Skip to main content
Normal View

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Business of Committee

The business before us is the minutes from previous meetings, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, our work programme, and any other business. The minutes of our meeting of 5 May were circulated to members. Do members wish to raise any matters? Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee's web page.

No financial statements and accounts were presented to the Oireachtas Library between 2 and 6 May 2022. We will return to this item next week.

Moving 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, and decisions taken by the committee in relation to correspondence are recorded in the minutes of the committee’s meetings and published on the committee’s web page.

The first category of correspondence under which members have flagged items for discussion is correspondence from Accounting Officers or Ministers or both, and follow-up to meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts. No. 1217 B is from Mr. David Moloney, Secretary General, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, dated 28 April 2022, enclosing the minute of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in response to our report on the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board’s 2019 financial statements. Our first recommendation was that the report outlining the timeline and estimated costs for the completion of the national paediatric hospital be published as a matter of urgency. We have requested sight of it on a number of occasions. The response to the recommendation, which is not accepted, restates the board and the Department’s position that the analysis is commercially sensitive and “must remain confidential at this time, so as to ensure that the NPHDB’s ability to enforce the contract is not prejudiced, and ultimately the project is not adversely affected.” In our latest correspondence with the Department on this topic, we asked for clarification as to whether the report could be provided to the committee on a confidential basis, and we await that clarification.

Our second recommendation, which was accepted, included a number of changes that will improve transparency in the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board’s accounts in respect of expenditure on this project, and that is welcome.

Our third recommendation was that future capital projects of this scale prioritise value for money, which was also accepted, and that a comprehensive review is carried out following completion of the project to ensure lessons are learned for future capital projects. This is a requirement under the public spending code and will be done.

It is proposed to note and publish this correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputies Catherine Murphy and Carthy have flagged this item for discussion. I ask Deputy Carthy to try to be brief.

There is not much to say. Again, the issue of commercial sensitivity in respect of the hospital is being cited as reason for not providing this committee with a report that was previously promised to us before its publication. For the life of me I do not understand how if there is a contract in place, the publication of a report into that contract could result in commercial difficulties. We have been in regular contact with the Department of Health in respect of this, but I propose that we write back to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform asking it if it has an estimate of the final costing of the children's hospital and, if so, if it will share it with the committee.

The Chairman has stated that the committee recommends "that a comprehensive review is carried out following completion of this project to ensure lessons are learned for future capital projects". We do not know what the timeline of this is, but it could be another couple of years before it is completed and we see the conclusion of this. In the meantime, a similar project which was earmarked as costing €300 million in 2017 is now being talked about as a project of the same scale costing €1 billion, that is, the new national maternity hospital, which is equally mired in controversy about its site. It is very difficult to see how lessons are learned if the project is completed before the other one starts. How do we get even an interim understanding or some lessons? The two-phase process is not similar, but how do we get some lessons we do not have to wait another five years for? That is what it looks like. We will have the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board in before the committee. It would be useful to know what the most recent set of accounts is and whether another set of accounts is due soon.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I will have to check that for the Deputy. The 2020 accounts are the latest set on which an audit has been completed. I will get an update for the committee for next week as to where the 2021 accounts are and when we expect to have them. I just do not have that information at the minute.

It is really a comment rather than a question.

The next item of correspondence is No. 1221 B, from Ms Anne Graham, chief executive of the National Transport Authority, NTA, dated 29 April, providing information requested by the committee regarding public funding of An Taisce. It is proposed to note and publish the correspondence. Is that agreed? Deputy Carthy, you have flagged this for discussion.

I do not have much comment other than to say that this correspondence should be a template for other agencies and Departments as to how to answer questions because, in fairness, the NTA answered the questions comprehensively and succinctly where necessary and should be commended for that. It is to be hoped others will follow suit. It is refreshing to put questions to an organisation and to get the questions asked answered.

We will note and publish the correspondence.

The next item of correspondence is No. 1222 B, from Mr. Mark Griffin, Secretary General, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, dated 29 April. It provides information requested by the committee regarding National Broadband Ireland's 2022 updated interim remedial plan. The plan confirms a target of 102,000 premises passed by the end of contract year three, which is 31 January 2023. The Secretary General states that "under the contract, National Broadband Ireland is entitled to claim relief against its contractual obligations in circumstances where delays are due to circumstances beyond its control (such as the global pandemic)". The national broadband plan is approximately 12 months behind schedule, eight and a half of which are accepted by the Department, as Members will note in the correspondence, as beyond NBI's control. It appears that sanctions will apply in respect of the other three and a half months. It is proposed to note and publish this item of correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I raised this over lunch break, when we had the opportunity to raise it with the Taoiseach. It was not to get in before I said it at this meeting, but I pointed out to him and the officials from his Department the fact that at least three and a half months are not accepted as within NBI's control. It is important a penalty is levied for that. The Taoiseach committed to speaking to the Minister about it. One of the reasons given in the correspondence relates to blocked ducts. It can be expected when starting to push cables through existing duct that there will be problems and glitches. Covid has been overplayed as a reason, as I have mentioned before. In the first quarter of last year, 2021, NBI was on the ground working, as far as I could see. If it was not, it should have been. While progress would have slowed, there was a certain amount of work NBI could do. It is important that we keep on with that and that, along with raising the matter with the Taoiseach, the committee writes back to the Department asking it to clarify if a penalty is now being levied for those three and a half months. On page 3 of the correspondence it states, "While these are addressed by the ... [updated interim remedial plan], sanctions are accruing against non-delivery of those Milestones." That is what it says about non-delivery. We should question that. Deputy Carthy, do you want to come in briefly on this?

