John Deasy has told the Dáil Public Accounts Committee that it was wrong to pin the blame for all the financial problems at Waterford Institute of Technology on former president Kieran Byrne.
He said: “On a personal level I think Mr Byrne was dealt with very badly. I think that ultimately all the issues which came about in WIT were lumped together and dumped on his doorstep, and it was unfair.”
“When you look at the documentation and the history of this, Kieran Byrne did a lot of good when it came to the institute and I think that’s been forgotten,” stated Mr Deasy, who is the PAC’s vice-chairman.
He said the entire responsibility had been laid in Mr Byrne’s direction. “He became the scapegoat frankly for a lot of things which went wrong in the institute and I think that was extremely unfair.”
In his opinion, “with regard to how he was dealt with personally by the Higher Education Authority, there are questions to be answered.”
With the non-renewal of Mr Byrne’s contract currently subject to legal proceedings, Mr Deasy said “it will probably be the court that determines that” — but “as the facts leak out” as to how he was dealt with, “it’s becoming more troubling frankly … and I’m not the only member of this committee who’s forming that opinion.”
Turning to the completion of the Carriganore sports complex — which, WIT President Willie Donnelly told the committee, will start next week and be completed by June — Deputy Deasy said this was very good news.
He said financial management at WIT has been regularised and since Mr Donnelly’s appointment in April he had “contributed an awful lot to that”. The institute was now at the point of being able to move on with the southeast university application process.
He said he and PAC chairman John McGuinness shared the view that it’s important “to draw a line under the issues that have dogged the institute” in the recent past, and I think that has been achieved … which is extremely positive.”
Mr Donnelly told Deputy Deasy he has “a very good relationship” with his IT Carlow counterpart. The previous merger discussions “fell apart before because the foundation wasn’t there” and “we want to get it right” this time round in order to develop “a university of real quality for the region.”
Deasy: Work to start within a couple of weeks
Waterford TD John Deasy says loan finance is to be made available by Government to finish phase 3 of the stalled Carriganore Sports Complex.
Work is to commence within the next fortnight and will be completed in June.
Deputy Deasy, who is vice-chairman of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, had called on the State to step in to facilitate the completion of the complex, work on which ground to a halt over three years ago.
The PAC recently received documents indicating that costs will be significantly more than anticipated. In a report, Eugene McKenna, former CEO of Diverse Campus Services — the company tasked with delivering the project — blamed leadership and governance issues for work stopping in 2012.
While he wouldn’t disagree with that analysis, John Deasy says it’s important to “move on and ensure that the uncertainty surrounding the project was ended.
“Myself and the chairman John McGuinness have made it clear at the committee that leaving the building like it is simply isn’t an option. When the Higher Education Authority appeared before us last January it estimated the shortfall at €5m. The Department of Education had already committed €2.9m to the project but a realistic means of financing the remainder needed to be found.”
The HEA has already said WIT “overstretched” in advancing its own independent building programme before running into funding problems. The Phase 3 ‘Carriganore Arena’ element was meant to cost €9.7m. But financing issues arose within the college after €6.5m was spent and the multi-purpose building is still largely idle and incomplete.
When the Department was at the committee in September it indicated that a loan was being looked at. This financing has now been agreed on terms that are manageable. Deputy Deasy says the priority is to finish what’s been started, regardless of the various legacy issues.
“The PAC has been dealing with the Department for the past year on this and the WIT debt situation. I think there was a realisation from officials that the State needed to step in and give the Institute a helping hand.”
The Fine Gael TD said new WIT president Willie Donnelly “has steadied the ship and we’re close to being on the right track, finally, to becoming a university, which is the most important thing.”
John Deasy: strong perception locally that he was poorly treated by Department
The Department of Agriculture has told Waterford TD John Deasy that it will direct a special steering committee to review the circumstances in which a Dungarvan farmer was compelled to slaughter 4,000 pigs at a loss of almost €750,000.
Speaking at last Thursday’s meeting of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, which discussed the Department’s handling of the 2002 mass destruction of pigs at the Ballinamuck farm of Tom Galvin, Secretary General Aidan O’Driscoll said they would not allow a similar situation to unfold again.
“There’s no doubt that that. There are many aspects of this that we wouldn’t handle the same way. If we did allow on-farm slaughter we would supervise the whole thing.”
Outlining the case history, he told how traces of Carbadox — banned in the EU in 1999 because of its carcinogenic properties but still legal in the United States — were found in a pig carcass traced to Mr Galvin’s farm, where officials later found several bags of the product.
Mr Galvin was convicted under animal remedy regulations but successfully appealed the verdict. The Department did not defend the appeal on the basis that the Supreme Court had decided that the Minister did not have the right to amend regulations.
