Business of Select Committee

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and his officials.

An issue has arisen in relation to today's meeting and to the business of the committee. It arises from an invitation sent by the committee. It was the unanimous view that the Secretary General should appear before the committee. We sent an invitation and set out a number of dates that would be convenient for members. There were five or six dates given. The letter of response stated basically that the Secretary General had agreed to appear at the Committee of Public Accounts because he had received four invitations. Deputy Pearse Doherty then wrote to the members of the committee requesting that we would not deal with the Government business of today but would suspend the meeting until such time as we had clarification as to the attendance of Mr. Watt at this committee. On 20 February, this letter arrived setting out that Mr. Watt will attend but that I would have to confirm with the Chairs of the other committees as to which is the relevant one.

We had a discussion on it before the Minister came in because it is a matter that was going to arise. It is felt by the members, in respect of Deputy Pearse Doherty's letter that Mr. Watt should attend, part of this committee's brief is to examine his Department and the Department of Finance. That is where we stand. We want to put it to the Minister-----

To clarify, I do not agree with the proposal from Deputy Pearse Doherty.

I am just saying that Deputy Pearse Doherty made the proposal. We are discussing that proposal now. Deputy Deasy did not agree with it. I did not want to suggest that.

It was the matter of Deputy Pearse Doherty's letter. The Deputy's proposal is that Mr. Watt would come, that we would get a date and that hopefully it would be in the next week or so. I think that is being fair to Mr. Watt. He already knows this.

The Minister is an ex officio member on the select committee. We would like to hear the Minister's views on it unless Deputy Pearse Doherty wants to expand on that.

I will put it simply. It is regrettable that it has come to this. The committee unanimously agreed three weeks ago that the Secretary General of the Department for which we are the select committee would come before us so that we would gain a deeper understanding of the role of the Department and its oversight of major capital projects.

After initial correspondence, it was indicated that he would not appear before this committee or dates were not suitable. We provided five or six suitable dates that we thought he could accommodate. We also asked that Mr. Paul Quinn appear before the committee as well. To date, we have received no acceptance of any of those dates. Indeed, we received a letter of conditionality which places an onus on the Chair of this committee to adjudicate as to the appropriate committee.

This is a simple matter. We are elected members of the Oireachtas Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. We have agreed that the Secretary General should come before us. The Secretary General should come before us. It should not be conditional.

On the basis that we have not got acceptance from the Secretary General that he will appear before us on a date that is acceptable to both parties, I proposed the deferral of these Estimates. This could be wrapped up in a quick phone call and we could proceed to take the Estimates in a short period of time.

I feel strongly that respect is a two-way street. I respect the Minister when he is before this committee as he answers the questions that we put to him - one cannot take that away from him - and the Secretary General and the officials. As a committee of the Irish Parliament, respect has to be shown to us as well.

Up until now, there has been refusal to accept any of the dates that are acceptable and a letter with conditionality was issued yesterday. On that basis, until we have clarity, I propose deferral of these Estimates.

I support that. It is up to Deputies Michael McGrath and Burton as to whether they wish to contribute now or wait until after the Minister does.

The committee put forward the proposal in part in the context of the information which came into the public domain in relation to the children's hospital and the stunning cost overruns. That is understandable on the part of the committee.

Both Secretaries General have at times appeared before the committee. It is not an unreasonable request. While Mr. Watt has now agreed to meet the committee, it is reasonable that he would facilitate the committee in a reasonable timeframe to come in and discuss the issues that the committee wants to discuss with him. It is good that he has now agreed but, as Deputy Pearse Doherty stated, a quick phone call or short suspension of the business should be perfectly capable of sorting this out.

I thank the Deputies for all that they have said.

As Deputy Pearse Doherty acknowledged, I am in front of this committee regularly. I always do my best to answer any questions the Deputy puts to me even though, frequently, as is the Deputy's right, he may be dissatisfied with the answers that I give. This is my third committee appearance over the past four weeks in addition to the questions that I answer from all of the committee members in the Dáil Chamber.