You have asked a number of the questions, Chairman. We were informed, if I recall correctly, that the target of 60,000 premises to be passed by March was still in place at the time of our hearing. My understanding is that the most up-to-date figures we have received are that 41,000 premises or thereabouts were passed. I think that those figures relate to last month and that only a little over 9,000 premises had actually been connected. There is a problem here and, for the life of me, I do not understand why the Department is not live to that and reflecting the urgency of remedial actions in order to get this project back on track. We have talked about the huge costs involved in this project and the number of communities that are desperately awaiting broadband. The Government pursued this particular mechanism to deliver it and, clearly, NBI is not doing it in line with its own targets and milestones. We need to keep on top of this issue, particularly in respect of the penalties, as you have mentioned, Chairman, and whether or not they are being applied or whether or not they can be applied. The fact that penalties have not applied to date is concerning from my point of view.

It is important. I am certainly not a fan of the contract, but whatever powers are there need to be used because only 27,000 premises out of the original 115,000 were reached by January, and we are now moving into phase three.

The penalties are put in because of the nature of the contract. If there is non-compliance-----

It should not be arbitrary. The numbers are black-and-white. I know that allowances were made for Covid for time that was not available, but that cannot continue to be used as an excuse. In fact, if Covid has showed us anything, it is that it is even more essential that reliable broadband be provided.

It is important we pursue the matter because Members will note that in the reply given to me in the Dáil Chamber about a year and a half ago a Minister said there were no penalties. It is important we are absolutely clear. It is the first time I have seen any document from the Department state that sanctions are accruing against non-delivery of these milestones. The importance of this is that it is a first, so it is important that that is seen through.

We will ask for clarification of that and of the nature of the penalty, that is, whether it is a financial penalty or otherwise.

The final item of correspondence is No. 1223B, from Mr. Mattie McCabe, board secretary of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, dated 29 April 2022 providing information requested by the committee arising from our meeting on 24 March 2022 with the SEAI. The correspondence provides responses to eight questions across a range of areas, including retrofitting and electric vehicles, EVs. It is proposed to note and publish this item of correspondence. Is that also agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy indicated that she wants to discuss this further.

Yes. We are in a very different environment now as against last year and this retrofitting scheme really has to succeed. It is important that we ask the Department how it is taking into account the changed environment in relation to inflation in both labour and materials and to get an update on same. It is useful to get this response but we are going to have to keep on top of that because we have legal obligations to meet our targets and if inflation is going to be an impediment, it would be an issue.

I wish to raise another issue. We had a discussion last week with the Department of Finance and I asked a question in relation to the target of 100,000 EVs by 2030. It is a nice round figure and I am always very wary of round figures. Apparently the Department of Transport provided that figure but there does not appear to have been a robust exchange between the Departments of Finance and Transport on the ability to achieve that target but we will end up paying fines if we do not achieve it. That is the point I was making last week, that it will come back on the Department's budget. I suggest that we look at the McKinsey report on the second-hand EV market because the vast majority of people will not be able to buy new EVs at their current prices.

What is the name of the report?

The McKinsey report. It is referred to in the final paragraph. We need to follow up on how to reduce the price of EVs. I personally think that the strategy should focus more on public transport and getting really good transport systems in place but the Government's strategy is to get 100,000 EVs on the road by 2030, a target with which we are supposed to comply but I do not see evidence of a sufficiently robust exchange between the various Departments on this.

Are you suggesting that we seek clarification from the Department about what kind of process it went through?

The Department of Finance is due to come back to us on this. I asked that it would do so last week and I am sure the clerk to the committee has followed up on it. In the meantime, we should get the McKinsey report.

That is fine Deputy Murphy.

The next item on our agenda is the work programme. The following engagements are confirmed for May: the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on 19 May and the Department of Health and the HSE on 26 May. Two meetings have also been confirmed in June, namely, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on 2 June and the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board on 16 June. We also agreed to schedule an engagement to examine local government oversight and accountability in June. If we were to hold one engagement in relation to local government on 23 June, that would leave three meeting slots before the summer recess. I ask members to review the work programme in advance of next week’s meeting so that we can prioritise engagements for those remaining meeting slots. We had a discussion earlier about how to handle the local government issue and agreed that we would bring in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. Is that agreed? Agreed. Again, I ask members to review the suggestions that were submitted for the work programme and to let the clerk know if there is any issue they would like to prioritise for the vacant slots before the summer recess and we can agree them next week.

As there are no matters that members wish to raise in relation to the work programme, I will take it as agreed. As I said, if there are any specific items of interest, please revert to the clerk. Is there any other business that members wish to raise? As everyone is happy, we will adjourn the meeting now.

The committee adjourned at 2.55 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 May 2022.