Thursday, 3 March 1994
Dáil Éireann Debate
130. (1) As soon as may be following the reassembly of the Dáil subsequent to a General Election there shall be appointed a Select Committee, to be known as the Committee of Public Accounts, to examine and report to the Dáil upon:
(a) the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the Dáil to meet the public expenditure and such other accounts as they see fit (not being accounts of persons included in the Second Schedule of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act, 1993) which are audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and presented to the Dáil, together with any reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General thereon:
(b) every report which the Committee proposes to make shall, on adoption by the Committee, be laid before the Dáil forthwith whereupon the Committee shall be empowered to print and publish such report together with such related documents as it thinks fit; and
(3) The Committee shall refrain from inquiring into in public session, or publishing, confidential information regarding the activities and plans of a Government department or office, or of a body which is subject to audit, examination or inspection by the Comptroller and Auditor General, if so requested either by a member of the Government, or the body concerned. The Committee shall also refrain from inquiring into the merits of a policy or policies of the Government, a Minister of the Government or equivalent Office holder, or the merits of the objectives of such policies.
(4) The Committee may, without prejudice to the independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General in determining the work to be carried out by his Office or the manner in which it is carried out, in private communication, make such suggestions to the Comptroller and Auditor General regarding that work as they see fit.
(5) The Committee shall consist of twelve members, none of whom shall be a member of the Government or a Minister of State, and four of whom shall constitute a quorum. The Committee shall otherwise be constituted according to the provisions of Standing Orders 70 and 73, and so as to be  impartially representative of the Dáil.'.”
I wish to refer to the amendment to the motion tabled by Deputies John Bruton and Ivan Yates, which seeks to have a value for money audit carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Value for money audits may be carried out by the Comptroller and Auditor General in accordance with the provisions of section 9 of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act, 1993.
The first part of this section provides that the Comptroller and Auditor General may carry out such examinations as he considers appropriate for the purposes of ascertaining — (a) whether and to what extent the resources of a Department (i) have been used, and (ii) if acquired or disposed of by the Department... have been so acquired or disposed of economically and efficiently, and (b) whether any such disposal has been effected upon the most favourable terms reasonably obtainable.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), the systems, procedures and practices employed by the Department or person concerned or the manager of the fund concerned for the purpose of enabling the Department or person or the manager of the fund to evaluate the effectiveness of its or his operations may be examined by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
(3) Without prejudice to the generality of subsections (1) and (2), the Comptroller and Auditor General may, in carrying out examinations under this section, make such comparisons, including comparisons of systerms, procedures and practices, as he considers appropriate.
(4) Where the Comptroller and Auditor General proposes to make any examination under this section, he may, at his discretion, seek the views of the committee of Dáil Éireann established under the Standing Orders of Dáil Éireann to examine and report  to Dáil Éireann on the appropriation accounts.
Clearly, the type of value for money audit envisaged in the amendment does not come within the terms of the relevant section of the 1993 Act. That section covers examinations of economy and efficiency in the use of resources and in the acquisition and disposal of resources; it also covers the possible examination of systems, procedures and practices employed in a Department for evaluating the effectiveness of its operations. It clearly does not cover an examination of Government plans or policies. In fact, the Act specifically excludes the Comptroller and Auditor General from questioning or expressing an opinion on the merits of policies or of policy objectives. The effect of this amendment would be to draw the Comptroller and Auditor General into the area of policy and political controversy which would be totally unacceptable. Therefore the amendment must be opposed.
With regard to Deputy Jim Mitchell's proposals to amend paragraph (3) of the terms of reference, the effect of the first part of this amendment would be to prevent a non-commercial State body, or one of the other bodies subject to audit, inspection or examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General, from protecting its interest by restricting the publication of confidential information concerning its activities and plans. This does not exclude the Committee of Public Accounts from dealing with such matters in private session. When one considers that the bodies in question are being made directly answerable, under statute, for their performance it seems unreasonable not to give them the same protection as a Minister or Government Department. Therefore I cannot accept this proposal.
The second part of the amendment relates to an attempt to involve the Committee of Public Accounts in policy matters. This would represent a breach of the long standing tradition that Minister answer to this House in policy terms, not to the Committee of Public Accounts.
 These new terms of reference are made necessary as a result of the additional functions given to the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Act of the Oireachtas which extended his functions specifically excludes him from the policy area, as I have already said. Thus there are no grounds for making this change as a consequence of the statutory changes. Accordingly I shall be opposing the amendment.
The motion itself is for the purpose of amending Standing Order 130 which deals with the terms of reference of the Committee of Public Accounts. These terms of reference have to be brought up to date because of the expansion of the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General following the enactment last year of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act. In the White Paper on the Role of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which preceded that legislation, the Government undertook to propose revised terms of reference.
