‘Blank cheque’ for funding of State inquiries, PAC chair claims

Committee says more should be done to predict and control public spending

 Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness outside Leinster House. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee John McGuinness outside Leinster House. File photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

The chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has warned of signs of a “blank cheque” for funding of forthcoming State inquiries despite the financial legacy of the tribunal era.

Addressing recent requests for an extension in the duration of the Fennelly Commission to investigate Garda recordings of telephone conversations, and the potential eight-year life span of the commission of inquiry into the sale of assets by the IBRC, the PAC said more could be done to predict and control public spending.

Robert Watt, secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, who was before the committee on Thursday, conceded that, while estimates were carried out by the Department of Finance in relation to the IBRC inquiry, nobody had envisaged its timescale.

Committee chair John McGuinness said it was of serious concern that both inquiries were being entered into without any reasonable method of forecasting the financial consequences.

“I caution against the decision to have what would seem to be a blank cheque in both cases, because that’s what we’re looking at here,” he said.

“I am cautioning your department and the policy-makers in relation to this because it would seem that we are going down the same old road that we have travelled before without learning anything.”

In relation to the IBRC inquiry, Fine Gael TD and PAC vice-chairman John Deasy said that “everybody was amazed by that eight-year kind of projection and it seems to me that in that initial analysis that wasn’t known”.

In response, Mr Watt told the committee: “I can’t recall exactly what the proposal was at the time but I don’t think anyone envisaged it would take eight years.

“There is long, long history of inquiries and tribunals which have taken longer and cost the State an awful lot more than was anticipated.”

Mr Watt said of his own department: “You can be pretty sure of what our position is: open-ended liability to the State; don’t like the sound of that.”

Public sector

The issue of recruitment problems in the public sector was also raised by the committee, which noted that the private sector is offering better incentives to attract staff, particularly in the areas of information and communications technology (ICT) and senior management roles.

Mr Watt said the civil service was now in a position to recruit again, and while it did not envisage a return to 2007 levels, some areas were proving difficult to maintain.

“We can’t compete with the private sector when it comes to pay for senior people and people don’t want to take onboard public roles where they have to deal with the PAC and other committees, and they don’t like the treatment meted out by the media on a regular basis,” he said.

“The pay is too low and the risks are too great.”

Mr McGuinness countered that if potential candidates for senior management roles were concerned about public criticism, “given the fact that some of them would have been in control of billions of euros of spending on behalf of the taxpayer, then I suggest we are better off without them”.

Some concerns were also raised by the committee in the area of public procurement and State bodies not always complying with open, competitive tendering processes.

Mr McGuinness named An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service, the Courts Services and the Department of Social Protection as examples of those who have not always been in compliance.

In particular, he pointed to the HSE, which, he said, had 32 cases of procurement in 2012 outside of competitive guidelines; 116 in 2013 and 299 in 2014.

However, he said that the committee heard that the rising number of cases was actually an indication of the agency’s efforts to identify the extent of the issue and deal with it.

Mr Watt said that while there were numerous examples of non-compliance, public bodies had a high rate of compliance with procurement policy in the overall context.

Elsewhere, the committee heard the introduction of a scheme to combat sick leave in the public sector had netted an additional 260,000 work days last year, with resulting productivity worth about €51.5 million.