Business of Committee

We are joined by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, who is a permanent witness at the committee. He is joined by Ms Orla Duane, deputy director of audit.

The minutes of the meeting of 27 April have been circulated. Are they agreed? Agreed. There are no particular matters arising from the minutes, but any matters that arose can be raised as the meeting progresses.

We will proceed to correspondence. There are three categories. Category A consists of the opening statements and documents in connection with today's meeting. Nos. 2105A and 2117A are from the office of the director general of the EPA and are contained in our briefing document and opening statement. We will note and publish those. Is that agreed? Agreed.

The next item is correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers in follow up to previous meetings of the Committee on Public Accounts. The first item is No. 2092B from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director of the Health Service Executive dated 27 March 2019, providing documents relating to the national children's hospital development board. This item was circulated, referred to and discussed at last week's meeting, but we have to formally note and publish it at this stage.

There is other correspondence connected to that, to which I will come in a moment.

On related correspondence, No. 2115B is from Mr. Ray Mitchell, assistant national director, Health Service Executive, dated 12 April 2019. It provides the information requested at last week’s meeting on PwC's role in regard to the decision-making process to proceed with phase B of the new paediatric hospital and its subsequent role in carrying out a review of the escalation of costs. We will note and publish that but I want to comment on it because it is the issue I raised at the previous meeting.

We sought clarification from the HSE on this matter, which I want to deal with now publicly. It is a matter that surprised me when we saw this item of correspondence on the previous day and it is one that has not been sufficiently highlighted even though it was hiding in plain sight. I will call Deputy Cullinane shortly to outline the situation but the position is that we had a briefing note on the previous day which we noted and discussed. The report was entitled The New Children's Hospital Programme: Options Going Forward. In November 2018, to support the decision-making process for the next stage of the national children's hospital capital development project, the HSE, at the request of the Department, considered the three options which we have all discussed, namely, giving it to BAM to remain on site, putting it out to tender or the third option which it did not want to pursue. It sought specialist, high-level input from a range of health, construction and procurement specialists in regard to providing information on this matter. When this report was produced it was a decision of the Government, not of any of the people directly involved, which was made in December 2018, to proceed with keeping BAM on site. Obviously, none of the people who provided information were at the Cabinet table and involved in the decision but they had a fundamental role in providing information to the decision-making process, which resulted in the Cabinet decision to move forward.

Inside the cover of the document given to us on the previous day entitled The New Children's Hospital Programme: Options Going Forward, prepared in November of last year, which we discussed, we see that the HSE, at the request of the Department of Health, had sought input from a range of advisers, including PwC. We sought clarification on that. We have it verified here now from the HSE in the document we are publishing today, which is No. 2115B, that PwC was engaged in the process advising the HSE on the Government decision in regard to what option to take as a result of the gross maximum price report that had been considered at that stage. We then find that in January 2019, PwC was commissioned by the HSE on behalf of the Government to conduct a comprehensive review of the escalation of costs at the national children's hospital and the contributory factors associated with that.

My view, as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, is that it was inappropriate of the HSE to request PwC to carry out that report given that only two months earlier PwC, at the request of the HSE, was involved in the process reviewing the gross maximum cost and providing its professional and specialist input from a financial point of view to the HSE, which led to the decision being taken by the Government that the project would proceed with BAM. As Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, I alluded to that last week. We sought confirmation on it. The HSE has confirmed now that PwC was engaged by the HSE in regard to the options going forward and, two months later, the same company was engaged by the HSE at a cost of approximately half a million euro to examine the cost escalation. That is a gross conflict of interest as far as I am concerned.

The HSE was very wrong to commission PwC to do both reports. The HSE knew about the conflict. I do not have the full report in front of me but I recall that in that report, and Deputy Connolly highlighted this on the previous day, PwC was not requested to give conclusions as to the best options but it has one page of conclusions in the report, at page 8, at the end of its executive summary. It was not asked to do that. It made a number of recommendations on the options going forward but the conclusion it arrived at was that at that point, the best option was to proceed with the option the Government decided on. We have PwC drawing a conclusion in a report and stating that the decision that was made as a result of its previous professional input to the earlier decision-making process was the correct one in regard to proceeding. I find it extraordinary that the HSE commissioned a report which facilitated PwC giving a conclusion that the earlier decision to proceed with the option of leaving BAM on site was the correct decision, given that PwC were the professional advisers who led to that earlier decision being made.

