Official in contact with PAC clerk to clarify remit


THE GOVERNMENT has rejected claims of interference in the work of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) made by its chairman, Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness.

Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe confirmed last night that an official from his office had contacted the clerk of the PAC in advance of Tuesday’s stormy meeting to discuss the committee’s remit.

He denied, however, that this contact could be interpreted as interference in the work of the PAC as claimed by Mr McGuinness and his party colleague Seán Fleming, who walked out of the meeting.

“There was no attempt to prevent the PAC doing its work. Concern was simply expressed that the PAC should not exceed its remit by cross-examining officials about Government policy or current spending by the Department of Health,” said Mr Kehoe.

“As John McGuinness well knows, the PAC is the watchdog on Government spending but standing orders specify its remit as dealing with past expenditure and not current expenditure,” said Mr Kehoe.

He added that it was the health committee’s job to look at current spending by the department, and that point was conveyed to the clerk of the PAC.

Mr McGuinness yesterday accused the Department of Health and officials of the Health Service Executive of interfering in the workings of the PAC.

He said that days before the PAC meeting unnamed officials “attempted to shape the committee” in a way that would have stonewalled TDs in their efforts to get information.

Mr McGuinness said that in his many years as a member of the PAC and subsequently its chair he had never come across such behaviour. “I would say that the engagement by officials with officials from the committee was nothing short of interference in the committee and therefore interference in democracy and it is something I will further examine.”

The PAC meeting was called to investigate spending and cost overruns in the health service.

Following opening statements from the Department of Health’s secretary general Ambrose McLoughlin and HSE chief executive Tony O’Brien, Fianna Fáil’s Mr Fleming walked out, telling them they were not fit for office.

Mr McGuinness said it was entirely appropriate for the PAC to request information on the total overrun in the HSE budget, to examine those figures, and to request action on the overall amount, a move which he said was not policy-related.

Minister for Health James Reilly yesterday defended his officials and rejected the charge that they had engaged in “stonewalling” the committee.

He said Mr McLoughlin and Mr O’Brien were excellent civil servants who had acted within the limitations of their remit before the committee. The committee’s role was to examine how public money had been spent and it had no role in relation to policy. There was “nothing remotely disgraceful” about public servants acting within the remit of their job.