As for the issue that is in front of us here, the committee members will be aware of the context of this in terms of the number of committee invitations that my Secretary General has now received. It is a challenge that I face too. I am regularly invited in front of many different committees but my view is that the committee to which I am accountable is this one and if I begin accepting invitations to other committees, it would cause challenges with the relationship that I have with this committee and would make it difficult to do the work that I am meant to do. We now find the Secretary General of my Department is dealing with the same matter because of the growing number of committees that want him to appear. This is the committee to which I and my Department are accountable.

I am willing to engage with the Chairman to see is there a way through this, which there is, to meet the needs that have been articulated here today.

I am not going to give a commitment to say I can do all this in ten minutes because there is an issue regarding the number of different committees to which Mr. Watt has now been invited, an issue I also have to deal with. My proposal is that I am willing to work with the committee to ensure we come up with a mutually agreeable way of ensuring that accountability is delivered because both myself and my Secretary General have a duty to do that. It is a matter for the committee members if they are willing to accept that proposal, which I offer in good faith, and still go ahead with these Estimates this morning. If they are not willing to do so and want this matter resolved before the Estimates are taken, my Secretary General and I will commit to coming back to the committee promptly to consider how to resolve this.

I am in favour of the latter option because we have been at this for three weeks now and the committee has not got a satisfactory acceptance from the Secretary General. There was a bit of movement in the letter the committee received yesterday, although only a bit. This can be resolved with a little will. There is no reason these Estimates need to be deferred for longer than a short a period of time. They should be taken today but the committee has unanimously tried to facilitate the Minister and the official, Mr. Paul Quinn, coming before the committee and we have been unsuccessful.

I did not want to take this action. I have spoken to the Secretary General about this matter. The Department is accountable to this committee. When a committee has unanimously decided to ask a Secretary General to appear before it he or she should be willing to appear. We all have our own schedules and demands. We agreed between five and six dates in a period of three weeks that we are willing to facilitate the Secretary General's appearance.

I suggest we defer. The problem might be resolved by a phone call and we can come back promptly and deal with it and, if not, we need to defer to another day.

I have the utmost respect for the multiple, competing pressures of all my colleagues around this table. I appreciate that and know the many duties of each of the committee members.

I am committed to resolving this in an orderly way. I am not going to walk out of this committee and create an expectation with the Chairman that this can be done in a minute. That is not the case. The challenge relates to the Committee of Public Accounts and the Chairman, as a previous Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, knows the particular status of that committee. It wants to see my Department. This committee wants to see my Department. The Chairman of the Joint Committee on Health is speaking in similar tones about my Department. There is one other committee that wants to do the same. Given that we have Estimates here in front of this committee that deal with funding, for example, for the Revenue Commissioners for an extraordinary event that will have huge consequences for our country in a couple of weeks time, I hope that my commitment to try to resolve this will facilitate the passage of these Estimates here this morning. I will work with the chairman to resolve the matter if that is not the case.

I find it unacceptable that committees are being put into a predicament. For example, this letter from Mr. Watt requires me to confirm with the other chairs of the other committees. I have the greatest respect for the committees of this House and the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I was previously Chairman, and they have a role to play. This committee is the one that the Minister's Department and Mr. Watt are obliged to come before. He has a responsibility and I feel he is playing games with us. He did not respond to the particular dates that we asked about. He responded in a way that puts the onus on others to make the decision. Quite frankly, it is not for others to make the decision. The remit is ours. I have no objection if Mr. Watt wants to go before other committees but we have reached an impasse this morning. We need clarification on this. Would it help to suspend for half an hour to discuss this with the Minister and see can some process be put in place whereby we will get that clarification and take all of the ambiguity out of it as to who will agree to what? It is not my job-----


Wait one second, please.

I am acting on a decision that was taken by all members of the committee and I want to do the Estimates and I do not want to hold it up. Is there some common ground or space that we could agree with the committee members, even if we do not get an answer in that time? We did not create this problem.