When the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board witnesses come before the committee in a couple of weeks after the break we will have the people from the HSE and the Department of Health before us also to discuss this conflict of interest. We know there is only a limited number of companies. They said they were on a procurement framework but they should have had the knowledge to not appoint the same company two months apart to engage in different aspects of the same project. I think I have made my point clearly. Deputy Cullinane indicated first and he will be followed by Deputy Connolly and Deputy Catherine Murphy.

First and foremost, I would agree with the Chairman's observations. The first comment I would make is that it seems that PwC was paid twice for the same advice, and the taxpayer paid for it. There is a contradiction in the briefing note we got from the HSE. It states that advice was given and that the advice was specialist, high-level input. That is not low-level input. That is very specialised, high-level advice and input that was given by HSE estates, which it is obliged to give, PwC and the Northern Ireland health and social care system. It was one of three pillars that were giving very high-level specialist advice on the three options. That involved construction, procurement and many of the issues that subsequently were at the heart of the cost overruns.

The last line states that the HSE is satisfied that there is no conflict of interest. I am not satisfied. I do not believe the Chairman is satisfied. Other members of the committee can make their own minds up but for me there was a clear conflict of interest in regard to it. It states that following the Government's decision in January 2019, PwC was commissioned by the HSE on behalf of the Government to conduct a comprehensive review that looked at contributory factors, associated responsibilities and potential weaknesses. As far as I am concerned there is a breathtaking conflict of interest in that. On the one hand, it can give that high-level input into a process and then be the organisation that comes and gives the so-called independent analysis. That is a worry.

If the Chairman recalls, we had asked them very clearly when they were before us if there were any conflicts of interest.

I would want more information from them. I would want to know exactly the nature of this specialist high-level input. It is not good enough to just give us a paragraph stating it provided high-level input. What was the nature of it? How much did the advice PwC gave cost? On what exactly was it advising? At what senior level was it in PwC? We do not know the volume of work PwC did but we can only take at face value what is here, namely, specialist high-level input. We need a much deeper breakdown of that because we need to be fair to the organisation as well. It is being disingenuous in saying it was not involved in the subsequent decision making. Of course it was not. The Government makes the decisions. That is a clear sleight of hand and an attempt to try to pull the wool over our eyes. No consultancy firm is involved in decision making but they are involved in compiling reports which help the Government make decisions, and the Government relies on that advice. Without a doubt, at a level PwC was involved in-----

The process.

-----the decision-making process but it was not the decision maker. To say that is the justification is a bit much. We need to go back to PwC, thank them and say that we do not agree there were no conflicts of interest. That is not my view. We will hear from other members, and the committee will have to form a view, but we need a further breakdown of the costs, what exactly PwC did and the input it had into the process.

I thank the Chairman for raising this last week. I had the report with me last week-----

So did I.

-----but I do not have it with me today.

It is entitled to reach any conclusions it likes, but it was not asked. It did not relate to the terms of reference.

Or the contents of the report.

The Chair is correct. There was no evidence justifying the conclusion reached, and it certainly did not relate to the terms of reference. I am subject to correction on that but I could not see where it related.

We asked previously whether there was a conflict of interest, as the Deputy has said. We were told there was no such conflict of interest in the appointment of PwC. I raised this matter in the Dáil last night. It is worrying that the Minister repeated that the Government is relying on the conclusions reached by PwC. It has been careful to say that the PwC conclusions concur with its own, but it is relying on the PwC conclusion that there is no option but to proceed with the build. That conclusion is quoted ad nauseam, and it is worrying.

What was PwC paid? Was there a written report when it was asked for high-level input? Was the Government aware, when it commissioned PwC for this report, costing over €500,000, that it had already completed a report? In general, I find this type of response most unhelpful. When we get a line to say that the Government was not involved in the decision making process, that is an insult to the Committee on Public Accounts. It would never happen that it would be left to make a decision, otherwise we would be in even more trouble that we are in. Things get more difficult when this is the example being set, on a repeated basis, for governance. There are general implications from this. Was there a written report? Was PwC paid? Was the Government aware that PwC was involved before it was commissioned again at a cost of over €500,000?

