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Tuesday, 22 Jun 2021

Business of Committee

Apologies have been received from Deputy Catherine Murphy. We are joined remotely by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, as a permanent witness. I welcome everyone online to the meeting. Due to the current situation with Covid-19 only the clerk, the support staff and I are in the committee room. Members are attending remotely from within the precincts of Leinster House. This is due to the constitutional requirement that in order to participate in public meetings members must be physically present within the confines of the place the Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House or the convention centre. I will ask members to confirm their location before contributing to ensure they are adhering to this constitutional requirement. I ask those in attendance to mute themselves when not contributing so we do not pick up background noise or feedback. I also ask them to use the "raise hand" feature when they wish to contribute and cancel it when they have finished. As usual, I ask people to keep mobile phones on silent or switched off.

Members are reminded of the provision in Standing Order 218 that the committee shall refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government or the merits of the objective of such policies. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The business before us today is the minutes of previous meetings, accounts and statements, correspondence, the draft work programme and any other business. The first business is the minutes of meetings of 1 and 3 June, which have been circulated to members. Does any member wish to raise a matter in relation to the minutes? Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee's web page.

The next matter is accounts and financial statements. Four sets of financial statements and accounts were laid before the Dáil between 14 and 18 June. These are now appearing on screen. They are from Dundalk Institute of Technology, the Private Security Authority, the National Asset Management Agency and Údarás na Gaeltachta. The Comptroller and Auditor General issued a clear audit opinion in relation to the accounts but our attention is drawn by him to certain matters in the accounts of Dundalk Institute of Technology and Údarás na Gaeltachta. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to address the accounts and statements before opening the floor to members.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I want to point out to members that three of the sets of accounts relate to periods of account ending in 2019. These are the accounts for Dundalk Institute of Technology, the Private Security Authority and Údarás na Gaeltachta. A number of these are late in being presented. Following the committee's procedure, it will probably want to follow up and get explanations on these.

With regard to Dundalk Institute of Technology, the code of governance for institutes of technology requires a review by the institute's governing authority of the system of control in the period of account. This usually has to be carried out at or near the end of the year, and up to three months after the end of the period of account is allowed. In Dundalk's case this was not carried out until six months after the end of the financial period.

With regard to Údarás na Gaeltachta, I draw attention to a disclosure in the statement on internal control of weaknesses in the management and control of a capital project where the budget was €1.2 million for refurbishment of an industrial property but it ended up costing €3.5 million. The board of Údarás na Gaeltachta has put in place further measures to improve the controls over capital projects as a result.

The accounts of the National Assets Management Agency are for 2020. The turnover in the year was €274 million and there is a clear audit opinion.

Mr. McCarthy mentioned with regard to Údarás na Gaeltachta that the matter he is concerned about relates to an industrial property. Where was the industrial property? The estimated cost for refurbishment, if I heard Mr. McCarthy correctly, was €1.2 million but subsequently it cost in the region of €3 million. Will Mr. McCarthy give us a little bit more detail about this?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The detail is on pages 3 and 4 of the statement on internal control. The property is in the Meath Gaeltacht, in Ráth Chairn. The original budget for the project was €1.2 million but it ended up costing €3.5 million. The difficulty was that the board of Údarás na Gaeltachta was not aware of the escalation of costs so there were obvious control failures there. The project increased in scope and the board was not aware of it until quite late in the process.

As normal, we will write to Dundalk Institute of Technology regarding the late review of the internal control which, as the Comptroller and Auditor General outlined, should have happened within a three-month period. I will ask the clerk to write to Dundalk Institute of Technology regarding this.

Are the accounting statements agreed? Agreed. They will be published as part of the minutes. We have a standing agreement to write to the bodies that are late laying their accounts before the Houses of the Oireachtas, in this case Dundalk Institute of Technology, as well as with regard to significant expenditure not compliant with procurement guidelines. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Moving to correspondence, as agreed, correspondence that was not flagged for discussion for this meeting will continue to be dealt with in accordance with the proposed actions that have been circulated, and decisions taken by the committee on correspondence are recorded in the minutes of the committee's meetings and published on the committee's web page.

The first four items of correspondence have been held over from previous private meetings for consideration in today's public meeting. The first category of correspondence under which members have flagged items for discussion is correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts.

No. 606B is a comprehensive response from Mr. Adam O'Hare, director of finance and procurement, Beaumont Hospital, dated 21 May 2021. It provides information requested by the committee on non-compliant procurement. It is an example of the responses we receive to our requests for explanations for instances of significant expenditure not in compliance with procurement guidelines. Interestingly, Mr. O’Hare states:

... compliance with the public procurement regulations poses a greater challenge to the health sector than to most other public sector organisations. Historically, the over-arching remit to provide rapid clinical care, coupled with the absence of an effective centralised purchasing model managed by the HSE, have dictated that local purchases were occasionally made, of necessity, without recourse to formal tendering procedures.

At our meeting of 1 June we decided to note and publish this. Deputy Carthy flagged the matter for discussion.

We were meant to have the HSE before the committee before the summer break to discuss procurement, but it appears that will not now happen. In that context, it is worth highlighting that Beaumont appeared to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of the HSE, stating that, aside from the remit to provide clinical care, there has historically been an "absence of an effective centralised purchasing model managed by the HSE". That is a direct quote. Assuming that the HSE visit will now take place sometime in the autumn, it would be useful if we could clarify with Beaumont whether that absence is indeed historical, whether it has been addressed in full by health business services, HBS, or whether it considers the issue ongoing. It would be useful also if we could ask the other voluntary hospitals to present a similar submission to get a broader overview ahead of that engagement with the HSE.

