Business of Committee

Members are all very welcome to the meeting. We have received no apologies. As we return to participating at committee meetings in person, I ask members and all in attendance to exercise personal responsibility in protecting themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. They are strongly advised to leave at least one vacant seat between themselves and others attending and to practise good personal hygiene. They should always maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after meetings. Masks should be worn at all times during meetings except when speaking. I ask for the full co-operation of members on this. I apologise for the late start; I was expecting to see everybody in the room. Some members are in the room and the rest are participating remotely.

The first item of business is the minutes of our meetings of 29 June, 1 July, 6 July, 8 July and 13 July. These have been circulated to members. Do members wish to raise any matter in the minutes? Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee's webpage.

A total of 58 sets of financial statements and accounts were laid before the Dáil between 5 July and 17 September. These should be appearing on the screens now. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to address the accounts and statements before opening to the floor.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I thank the Chair. In the interests of efficiency I will quickly mention the accounts that have been presented. Obviously after a long break over the summer there has been a significant accumulation of accounts. If the schedule is put on screen, members will see it starts with departmental and other funds. The export guarantee account has a clear audit opinion. The credit union fund account has a clear audit opinion. The motor tax account, which had a turnover of €938 million, has a clear audit opinion. The finance accounts, with a turnover of €61.8 billion, also have a clear audit opinion.

In the education sector, the accounts of Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology received a clear audit opinion. Limerick Institute of Technology also received a clear audit opinion. Mary Immaculate College received a clear audit opinion but I draw attention to procurement non-compliance, which is disclosed in the statement on internal financial control.

I also draw attention to the deferred pension funding asset recognition, which is a standard issue for universities and colleges of education. There is a clear audit opinion for the National College of Art and Design but attention is drawn to the deferred pension funding asset. There is a clear audit opinion for the Higher Education Authority. There is a clear audit opinion for Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh, but, again, I drawn attention to procurement non-compliance and deferred pension funding asset. Again, this is standard for universities. There is a clear audit opinion for Institute of Technology Sligo and Athlone Institute of Technology.

The financial statements of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board, or Caranua, for 2020 get a clear audit opinion but I draw attention to continued inadequate control over grant payments. I have drawn attention to this matter for a number of years with regard to Caranua. The residential institutions redress special account had a turnover of €1 million in 2020 and gets a clear audit opinion. This is the payment relating to compensation payments made to former residents of residential institutions.

There are two sets of financial statements regarding Home Building Finance Ireland Lending Designated Activity Company, DAC. These relate to 2019 and 2020. The company is a subsidiary of Home Building Finance Ireland and its consolidated financial statements were presented in a timely manner. However, there was an oversight relating to the presentation of the accounts for 2019 for the subsidiary. A clear audit opinion was given in both cases. I will not name all of the NAMA subsidiaries' accounts 17 to 26. There are ten in total. These are the subsidiaries of NAMA. Again, the consolidated accounts were presented earlier.

There is a clear audit opinion for the HSE for 2020. I will not repeat the items to which I drew attention last week when I opened for the HSE accounts examination. There is a clear audit opinion for Tusla, or the Child and Family Agency, but attention is drawn to significant non-compliant procurement and the ICT security breach. It is the same security breach as occurred with regard to the HSE. Because Tusla relies on the HSE, it was affected by the security breach. There is a qualified audit opinion for the National Cancer Registry for 2020. The accounts for the National Cancer Registry are prepared in accordance with FRS 102, which is the standard accrual accounting standard. The accounts give a true and fair view except that they account for the costs of retirement benefit entitlements only as they become payable. This is something that occurs with a number of health bodies. I will draw attention to that in each case.

The National Haemophilia Council gets a clear audit opinion. The Mental Health Commission gets a qualified audit opinion on the same basis I referred to previously. The Irish Blood Transfusion Service gets a clear audit opinion. The Health Products Regulatory Authority gets a qualified audit opinion - again in respect of the accounting for retirement benefits as they become payable. The Medical Council gets a clear audit opinion. The National Treatment Purchase Fund gets a qualified audit opinion on the same basis. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland gets a qualified audit opinion on the same basis. The Health Insurance Authority gets a qualified audit opinion on the same basis. I should point out that in respect of the accounts of the Health Insurance Authority, the turnover was €2.7 million. That relates to its administration costs only. There is a separate account presented with its annual report that relates to the risk equalisation fund and the turnover on that was €771 million. A clear audit opinion was given in respect of that.

On State bodies, the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority get a clear audit opinion on its 2020 accounts. The Marine Casualty Investigation Board gets a clear audit opinion. SOLAS, with a turnover of €837 million, gets a clear audit opinion. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment 2020 accounts get a clear audit opinion. The Commission for Communications Regulation accounts for 2019-20 get a clear audit opinion. The National Transport Authority accounts for 2020 get a clear audit opinion but I draw attention to some non-effective expenditure on an ICT project. Enterprise Ireland gets a clear audit opinion. The National Oil Reserves Agency, with a 2020 turnover of €121 million, has a clear audit opinion but I draw attention to ineffective expenditure in note 3, relating to €250,000 incurred in respect of an onerous lease contract. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Adoption Authority of Ireland gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Office of the Planning Regulator gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Economic and Social Research Institute gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which had a turnover of €1.5 billion, gets a clear audit opinion for 2020 but attention is drawn to non-compliance with procurement rules. The Pensions Authority gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Road Safety Authority gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, with a turnover of €136 million, gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Gathering Project 2013 is a dormant company but I still have to issue an audit opinion on it, and that was clear. The Residential Tenancies Board gets a clear audit opinion for 2020 but I draw attention to delays and cost increases in the delivery of a new management system for tenancy registrations and disputes that is estimated to cost €5.2 million. IDA Ireland for 2020 has a turnover of €218 million and it got a clear audit opinion. Finally, Waterways Ireland, which is a North-South body that I audit jointly with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, had a turnover of €43 million. This is the 2019 financial statements; there were delays relating to the completion of the financial statements for 2019 but we issued a clear audit opinion in that regard.

I thank the Chairman. My apologies for that taking so long.

With regard to number 28, which is Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, the Comptroller and Auditor General notes that attention is drawn to significant non-compliant procurement. The budget for 2020 was €852 million.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

That is correct.

What is the amount of the significant non-compliant procurement?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I will have to go into the accounts to find that figure. It is disclosed in the account statement on internal financial control. I will try to find it. There was €6.3 million of non-compliant procurement in 2020, compared with €7.1 million in 2019.

Is that for a specific item or is it across several items?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I expect it relates to a significant number of contracts. Certainly, the Child and Family Agency should be able to provide the committee with more detail regarding the contracts that make up that figure.

I propose that we ask the clerk to the committee to seek that information from Tusla because it is a significant amount. Deputy Catherine Murphy wishes to raise an issue.

There are several issues I wish to raise.

Deputies Devlin and Catherine Murphy are present in the committee room.

I expected to see more people present in the room because all are eager to get back in. I am eager to have people in the room but we have a hybrid model this morning, so some members are in their own rooms.

I expected the same but we are socially distanced here anyway. The issue of deferred pension funding comes up repeatedly, and there are other pensions, such as those in the health services, that Mr. McCarthy stated are funded as they go. Are pensions for universities and colleges funded in advance? Are they fully funded? How does that work? Mr. McCarthy might give us a note on that. I presume the cost of the liability for pensions in the health bodies is fully captured by the Department of Health. I presume that cost is included in the health budget as we go.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Yes. In the case of universities, the accounts are required to recognise the liabilities that are incurred in the year as a result of staff working. An actuarial process is gone through to estimate the pension liability that accrues. There is an assumption in that case, and this a matter I am drawing attention to, that the liabilities will be meet in the future as they arise. The actual amount of funding provided in a year is tailored to take account of the liabilities as they arise. The funding is provided on an as-you-need-it basis in relation to pensions.

There is a complication with the universities in that they are required by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, to maintain what are called pension control accounts. That is a buffer that forms, in some cases, funding used by the universities as part of their working capital as they go, but in some cases there are deficits. Most of the universities are operating two or, perhaps, three pension schemes. It is a very complicated funding arrangement but, as I said, the accounting liabilities are fully recognised there.