Before dealing with the substance of the motion before the House it is appropriate to record the appreciation of the Government and this House for the outstanding work carried out by the Committee of Public Accounts. Indeed as a former member, and having had experience of the working of that committee, it has to be said that it is one of the committees of this House which has done an excellent job. The committee is a crucial link in the chain of public accountability for the use of taxpayers' money. Successive committees have been very diligent and conscientious in carrying out the functions assigned to them. The new terms of reference will greatly enhance their role. I am sure they will not be found wanting in meeting the new demands made on them.
The Comptroller and Auditor General, in accordance with Article 33 of the Constitution, reports to this House at stated periods as determined by law. Standing Orders assign responsibility for considering his reports to the Public Accounts Committee which, in turn, reports to the Dáil. Heretofore, the  Comptroller and Auditor General's reports were mainly concerned with matters arising from his statutory audit of the appropriation accounts, the revenue accounts and central fund services.
The functions of the Public Accounts Committee as laid down at present are “to examine and report to the Dáil upon the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the Dáil to meet the public expenditure, and to suggest alterations and improvements in the form of the Estimates submitted to the Dáil”. The appropriation accounts are, in effect, the annual accounts of Government Departments. The committee examines these accounts in detail and, in the course of its examination of each of them, calls the responsible accounting officer to attend for the purpose of giving any explanations which members require in relation to the account and any matters raised in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. Thus, the role of the Public Accounts Committee is to act as watchdog in relation to the public expenditure approved by the Dáil, as accounted for by the accounting officer for each Vote and as audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
While it is intended that the traditional role of the Public Accounts Committee will continue, its terms of reference need to be expanded to cope with the new statutory functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The existing Standing Order restricts the Public Accounts Committee to examining the departmental appropriation accounts. This is no longer adequate because the wider terms of reference of the Comptroller and Auditor General now cover the financial transactions of health boards, vocational education committees, non-commercial State bodies and certain other bodies, mainly in the education and cultural areas, which are largely dependent on public funding. The accounts of all these bodies will now fall to be examined by the Public Accounts Committee. Furthermore, the Comptroller and Auditor General now has the discretionary power of inspecting and reporting on the accounts, books and  records of commercial harbour authorities, the regional tourism organisations and any other body, other than a commercial State body or a local authority, which received 50 per cent or more of its gross receipts directly from the Exchequer.
In addition to extending the Comptroller and Auditor General's audit to bodies other than the Government Departments and offices, the audit process itself has also been broadened. Traditionally, the emphasis of the process has been on regularity and compliance — the principal concern was whether accurate and detailed records of expenditure were kept and whether moneys spent were used for the purposes for which they were voted and did not exceed the limits set by the Oireachtas. While these objectives will remain and will always be important, the audit process in the public sector internationally has been developing into new areas, notably into the area of “value for money” auditing and this has been written into the new legislation.
In addition to assigning extra powers and functions to the Comptroller and Auditor General, the new legislation provides for the first time a comprehensive statutory basis for the duties of accounting officers. The act obliges an accounting officer, whenever he is so required, to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee on the regularity and propriety of the transactions recorded in his accounts, on the economy and efficiency of his Department in the use of its resources and on the systems, procedures and practices employed by the Department for the purposes of evaluating the effectiveness of its operations. All these duties reflect the range of functions assigned by the Act to the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Up to last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports on the public accounts were presented annually to the Dáil, in accordance with statutory requirements. The new legislation provides for the presentation of reports as they are ready rather than submitting them annually in bulk. The proposed  terms of reference provide at paragraph 2 for such reports being referred automatically and without delay to the committee, whose own reports, in turn, can be published without the need for further motion of the Dáil. Given the increased volume of reporting which will take place under the new system, it is essential to speed up the process of getting reports to the Public Accounts Committee and from the committee to the Dáil and the public.
Paragraph 2 (a) repeats the terms of the existing terms of reference in regard to the committee's power to send for persons, papers and records. This raises the question of the power of the committee to compel the attendance of witnesses and the production of documents and the degree of privilege to be accorded to evidence so furnished to the committee. This is a general issue which can and does affect other committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Programme for a Partnership Government contains a commitment to introduce legislation to cover these matters and I am glad to inform the House that such legislation is being drafted at present and will be introduced at the earliest possible date.
Paragraph 4 deals with the relationship between the committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General. This was debated during the passage of the legislation through the Dáil and it was agreed that, because of the constitutional autonomy of the Comptroller and Auditor General, he cannot be given directions in regard to his work programme. The Public Accounts Committee, however, is being given the right to communicate privately to the Comptroller and Auditor General from time to time its views relating to the work to be carried out by his office. I know there is a good relationship between them.