Deputy Deasy, vice-chairman of the PAC, told the Secretary General: “When it comes to Tom Galvin, I have to say he’s someone who’s very well regarded and the feeling locally would be that the Department treated him poorly, and that’s my own subjective view having looked at the evidence.”
Deasy said he’d formed this opinion “regardless of the constraints Department officials might have been under when it comes to the rules and regulations in dealing with animals suspected of being diseased, or fed things allegedly that would affect the food chain adversely.”
Mr O’Driscoll, stressing “he’d no axe to grind” with Mr Galvin and “he could well be a fine person, as you’ve said”, explained why officials entered the farm and that the farmer admitted spreading the product on the floor of his pig pens.
“Once that admission was made, effectively the pigs had to be slaughtered,” he said. No further testing took place. Mr Deasy wondered why not, if only for clarity’s sake. Mr O’Driscoll acknowledged “there must have been a test we could have done, yes.”
The Fine Gael TD disagreed with his contention that “there would have been nothing served” by testing the pigs on the farm. If it had produced “incontrovertible evidence as to what might have gone into the food chain, I think it would have solved an awful lot of problems subsequently.”
Though accepting the Department has to act in cases involving threats to the food chain, “I think you made a mistake — and left a real grey area about the state of those pigs — by not going down that road [testing],” he said. Mr O’Driscoll agreed that this was a reasonable assessment.
The Department had told Mr Galvin to have the pigs destroyed in an approved plant as they must not enter the food chain. Instead, he asked to carrying out the slaughter on his property using a humane killer.
The Secretary General said the disposal of the carcasses was supervised by a Department official at all times. Around 25 percent of the slaughter was overseen by a veterinary official and it was done “meticulously”.
Mr O’Driscoll — who refuted an allegation that a Department official overseeing the slaughter had handed Mr Galvin a lump hammer and told him to finish the job — said he understood that about 10 animals were killed in this way before the vet intervened and took away the hammer.
Mr Deasy said that for the Department to admit it wouldn’t allow such a scenario to unfold again “is significant”. The fact that the Veterinary Council had exonerated the vets involved was “fair enough” but “that doesn’t mean that things that happened were done properly” or that this “should have occurred the way that it did.”
Mr O’Driscoll said: “You’re quite right — if we did this again I’m quite sure we wouldn’t do it in the same way and in the same circumstances. In particular, if we did allow on-farm slaughter by the farmer I think we would supervise the entire thing. Would we allow [it] at all? I don’t know, I’d be unwilling to say definitely not.”
Deputy Deasy said, “It amazes me that when it comes to the obvious, potentially devastating financial result that did occur that only 25% of the slaughter was actually supervised” — compounded by the fact that procedures didn’t change even after the alleged use of a lump hammer; which Mr O’Driscoll regarded as “a fair point”.
Having been “constructively made [to] slaughter those pigs himself,” he deemed it “understandable” why Mr Galvin asked permission to do so on his own farm, given that he’s gone to a couple of abattoirs who refused, presumably because they didn’t want any potentially contaminated pigs going into the foods chain. Plus, “it was probably the cheaper option at the time.”
Mr O’Driscoll had “no problem with that interpretation”. The only other option would have been to bring a professional slaughterman onto the farm, “and I think if we were doing it again that option would be quite a prominent one.”
In his opinion, “The key error we made was not having 100% supervision.” However, Mr Deasy maintained this was “not the only mistake really”. First off, when that singular pig was believed to have tested positive, the Department left Mr Galvin “remain in a state of limbo for three months.”
He couldn’t understand how, “if it was so crucial that those pigs were slaughtered, why did you wait three months? It seems to me it really was a haphazard approach by the Department.”
During that time, the pigs got sick, disease spread, medicines were taken away from the farmer, and he moved animals in that interim period; “probably because he needed cash to keep going.”
The Secretary General said because Mr Galvin contested the slaughter order in the High Court, which found against him, a lot of delay before the slaughter took place “related to those legal issues.”
Deputy Deasy also said Mr Galvin “would contend that the manner in which those pigs were slaughtered was not correct”. Mr O’Driscoll said the method the farmer had used was very widely applied in the UK during the swine fever outbreak two years previously.
Another option was the Department could have taken over the pigs and got them slaughtered — but the legal advice was that it would have ended up having to pay significant compensation. “Would that have been a better outcome?” the Secretary General asked. “Not for the taxpayer.”
But, Mr Deasy said, “You could certainly make the argument, for fairness sake, it might have been the best option.” He added that, notwithstanding the disease risks associated with the movement of animals and so on, “there’s also the question of treating somebody fairly, and when I look at this I think, actually, he was treated poorly”.
On account of a product that’s still not banned in the U.S. to this day, he’d been left out of pocket to the amount of €0.75m.
