Public Accounts Committee
Meeting 28 January 2016
Mark Griffin, Secretary General of the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: I have a second issue, pertaining to the rural parts of my constituency. The Irish Times and other papers today discuss how the goalposts have shifted on the roll-out of broadband. The reason is EU state aid rules and the fact that when a private operator is involved the State cannot duplicate that service and this has changed the plans initially made by the Department.
Somebody in Waterford asked what that meant for us and whether we could now expect broadband to be rolled out across the county and in my rural location. Has it changed? Where do we stand on what the EU has ruled and how is the Department dealing with that now?
Mr. Mark Griffin: There are two issues relating to the EU element. First, there is the issue of infrastructure sharing and a broadband cost reduction directive has been adopted and will be transposed.
There are already existing rules under section 57 of the Communications Regulation Act 2002, where those who would intend bidding for the intervention area under the national broadband plan will be encouraged to share infrastructure.
We consider that to be critically important because, by definition, the sharing of infrastructure reduces the cost of providing the service and doing this should have a positive effect on the level of Exchequer funding to be provided.
We have discussed in great detail with the stakeholders and likely bidders the importance of sharing infrastructure during the roll-out of the national plan. During 2015 we invited companies to set out the nature, extent and type of infrastructure they might be able to make available to those companies proposing to bid for the broadband plan.
We are making good progress and the Deputy might recall that the updated broadband map up to 2020 was published on 2 December 2015 by the Minister. The pre-qualification questionnaire, as part of the tender process, was published on the same day and our expectation is that we will be in a position to award a tender by the end of this year.
As part of the tender process we will say to the companies best placed to advise on the mobilisation of the roll-out plan that it needs to happen quickly and that certain areas, such as those with poor access and high demand, need to be prioritised.
Certain categories such as primary schools and businesses should be part of the initial targeting and we expect 60% of the intervention area to be completed by 2018, which will be 85% when one adds in the commercial sector. We expect 100% by 2020.
I cannot give an exact date when communities in Waterford will get it under the intervention area but people will see from the broadband map, if they enter their address or Eircode postcode, whether they are part of the commercial intervention or the State intervention.
As was reported this morning, there is one company which mooted the inclusion of an additional 300,000 addresses on the broadband map last year. I do not want to single that company out but we have said consistently that we want to do this once and do it right.
When the commercial companies set out plans for the provision of broadband infrastructure, we require them to enter into a commitment contract. I do not want to come back to the committee in 2020 and say company X said it would provide broadband to parts of Waterford but we decided not to proceed under the intervention strategy and now we have to go back for those areas.
If the Deputy looks at the figures for his county, we have 61,000 premises to be covered by the national broadband plan, the Minister's plan for which he announced the updated map in December.
This accounts for just under 18,000, so that is 29% of premises in Waterford. The figures for premises to be covered by next generation access, NGA - that is, the commercial sector - are approximately 32,000 by the end of 2015, with a further 11,000 to be provided by the end of 2016.
What I would say to the Deputy, if he were speaking to his constituents, is it is absolutely full steam ahead for delivery of this plan. It is among the one or two top priorities that I have in the Department.
We have a great team in place dealing with it and very good expert consultants advising us, all procured in accordance with the public procurement guidelines. I am very confident that once this is completed, we will rank among the best in the world for the provision of broadband infrastructure. I do not want us to be talking about Ireland being somewhere at the EU average or a little above it in 2020.
This is a really progressive piece of work and I believe it will deliver excellent outcomes for the State. Considering the footprint of the intervention area and the type of premises that will be served - the number of farming communities, workers, and SMEs in the intervention area - this will make a transformational difference. We are talking about 96% of the national landmass, 1.8 million citizens, 214,000 white-collar workers and 89% of farm employment lying within the intervention area.
John Deasy: That is fine. I understand there is an impetus within the Department to actually get this rolled out. If I take the west of my county of Waterford, the lack of speed is killing businesses there. It is killing the growth of existing businesses and the establishment of new ones.
I deal with the issue alongside the county manager a great deal. I try to get him involved and he does so readily. We both correspond with the companies to try to get a better service. There are topographical anomalies involved whereby people and businesses are badly disadvantaged when it comes to their service. The sooner this is done the better because it is holding back business development badly in rural areas. I cannot say that enough. I just come across it too often.
Mark Griffin: The Deputy is absolutely pushing an open door with the Department, I can assure him of that. I am very comfortable that we are doing this the right way.
John Deasy: It does not just affect my constituency, it affects every rural constituency. Mr. Griffin knows this. I am trying to emphasise its importance. Frankly, when it comes to many of the most recent cases, I have failed to help these individuals because it is outside of my power. We end up with no real improvement in the service in many cases, which is devastating for some businesses.
Mark Griffin: If we look at what is happening in the digital economy, we are spending €6.4 billion online every year. That is up €2 billion since 2012. The expectation is that it will be €12 billion by 2020. We are spending €730,000 per hour online. I want to link this back to a conversation we had earlier.
The untapped potential of the digital economy is present in rural communities right across the country. I have nieces and nephews, brothers and sisters who live down the country. I assure the Deputy that I get it in the ear every time I meet one of them as regards the appalling state of the broadband infrastructure as soon as one moves outside the small towns.
I would like to finish on a positive note. The real value of Eircode is that when we provide high-speed broadband to rural parts of the country, and when the people in those areas fully tap in, we will see a massive increase in demand and online activity. It is then that we will see a huge and very significant take-up of Eircode because people have to get stuff delivered to their houses.
Deputy John Deasy: I thank Mr. Griffin and apologise to the Chairman for being overly parochial occasionally.
Re: WIT finances
Seán Ó Foghlú (Secretary General, Department of Education and Skills); Tom Boland (Chief Executive Officer, Higher Education Authority); Professor Willie Donnelly (President, Waterford Institute of Technology); John Burke (Principal Officer, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform) called and examined.
The HSE has been dragged kicking and screaming, in many respects and on many occasions, to give us information.
