Today, we are engaging with officials from the Department of Education and Skills. I welcome our witnesses and thank them for the briefings with which they have provided us. We will be examining the appropriation accounts of the Department for 2018 and 2019. With regard to public health guidelines, we are joined in person by Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills; Mr. Hubert Loftus, assistant secretary; and Mr. Tom Whelan, finance officer. We are also joined remotely by Mr. Gavan O'Leary, assistant secretary of the Department of Education and Skills; Ms Gráinne Swan, professional accountant; and Mr. John Howlin, principal officer in the education section of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. They are all very welcome.
I ask all those in attendance to ensure their mobile phones are on silent mode or switched off. I also ask members and witnesses to remove their masks when speaking to ensure they can be heard. When members are leaving and taking their seats, they should sanitise the area they are using.
I advise witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the provisions within Standing Order 218, which states that the committee shall refrain from "enquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a member of the Government or the merits of the objectives of such policies."
Members are also reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
While we expect witnesses to answer questions asked by the committee clearly and frankly, witnesses can and should expect to be treated fairly and with respect and consideration at all times, in accordance with witness protocol.
I now call on the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, to make his opening statement.