Top civil servant to appear before PAC on President’s office spending

Comptroller and Auditor General to also attend and make opening remarks

Secretary-general to the Government Martin Fraser queried the timing of the PAC meeting.

Secretary-general to the Government Martin Fraser queried the timing of the PAC meeting.

 

The State’s top civil servant, Martin Fraser, will appear before a Dáil committee for its controversial examination of spending in the President’s office despite querying its standing and constitutionality.

Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman Seán Fleming has said he expects Mr Fraser, secretary-general to the Government, to attend its meeting on Tuesday.

“We have issued the invitation to him. As chairman I understand that Martin Fraser is coming,” said Mr Fleming.

“The Comptroller and Auditor General [Séamus McCarthy] has also confirmed that he will attend and make opening remarks.”

The decision by the PAC to begin an examination of spending in the President’s office on the eve of the election campaign officially starting has drawn criticism from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and also from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, a party colleague of Mr Fleming’s.

Mr Fraser’s responsibilities include being accounting officer for the President’s office. In a letter to the committee, he argued the proposal appeared to be unconstitutional and to undermine the principle of the political impartiality of the Civil Service.

He noted in particular article 13.8.1 of the Constitution, which states the President is not answerable to either house of the Oireachtas or to any court for the exercise and performance of the powers and functions of his office.

He also queried its timing: “I cannot accept your suggestions that the campaign period has not yet started,” he wrote. “It is absolutely clear that a campaign for the office of the presidency is fully under way.”

However, the committee rejected the arguments and announced it would examine the matter on Tuesday, the eve of closing days for nominations.

Mr Fleming was insistent the examination would not continue beyond Tuesday, otherwise it would interfere with the election campaign. He also said he would ensure the inquiry related to the spending of the office and he would tolerate no questions that impacted on President Michael D Higgins personally.

Timing

Mr Fleming also defended the timing of the examination against criticism from Mr Varadkar and Mr Martin that the committee had seven years to conduct such an inquiry but waited until an election campaign had effectively started.

“The PAC has a set agenda but it also looks into current issues relating to public spending when they are brought to our attention, such as Templemore training college, CervicalCheck and Project Eagle.

“A number of people raised the matter during the summer of the costs of the presidential office. Last Thursday was the first opportunity we had to discuss it as a committee and we decided to hold the examination before the campaign officially launched,” he said.

He added that if the committee had decided to withhold it there would have been claims it was not disclosing public information in a timely fashion, which could have had more negative connotations.

There are mixed views among presidential candidates about the PAC move. Gavin Duffy said he did not “think it unreasonable” for the PAC to request some light to be shed on such spending.

“It should not be clouded in apparent secrecy or made difficult to extract because of the various budget streams involved,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Senator Joan Freeman said she did not believe it should be carried out now with an election campaign starting. Seán Gallagher said: “I believe that it would be inappropriate to comment on the work of the PAC.”