Public Accounts Committee
Meeting in Special Session
February 2, 2016
HSE officials including Tony O'Brien, Director General, Pat Healy, National Director of Social Care, Aileen Colley, chief officer for community health organisation CHO 5 (Wexford, Waterford, Kilkenny and South Tipperary), called and examined; also Frances Spillane & Grainne Duffy from the Department of Health.
Deputy John Deasy: The hallmark of this entire issue with Mr. O'Brien's organisation has been when anyone asks a question, in here or at ministerial level, they are given just enough information to suffice with regard to kicking the matter down the road.
The hallmark of this matter is that full information has not been given by Mr. O'Brien's organisation at times. The HSE, as the Chairman has said, has been dragged kicking and screaming, in many respects and on many occasions, to give us that information.
That is the hallmark of this entire issue and that has been our experience in this committee. I am afraid that is a big problem for me.
We now have a commission of investigation. It has been announced. Why has it come to this?
Ms Frances Spillane: There has been huge concern voiced by Ministers, and, obviously, within the Department as well, about everything that has gone on here and that was reflected in the decision by the Minister to appoint Mr. Conor Dignam SC to do the review of everything that happened in the south east.
John Deasy: The Minister of State stated last night that the reason they are going ahead with a commission of investigation is that they were not sure of the information that they were being given any longer, there was counter information and gaps in the information that the Department had been given.
The Chairman was on radio last week and somebody in RTE asked whether the committee has a remit here. The Chairman replied that we did given that we looked at the value-for-money issues surrounding the commissioning of reports, but it was probably a fair question.
In reality, when it comes right down to it, the Committee of Public Accounts probably should not be dealing with this; the Department should be. Ms Spillane should have dealt with this. We should not be dealing with this today.
There is a theory that if it had been dealt with better in the Department of Health, a commission of investigation probably would not have been announced. That is a reasonable point. The reason Mr. Conor Dignam SC was commissioned to conduct a desktop review was because we raised this in this committee.
When it comes to constituents who came to me, I had to fight for the most basic care for some of those who were involved and who were subjected to the most horrendous rape. We did that through what we do on a daily basis within this committee....
The Department of Health is absolutely pivotal in this with regard to its oversight of an organisation that has failed, and failed miserably... Ultimately, it has led to a commission of investigation because the Department of Health did not deal with this matter.
PAC Meeting, Nov 5 2015
Department of Justice called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: The Chairman has asked me to finish. The last thing I have to ask concerns the issue of the foster home that we have dealt with in this committee over the past year. There are policy issues arising from that. It is currently being looked at by a senior counsel. The terms of reference are too narrow. The senior counsel will come back with his report shortly.
The third aspect of this is the release of reports by Resilience Ireland and Conal Devine on these matters. Since the last time this was brought up in this committee, the reasons given by the HSE and others have been that the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda Síochána have expressed concerns that the investigations into these matters are ongoing. Since this was brought up in the last committee hearing, I have gotten a sense of what those investigations are.
They are serious and are being dealt with seriously by the Garda. I know the tenor and substance of them. It has gone on too long. Whatever the Garda is investigating, and I think I know what it is investigating at this point, it needs to expedite this.
The Departments of Justice and Equality and Health and Children need to express the view that any current investigations or lingering investigations into this matter need to be dealt with quickly. That is all I will say.
Mr. Noel Waters [Secretary General]: We have no knowledge of the contents of the reports in question and it is something that we have not been directly involved in. We accept that it is desirable for the information contained in those reports to be put into the public domain as quickly as possible. It is a matter of great public interest and we are strongly supportive of that.
Our understanding is that there may be difficulties around publication because of the possible implications for any Garda investigations that might be going on. We have no role in the Department in criminal prosecutions. It is a matter for the Garda and the Director of Public Prosecutions. I will convey the Deputy's concerns to the Commissioner after the meeting that the matter is brought to finality as quickly as possible.
"We have the top administrative job when it comes to the justice area in a void or not filled. I believe it should be acted upon."
PAC Meeting, Nov 5 2015
Department of Justice called and examined
Mr. Noel Waters: Thank you, Chairman. Given that it is somewhat unique to have an acting Secretary General before the Committee of Public Accounts, I propose to say a few words, with the Chairman's permission, on the circumstances that have given risen to this... As members know, Mr. Brian Purcell, the former Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Equality, moved to another area of the public service in October last year.
The Minister asked me to take on the role of acting Secretary General, and I felt it my duty to do so. I was working at the time as director general of the Department's immigration service, and I continued to do that role until the summer of this year. It was anticipated that I would be in the job for no more than a few weeks while a competition to fill the role was held in the normal way via the Public Appointments Service. For the sake of full disclosure, I advise members that I was not an applicant for the post of Secretary General at the time.
The competition did not yield a successful candidate, with no name being recommended to the Government for consideration. The Minister has publicly stated her view that this may have been a result of the controversies which had surrounded the post. In other words, there was not a huge number of people knocking on the door of the Public Appointments Service seeking to do the job... The Minister has indicated the job will be re-advertised when she considers the time is right to do so. There is nothing further I can add at this stage. I will continue to do the job for as long as I have been asked to do it.
It is important to note that the word "acting" in my title does not change the way I do the job; I do it in the same way as do all the other Secretaries General. I have no difficulty whatsoever with my colleagues in the Department. They are fully supportive of me in the role, as are colleagues in other Departments and the wider justice system. I am doing the job as if I were Secretary General of the Department. Moreover, I have been formally appointed as Accounting Officer, hence my attendance here today. I consider it important to put these matters on the record before getting into the issues the Comptroller and Auditor General has raised.
Deputy John Deasy: Mr. Waters indicated that the process of finding a new Secretary General will be gone through again when the "time is right". What exactly does that mean? Surely, within any Department, particularly a Department like Justice and Equality, we should seek to have the post of Secretary General filled in a permanent capacity?
