Tuesday 6 December 2016

Review: Wasters by Shane Ross and Nick Webb

Penguin, €17.54

Published 17/10/2010 | 05:00

Shane Ross and Nick Webb begin their story sipping coffee in the Insomnia Café in Baggot Street across the road from FAS headquarters as they await access to the file room and the treasure trove of information on executive travel, expenses, invoices and contracts they requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

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Thanks to their good journalism, the whole corporate edifice of FAS was torn down, leading to the resignation of the director general, the opening up of the books within the organisation and its current long-overdue reformation.

What follows is a catalogue of waste, scandal, cronyism and patronage that permeated state bodies, government departments and semi-state companies during the boom years and perhaps still does. The book forensically examines scandalous waste, mismanagement and patronage in FAS, the HSE, CIE, the DDDA and quangos spawned by the social partnership industry and the insiders who control them. The best is kept until last when we are treated to an A to Z of waste from the sports campus in Abbotstown that was never built to the Asgard II Yacht that sank to the bottom of the Bay of Biscay.

Chapter by chapter, Ross and Webb detail vast overspending on infrastructure, extravagant use of overpriced consultants, the proliferation of quangos, jobs for the boys and the culture of junkets during the years in which the state's coffers were overflowing. The authors do not tot it all up but the waste and overspending runs into the billions, enough to bail out a small bank or, more usefully, exempt frontline health services from further cuts had the waste been avoided.

There are a number of interesting vignettes and anecdotes. One of the most amusing is a story about Bertie's unshakable commitment to his Saturday morning constituency canvass. Seemingly, on one occasion the former Taoiseach was so keen to make the canvass that he arranged to meet the Finnish prime minister at 7.30am in Helsinki airport, cutting the meeting short after only 45 minutes so he would have time to make it back to Dublin Airport, where his state car was waiting to bring him to Griffith Avenue and his waiting canvass team. He was gobsmacked to find that none of his party workers had turned up that morning, assuming the then President of the European Council would have more pressing engagements that day. Other stories are not so entertaining and are more disgusting, not least the €9,000 Cartier watches given to five departing directors of Aer Rianta, a company that subsequently carried its culture of extravagance from boardroom perks into the Terminal II project. We are also reminded of the €9,200 Toyota Yaris that was raffled by FAS at a jobs fair but subsequently went missing. It still has not been located. We know what happened to Rody Molloy's Audi A6. He still has it.

As someone who used to work in the health service, I was bemused to read about the dispute between SIPTU and Mallow General Hospital, which tried to improve hygiene by replacing hospital curtains at least once every six months. SIPTU argued that there would have to be more staff, overtime payments and additional insurance before they would allow their members to take the job on. The Labour Court even heard the case. The authors recount a similar dispute about whether non-electricians should be allowed to change bedside light bulbs in another hospital. The authors recount how the HSE's lack of accounting and spending controls was exposed in a letter to Charlie Flanagan TD when they admitted to not knowing how much they had spent on crutches before 2007.

Ross and Webb dedicate a whole chapter to the social partnership industry and how it evolved from a relatively tight bargaining arrangement between unions, big employers and government that was limited in scope into a monster industry, spinning off quangos and extending its tentacles into almost all areas of public life. They pay particular attention to the relatively small number of union bosses and business organisation representatives who ended up on almost every committee and board in the state, and even some in the European Union. They served on the board of the Central Bank, the boards of FAS, Aer Lingus, the ESB and the European Economic and Social Committee. The same names crop up again and again, and in some cases whole new organisations were tailor-made for them to chair or manage.

It is remarkable now to see so many of these same people protesting outside the gates of Leinster House when they were all very much on the inside when the government and its agencies were making the catastrophic errors that have brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy. The authors are scathing of the benchmarking process which was supposed to give us better and modernised public services in return for pay increases but actually ended up costing us over €10bn for little or no return. They point out how the five Performance Verification Groups set up to ensure reforms were delivered were packed with interested parties certain to give the green light to pay increases. Representatives of patients, students and other users were kept well out. Indeed, one of the major flaws in the Croke Park Agreement is that the implementation body set up to enforce it is dominated by representatives of union and senior management with no space allowed for users or taxpayers.

Evenas someone who is involved in politics and follows public money very closely, I was surprised to learn that the spouses of ministers travelling abroad actually get subsistence payments in addition to those paid their ministerial spouse. I also knew nothing about Eurofound, the €21m European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, which is a European quango based here in Ireland with staff costs consuming almost half of its budget.

On the downside, most of the information is not new and you are reminded of stories you have already read or heard about much more often than you come across something new. The outraged and cynical tone is in tune with the zeitgeist but it does lack balance and perspective. The HSE, FAS and semi-states are not all bad and some things have changed for the better -- for example, the appointment of a new FAS board stripped of the vested interests and a more transparent system of appointing people to state boards that has been tested for the Broadcasting Authority and TG4. There is little acknowledgement of the many public bodies that have been subjected to freedom of information requests for years but have proven relatively scandal-free despite numerous probes, such as the IDA. Remarkably, the Dail and Seanad get off relatively easily, which makes a change, with the focus put on ministerial travel rather than the expenses of ordinary Oireachtas members. Perhaps the fact that one of the authors is a senator explains this. However, the Oireachtas already gets more than its fair share of negative attention for a body that accounts for only 0.2 per cent of public spending so the fact that it is not up there in lights as the worst offender is refreshing.

By the time you have finished the book, you are only sorry FAS does not run anger management courses. Ross and Webb have done the state some service in writing Wasters. It is essential reading for anyone interested in politics, current affairs or public administration. It will poison the ears of the vested interests that have suckled at the taxpayers' teat for far too long and that, in itself, will make a difference.

Sunday Independent

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