A different approach is taken with the health bodies. It does make things much more complicated. The liabilities that have already accrued in relation to health bodies are not recognised in the Department of Health's financial statements. The Departments operate on a cash basis so there is no accrual for pensions that have already been incurred. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform does a periodic exercise to try to estimate the total of the liabilities. I think it does that about every three years. I cannot remember when the last exercise was done. There may be some reference to that in the finance accounts.

There is a significant issue here in that most of this will be a liability into the future for anyone who is working at the moment. We know there is a pension time bomb - we are constantly told about it - and we do not have a pension reserve fund. This may well be an issue we need to have a better handle on. It might be something that would be worth, at some point, putting a little time into, probably next year. It comes up repeatedly and we gloss over it but there are risks into the future.

I am not satisfied that we have a full understanding of what those risks are into the future and how that is accounted for.

We can come back to that.

I wish to raise a few other issues. In all situations where the Comptroller and Auditor General refers to non-compliance with procurement, we should de facto write and find out what the issue is. We have been doing that and I believe that is good practice.

I refer to the ICT breach in both the HSE and Tusla. Given the extent of what happened there, and we certainly do not want to be giving information to people whom one does not want to get that information, understanding that and having a proper understanding of how it can be avoided is something that we should consider examining, perhaps in a year's time or early next year when there is full sight of exactly what the fallout is from it.

Finally, there is the National Transport Authority, NTA. There is €400,000 between 2015 and 2020 for a project that it was decided to terminate. I would like to know more about that.

We have a standard practice for the ones over €500,000. That is below €500,000 but we will ask the clerk to get some specific information on that contract with the NTA. Is that okay?

I call Deputy Devlin. I am watching the time because we have over 40 pieces of flagged correspondence this morning and we have an hour and 35 or 40 minutes left.

Similar to Deputy Catherine Murphy, some of the queries I had have been answered. In terms of No. 13, the residential institutions statutory fund board, Caranua, we have had its representatives before the committee previously. I am not sure if it has been dissolved in the interim, but the Comptroller and Auditor General might be able to tell us a little more. I note he says there were inadequate controls over grant payments. We discussed that with the representatives previously, but the Comptroller and Auditor General might refer back to me.

Also, there is Tusla and the significant non-compliant procurement. That is something we must flag, and likewise with the NTA and the ICT project. With regard to the Residential Tenancies Board and the management system for the tenancy registration, that is something we deal with regularly with constituents. The sum of €5.2 million is a significant amount. The Comptroller and Auditor General might be able to refer back to us on that.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

With regard to Caranua, the organisation is still in existence. It is operated now by the Department. In correspondence members have before them today, there is an explanation that it is waiting for legislation to be passed to complete the wind-down of the organisation. The inadequate controls referred to the controls that were put in place by the organisation which did not fully operate and, as a result, we are lacking assurance that the moneys were applied and used for the purposes for which they were granted to the individuals. It is an issue that I have raised previously, in a way because there is very little left in the funds at this stage. It is a historical issue now and not an issue into the future.

Those were the couple of points. I am sorry, but I cannot remember the last point that was raised by the Deputy.

There was the point about Tusla and the significant non-compliance and also the Residential Tenancies Board.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

On the Residential Tenancies Board, what I am drawing attention to there is that it was developing a new system. Effectively it ran into a significant delay and cost overrun difficulties. It is a classic cost overrun issue.

The non-compliant procurement with Tusla has been a constant since it was established. It again relies on the systems in the HSE in some respects for its procurement. There are some of the same difficulties there.

There is more information about each of these points in the statement on internal control. If the Deputy wants to look at that, it may answer the questions he has or the requirement for additional information. It is already there in the financial statements before the committee.

Can we agree to note the accounts and statements? Agreed. The accounts and financial statements will be published as part of our minutes. As usual, we will request an explanation for any significant non-compliant procurement of more than €500,000 or delays in laying the accounts before the House. The Tusla one will need particular scrutiny.

We move on to correspondence. As previously agreed, items that were not flagged for discussion for this meeting will continue to be dealt with in accordance with the proposed actions that have been circulated. Decisions taken by the committee on that correspondence are recorded in the minutes of the committee's meetings and published on the committee's webpage.

The first category of correspondence under which members have flagged items for discussion is the correspondence from Accounting Officers and-or Ministers and follow-up to Committee of Public Accounts meetings. Correspondence No. 715 is from Mr. Ian Black, CEO of the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland, SBCI, dated 6 July 2021, providing further information requested by the committee. We have built up a considerable body of correspondence arising from our engagement with SBCI since last March. At this point it might be in order to consider our draft report on SBCI before taking further action. I propose that we include this latest item as referenced material for that report. Is that agreed? Agreed. It is also proposed to note and publish this item if that is agreed. Agreed.

Deputy Catherine Murphy wants to come in now. I remind everybody that there are over 40 items and I want to try to give everybody a fair chance.

I have a question on No. 4 on the correspondence list. Was an age-debtor analysis carried out for the on-lending liquidity partner? I am not sure whether the response is saying "Yes". I would like to know whether it has been carried out because there would be a potential significant liability if some of those debts went back over a few years.

We can request that information.

Next is No. 717.B from Professor Andrew Deeks, president of UCD, dated 7 July, providing information requested by the committee. This has come up before and relates to the partnership between UCD and Tullow Oil for the provision of a third level course. UCD states that the partnership and the master of science programme in petroleum geoscience which was supported by Tullow Oil ran from 2012 to 2016 and has now ceased. UCD states, "It is in the public interest that professionals working in the petroleum industry are appropriately trained to ensure that the industry operates effectively and efficiently and minimises its impact on climate change and biodiversity."

Regarding bringing more transparency to higher education institutions' receipt of funding from private companies, the president states that UCD has hundreds if not thousands of collaborations with third parties and that publishing them would create a significant and unnecessary additional administrative burden. UCD states that the Science Foundation Ireland research centres are examples of projects that are contingent on such collaborations. It is proposed that we note and publish this item if that is agreed. Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy has flagged this item for discussion.

I am okay with it.

The next correspondence is No. 718 from Mr. John Hogan, Secretary General at the Department of Finance.

I had my hand raised to speak on No. 717.

Go ahead please.

I know it is difficult with some members in the room and some online. I am not happy with that answer from the university. I do not accept that there is no differentiation between industry engagement with a course and the wholesale sponsorship of a specific course by a particular industry or company. There is a quantitative and qualitative difference between the two. It is in the public interest that in our public institutions such as universities we understand who exactly is sponsoring or undertaking training within particular disciplines. We are not asking for the names of hundreds and thousands of sponsors or corporate donors to be published; we are asking that where a course is significantly run by a private entity, the public institution should state that clearly, particularly when there are regulatory issues relating to that industry. I am unhappy with that answer from the university. That is not an end to the issue but perhaps we will bring it up at another date.

That will be noted. Many members will agree with the Deputy on that.

That is a valid point. We are not saying the universities should be obliged to outline where there is an engagement in every scenario but there are probably fewer examples of where courses are directly organised around a particular individual industry and it would be useful for us to know about those examples. It might be worth sending correspondence to the universities asking them if they separate those two things out and if there is a catalogue of those kind of courses that we could see.

Is the Deputy concerned that he who pays the piper calls the tune?

Does she want to outline her proposals to the committee?

I propose that we write to the universities and ask them if they will identify the courses they run that are directly related to an industry, as opposed to more general funding.

We can do that. We could also use the option of writing to the HEA on that. If that is agreed we will do that. The Comptroller and Auditor General has indicated that he wishes to come in.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

Writing to the HEA and getting it to give its view on the matter is probably the best place to start. When an engagement was previously started with universities across the board without defining the issues the committee was going after, it became difficult and drawn-out. If the issue is raised with the HEA and if the authority provides its view on what it requires in terms of disclosures in the financial statements, that is probably a better starting point.

We will request that.

The next correspondence is No. 718 from Mr. John Hogan, Secretary General at the Department of Finance, dated 7 July 2021, providing an update requested by the committee on the eighth progress update report on the special liquidation of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC. The Secretary General stated that the timeline for completion of the liquidation has been extended from the end of 2022 to the end of 2024 and "COVID-19 has impacted the current realisable values of the remaining assets and the timely conclusion of outstanding litigation".