PAC Meeting, Nov 5 2015
Deputy John Deasy: With regard to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Office of Government Procurement, the committee had suggested - or maybe I did not - that when the representatives from the Office of Government Procurement appear at the committee we should deal with the tendering arrangements for the Aran Islands air service, the construction of the contract and the tenders within the office.
The committee should make it absolutely clear that those issues are on the agenda for that meeting. The witnesses will have to outline to the committee how the tender document was constructed and how it is being dealt with now, including the differences due to the fact that the contract is being incorporated into the new tender arrangement.
They will have to explain to the committee how they could get something so horribly wrong, such as its failure to check whether one of the tenderers had a licence to land and take off. Actually, it was the company that was eventually awarded the contract, and it was the preferred bidder in that case.
That was a failing by the Office of Government Procurement which it will have to explain to this committee.
Chairman [John McGuinness TD]: That is fine. We will ask the Clerk to flag that to the office so that its representatives are absolutely clear about what is expected when they come here.
"What are we looking at as far as people remaining in the system for years and years? I am from Waterford and the direct provision centres are in Tramore ... what members of the public want to know is how quickly will somebody be processed?"
PAC Meeting, Nov 5 2015
Department of Justice called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: That was the shortest opening statement ever, which is a good sign. I was not going to start with the issue of prisons as they are not as such the subject of this Vote. We are dealing with the appropriation accounts, which cover quite a good deal as well as the issue of prisons. In the appropriation accounts, I want to start by asking about the asylum process, which is one of Mr. Waters' areas of expertise in the years he has been in the Department of Justice and Equality.
Mr. Noel Waters [Secretary General]: Yes. Hopefully, it is.
John Deasy: I want to go through some of the figures and some of the policy announcements that have been made recently, particularly as they pertain to fast-tracking the processing of applicants. I will start with that aspect. On doing some research into this, I saw press reports of a fast-tracking process being formulated within the Department having been announced in the media in April of this year. I do not know many times it has been re-announced and every time there is a media scrutiny and exposure of the refugee crisis that exists, and that has grown during the past six months in Europe, we hear about the issue of fast-tracking the processing of applicants much quicker. At what stage is the fast-tracking of the processing of applicants process at now?
JOHN DEASY: 'Some people give out about the Committee of Public Accounts. On occasion, however, I think we can make a difference when it comes to public policy... Sometimes this place can be the cradle of parliamentary hyperbole. Words like "disgrace" and "outrage" flutter in the air like confetti. I think we can make a difference, and if we were able to do so in this area, I would be very pleased. The work we have put in has been worthwhile...'
PAC Meeting | Oct 8, 2015
Health Service Executive
Secretary General, Mr Jim Breslin called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: This is something you [chairman, John McGuinness] have brought up as well. I imagine you know what I am going to bring up. It relates to the foster home we have dealt with and the HSE's involvement. I thank Mr. Breslin for coming in and he is welcome.
Mr. Conal Devine was commissioned to undertake a report on everything surrounding the foster home located in the south east of the country where some serious allegations have been made. We are getting conflicting views with regard to the position of a Garda investigation in this regard. The Chairman was formally notified that there would not be any prosecutions in this case. That much has been repeated to several people.
As far as the Department is aware, what is the status of a Garda investigation? I am asking because those responsible in the HSE are using the excuse of an ongoing Garda investigation. They maintain it precludes them from releasing the report, even in redacted form. What is Mr. Breslin's understanding of it? Frankly, we are getting two stories.
Mr. Jim Breslin: My understanding is that when we have checked, it seems the process of determination on the part of the Garda has not concluded. The Chairman may have been informed differently. Obviously, we do not try to intervene in the process, but we have sought to check where the process is at. We have been told it has not concluded and this may relate to a number of lines of inquiry. That rings true with the line the HSE has given us, which is that the executive is precluded from publishing until it gets word from the Garda on the matter. That is the current situation, as we understand it.
Deputy John Deasy: Since we are at that juncture, I have another question. People have contacted the Garda and have directly asked the Garda whether there is an issue with publishing this report and the Garda have said "No." Some people are making the point to us that they do not believe there is an issue with the publication of this report. Can Mr. Breslin shine any light on that?
Jim Breslin: It is our intention to do so. I have written to the committee on the subject. The Minister has requested that we organise a senior counsel, Mr. Conor Dignam, to look into the matter. One particular aspect that the senior counsel has been asked to look into relates to the reasons the reports have not been published and whether these reasons are well grounded. An interim report is due back shortly from Mr. Dignam. We hope that will assist the Deputy in the question he is asking.
John Deasy: Mr. Breslin is getting to the kernel of what we have discussed in the committee. This report was commissioned using public money. The Department of Health funds the HSE budget. I have to ask a particular question but no one seems to know the answer. What is the natural course when it comes to a report like this? Public money has been used and spent to commission it. It has been lying somewhere for years now. What role does the Department have? Do we need to ask counsel every time to examine why a report has not been published? Does Mr. Breslin get to see this report once it is finished? Does the Minister get to see this report? Does the HSE keep it locked up? I am beginning to suspect that HSE is not releasing some of these reports because they would damage the organisation and some individuals and because the HSE is potentially protecting some individuals by not publishing.
Jim Breslin: If the issue of An Garda Síochána did not arise as a matter of routine, then it would as a matter of our request. Obviously, in such an instance, we would request and get these reports - I am confident of that. In the absence of that, with the-----
John Deasy: Mr. Breslin needs to request them. Is it correct?
Jim Breslin: Yes.
John Deasy: They do not arrive on Mr. Breslin's desk as a matter of course once they are finalised. Is that the case?
Jim Breslin: No, but in the vast majority of cases these matters are not only of concern to the HSE but also to the Minister or the Department. We get many reports in these scenarios. Situations could arise which are more local and are less obviously matters of public concern, but the HSE may take the view that they are worth looking into in any event. We would not necessarily get all of those. However, in such instances where we do not have An Garda Síochána's involvement, we would request the report. In this situation where we have done so, we have not been content to wait. We have agreed with the HSE that a senior counsel will review the reports. The Ministers have been at a disadvantage in the debate on the matter because they have not seen the reports - nor have I. However, they will have the benefit of a senior counsel having reviewed the report as well as a clear position from the senior counsel.
