Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

Business of Committee

The public business before us comprises the minutes, accounts and financial statements, correspondence, work programme and any other business. We will then go into private session before adjourning. The first item is the minutes of our meeting of 9 December. The minutes were circulated to members. Do any members wish to raise any matters regarding the minutes? No. Are the minutes agreed? Agreed. As usual, the minutes will be published on the committee's web page.

The second item is accounts and financial statements. Four financial statements and accounts were laid before the Dáil between 6 and 10 December 2021. They should be on the screen now. I will ask Mr. McCarthy to address the accounts and financial statements before opening the floor to members.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

As the Chairman said, there are four sets of financial statements to deal with. The first relates to University College Cork. Those are the 2019-20 financial statements. I have given a qualified audit opinion for those statements. The university recognises an asset in respect of deferred pension funding and that is standard practice for universities. I do not normally qualify in such circumstances. However, in this case, the amount of the asset that is recognised includes €11.1 million in respect of liabilities relating to professional added years for transferred in service. There is an agreement between the university and the Higher Education Authority that the expenses relating to the professional added years for transferred in service would be split on a 50:50 basis, but the university is over-recognising by €3.8 million in respect of that. In my view, that is not in accordance with the agreement and, therefore, I have qualified the audit opinion.

I also draw attention to significant non-compliance with procurement rules by the university. More detail in that regard is given in the fees statement on internal control.

The second set of financial statements relates to the Oberstown Children Detention Campus. Those are the financial statements for 2020 and I have given a clear audit opinion.

The third relates to the Credit Union Restructuring Board, ReBo. These financial statements relate to the year of account 2017. ReBo finished its restructuring operations in July 2017 and it was intended that the board would be dissolved at that stage. However, the dissolution had to be done by way of new legislation and that Act was only passed in 2020. I gave a clear audit opinion but there was a very significant delay in the finalisation of the 2017 financial statements. The reason for that was that the board, in 2017, did not keep adequate accounting records. It failed to correctly record and explain the transactions for the year and, therefore, we were unable to carry out an audit of the financial statements. There was engagement with the Department of Finance, where the board is now housed. In 2021, the board appointed external accounting expertise to investigate and rectify the accounting records. Once that was done, we were able to complete the audit.

There are a number of further periods of account that we have now proceeded to audit with very few transactions. I hope we will be able to do those fairly promptly. As it stands, the board continues in existence until we have completed that process.

The accounts of the Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority of Ireland for 2020 have been presented. I gave those a clear audit opinion.

If any member wants to come in on any matters under accounts, they may. Otherwise we will move on to correspondence.

On ReBo, I presume Mr. McCarthy will come back to us sometime next year. I presume it will be reported as an audit at that stage. Until that happens, there is little we can surmise from what Mr. McCarthy has given us to date. Am I right in that understanding?

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

The number of transactions after 2017 will be very small. There was a total of fees for collection of approximately €1.6 million. That is the extent of the funds that are involved. ReBo was using the credit union fund to carry out the restructuring so the expenses on this account are purely the administrative expenses of the restructuring board itself. I hope we will get the 2018, 2019 and 2020 financial statements audited pretty quickly in the new year. Each of those will come through as we do them. It should be the case that 2021 and a few months of 2022 will be the final period of account. The Deputy could certainly call the Department of Finance and the board members to discuss this matter if she wished.

I have another point relating to University College Cork. The previous Committee of Public Accounts had a number of hearings with universities and third level institutions. There were very high levels of non-compliance or unorthodox transactions and so on. In actual fact, there was a "RTÉ Investigates" report on the issue. It is hugely disappointing to see that pattern still there among some of the universities. That gives us an indication that this is an area we need to look at again next year.

Okay. Is everyone else happy? We will note the statements and accounts. Is that agreed? Agreed. As usual, the list of accounts and financial statements will be published as part of our minutes. I thank Mr. McCarthy.

We move on to the next item on our agenda, namely, correspondence. As previously agreed, items that were not flagged for discussion at this meeting will continue to be dealt with in accordance with the proposed actions that have been circulated and the decisions taken by the committee concerning the correspondence will be recorded in the minutes and published on the committee's web page. Six items of correspondence have been flagged under category B, namely, correspondence from Accounting Officers or Ministers and follow-up to meetings of the committee.