Deputy Pearse Doherty pointed out the relevant jurisdiction and the Minister agreed. That is fine and no one can dispute that. As far as playing games is concerned, I think Deputy Doherty and the Chairman are playing a game. On the one hand, they are demanding that this is resolved before the Estimates are taken but, on the other hand, they have made no attempt to deal with the other committees on this and come to a resolution within the Oireachtas committee system to arrive at a solution. This is being brought to a head for political reasons, not organisational reasons, and has nothing to do with the jurisdiction of the committee. That is the game here.

I have been around long enough to see a ready-up being orchestrated around the Estimates and the Minister coming in this morning. I do not think there is any bona fide, realistic attempt being made to deal with this suggestion because the Chairman and other committee members have not earnestly dealt with the four or five other committees that have asked Mr. Watt to come in. I could make a strong argument that Mr. Watt should go before the health committee and give testimony. I could make plenty of arguments for other committees. I think we should deal with the chairmen of the other committees involved before ultimatums are issued and before we start abandoning Government business and the Estimates here today.

I completely refute what Deputy Deasy has said. Let us examine a couple of facts. This is the committee to which the Secretary General is accountable. He should have responded to a unanimous request, issued three weeks ago, to come before the committee. We reached out and tried to facilitate a number of dates and he should have responded positively to that.

The request which came from me to the committee that he appear before this committee was accompanied by the suggestion that we invite members of the health committee to attend that session to avoid the issues of duplication and repetition. The Secretary General is accountable to this committee. The suggestion that we are not working with other committees is nonsense and the Deputy would understand that if he was aware of the full facts.

The request which came from me to the committee that he appear before this committee was accompanied by the suggestion that we invite the health committee in on that session to avoid the issues of duplication and repetition. The general secretary is, obviously, accountable to this committee. The suggestion that we are not working with other committees is nonsense and, if the Deputy was aware of the full facts, he would understand that.

Let me also make the point that the only other committee, aside from the Committee of Public Accounts, which has requested the Secretary General to appear before it is the Committee on Budgetary Oversight of which I, and a number of members of this committee, are also members. The request for the Secretary General to appear before that committee was submitted on 5 December 2018, nearly three months ago, and was nothing to do with the national children's hospital. It was to do with the desire to understand the continuous overruns in health expenditure and how the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is monitoring that and ensuring they will not be repeated again this year. The fact that the Secretary General has not accepted that request, outstanding for nearly three months, is now added to the point that there are four different committees requesting his attendance before them. The Secretary General would not be requested to appear before the Committee on Budgetary Oversight again if he had appeared before it in December or January.

That is the issue here. I have made this point in private session. The Secretary General should, without doubt, come before this committee if he is requested to do so. He should also appear before the Committee of Public Accounts and we have suggested inviting members of the health committee to our meeting as they are entitled to attend and to participate in that discussion to ensure there is no duplication.

I dispute all of the suggestion of games or anything else. This was well flagged. The Secretary General knew my position on this. He raised it with me privately where made it very clear that a committee cannot allow this position to continue that a Secretary General refuses to come before committee. We are either serious politicians on a serious committee or we are not. I regret that it has come to this, but we have been dealing with this for three weeks privately. It now comes to the point where we have Estimates, which are straightforward enough. We will have them concluded within a short period of time, but as the Secretary General is refusing to come before this committee, we have to ask ourselves why should we at this point be accommodating this work on the schedule until this issue is resolved. I believe it will be resolved. The actions we are taking today will resolve it, but it needs to resolved. We cannot allow a precedent to be set where the unanimous view of a committee would be that the Secretary General should appear before it, and for some reason a Secretary General, whoever he or she may be, believes that they have the entitlement to refuse to attend. The only other people who have refused before to come before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach, are the vulture funds. We have criticised and lambasted them on the fact that they refused to come before this committee and now our own Secretary General is refusing to appear before this committee

To be crystal clear, the Secretary General has said he will come before this committee. He is is crystal clear on this, Chairman. As to the matters that Deputy Doherty has raised on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight, I have been in front of this committee to deal with issues there. I am the person accountable to the Oireachtas and to this committee. The Chairman used the language of "common ground". That is the basis of the work that I am doing. I and my Department are accountable to this committee. We need to ensure that this is resolved but I have to be cognisant of the fact that I now find myself in a situation that there are other committees of the Oireachtas that now feel they want to question my Department and my Secretary General on these issues. What I am saying publicly to the Chairman is that I will work to resolve this. I hope my proposal to resolve this will allow passage of the Estimates. If it does not do that, is the call of the committee but it sends out a particularly troubling signal on how we conduct business given the importance of some of the Votes that are here.

