Friday 27 April 2018

PAC attack: Government moves to curb watchdog

Following the money: PAC chairman John McGuinness. Photo: Tom Burke
Following the money: PAC chairman John McGuinness. Photo: Tom Burke
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

THE Dail's spending watchdog is facing an unprecedented challenge to its authority after official complaints were made by Government TDs that it was acting outside its powers and impinging on the work of other committees.

The move was this weekend described by the chairman of the Dail's Public Accounts Committee (PAC), John McGuinness, as an attempt to "stop us from following the money" in inquiries into Rehab Group, the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC) and other bodies.

"There is an effort being made by Government to curtail the work of the PAC," he told the Sunday Independent.

Complaints were made about the PAC by Government chief whip Paul Kehoe and Oireachtas Health Committee chairman Jerry Buttimer.

Both Fine Gael TDs wrote to the Dail's rules body, the Committee on Privileges and Procedures (CPP), arguing that the PAC was duplicating the work of other committees.

This, in turn, led to a circular being issued by the rules body to Oireachtas committee chairs warning against committees straying outside their terms of reference.

It also said that where two committees were pursuing the same issue, a joint committee hearing should take place.

The move has been interpreted by members of the PAC as an effort to clip the wings of the committee and, in particular, its chairman. Although the PAC's official remit is to investigate bodies which are audited by the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG), under the chairmanship of Fianna Fail TD Mr McGuinness it has pushed these boundaries significantly.

A number of bodies in receipt of substantial public funding have been called before it, even though they are not audited by the C&AG, including the CRC, Rehab and Irish Water.

In the case of the CRC and Rehab, appearances at the committee were followed by a series of resignations and retirements. Mr McGuinness rejected the complaints made by Mr Kehoe and Mr Buttimer.

He said the PAC was "fulfilling its mandate to the letter of the law" and there was "no overlap with the work of other committees".

Mr McGuinness pointed to legislation introduced by the current Government in relation to Irish Water and Eirgrid, which put both bodies outside the remit of the C&AG and the PAC.

"Irish Water is going to have €11bn of Irish taxpayers' assets transferred into its ownership, yet the Government has excluded the PAC from auditing this body."

He also said the Government parties, who have a majority on the CPP Dail rules body, were getting in the way of its investigation of Rehab by refusing to allow the PAC to exercise powers to compel the charity's former chief executives Angela Kerins and Frank Flannery to give evidence.

PAC member and Independent TD Shane Ross said he could "detect the signs of a hidden hand moving fast against PAC investigations".

Mr Ross said: "The resistance to calling witnesses from Rehab and CRC is alarming and it would be insanity if we were frustrated or obstructed from bringing these investigations to a conclusion by vested interests. I detect no enthusiasm from either the Government or the civil service for bringing in certain witnesses."

Mr McGuinness's expansive approach has not gone down well with some Government ministers, most notably Pat Rabbitte, who complained last January that the PAC was sometimes duplicating the work of some other committees. More recently, Mr McGuinness was accused of "over-politicising" his role by Taoiseach Enda Kenny after he called for the resignations of HSE director general Tony O'Brien and Department of Health secretary general Ambrose McLoughlin.

Mr Buttimer stood over his criticism of the PAC, but denied it was an orchestrated Government move.

"In some cases, it is the view of members of other committees that the PAC is acting outside its remit and they are engaging in ambulance chasing," he told the Sunday Independent.

"There are some issues they have engaged in which are beyond their remit. We on the (health) committee were concerned about the activity of the PAC in regard to health- related matters such as the CRC, section 38 organisations and medical cards."

Sources close to Mr Kehoe, who as well as being Government chief whip is also a member of the CPP, said he also stood over his criticism of the committee.

Mr Kehoe's complaint was made after the rules body received legal advice that the PAC was operating outside its remit.

In recent weeks, Mr Ross and fellow PAC member Mary Lou McDonald complained that forces in Government were seeking to "nobble" the committee in its work, particularly in its pursuit of Ms Kerins and Mr Flannery. This issue has seen it at loggerheads with the CPP, which is chaired by the Ceann Comhairle, Fine Gael TD Sean Barrett, and predominantly made up of party whips.

The PAC is seeking powers to compel testimony from Ms Kerins and Mr Flannery, a former Fine Gael election strategist, about financial issues at the state-funded charity and commercial group.

Both have refused to appear, claiming the PAC is acting outside its powers.

The PAC is also seeking to compel evidence from former SIPTU official Matt Merrigan about an alleged foreign travel "slush fund" he administered.

However, the CPP has so far been reluctant to grant the requests for compellability powers, pointedly reminding the committee of its official remit.

Relations between the two committees hit a new low last week when Mr Barrett declined an informal request from Mr McGuinness for talks aimed at resolving the issue.

Sunday Independent

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