Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Thursday, 7 Oct 2021

Business of Committee (Resumed)

Before continuing with the agenda of the meeting, I propose that we briefly go into private session to deal with some housekeeping matters before resuming in public session. Is that agreed? Agreed. I thank members.

The committee went into private session 1.36 p.m. and resumed in public session at 14.01 p.m.

The business before us is the minutes, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, work programme and any other business.

The first item is the minutes of meetings of 28 and 30 September, which 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.

The next matter is accounts and financial statements. Forty seven sets of financial statements and accounts were laid before the Dáil between 27 September and 1 October. These include 45 appropriation accounts in the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report, which was published on 30 September, as well as two sets of accounts from the education sector. I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to address those accounts and statements before I open it to the floor.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I do not propose to read out the names of the various Votes. That accounts for 45 of the financial statements that are before the committee. They all got clear audit opinions but I draw attention to certain matters. Obviously, the matters that are dealt with in chapters are called out in the audit report.

I draw attention to non-compliance with national procurement rules in 15 of the appropriate accounts. Non-compliant procurement exceeded €500,000 in each case. In four of the Votes, the non-compliant procurement was in excess of €5 million each. Those were Vote 20 - An Garda Síochána, Vote 21 - Prisons, Vote 37 - Social Protection and Vote 40 - Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

I also draw attention to a number of other matters. Under Vote 13 - Office of Public Works, I draw attention to the continuing operation of a maintenance contract far in excess of the notified value of the contract when it was put in place. For Vote 22 - Courts, I draw attention to overpayments to a supplier as a result of a control failure. In the cases of Vote 24 - Justice and Vote 34 - Housing, Local Government and Heritage, I am drawing attention to EU fines in both cases and, in one case, the fine is continuing at a rate of €15,000 a day.

I also draw attention to the valuation of the property at Thornton Hall and how that is dealt with in the statement of the financial position in Vote 21 - Prisons.

The other accounts that are now lodged in the Oireachtas Library relate to the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. It gets a clear audit opinion for 2020. The Educational Resource Centre also gets a clear audit opinion for 2020.

Does anyone wish to raise an issue around the Comptroller and Auditor General's report and those accounts?

I thank the Comptroller and Auditor General for his contribution. Procurement issues arise time and again with all sets of accounts. The Comptroller and Auditor General mentioned that some non-compliant procurement was in excess of €500,000. He also identified other issues relating to the prison and Garda Votes. Can he go into any specifics or any more detail on that? Are any of the organisations the Comptroller and Auditor General has highlighted on our work programme? Are we going to be engaging with them in the foreseeable future, over the next six to eight months?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I draw attention to non-compliance in 15 accounts. That is any situation where the non-compliant procurement is in excess of €500,000. I specifically named four Votes where the amount of the non-compliant procurement was in excess of €5 million in each case. That was to help the committee focus on the areas where the sums are particularly substantial. I would expect representatives of the Department of Social Protection to be before the committee. After that, it is a matter for the committee to decide if it wants to talk to the Accounting Officers for An Garda Síochána, the Prison Service or the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. There are chapters that deal with social protection so I expect the committee will be examining those. There are not chapters that relate to the other Votes I have mentioned.

Four organisations are non-compliant by more than €5 million. The Comptroller and Auditor General also highlighted the OPW contract that has been extended well past its sell-by date. Perhaps we can reconcile that with our work programme and see if we cannot bring those organisations in. That is not small change by any stretch of the imagination. It is a lot of money and we need to examine the position.

Some of those will be addressed as part of the six early invites. Perhaps Mr. McCarthy will recap on the four Votes whose non-compliant procurement was in excess of €5 million each.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

They are Vote 20 - An Garda Síochána, Vote 21 - Prisons, Vote 37 - Social Protection and Vote 40 - Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth.

Those matters have been flagged as substantial. I call on members to keep an eye on this matter. We must keep those in our programme, going forward.

When the Chair says that we must keep those in our programme, are we proposing to bring An Garda Síochána and the Prison Service before the committee? Are we proposing to bring representatives from the Department of Social Protection before the committee?

We will have representatives of that Department in early course.

What about the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth?

We need to work those consultations into the programme. We will be reviewing this again in another six weeks, at the end of November or the start of December. We will be setting out a programme for the remainder of the year and into January. Can we agree the statements of accounts? Agreed. I thank Mr. McCarthy.

The next item is correspondence. I want to change the order because Deputy Sherlock has an urgent engagement and I want to try to facilitate him. He has a piece of correspondence in. I know it is not listed first, but I will deal with correspondence No. 811C from Deputy Sherlock, dated 29 September. It requests that the committee makes inquiries into the use of public funds by An Taisce. That organisation is not accountable to the committee, but various Departments and semi-state bodies that fund An Taisce have certain obligations related to that funding from their Votes, including what is expected to be achieved with that funding and how it is to be accounted for. Deputy Sherlock has set out five questions for the Department and semi-state bodies that fund An Taisce. I will open it to the floor. Perhaps Deputy Sherlock will outline where he is coming from. Deputy Carthy also flagged the matter for discussion and will come in on it.

