annual employment survey. Obviously other schemes are done on a very specific basis through checking the numbers of people who are employed as a result of particular funded schemes operated by IDA Ireland. We asked it to outline the response rate to their surveys. Did it have a 5% or 95% response rate? The letter states that on completion of the 2017 survey the response rate stood at 94% of the total population. On the face of it, that seems like a very high response. If it had a 94% response, we can rely on the figure. We just wanted to check the veracity of the survey. On first reading, that would appear to be a good response.

The problem was not with the response rate, which is high. I have an issue with the nature of the survey which is a self-assessment survey. Was it the CEO who signed the letter?

It would be the CEO.

The CEO states that these are accurate figures. It is an assessment, an estimate. It cannot be said it is accurate because it is self-assessment. What controls are in place? What follow-up inspections take place to ensure the figures are accurate? We were never given any information to reassure us that is the case. I do not accept that these are accurate figures. While it is great that 94% of the companies complete the forms, on what basis do they fill in the forms? It is self-assessment. What is the follow up? How does IDA Ireland confirm the figures it got are accurate?

What is the confirmation process?

Exactly. My understanding is that there was none, or it was not to my satisfaction anyway.

The letter states it is carried out by an agency on behalf of IDA Ireland and not by the organisation directly. We can ask for more specific details on verification of the figures.

Correspondence No. 1744 is from the chief executive of HIQA, providing an update requested by the committee on HIQA's examination of the cost of agency staff.

In that letter, he says there has been a significant improvement in the permanent staff and that the total number of posts in HIQA was 79, an increase of 47 posts from January 2018. That seems significant. He also says requests for most of the additional staff have been approved and funding provided. If people want a copy of the workforce plan, he says he is happy to provide it to the committee. As he has offered it, we will take him up on that offer. We will ask for a copy of the workforce plan.

According to the correspondence, HIQA is dealing with the agency issue and has the resources to do it. That is great but let us see if it is actually happening. Significant issues were there previously.

We will get the copy of the workforce plan.

Given the work HIQA does, continuity of the workforce is very important, as is continuity of thought on what the organisation does.

Yes, that is very important. The next letter was from the HSE confirming that the findings and recommendations of the Hannaway report took the form of a presentation. We had asked for a fully copy of the report but the HSE says there is only a slide presentation and that is the full extent of the report.

I am surprised by that to be honest.

Nothing else seems to have been prepared.

Can we write back and ask whether, while there may not be a report, there is any relevant documentation the HSE would like to make the committee aware of?

We should also ask whether when the report was presented minutes were taken of the presentation and the discussion on it.

Absolutely. I am surprised there was no report.

There was a slide presentation but there must have been some discussion on that. Perhaps a minute was taken.

We should ask for any relevant documentation, minutes, etc.

Yes, those that were relevant to that. No. 1748 is correspondence received from the Revenue Commissioners and dated 26 November providing clarification. We spotted a wrong decimal point of a matter of 100 million in one of their letters - a part of our periodic report - and they have corrected the figures. We will publish a report next week and the correct figures will be in it.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

It was actually 1,000 million.

Yes. I think the amount in dispute was €7.01 million but it should have been counted in hundred millions.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I apologise. The figure is €176 million.

We have the correct figures for our periodic report. It shows we are watching carefully. No. 1749 from the Higher Education Authority is dated 26 November and provides information requested for our forthcoming periodic report. It is a table relating to the Munster university costs. On the second page attached, it says the committee was looking for a breakdown of direct and indirect costs. There is further information on matching funds from the HEA contribution. That is fine. We sought that information but the HEA does not give us a detailed breakdown. It has just broken it down between direct and indirect costs. We have that figure in our periodic report which will be published next week.

No. 1750 from An Garda Síochána is dated 26 November and provides information requested by the committee on a response to queries regarding the ICT directorate payment process and the extension of a project agreement on 3 December 2014 for the provision of skilled resources. The information is included in our periodic report. We will note and publish this. The Garda provides a breakdown of all the different categories under the ICT contract. In particular, it says the approach allows for the current skilled resource contract to be broken into a number of manageable contracts and for better competition under the OGP ICT skilled resources framework. Rather than to have this one massive contract going to one company, it is now being broken down into manageable amounts that can be tendered separately. There will be a bit more competition and hopefully a better result. That is progress. As such, it was good to follow that and the Garda acknowledges that. We will note and publish that.

The next matter is correspondence C, which is from private individuals. The first, dated 20 November, is from a correspondent who makes a number of interesting points in relation to developments at the University of Limerick. I propose to note this for the time being. We may consider the points when we come to consider the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on UL and Sligo IT which was published a couple of days ago. We will discuss-----

Is there a letter or email from the HEA there?

That was No. 1749.

Is that coming up?

I have just covered it.

I must have been asleep.