No. 953B is correspondence from Ms Vivienne Flood, head of public affairs, RTÉ, dated 3 December 2021, and is a response providing further information requested by the committee concerning the employment status of contractors who have worked with RTÉ. In that regard, the correspondence refers to the Eversheds review, stating that:

Contrary to claims that RTÉ has been operating as a "bogus employer", arising from this review, we have addressed the employment status of any individual deemed to have characteristics akin to employment. We have therefore taken a proactive and comprehensive approach to dealing with residual issues due to practices which occurred in the past. Since 2019, RTÉ has implemented significant reform in this area, and has adopted an "employment first" principal.

The correspondence continues by stating that because the Department of Social Protection audit process is ongoing, RTÉ cannot provide high-level data such as the numbers of personnel involved, categorisation of individuals, income levels etc. As the Secretary General of the Department of Social Protection previously informed the committee, the audit could take well over another year and will assess the employment specifics of the contractual relationships of some 500 individuals with RTÉ. It is therefore a significant investigation. The correspondence from RTÉ concludes by stating that it “cannot provide any further details as to these reviews, which are either ongoing or pending, either in correspondence, or in committee session, until their conclusion.” Is it agreed that we note and publish this item? Agreed. I have flagged this item for discussion, along with Deputies Catherine Murphy and Munster. I call Deputy Catherine Murphy.

Individuals are telling me little progress has been made on things like pensions, holiday entitlements, etc. It appears that RTÉ is prioritising the engagement with Revenue and the Department of Social Protection. That aspect is disappointing. It is important that we know what is happening in this context because we want practical changes. Representatives of RTÉ are telling us that there have been changes, but other people are telling us that it is not happening in reality. That is disappointing.

I do not think Deputy Munster is with us yet. Regarding the inquiry taking more than a year, that is fair enough. It is a substantial undertaking in that it is addressing the contractual relationship of approximately 500 contractors, as RTÉ terms them. The issue concerns what is happening regarding those people who have been reclassified and what their situation is now in respect of having proper PRSI credits paid for them for the years during which they were wrongly classified in that regard and any other benefits they would have been due if they had been categorised as PAYE workers during that time. We will require an update on those aspects. Representatives from RTÉ are due in with us in our first sitting in January 2022, so we will look for that information then. Is everybody else happy with that item? Okay.

No. 957 is correspondence from Mr. Martin Whelan, head of public affairs and communications, National Treasury Management Agency, dated 6 December 2021, which provides further information as requested by the committee regarding the State Claims Agency, SCA. It includes responses to requests for information in relation to the outstanding financial liability in respect of cell sanitation in the Irish Prison Service; the outstanding financial liability in respect of An Garda Síochána active claims; and a progress update on open disclosure and any engagement the SCA is having with the legal profession to encourage mediated settlements, as opposed to court settlements. Is it agreed that we note and publish this item? Agreed. The only comment I have regarding this correspondence is that there are a considerable number of claims in this context. There are 2,399 active claims against the Prison Service and many of those probably concern cell sanitation. We should keep an eye on this matter because it involves a significant number of people and a certain amount of money. In addition, 150 staff members and 47 members of the public are also involved in those claims.

No. 959B is from Mr. Jim Breslin, Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, dated 6 December 2021, and provides information requested by the committee regarding capital funding being withheld from the University of Limerick, UL. This arises from a matter we examined when we engaged with representatives of UL in June, namely the acquisition by the university of a site in Limerick city centre in 2019. It will be recalled that this concerns the old Dunnes Stores site. The Secretary General states that the funding has been withheld "pending assurances from [UL] in relation to capital management procedures". Several questions regarding this matter remained unanswered when we raised it with the representatives of UL, who stated that the matter was the subject of a review by KPMG. I propose that we note and publish this item and request a progress update from UL on the KPMG report. Our last update from UL on the matter was on 21 October 2021, in correspondence referenced as R0842. Is that agreed? Agreed. This item was flagged for discussion by Deputy Carthy.

I think I had flagged it as well.

Okay. I call Deputy Carthy first.

No, that is fine. Deputy Catherine Murphy can go on ahead.