I agree completely with the point made about conflict of interest. It is not only the fact that there was a double payment, but also the fact that that information was relied on to make a decision. Anyone making a decision will want expert advice in order to ground that decision. If that expert advice is in conflict it causes a corruption of the process, as I see it. It is really important that we get the correct people before the committee, namely, those from the HSE who made the decision. We have been told about Chinese walls. I am fairly sick of hearing that being offered as an excuse for why the same companies can be relied upon. We have to know whether it was the same arm of this company that carried out both pieces of work. I suspect that it was, because a body of work had already been carried out.

It strikes me that there should be some procurement rules, and if there are none we have to look for gaps in the commissioning of work. It is not just a box to be ticked. Corporate culture will help to avoid those kinds of conflicts. We have to find out whether there are procurement rules involved and how they consider it and manage it. We need to hear that from the HSE. We have to have the correct people here to discuss this matter, because this is of enormous importance. Only this morning there was a news item concerning the over-dominance of the four big accountancy companies in the UK. It is exactly the same here. There is also a question, wider than the remit of the Committee on Public Accounts but which might find its way into a report at some point, around whether we design rules which do not allow other entities into that space. I suspect that we make it much more difficult for middle-ranking firms to compete, and we need to look at that, because it could have a bearing on value for money.

Deputy Catherine Murphy hit on a very important point. If individuals in PwC were involved in both processes then there is a problem. It would be problematic if someone who was involved in giving high-level specialist advice was also involved in assisting, preparing, signing off on or writing the other report. It is correct to say that there are arms of these organisations that specialise in certain areas, but there are also individuals involved here. The question of whether there was an overlap and whether any individuals from PwC were involved in both processes should be asked.

We have discussed the issue, and we are going to write to the HSE raising the following specific points. We want to deal with the issue of conflict of interest. There was much public commentary about possible conflict of interest from the BAM side, but the Department should have been aware of this issue because it was very much in the public domain. We want clarification on what steps were taken around potential conflict of interest. We also want to know the nature of the specialist high-level input, and how much PwC was paid for that and for the report, and whether any staff involved were involved in both reports. There may have been a different person signing off on the reports, but there may have been crossover. We have to know what the HSE did to ensure independence. We need a copy of that written report. The HSE is to get PwC's consent for that report to be sent straight to us, rather than going through that rigmarole for another fortnight. Were the Minister, the Department and the Government aware of the fact that PwC was involved in the earlier process or was the Minister kept in the dark? If so, why was that the case? We also want to know where in the report is the evidence to back up the conclusion reached in the report to the effect that the option taken was the best option. The conclusion just lands on page 8, and we need to know-----

That has to be very clear. We saw from the letter we received that PwC is being very vague. We need to know exactly what is meant by "high-level input". They need to be very comprehensive about costs and precise definitions of what "high-level input" means. Deputy Connolly asked if that means written reports, and I imagine that it does.

Presumably PwC was given a brief at some point. We want to see the brief it was given for the HSE's earlier report.

I highlighted the conclusion previously, and again today. It is written in a very strange way.

I did not quite understand it. Was PwC saying that it was making a conclusion or was it referring back to the original decision that was made, where it was concluded that completing the work at St. James's was the only option? It was not clear to me, but it is clear that it has been stuck into this report again. I am not sure whether it is saying that the conclusion reached is its categorical conclusion or whether it is referring back to the previous conclusion. Either way it is of significance.

We will ask for the paragraph containing the conclusion to be clarified. I read it, and there is a different tense used. It is saying "at that time", which is past tense, and the sentence says that it is the right decision. The tense changed, which is extraordinary for a professional report. The first half of the sentence is past tense and the second half is the present tense. I find it unclear, and Deputy Connolly spotted the same thing.

I do not know what PwC is getting at. We want clarification for what that actually means. It does not read clearly.

We also want to know about the procurement framework. I understand that, like many public bodies, it has a procurement framework in place. Local authorities have them; if they have to get work done they have a group of people who are pre-approved as part of a tender framework and who can be called at short notice because of that. We want to know how many companies were approved on that framework in terms of the health issue? Was there only one or were there several? If there were several why was this one, which was already involved, chosen again?

There has to be some consideration of the potential conflict in the selection of the company that will do the work.

We want the HSE to clarify that. We are not here next week but we are asking for a reply within a maximum of ten days.

