TDs accuse 'contemptuous' civil servants of stonewalling tactics
In scenes reminiscent of 'Yes Minister', State officials are dodging PAC questions, writes Daniel McConnell
Published 24/03/2013 | 05:00
AN almighty war has broken out it seems between the Government and the Dail's most powerful committee, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Members of the PAC feel that far from delivering the openness and transparency promised before the last election, the Government and some top officials are frustrating the PAC from asking awkward questions about how the State is being run.
The PAC is the main forum for detailed and rigorous scrutiny of how taxpayers' money is being spent and, more importantly, misspent – a vital role at present, given how weak the current opposition is in the Dail.
The committee feels administration officials continually treat the committee with "suspicion and contempt" and bog it down with bureaucracy.
Last Thursday, the most senior officials from the Department of Justice and the Chief State Solicitor's Office appeared before the PAC to answer questions on a special report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) Seamus McCarthy into a botched planning project that saw €2m of taxpayers' money wasted.
The report revealed how a 25-year lease was acquired for a probation services project that can't be used because there was no planning permission for the building in Dublin's Wolfe Tone Street.
But, amid testy exchanges with the committee, rather than deal with the special investigation report – as is their constitutional obligation – the officials refused to engage on the issue.
Department of Justice secretary general Brian Purcell and Eileen Creedon, of the Chief State's Solicitor's Office, sought to invoke a standing order preventing the PAC from asking questions on how the money was squandered.
The officials insisted that because of ongoing legal proceedings they couldn't discuss the issue.
They drew the PAC's attention to the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act 1997 that severely restricts the inquisitorial powers of committees. They said they had no problem with answering the committee's questions, but it was a matter of timing.
However, it has emerged that full legal proceedings had only been started by the department just 24 hours before the PAC hearing.
This has led to accusations in some quarters that the legal action was a cynical attempt to avoid being asked embarrassing questions about the debacle.
"I saw Thursday as an attempt to frustrate and stall the work of the PAC," committee chairman John McGuinness said.
Government TD Paschal Donohoe said the events of Thursday were "disappointing" but it was his opinion that what happened did not amount to a stonewalling of the PAC.
"We have a vital role, but I don't want to be responsible for prejudicing a court case," he said.
However, a number of Mr Donohoe's government colleagues on the committee disagreed with his assessment and agreed with Mr McGuinness.
At the hearing, Mr McGuinness insisted his legal advice was that the inquiry into the planning mess could continue, but still the officials insisted they could not discuss the detail until the case concludes.
Mr Purcell and Ms Creedon even refused to allow the hearing to go into private session – a move that angered several committee members including Labour's Derek Nolan.
"What is the point in continuing when my first question, which was legitimate, wasn't answered," Mr Nolan said in frustration.
Looking at last Thursday's events in isolation, one could argue that erring on the side of caution was the prudent thing to do.
However, it was not an isolated incident as officials from other departments have also invoked the same standing order – thus rendering the committee powerless to pursue matters of public interest.
Last year, the PAC was stopped by Environment Minister Phil Hogan from its investigation into the involvement of the Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA) in the purchase of the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend because of its possible impact on a separate legal battle on the acquisition.
For the first time ever, Mr Hogan invoked a standing order preventing the committee from "enquiring further in public session into matters connected with the special report".
Several members of the committee condemned the move, saying it set a dangerous precedent in curtailing the powers of the committee.
The C&AG had revealed significant shortcomings in the DDDA's financial management, planning function and management of board business.
It was particularly critical of the DDDA's role as part of a consortium that bought the glass bottle site for €431m in 2007. Most of that investment has been written off and the site is now worth €45m.
Mr Hogan, in his letter, ordered the halting of the inquiry until legal proceedings concluded. Mr McGuinness said the committee itself would have decided to stand down until the case concluded and the intervention from the minister was "unnecessary and ominous".
Fine Gael TD Eoghan Murphy said that he feared the use of standing orders could set a dangerous precedent in stopping the PAC from holding the State to account.
"It is worrying, certainly, that these interventions could set a precedent which have the effect of stopping the PAC from doing the work it is meant to do, on behalf of the taxpayer," Mr Murphy added.
Also of major concern to the PAC has been the perceived "stonewalling" of the committee by senior officials from the Department of Health and the HSE.
This was best typified by the refusal of senior officials Ambrose McLoughlin and Tony O'Brien on October 10 last year to engage with the PAC on concerns about budget overruns.
Mr McLoughlin and Mr O'Brien insisted the PAC had gone beyond its terms of reference in seeking answers on current issues, when the rules state it can only deal with the C&AG's report into spending in previous years.
Fianna Fail's Sean Fleming stormed out of the meeting, having branded Mr O'Brien "a disgrace" and called on him and Mr McLoughlin to resign.
"The HSE continues to come before the committee and stonewall us," Simon Harris, a Fine Gael TD, said.
"The PAC is viewed by some officials with suspicion and contempt.
"But we are only worried about the public purse and proper accountability. Many of the things we are looking at are legacy issues, and the Yes Minister-esque engagement is not good enough," Mr Harris added.
Another strong criticism from the PAC is the failure by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin to progress the holding of a full inquiry into the banking crash.
This is despite the extensive work done by the PAC last year in producing a comprehensive report into how such an inquiry could take place.
Last year, Mr McGuinness suggested a coterie of senior civil servants were trying to "nobble" the holding of such an inquiry.
Mr Howlin has insisted that legislation on a banking inquiry is due shortly but this has done little to alleviate the frustration of the PAC.
Mr McGuinness said: "I still feel senior officials are trying to frustrate a proper inquiry into the banking collapse.
"There are clearly efforts afoot to stall the work of the PAC."
He added: "The PAC could start that work immediately. But officials are unwilling to co-operate with us or even with the C&AG.
"When you take all of these matters together, it is a slap in the face to the taxpayer, and a slap in the face of transparency."
The lack of progress is clearly a subject of deep frustration for the PAC.
Mr Murphy said he was "incredibly frustrated" at the lack of progress on the banking inquiry.
"It is incredibly frustrating given the work we put in.
"This Government has been in office for two years and there is about six months of preparatory work to be done before such an inquiry happens. The delay is unacceptable."
Mr Harris added: "We have been frustrated on the banking inquiry. We did a comprehensive report, that was a year ago but still we have nothing.
"We laid out the road map. We gave a commitment in the Programme for Government, and in our manifesto and it needs to happen now."
Members are also united in their criticism of Mr Howlin and Mr Hogan over their refusal to bring the annual €5bn local government spending and the €1.9bn voluntary health sector spend under the remit of the C&AG and the PAC.
"Taken with the Dublin Docklands intervention last year, the lack of progress on a banking inquiry, the Poolbeg project which Eoghan Murphy has been strong on and the refusal to allow us examine local government, and the voluntary hospitals, it is clear the reform agenda is dead," Mr McGuinness said.
"We should be looking at local government particularly now that millions of euro in property tax money will be flowing to them," Mr Donohoe said.
Such is the pressure that several government TDs who sit on the PAC have spoken of the criticism they received from senior party ministers over their persistent questioning of senior officials over the misspending of taxpayers' money.
"We have been branded as renegades, and come under huge pressure from our own ministers for asking legitimate questions on government spending, which is our mandate as members of the PAC," one government TD said.