Thursday 18 January 2018

Training fund paid for trips abroad by officials

Anne-Marie Walsh Industry Correspondent

GOVERNMENT and union officials went on foreign trips paid for out of a €2.35m training fund for low-skilled workers -- but the trips had little to do with the purpose for which the money had been intended.

The HSE channelled funding from an overall training budget of €60m into an account called the 'SIPTU National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund'. That fund was intended for the so-called SKILL programme, which was set up to train low-skilled workers.

But the state spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), found that some of more than 31 visits to far-flung destinations were "not integral" to the SKILL programme. It did not name officials who went on the trips.

It is not known who signed off on the decision to allocate the fund to SIPTU. The Department of Health and Children could not clarify whether the minister or the secretary-general approved the payments.

The revelation emerged in the annual report of the C&AG, which uncovered wasteful spending across the public sector. In a damning verdict on the study trips, the C&AG said: "Their only connection (with the training programme) is the fact that the costs were met out of funding provided out of the SKILL budget."

The C&AG also found:

  • A separate fund of €876,000 was paid into the same SIPTU account for distribution to other unions.
  • A member of the group overseeing the SKILL programme was paid €72,873 for consultancy services that were not tendered for.
  • A HSE internal audit reported that members of the SKILL steering group travelled to the US, Australia and Hong Kong, but the programme's financial records did not record any travel, hotel or expenditure in relation to the trips.
  • Only a small group of members of the SKILL Steering Group were aware of, and participated in, these study visits.
  • Officials from the Department of Health and Children who were not members of the steering group also travelled on visits.
  • A Department of Finance official, who was a member of the steering group, made an expenses claim, at official public service 'conference' rates, for a visit to Savannah in Georgia. The purpose of the trip made no reference to SKILL but was described as 'health partnership/local partnership'.
  • The 'study' visits were organised by a SIPTU official, but expenses were not supported by documentation.

Officials from the departments of health and finance and union officials travelled on the study trips between 2004 and 2009. Some of them even brought their partners.


Nine HSE-funded trips were taken to New York and 16 to the UK. There were also individual trips to Australia, Los Angeles, Boston, Savannah and Brussels. Another visit took in LA, Australia and Hong Kong.

The Irish Independent previously revealed that SIPTU's former national industry secretary, Matt Merrigan, was a signatory to the account called the 'SIPTU National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund'.

However, the C&AG said SIPTU had told the HSE the account was not an authorised account of the union.

The union's general-president Jack O'Connor has insisted that the union did not get any of the money.

The union last night insisted that it did not receive any of the funds allocated by the HSE and said its national trustees and external advisors immediately began an investigation when SIPTU was first informed of the HSE audit.

It added: "The report by the national trustees will be completed in the coming weeks and SIPTU will then be in a position to respond comprehensively to the issues in the C&AG report."

Irish Independent

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