The fact remains that the Secretary General is the Accounting Officer. It is the entitlement of any committee of the Dáil to seek to have the presence of the Accounting Officer. That is a well-established precedent. We all understand people who are Accounting Officers are very busy people and, of course, there is the matter of the Secretary General arranging his diary. Nobody is disputing any of that. What we are concerned about, in the context of the extraordinary events, where we are here talking to the Minister who has been very helpful to the committee - I wish to acknowledge that publicly, when he is here in person with one of his deputy Ministers, which is all to the good - but the fact is that the Secretary General in the Civil Service structure is the Accounting Officer. The Minister is not the Accounting Officer. We had plans which were approved by Government on spending which went, I believe the Minister would agree, almost totally off the rails for a variety of reasons resulting in a massive cost to taxpayers and a massive delay to a project cherished by almost everybody in the country. The matters are very significant and important. The sums are very significant and important, as are the implications of what has happened as to how Government governs. The Minister's document today is full of commitments to reform to ensure transparent and effective public systems. That is something that we want to see on behalf of taxpayers.

One might say that this is a dispute about dates but it is easily resolved by an absolute confirmation that within a reasonable timeframe the Secretary General will attend the committee, subject to his other commitments. He is obviously a very busy person which is not in dispute. The committee has set out to facilitate him out of respect for him and his office. At the end of the day, the Minister, as Minister, expects that the Secretaries General as Accounting Officers will be available to relevant committees.

We are not talking about some hierarchy of committees. The fact is that given the oversight management function of the Department of Finance, which Department is responsible to the Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach, Committee of Public Accounts and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. That is what the Dáil has decided to and we all have to live with that. The Minister must live with that as Minister, but so must the Secretaries General. We are asking for a reasonable arrangement of availability on the part of the Secretary General. Otherwise, a precedent will be set which will be really bad for democracy where Secretaries Generals would feel empowered to either defer, over a long period of time or even refuse to meet the committees of the Dáil in the exercise of the Accounting Officer functions for which they are responsible. From that point of view, the Chairman's proposal that there might be a short adjournment during which a pathway would be identified where this can be resolved to the satisfaction of everybody is an acceptable and sensible one.

Can I clarify one thing on a point of order? Has the Secretary General refused to come into committee, because Deputy Doherty has made that assertion? The Minister has correct-----

Deputy Deasy will see from the correspondence that the Secretary General has stated clearly:

You will be aware from a letter to the chairman of the committee of public accounts that I have already stated that I wish to be helpful in terms of setting out the role of my Department in relation to general expenditure. If your view is that the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure Reform, and the Taoiseach is the most appropriate committee at which to do so, I am happy to attend your committee. I would be grateful if you could confirm that with the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts and other committee Chairs as relevant.

If he is saying, Minister-----

Just a moment please, Chairman, that is not what I am asking.

What is the Deputy asking?

The Chairman has answered the question. The Secretary General has not refused to come to this committee. Deputy Doherty-----

Let me clarify-----

This needs to be corrected, before we go any further.

That is the point I was making Deputy Deasy. Chairman, allow me to clarify. Mr. Watt has refused to come in on any of the dates that we have facilitated him to come in on.

That is different from what Deputy Doherty has said.

I do not wish to be personal in relation to the Secretary General for whom I have the utmost respect, but this is an issue of a process of a Secretary General appearing before a committee.

The letter that issued yesterday, I acknowledge, was a breakthrough, but it is conditional. First of all, it places the onus on the Chairman to determine if this is relevant committee, that it is not the Committee of Public Accounts. It also places the onus on the committee to inform all other committee chairpersons. What I am saying, very simply, is that the committee has agreed unanimously - I am unaware as to whether Deputy Deasy was present or supported this proposal - that the Secretary General come before the committee. The Secretary General informed the PAC that he would be appearing before PAC and only PAC, if that is correct. I am willing to stand corrected on that. We offered him between five and six different dates on which we could facilitate his attendance before this committee.

