Civil servant distances himself from controversial appointment to State housing agency

Secretary general of Department of Housing says he had ‘no involvement’ in appointment of Tom Enright

One of the country’s highest-ranking civil servants has distanced himself from a controversial appointment to a State housing agency that oversees billions of euro in funding for home-building.

Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien disclosed last month that Wexford County Council chief executive Tom Enright will join the board of the Housing Finance Agency.

Earlier this year an investigation by the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) found Mr Enright put “unwarranted pressure” on a radio station by threatening to pull advertising over its coverage of the council.

During fiery exchanges at the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee, Independent TD Verona Murphy repeatedly asked Graham Doyle, secretary general of the Department of Housing, whether he was involved in the board appointment.

While a minister would “on occasion” ask his secretary general for an opinion on an appointment, “it didn’t happen in this case”, Mr Doyle said.

“I had no personal involvement in it.”

Under questioning from Ms Murphy, Mr Doyle said “of course” he respected Sipo and its findings, but said its findings “do not prevent someone from continuing to hold a role or hold a role in future”.

Ms Murphy’s assertion that Sipo made “damning findings” in its investigation was her own “particular viewpoint”, added Mr Doyle. The Wexford TD accused Mr Doyle of “waffling” and refusing to answer her questions.

Mr Doyle said Sipo makes its findings and it was then up to any particular local authority whether it takes action over them or not. In the case of Mr Enright, Wexford County Council did not, he added.

Sipo only investigates 3 per cent of complaints made to it, Ms Murphy said. For a complaint to be investigated it must be a “serious allegation”.

It was a case of someone “in the very prominent position of a chief executive over a county who has been investigated, while in his position, and has faced no repercussions”, she added.

Despite “a very damning finding” the Minister for Housing “in effect rewarded” Mr Enright by appointing him “to a board that oversees a budget of €5 billion”.

“What does that say to the public? What message are we trying to give out here?” she asked Mr Doyle.

James O’Connor, Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East, said there was an overall “shocking” lack of accountability at the most senior level in local authorities throughout Ireland.

“The dynamic of the relationship between a county councillor and chief executives of local authorities does not allow open accountability,” he said. Any conflict between an elected representative and a chief executive “will make that councillor’s life very difficult”, he added.

“The majority of Oireachtas members who have been on local authorities will tell you that... it is not a nice place to be,” said Mr O’Connor.

“Once in the role of chief executive you are almost politically infallible, unquestionable. Nobody is in a position, without consequence, to properly question those individuals.”

It is something Mr Doyle “needs to take on board”, he added.

Mr O’Connor said the local authority system in Ireland is “wholly unfit for purpose”, not working as currently set up, lacking oversight and there are no disciplinary procedures in place when “something goes wrong”.

Sipo found Mr Enright had failed to ensure that he did not bring Wexford County Council’s integrity into disrepute by “letting his standards slip”. There had been three serious contraventions of the Local Government Act, it ruled.

Two emails from Mr Enright to South East Radio amounted to “putting pressure on the station to alter their broadcasting practices by threatening to withdraw funding from the station”, Sipo found.

Furthermore, he misused the council’s position by “throwing around the weight” of the council’s purse, the standards watchdog said.

The committee also heard rent arrears in local Government houses around the country have soared to almost €95 million.

A senior official in the Department of Housing said the latest figures for 2020 showed a hike in uncollected rents from €88.2 million the previous year — a jump of 7 per cent.

Sinead O’Gorman told the Public Accounts Committee there were variations among the country’s 31 local authorities in their practices and performance at collecting rents from tenants.

But where “large differences” appear, the department has “no role” in taking any action against poorly performing councils other than to advise them to talk to other councils which are faring better, she told TDs.

“Where there is high performance in local authorities, we ask others to engage with those and to try to apply best practice themselves.”

Fine Gael’s Jennifer Carroll MacNeill described the arrears as “large sums” and warned of “insufficient control” in central Government to oversee individual local authorities.