I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to come in on this. We have addressed this issue of the absence of a centralised procurement model within the HSE a number of times. It is something that has been promised, and deadlines have been missed or, more correctly, targets to have it in place have been pushed out further and further.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Obviously, there has been a systemic problem, and no doubt there are challenges in the health sector in achieving competitive procurement. The table included at point 5 on page 2 of the submission is interesting in that it compares the five major teaching hospitals in Dublin and one can see that Beaumont Hospital and St. James's Hospital have the highest level of tendering. They are publishing tenders to the market. The other three have much lower levels of public competitive tendering. What is instructive in that is that my office audits the first two, Beaumont and St. James's, and one can see that the pressure we and the committee have been putting on in seeking explanations has had an effect in ensuring there is competitive procurement. I think Beaumont has made the point that between 2018 and 2019, it significantly increased the level of its expenditure that was competitively procured and compliant with the rules. That is an indication that, although there are challenges, it can be done. It is partly a responsibility on the hospitals, but certainly with a centralised procurement function assisting hospitals, much better competitive and compliant procurement can be achieved.

I think a number of years ago, in the lifetime of the previous committee, the HSE reported to the committee about an exercise it was undertaking looking at the compliance by voluntary hospitals, section 38 hospitals, with the code of practice. One of the sticking points for many of the hospitals was compliance with the procurement rules. Pressure does need to be kept up to ensure there is proper competitive procurement.

Thank you for that, Mr. McCarthy. I take it that Beaumont and St. James's are the two hospitals the Comptroller and Auditor General audits. The Mater Misericordiae University Hospital, St. Vincent's University Hospital and Tallaght Hospital are voluntary hospitals, as I understand it.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

That is correct. They are all what are called section 38 hospitals. Only five of the section 38 hospitals are within my remit. It is an historical issue, but I have never been the auditor of the others.

While we are looking at Beaumont Hospital, there was a public tendering procedure conducted in 43 cases in Beaumont Hospital in 2020, whereas in Tallaght Hospital, which is quite a large hospital, the figure is only six. Deputy Carthy, could you restate your proposal? That we write to-----

In the first instance, the committee should get an appraisal from Beaumont Hospital as to whether it thinks these issues have been addressed by HBS. Second, I understand what the Comptroller and Auditor General says about remit, but I think it would be useful if we were to write to all the other voluntary hospitals asking them for an overview of their procurement policies.

Is that agreed? Mr. McCarthy signalled to come back in again.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Yes. Because the HSE has carried out this exercise of reviewing the procurement practice, among other governance issues, it may be a better starting point to ask the HSE for the latest information it has on the procurement compliance of the section 38 hospitals. That might give the committee a better starting point if it is going to carry out a survey or direct correspondence with the individual hospitals. It is just a suggestion.

I accept that entirely. I thank Mr. McCarthy.

We will ask the clerk to issue that correspondence to the HSE and we will take the matter from there. Is that agreed? Agreed.

No. 621B is from Ms Vivienne Flood, head of public affairs, RTÉ, dated 28 May 2021, providing information requested by the committee arising from the Committee of Public Accounts meeting of 27 April 2021. At our meeting of 15 June we agreed to note and publish this correspondence. Regarding question No. 6, in which RTÉ was asked to clarify whether it intends to follow the BBC in publishing a register outlining the external events undertaken by its staff in journalism, the response states that this is managed internally and that fees are not published to preserve "confidentiality of contract". At our meeting of 15 June we decided to note and publish this correspondence. We also agreed to request RTÉ first of all to clarify whether it intends to bring any degree of transparency to non-RTÉ-related work undertaken by its staff to ensure public confidence in the impartiality of the State broadcaster; second, to notify the committee if and when Revenue determines if further payments are required in respect of the engagement of contractors; third, to notify the committee of the outcome of a related Department of Social Protection audit; and, fourth, to provide further information on legal costs and settlements. We reiterated our request that RTÉ conduct a comparative review of remuneration for certain roles at RTÉ and Raidió na Gaeltachta as well as our request that RTÉ inform the committee how much it has already had to pay to Revenue in respect of the engagement of contractors. That had to do with people being classified as contractors or self-employed when subsequently, after an investigation, they were deemed to be categorised more as employees. These matters will arise again when we receive further responses from RTÉ. Deputy Munster flagged this item.

Much of this response arose out of RTÉ's misclassification of workers as self-employed. We all know that this practice and the use of freelancers as staff are rife in the media. Let us call it what it is: it is bogus self-employment. It does not do RTÉ any credit to drag its heels. It creates an air of a lack of transparency. We asked RTÉ some weeks ago to respond to the committee to reveal how much it had paid to Revenue to date. At the moment, RTÉ is not even dragging its heels; it has not even bothered to respond to us. It is as if it is hoping to run down the clock before the summer recess.

What date did we ask for a response? On what date did we last write to RTÉ about this?

We will check that and come back to the Deputy on it. Is that okay?

We have to check it on the system. Do you have any other questions or issues you wish to raise?

I ask that we write to RTÉ again seeking answers to the exact questions we asked.

Thank you. I call Deputy Carthy.