That needs to be corrected. The Deputy made a statement that he had refused to come into the committee, that is incorrect-----

He has still not accepted any of the dates we suggested.

That is not what the Deputy Doherty said, and the Deputy needs to correct that.

The thrust of the letter from the Secretary General is that he is prepared to attend before one Oireachtas committee and he is putting the onus on the Chairman and on to the other committee chairpersons to co-ordinate and agree which is the most appropriate committee for him to appear before. In my view if there is any question mark as to where he should attend, that is a question for the other committees, because this is the one that he is directly accountable to. The Minister may be smirking but that is the fact. He is the Accounting Officer and this is the committee on Finance, Public Expenditure, Reform, and Taoiseach. The Committee on Health would have less of a call on him, as I see it. The Secretary General of the Department of Health is accountable to the Committee on Health.

This is the Select Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Taoiseach. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health would have less of a call on Mr. Watt as I see it because the Secretary General of the Department of Health is accountable to that committee. As I understand it, the Committee on Public Accounts deals with historical expenditure based on Comptroller and Auditor General reports. We have a lot of experience at the top table here and this is the committee to which Mr. Watt is directly accountable. The thrust of his letter is that he will attend before one committee and that the committees should get together and agree on which committee that should be. That is how I interpret that letter. We also have to be honest as Members of Parliament that an element of competition has developed between Oireachtas committees. There is no doubt about that, and there should be better co-ordination. I do not know if that is a matter dealt with at the level of chairpersons at the meetings of chairpersons of committees. There should be better co-ordination and no race or competition when we are dealing with issues of such importance.

The question mark in regard to Mr. Watt's attendance before a committee does not, in my view, relate to this committee because he is directly accountable to this committee. I think we should try to deal with these Estimates, if we can. There is a lot of cost incurred in getting all of the witnesses here today and their time and our time is valuable but we also need to resolve this issue. I do not think we should do that in a public forum. I think we should adjourn and discuss the matter in private session and try to find a resolution. First, I would like to know from the Minister in public session if it is the position of his Department that the Secretary General should only attend before one Oireachtas committee and, second, what are the consequences, as he sees them, of this committee not disposing of the Estimates today?

First, I was not smirking, Deputy McGrath. I do not know what the difference is between a smirk and a grin but whatever I was doing I was doing it because the point Deputy McGrath made at the start of his contribution regarding this committee being the sectoral committee is a point I made myself earlier. This is the committee to which I am accountable and I am in front of all members very regularly.

The Secretary General is accountable too.

My Department and the Secretary General are accountable too. I have said that on a number of occasions. I said when I came into the committee today that the Secretary General has agreed to come before this committee but there are other Oireachtas committees that believe they are entitled to question him. I have found myself in this situation before. For example, when dealing with another health matter last year my committee was receiving invitations from the Department of Health to appear before it at the same time that this and other committees wanted to quiz me on the same matter. This is an issue for the Oireachtas to resolve.

On Deputy McGrath's point, it is unlikely that we will resolve the matter this morning, but there is a serious issue here. I reiterate that the Secretary General has said he will appear before this committee and I will find a way of resolving the issues raised today. This is not a matter of diaries. As busy as I and the Secretary General are, so too are members. This is an Oireachtas committee and we are dealing with a serious matter. I will find a way of dealing with this matter that works for all, but respect needs to go both ways. I will not act to the deadline that is being presented this morning by some members. I will resolve this matter. If my offer to do so does not lead to the committee being willing to consider the Estimates this morning, that is a matter for the committee, which we will have work through.