John Deasy: Did Mr. Breslin say he has not seen the report?
Jim Breslin: No, I have not seen the report.
John Deasy: Why not?
Jim Breslin: Because of the investigations of An Garda Síochána.
John Deasy: Even Mr. Breslin has not seen the report because of the Garda. Mr. Breslin has characterised this as the routine way of doing business. Is that the case?
Jim Breslin: The routine way of business is that we would see them. It is unusual to have a Garda investigation as in this case.
John Deasy: Mr. Breslin is saying that he has contacted the Garda and he is satisfied that there are valid reasons for the report not being published at this stage and that those responsible for making that case are in the Garda. Is that correct?
Jim Breslin: We have contacted the gardaí. We have contacted the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department clarified that matters still needed to be concluded by the gardaí; they were not at an end point.
John Deasy: Until that occurs, do I take it that Mr. Breslin is not privy to that report?
Jim Breslin: Other than we have agreed with the HSE, and the HSE has facilitated access by the senior counsel to these reports. That will establish two very important things for us - one, whether the reasons for not publishing them to date well grounded; and, two, whether they are in a format that can be published.
John Deasy: I have a bit of a problem with this whole system. It comes back to public expenditure, even when one gets into redaction. If a report such as that comes back to Mr. Breslin, is it redacted? If Mr. Breslin finally gets that, does he get to see the unblemished report or does he get a redacted version? Does Mr. Breslin know?
Jim Breslin: It depends on the nature of the issues that are preventing its publication.
John Deasy: I have a bit of a problem with this now. This system really needs to change a little bit.
Jim Breslin: I agree.
John Deasy: A second set of eyes on the unredacted report is necessary when it comes to Mr. Breslin's office and the Minister.
Jim Breslin: That is why we put the senior counsel into this very situation.
John Deasy: I understand, but Mr. Breslin is telling me that even if the Department gets the report and wants to publish it, and Mr. Breslin is making it clear that his intent is to do that,-----
Jim Breslin: Yes.
John Deasy: -----Mr. Breslin might only get a redacted version of it.
Jim Breslin: I do not know, and not having seen the report, I do not know the issues of concern that might arise, but there potentially could be a situation where that might arise, or potentially not, and I do not want to prejudge that until the senior counsel reports.
John Deasy: I do not know Mr. Breslin very well but I will tell him why I have a problem with this. Social workers and people who have been around this for the past ten years have seen fragments of this report. They know that it is hard-hitting. They know it is a good report, and that is how they have characterised it to me. Mr. Breslin does not know; they do. A lot of people who are working in this area know exactly what has been written in that report and are very keen that it be made public, and they are very clear about their opinions as to why it is being held back.
I take everything Mr. Breslin said at face value. He stated that the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda have made it clear that there are still issues that need to be dealt with. I am beginning to get worried, though, that the HSE sits on such reports and then redacts them, and it is in the public interest for that to change. A second set of eyes needs to be brought into this to make a decision on whether it is good public policy to continue that system.
As for some of the issues, I have never dealt with anything like it. I have been in politics since 1999 and I have never dealt with anything as serious and as disturbing as these allegations. I think Mr. Breslin gets my drift. I note the Chairman has been involved in this and we are on the same page when it comes to this.
Jim Breslin: I think it might be of interest to Deputy Deasy - it does not directly answer the concern he raises - that one of the other concerns of the committee in these discussions has been the selection of people to undertake the work and how a report gets commissioned. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has written to the HSE suggesting that there are already processes in place in acute care to ensure that nominations of people to undertake reviews are not done by the HSE; they are done by an external party.
John Deasy: Unfortunately, the external parties in some cases are people who were former HSE employees.
Jim Breslin: This is the point I am coming to. Deputy Lynch has written to the HSE to say that the selection process around that could benefit from it being more independent. In particular, the HSE's attention has been drawn to a practice that has developed, and one that I am very aware of, in the child welfare area where an external party to the HSE, somebody of objective standing who stands apart from the HSE - a professor in a university, not an employee of the HSE - selects from a panel of people who might undertake the review.
There is the occasion where members of that panel have worked in the HSE because that is by far the biggest provider of health services but a studied eye is given to the composition of the panel, to ensure that it has clear independent status to it. We think this is an area, and the HSE is working with us and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to try to develop a methodology that in the future would not lead to the kind of the concerns that members at the committee here have expressed, and we will have that.
John Deasy: Mr. Breslin is making me feel a bit better now. We have been dealing with this for the past year. We have been dealing with the methodology, the panels and the independence of these reports and reviews.
That is news. That is something we have not heard previously. We put a lot of work into this with regard to the independence of these reviews. Mr. Breslin states that the Minister in question, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, has written to the HSE stressing that the reports should be more independent. Is it a bit more concrete than that? Does she have a proposal that she sent to the HSE or is it merely a request?
Jim Breslin: She sent a proposal to them and the Department has followed up with a series of meetings with the HSE, who can see the merit in this because it does not do anybody any good, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Indeed, she has met with people involved in the panel in the children area to try to get the methodologies right as we implement something similar in this space.
John Deasy: The families involved in the foster home and those who have been in contact with us will take something from that. If the system is changed because of this issue, the raising of it and our continual contact with the HSE and the Minister in question, that is useful.
I am glad I asked Mr. Breslin the question and thank him for the response. I would like it if the clerk to the committee, without saying anything, could correspond or communicate with Mr. Breslin's office so that we could get a copy of those proposals so that we can take a look at them. We made some definite recommendations in this area but if Mr. Breslin can give us that information, we would like to take a look at that.
Jim Breslin: No problem. In my correspondence with the clerk to the committee, I undertook to keep the committee informed on progress on the work of the senior counsel, and I will do that. I will not wait for a request from the committee on that. I will do that as we get developments.