I thank Deputy Carthy. We might have got this before, but, if not, could we request KPMG's terms of reference for the conduct of that inquiry and the details of who drew them up. The fourth paragraph down piqued my interest, which referred to the total grant amount calculated for UL for 2021-22 as being €2.4 million. Of that, some €757,000 was approved for release in August to support time-sensitive payments relating to additional places and ICT supports for disadvantaged students, with a decision on the balance of those funds pending. I wonder if one aspect relates to the other. It does seem like the institution is on a short leash. For that reason, I would put this matter in with what we have heard about the audit in University College Cork. There is an issue with both these institutions. The concern for us in this regard is when we will have representatives from both institutions in before the committee. We will want to see that report from KPMG in advance of speaking to witnesses from the two universities, but it does seem to be the case that the Department is keeping a close eye on things in this regard.

The last paragraph of the letter referred to the report of the review being undertaken of the purchase of the site in Limerick having not yet been finalised. It continued by stating that the governing authority of the university had confirmed that it will act to address any issues, findings or recommendations highlighted by the review in due course. I suggest that we follow up this matter after today's meeting and that we seek a copy of that report from the Department as soon as it is finalised.

We also require information on the terms of reference and who drew them up.

Yes, the clerk has noted that point. I call Deputy Carthy.

I am okay for now.

No. 961B is from Mr. Bernard Gloster, chief executive, Tusla, dated 7 December 2021, and provides clarification regarding information provided to the committee concerning the cost of external investigations. In total, the figure for 2019 and 2020 is over €1.3 million, and that excludes legal costs. Is it agreed that we note and publish this item and redact personal information?

Agreed. It is proposed also to request a breakdown of the costs, which were provided at quite a high level. Is that agreed? Agreed. Deputy Catherine Murphy has flagged this item.

I am looking only for the figure excluding legal advices or legal costs. Can we have that as well, please?

The next item is No. 966, from Mr. John Dollard, chief superintendent of An Garda Síochána, dated 8 December, providing information requested by the committee regarding media reports of an official strike action by senior officers and its impacts on investigations by the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, GSOC. We will not publish this item because the information has been provided on a confidential basis and because it concerns an industrial relations dispute. The chief superintendent states that the matter is being progressed through all available dispute resolution processes, including the industrial relations machinery of the State. I ask members to bear in mind this is an industrial relations issues and that they should respect the confidential nature of the information. This item was flagged by Deputies Carthy and Catherine Murphy.

I was looking for clarification, in the first instance, as to whether we have written to GSOC as well on this matter. The length of time, at the best of times, that GSOC investigations take can be quite frustrating for those who are dealing with the system. Separately, can we get confirmation GSOC is on our work plan for next year? It would be useful if we had it appear before the committee.

We did not seek that information from GSOC but it is on the work programme for next year.

I request that, in the interim, we send a letter to GSOC.

Yes, we can do that.

Can we request details of the core duties between GSOC and the Garda when we make that request, which I support? I refer not to the totality of the core duties of the Garda but to those that relate to GSOC. We should write to the Department of Justice as well to see if there is any conflict with legislation relating to GSOC. It would be useful to have both those pieces of information in advance of meeting GSOC.

Okay, we will request that.

Next is No. 967, correspondence from Mr. Ken Spratt, Secretary General of the Department of Transport, dated 9 December, providing information requested by the committee during our meeting with the Department of 11 November. It is a detailed response, running to 22 pages and addressing 19 specific requests for information across a range of areas, including the operation of Dublin Port tunnel, the number of electric vehicles in the State and the steps that have been taken towards meeting the 2030 targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport by 51%. Is it agreed we will note and publish the item?

Yes, but should we hold it for a period? I have not had an opportunity to review it and I have not been able to comment on it. If other members want to agree to publish it, that is no problem, but will it then be too late to write back to the Department?

Is the Deputy requesting that we would not deal with the item of correspondence?

Perhaps we could leave it until our next meeting.

Deputies Catherine Murphy and Carthy have also expressed an interest in this.

My point can wait until the January meeting, if that is agreeable.

I am fine with that as well.

I, too, am agreeable. We will hold it until the January meeting. It is detailed correspondence. Waiting until January will give members time to examine it and raise any issues they have with it.

The next item is our work programme. On 25 November, we agreed we would agree to the work programme for early in the new year. The updated schedule has been circulated to members. On 20 January, we will engage with RTÉ and representatives of the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media - that is some Department - which provides RTÉ with State funding. The secretariat will work to schedule an engagement with Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, for 27 January, and on 3 February, we plan to engage with the National Transport Authority, NTA. We will also invite representatives from the Department of Transport to attend those meetings. Members have requested that those meetings would run one after the other because of the close relationship between the bodies. On 10 November, we planned to engage with the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications and National Broadband Ireland to examine expenditure on the national broadband plan. We will continue to revisit the work programme each week. Do members wish to raise any matters relating to the work programme?

