Little evidence of lessons learned

 

PETTY CORRUPTION and gross inefficiency cannot be tolerated. Details of financial waste and worse are contained in the annual report of Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley. The bulk of the failures identified preceded the collapse of the State’s finances, but there is little evidence to show that necessary lessons have been learned. Practices declared unacceptable in earlier reports have recurred. The Government must act.

The whole point of value-for-money audits is to alert the authorities to inappropriate and wasteful spending or ineffective revenue-raising and to encourage remedial action. Casual, profligate behaviour by Government departments and State agencies has become so ingrained, however, that nobody appears willing to take control.

For the ordinary taxpayer, insult was heaped on injury by the disclosure that the Department of Finance paid more than €33 million to consultants for legal and other advice on the banking crisis, without asking for itemised bills. At a time when a large slice of the State’s spending has to be borrowed and small businesses are struggling, such a cavalier attitude is unacceptable. For years, recommendations have been gathering dust on the desk of the Minister for Justice that would automatically require the production of itemised bills by the legal profession. But nothing has been done. In the Department of Health, medical consultants were found to be in breach of their public contracts by devoting too much time to the care of private patients. But not a penny has been repaid to the State. At the same time, consultants referred public patients to the National Treatment Purchase Fund and then treated them privately.

What can only be regarded as government slush-money, designed to sweeten trade union and other social partnership interests during the boom years, continues to generate scandal. Funds were funnelled from the Health Service Executive into training and “goodwill” programmes that breached financial and procurement rules. Elsewhere, with unemployment at low levels, private training courses were charged for but not held. And Fás continues to be a source of scandal because of purchasing and other activities.

Two years ago, the CAG criticised the manner in which the Garda Síochána purchased its official cars and the prison service awarded supply contracts. Not much has changed. Last year, no tenders were invited by the prison service for contracts worth €22 million while the Garda Síochána continued to source fuel and tyres in an inappropriate fashion.

As in previous years, the CAG reported that one-third of self-employed people under-declared the amount of money they owed the Revenue. Large numbers of previously non-compliant taxpayers are continuing to offend. Fines and penalties have clearly failed to reduce the incidence of tax evasion by a hard core within this sector. A tougher approach may have to be considered if they are to contribute their fair share to a recovery programme.