I am glad that RTÉ journalists are better at getting answers than their management is at giving them. Otherwise, the "Six One News" in the evening would last for about four minutes. It is unacceptable for a public service broadcaster, which is largely funded through the compulsory contributions of households, to evade benign and understandable questions from this committee. As Deputy Munster said, it is unthinkable that we now know, after a great deal of toing and froing, that RTÉ made a settlement with the Revenue Commissioners, but it has not indicated exactly how much that was. That is not good enough and I agree with Deputy Munster's proposal that we write to RTÉ again and that we do not let this issue drop until we a get a full engagement.

As regards the proposition that we put to RTÉ with regard to the fact that the BBC is publishing a register that outlines the external events undertaken by its on-air staff, that is a welcome development on the part of the BBC. It ensures that the integrity of public service broadcasting is maintained into the future. We asked RTÉ about its plans in this regard and, essentially, it is referring to confidentiality again. RTÉ loves confidentiality, but confidentiality precludes it from disclosing this. It made no reference as to whether it will even consider this in the future. I suggest that in our follow-up correspondence we ask RTÉ whether this will form a basis of future deliberations. I do not mind a situation where an organisation has examined the potential for increased transparency and, for one reason or another, decides that it cannot be pursued, but in the case of RTÉ it appears that whenever there is even a suggestion of increased transparency and accountability, the natural reaction is simply to say that it cannot or will not be done. That is not good enough. In our follow-up correspondence we should ask RTÉ whether it plans to give consideration to this type of mechanism in its future contracts.

To reply to Deputy Munster, we wrote to RTÉ seeking these figures on 14 May. Subsequently, we followed it up with further correspondence seeking that, but it has not given the figures. It is disappointing that it has not, given that it is the public broadcaster. We are not dealing with a fiefdom here or with a private company that is beyond the reach of the Committee of Public Accounts. We are dealing with the public broadcaster that receives a substantial amount of public funds. The fact is the figures are not available to us. Does Deputy Munster wish to respond in light of the information I have given, to crystallise what she is proposing?

Chairman, you said it was 14 May. What was the date after that on which we chased it up with RTÉ again?

We wrote to RTÉ again on 8 June and we are awaiting a response to that. We have not received it to date.

That is totally unsatisfactory. It is just unacceptable. I suggest we write again and highlight the fact that this is the third item of correspondence and that we expect an answer. At this stage, if RTÉ is hoping just to run down the clock or that the issue will go away, it might be no harm to flag to the Minister the fact that we have not received a response to the questions asked and that RTÉ appears to be reluctant to furnish the committee with the information it has requested, and just make her aware of it.

I have a question for the Comptroller and Auditor General. What the Deputy is saying about bringing it to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, would be worthwhile. Can the Comptroller and Auditor General clarify if it is possible for us to question this with the Revenue Commissioners? If a settlement was made with the Revenue Commissioners, can we question them?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The Revenue Commissioners would be very reluctant to discuss the tax affairs of any taxpayer, and that would include RTÉ. On a previous occasion when the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners was before the committee, a question was put which related to the tax affairs of RTÉ and he declined to answer.

Obviously, we would not expect to get the details of any individual, but you are saying they possibly would be reluctant to give them in respect of a particular corporate body.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

A taxable person includes a body, so they would not distinguish between an individual and a company. They still will not talk about the tax affairs of a taxable person.

I wish to intervene for a moment. Bear in mind that when we first raised this issue with RTÉ when its representatives were before the committee, they denied any knowledge of it on two occasions before at the third attempt by you, Chairman, they then said that they had made a settlement. On two occasions in the space of half an hour prior to that, they said they were not aware of any bill from the Revenue Commissioners or any settlement with them. Now, we see that they think they can ignore the committee and our requests for information. It is up to us to insist that we get the answers in the interests of transparency. It is not necessarily up to the Revenue Commissioners. It is up to RTÉ to tell us exactly what was paid and if there are any further bills due. Personally, I do not believe it is any harm to flag our frustration with this to the Minister.

On the day they were before the committee, the Deputy is correct in outlining the way matters proceeded until I asked them and got them finally to admit that there had been a settlement or settlements. However, they admit that there were 11 settlements. That related to personal injury. Six of the settlements referred to exceeded €20,000. We will seek to follow this up with the Minister and bring to her attention the frustration of the committee with regard to any settlements there were with the Revenue Commissioners. Perhaps we will ask the Minister to respond to us with her view of this and of what can be done. Ultimately, this is a public body and it depends on public funding, so there must be some level of accountability here. We will proceed with that.

The next item is No. 629B from Mr. Robert Watt, Secretary General of the Department of Health, in response to a request that the Department provide a copy of the report on the progress review of the national paediatric hospital. The Secretary General states that the analysis remains ongoing. He continues:

... elements of this exercise continue to be confidential and will remain commercially sensitive for an extended period, given that there is a live contract in place with the primary contractor which the Development Board is statutorily responsible for. There is an extremely high likelihood that any discussion on costs or dates, however hypothetical, even from the draft stages of the process, would prejudice enforcement of the existing contract and very likely undermine the role of the Development Board in its ongoing engagement with the main contractor.

He continues further:

... the Department and the Development Board have a responsibility to ensure the successful completion of this project and that any discussion of the details arising out of this process, at this time, would undermine and jeopardise that, and negatively impact any further options available to ensuring the delivery of what will be a world class healthcare facility for generations to come and the best value for public expenditure.