John Deasy: I thank Mr. Breslin.
Chairman: We can welcome what might happen in the future on the lines of what Mr. Breslin described, some of which comes out of recommendations made by this committee. I am happy with that.
What I am deeply concerned about is the fact that the health boards, dating back to their time, and therefore the Department of Health, failed a high number of vulnerable young adults in this State, and probably continues to do that in this case. Within the organisation of the health services, someone knows what happened in relation to this. It did not go unnoticed. A senior social worker and an independent organisation felt strongly enough about it to make a protected disclosure on a number of different occasions, and felt so strong about it that they raised it at a restricted public meeting of employees with the HSE.
It also was raised here. Deputy Deasy and I raised it, and I made a disclosure to Pearse St. Garda station. This is what annoys me about it. Some employees of the health board at that time must have known about this and that was said by the whistleblower in greater detail. I have not heard from the HSE or from the Department of Health to say they have identified the various persons who engaged with this issue at that time.
I want to put this on record because of what Mr. Breslin said. I was asked to attend a meeting in the Garda station some months ago where I was told that the evidence had been presented to the DDP and that no action would be taken. Mr. Breslin states that he is waiting on the Garda report or the Garda is dealing with it, and I have been told that the Garda has dealt with it. They either have or they have not dealt with it. In my opinion, someone is covering up or playing games, and we need to come clean on all of this issue, not only in the interest of accountability, transparency and all of those words that are used nowadays, but in the interest of the families concerned.
Some of those young adults may have continued through their lives being affected by what happened. I have read some of the reports and, quite frankly, in my time in the public arena I have never read anything so horrifying. Both the reports and the verbal explanations given to me by the social workers are horrifying. That is what disturbed me most about this. We had an exchange here with the HSE on this matter and I must say that its arrogance and stonewalling on the occasion in question was breathtaking. A bit of truth and a bit of effort would really change things around here and would also the circumstances of the people affected. In light of what I have been told and in view of the fact that the Department of Health, at some stage in its history, employed people who were directly responsible in this area, there is an onus on the Department to conduct some sort of investigation into both itself and the individuals concerned. It should not be held back by the report or the information to the effect that there is a Garda report. The witness can say that I told him there were no prosecutions to happen. That is what I was told. I will leave it at that but I could not leave it at the exchange with Deputy Deasy because so much has happened since.
Jim Breslin: I am happy to do this. I do not want this to be an ongoing issue. The purpose of commissioning the senior counsel is to get us to a point where we can put whatever we can into the public domain. One of the key issues the senior counsel is to examine is whether this concept of not publishing the report is well grounded. That finding will answer at least part of the question that the Chairman has posed. Officials at the Department and Ministers have met some of the people who have concern and local knowledge of this issue and everybody's concern is shared here. This is not something where we lack concern on this issue.
Chairman: Did Mr. Breslin meet the officials within the health system who, at that time, were to the fore of the care of vulnerable young adults?
Jim Breslin: In this instance?
Jim Breslin: We have met certain people who have made themselves available to us. The process of commissioning the senior counsel is to look at the two reviews that were conducted to see whether they were adequate in who they met and how they went about their job but we have not met everybody who was working on this.
Chairman: Given Mr. Breslin's exchange here this morning and how upfront he has been on some of the questions that we have asked, which is a little bit different than what we usually get here, I think he should ask them. I think he should seek the names of the individuals who were at the forefront of this at that time and determine whether they have all been questioned or made a contribution to the investigation. Quite frankly, it does Mr. Breslin, the committee, and the Garda no good to say that such a serious issue has not been brought to a conclusion one way or the other...
John Deasy: Can we stay on this point for one second? I want to reiterate one thing. Mr. Breslin has made it clear that the process involving the choosing of the individuals who do these reports will now change which will end potential conflicts of interest that have arisen in the past. Very clearly, that is what we have seen and that is good and the people involved in this will be pleased with that.
I have to return to the reports that are commissioned using public money and the way they are treated once they are completed. I think Mr. Breslin's office, on the basis of good public policy, needs to take a look at redaction and the circulation of those reports and, in my opinion, the continual suppression of these reports within the HSE. I could make a good argument that, for the public good, that system can no longer continue. I think Mr. Breslin needs to provide a second set of eyes or a different system or proposal to the HSE. I think, as a matter of good public policy, that needs to be considered at this point.
Jim Breslin: I will say two things on that. I speak with some knowledge of the children's area because that was my former posting. The approach that is taken there is that the reports are published. The important thing in the terms of reference when something is set up is that the person who is doing the inquiry is told that the report will be published. If they go off and do the report and then one decides whether to publish it or not, one gets into redaction terrain, so it is important that we set up a process that is for the publication of reports.
John Deasy: Okay.
Jim Breslin: We can look at taking on board the concerns that the Deputy has expressed on that in as many cases as we can.
John Deasy: Perhaps I am repeating myself but some people give out about the Committee of Public Accounts. On occasion, however, I think we can make a difference when it comes to public policy. I will take at face value what has been said about reports and changing that system. I am pleased that we are coming to a conclusion on a couple of these issues. Sometimes this place can be the cradle of parliamentary hyperbole. Words like "disgrace" and "outrage" flutter in the air like confetti. I think we can make a difference, and if we were able to do so in this area, I would be very pleased. The work we have put in has been worthwhile, so I will follow up on this.
PAC Meeting | Oct 1, 2015
National Asset Management Agency executives called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: I will be brief, as this has been a long day. I wish to ask the witnesses about Project Eagle. It is an important question because of what has happened since regarding the reputation of NAMA and the potential damage to public trust in NAMA as this matter has continued. Mr. [Frank] Daly has made clear that when the agency found out that Mr. Cushnahan was to have taken a fee, it stepped in quickly, I think Mr. Daly said within a day and a half, and it considered the exit of PIMCO and consulted Lazards.
