Thursday 14 December 2017

Civil servants on state boards now required to blow the whistle

Shane Phelan Investigative Correspondent

THE Government has formalised procedures requiring civil servants on state boards to become whistleblowers if they uncover wrongdoing, the Irish Independent has learned.

The move comes on the back of a number of major scandals uncovered over the past two years at state training agency FAS.

Successive government ministers were apparently unaware of serious problems at the agency despite the presence of up to five civil servants on the board.

Company law regulations had previously barred civil servants sitting on the boards of non-commercial state bodies such as FAS from disclosing certain matters to their department or minister.

But a new set of protocols issued by the Department of Finance removes any perceived legal impediments to civil servants reporting to their minister on issues of concern.

The new protocols were set out in a circular seen by the Irish Independent, which was issued by the Department of Finance in recent days.

It sets out a step-by-step procedure for bringing matters to the responsible minister's attention.

Bernard Allen, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which has been investigating the FAS scandals, said the measures were long overdue.

"I hope they bring about greater controls," he said. "There should be no impediment to ministers knowing if something is going wrong in a state organisation."

Under the new protocols, civil servants are instructed to take a much more robust approach when issues of concern arise.

They must now directly inform their minister without delay if:



  • Serious weaknesses in controls are not being addressed despite being drawn to the attention of the board.
  • There is significant strategic or reputational risk to the body.
  • There are serious concerns of possible illegality or fraud.


The previous board of FAS stepped down en-masse earlier this year after investigations by the Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley revealed millions of euro in taxpayers' money was wasted through out-of-control spending.

The agency was also embroiled in scandals over extravagant spending on foreign travel and breaches of procurement rules.

The board faced widespread criticism for not spotting some irregularities earlier.

In their defence, a number of board members said they were not made aware of certain problems by FAS executives.

Overspending

This contention was supported in a report by Mr Buckley, which outlined how executives were aware of overspending but this information was not given to the FAS board.

Almost €2.5m worth of contracts were entered into by FAS without prior board approval between 2005 and 2008.

Senior FAS executives broke the rules at least nine times between 2005 and 2008 by signing off on lucrative contracts without first consulting the state training agency's board.

The projects included a television advertisement made at a cost of €612,000 that has never been used.

Some 12 contracts, worth a combined total of €2.3m, were also entered into without a proper tender process in the same period.

The new slimmed-down FAS board contains just one civil servant, Dermot Curran, an assistant secretary at the Department of Enterprise.

Irish Independent

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