And the right people in front of us.

We have a meeting scheduled with the representatives of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board after the Easter break. The key people from the HSE will have to be here as part of that process. We just find that the paediatric hospital board is well down the pecking order in terms of where the decisions get made. That was the main item of correspondence.

The next item is No. 2101B, from Ms Rhonda Evans, communications manager, National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, dated 10 April 2019. This is in response to our request to publish the Mazars report on the preliminary observations on the construction of the national children's hospital. The board has published this document and it is available on its website. We have discussed it before. It is just a matter of allowing us to publish it formally. PwC was involved in November and a Mazars report on costs was issued in December. PwC is to report again in February. Professional consultants are being brought in month by month at this rate.

The next item is No. 2102B, received from Mr. Crónan Goodman, Office of the Secretary General, Department of Justice and Equality, providing material on the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service and the Reception and Integration Agency. This was provided in hard copy at the meeting last week. We discussed it at length at the meeting. We are just formally noting it.

The next item is No. 2103B from Mr. John Conlon, assistant secretary, Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, providing an evaluation of the JobPath scheme. At our meeting on 29 November 2018, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection undertook to forward the report to the committee when it was completed. The evaluation, which was a collaboration between the Department and the OECD, concludes that the JobPath scheme has been successful in helping jobseekers not only to secure employment but to improve earnings in employment. We will note and publish this. We referred to the JobPath issue in our interim report. The two documents we are publishing may well be in the public domain at this stage. Members may comment as they see fit.

There has been a lot of criticism. We are told an unemployment rate of 5% is really close to full employment. Obviously, there is a bit of movement among people and so forth. We are paying quite a large amount of money for the scheme. People from around the country, not only members' constituencies, do not ring about this for no reason. When one starts hearing the same things from different places, one notes a pattern. I am deeply unhappy with the scheme. The OECD may well look at it at a high level but I am referring to how it is functioning in reality. I am not sure that much of what is being done actually assists people in getting work. I am hearing that people are routinely coming in - maybe the routine is part of it - and are told to look up material they could look up at home on websites. Matching people to employment sometimes results in matching them to kinds of employment to which they are not suited. I have come across people with pretty decent education who are being matched with security work. It is not the right fit and it will not be sustainable in the longer term. If we are to rely on the scheme or if we are to renew the process, much more is needed. I am very concerned that a responsibility is being outsourced that should properly be the responsibility of the Department.

We are just noting the two reports – the working paper, or the evaluation of JobPath outcomes for the last quarter of 2016, printed by the Department, and the report on satisfaction with JobPath service providers.

I declare a conflict of interest in that I have called for JobPath to be scrapped, so anything I say should be seen clearly in that context. The total cost was €163 million. The number of participants in full-time employment for more than 12 months was actually quite low. That was the issue we had raised with those concerned. The other point that needs to be put into context when we are given the figures is that there was a recovering economy. People were getting jobs naturally. It is hard in that case to establish how effective JobPath was or what additionality it resulted in, even for those who may have gone through its programme. There are many, with whom we are dealing in our constituency offices, who had very bad experiences. This is only one element. We were looking at it more from a cost perspective. I do not believe we were getting value for money. I am all for labour activation programmes that work and add value, but it is very difficult to conclude, in a recovering economy, that we got value for money. I argue we did not given that there were more jobs being created naturally in the economy and given the very small number in sustained employment under the scheme. Some of the individuals went through the programme a second time. This also has to be noted. Obviously, the organisations will defend their expenditure and themselves but I would not subscribe to the view that we got value for money. Given, however, that I have called for JobPath to be scrapped, that should be noted as well.

I certainly have serious concerns. I am not sure how we can deal with them at the Committee of Public Accounts. We all have our opinions. I happen to agree with my two colleagues. How do we achieve value for money? The scheme does not result in value for money. Two weeks ago, I met representatives of the Local Employment Service Network in Galway. There are serious problems on the ground in respect of this organisation. The quality of the services offered is not measured. I refer to the quality of the services offered on so many levels that have nothing to do with filling out a CV. The skills are empowering people - people who will perhaps never hold down a full-time job but who do other things as a result of the network on the ground helping them. They must be included in the equation when valuing.

