Department ‘spent €2m on building it never used’

Chief State Solicitor declines to discuss details of case, citing new legal action

Brian Purcell director general, Irish Prison Service. He appeared yesterday with Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon before the Public Accounts Committee, declining to answer questions on issues at the centre of the dispute.  Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Brian Purcell director general, Irish Prison Service. He appeared yesterday with Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon before the Public Accounts Committee, declining to answer questions on issues at the centre of the dispute. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

 

The Department of Justice has begun legal proceedings after it spent €2 million renting and refurbishing a building to house a Probation Service project before learning the building did not have the necessary planning permissions to be used for the intended purpose.

The dispute with the landlord and receiver of the property in Dublin city centre has been ongoing since 2011 though the legal proceedings were not commenced until Wednesday, the day before members of the Public Accounts Committee were due to question senior justice officials on the matter.

Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell and Chief State Solicitor Eileen Creedon yesterday appeared before the committee, declining to answer questions on issues at the centre of the dispute. They cited legal reasons for their approach.

Committee chairman John McGuinness TD (FF) told Mr Purcell that based on the cases he was familiar with over the past decade, the Department of Justice’s record on managing buildings was poor.

“To be quite frank, there is a history of loose management,” he said.

The committee heard the Probation Service in 2006 began to seek new accommodation for its “bridge project”, which deals with adult offenders in the community.

In 2008 accommodation was leased on Wolfe Tone St in Dublin’s north inner city for €300,000 per year. The lease was negotiated with the landlord by the Chief State Solicitor on behalf of the Department of Justice.

However, in March 2010 Dublin City Council warned the Bridge Project that commercial-use planning permission granted for the building in 2001 had expired. It meant the department would have been required to apply for planning permission, which would have been difficult to secure given the level of local opposition to locating an offenders’ project in the area.

The department later stopped paying the rent on the building, but not before some €2 million had been spent on rent and refurbishment even though the building was never used by the Bridge Project.

In another case discussed yesterday, it also emerged the Department of Justice wrote off some €2.8 million it spent on a facility for the office of the State Pathologist and the Dublin City Mortuary in Marino, north Dublin.

The construction project was halted when the development company McNamara went into receivership. The partially built facility has since been demolished.

On the issue of asylum seekers, Paschal Donohoe TD (FG) was told by Mr Purcell he did not know how long it took, on average, for applications to be processed. Mr Donohoe told Mr Purcell he should have had that information for the committee.

Derek Nolan TD (Lab) told Mr Purcell he was using the same wording – such as “efficient” and “humane” – to describe centres housing asylum seekers that people had used when describing the Magdalene laundries when they were still operating. He believed when people looked back on the current era they would view the system of direct provision for asylum seekers in a similar way. Mr Purcell rejected the comparison.

However, committee chairman Mr McGuinness said he agreed the system of direct provision was very damaging to the people trapped into it for years while they waited, often in despair, for a letter that would tell them if they could stay in Ireland or faced deportation.