With a 2005 review of the case conducted without Mr Galvin’s input, and its findings still unpublished, Mr Deasy said: “I think your new steering group within the Department should take another look at this, for the sake of fairness to the individual in question who was put out of business... and at least offer him the opportunity, outside of an adversarial setting, to make his case.”
The Secretary General had “no difficulty with that” and said the best thing he could do was to refer the 2005 internal report to the steering group for its consideration, and also hand it over to the PAC. Mr Galvin could make a submission to the steering group, “if he wants to contest anything that’s in the report, or just present his own narrative.”
With a €6 million dredging operation getting underway, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has confirmed that it is exploring the possibility of constructing a breakwater at Dunmore East.
Waterford TD John Deasy asked what infrastructural funding might be made available for the next phase of development at the State fishery port when Department officials appeared before the Dáil Public Accounts Committee last Thursday.
He said “two critical issues” had been identified to him — the first being a stepping-off point and safe access for cruise ships which “are vital from an economic tourism standpoint”.
Pointing to the very real difficulties Dunmore, as a busy port, is experiencing in providing space for passengers and crew to disembark, Deasy said “it’s becoming a potential safety issue” and asked the Department to look into it.
He added: “The second piece of essential infrastructure missing from Dunmore East is a breakwater, to allow for the leisure and sailing end of things to be built on and promoted.”
Cecil Beamish from the Department’s marine division confirmed that the “the next significant capital project that is being looked for Dunmore East down the line is a breakwater.”
This, he said, “would provide benefit also to the marine-leisure side of the harbour — which has been growing very rapidly — in terms of improved shelter and overwintering, and possibly allow the development then of small craft berthing.”
He told Deputy Deasy that “the exploratory work on what type of breakwater, the positioning, the scale, the costing, all of that, that’s getting underway over the next period as we move through the dredging.”
He added that they would also be deepening the entrance channel as part of the dredging exercise, with the overall operation to remove mud and silt from the harbour basin “going deeper than had been envisaged last year.
“At the moment we’re exploring what is the engineering and design dimensions of what would be required for a breakwater because there are different versions of where and how you’d put it [in]; and then, in parallel, considering multi-annual capital requirements and how to programme that,” he said.
The Department of Social Protection is on track to recover almost €250 million in overpayments in the space of three years.
Answering questions from Waterford TD John Deasy at the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, the Department’s Secretary General outlined projected welfare clawback figures for 2013–15.
Having queried what percentage of overpayments due to fraud and either claimant or clerical error are being recovered, the Fine Gael deputy was told that €127.2m worth of overpayments were recorded in 2013, of which €70.7m was recovered — up from €53m in 2012.
The PAC heard that a new checking system is only “live” since the end of last year, so restitution levels will improve further. In 2014, welfare overpayments totalled €124.4m, with €83m recovered. “And our expectation in 2015 is that we’ll be recovering in or around €90m,” Niamh O’Donoghue said.
Describing the moneys involved as “very significant”, John Deasy commented: “People who pay taxes and work hard for a living expect efficiency when it comes to recovering social welfare payments resulting from fraud or those paid out in error.
“The recovery systems are improving and should remind people who claim fraudulently there’s a better chance now they will be forced to return the money.”
The Department’s most senior official told the PAC she “would absolutely disagree with any suggestion that there is rampant fraud in the social welfare system. In terms of international comparisons there is no evidence to suggest that fraud in Ireland is out of step or out of kilter with the level of fraud anywhere else.”
Acknowledging that “one man’s customer error” — which is attributed to 30-40% of overpayment cases — “is another man’s fraud”, Mr Deasy asked if the extent of such mistakes is getting better or worse.
Ms O’Donoghue replied that the ratio of “suspected fraud” versus customer/administrative error when it comes to overpayments “has been increasing... [so] it’s not something we can be complacent about.”
Public Services Card
Regarding the new Public Services Card, which the Government is planning to invest another €17-18m in rolling out, Deputy Deasy asked “has that made an appreciable difference with regard to fraud.”
The Secretary General confirmed that the €24m contract is based on a target of 3 million cards being issued by the end of 2016. Some 1.4m are currently in circulation.
She said 62 cases of fraud had been identified already through the card’s associated facial recognition software. The new technology “allows us to uncover it very quickly, and very serious cases arose out of that which have gone through the courts,” with custodial sentences ensuing.
“The evidence to date is significant. It’s certainly in the millions,” she told Mr Deasy. “It also has a huge preventative role” in that, because they have to go through a registration process, “people are less inclined to perpetuate identity fraud to try and make multiple claims when they know we have the infrastructure now to check who they are.
“So yes, we really feel it has contributed enormously on the fraud side, as well as the customer service side, as we also have close to 400,000 people now with a Public Service Card with the free travel badge on it which provides much greater security to transport providers in terms of who is entitled to it.”