At our meeting on 15 June 2021, we agreed to note and publish this item and to accept the Department's offer to meet with it and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board before the summer recess. Invitations have issued to both bodies for 13 July. Deputy Munster flagged this for discussion. Does she wish to contribute?

That response is totally unsatisfactory. It is not surprising in any shape or form. The entire management of this project has been a farce from the beginning. God knows when we will see the end of it. Given it is highly unlikely it will come in this side of the summer break, I suggest that we schedule it to come in as one of the first sessions after the summer recess?

Is the Deputy saying we should not bring it in on 13 July and bring it in on-----

Has it given definite clarification that it will come in on 13 July?

We are awaiting a response to the invitation. I am informed that the invitation has been issued.

Given what we have seen thus far, I hope I am proven wrong and it does come in on 13 July but if it does not, we should reschedule it for one of the first sessions after the summer recess.

This is enormously frustrating. We delayed our meeting at the turn of the year because this report was not ready. We pushed it from November out to January and from January out to February. At the meeting on 9 February, they told us that we would have the report in March but we did not receive it then. Every month has gone by since. It seems to be moribund in the Department, which is probably trying to get a handle on this. Being reasonable, at previous meetings recently, we decided to try to give the Department some space but at our last meeting, the consensus was that we needed some answers on this before the summer recess. I think I said that if we needed to come back during the summer recess to deal with this matter, we would. We cannot have a situation where this major capital project is literally cast adrift and we do not have the timelines, do not know where matters stand regarding the hundreds of claims between the contractor and the hospital board and do not have any shape on the final cost. We need to close regarding how we handle that today. Deputy Carthy indicated that he would like to speak on this.

The Chairman made a number of points I wanted to make. The most recent figure I have to hand is €1.7 billion and rising in terms of the development of this hospital so when Mr. Watt says that this is about ensuring the delivery of a world-class healthcare facility, I would say by Christ, I hope so for that type of money. It is also becoming more evident by the month that the underlying foundations in terms of the contractual basis on which this hospital is being developed are severely damaged and that the measures taken to address those have been insufficient up until this point. I have to say that anyone who thought the appointment of Mr. Watt as the new Secretary General would have led to a different type of impetus we all agree is warranted will be disappointed by the response. He has indicated that the Department will return to the committee ahead of the summer recess but caveats it by saying it will be to discuss matters that are not commercially sensitive. Commercial sensitivity is in place to protect the members of a contractual agreement. Commercial sensitivity is not protecting the public interest in this regard. In fact, it is undermining it. In respect of it being used as a cloak to refuse to answer the questions this committee has or to disclose the details of the report, when we met the board, everything was being based on this report as if it was going to be the panacea when it came to answers. We need to bring the Department in as quickly as possible. I support the date of mid-July given by Deputy Munster. I agree that if required, this committee should reconvene during the recess. We can give no cover to the Department in this regard. It needs to be made clear to the Department that we expect it to come in to answer questions relating to how the cost overrun has been so beyond anybody's imagination and what measures are now in place to curtail those overruns. This committee has heard that we could be looking at €2 billion and rising by the end of the day. While we all agree that the hospital is a vital piece of public infrastructure, we also need to acknowledge that lots of other really important pieces of infrastructure will not be completed because of the overruns in this instance.

There is a national maternity hospital to be built as well. In the correspondence from the committee to the Department, we asked for a copy of the report prior to the meeting on 13 July. We agreed that at our last meeting. If that was not possible, we asked for an up-to-date report at that meeting regarding the matters outlined by the Department such as the final cost and a timeframe for completion and an update in terms of where matters stand regarding the hundreds of claims the Department told us about when it appeared before us on 9 February. I think the number was almost 700. This is where matters stand. Is it agreed that we will continue to proceed with 13 July as the date and will continue to look for those answers regarding those matters - preferably with a copy of the full report from the Department because members were reasonable a few weeks back? Members said we deferred bringing in the Department at that point because of the cyber attack and other matters and to give the Department the space to do it. However, the requirement of this committee is that it happens before the summer recess. I take that as being agreed. Agreed.

No. 636 B from Mr. Dave Walsh, chairperson of An Bord Pleanála, dated 3 June 2021, is correspondence providing further information requested by the committee arising from our meeting on 13 May 2021. At our meeting on 15 June 2021, we agreed to note and publish the item and to request further details regarding judicial review related legal costs incurred by An Bord Pleanála broken down by costs recovered and incurred irrespective of whether the review processes found in favour of An Bord Pleanála; a detailed explanation as to why costs are not being awarded against unsuccessful applicants for judicial review of An Bord Pleanála decisions; details of legal costs relating to cases that have been decided, including who is responsible for costs, and any lessons learned; and a further detailed note on those judicial reviews where An Bord Pleanála was found not to have given sufficient reasons for its decisions. Deputies Catherine Murphy and Imelda Munster flagged this. Deputy Murphy is absent so I invite Deputy Munster to speak on this.

It was reported a fortnight ago that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, advised EirGrid to prioritise connections for data centres in areas where the grid was not already squeezed but the response from An Bord Pleanála regarding the data centres paints a bizarre picture. There was only one data centre An Bord Pleanála did not like and even that was overturned on appeal. It is clear to all of us that data centres will put a significant strain on the grid in the years ahead but there does not seem to be any national oversight of the impact. The intervention of the CRU is welcome but it is hardly a strategy. It is worrying to think of the strain they will put on the grid in the years ahead and the infrastructure not being there. I suggest we bear this in mind when we are compiling on the hearing with An Bord Pleanála.