I take it from this that Mr. Daly felt that the integrity of NAMA's process was still intact and that it should continue. In hindsight, was that a bad decision and has that caused damage to NAMA, to NAMA's reputation and how the agency is perceived? Mr. Daly himself talked about Cicero's quote, "who benefits?", and about the people who tried to damage NAMA by leaking information such as failed bidders or underbidders. However, it is not only people who leak information to damage NAMA who are involved in this regard; it also is NAMA's decision-making process and this must be thought about.
Should NAMA have considered this in greater depth at the time? Did NAMA discuss it sufficiently? Should it have stepped out of this process? Having given some thought to that question at this point, one journalist framed this issue by suggesting NAMA has lost the narrative and there may be some truth to that. However, it stems from the decision made to continue with the process after NAMA found out the individual in question was taking a fee. Consequently, it comes back to Mr. Daly and the decisions he has made or rather, not him personally but the decisions NAMA's board has made. Was that a mistake and in hindsight, was its correct to proceed with this or should NAMA have stopped the process when it had the chance? Have the witnesses considered this point in the interim?
Mr. Frank Daly (Chairman, NAMA): First, we always consider these things at the time and we continue to consider them. There has been a lot of consideration of this issue in NAMA. The damage, if there is damage, has been driven quite a bit by the conflation of issues that have emerged after the sale with the actual sale process itself. There has been huge conflation of issues in this regard and if the Deputy considers what the Northern committee is investigating, it by and large is focused on issues that arose after the sale on the purchase or the buying side.
Once the word "NAMA" is mentioned anywhere in a narrative, certainly down here, the message or narrative gets a little garbled and misunderstood. I accept that point. As to whether damage has been done to NAMA, there are different constituencies out there. As for NAMA's standing with the investor community, the markets, the rating agencies or with many of those people who think through these things and look behind the headlines, I do not believe NAMA's reputation has been damaged and I do not think it has in any way compromised our capacity and ability to do our job. I do not wish to go back over the entire narrative or discussion on the decision-making process at the time. It was not something we did not consider - whether we should just abort the sale. We weighed up the pros and cons and, in essence, we still had two competitive bidders in there for this. We had exited the one of which we thought there would be reputational or perceptional damage if it had continued. We still got our reserve price. We still believe we got a very good deal on this.
We always would examine our decisions both with hindsight and at the time. One thing we did learn from this, and one change we have made, is that we now always ask for a declaration from whoever is buying any portfolio that there is no success fee or any money payable to anybody connected with NAMA. We pitch that very widely, whether it be a board member, an advisory committee member or a member of the executive or staff. We get declarations from them.
I do not think I mentioned that this morning, although it has been mentioned before, that when Cerberus bought the Northern Ireland portfolio, it gave us such a declaration because we insisted on that after the PIMCO issue. Cerberus has assured us then and since, in terms of any payments it made as a result of the Project Eagle sale, that it stands over those payments as being legitimate and that it is not in any way in contravention of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the states, which is something it takes very seriously as a US-based company. Cerberus stands over that very strongly to this day.
PAC Meeting | Sept 24, 2015
Re: Waterford IT / IT Carlow merger; Department of Education called and examined
Deputy John Deasy: I welcome Mr. Kelly back to the committee. I will start where he left off. The overriding point he makes in his report is that he gives affirmation and validation to the concept. He makes that very clear when it comes to policy and when he looks at the business model. Universally, people who have read the report would say it is a necessary step to restart this process. I think it has worked. That is all positive and good.
I think people in Waterford and the south east would probably expect me to ask what has happened since the report has been published and presented to both institutes. Maybe it is also a question for the HEA and the Department.
Mr. Michael Kelly [external consultant]: I certainly think others can comment on that, but I will provide an initial response to the Deputy. Based on my close contact with both institutes over quite a protracted period earlier in the year, I am confident there is a strong belief in both academic communities, and indeed among the staff more generally, in the concept of a technological university and in the value of doing that in the south east. Both institutes prepared very ambitious and well-informed vision statements setting out their stalls, as it were, as to how the TU might materialise. Alongside that, there were also indications of real stresses in relationships between the two institutes at many levels. There is a very strong rationale, therefore, for recommending a preliminary facilitation process in order to ventilate some of those problems from the past, to try and deal with them, to get them out of the way and to get on with the substantive business. A very strong recommendation in my report was that nothing substantive should commence before going through that preliminary stage in a serious way. My understanding - although the Department may be able to amplify this - is that the process is under way. I have no reason to believe it is not successfully grappling with the issues that should be addressed.
Deputy John Deasy: Would it be helpful and appropriate at this point to ask the Department what has happened with that particular recommendation?
Mr. Seán Ó Foghlú [Secretary General]: I thank the Deputy. The Minister met with Mr. Kelly on 2 July and talked through the report with him. Prior to publishing the report she met with the chairs and presidents of the two institutions. That was on 21 July and the report was published on 27 July. As was outlined at the time, it was agreed that a project plan for a process of facilitation would be developed for the consideration of the two governing bodies at the end of August, and that happened and was agreed upon. The facilitation process is now under way. A facilitator has been engaged and the initial meetings have taken place. The feedback we have got has been that there is good engagement at those meetings.
Deputy John Deasy: Can Mr. Ó Foghlú outline the specifics involved? How many meetings are there and who they are with? Mr. Kelly make some very specific recommendations and points with regard to why this has failed and what needs to happen.
Seán Ó Foghlú: Again, there is a facilitation under way to bring the two of them together. There have been meetings at senior level between the two institutions. I happen to know there have been meetings with the chairs and presidents but we are not aware of any more detail other than that those initial meetings have taken place. The aim is to complete an initial phase of that facilitation so that it can move to actual co-operation towards building towards the next stage.
