Department accused of sponsoring 'slush fund'

 

THE DEPARTMENT of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation has been accused of sponsoring what appeared to be a “slush fund” of €167 million for a skills programme administered by Fás, the national training and employment authority.

Labour TD Róisín Shortall said most of the members of the Fás subcommittee which operated the Competency Development Programme were associated with social partnership bodies which benefited from the funds.

“I have the impression that this was a slush fund,” she told the Dáil Committee of Public Accounts at Leinster House yesterday, because it had “all the appearances of a slush fund”.

Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley told the committee the programme operated by Fás had cost €126 million up to 2008.

Secretary general of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Seán Gorman said the development programme was set up to meet the need for upskilling of the workforce. In the period 2004-08, a total of 123,000 people had been trained under the programme.

He told Ms Shortall that the programme was “100 per cent” funded by the exchequer but the State was eligible for a partial “clawback” from the European Social Fund which was expected to be “about €44 million” for the period 2000-06, subject to approval by Brussels. A further claim was being lodged for the period 2007-13.

Mr Gorman said the department had asked Fás to submit training proposals. The scheme was administered by a subcommittee of the Fás board which included a department representative.

Noting that only half of the courses were subject to monitoring visits, Ms Shortall observed: “It was all fairly casual.”

She pointed out that a “value for money” report by the department on the programme had been “first mooted in 2005” but was not published until mid-2010. The fact that it took five years raised “serious questions”.

Mr Gorman agreed that “it took an inordinate amount of time” but there had been difficulties over access to records.

She asked why principal officer Pat Hayden had resigned as chairman of the review group preparing the report.

Mr Gorman said Mr Hayden had resigned “out of frustration with the process”. But improvements were being made in the programme while the report was in preparation.

Committee chairman Bernard Allen TD (Fine Gael) suggested there was “an attempt to bury the report because of embarrassment”. Mr Gorman said that “at no stage” was there any intent of burying the report.