Direct provision firms ‘not penalised for poor care’
PAC hears how State’s contracts with private firms do not set performance measures
Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy’s report said that even though there was a low level of complaints by residents, information from other sources suggests there is a significant level of dissatisfaction. Photograph: David Sleator
Private companies hired to manage direct provision centres are not being penalised for underperforming or failing to provide adequate services to asylum seekers, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) heard on Thursday.
The state’s Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy said there was an increased risk that the lack of set standards for private contractors running accommodation centres could lead to those living in direct provision receiving poor quality care or services.
Mr McCarthy pointed out that catering and maintenance services were provided by private companies at 28 of the 35 direct provision centres, with the State running the remaining seven.
Following an audit of the arrangement between the State and the private firms, Mr McCarthy found that “contracts did not set performance measures and there was limited provision for penalties for underperformance by suppliers”.
The 28 agreements between the Department of Justice and the private firms, worth €5 million, were not agreed in line with value-for-money procurement processes.
The Department of Justice had not publicly advertised the contracts to run any of the direct provision centres competitively, and instead sought expressions of interest to run the centres from various specific contractors.
Absence of targets
The lack of a competitive process for the contracts led to the absence of set targets or standards “in a way that could be quantified or measured”, Mr McCarthy said.
“This increased the risk that standards of accommodation and services would not meet asylum seekers’ needs, or would be inconsistent between centres.”
The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report stated that “even though there was a low level of complaints by residents, information from other sources suggests there is a significant level of dissatisfaction from residents about the quality of the accommodation and or the services provided” in direct provision centres.
Secretary general of the Department of Justice Noel Waters said the “system is not perfect by any means, and we are continually seeking to improve it”.
“If this system was not in place, these already vulnerable people would join the long waiting lists for social housing or enter the private rental market with little hope of finding affordable accommodation,” Mr Waters told the committee.
The PAC also heard that the Department of Justice had lost €3.9 million renting and renovating a property that could not be used due to planning permission complications. It was reported in 2012 that €2 million had been spent renovating a property on Wolfe Tone Street in Dublin 1 by the Probation Service, but it did not have the required planning permission to be used as intended by the State agency.
The final bill, including legal costs incurred since 2012, was revealed on Thursday to be €3.9 million. Mr Waters said “a very significant sum of money has been spent on this failed project on behalf of the taxpayer. I greatly regret that”.
“Ultimately when the Department and the Probation Service engaged on this, they relied on legal advice and the advice of the chief State Solicitor who indicated it was in order to sign the lease on the basis the planning permission was in order,” Mr Waters said.
When it emerged that the planning permission was not in place to allow the building be used by the Probation Service Mr Waters said the Department of Justice entered into a legal dispute with both the leaseholder and the planning architect who provided the initial advice.
“That process went ahead and ultimately it led to a situation in which our legal advice was that if it had gone to a full court hearing, we would have lost. We were left with a situation in which we could risk further taxpayer money going to court, or get out of it,” Mr Waters said.
The issue was not brought to court and the department terminated the lease on the property.