Yes. We asked for a breakdown of the costs between the direct costs and the indirect costs. We wanted that for the periodic report and the HEA has separated it between direct and indirect costs. That is all it has done. We have not gone any further.

We wanted a further one.

We will ask again for further.

That is what I am saying. It means we will not be able to conclude our report. We will just say we are waiting for this information.

We will conclude based on the information we have to publish a report, but we can include a sentence to say we have now requested a further breakdown and await it at the time of publication.

I thank the Chairman. Sorry about that.

We have the education sector reports the Comptroller and Auditor General has prepared, namely the Limerick-Sligo report and the Waterford report. I propose that we deal with both on the same day if possible. I read the Limerick-Sligo report several times and found it shocking. I want to be careful how I put this to the Comptroller and Auditor General, but is it the case that the University of Limerick misled his office previously on documentation? Is that his assessment?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Yes. That is the finding. The Deputy will recall that when the university's representatives were here on a previous occasion, they had to come back twice to make corrections to the information given.

If we have a university that has misled the Comptroller and Auditor General-----

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

And the Department.

-----and the Department and, possibly-----

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The committee.

-----this committee as well, it is incredible. It chimes with what we were saying when its representatives were here. We were getting push-back from these universities as to what we were asking questions for and they said we were being too tough. It goes back to this public perception, or rather the perception of some in the commentariat, that the Committee of Public Accounts is overstepping the mark and is unfair to witnesses, which I reject completely. Here is a situation in which it is very clear to us now that we had Accounting Officers before us who did not give us the information we sought and in fact may have given us inaccurate information. Certainly, it seems they gave inaccurate information to the Comptroller and Auditor General. It is quite serious and we have to come back to it. The Waterford report is not in the same space, to be fair. It is not about wrong information. My comments were on the Limerick one. However, we can deal with both on the same day.

We will put-----

If the Comptroller and Auditor General prepares special reports, we have a responsibility to follow up.

We always do. Next week, we will go through a draft work programme for the January-February period and we will have that on it.

That report is not published by the Minister.

It is out there.

It will probably be January or February before we get to that.

It will be in the new year as there is only a fortnight of the session left. We will go through our work programme for the new year next week and try to sign off on priorities from the committee's point of view and the sequence in which we want to deal with them. That is noted and published. Sorry, it is not. The letter was from an individual and we can discuss it in the context of the meeting to which we have just referred.

No. 1742 is from Deputy Catherine Murphy and concerns a proposal regarding our forthcoming meeting with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. We note this and will return to it when we are considering the work programme. Deputy Murphy can raise the matter later in the meeting when she is present also. The letter says that when the Department is in next week, she wants us to consider extending an invitation to BT, Eir, Image, Siro and Enet as they will be in a position to give evidence from a non-departmental perspective. We have that request. I propose that next week's meeting goes ahead as scheduled as we are not going to mix the private sector with the Department at such short notice. We may consider inviting some of those companies to provide us with information other than what we are hearing from the Department. Other companies came here in the past, for example, in the context of the Project Eagle report. When it came to the CervicalCheck issue, Vicky Phelan and Stephen Teap provided a very important counterbalance to what we were told by the HSE. It helped us in our work.

I am of a mind to do that but we will wait. We might discuss it in the course of the afternoon. It will not happen for next Thursday but possibly at a later date.

We then have No. 1746 from Deputy Alan Kelly, who is requesting further details from the HEA regarding the implementation of employee assistance helplines and the names of the firms providing them across all colleges. We will forward the schedule that Deputy Kelly has provided.

This is quite annoying. We made a specific request. We try to help witnesses when we are looking for information because they might not have it with them and we ask them to write back in. I asked when each institution put in an employee assistance line. They wrote back with a general response saying, "These are examples..." I do not want examples. I want to know specifically when each institution put in an employee assistance line. This just makes work. I did not mind if they did not have it in a week or two, and I was not expecting it straightaway. I have had to go and write out a table which lists off the institutions and then ask them to put in the dates when each one was put in place. This is just chasing our tails. The HEA should write to all institutions and ask them to come back within two weeks to confirm the date when they put this in place, fill that in and send it on to us.

As I say, we will send them that schedule and we will keep at them to get it fully completed.

We move to the next item, the accounts and statements received since our previous meeting, of which there are six to be reviewed. On the Social Insurance Fund, there is a clear audit opinion. The report deals with the estimated level of irregular payments in respect of certain Social Insurance Fund schemes which are material. We will be discussing this at our meeting this afternoon, so we note that. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland has a clear audit opinion. Attention is drawn to note 6 of the financial statements which sets out that the Broadcasting Authority has not had a formal contract in place with the chief executive since October 2010. Will the Comptroller and Auditor General give us the up-to-date position?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The last time we were informed, it still had not been approved. It does not have ministerial approval, which is required by law.

