Friday 26 December 2014

Majority want more power for Public Accounts Committee

Huge support for giving committee legal clout to force people to appear before it, writes Daniel McConnell

Published 18/05/2014 | 02:30

Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll results
Sunday Independent/Millward Brown poll results

There is overwhelming public support to give the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) substantially greater powers to investigate and to make adverse findings against individuals.

The findings of today's Sunday Independent/MillwardBrown national opinion poll of 1,521 people, show that a huge majority, 77 per cent, support giving the PAC and other Oireachtas committees legal powers to force people to appear before them.

The large public support for greater powers comes amid the ongoing standoff between PAC and former Rehab CEOs Frank Flannery and Angela Kerins. Both Mr Flannery and Ms Kerins, despite having been requested to appear before the committee last month, declined to do so, arguing the committee is acting beyond its remit by seeking to investigate their pay and pensions.

The PAC is currently seeking permission to compel the two former bosses, who have resigned from their posts in the wake of the controversy surrounding Rehab, but it requires the permission of the Dail's Committee of Procedures and Privileges (CPP).

Just last Thursday, it emerged that Ms Kerins, through her solicitors, wrote to the Dail's spending watchdog claiming that it is acting outside its powers by seeking to have her compelled to appear before it.

In a strongly worded letter, lawyers acting for Ms Kerins also claimed PAC is "compromised" and "biased" against her.

PAC Chairman John McGuinness has since denied there is anything personal in their desire to hear from Ms Kerins or Mr Flannery, insisting they are only interested in finding out how taxpayers' money was spent. Rehab last year received more than €95.5m from the taxpayer.

The CPP is likely to decide on the matter in 10 days' time when the Dail resumes after the recess caused by this week's local and European elections.

However, of greater significance, is that a similar majority of the Irish people, 73 per cent, want committees like PAC and the pending Oireachtas Banking Inquiry to be allowed make adverse findings against individuals.

The public voted down such a proposal put to them by referendum in October 2011 following strong objections from seven former Attorneys General including Peter Sutherland and Michael McDowell.

They argued that politicians were not suitable to be given such powers and voters at that stage rejected the proposal by 53 per cent to 47 per cent.

However, today's poll shows a distinctly changed mood among the electorate, and the wave of support for the proposal now reflects strong public support for the work done by PAC.

The uncovering of the top-up payments scandal in voluntary hospitals and agencies, and the Central Remedial Clinic and Rehab scandals, which all came to light during PAC investigations, have caused a significant number of resignations and regime change at the various institutions since Christmas.

The poll findings clearly show the public welcomes this robust accountability and now favour greatly enhancing the powers of PAC and other leading committees.

Those most in favour of granting powers to PAC to make adverse findings against named individuals are the higher-educated professional classes, men and those over 45.

The poll findings come at a time of upheaval on the committee, with two key members departing it to take up their roles on the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry.

PAC Vice Chair Kieran O'Donnell and Eoghan Murphy, both Fine Gael TDs, have been nominated by the Government Chief Whip to represent the larger Coalition party on the nine-person inquiry, made up of seven TDs and two senators.

But in political circles, the removal of Mr O'Donnell and Mr Murphy, in particular, from the PAC by Fine Gael is seen as significant amid fresh claims that the Government is attempting to "nobble" the committee in its work.

The claims come as the PAC has begun in earnest to examine the spending of this Government rather than the historical spending of the previous Government, and there is concern the committee could cause embarrassment in its investigations.

Mr Murphy is a key member of the group of outspoken new TDs within Fine Gael, referred to as the Five-a-Side group, who have been a thorn in the side of Taoiseach Enda Kenny on several issues.

"Moving Murphy is a double winner for Kenny. It gets him off PAC where the potential to cause trouble for us is significant, and gets him onto the Banking Inquiry, where he will be examining Fianna Fail's mistakes," said one government figure.

Speaking yesterday to the Sunday Independent, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald, said it was clear "certain members of PAC have come under pressure" to do the Government's bidding in recent weeks.

"Let me be clear, any attempt to nobble the committee will not be tolerated. No clipping of our wings is acceptable and the public will take a very dim view of that," she said.

She added that on the doorsteps, the public were reacting strongly to the robust work of the PAC.

In recent weeks, the Government has sought to "undermine, gag and frustrate" the workings of the PAC, coalition members of the committee said.

The PAC, which is supposed to be non-political and non-partisan, is believed by many to have become politicised and, according to several members, "has been severely damaged" by the in-fighting.

Recently, the committee was dogged by controversy regarding the question of whether it was "acting beyond its remit" by hearing testimony from garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

Several government members of the committee said that it was their opinion that attempts were made to ensure the committee did not go ahead with the McCabe hearing last February.

The Sunday Independent confirmed that Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe made two phone calls to Fine Gael members of the PAC in relation to the whistleblower hearings, but he denied "seeking to interfere" in the committee's work.

"I was not interfering, they were personal comments," he said. When asked if he would reveal what those personal comments were, Mr Kehoe said he wouldn't, but said he was speaking "as if I wasn't in the Dail".

Among the names mentioned to replace Mr Murphy and Mr O'Donnell are Kenny loyalists Patrick O'Donovan, the Limerick TD, and Dara Murphy, the Cork North-Central TD.

Sunday Independent

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