The total fees incurred from the beginning of the liquidation in February 2019 to December 2020 amount to €294 million, with additional fees to complete the liquidation forecast at between €26 million and €33 million. I propose that we issue a cover note and publish that segment of the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Catherine Murphy has flagged up No. 718B.

In regard to IBRC, Irish Nationwide Building Society and Anglo Irish Bank accounted for something like €35 billion or €36 billion. The bank was liquidated and KPMG provided the liquidator. Essentially, the debate here has been in terms of oversight and a committee of selection, which was resisted by the Department. The longer this goes on, the more expensive it is going to be, because there will be liabilities. Looking at section 3.2 on page 14, a number of sets of legal proceedings are either concluded or under way. A new set of proceedings was brought against IBRC during 2020. I think we need to get some sort of understanding of what the wind-down will look like, what has taken place, what has delayed it in recent years and whether it has impacted on getting best value for the assets that are being disposed of, given the magnitude of it. I do not know whether representatives of IBRC ever appeared in front of the Committee of Public Accounts. I propose that they be brought in front of the committee to explore the issue because of the fact that it is elongated. The longer it goes on, the more expensive it is going to be. That obviously impacts the bottom line in terms of the taxpayer getting the full value. Cases have to be taken but we need to have an understanding of it.

I suppose that it is part of the cleaning-up exercise after the madness of the 2000s. In his letter, the Secretary General, Mr. John Hogan, stated that "the purpose of extending the timeline for completion of the liquidation is to maximise the ultimate return for the State in light of the impact of COVID-19 on the liquidation process, and this will be subject to ongoing review." The Secretary General seems to hint in that letter that some of the assets may actually be more valuable as we come out of Covid. However, I think the point that Deputy Murphy has made is well made.

I think it may be representatives of the Department of Finance rather than IBRC that we should invite to specifically look at this issue.

The Department will call the shots on this anyway.

I call Deputy Carthy.

The Chairman referenced some of the madness of the Celtic tiger era. One of the areas of madness that we have not moved away from is the exorbitant fees that are often paid by State agencies. It is suggested, in this piece of correspondence, that the total fees incurred relating to the liquidation and wrap-up of this process could be €327 million. That appears to be astronomical. I wonder, in the first instance, if the Comptroller and Auditor General could provide an analysis as to whether, when going through any of these accounts, he has appraised them as to whether or not the proper checks and balances are in place. Further to Deputy Murphy's proposals, which I support entirely, I propose that we also ask the Department to outline precisely what protection mechanisms are in place to ensure that all this expenditure is necessary and that there are proper provisions in place to ensure that these costs are minimised. It is hard to use the word "minimised" when we are talking about sums running into the hundreds of millions of euro, but nevertheless.

Does the Comptroller and Auditor General wish to come in on that?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The fees that are mentioned in the letter from the Secretary General do not go through any account that I audit.

They are being met, as I understand it, from the resources of the bank itself. That is standard enough in conducting a liquidation. As I said, the fees do not appear in any of the accounts that are part of my audit remit and therefore I cannot give any assurance on the operational controls, limitations, sanctions or whatever.

That would reinforce my view that we should ask the Department to give an analysis as to what checks and balances are in place in terms of the value-for-money auditing of each line of the expenditure.

Given the scale of the fees, involving figures of between €320 million and €327 million, maybe we should ask for an account of them, including in respect of the period of time and what the money has been spent on. We should also ask about the potential for increased liability regarding fees the longer this goes on. That would be worth probing with the Department. I am aware there is a proposal that we bring in the Secretary General of the Department of Finance at some time in the future but, in the first instance, if the Deputy is happy, we could seek the information from the Secretary General and come back to the issue again. Is that all right?

The next item of correspondence is No. 720B, from Dr. Deirdre Keyes, chief executive officer of Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board, dated 30 June 2021 and providing information requested by the committee on non-compliant procurement of over €1.4 million. In its 2019 financial statement, the committee requested explanations from all bodies audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General with non-compliant procurement in excess of €500,000, as we mentioned earlier. It is proposed that we note and publish this item, if that is agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy has flagged this matter. This body has come up a number of times at meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts but the Deputy wants to make a contribution.

Kildare and Wicklow Education and Training Board is subject to a Garda investigation, and I think there would-----

We have to be cautious about that.

I am not straying into that area but I would have believed the last thing we would have seen was non-compliant procurement. I am aware, however, that some of these bodies have particular challenges. I am amenable to the publication of the item but it just jumps out at me because there is history here.

Given the number of issues concerning education and training boards and procurement, and how often they would have indicated that much of what is being reported has been brought within a procurement framework, I wonder whether the Comptroller and Auditor General believes it might be worthwhile comparing non-compliance across education and training boards in 2019 in 2020, just to see if or how things are improving.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

That is certainly an exercise that could be done. Maybe we could ask the liaison officer to extract the information for each of the education and training boards for two or three years. My sense is that there is an improvement but it obviously takes time to deal with all the kinds of procurement that the education and training boards deal with.

I draw the committee's attention to the fact that I published a report, maybe two years ago at this stage, on financial management and reporting in education and training boards. That is something that the committee would like to examine. Maybe it would like to call on some of the education and training boards to give evidence on the matter, and also invite the Department, obviously.

Over the past year, we have looked at the statements from a number of education and training boards. In fairness, most of them came back with measures taken to improve matters and explanations in respect of procurement where they had limited options, such as where there may have been a single supplier of very specialised stuff.

This particular one seems to have much history attached to it. We will note and publish that item and have an examination of that publication by Mr. Seamus McCarthy’s office.

No. 725B is from Mr. Ken Spratt, Secretary General of the Department of Transport, dated 8 July 2021 providing further information requested by the committee during our meeting with the Department on 27 May, which members will recall. It includes: an explanation as to why the process for procuring vehicles for the coast guard fleet was described in the statement on internal financial control in the Department’s 2019 appropriation account as “not robust”. The Secretary General stated that a special report on the matter will be provided to the Comptroller and Auditor General; mentions the number of vacancies on the boards of agencies under the aegis of the Minister for Transport - a total of 18; and information on Exchequer funding for regional and local roads. The Secretary General stated that a reduction in funding since 2008 has resulted in a substantial backlog of road repair works, estimated to cost in excess of €5 billion to address. It is proposed that we note and publish the item. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy flagged this as well. Is she okay with that?

I skipped over one item. I apologise.

No. 723B is from the Secretary General of the Department of Justice dated 8 July 2021 providing the terms of reference of an independent review of voluntary mess committees, which was undertaken at the behest of this committee. The terms of reference state that it is intended that the review will be completed by the end of the year. It is proposed to note and publish this item, and to request a progress update and a copy of the review upon its completion. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy also flagged this item. Is she okay with that?

Nos. 726B and 743B, dated 8 July and 14 July, respectively, are from Professor Kerstin Mey of University of Limerick, who was before the committee on 17 June, and are arising from the committee's request for information during that meeting. No. 726B specifically addresses the committee's request for a copy of the report published by Ms Mairéad McKenna in regard to protective disclosures at University of Limerick. The recommendations of the report were provided to the committee last March. That was correspondence R0410. The university has requested the committee to "confirm that it is exercising its statutory powers to compel the disclosure of the Records, that the Committee considers the disclosure of the Records (as opposed to extracts or summaries of same) to be required by law, and that the Committee will handle the Records with due care in accordance with data protection law”. University of Limerick, UL, stated that it would furnish the committee with all information that the committee requested, once it received a response to this request. The secretariat responded on 9 July and advised UL that the committee would consider the request in relation to the McKenna report, and that UL should respond in the meantime to 20 other items requested in the letter, which are dealt with in No. 743B. UL stated that the McKenna report contains personal data relating to internal employment matters within the university and that it has a legal obligation under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 and GDPR to protect that. The president of UL goes on to note that is why only recommendations arising from the report have been previously made available to the committee. UL appears to be raising the same concerns in relation to former presidents' contracts, although it gave an undertaking to provide these to the committee at the meeting.