Consider the gobbledegook language. There is a conclusion referring to some disimprovement in the number of clients completely agreeing. There is agreeing and completely agreeing. That is on page 23. More than three out of five clients agree that training courses were of good quality. Therefore, two out of five do not. Three out of four, or more than three quarters, agree. The language is being used in a way to justify a scheme that is not indicating value for money. It is a misuse of language.

Those are my comments. I am obviously not here to make personal comments but I would not be reassured that value for money is being achieved. Ultimately, that is what we are about. If we are to consider value for money, all the other criteria have to be taken into account in respect of what the organisations on the ground that are not for profit are imparting to people on the ground, thereby saving the State a fortune. That is value for money. I refer to where skills are imparted to help people live an independent life. Those concerned might not hold down a job but they can do many other good things. Perhaps with the help of the Comptroller and Auditor General in due course and the Chairman, we might examine how value for money is measured and what should go into the pot. What the Local Employment Service Network is doing is not put into the pot to measure.

It is not counted, as such. There is a suggestion for the Comptroller and Auditor General.

It is just a matter of teasing it out in some way. I have not teased out-----

It is not a request. It is a suggestion.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Members will recall that I produced a chapter last year on JobPath but it did not address the value for money issue. I was aware, and did report, that the organisation was undertaking these exercises. We will look at those and perhaps come back to the committee in regard to them. They are very complex and it will take some time to examine the methodology, conclusions and robustness.

It might be something to examine when representatives from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection next appear before the committee.

We included a chapter on JobPath in our earlier periodic report. I will ask the secretariat to go back through our recent periodic reports immediately. We have received the formal response from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform regarding our previous communication. I do not think we have received a response from the Department regarding some of our previous periodic reports, however. We want to have that response when we are back here in two weeks. I am referring to the earlier periodic report which addressed this issue. I am sure the response from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will refer to this issue and that it will consult the line Department. When we get that note from the Department, we follow up on the recommendations we made in our second last periodic report.

I am stressing that I want the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to get its replies back to this committee in a timely manner. There have been unacceptable delays in replying to us, and these include a response to recommendations made last year about matters being considered in the Estimates. The Department took so long to respond to our report on that occasion that it stated the Estimates process had concluded when it did eventually reply. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is taking too long to respond to these reports. I know it is a busy Department but this concerns public accountability. It should be a key function of public accountability that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform would respond to the reports of the Committee of Public Accounts in a timely manner. We want this matter dealt with as quickly as possible.

This scheme is due to be renewed or reviewed, and I think that consideration will happen this year. I could, however, be wrong about that. Can we find out when that is happening?

As a result of the reports we have received today, we will write directly to the Department concerning this issue and the timeframe involved.

If that is being relied on-----

We know.

It is a great deal of money.

We will also ask if there are any rollover provisions, whether this goes back out to tender or whether the two present companies have the contract.

No. 2106B, dated 11 April, is from Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General at the Department of Justice and Equality, and provides information requested by the committee following previous correspondence in respect of the Prison Service. We asked for an update regarding compensation paid in cases of prisoners who died from self-inflicted injuries in custody since 2017. We have been told that there have been no payments. We also asked about potential claims or claims lodged in respect of an outbreak of tuberculosis within the Irish Prison Service. The response from the Department of Justice and Equality advises that the State Claims Agency has stated that it has received 100 claims. Of those, 66 were concluded on 25 January 2019. Further information has been requested.

We will write to the State Claims Agency asking it to supply information regarding the sums of money involved and the estimated cost for dealing with the remaining cases. We will also request information on whether any confidentiality agreements were attached to the conclusion of those 66 claims. I have not seen reference to that in public. Representatives from the State Claims Agency will appear before this committee in due course. More importantly, we also want to know the learning process for the Prison Service to ensure health issues such as this are prevented in future. In this instance, there was not just a lack of prevention but the disease spread to 100 people. We need a response on this issue. We will note and publish this.

No. 2116B, dated 12 April 2019, is from Ms Susanna Lyons, head of regulation with the Housing Agency, and provides the clarification requested by the committee regarding the number of housing units and a breakdown of the roles performed by the 10,000 staff in approved housing bodies, AHBs. It is stated that housing is only a small fraction of the work undertaken by many of the organisations that are approved housing bodies. Some of those bodies are charities and many deal with several other issues that are primarily funded in the context of the health service, such as patient care, health and social care, professional support day services, respite services and management of administration. The correspondence also gives a further breakdown of the information.

