So much for transparency
THE LONGER this Government remains in office, the more its actions mimic those of its predecessors. Undertakings given in its programme to dilute the overwhelming power of the Executive, to specify clearly in law the responsibilities of Ministers and public servants, and to increase the investigative powers of Dáil committees remain unfulfilled. As a consequence, there has been no advance in administrative transparency and accountability.
Actions by Minister for Health James Reilly in recent months and difficulties within the health services have become the focus of intense scrutiny. The financial deficit being run up by the Health Service Executive gave the Dáil Public Accounts Committee (PAC) an opportunity to raise current expenditure issues on Tuesday, rather than deal with historic spending reported on by the Comptroller and Auditor General. But when secretary general of the Department of Health Ambrose McLoughlin told them their questions strayed into policy areas and would not be answered, chairman John McGuinness of Fianna Fáil and Seán Fleming took grave exception. The secretary general’s response was hardly unexpected. But it certainly enlivened proceedings, leading to a walkout by Mr Fleming and focusing public attention on the weaknesses of Dáil committees.
It was the first PAC meeting since the summer recess and had the capacity to inform the public on the progress, or otherwise, in introducing health reforms, the extent of further savings required, and the services to be affected. Instead, because of traditional rules relating to policy, it produced little new. Last July, the projected deficit for the HSE was estimated at €500 million. By the end of last month, it had reached €374 million. But HSE officials expect further savings.
Poor financial management within the HSE has been exacerbated by unrealistic budgetary assumptions and legislative delays within the Department of Health. Streams of income and savings identified by Dr Reilly in last year’s budget failed to materialise. And there are concerns that process might be repeated. There is a sense of drift, of things being half-done. An extension of GP care has stalled. The cost of medical insurance is rising. Risk equalisation legislation has not been published. The HSE Bill languishes in the Seanad. And there is no certainty that hospital consultants, as a group, will fully operate new work practices.
These ongoing difficulties provide no justification for the retention of outmoded Dáil practices. Having spent 14 years on the opposition benches, Ministers should know that public confidence in government cannot be divorced from effective, transparent and accountable administration. Having promised to introduce strict limits on Cabinet confidentiality, more effective oversight by Dáil committees, and the removal of constraints under the Freedom of Information Act, the Government has failed to deliver. Opposition parties have a responsibility to hold governments to account. The PAC attempted to expand its traditional remit and, without histrionics, it should be supported in that regard.