I will open this up to the floor. Deputy Catherine Murphy flagged this item. I suggest that we consider this further when we are next in private session, as there are a number of procedural issues which we would need to consider before making a decision on how we proceed. The private matters are where there are named individuals and employees. We need to be sensitive to that. Is it agreed to note and publish this item and to consider the matter further in private session? Agreed. Is Deputy Imelda Munster okay with that?

Thanks, Chair. Assuming the person or people involved are known to the committee and possibly have been in correspondence with members over recent months, could we write to them to get their permission?

We could withhold judgment based on the responses we receive.

The question of identifying them may arise but I will ask the clerk to examine that to see if we can get their permission to use that information. Is that okay?

Okay. Thanks, Chair.

No. 743 provides the balance of the information requested by the committee arising from our meeting with UL on 17 June. It provides responses to matters such as the governance of the University of Limerick Foundation, expenditure related to the president's residence, entertaining services and protected disclosures and information regarding the purchase by UL of the former Dunnes Stores site for €8.343 million. It also states that UL paid €9,500, excluding VAT, for the valuation services through a company not registered with the Property Services Regulatory Authority. UL states that related correspondence requested by the committee forms a significant part of the KPMG review of the purchase and, once the report is completed, it will be forwarded to the committee, subject to resolving any legal issues regarding release of personal or other sensitive information.

In relation to our question on whether UL's chancellor, Mary Harney, is still serving on KPMG's public interest committee, UL confirmed that she is but states that all interests were declared in accordance with UL processes and the Ethics in Public Office Act and that the chancellor was not involved in the engagement of KPMG to undertake the review of the purchase of the former Dunnes Stores site.

The breakdown of 2018-2019 entertainment expenditure of more than €1 million that we requested includes €22,000 on events relating to an honorary doctorate for the University of Limerick Foundation chair, which was held in New York, including costs arising from UL benefactors and guests attending the Irish Chamber Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and a pre-concert reception.

I propose that we confirm the committee's request for a copy of the KPMG review, request a breakdown of expenditure relating to the events in New York and note and publish the item of correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Carthy wishes to comment on this correspondence from UL.

I will deal with it at the private meeting.

The next item of correspondence is No. 728B from Mr. David Moloney, acting Secretary General of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated 8 July 2021, enclosing the minute of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in response to the Committee of Public Accounts report of the examination of the 2019 Appropriation Account for Vote 13 - Office of Public Works and Related Financial Matters. We made five recommendations in the report, three of which have been fully accepted and two of which have been partially accepted. The recommendations that have been accepted concern the Miesian Plaza lease, which will result in the taxpayer paying approximately €10 million, due to a mismeasurement of the floor management space. That was in the contract, which the OPW did not note. As part of our report, we request quarterly updates on this issue, the latest on the flood relief projects and issues identified with the maintenance contracts. They have accepted our concerns, the points made in relation to that and our recommendations. Those partially accepted related to the development of the Garda complex at Military Road in Dublin 8 and vacant Garda property. Is it agreed that we note and publish this? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy wishes to comment on this subject.

We will probably come back to the station at Military Road. I will leave it and we can come back to that. I think it will be an ongoing issue.

Okay. It is positive that they accepted three of our recommendations.

We probably will revert to the Miesian Plaza because I think there is another chapter in this. Is that agreed? Agreed.

On the issue of vacant properties, would it be possible to get an up-to-date report on what progress has been made on dealing with that issue? This arose during our discussion of this issue, given that many properties had been vacant for a number of years.

We had correspondence earlier in the year regarding vacant properties, and the Deputy raised a number of related incidents in his constituency. We will seek an update on the matter of vacant Garda properties throughout the country. Is that all right?

Yes, thank you.

The report accepts our recommendations regarding Miesian Plaza, but the letter states that the OPW has had an initial meeting with the landlord and a further one is due. Throughout Covid, when we were pressing the OPW to have a meeting, it was not even prepared to use Zoom or anything else. Given that correspondence was sent almost two months ago, could we write back seeking an update on the issue of meetings?

There will now be face-to-face meetings between the Office of Public Works, the landlord and the owner of the property. That might be more appropriate, if the Deputy is agreeable with that.

Yes, but we should seek an update as soon as possible.

Okay. No. 729B, from Ms Désirée Finnegan, chief executive officer of Screen Ireland, dated 8 July 2021, provides information requested by the committee in regard to appointments to the board of Screen Ireland, an issue that arose at a previous committee meeting. The CEO states Screen Ireland has "robust conflict of interest procedures" and that it is "inevitable however that members of the Board will from time to time apply for funding", as it needs to have a blend of industry and non-industry professionals. The latest board was appointed following an open competition run by the Public Appointments Service. The CEO gave a commitment to contacting the individual who raised this matter with the committee. As agreed on 13 July, we forwarded this item to the individual but, as set out in R0759, which we will come to, Screen Ireland has not yet made contact. I propose we request an update from Screen Ireland on its undertaking to contact the individual as well as a breakdown of the percentage of its funding in recent years that has gone to companies associated with board members. Is that agreed? Agreed. Is it further agreed that we will note and publish this item of correspondence? Agreed.

No. 730B, from Mr. Dave Walsh, chairperson of An Bord Pleanála, dated 8 July 2021, provides further information requested by the committee arising out of our meeting with An Bord Pleanála on 13 May 2021. Matters addressed include the fact the board sometimes has to pay the losing side's costs when it successfully defends one of its decisions. The response sets out the legislative basis for this, which includes the Aarhus Convention. Is it agreed we will note and publish this item? Agreed. I understand Deputy Murphy wished to comment on this correspondence.

No, that is okay. This will be an ongoing issue because there are cases in progress.

I think we were all surprised that the board's legal fees ran to more than one third of its budget, in excess of €8 million. In fairness, the board seems to have been on the losing side most of the time in the more recent court cases.

No. 733B, from the Department of Health, dated 9 July 2021, is a response to our invitation to attend a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts with the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board on 13 July.

This letter also addresses the ongoing progress review regarding the national paediatric hospital. I propose that we take this correspondence with No. 765B, which also addresses the matter. It is from the Department of Health and dated 25 August 2021. It is a response to the committee's request for the Department to clarify that the committee "will be provided with the report on the progress review of the National Paediatric Hospital including the cost of the project, and a timeframe for its completion". This follows on from our two meetings with the hospital board in the last term. The response to our request for sight on the analysis remains the same. It states that "Any discussion of costs, however hypothetical or otherwise, at this time, would prejudice enforcement of the existing contract, and very likely negatively impact or jeopardise the Development Board in its engagement with the main contractor, and the Board’s responsibilities for the timely completion of this critical project." While we must take the Department at its word, its position means that we do not have information as to the final cost and completion date for the largest capital project ever undertaken by the State and it appears we will not have that information for an extended period. I propose that we note and publish this item. I have flagged it for discussion because we are being strung along.

Members will recall that, last November, we decided to bring in the board of the new paediatric hospital being developed. We also asked the Department of Health to come in. We put that back to the new year because the report on progress and estimates as to the final cost were not available. We brought the board in on 9 February. We thought we would get information that day but we did not. We were told that we would have it soon after. The months passed by and the information still did not come. We had the board in again before the summer break but still did not get the information at that time. We have also visited the hospital. I do not know what the other members think but I believe we are in a ludicrous position. The taxpayer is funding the largest capital project in the State. We are digging deep into pockets and pay packets but we have no idea what the final cost will be and we have no idea about the timelines. We went out and saw the project. I do not know about the rest of the committee but, after seeing it, I had more questions than I did before. It might be an architect's showpiece but I would question how practical or functional some of it is.

This situation is totally unsatisfactory. I do not know if other members want to come in on this but the Committee of Public Accounts cannot sit back and take this. We are being fobbed off by the Department. How long does it take the Department and the hospital board to come up with a progress report and timelines for the project? The public need to know what this is going to cost every one of us. It is not acceptable. Some other members are indicating that they want to come in.

I want to reiterate everything the Cathaoirleach has said. This situation is completely unacceptable. The attitude and position of the Department are nonsensical. We are at a very advanced stage of contracting. As the Cathaoirleach has said, the Department is not able to give us even an estimated figure for the final cost of this project. The one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that the previous cost estimates are way out of kilter with where we are likely to end up. While we accept that there will always be some level of commercial sensitivity involved, the difficulty is that the Department has yet to outline the particular issues with this project preventing the information the Cathaoirleach has outlined from being provided. We need to bring the development board and the Department back before the committee at the earliest possible opportunity.