I will pick one as an example. The Irish Wheelchair Association has 2,638 staff but only 46 houses. The way this information was presented the last time we dealt with this matter could have led to an interpretation that there are 10,000 people in these charities dealing with housing. It is stated that the actual number of staff directly involved with housing is 1,236. A further breakdown of the information stated that 85% of the previous figure was given in respect of 12 or 13 major charities and it went on to give the number of staff in each charity involved with housing. Only 1,236 of the 10,000 staff in all of those organisations are involved in housing. That is important. We are doing a periodic report on housing shortly and that is an important clarification of information. We will note and publish this.

No. 2093C, dated 8 April 2019, is from an individual requesting the committee to pursue an investigation into a matter raised with this committee almost 20 years ago. The correspondent is seeking the release of precedential test cases used by the Social Welfare Appeals Office to determine issues in respect of employment, self-employment or bogus self-employment. The individual concerned has been in touch with the Office of the Ombudsman and the Social Welfare Appeals Office. He has also asked for the precedent from the High Court. I am not sure if the precedent being used is internal or is based on a court decision. If it is a court decision, then is it in the public domain and I do not see any issue with that.

We will write to the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and ask for the rationale being relied on regarding these test cases. We are here to protect the taxpayer. There might be a good reason it is in the taxpayers' interest to not publish all of the information the Social Welfare Appeals Office uses to arrive at decisions of this type. It might perhaps be the case that if it was known how these decisions were arrived at, it might be possible to navigate a way around potential issues at a cost to the taxpayer. We do not want to bring about the release of any confidential information that could be used against interests of taxpayers. We do, however, want to see the rationale being used. We will see what response we will get and then determine if we want to pursue this matter further. We will note and publish this.

No. 2099C, dated 9 April 2019, is from an individual alleging a waste of public moneys by the Road Safety Authority, RSA, in the production of a compact disc, CD, for people with disabilities. The amount involved is €35,000. The correspondent states that the CD could have been produced at a much lower cost through the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI. We will write to the RSA, including correspondence from the individual and the NCBI, regarding the manuals and, in particular, people with dyslexia who are taking tests. We will forward this correspondence to the RSA and ask for a detailed note in response.

No. 2109C, dated 8 April 2019, is from an individual who has previously written to the committee regarding the election observer roster. The correspondent believes that the information provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is defamatory. The secretariat has reviewed the paragraph and no individual is mentioned. I propose we advise the correspondent to raise the matter directly with the Department. If the Department wishes to take its own legal advice on the matter and the result is a desire for the committee to have a correction inserted in the record, we will be happy to do so. We did not, however, identify anybody. The person concerned may feel that he or she was identified but he or she was not identified by this committee. If this matter comes back to us through the Department with a recommendation to re-examine it, we can note what is requested at that stage.

No. 2113C, dated 11 April 2019, is from an individual alleging fraud and criminality in Meath County Council in respect of public contracts and alleged conflicts of interest. We had similar correspondence on this matter but the local authorities do not fall within the remit of this committee. We will write to the correspondent to state that this matter is not within the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts and to suggest that he or she writes to the local government auditor or the appropriate office that carries out audits for local authorities.

No. 2118C, dated 15 April 2019, is from Deputy Catherine Murphy with a query for the Comptroller and Auditor General regarding grant payments from the reconciliation fund.

Many different Departments allocate money from the reconciliation fund to sporting bodies. It is a relatively small amount of money and my query is to see if spot checks are carried out when these payments are made.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Deputy Murphy's correspondence refers to spot checks made by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of grants from this reconciliation fund. There is also reference to spot checks made by my office on reconciliation fund grant payments. Those are two different things.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The Department would have the option to carry out spot checks where it gives grants and where it makes that a condition of the grant. We would be looking at the Department's controls over the payment of such grants.

I checked the transaction referred to. It dates back a number of years. It is an amount of €25,000. The total spend on the subhead it came from was €9 million in the year. We did not pick this one to look at the controls, but if the question is whether we would carry out spot checks in organisations that are grant funded, the answer is "No". That is not available to me.

I thank Mr. McCarthy.

If the Chairman has completed the correspondence, I just want to go back to one letter.

That is the end of the statements on correspondence.