Is there a reason we must deal separately with National Broadband Ireland and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications? The timeframe for putting specific questions to each body will be very limited. If it is the case we will deal with each body separately, I propose that we waive the correspondence meeting in the afternoon and have National Broadband Ireland for the full session, beginning at 9.30 a.m., and the Department for the full session in the afternoon, and hold any correspondence over until the following week. It would be a short timeframe within which to deal with any organisation. We had difficulties when we tried to hold meetings under two hours. If we were to give ourselves even less time, I do not think we would get to the crux of what are a series of important issues that have come to light in recent weeks with regard to the national broadband plan.

In the case of National Broadband Ireland and the Department, we will be dealing with a single item. I agree it is a substantial item, and it will be up to the committee to agree to how it wants to handle this. Perhaps it cannot be done in that timeframe. I am open to suggestions on that. I will open the floor to other members. It is one we are all interested in.

Do we need two separate meetings for TII and the NTA? Perhaps my view is blinkered but one meeting might suffice for those two bodies.

I want to be fair to the Deputies who are not attending this meeting. In previous discussions, there was particular interest in TII and a number of specific issues relating to it. The same is true of the NTA, in the area of public transport and related matters, where there is rail, bus and a range of other areas. I do not think we should rush it or try to compress it into one meeting to make way for a double-header with National Broadband Ireland and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications.

Okay. Deputy Catherine Murphy mentioned that we will probably invite the Department of Heath back in, and that might be sooner rather than later, given that today's meeting was dominated by the national children's hospital.

I support the point made by Deputy Carthy about a one-day meeting. I think it will be more coherent if we do it that way, although I agree it should be done in two separate groups because there is an oversight aspect in respect of the Department, which we have to drill into. As for TII and the NTA, they both operate in the area of public transport but have separate remits.

There was a significant overrun in respect of the Sallins bypass and there are deficiencies in what was produced. The local authority is the ultimate body in that regard. My concern is that we will not capture some of the projects where there are problems. There will be no shortage of material for both of those. We should be considering both of them.

As regards health and the national paediatric hospital, we absolutely have to put that back on the agenda for some point in the first half of next year. Health representatives, whether from the HSE or the Department, would normally appear a few times a year before the committee. We did not get into much of the Vote at all. It was mainly the pent-up questions we had on the children's hospital.

A matter that is probably more for Mr. McCarthy is that of the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the site on Military Road in particular. I continue to have serious concerns in respect of that site and the selection process for the site. Are there any further insights? Will it crop up in an audit? If not, it may fall within our annual review of the OPW.

Mr. Seamus McCarthy

On that matter, it is probably best if it is dealt with in the context of consideration of the OPW and the appropriation account. As I recall, the site was actually in the ownership of the OPW. It is not that it identified and bought the site. As such, the issue really relates to whether it is a good option for delivering the service that is required, rather than being a procurement issue. The project is under way. I am not 100% certain what stage it is at. The Deputy raised questions previously in respect of whether it will provide the level of accommodation that is required by An Garda Síochána. The Garda will have a view on the issue as well. If An Garda Síochána appears before the committee, that might be a matter members wish to raise with it.

Construction is at an advanced stage. I go past the site almost every day. I am monitoring it. I thank Mr. McCarthy.

In fairness, other issues relating to the OPW will come up. We had it in twice already. I know the site on Military Road is an issue in terms of whether the accommodation is adequate but there are a range of other issues as well because the OPW has a wide remit. We should add it to the agenda to have it appear in the new year, as well as the Department of Health.

I return to the issue of TII and the NTA. Any member wishing to come in on this should raise his or her hand. From what members have said, it would be a bit too compressed to try to do the whole lot in one 90-minute morning session. There would be less than an hour and a half for the next one. I propose that we take one organisation in the morning and the other in the afternoon. We will send an invitation to them on that basis.

That concludes our consideration of the work programme for today. Are there any other matters members wish to raise before the committee goes into private session? We will now go into private session before adjourning until Thursday, 20 January, when we will engage with Raidió Teilifís Éireann.

The committee went into private session at 2.04 p.m. and adjourned at 2.30 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 20 January 2022.