We dealt with the four points. Is the Deputy proposing that we take further action on this?

I do not know what exact action we can take on this. This is about the lack of infrastructure, the strain this is going to put on the grid and the sheer volume of data centres that we have in this country. We have to bear this in mind unless other members have suggestions on what else we can do. The fact that there is no national oversight is worrying because it is only in years to come that we will be landed with this problem. This should be borne in mind when we are compiling our report on the hearing with An Bord Pleanála. I will be happy by all means to hear suggestions from other members.

I concur with Deputy Munster on that point. I am unsure as to what date An Bord Pleanála appeared before the committee but it was probably a month ago. It has come to my attention that in asking An Bord Pleanála officials what they had learned from all of the judicial reviews that had been taken against their decisions, we find that 16 cases that were not been granted permission were never put on public display on An Bord Pleanála’s website. That opens it up automatically to a slam dunk with regard to judicial review. I am disappointed, particularly after the engagement that the committee had with An Bord Pleanála, that it appears that there has not been much learned. Nothing in its correspondence would indicate to me that the board has learned anything. All of these actions are preventing houses from being built.

With regard to the listing of the overview of the substantive legal issues in the judicial review cases, the reality is that they are all misinterpretations and unlawful decisions being made. The courts only deal with unlawful decisions when finding in favour of a judicial review case. We have to go a little bit further here and am concerned, like Deputy Munster, about what is happening with An Bord Pleanála. I am unsure but perhaps the clerk to the committee might inform us if we have written to it in respect of the grants of permission that were not put up for public display and whether we requested an explanation for this. If we have not, we need to do so.

Last year, An Bord Pleanála had a legal bill of €8.5 million, which was more than a 50% increase on the previous year. If it transpires that there will be 16 more judicial reviews than even the board anticipated, we may have a bill of upwards of €12 million. We do not know where the bill will stop but it is a disgraceful waste of public funds.

I agree with what Deputy Murphy has just said and I wish to continue on that point. We wrote to An Bord Pleanála and asked for a great deal of information. We were looking for some insight on why the level of increase in legal fees had happened and on the decisions around those costs. Reading that document has not greatly illuminated a significant amount for me. By far the largest proportion of cases, 14 of them, relate to the ignoring or overturning of development plans, which are statutory documents. I would be very interested to know if the costs that have been awarded against An Bord Pleanála relate to that larger group where development plans or legal issues concerning material contraventions of such plans are being ignored. That would be useful to understand what is going wrong here.

I echo the comment by Deputies Murphy and Munster that we have not got to the bottom of this yet and we are going to see an escalation in judicial reviews because communities understand that they are successful and that, in effect, this situation is delaying the quality development of sites because they are getting tangled up in legal issues. We should write back for further information on how those eight cases where costs were awarded against An Bord Pleanála relate to those first two categories where there was a material contravention of a development plan or a legal interpretation of the zoning provisions of development plans. We are at a stage in this country where people are looking at the new set of development plans and it is very important that we understand what is going on there.

I ask that any member whose is finished speaking to turn off their hand signal, please. Does Deputy Murphy wish to make a further contribution?

No, Chairman, I do not but I concur with Deputy Hourigan on that point.

A great deal of money is being spent and we went through this with An Bord Pleanála officials on the day that they appeared before the committee on the in excess of €8 million, which was a significant percentage of their budget of in the region of €22 million, if I recall correctly, being spent on legal cases. Most of these were no-hope cases from An Bord Pleanála's point of view. As Deputy Hourigan outlined, much of these costs had to do with deviating from county development plans, etc.

Deputy Munster has raised the issue of data centres. We need to decide on what we wish to do here.

Based upon what the members are saying we need to write back to An Bord Pleanála again seeking further information, as outlined by Deputy Hourigan, in respect of the eight cases and the number of them that relate to those legal costs.

Will Deputy Munster clarify her request on regarding data centres?

It is worrying that there does not seem to be any national oversight of the impact of these centres. It is a question then of whether we write to the Minister or whatever. If it is left as it is, given the volume of proposed data centres, the fact is that there was only one such centre with which An Bord Pleanála had a problem, a decision on which was later overturned on appeal. An Bord Pleanála does not seem to take into account of the impact that these will have down the road. These data centres take up massive areas. In my area, one will take up an entire industrial park for just a handful of jobs. Perhaps we should write to the Minister and ask if a national oversight strategy is being formulated or ask whether the Government has looked at all into the impact of the volume of data centres that will be built.

I thank the Deputy. The issue is outside of the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts, but is valid. Concern on the issue of the data centres has surfaced at this committee on a number of occasions recently in the context of the potential problems of overheating the grid, the demands on electricity and the effect on our climate change and carbon reduction targets. It was announced earlier that we did not meet our targets for 2020 even though we were locked down for half the year. The county I live in was locked down for even longer than that because we had a local lockdown as well.

I suggest regarding the specific issue that we write to the Minister and the Secretary General of the Department to raise our concerns as to what the strategy is around it and whether there is oversight of it and ask if it is a case of ad hoc development, where there is no general policy in respect of the centres, and that wherever they pop up they go through the planning process with no account being taken of the greater problem that they may cause in electricity demand and effects in our carbon emissions. Is the Deputy happy with that, which might be more appropriate?

Yes, and we can see what response we receive to that.