In response to Deputy Michael McGrath's question on whether I believe my Department is accountable to only this committee, the answer is "No". My Department also has a relationship with the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and my Secretary General as Accounting Officer has a relationship with the Committee of Public Accounts as well. There are three committees which either I or the Secretary General appear before. On the question regarding what are the consequences of not dealing with the Estimates this morning, under Standing Orders we do have some time before these Estimates have to be disposed of. In the statutory environment in regard to this matter, we do have the ability to spend up to four fifths of last year's expenditure before these Estimates need to be disposed of. I would have hoped that in terms of how we do our business and the fact that time has been scheduled to dispose of them this morning we can and should do so.

I do not want to add to the challenge that we have this morning. If my offer is not satisfactory to the committee, I will respect that. As I said, I will resolve this matter but the committee must also respect that I cannot respond to the deadline set this morning by the committee. To do so now would underplay the difficulty we have in regard to the multiple Oireachtas committees that want to play a role in the issue.

As this arises out of Deputy Pearse Doherty's letter, can I suggest to him that we consider the possibility of continuing with the meeting on the basis that the Minister will intervene and that we have aired his concern fully and frankly this morning?

Two things need to happen. This issue is born out of frustration. We have been dealing with it for nearly three weeks and we still do not have an acceptance of any of the dates. Some of the dates suggested by the committee to Mr. Watt have passed. I think we should go into private session to agree a number of dates on which we could facilitate Mr. Watt coming before the committee and then proceed with the Estimates on the basis that this matter will be resolved. We should not have to wait three weeks before we even know if the Secretary General is coming before the committee. There has been a breakthrough but it is conditional and there is still no acceptance of any of the dates suggested. We have suggested numerous dates to the Secretary General and he still has not accepted any one of them. This raises concern for me. I suggest that we go into private session for a brief time and agree a number of dates on which the committee can facilitate Mr. Watt and that that be relayed to Mr. Watt and also to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, who has agreed to try to resolve this issue and that we then proceed to deal with the Estimates.

I thank Deputy Doherty. I am not saying I will try to resolve the matter. Rather, I am saying I will resolve it.

We will go into private session to deal with the matter. Before doing so, I would like to address a remark made by Deputy Deasy because it is on the public record. I am not playing games on this issue and neither am I playing politics with it. I want to be absolutely clear about that. What Deputy Deasy may not understand or have knowledge of is that in regard to the date for the proposed meeting the clerk has made numerous attempts by telephone and by email to arrange a date. I have worked with the clerk to try to get agreement from Mr. Watt. Mr. Watt wrote in response to our invitation, not to us, but to Deputy Fleming and he put the onus on Deputy Fleming to talk to the other chairpersons. When pressed about our invitation, Mr. Watt responded conditionally and suggested that I talk to the other chairpersons. The Minister, Deputy Donohoe, has been clear in his response this morning that he is accountable to this committee.

I was just agreeing with-----

I am making it clear to the Deputy that this is not a game. Mr. Watt is playing games. That is how I view it. I will not let him play games with an Oireachtas committee. The matter has been raised this morning arising from a letter that Deputy Pearse Doherty wrote to all of us and to the clerk. It is my job to clarify the position and to work with members and the Minister and his officials to achieve what is necessary for the Government in the context of the Estimates but I will not allow Mr. Watt to fool around with me. That is for sure. I will not allow him to attempt to make a fool of me as a member of this committee.

As far as I can see, there is a political game being played. This is selective memory by a couple of members of this committee with regard to what is said and what is not said. The reality is that the other side of what the Chairman just said is that there has been bona fide attempt by the committee to organise with the other committee chairpersons to deal with this definitively, as suggested by Deputy Michael McGrath. The Chairman cannot on one hand deal with this in isolation and on the other ignore the realities of the system of Oireachtas committees that are competing almost for jurisdiction in this regard.

That is the problem here. I do not need to be lectured on jurisdiction, what has happened and what has been said and not said. I have been on the Committee of Public Accounts often enough to know that people try to hijack jurisdiction all the time, as Deputy Michael McGrath alluded to. There are two sides to this. If there were honesty in dealing with this affair, I would agree with the Chairman and go along with his assertion. I do not agree, however, because I know how things actually operate around here and I do not believe there has been a conscious, honest attempt to deal with this behind the scenes.

If Deputy Deasy reads his correspondence, he will have to appreciate the fact that this committee made every effort honestly to deal with this matter.