Both the Joint Committee on Health and the Committee of Public Accounts expected to see that report.

There was a change in the attitude of the Department. There was also a change in the Secretary General of the Department. We have had previous engagements at this committee with representatives of the hospital development board and we have gone through, in some considerable detail, some of the issues relating to how the costs were escalating. For the life of me, I do not understand why there has been a change.

I did not visit the hospital, as it happened. I totally appreciate the need for the hospital and that it will be built on that site. I do not need to be convinced that we need the hospital and I do not need to see the design of the hospital because several of us have been through that issue, over the years. I want to get to grips with how these costs can be contained and the history up to now.

I know we are going to get a rolling rundown of the costs by virtue of the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General will be doing audits. Those audits will leave us a year in arrears, so to speak. It does not appear that there is going to be any change in attitude from the Department in terms of coming in. We are still getting the same advice that it is not wise to be having any discussion at all on this matter. If we are bringing Department representatives before the committee, what are we bringing them in to do? That is the question. I find it unacceptable that we cannot have a frank discussion about containing the costs of this project and how these costs have arisen. We know there has been a problem with the two-pronged approach to procurement already. I find it unacceptable that we cannot have an open engagement on this matter.

I thank the Deputy. Committee members appreciate there are matters that are commercially sensitive. We all understand that. However, I fail to understand why we cannot be informed on key issues such as estimated dates to set out a timeline for this project. We should also be informed of an estimated cost. I have never seen anything like this in my lifetime. If you were building a back kitchen or an extra bedroom onto your house, the contractor would give you a price before they start. The project in question is two thirds of the way through the process and nobody has an answer as to how much it is going to cost. We have not been informed. I am no wiser now as to the timeline for completion. It is an absolute mess.

I agree with the Chairman. We may gain some value by going into the detail of what further variations may be on the cards and what that looks like. There is the historical side of it between the design and the variations. What is left and how different is it? There is also the question of whether big structural changes might be linked to anything around the national maternity hospital. Mr. Peter Boylan has put out the idea that perhaps one of the ways to address the critical needs around the new national maternity hospital is to provide a service at the children's hospital for critical care so that babies requiring such care could be born in that setting and have their needs addressed, as an interim measure if there is a need to look at alternative models for a new national maternity hospital. All of those are things that we may have sight of, as well as design or other changes that may be required as we go.

For those of us who visited, it is obviously a fantastic site. It is a brilliant improvement on what is there at the moment. We have many reasonable questions and we need to drill down into them and look for a schedule of what is anticipated from now on. We do not want to look at that privately exactly, because we do not want to take the role of the committee into that space, but committee members could get better visibility on specifically what the challenges are and what it is likely to cost. We certainly need more information than we have now and I support all of the committee members who have made that suggestion.

We need some kind of response from the Department.

I am getting concerned as I have come across an Office of Public Works contract recently where five tenders were sent in and the job was offered to the lowest bid and then to the next lowest. The four contractors with the lowest tenders all walked away from the project and the company with the highest tender has accepted that contract. There is a difference of approximately 25% between the lowest tenderer and the highest. It is about how costs have increased dramatically in the past number of months. What does that flag for the completion of this project, for example? We must get some kind of guideline from the Department on this. This was a small contract and my understanding now is that the lowest tender was approximately €7 million but the highest tender was over €8 million. The four contractors who submitted at a lower tender price refused to take the contract when it was offered to them so now the contractor who submitted the highest tender has taken that contract. It is a big concern that I have for this project.

Even in the past number of months the cost of building has gone way up. Where are we with the Department and the group managing this? What is their expectation? We should get some kind of guideline on that.

The Deputy's point on construction inflation costs is valid.

I agree with previous speakers about this. Like others, I was on the site and viewed the construction. It was my second time there in a period of eight to ten months so I have seen the development of the site and the progress made. What struck me from our visit was when those present spoke about changes being made and accounted for. Certain design changes had to be made and that accounted for costs and changes to plans. Ultimately, from our perspective as a committee, we must know the bottom line of how much the State will pay for this hospital. This has been rumbling on for years and certainly from that correspondence there does not seem to be any bottom line here. It is incumbent on us as a committee to probe that and try to get to the final cost or at least near enough to it. The public wants to know and it has a right to that.

I agree with previous speakers that we should invite in representatives of both the Department and the board to discuss that element as it is progressing and what we have seen in recent months. It is still a long way off completion and we must have some sort of crystallisation of cost.

There is a proposal that we request information and that we ask members of the hospital board and representatives from the Department of Health before the committee. The information we are requesting relates to a timeline for progressing work and details on construction inflation. It really worries me that the hospital board and Department of Health do not know at this time - on 21 September 2021, so far into the project - what will be the final cost. It is a major concern. Is that what they are telling us? We need to know that.

If these people are not prepared to divulge the information to us, who are representing the public and the taxpayers who are paying for this, we should ask if they know that information at this point. I suggest to the committee that we request that information from those parties in the first instance. We must know the cost of construction inflation. At this point we should seek the final cost and if they are not prepared to give it, we should ask whether they are aware of that final cost. It is really concerning that the Committee of Public Accounts and perhaps even the Government do not know the cost.

Part of the reason there was a slippage in the delivery time was that there was insufficient work at the early stages. There were not enough construction workers on that site. The point I made at a previous meeting was that contracts go both ways. There is an obligation to pay for the work that is done but, equally, there is an obligation to do the work that is contracted for. That slippage is potentially very problematic because we can see there is a significant problem with building costs inflation. That is one of the issues in respect of which I think we need to understand where the controls are. This will not be the last hospital we will build. It is to be hoped we will not in the future build hospitals in the same way as the national children's hospital has been built in terms of how the tender process worked.

I remember very clearly one occasion on which witnesses were before this committee to discuss this. When you tender for something and then you make changes, that is where costs are going to arise. For example, there were changes to the hand basins. They were going to be changed to stainless steel for infection control purposes. I would have thought that was self-evident hospital infection control. You put in your maximum at that stage because it is going to cause you a problem if you do not.

We need to be learning lessons as well as everything else from what went wrong with this project in terms of the escalating costs. If we do not learn those lessons, we are going to repeat exactly the same mistakes again when we go to build another hospital. Already we are talking about the very controversial location for the national maternity hospital because of the ownership of the site. First it was €300 million, then it was €500 million, then it was €800 million, so there is a very significant issue here with procurement. This is a project in respect of which we can better understand where things can go wrong and how things can cause more problems than anticipated. It is very important we properly scrutinise that so we understand it and we look at the contractual side, because if it is in the interest of a contractor, whether it is this site or any other site, to elongate the timeframe for something at a time when there is building costs inflation, of course the timeline is going to slip and of course it is going to cost more.

I have just noticed that at the very end of Eamonn Quinn's letter he says, "The Department is aware that the ... [National Paediatric Hospital Development Board] is preparing briefing material for the Committee and, considering that, will defer to that submission by the NPHDB [which is the board], rather than providing a separate briefing." Notwithstanding that, I think we will look for the information the committee is requesting and we will look to bring the hospital board and the Department back in again on this matter and bring that to their attention. Is that okay?

Yes. Maybe the Comptroller and Auditor General will tell us as well when the most recent audit will be available to us because that might give us some useful information.

Mr. McCarthy might have information on that.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I cleared the account on, I think, about 6 July. There were a number of matters that were to be dealt with. They have not come back to me yet and I do not off-hand have an indication of when the audit will be completed, but I expect that it will not be too long.

When we have that audit report, we should have the Department and the hospital board before the committee. Meanwhile, we will look for that information the committee has requested. Is everyone happy with that?

No. 736B, from Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, dated 14 July 2021, provides information requested by the committee on the engagement of contractors by RTÉ. It is a response from the Department to the committee's query as to whether it saw any impediment to RTÉ publishing that information. The Department states, "RTÉ is an independent statutory body and the Department considers that resolution of this issue is an operational matter for RTÉ in the first instance."

RTÉ has since provided this information to the committee and we will publish that correspondence shortly. Is it agreed that we note and publish this item? Agreed.