Deputy John Deasy: That is fine. I think Mr. Ó Foghlú will understand where I am coming from when I ask the questions. This stems from the view which Mr. Kelly has in his report, that this could be completed within three years. That is critical for people looking in from the outside because of how long, laborious and painful the process has been up to this point. When I ask these questions, it is important the parties concerned understand that there is keen and constant oversight of this process from day one by the Department. What we have seen in the past ten, 12 or 14 years in which I have been a Deputy is that there have been lapses with regard to governance, not just in Waterford Institute of Technology - we can talk about those - but also in Dublin. It is just critical that there is this kind of constant attention. We will get to the financial side of this in a moment. Will the witness explain to the committee what he perceives to be his role as this process begins? Is it just about receiving the odd telephone call from the people involved saying that everything is grand and that meetings are taking place or is there somebody in the Department constantly checking to see how this process is evolving and whether Mr. Kelly's recommendations are being followed through on?
Seán Ó Foghlú: We have somebody in the Department who is constantly checking this but it is the responsibility of the institutions. We have engaged the facilitator and we engaged Mr. Kelly, so we are the engager of the facilitation. We are taking that role and engaging facilitation. We are getting informal feedback on a constant basis from both parties and the facilitator.
John Deasy: How long will this initial stage take?
Seán Ó Foghlú: It will take a number of months.
John Deasy: A number of months. Okay. Is it possible within the timeframe pointed out by Mr. Kelly of three years?
Seán Ó Foghlú: That is absolutely the Minister's aim.
John Deasy: Okay. Then again, Ministers come and go, as the witness knows. Mr. Ó Foghlú will be dealing with this after the current Minister and her successor. I am not trying to be smart but that is the reality.
Seán Ó Foghlú: It is the Department's aim as well. It is a policy, so it is the Minister's aim that is implemented. I was just trying to make that distinction.
Deputy John Deasy: That is grand.
Seán Ó Foghlú: I am not trying to separate them.
John Deasy: That is fair enough. As far as the Higher Education Authority, HEA, is concerned, there are a couple of roles. It adjudicates in the process to a certain extent but it is a facilitator. Does Mr. Boland have any comment with regard to that initial process that has been set up and how he sees the authority's role in this? The Department has explained that it has somebody on point who is facilitating in this instance and reporting back from both institutions. Will Mr. Boland explain the authority's ongoing role in this new process?
Mr. Tom Boland [Chairman, Higher Education Authority]: First, we welcome the new process. There is a sense in the HEA that, in a way, this project was not given a full chance on its first outing and this is an opportunity to put it back on track, as has been said. As a process, that is very valuable. The building of trust between the institutions at leadership level and more widely is absolutely crucial - ultimately, to a successful outcome - and the institutions want the successful outcome of a technological university in due course. For the reasons mentioned by the Deputy, we are the ultimate adjudicator of the process so I do not want to say anything to predict the outcome. Our interest is to see this project progress well in the interests, first, of the region, as the case has been well made for the social and economic benefit that would come from technological university there, but also in the interest of the institutes. As two very strong institutes serving their region, they cannot put resources and time on a very long-term basis into a project that will not succeed. Our wish is that there should be a fair wind behind the project.
We will be supportive, as we have been supportive with the other consortia. The Deputy mentioned that he may want to discuss finance. There is some limited - I stress that word - capacity for the HEA to provide a certain amount of funding to support the institutions as they do their planning. We had made some funding available before but that had to be paused when the process was paused. Overall, we welcome Mr. Kelly's report and, as a very constructive first step, the facilitation process. We are very positively disposed to an early positive outcome. With regard to the Deputy's other question, I assure him that we will keep in regular contact with the institutes at leadership level on what is happening exactly.
John Deasy: I thank Mr. Boland. Having served as a member of this committee for the past four years or so, I know we have received continual assurances that everything that could be done was being done from the HEA's standpoint, as well as that of the Department of Education and Skills. Nevertheless, the process collapsed and we are back here again. I suppose this is a question for Mr. Kelly. Notwithstanding the fact that everyone agrees with his analysis on cause and his recommendations, is there a utility for a check in the system as it goes along to see if the process is working and those recommendations are being implemented properly? That is where the problem is and has been in the past. This was abruptly ended by an e-mail in October 2014 from WIT which indicated that was it, it was done. My difficulty is I deal with officials in the HEA and the Department of Education and Skills who are trying to do their job but, frankly, the process did not work because they did not know what was going on. Mr. Kelly repeatedly makes the point in his report that while people were collaborating on the face of it, when we scratched the surface there was very little going on in the form of substantive and progressive work towards the ultimate goal. It was almost like a facade, and the process was self-serving. The outcome did not amount to a great deal.
Should there be a process whereby we all sit back after a particular point and ask if we have reached the milestones and recommendations set out? This could be after six months or a year. My fear is that no matter how good are the recommendations, I could be back in a year's time - if I am elected - and see the same situation. The witness can understand that, especially if we consider the historical recurrence of the issue over the past ten or 15 years.
Michael Kelly: Let me rewind a little. With respect to the motives of the two institutes from the beginning of the process, I have no doubt that both entered this with enthusiasm and got on with what they felt had to be done in a conscientious way from the beginning. The stage 1 report they prepared bears testament to that. They then ran into difficulties and some of those were occasioned by what I term "external events"; they were external to this process and caused interruptions. I can contrast my experience with the Dublin consortium with what I have observed retrospectively with respect to the south east. In Dublin, from the beginning, the momentum flowed consistently, led very much by the three presidents in the colleges. I chair the steering group, and that is where the dynamic for pushing ahead needs to emerge.
At the end of the day in any of these consortia, the people who decide whether it happens are from the institutes concerned. We cannot make that happen. I am absolutely of a view, based on what I have observed in the south east, that given a chance to ventilate some of the issues from the past and given a proper framework within which they can progress their stage two business plan, this is perfectly achievable. Rather than a whip hand from outside, the incentives need to be of a more positive kind and they need to be around understanding what will support the process, propel it and incentivise people to go the extra mile. That is what is required; we require extra effort in addition to the day job in order to do everything that needs to be done.
Deputy John Deasy: Effectively, by extension, Mr. Kelly is saying he has faith in the people in the leadership positions in both of these institutions to do that. Does Mr. Kelly believe the leadership is there for that to occur?