We are writing directly to the chairperson of the board, whose responsibility it is to ensure there is a contract in place for the chief executive, asking him to explain the position and to regularise this, and to give us the reason this has continued for all of those years.

The next is the office of the regulator of the national lottery, for which there is a clear audit opinion.

What does it do?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

It is the regulator of the national lottery. The next account is the national lottery fund.

I know the fund. We remember the unclaimed prizes. We were wondering where they went, how much they were and whether anyone was told how much was involved.

We were never given a figure.

Was the regulator given that?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The regulator knows.

The regulator knows and is satisfied. Does the Comptroller and Auditor General get told?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I am not sure if we have that but I do not see any reason that we would not have been told.

The regulator tells us we can take it from him that everything is in order and we accept that.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

We can see the workings around that.

We note that. The next item is the national lottery fund, which has a clear audit opinion. The next is the export guarantee account, for which there was no turnover for 2017. It has a clear audit opinion. Next, the National Training Fund was established to raise the skills of those in employment, to give jobseekers relevant skills and to facilitate lifelong learning, and it has received a clear audit opinion.

The next item is the work programme. We will discuss Deputy Catherine Murphy’s request to invite third parties to the broadband plan to the meeting next week. With regard to meetings, officials of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection are here today and we thought, if we did not get finished, we would bring them back on 13 December. Next week we have the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and we will deal with the broadband plan, as well as its Vote. For the following week, which is the last meeting before Christmas, on Thursday, 13 December, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection was not available to return on that date. A special report has been produced by the Comptroller and Auditor General on school transport, which might be a simple and straightforward issue to deal with on the last day before the Christmas break. That will be the sole item on that day.

To clarify, next Thursday we will deal with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

Yes, including the broadband plan.

We will deal with its Vote and with matters relating to the broadband plan. Is that correct?

On 13 December we will deal with the special report on school transport.

Yes, that is the last meeting before Christmas.

What witnesses will we have for that?

The Department of Education and Skills. We will ask it to bring CIÉ people along.

This is a real issue. I speak with some knowledge, having been in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. This is in the Department of Education and Skills, so they are the right people to bring in. However, there is a serious crossover with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. We have to consider whether we should bring in some people from that Department purely on the basis of crossover. Personally, I am not satisfied it is in the right Department and I never was. The crossover and the economies cannot be realised by this being in the Department of Education and Skills. Given we are discussing a special report, is there a view that we should bring in Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport officials as well? That is the request.

Is there a separate fund for school transport? The funding of Bus Éireann comes from different sources. There is free travel, the subsidy-----

I am fully aware of that.

The issue that is always raised is that the funding for school transport is cross-subsidising other services, or vice versa. I do not know and it is very hard to find out.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

A significant part of the expenditure by the Department of Education and Skills goes to Bus Éireann, which provides the bulk of the service and effectively manages the large-scale mobilisation. There is some other provision through grants and so on to individual parents for individual children. However, a substantial part of the spend is with Bus Éireann and it actually forms a substantial part of the turnover of Bus Éireann in the year.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I can see there is certainly an interest on the part of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in this regard.

When the Comptroller and Auditor General was doing his report, did he deal only with the Department of Education and Skills?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

We went through the Department of Education and Skills and, by agreement, that opened the door for us in Bus Éireann. I do not audit Bus Éireann.

Mr. McCarthy did not go to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

There was some contact with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport just to get its views.

Obviously, the Department of Education and Skills is the line Department for the Vote.

The assistant secretary in charge of land transport would be the appropriate person. There is a big overlap. We all have issues in regard to school transport, in particular constituency issues, and we all know the way in which it is structured. I have the bizarre scenario where some people living beside me are being told they have to go to school in Clare, although that is a side issue. The issue here is that Bus Éireann without school transport is not Bus Éireann. To be honest, we could be looking at a completely different scenario for Bus Éireann. There is also the whole overlap in regard to rural transport schemes and the connotations in that regard, and there are many other issues. I do not see how we can go through a special report without having representatives of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport here. That Department is over Bus Éireann, which provides the service, so the overlap is huge. We would be one leg of the stool short.

The Department of Education and Skills will be here and it will have a representative from Bus Éireann with it. We know the Minister's nominees on the board have a fiduciary duty to the board, not to us.

I presume there is a liaison officer between the Department and Bus Éireann.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Yes, there is one in the Department of Education and Skills.

That is the person we need.

We need the assistant secretary or whoever is the relevant person, perhaps the principal officer, in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport who manages Bus Éireann.

I agree. It is agreed that we will have the three groups here. That concludes matters for that meeting.

We will go into private session now to deal with a number of matters before the witnesses take their seats.

The committee went into private session at 10.10 a.m. and resumed in public session at 10.46 a.m.