An Bord Pleanála will deal with the individual planning applications but the Deputy is correct in referring to a broader issue, which needs to be addressed before we have the lights going out because of data centres and the demand on the grid.

We will also revert to An Bord Pleanála in respect of the information referred to by all three Deputies. Is that agreed?

I would like the committee to ask An Bord Pleanála if it has complied with procedural issues in relation to the public consultation application of decisions and that prior to their being made that they have been publicised and that they were publicised subsequently to prevent judicial review being such an easy recourse.

Thank you, we will do that. No. 642B from Ms Mary Ellen Ring, Chair of the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC, dated 10 June 202, is a response to our request for further information in relation to the workload and resourcing of GSOC. It is clear from the correspondence that GSOC’s workload is increasing but there has not been a corresponding increase in personnel. It has raised this with the committee a few times. GSOC currently has 40 investigators and is of the view that its staffing “is not in line with other Civil Service departments or agencies.” GSOC generally welcomes the general scheme of the proposed policing, security and community safety Bill, which will bring certain matters into the sphere of performance management and no longer will require a formal GSOC investigation but notes that the general scheme will also increase its mandate to over 17,000 personnel. GSOC believes that insufficient resourcing is not conducive to efficient investigations and will result in a “loss of faith in the general public in meaningful garda oversight”. That is cause for concern.

While an examination of the general scheme will be a matter for the Joint Committee on Justice, I have concerns regarding the resources available to GSOC to deliver an efficient service. I propose that we note and publish this item, request GSOC’s consent to forward this correspondence to the Minister for Justice and request a response to the matters raised. I will open the matter to the floor before seeking agreement on that proposal. Deputy Matt Carthy has flagged this issue for discussion.

First, it seems strange that GSOC has indicated it furnished its annual report to the Minister on 31 March and that the Minister, for one reason or another, has not yet decided to publish it. GSOC outlined the main aspects of the report in its correspondence, which is welcome, but it would be useful for the committee to write to the Department seeking clarification on when GSOC's annual report for 2020 will be published.

Second, on the burden under which GSOC works, it is painting a picture of the commission being under-resourced to handle the volume required. There is always internal politics between organisations. We had discussed adding GSOC to the work plan. Would it be possible to do that, considering it has indicated in its correspondence that it would be happy to have discussions with the committee at any stage? We could invite GSOC to appear, presumably separately rather than at the hearing that we have scheduled with An Garda Síochána. I would like clarification as to whether we can do that.

I think its letter is nearly like a plea for help. There is also a second item of correspondence. It surprised me that in a force of 14,500, in 2020 a total of 572 criminal investigations were opened. That is an increase from 485 in 2019. In 2020, there were 150 disciplinary cases opened, which is also a slight increase from 148 in 2019. Those seem very high figures related to the size of the force, which is similar to the size of a regional constabulary in Britain, with the Manchester policing service or similar bodies being comparable to it. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General about inviting GSOC. My opinion is that it is open to us to bring it in but Mr. McCarthy might be able to outline the possibilities better.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I carry out the audit of the financial statements of GSOC so they are available to be called by the committee. I do not have detail of where we are with the 2020 audit but I can find that and come back to the secretariat with it. That might be helpful in relation to the timing.

Having heard from the Comptroller and Auditor General, does Deputy Carthy wish to make a proposal?

I think it would be useful if the Comptroller and Auditor General's office could indicate when the 2020 financial statements will have been audited. If it is any time soon then I suggest that we include GSOC on the committee's work plan shortly after that.

Given the figures GSOC has supplied, I can see how it is overworked if it has only 40 investigators and it is dealing with that number of cases in any given year, namely, 572 criminal investigations and 150 disciplinary cases. That is a very substantial number. We will await the clarification from Mr. McCarthy on the 2020 audit and make a decision on it then. Is that agreed? Agreed.

No. 644B is from Mr. Brendan Gleeson, Secretary General, Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, dated 11 June 2021 providing information requested by the committee arising from our meeting of 20 April 2021 with the Department. We considered the substantive response, No. 592B, at our meeting of 25 May.

The item of correspondence before us today provides a correction in respect of the previous correspondence. In relation to the Land Development Agency, LDA, the original correspondence indicated that the Department did not offer non-agricultural lands to the LDA but this item sets out significant engagement with the LDA in relation to property vested in the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, including former Land Commission Lands. The list has been provided to the committee.

The correspondence also addresses the administrative inquiry conducted by the EU Commission into Ireland’s capacity to apply the rules of the Common Agricultural Policy, the findings of which were communicated to Ireland last December. The Commission deemed the Irish control and sanctioning system unsatisfactory and required that Ireland implement a number of remedial measures. The proposed action is note and publish the correspondence.

Deputy Carthy has flagged the matter for discussion. Does he wish to speak on it?

Where will move onto the next category of correspondence, namely, category C.

No. 600C is quite concerning. It is anonymous correspondence relating to Galway 2020, which was forwarded to this committee by the Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht, dated 19 May 2021. At our meeting of 18 May we had agreed to make inquiries in relation to expenditure on Galway 2020, and we await responses from the Department and both local authorities in Galway, namely, Galway City Council and Galway County Council. At our meeting on 15 June 2021 we held this item over for consideration in today’s public meeting.

Deputy Imelda Munster has flagged it for discussion.

Did the Chairman say it was 20 May when we sought correspondence seeking clarification and to date we have nothing back?

