Arts Council deviated from protocol over office move, whistleblower claims

Protected disclosure says agency breached financial guidelines on property acquisition

 Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan: the Arts Council must seek her consent to dispose of or acquire property and “the council has not applied for such consent”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan: the Arts Council must seek her consent to dispose of or acquire property and “the council has not applied for such consent”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Concerns have been raised that the Arts Council did not follow Government financial guidelines when it made a business case for moving to a new premises.

The issue arose after a protected disclosure was made to Sinn Féin culture spokesman Aengus Ó Snodaigh in which the unnamed whistleblower alleged a breach of the procurement/purchasing guidelines issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

The whistleblower claimed the council’s proposal could end up costing the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of euro in additional expenses and millions in the longer term.

Mr Ó Snodaigh passed the disclosure on to Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, who said the council must seek her consent to dispose of or acquire property and “the council has not applied for such consent”.

She added that the agency considered itself to be fully compliant with its obligations on property acquisition and disposal.

The protected disclosure revealed that rent in the new premises could be up to 30 per cent higher than at the council’s current location on Merrion Square in Dublin 2 and that it would have to pay the current landlord compensation to end its lease, which has another six years to run.

Cheaper option

The Arts Council, which promotes the arts in Ireland and disburses government funding, leases number 70 Merrion Square and also rents some of number 69. Discussions were held with the landlord at 69 Merrion Square about carrying out renovations to make the Georgian building accessible for disabled people coming from the car park at the rear of the building.

The whistleblower claimed this option would cost substantially less than moving to the newer building and criticised an atypical buy-out clause which allows for the purchase of the new building at a later date, which would increase the cost to the State if the agency is already in place.

Arts Council chairman Prof Kevin Rafter said “the department is aware of our property position. Should the council proceed to purchase a property in the future, all guidelines – purchasing and otherwise – will be followed, as is normal Arts Council practice.”

Advanced stage

However, Mr Ó Snodaigh expressed concern that negotiations are at such an advanced stage that he believe leases on the new building are being drawn up.

He said this was happening when the position of director of the Arts Council had just been advertised to succeed Orlaith McBride, who has been appointed director of the National Archives.

When the issue was raised in the Dáil, the Minister said: “I understand that a business case was presented to the Arts Council in September following a discussion with the department in August.”

Ms Madigan did not state whether the business case complied with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform requirements for a multi-step process with weighted scoring for each element of the procurement. But she was confident the council would comply with all requirements.

The Arts Council said in a statement that it was “committed to being located in an accessible and environmentally friendly premises, which offers proper working conditions for its staff and visitors.

“The Arts Council has always taken seriously its responsibility with public monies and has done so in every respect with these matters related to its location.”