I find the response from the Department quite worrying. It seems to have no interest in a body which it funds when that body is opening up potentially very significant liabilities. I accept that RTÉ is an independent statutory body, but on the one hand it is going cap-in-hand to the Government with the Government seemingly uninterested in getting value for money. On the other hand, RTÉ pressed back against this committee when we attempted to examine matters of, I would say, maladministration and I would be generous in my use of that term. It is worrying that the Department shows no interest when it comes to getting value for money given all that we have heard from RTÉ.

There was another reference and further correspondence with RTÉ. It had given me a direct undertaking to review the issue of pay disparity for Irish language workers. That clearly has not been met. I do not think we will get any satisfaction going back and forth given the toing and froing we have had. It is like pulling teeth trying to get information from RTÉ. I hope that representatives from RTÉ will appear before the committee as soon as possible. I look forward to that.

The Deputy is referring to correspondence No. 741. We will come to that because we need to discuss a number of issues in that, including the one the Deputy referred to. Does anyone else wish to speak on No. 736?

I seek clarity. Are we also taking No. 741 now?

This one specifically deals with the engagement of contractors and the Secretary General's response. No. 741 contains substantial pieces of information.

There are a number of issues on No. 741. Regarding the correspondence from the Department, I reiterate what Deputy Munster has said. It appears that the Department is quite satisfied to have a hands-off approach regarding the expenditure of public moneys by RTÉ. I have a number of issues with No. 741; I can deal with them separately.

It is agreed that we note and publish that.

Nos. 737 to 740, inclusive, concern Dundalk ice rink, a matter which was brought to the attention of the committee by Deputy Andrews. I propose that we take these items together. Is that agreed? Agreed. This is an important issue as we do not have a permanent ice rink facility in this State and Dundalk ice rink has been unused and falling into disrepair for a number of years. I will summarise the correspondence before opening the floor to members.

No. 737 is from Ms Katherine Licken, Secretary General of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, dated 14 July 2021 providing information requested by the committee on Dundalk ice rink, which is owned by Dundalk Institute of Technology. That institute is attempting to lease it. The Secretary General states that the Department “has no role in relation to buildings owned by DkIT and or decisions taken by DkIT regarding the use of such buildings”. Therefore, the Department cannot provide any information as to why the building has been left vacant or why it has not been maintained.

The Department goes on to set out its role in sport promotion and efforts to secure a permanent ice rink facility in Ireland, including engagement between Sports Ireland and the Irish Ice Hockey Association. The Department states that Sport Ireland was in the early stages of conducting a feasibility study on the development of a permanent ice rink facility as part of the Sport Ireland National Sports Campus.

No. 738 is from Mr. Jim Breslin, Secretary General, Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, dated 13 July 2021. The Secretary General notes that DkIT has responded to the committee, and states that, in terms of governance arrangements, the role of the Minister and the Department is set out in the Technological Higher Education Association code of governance. However, the Department goes on to state that while it has a sanctioning role under the code of governance regarding material acquisition or disposal of land, including long-term leases, this sanctioning role "is distinct from the conduct of lease negotiations and operational decisions generally in relation to how DkIT manages and utilises its properties". It goes on to say that it would not be appropriate for the Minister to intervene in commercial negotiations.

No. 739 is from Professor Michael Mulvey, president of DkIT, setting out a detailed response to its purchase of the then JJB Sports site for €3 million, which includes the Ice Dome. DkIT received sanction from the HEA for the purchase in 2012. The correspondence sets out that the purchase was central to its Campus Development Plan 2011-2021.

DkIT states that the Ice Dome was not operational when purchased and that somewhere in the region of €500,000 to €1 million would be required to bring it back into service. As it wants to maintain control of the property in case it wants to expand its campus, which it states is particularly relevant in the context of its ambition to become a technological university, DkIT intends to continue its efforts to lease the premises. Essentially, DkIT does not have the financial resources to bring the Ice Dome back into use nor is doing so aligned with its long-term strategic objectives.

DkIT states that it intends to lease the Ice Dome to a tenant with the financial resources to bring it back into service. In respect of its negotiations over several years with the Irish Ice Hockey Association, DkIT states that “the association was afforded every opportunity to present a proposal that met the requirements of the Institute” and that it requested a final proposal from the association in February 2021. DkIT did not deem it to be viable, stating that it presents “too high of a commercial and operational risk for the Institute.”

No. 740 is from the vice president of the Irish Ice Hockey Association, dated 12 July. As mentioned, the association has been in negotiations with DkIT to lease the Ice Dome, but ultimately, DkIT did not deem the association’s final proposal viable with the end result that we have a decaying ice rink with an owner not interested in using the facility for its intended purpose; an ice hockey association with no ice rink which is unusual to say the least; and no permanent ice-rink facility in the State.

The association has submitted extensive and detailed correspondence on the matter over a number of years, including Sport Ireland’s 2018 support in principle for the association’s bid to reopen the Ice Dome, subject to the costs being met by the association. The association has also provided the minutes of DkIT’s governing body’s meetings, which are publicly available. They detail DkIT’s consideration of the matter, from its intention in 2017 to sell the Ice Dome to the current decision to lease it.

The association’s 2018 business plan notes that the United Kingdom has 63 ice facilities and that New Zealand, a country of similar demographic and history of ice sports to Ireland, has four indoor arenas. I thank members for their patience on listening to me outline the gist of the current situation. I will now open the floor to members. I know Deputy Munster has had an interest in this matter in the past.

The responses from DkIT over the potential use of the ice rink or the potential that could come from it are disappointing. Across the country we have seen the benefits that top-tier sports facilities can provide for both teams and third level institutions.

It was disappointing DkIT did not see the appeal of such a thing. Looking at the correspondence from the Irish Ice Hockey Association, I believe its view on how the matter was handled is very different from that of DkIT. Its disappointment is clear. Could we formally hear the response of both the Department and DkIT on the matter?

Will Deputy Munster outline what she is proposing?

The proposal concerns the correspondence we got from the Irish Ice Hockey Association. Its view differs greatly from that of DkIT. It flagged the missed opportunity and lack of co-operation. Could we copy the correspondence to both the Department and DkIT and seek their responses to it? We are now in a situation in which Sport Ireland is looking at the potential of providing an ice hockey rink. I am interested in hearing the responses of the Department and DkIT to the Irish Ice Hockey Association.

If it is agreed by the committee, we will forward the correspondence to the Department and DkIT to see what they have to say about what the Irish Ice Hockey Association has outlined in its letter. I propose also to publish the correspondence we received from the bodies that are accountable to the committee and write to Sport Ireland for an update on the feasibility of the development of a permanent ice rink as part of its National Sports Campus and to learn whether Sport Ireland has considered engaging with DkIT to explore options to bring this facility into use. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Could it be sent to the relevant sectoral committee also?

If it is agreed by the members, we can forward it to the sports committee. No. 741B, dated 12 July 2021, is from Ms Vivienne Flood, head of public affairs, RTÉ, and provides information requested by the committee on a range of issues. No. 754B, dated 30 July 2021, is also from RTÉ. I propose we take the two together.

Part of the information requested by the committee on a number of occasions was the amount paid by RTÉ to the Revenue Commissioners in respect of a Revenue audit inquiry into the engagement of contractors by RTÉ. RTÉ states that, as the process has now concluded, it can disclose the amount paid to Revenue was €1.223 million. Members will recall that, at a meeting earlier in the year, we extracted the fact it made a settlement. We had also requested information on the parallel audit being conducted by the Department of Social Protection. RTÉ states it is ongoing but no interim payment has been made to the Department. As with the Revenue process, RTÉ states it is unable to provide more detail until the audit has concluded. That is obviously relating to the employer's liabilities in respect of each employee.

On the committee's request that RTÉ conduct a comparative review of the remuneration of Irish-speaking workers at Raidió na Gaeltachta and their counterparts in RTÉ, first made at our meeting with RTÉ last April, RTÉ states it has appointed a company with specific experience in the media sector to carry out a full evaluation of all staff roles and grades in RTÉ. Irish language roles will be part of this review, which was set to commence this month. This review follows on from the recommendations contained within the role and gender review report conducted by Mr. Kieran Mulvey on behalf of RTÉ in 2017. One of the key recommendations in Mr. Mulvey's report was to review and simplify its current structure, which has 167 different grades. RTÉ states it is following through on this recommendation and, while it cannot undertake to conduct also a review specific to any one service, it will be addressed as part of the wider review.