At our meeting of 18 May we agreed to make inquiries in relation to expenditure on Galway 2020, and we await responses from the Department and both local authorities in Galway.

It was issued on 14 June.

On 14 June. I was going to say it would have been well over a month ago. The handling of Galway 2020 seems to have caused quite a degree of concern across various quarters and stakeholders. It is my understanding we saw a budget of some €25 million of taxpayers' money spent and many people in Galway are asking what they received in return. In the meantime, the project seems to have been run through a vehicle that seems to inhibit transparency or deny freedom of information requests despite the fact the project was entirely taxpayer funded. It is my understanding the promised private investment never arrived. Can I ask the secretariat what is the position regarding responses? That correspondence was issued on 14 June. Would the Comptroller and Auditor General be able to comment further on what he has seen of it to date? Some €25 million worth of public money has been spent and nobody seems to have got answers. People said they saw nothing other than a few branded coffee cups to show for it at the time. Has the Comptroller and Auditor General any further comment to make on it?

The correspondence was issued on 14 June and normally people would be given two weeks, in terms of working days, to reply.

That was just over a week ago.

We would expect a response next week. I suggest we await the response before we put direct questions. This correspondence raises major issues. It is a pity it is anonymous. Regarding the resignation of senior staff, according to the correspondence, the artistic director, chairperson and the chief executive resigned. It goes on to raise serious issues regarding public expenditure in the region of €26 million, a 3% levy on commercial rates in Galway to pay for it over a three-year period and an allocation of €15 million from the Department.

The Chairman said the correspondence was issued on 14 June. Have we not sent correspondence prior to that?

No. It was sent on 14 June. That is what I am informed.

I thought we would have.

No, it was sent on 14 June. We would expect correspondence next week on that. We will monitor it. The Deputy is right to be concerned given the fact, according to this and previous correspondence, Galway County Council provided €6 million and there was a 3% levy on the commercial rates. We do not have an answer to it. The issue is there does not appear to be any product or anything to show for it and the resignation of senior personnel over a period of time would indicate there are serious issues. I suggest we await the outcome to our correspondence before we decide any further actions on this. Is the Deputy happy with that?

Yes. That is fair enough. I could be wrong but I thought we would have sent correspondence earlier than 14 June.

That correspondence has been issued and we will await a reply. There was a non-sitting week and we are a week behind in issuing correspondence due to a shortage of staff. There is a reduction in staff now, which is a matter for the secretariat to address. That has caused some delay. The correspondence was issued as early as possible. I would point out those two facts. A week is a week. Let us await the outcome. It is a matter we need to follow up and get a handle on. It is clear there are major issues involved. Substantial money has been spent and the fact we do not have anything to show for it, at least not that I am aware of unless somebody can correct me, is of major concern. Some €170,000 was spent on travel, substantial money was spent on wages and I understand €1.1 million was spent on promotion. We will see what happens with the response and we will come back to the issue.

The next correspondence is No. 648C from an individual dated 14 June 2021 concerning the Office of Public Works, OPW. The individual engaged with the previous Committee of Public Accounts and assisted in an examination of matters related to the OPW. The individual acknowledges the work of the committee in exposing issues at the OPW but states "the urgent need now is to redirect government and policy committees to commence a meaningful debate and recommendations to government in how public property is managed from an organisational perspective”. The individual understands this committee does not have a policy remit but it is open to the committee to bring this correspondence to the attention of the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Taoiseach, which has a policy oversight. We did a fairly substantial report on the OPW and members will recall we made recommendations in it. Deputy Munster flagged this issue. If other members wish to come in on it, they can feel free to do so. I do not know if Deputy MacSharry has joined us. He may wish to come in on this.

This person has written to us to express his frustration. As he sees it nothing has been done off the back of concerns he had raised with the OPW and the procedures costing the taxpayers money. I suggest we could share his frustration. He initially raised concerns going back to 2014 and given we have been waiting the best part of a year for the OPW to arrange a call with the landlord of the Miesian Plaza, we can understand his frustration. Would it be possible for the secretariat to write to the OPW on this and to inquire what progress it has made in seeking a meeting with the landlord? It said Covid was the reason on the last occasion but every country in the world is having meetings on line. That was just an attempt to delay or detract. I ask that we write to OPW asking what progress it has made in seeking that meeting with the landlord and if we could receive a response before the summer recess. This has been going on a little long now.

We can do that. A reply from the OPW has just come in and it will be on the list for next week. The Deputy might wait until next week to have sight of that reply first. Unfortunately, we do not have it here this morning. It has just arrived. The Deputy will recall our report contained five recommendations regarding the OPW, some of which cover the items she mentioned. Regarding the forecasted lost of €10 million, the committee set out a clear recommendation under recommendation 1 of its report. The recommendation states:

The Committee recommends that the Office of Public Works takes all necessary steps to prevent the forecasted lost of approximately €10 million and that the OPW ensures that it has appropriate qualified staff to manage its property transactions on behalf of the State. The Committee also requests that it is provided with quarterly updates in relation to this matter.

The Deputy will recall in terms of the OPW's meeting with the landlord, much of it depends on, hopefully, some goodwill from the landlord regarding the wrong calculations in the size of the building.

This is simply to bring that recommendation to the attention of the Comptroller and Auditor General and committee members. We have correspondence on this and can revisit it next week.