On 12 April, the committee received a very helpful letter from the head of regulation at the Housing Agency, and I would like to comment on this. It was very helpful and I thank Ms Lyons for sending the information, which was very instructive. With regard to value for money, on the housing assistance payment, HAP, we are aware that €431 million was the projected figure this year alone, and that is rising. The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, is long-term and short-term leasing. I see from the Housing Agency figures that the Cope Foundation has 960 staff and just 57 units. I am aware of another Cope organisation in Galway, but I am not commenting on that, or on Ability West, which is very good, and I am not choosing any specific projects, but I am looking at the Cope Foundation figure of 960 staff. I thought this was to deal with homelessness but it has only 57 units while also having 960 staff. Let us consider that the city council is struggling in this regard. Last week we received a letter from the council to say it could not meet us with regard to housing because it does not have enough staff and no place to meet. In the middle of all of this, I ask the Comptroller and Auditor General where we deal with value for money in the context of 10,000 people who are homeless in a housing crisis and a listing for an organisation of almost 1,000 staff?

They are people working in the charities.

People working in charities. There are glossy documents and a million things. Obviously we need organisations working on the ground and I am not commenting on that. I am commenting on the use of money and value for money, with a crisis that is intensifying. Where is the balance between straying into politics and looking at value for money in our housing programmes? The figure of 960 staff in the Cope Foundation jumps out at me. There are 600 staff in Ability West and 433 in KARE, but I do not know who they are-----

That is KARE in Kildare.

Is that similar to the Cope Foundation or is it different?

That would be a disability unit.

The Peter McVerry Trust has 228 staff and so on. In addition we have the Ombudsman talking about no value for money in relation to the modular homes - he might not have used that language - and no assessment being done on what they are giving. A figure used for modular homes was €100 million. It would be remiss of me not to say something here about no value for money in what is happening given that the crisis is intensifying.

Part of our problem is that we have huge fragmentation. Charities are doing work that should be done by public services. There is a problem in that we are finding it hard even to get a coherent map of who does what and where. It is very difficult to test value for money when there is that kind of fragmentation. It is not that there is not very good work being done by all of these organisations but they are doing the core work as opposed to additional work and there is a fragmentation of services. If there is good organisation embedded in one location, a person may get a different outcome. The lack of coherence is part of the problem and a value for money issue is part of that. A big reform piece is needed.

The Deputies are correct. The issue of those working on the housing side of things will come up in a report that we will try to do on broadband and housing, before our periodic report, to deal with these two big issues that we have been dealing with over recent months. We want to flag this issue for the HSE when it comes into the committee. It is clear from the schedule that most of the employees of these organisations are paid for through the HSE and they would be section 39 organisations. There has been much discussion around section 38 organisations but I am aware that the section 39 organisations have improved their corporate governance and that service level agreements are in place across the board. We are, however, back to a situation with the HSE's policy of not providing services such as home help, for example. Everything is done through agencies. Sometimes there are houses with three different agencies providing different levels of home help over the course of one week. Sometimes the agencies cannot recruit staff. The HSE appears to have divested itself of one of its core activities. This is a policy of privatisation, full stop. The HSE has consistently reduced the number of its home help staff over the years and has outsourced the service. Regardless of whether it is policy for the HSE, we will put the value for money issue, in the context of all the outsourced services, onto our agenda for the meeting with the HSE when it comes into the committee before the summer on its annual financial statement. We will have an opportunity to come back to this value for money element though those section 39 organisations. I thank the Deputy for bringing us back to that item.

There is one account to be noted that was laid in the Oireachtas over the past week - members will see that on screen - which is the National Gallery of Ireland, and it is a clear audit opinion. It is very straightforward and we do not have to discuss it. This is noted.

There are no significant changes to the committee's work programme since last week so we will discuss it again after the break. I note that we have agreed to do a report on the broadband issue and the housing issue. I ask the secretariat to have documents sent to members before we return after the Easter break so we can move immediately to clear those, if possible. We can discuss them when we see them. The plan was to get those two sections out of the way and we will then resume our normal periodic report. I am just confirming an earlier decision. The committee will just do its best to clear both of those as early as possible after the break.

There are no other items so I propose to suspend the meeting briefly.

Sitting suspended at 9.57 a.m. and resumed at 10.02 a.m.