Thursday 19 September 2019

Irish Water boss 'cannot be quizzed' by Dail spending watchdog

John Tierney of Irish Water
John Tierney of Irish Water
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

The chairman of the Dail’s spending watchdog has expressed concern at legal advice that it cannot quiz embattled Irish Water boss John Tierney.

Mr Tierney looks set to avoid being quizzed by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which has been told by its own legal advisors that it does not have the power to look into Irish Water or it's chief executive's involvement in another controversial project - despite the fact the committee took evidence from Mr Tierney earlier this year.

Mr Tierney has faced criticism of his leadership of the new utility company, which has been dogged by controversy over spending on consultants and an alleged bonus culture.

PAC chairman John McGuinness said earlier this week he planned to raise the issue of decisions made by

Mr Tierney when he was Dublin city manager in relation to the Poolbeg incinerator. The project, now under construction, has cost the taxpayer €108m to date.

However, a parliamentary legal advisor, Ramona Quinn, last night wrote to the committee objecting to any such move.

Mr McGuinness said today he was concerned at the advice, which was unsolicited and had not been sought by the committee.

“I believe firmly that Irish Water should come before the committee and I believe someone should answer for Poolbeg,” said Mr McGuinness.

However, the chairman said the committee had not scheduled a hearing with Irish Water and that the legal advice appeared to have “dropped out of the sky”.

“Quite frankly I find it ridiculous and a waste of money,” he said.

Mr McGuinness also claimed there was an effort by certain quarters to “stall” the work of the committee.

“I intend to defend the right of this committee to assert its independence,” he said.

The issue of the legal advice was raised at a meeting of the PAC this morning by Independent TD Shane Ross. He said he was “very alarmed” as no one on the committee had sought legal opinion on the matter.

In her letter, Ms Quinn said she would have grave concerns if the committee was to seek a hearing with Mr Tierney or Irish Water, stating it would be “unlawful”.

"At the outset, Irish Water falls outside the remit of the PAC and therefore, the PAC does not have the jurisdiction to question, inquire into or examine any such witnesses," she said.

"The voluntary attendance of any Irish Water witness will not remedy the obvious jurisdictional defect."

The legal advice comes as a major blow to the committee, which is currently facing a legal case over its treatment of former Rehab Group chief executive Angela Kerins, who claims the committee exceeded its remit in questioning her.

Ms Quinn pointed to Dail standing orders which require the PAC to confine its business to bodies examined by the Comptroller & Auditor General and reports laid before the Dail by him.

"Therefore, in the absence of any such report, any action by the PAC is ultra vires its powers. In this instance it is clear that there is no such report and it naturally follows that the proposed discussion/examination is unlawful," she wrote.

Ms Quinn added that the C&AG is precluded from inspecting and reporting upon the accounts of Bord Gais and its subsidiaries, which include Irish Water.

"It appears that the C&AG is unlikely to ever audit the accounts of Irish Water. Therefore, it is unlikely to ever fall within the remit of the PAC," she said.

"To add to this, the legislation provides that the Commission for Energy Regulation is accountable to another Oireachtas committee regarding certain aspects of the work of Irish Water.

"I cannot state emphatically enough that, in the absence of any C&AG report any investigation or consideration by the PAC of Irish Water or officials is unlawful."

Ms Quinn said the voluntary attendance of any witness would "not remedy the defect surrounding remit".

Mr Tierney appeared voluntarily before the PAC to discuss multi-million euro consultant contracts at Irish Water earlier this year.

He also appeared at the Oireachtas Environment Committee.

Mr Tierney served as Dublin City Council manager for more than seven years and had a direct input into decisions regarding the controversial incinerator plan at Poolbeg.

However, it now looks likely that any investigation of the project by the PAC will not include questioning of Mr Tierney, unless he expresses a wish to give evidence.

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