I propose we note and publish this correspondence and ask RTÉ to provide us with the findings of the social protection audit as well as the findings of the organisational review as soon as they become available. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I also propose that we engage with RTÉ and the Department on the funding it receives in early July. We can consider that work under the review programme and bring in the representatives again on that matter. Is that agreed? Agreed.

There was correspondence from Ms Vivienne Flood that officially outlined for the first time that RTÉ made a settlement with Revenue regarding people who were wrongly classified as self-employed, or what is referred to as bogus self-employment. That has been an important step forward for the Committee of Public Accounts but we need to know much more about the payments. What were they for? How many staff members does that payment take account of? What about other staff? Does the payment cover only what the State was owed or does it cover compensation to those 11 workers? We need to know more about the audit that is being carried out by the Department of Social Protection and the number of workers involved in that. We need to know more about what RTÉ is doing about these contracts and workplace practices around the classification of employment and what is sometimes referred to as bogus self-employment. We have got the figure of the settlement between RTÉ and Revenue. As soon as the figures relevant to the Department of Social Protection and the PRSI contributions that are due in that regard are available, we should look for that information. I request that we correspond with RTÉ and thank it for the information that has been provided. We should also highlight there are other specific pieces of information we want. We should bring representatives of the company in for an engagement later in the year. Deputy Murphy wants to comment on the matter.

One of the first items in the reply dealt with complaints of defamation or libel. We were told we could not be provided with particular information because it would include amounts involved with individual settlements. It would actually be quite useful for us to get even a global figure for 2010 until now. That would not have the same impact. That is not RTÉ's fault because defamation laws require urgently to be changed. Every media outlet has a particular issue with the current defamation laws. Perhaps if we got that figure back, we could follow through to the Department to seek a change.

On the matter of the Revenue audit, Eversheds did a two-year look-back in the report it conducted. I am sure Revenue will not be limited by that because I think some of the staff who had a change in their employment status, those who became employees as opposed to contractors, would have flagged up this issue for some considerable time. A Revenue audit will be dictated by Revenue. It will decide the parameters as opposed to the entity being audited. I suspect Revenue will go back further than Eversheds did. Revenue will dictate that. The important thing is that if Revenue does not provide that report, if the amount of €1.2 million changes, we will see that in the RTÉ accounts. It would be beneficial if we were to be provided with the Revenue audit when it is to hand.

Both the Chairman and Deputy Murphy have touched on a number questions that are outstanding.

It would be incredibly useful for us to invite RTE to return to the committee to analyse some of these matters further. We belatedly know that RTE has paid €1.22 million in respect of what were essentially - to call a spade a spade - bogus employment practices. It would be useful for this committee to get a breakdown of the type of staff involved, the levels of wages, and whether this reflected some of the higher earners we see in the reports, or whether it specifically related to lower paid individuals. The RTE report indicates that there will be no payments to the Department of Social Protection, that the Revenue Commissioners have responsibility for the collection of taxes and that the payments that were made by RTE include PRSI. It would be helpful to get clarification from the Department of Social Protection as to whether it is also its view that the Revenue Commissioners have recouped any funds due to them.

Questions continue to arise in regard to the use of contracts as opposed to direct employment processes, and in that vein it is important we invite RTE to come before the committee again. Finally, I support Deputy Murphy's request that we get a realistic figure for legal costs.

We will look for that information. We will also notify RTE that we wish to have it before the committee. Hopefully, the information regarding the Department of Social Protection and any information that comes to light as a result of that will be available by that time. Is that agreed? Agreed.

No. 744 is correspondence from Mr. Niall Burgess, Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, providing information requested by the committee arising from our meeting with the Department on 24 June this year. Matters addressed include the backlog of foreign birth registrations; Ireland's development and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people; the list of State-owned properties located abroad for which the Department has responsibility; and expenditure on the passport reform programme. It is proposed that we note and publish this item. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Matt Carthy flagged No. 744 for discussion.

Yes, Cathaoirleach. Page 3 includes a note on the State seeking compensation from Israel in respect of damage done to Irish-funded infrastructure during military attacks. This correspondence is dated in July. It would be useful if we could get an update from the Department in respect of whether or not additional efforts are being made.

In terms of what has been provided to the consortium in the West Bank and the funds, if it is agreed by the committee, we will look for an update on the current situation. Is that agreed? Agreed.

No. 745B is from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, dated 21 July 2021, providing information requested by the committee on the national strategy for data centres and their impact on the energy demand. We also wrote to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in this regard, and that response will come before the committee at the next meeting, at which we will consider the correspondence. The issue arose from our engagement with An Bord Pleanála in the context of planning permission for data centres which are huge users of electricity and water. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications referenced the Government statement on the role of data centres in Ireland's enterprise strategy, which was published in 2018 and states that the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, Ireland's independent energy and water regulator, has responsibility for policies regarding the national grid. The commission works with EirGrid and the ESB networks to issue connection offers to the grid.

The Minister stated that planning permission and grid connections are separate requirements, and while planning permission must be in place before grid connection is sought, planning permission does not guarantee grid connection.

A consultation on the future development and operation of the electricity system was launched last March, and focuses on the need to cater for the transition to 70% renewable energy by 2030 as well as increased demand. The total electricity requirement for large energy users, including data centres, is set to more than double by 2030. The Minister stated that a number of actions have been taken to ensure continuity of supply, given data centres' implications for the national grid over the coming years. In a paper published in June, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities acknowledged that some form of intervention is necessary and a consultation process has now closed. I propose we note and publish this correspondence and request an update on the consultation process. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputies Murphy and Munster flagged this item for discussion.

I am happy for the correspondence to be noted and published.

Does Deputy Munster wish to comment?

It is incredibly strange that the Minister would provide us with such a note on data centres without any reference to concerns regarding potential rolling blackouts across the State this winter. It was only last week when he said he was increasingly confident that this would not occur. Being increasingly confident that we have electricity is not a standard of public service that the public expects from Government or from a Government Minister. Given that this matter has come into focus since the committee last met, I suggest, with the Chairman's permission, that we write the Minister to seek information on any potential rolling blackouts or his Department's views the cause of such blackouts. This should be done in light of the fact that a significant amount from the public purse has been spent in recent years on upgrading green energy and indeed on the grid itself, and also given what we know about the drain on electricity and water supplies that these data centres represent. We know that these centres are popping up and there are probably more planning applications in for data centres in this State than across Europe. The drain on our electricity and water supplies must be weighed against an average of 50 jobs per centre. Given the relationship with our water supply, it is nowhere near fit for purpose or up to standard as it is. Yet, there seems to be no taking into account of the drain that these data centres represent. It does not inspire much confidence for the Minister to gloss over it and say that he is increasingly confident that there will not be blackouts.

I suggest that we write to the Minister again to seek information on any potential rolling blackouts, the Department's views on the cause of such blackouts and to ask him to the outline the steps he is going to take to ensure we do not face a winter of blackouts. I suggest we seek assurance from the Minister that he is increasingly confident that there will not be a winter of rolling blackouts.

This is a really serious issue. I have submitted my own parliamentary questions on the issue over the summer and will submit subsequent questions on it. My question concerns how it relates to our work on the Committee of Public Accounts. I am a new member, so I am still getting used to it. Which areas will we be focusing on? At this point, the issue does not appear to involve public money or a suggestion of the inappropriate use of public money, so I am wondering how it fits into what we do here.

In terms of information, the Deputy has asked a relevant question. The Minister has come out in recent days, and, as I understand it, has said that there is nothing to worry about and there will not be blackouts. However, we know that on those frosty, dark nights, the wind does not blow, so there are no wind turbines moving. We also know that there is no sun on those nights, so the solar panels will not work. Therefore, we are heavily dependent on the gas-generating stations and we know there are difficulties with that. We also know that there are plans to import some temporary generators. As the Committee of Public Accounts, we have a right to ask about continuity of supply, because if the lights go out, the whole thing is banjaxed.

