Martina Devlin: CRC farce exposed in dramatic fashion
Published 12/12/2013 | 23:32
Blood and rubble covered the floor in a Leinster House committee room yesterday when a relatively innocuous question detonated -- exposing a financial arrangement referred to as farcical, crazy and bonkers.
It was an accurate description of the set-up. And the fact that such an illogical situation still exists between two bodies which rely on the State for funding only heightens the parody.
The landmine blew up at the tail end of a Public Accounts Committee meeting, when Independent TD Shane Ross elicited the information that the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) writes a cheque for €666,000 to the Mater Public Hospital to administer a dummy pension fund.
A once-off? If only. This has been happening every year for at least a decade.
Rarely has Oireachtas TV been so compelling. It was like a soap opera cliffhanger -- especially when chairperson John McGuinness told dazed committee members they'd have to wait until next week for further exposés. The clock was against them.
Except soap operas tend to be self-financing, whereas the CRC depends on the State for 85pc of its funding, and on charity donations for the rest. The Mater in Dublin also relies on the Exchequer to be able to function. So while viewers can laugh off improbable stories in the soap universe, when something equally bizarre is served up in an Oireachtas setting it's a great deal more serious.
Jaws dropped left, right and centre -- you could almost hear the clatter -- as former CRC chief executive Paul Kiely said he had challenged the "ridiculous" payment to the Mater and had been kicked out of the hospital board for his trouble.
"I always questioned it but I always paid it for the past 10 years," he said.
He was told this was simply the way it had to be -- the stock answer in Irish life when anything is probed.
He took legal advice and was advised to pay up to the ghost fund even though there was no benefit to CRC staff, let alone to the disabled people for whom its services are intended.
It took committee members several moments to recover from their shock. By and by, Mr Ross rallied. "I am sure people watching consider this an absolute farce," he managed, when he had his breath back. With bells on, deputy.
But when he suggested the cash would be better spent on services, Mr Kiely clarified that it was just "money going round the houses". The Health Service Executive (HSE) had to make it up to the CRC.
Except money doesn't just grow legs and waddle back and forth between organisations all on its own. It takes members of staff to authorise transfers and to oversee them -- employees who could be assigned to other duties.
In life, the trick always is knowing the right questions to ask, and this information might never have seen the light of day if Mr Ross hadn't put the query right at the end of a session lasting more than five hours. People almost had their coats on, ready to leave, when he posed it.
Just as they were recovering, Mr Kiely landed another one on committee members. "I was told we weren't the only organisation that they were doing this to," he said.
Extraordinary, what comes crawling out from beneath stones once they're lifted. Next week's session should be fascinating.
What a classic PAC meeting it proved to be. It's a joy to see a Dail committee working efficiently. Members of the public spending watchdog were focused and vigilant as they demanded accountability over funds spent by the CRC. Especially in relation to salary top-ups from charity donations.
There was a lot of wriggling in seats as the questions rained down. And while CRC board members were the main group under fire, the HSE picked up some collateral damage for failure to oversee expenditure properly.
Other farcical, crazy and bonkers elements also emerged during the hearing. For example, those words could be applied to the odd decision by the CRC board to stay in situ. They ought to have resigned en masse for their behaviour in bringing that organisation, on which so many depend, into disrepute. And for presiding over a situation where charity fundraising in general is suffering during the key Christmas period.
Directors serve on this board pro bono. But that doesn't excuse them of the responsibility to either do the job properly, or step aside.
Finally, to an exchange at the fringes between Mr McGuinness and one of the directors, solicitor David Martin. The PAC chairman paused proceedings for 15 minutes, saying they'd keep going afterwards until 3pm.
Mr Martin's face fell, and Mr McGuinness tackled him about it.
Mr Martin said he had clients to meet, but would try and rearrange appointments. Rather unfortunately, he used the phrase "move the deckchairs around".
Because listening to the account the CRC gave of itself before politicians was similar to watching a shipwreck in slow motion.
However, people with disabilities are the ones who will pay the price for this debacle, not that inept and arrogant board which saw no reason why it should be held accountable for more than €16m of public funding a year.