Michael Kelly: Yes. I have made careful recommendations around the construction of the steering group, for example, and the project team that should be in place. The main competency I would seek is enthusiasm. Again, based on the experience in Dublin, enthusiasm from the top and in the project team is what propels something such as this forward. Beyond that, an amount of material support must be provided to make it happen.
Deputy John Deasy: I will pick up on that. In Mr. Kelly's report and opening statement, he referred to the competing demands throughout the education sector. It surprised me, and Mr. Kelly is very strong on it. Mr. Ó Foghlú deals with the entire education sector and has me constantly pestering him about national schools in west Waterford. I understand how busy and demanding the education sector can be. A couple of days ago, I met with the INTO with a list of reasonable issues, as does every Deputy. What popped out of the report was how critical the proper resourcing of the process is. An example to which Mr. Kelly pointed was that when he puts together the steering groups and the key groups of people engaged in the process, they must be taken out of their regular day jobs and there is an issue regarding compensation and funding. Can Mr. Kelly talk about it, where it may have fallen down in the past and what funding and resources we need to make it work?
Michael Kelly: Let us examine the evidence. The evidence on which I rely comes from the report I mentioned in my statement, which comes from examining the experience of this type of process across the EU during the past 15 years. My interpretation of the evidence is that the rationale for working with the merging and consolidation of institutes is not about knocking things together but building stronger capability. It is through, for example, cross-disciplinarity, multi-disciplinarity, stronger quality processes and so on in the larger institution that we can achieve, not just efficiency gain, which should be part of the agenda, but also a step change in quality of outcomes in terms of the student experience, the quality of graduates, research excellence and the engagement the institutions have with their local communities and in responding to real needs.
When we start from there, the other message that comes through in the evidence is that one pays for this sooner or later, at the start or in lower-than-expected quality outcomes later. When we put a university brand on any Irish institution, we need to do it with great care, and this is reflected in the standard, in the very exacting designation criteria, for example. This also needs to be reflected in the preparation we put in. In the Dublin context, we have taken three years thinking it through and beginning to action some of the pieces of it. It will take much investment, and although finding this investment within the overall higher education budget is challenging, we cannot rely on institutions to find the great majority of what needs to be invested from existing pools, given that they would have to take it out of something that is already happening.
Deputy John Deasy: There are practical issues surrounding WIT regarding managing legacy debt. Major strains still exist. We are talking about funding this critical measure with all those issues still remaining, and it requires support from the Department and the HEA.
Michael Kelly: It does, and it is beyond my brief.
Deputy John Deasy: I am not saying something Mr. Kelly does not know. It would be useful, and many people working in WIT would ask this question of the Department. They would have a concern about the appropriate funding of the process as it continues.
Seán Ó Foghlú: One of the helpful aspects of Mr. Kelly's report was that it placed the project in an appropriate regional context and is trying to build up a regional rationale for it. The support in the region as a whole is a very important dimension. Mr. Kelly has outlined his recommendations for a project steering group or team and a regional stakeholder forum. When the facilitation is passed, putting such a structure in place will be very important. There was no question of resourcing in the past impacting on the situation, given that there was no lack of resources. More resources were available that they could have drawn down, but they were not in a position to do so given that they were not working together well enough and did not have the plans in place. We must recognise that there is a challenge for us and a need to resource it appropriately, particularly for the back filling and the change in the nature of institutions that is needed to enable the institutions to grow into an amalgamation This is part of the challenge we face in considering the future funding of higher education.
John Deasy: Administratively, where does the funding stream come from? Is it the HEA? Is it both?
Seán Ó Foghlú: We fund the HEA. The HEA provides a limited budget for these issues and a number of amalgamations and technological university applications are under way. There is an existing limited fund. The question is how we can seek to enhance it. For State funding, it is an estimates issue.
John Deasy: Some €381,000 was spent jointly, with €170,000 from the HEA. Ultimately, Mr. Ó Foghlú is saying it is his remit regarding the overall budget.
Seán Ó Foghlú: The Deputy mentioned the debt overhang. It was unfortunate that we had to loan WIT the money and we have had an investigation about it. Arising from the investigation, the Minister made a decision to invest the money. We recognise that WIT is in a difficult position and WIT has asked us to re-examine the repayment schedule. While we are examining it, we have not agreed a revised repayment schedule.
John Deasy: When will you make a decision about it?
Seán Ó Foghlú: In the near future, although it is not imminent this week or next week.
John Deasy: It would be a good idea to deal with it sensitively. It would send a message to everybody who works in WIT that the Department is taking seriously the funding issues in the institute. It would probably be a supportive measure if the Department were to deal with it differently.
Seán Ó Foghlú: We are aware of that.
John Deasy: Good... We know where we are with this. We have been down this road before to a certain extent. It is fair to say, and it should be acknowledged, that there are people with differences of opinion on any relationship between both institutions and there are those opinions that exist and dwell in both institutions. However, the important point is that the report stresses that this is feasible, necessary and makes sense. That is why we are going to continue with this and move on. That is the overriding and overarching issue.
As a commentary, and this is not pointed towards anyone in this room, I have noticed that this became very fractious and emotive. It became very political. It became an issue everybody had a comment about. It would be naive of me to expect or try to prevent political representatives from commenting on this as the process is rolled out and develops, but it is worthwhile expressing the view that we should allow this process to grow without the political commentary that has existed and been harmful and damaging to this venture over the last ten years. That makes me suggest that it is incumbent on the Department of Education and Skills and the HEA to have a more committed role with regard to oversight of this process. We will be relying on them to do that. I will not get into the historical stuff with regard to what I think has not happened when it comes to oversight, in terms of dealing with this, over the past ten years. We have dealt with that sufficiently in this committee. It is incumbent on both organisations to provide that oversight. More keenly, that has occurred in the past to make this work. I thank Mr. Kelly. I appreciate his assistance.
Michael Kelly: I thank the Deputy.