I thank the Chairman for facilitating me in this. I am very grateful. I wanted to understand better the relationship between An Taisce and various Departments and statutory funding bodies. We all understand, possibly on a superficial level, the work An Taisce does in respect of education. It is inherently good work, particularly when it comes to blue flag and green schools initiatives. It would be very useful for us to understand the financial relationship. We can bear in mind that between 2018 and 2019, there was a restatement of figures. I wish to understand that better and how the Department has dealt with that matter.

I also would like to get an overview of the relationship that exists, including whether there are service level agreements in place. If there are, how do they operate? Do the line Departments that are funders, particularly in the context of restricted funds, have an expectation about the governance of any organisation that they may fund, even if it is a charitable organisation? I am seeking the support of the committee for us to write to the line Departments with a view to getting further information in order to better inform ourselves.

I thank the Deputy. In fairness, the five bullet points are set out at the bottom of the correspondence.

I support Deputy Sherlock. An Taisce is the national trust and fulfils an important role in our society. Nevertheless, and like every other organisation in receipt of public funding, there must be full transparency and accountability. To support Deputy Sherlock's point, there should be two specific questions to the Departments of Transport and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. An Taisce's annual report and financial statements, as provided to us, indicate funding coming from both of those Departments. In response to parliamentary questions I submitted, both Departments indicated that they did not provide funding to An Taisce in those years. There is clearly some confusion. I suggest, if the Cathaoirleach is agreeable, that I forward the pertinent information to the secretariat and we can get those matters clarified in our correspondence with those two specific Departments.

Deputy Carthy has covered a little of what I wanted to raise, particularly that we should ask for specifics around the level of funding over the past few years. I have no objection to the course of action being proposed.

I agree with Deputy Sherlock. This is public money. It is important that full accountability is provided and that the funding is used appropriately. Therefore, it seems the appropriate way of dealing with the matter.

The proposal is clear that we should write to the various Departments and funding bodies that provide the funding to An Taisce for the different projects. We can proceed with that. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the committee for facilitating me.

It is no problem. Category B is correspondence from Accounting Officers and Ministers in following up to the Committee of Public Accounts. No items of correspondence have been flagged under this category but I mention No. 804 from Dundalk Institute of Technology, dated 24 September, and No. 809 from Údarás na Gaeltachta, dated 28 September 2021. Both responses arise from consideration of the accounts and statements at the meeting of 22 June and provide explanations relating to matters in the accounts that the Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to and for which we requested explanations. In accordance with the proposed actions, we will note and publish those items of correspondence. Does any member wish to comment on these? No. 809, from Údarás na Gaeltachta, relates to a building. There is an explanation set out in the letter for the difficulties with that project. Are members happy with that? We will note and publish those items if so.

Next for consideration is category C, which is correspondence from private individuals and any other correspondence. The first, No. 811, has been dealt with. That is the only item in the category.

No. 4 on the agenda is the work programme for the coming period. Next week we are scheduled to engage with the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications and examine the 2020 accounts, including up-to-date expenditure on the national broadband plan. On 21 October we will engage with Tusla regarding its 2020 financial statements. The Dáil is not scheduled to sit the following week, between 25 October and 29 October/ That will bring us to 4 November, when we plan to engage with RTÉ arising from its receipt of Exchequer funding, which is now the responsibility of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. That is how matters stand.

Separately, it has been proposed that we also engage with: the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media; the Department of Transport; the Department of Social Protection; the Department of Health; and the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. We had some discussion about this previously but are people happy enough with the work programme? Is it agreed? Agreed.

That concludes our consideration of the work programme. Do members wish to raise any other business?

I was late getting in but chapter 7 of the Comptroller and Auditor General's work refers to Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture. The relevant company refused freedom of information requests and indicated it did not fall under that process. Combining county council and other public funding, it was 87% publicly funded. Does the Comptroller and Auditor General need to audit those accounts in full or what is his opinion on that?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

I do not plan at the moment to audit those accounts. I could do it by carrying out an inspection that would be focused solely on whether the moneys provided were used for the purposes intended. I do not have any firm evidence or suggestion that money was not used for the purposes for which it was given. To my mind, that would be the programme or the administration costs of the company.

I know the Deputy was in the Chamber and probably missed the first part of the meeting. Representatives from the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media will be coming before us.

Okay. It can be flagged then. I thank the Chairman.

It is one of the matters flagged in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. It has also been flagged by members of the committee. I hope that will be an opportunity to examine the matter further.

We will adjourn until next Thursday when the committee will examine the 2020 appropriation accounts of the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications.

The committee adjourned at 2.20 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 14 October 2021.