No. 652 is from Deputy John McGuinness, Cathaoirleach of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, dated 15 June. The committee Cathaoirleach, Deputy McGuinness, is seeking cross-committee support for the following motion, which concerns the establishment of a future of banking forum:

The Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach calls for the establishment of a Future of Banking Forum to assess the current state of the Irish banking sector, North and South, the challenges it faces, and policy options that are available to secure its future in a manner that serves the interests of consumers, financial stability and fair competition, including the development of a public banking system to help meet the needs of society. This forum should include, but not be limited to, the Departments of Finance, the Central Bank of Ireland, the Financial Services Union, business organisations, farming organisations, trade unions, and other relevant stakeholders. This Committee calls for this forum to be established and convene before the end of 2021.

The question is whether this committee wishes to lend its support for the motion. I will open this to the floor for further consideration.

Absolutely. This is a matter of extreme urgency. A lot of people are being put to the pin of their collar because we have such a lack of competition within the banking sector. I very much lend my support to that motion.

I would also like to speak in favour of the motion. We have, by consensus, agreed to support it at the budgetary oversight committee. The past year has been very difficult for banking in the State. We have seen KBC and Ulster Bank retreat from the Irish market. In the past we have looked at public banking in the State, when we had a much more active pillar bank sector. Considering the issue of financial inclusion in this country, considering the impact on SMEs of Covid and Brexit, and how important it is for them to have access to credit, it is very important that we would really take a long, hard look at our banking sector. This would be a very useful thing to do.

Would any other member wish to come in on this, on whether he or she supports the motion? My own view is certainly in favour of supporting the motion. It is very important that there be a banking forum and that it is time-limited in order that it does not sit indefinitely pondering over what should happen. This autumn, Bank of Ireland will close more bank branches. People might say that we can do everything online, but anyone in business will tell you, as indeed will the elderly or those who are not computer literate, that IT is not always an option. Not all business can be transacted or done online. The town of Mountrath in County Laois will be left completely without a bank. The town of Durrow will be left without a bank also. Six bank branches are to close in the constituency of Laois-Offaly. This leaves people with one option with regard to branch networks. It is of huge concern. On the general concept of examining what is happening, the Deputies are correct that the exit of those banks from the sector leave us with absolute dependence on two pillar banks and with little choice.

Also worthwhile in the motion is the proposal to look again at the issue of a public banking sector. From replies I have received to parliamentary questions I am aware that it has been ruled out by the Minister. If one considers countries where public banking systems operate, such as Germany, we see they can operate very successfully. There is no reason it should not operate on this little island of ours. If it is agreed by the committee, perhaps the two Deputies who spoke in support of this motion will be the proposer and seconder.

I propose that the committee would support the motion.

I second the proposal.

Is it agreed that the clerk advise the joint committee that it has this committee’s full support for the motion? Agreed.

This concludes our consideration of correspondence.

Our next item is this committee's work programme. On Thursday we will engage with the Department of Foreign Affairs. Matters for examination include from the 2019 Appropriation Accounts, Vote 27 - International Co-operation and Vote 28 - Foreign Affairs and Trade; and from the Report on the Accounts of the Public Services 2019, Chapter 8 – Controls over humanitarian assistance funding.

If there are any specific areas of interest that members would like to raise with the Department that are not comprehended by the foregoing, please let the clerk know by close of business tomorrow. It would be even better if members could do that today.

The Higher Education Authority has confirmed its availability for 1 July and the Tax Appeals Commission has confirmed its availability for 8 July.

As I mentioned earlier, we have issued invitations to the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board and the Department of Health for our final meeting before the summer recess on Tuesday, 13 July.

I propose that we consider our work programme for the autumn at our next meeting. We need to do that because there is a list, and some members also have suggestions, on which we need to move in the autumn. I also bring to members' attention that the annual accounts from the Departments, audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, are normally ready in September. We will have a busy autumn schedule. I ask members to have a look at the work programme to see what we need to agree on to bring forward for the autumn period. Is that agreed? Agreed. That concludes consideration of our work programme.

I must remind members that we launch our report on last November’s engagement with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners at 12.30 p.m. on Thursday next. The report will be circulated to members tomorrow and a printed copy will be left in each pigeonhole.

Do members wish to raise any other matters?

For clarity, at the beginning of the meeting we spoke about Údarás na Gaeltachta. I want clarity on what we decided to do there. I am not entirely sure that we agreed an action on its capital spend going from €1.2 million to €2.3 million. Its report is not particularly illuminating about what it will do around that, or what actions it has put in place. Can we ask it for more information?

The Deputy is referring to the accounts and statements and the issue of the capital works that went to €3.5 million.

I am sorry, €3.5 million.

Okay. I will check what was minuted for that. There was no specific requirement. We agreed to write to Dundalk Institute of Technology. Did Deputy Hourigan want to go back and-----

In the report it says that it has put strategies in place and it names a couple, but it does not actually give any information about what it has put in place. It is quite a considerable overspend. Could we write to it to ask for a little bit more detail on what exactly it has done to ensure there is not another overspend like that, or what were the specific requirements of the building occupants that saw this overspend happen?

The Deputy is making a specific requirement for information on that. Is that agreed? Agreed. We will look for that information from Údarás na Gaeltachta.

Are there any other matters? No.

I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. Seamus McCarthy, for his assistance today.

The meeting is adjourned until Thursday, 24 June at 9.30 a.m., when we will engage with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The committee adjourned at 10.49 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 24 June 2021.