We have the right to know about the potential costs of any temporary generators or other interim solutions that are brought in. To follow on from the issues raised by the previous speakers, this is the area on which to focus. I am concerned that we have closed down the peat-burning power stations in the midlands, because we are moving away from peat. I understand the logic in that. However, this morning, a shipload of peat arrived from Lithuania. My understanding is that it travelled almost 3,000 km. I would like somebody explain to me the logic of all of that. I do not get the logic of it from an economic point of view or from the point of view of reducing carbon emissions.

There is a real issue around electricity generation and the response from the Minister on the data centres. On the one hand, we are dishing out planning permission for data centres as a State while on the other hand, we are importing generators to use as stopgap measures to keep supply to the grid. As a result of this, we, as the Committee of Public Accounts, need to ask questions about the security of supply, the cost of the generators, and their projected costs going into the future.

I propose that we note and publish the correspondence we have on the outcome of the consultation process. That has been agreed. I also request that we seek further information from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Gas has become precarious. There are some, including the Minister, who raised concerns in the past about using gas as a transition fuel. I raised that concern with him at the climate action committee three years ago. Back then, he told me that importing electricity generated by nuclear power was preferable to using gas. However, this is where we are at that moment. The immediate concerns are: the security of supply; the implications all of this has on the public purse; and the implications of the costs of interim solutions, such as the use of generators a stop-gap solution. If the committee is agreeable, we will request that information.

I do not doubt the seriousness of this. This is incredibly serious. However, Deputy McAuliffe has a point. We have no shortage of work and we do not enough have time to get to grips with it. I wonder if this is more of an issue for the Joint Committee on the Environment, Climate and Communications than it is for the Committee of Public Accounts? I do not think that anybody doubts seriousness of this. I am trying to imagine what we will do with that information when we get it back. The Committee of Public Accounts would not invite people in for hearings on these issues, because they are issues that will happen in the future.

As elective representatives on the Committee of Public Accounts, it would be remiss of us to not ask a question about the cost of temporary generation of electricity with these interim solutions that will be implemented. We are concerned about continuity of supply. I take on board Deputy Catherine Murphy’s point that this is an issue for energy committee. Perhaps we should forward this correspondence to the Joint Committee on the Environment, Climate and Communications. We should bring the information to the attention of that sectoral committee. We should express our concerns to it, because the Oireachtas, as a whole, will have to take a more hands-on approach to this issue. We have closed down a lot of things very quickly. Some of us said this at that committee. Deputy Catherine Murphy was at the committee as well as me and she will recall me raising this issue three years ago. If we close down the peat-burning stations and other sources, we will need other sources in place. Wind and solar do not provide dispatchable power on the cold nights when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

That is the reality. The Deputy heard me saying this in this room before.

We are not going to disagree about that.

I suggest that we notify the energy committee of our concerns and forward our correspondence to it. I also suggest we bring to the attention of the Minister our concerns about the costs, ask what the cost is and raise our concerns about the continuity of supply.

The next correspondence is No. 747B from Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú, Secretary General of the Department of Education, dated 23 July 2021. It confirms that the 2020 financial statements from Caranua have now been laid before board Houses of the Oireachtas. The committee has a standing agreement to request explanations from bodies that are late in laying accounts that have been audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General before the Houses. The Department gave an undertaking to contact three survivors and confirmed in its correspondence dated 16 June, No. 654, that it had done so. The Department stated it had obtained the individuals permission to contact the committee about its concerns and that subject to the consent of the board of Caranua, it will do so. I propose to note and publish this. Is that agreed? Are Deputy Catherine Murphy and Deputy Munster okay with that?

We have been back and forth with Caranua in particular. Almost a year later, we still have not gotten a letter back from Caranua. While we got the response from the Department of Education, we are currently awaiting a response from Caranua. I am sure that the Department is well aware that we have separately provided such permission in the cases that I have raised several times at this committee, that is, the representation on behalf of the number of survivors. Their frustration will have been felt by the State agency and Department alike ever since. I wonder if we could write to both organisations again, in particular to ask the new board of Caranua, which seems to be a little bit more eager than the last, about why it has failed to engage, and also for an update on whether those outstanding cases have been dealt with to the satisfaction of the people involved.

My understanding from the correspondence is that Caranua is now within Department of Education. The Department has taken over its function. It is awaiting legislation on the wind-up of Caranua, which all of us here have a responsibility to get through the House. Members of this committee were hoping to see that legislation earlier this year. We need to start looking for that legislation will be brought forward. In fairness the Secretary General has mentioned this to us on a number of occasions. He says the Deparment has engaged with the with three parties concerned. I propose that we note and publish the correspondence. In this case, any correspondence we send back has to be the Secretary General, because the Department has taken over that role.

Chair, the main issue, since we had Caranua in, has been the outstanding cases that have not been dealt with satisfactorily. We are still none the wiser as to whether they have been dealt with. That is my point. We still do not know yet whether those cases - I think there were three - were dealt with prior to the wind up of Caranua.

We will go back through the committee’s correspondence to Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú. We will ask those questions because there were three specific cases at the end of the process. We will seek that information. In terms of time we have about three or four minutes left. We will go over the allocated two hours after that.

We have had a lot of correspondence today because of the recess. I propose that we push the remaining correspondences to next week. However, I want to deal with the work programme before we conclude the meeting. I will move onto that. We have our second meeting with the HSE on its 2020 financial statements this Thursday morning at 9.30 a.m.

The following week, on 30 September, we will engage with the National Asset Management Agency, NAMA, on its 2020 financial statements and special report 111 which concerns NAMA's progress on achievement of its objectives. At the end of the month, the Comptroller and Auditor General will publish the 2020 appropriation accounts which address voted expenditure, including Departments. The Comptroller and Auditor General will also publish the 2020 report on the accounts of the public services at the end of the month and with members' agreement I would suggest that we take time to review those publications closely to prioritise areas for examination in our works programme from November onwards.

On Thursday, 7 October, we are scheduled to engage with the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA, along with representatives from the State Claims Agency, on its 2020 financial statement. The following week, on 14 October, we are scheduled to engage with Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, which Deputy Carthy put forward. I propose that we engage instead with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications in relation to its 2020 accounts. It will be available and it will include up-to-date expenditure on the national broadband plan. Obviously, this has come up a number of times. The progress and expenditure on that is of concern to members. Some of us have raised it in the Dáil in the recent past, so I propose that, with the members' permission, we engage with the Department on that on 14 October. Is that agreeable to members? Is Deputy Carthy happy enough that we drop his initial proposal?

On 21 October, we had considered engaging with Tusla or the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, but have not made a decision in that regard. Can I ask the members' opinion on how they wish to proceed on this date to allow the secretariat time to make the necessary arrangements? I will open this up to the floor. The choice is the RTB or Tusla. Do any members want to comment on that, or do they have a preference?

Chair, is it an either-or, or is this a timeframe? In other words, if we were to invite Tusla on that date, would there be an occasion then to invite the RTB, perhaps in November?

It is our choice.

Both organisations should come before us. A number of issues regarding Tusla have emerged in recent months. To my mind, neither is necessarily urgent but perhaps we should invite Tusla in, with a view to inviting RTB at a later date.

Have any members strong feelings on that one way or the other? If it is agreeable, we will invite Tusla in the first instance and will invite the RTB in later on this year. Is that agreed? Agreed.

In the last session, from Christmas up to summer, because of Covid-19, we sometimes had to chop and change. In fairness to the witnesses coming in, we want to give them, as well as the secretariat, time to prepare, but also to facilitate the witnesses and their schedules.

The Dáil is not scheduled to sit the following week, which brings us to 4 November. Following on from our engagement on 27 April, I propose that we engage with RTE again on that date in the context of the State funding it receives. No. 776 from Deputy Carthy also suggests a further engagement with RTE. A number of issues were raised this morning around that, so if members are agreeable, we will invite RTE in on 4 November. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I do not propose to schedule any further engagements for November until we have the opportunity to see the Comptroller and Auditor General's 2020 reports and material. Is that agreed? Agreed. Is there any other business? Is there anything urgent that members want to raise? No.

The meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts is adjourned until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 September 2021, when we will continue our examination of the HSE's 2020 financial statement. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

The committee adjourned at 1.10 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 September 2021.