May I point something out to you?

No. Sorry, Deputy Deasy. The Minister has answered the question, in that the matter is within the remit of this committee. I do not mind which other committees Mr. Watt attends; I just want respect in dealing with the correspondence issued on behalf of members to Departments. That is all.

May I point something out to you? A member of this committee within the past 15 or 20 minutes made an assertion that the Secretary General refused to come before this committee. This has been refuted. You yourself helped with that. You made no attempt to correct that statement or ask the member who made it to correct it. You need to deal with this even-handedly, which you have not done in this entire conversation.

Deputy Deasy-----

I am the one who had to put a point of order down to try to correct something that was frankly false.

Deputy Pearse Doherty answered you and, as I understand it, he-----

Chairman, you need to step in here on what is fact and what is not. I do not think you have done so, and this is an example of it.

You presented what you heard as fact, Deputy Deasy, and Deputy Doherty presented what he declared as fact. You are two mature politicians.

I have made the point-----

You do not have to be led by the hand by anyone.

This narrative-----

I think we have made a decision to suspend-----

-----is one-way and needs to be-----

Let me clarify, since Deputy Deasy has raised this. I have made the point and corrected my position on this. The Secretary General has refused to come before this committee on any of the five, I believe, or possibly six dates on which we said we could accommodate him. I made it clear that there was a breakthrough with the letter last night. I believe it was in response to the letter I issued and the fact that Mr. Watt had acknowledged that I made a suggestion that we would take this course of action regarding Government business. I have acknowledged there is a breakthrough but it is deeply conditional and Mr. Watt still has not accepted any of the dates the committee has proposed. That said, we had moved to a position where we were about to resolve this. That is what this was about, and that is what the clerk, the Chairman and the members of the committee who were involved in this recently wanted to do. This is not just about this issue; this is about precedent and ensuring that a Secretary General who is the Accounting Officer for an Oireachtas committee, regardless of whether it is the health committee, the agriculture committee or the finance committee, appear before the committee within a reasonable time if asked to by that committee. That is what this is about. It is bigger than the issue at hand. I believe we were finding a way forward and that we could move on and deal with the Estimates, which I do not think will take that much time. I propose that we go into private session and agree a number of dates that we can relay to the Secretary General and the Minister so as to ensure that this is resolved and that that meeting can be facilitated as soon as possible.

I must come in on two points. First, I reiterate the fact that the Secretary General had agreed to come in, and I have now made a commitment to resolve this matter and ensure we find a way of moving forward on it. Second, there is also an issue of precedent here, which the Oireachtas must reflect on, which is that there are multiple committees that believe they now have a role in this issue. The way this committee is speaking about this matter this morning and the fact that it is the committee to which the Accounting Officer and I am accountable do not get away from the reality that there are other committees that also believe they have a role to play in this.

The Chairman made the assertion a moment ago that the Secretary General of my Department is playing games with him or the committee. I categorically refute that. The Secretary General and I take our responsibilities to the Chairman and to this committee exceptionally seriously, and any idea that the Secretary General is playing games with the Chairman as a Member of the Oireachtas or with this committee is not the case. On the Secretary General's behalf, I wish to make that very clear. I also reiterate what I said a few moments ago, that when the committee has indicated other dates, we will resolve this matter.

As we said, we will go into private session and then suspend for ten minutes to allow the Minister and the officials to take their seats.

The select committee went into private session at 10.35 a.m., suspended at 10.39 a.m. and resumed in public session at 10.54 a.m.

The dates are 28 February and 5 and 7 March. We will notify the Secretary General accordingly.

I want to make a suggestion based on what everyone has said this morning. It is that the Chairman would have a conversation with the Chairs of the Committee of Public Accounts, the Committee on Health, and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight on the basis of having a hearing held in this committee, and inviting the Secretary General and members of those committees to participate in that hearing. It would be a joined-up approach between the different committees that are vying for jurisdiction and it might resolve this to everyone's satisfaction.

Is that agreed? Agreed. We will do that this afternoon. I call the Minister to deal with the business at hand, namely, the Estimates.