Comptroller and Auditor General (Accountability of Recipients of Public Funds) (Amendment) Bill 2017: First Stage

I wish to share time with Deputy Mary Lou McDonald.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to extend the power of the Comptroller and Auditor General to inspect the accounts, books and records of persons in receipt of public funds, and to provide for connected matters.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General with the power to audit any public moneys spent by an organisation, regardless of the amount. It is very important that the State's public auditor is able to chase taxpayers' money wherever it is spent. The Bill will not confer an obligation on the Comptroller and Auditor General to audit the accounts of those organisations, rather it allows his or her office to establish, where necessary, that the money was spent for the appropriate purposes.

Over the past 20 years, we have seen a massive expansion of Government funding for non-governmental agencies, especially in the health and education sectors. Billions of euro are spent every year on section 38 and section 39 organisations and we have seen a litany of scandals. While the vast majority of organisations have not been the subject of scandals and are very good at spending taxpayers' money, a small percentage of them have presented real difficulties. Our position is that if people in the private sector want to act the bowsie with their own money, it is a matter for them, not the State. If, however, organisations are misusing public money, even where their public funding component is below 50%, the State's public auditor should be able to chase the money. That is not the case at present.

The Bill allows the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to follow public money only where it is provided to a public or private organisation. It does not mean he or she would be able to examine the way private money is spent but if any public money is spent, the office would be allowed to do so. In the spirit of accountability and transparency and at a time when we have had so many scandals in relation to the spending of public money, this would be a useful tool and power for the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General to have.

I am very pleased to propose with Deputy Cullinane this simple but important Bill which could, if enacted, strengthen good governance, accountability and the public interest within all organisations in receipt of public moneys. I see no reason it would not be supported by the Government or, indeed, everyone in the Dáil.

As a member of the Committee of Public Accounts for some years, I have seen at first hand the enormous value of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts have exposed poor governance in various organisations in receipt of very substantial amounts of public moneys. Oversight keeps organisations right, be they large or small. The State has a particular responsibility to ensure that all public moneys are spent appropriately and for the maximum benefit of the people. It is, after all, the people who entrust the Government of the day to collect and administer their moneys for the collective benefit of all. That is why the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts is central to the oversight of general public administration. By chasing the money, people can be assured the necessary checks and balances are in place to protect their money and the public services on which they rely.

Under existing legislation, the Comptroller and Auditor General cannot always follow the money. This restriction is imposed on him or her by law and by us as politicians, and it simply makes no sense. It has only served to undermine the public's confidence in the much needed services sections 38 and 39 organisations deliver on behalf of the State. Our most vulnerable people rely on these services and they might not otherwise be available to families, be they in mental health, disability supports, workplace training or, indeed, rehabilitation. The Bill seeks to set this wrong to right. It enhances the principle that all public moneys be subject to the same scrutiny regardless of the organisation's size or funding composition when in receipt of the public's cash. To complement the legislation, Sinn Féin also provided an additional allocation for the Comptroller and Auditor General in its alternative budget document to assist the office in the expanded role we envisage for it. The office is under pressure even as it stands.

The Government must learn from the mistakes of the past. All of us from whatever party and, indeed, from none must enable the Comptroller and Auditor General's office to fulfil its role within the public administrative system. Departmental bodies such as the HSE must, in turn, address the shortfalls in their internal oversight policies and procedures. This is how we, as elected representatives, protect the public purse and deliver First World public services to the highest standards of delivery, accountability and oversight.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.