(a) to request the Comptroller and Auditor General to carry out an immediate value for money audit of a revised schedule of payments under the National Development Plan in light of the reduced money now available and the overriding necessity of ensuring that the choice, priority and timing of projects under this Plan provide the maximum long term benefit to the Irish people and
I propose to share my time with Deputy Jim Mitchell who will deal with Standing Order 130 in detail. The Opposition is frustrated about this matter. Day in, day out we sought every device open to us to have a debate on what is being discussed today with the EU Commission and officials from the Department of Finance, namely, the revisions necessary to the national plan because of the shortfall of at least £800 million.
Mr. Yates: It presupposed transfers of £8 billion. Ten days later we knew the figure was £7.2 billion at best. It may be lower because of the poor quality of the plan. We need transparency and the  Government should not hide and dodge the issue.
Mr. Yates: It has refused a debate in Government time. As a result we have no choice but to bring the matter forward to Private Members' Time next week and we will publish a motion in that regard tomorrow. It is disgraceful that we spent three days debating the national plan but could not spend one day of Government time debating the necessary revisions. We will not press our amendment in view of the Private Members' Motion but I very much regret the Government's attitude in this regard.
Mr. J. Mitchell: I welcome the terms of reference for the Committee on Public Accounts as announced by the Government Chief Whip. However, it is clear that he misunderstands the purpose of my amendment. I wish to praise the members of my committee who give a lot of time and expertise to it and who deserve recognition. It is also important to recognise the extremely good job done by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Mr. McDonnell and his staff service the committee and the State with great expertise and it is a pleasure to work with them. In tabling my amendment I fully accept that the committee has no role in policy matters and, as chairman, I have consistently ruled out any attempt to query policy. Paragraph (3) of the proposed terms of reference not only give the right to a Minister of the Government to direct or request the committee not to discuss a confidential matter in public — that is acceptable — but it also gives the same power to officers in semi-State bodies or other quangos which is not acceptable. If a quango or a State body feels that something is so confidential they should be able to persuade their own Minister who would then make the request to the committee. Paragraph (3), as drafted, is very loose and would undermine the central role of the Comptroller and Auditor General Act, 1993, and the central purpose  of the terms of reference before the House. Will the Minister not accept that while the Government can request confidentiality that should not be handed down to any other person?
The terms of reference refer to the merits of a policy or policies of the Government or a Minister of the Government. I presume there is no difference between a policy of a Minister and the policy of the Government. That is the reason I propose that the words “a Minister of the Government” be deleted. My principal concern is that the Minister and the Government would agree to delete the words “or the body concerned” and also the words “or equivalent Office holder”. If this is not done there could be various attempts to deflect the committee from proper consideration of the bodies under its remit and the public accounts could be the poorer for it.
The Minister said he expects the new legislation on compellability and privilege of witnesses to come before the House in the near future. That promise has been made on a number of occasions during past years. This legislation was promised before Christmas, later we were promised it would be published during the Christmas recess and now we are told it is at an urgent stage of drafting. This is very important legislation. That part of the terms of reference which state that the committee shall have the power to send for persons, papers and records is an empty formula. It is a paper tiger unless we have the compellability and privilege of witnesses legislation.
The House will be aware that when the Committee of Public Accounts summoned the Governor of the Central Bank he refused to attend and there was nothing we could do about it. Many of the points he had made would have been supported by evidence given to the committe previously. He had made an important speech alleging widespread fraud in a significant area of public expenditure in social welfare. Yet, he refused to come before the very committee established by this House, whose principal role is to prevent fraud in the public finances.  I absolutely condemn the Governor of the Central Bank for his refusal to appear before the committee. I realise he is an independent person. However, such independence ought not to be confused with a lack of accountablity to Parliament. If the Governor of the Central Bank has evidence which suggests widespread fraud in any area of public expenditure he has a duty to come before the Committee of Public Accounts and give that evidence. Our duty is to pursue fearlessly and impartially any area of fraud or inefficiency in the public finances.
Can the Minister of State give the House an assurance that the new legislation will come before the House in a matter of weeks rather than months and will be enacted before the summer recess? The absence of such legislation is thwarting the effectiveness of the committee.
These terms of reference update the role of the committee and are a great help. Even though, at times, the Department of Finance has been criticised by the committee we have got the best of co-operation from them. The attitude in the Department of Finance is extremely positive. Since my time in Government I note much improvement in the overall approach, expertise, knowledge and positiveness of the Department of Finance.
I am concerned that the terms of reference do not give specific power to the committee to examine up to date matters, for instance, scandals that may arise in this year's accounts; they do not exclude such issues but neither do they specify them. The terms of reference should provide that if there should be a scandal in any area of public expenditure in respect of either last year's accounts or this year's accounts before the Comptroller and Auditor General has reported to the committee, that should not preclude the committee, where it is in the public interest to do so from investigating such matters urgently. Otherwise, as often happens, we are investigating cases that have dimmed into the distant past. Public accountability, effectiveness and  efficiency in public expenditure are not helped by the passage of time.
In the light of what I said I hope the Minister will accept my amendment. I accept that the Committee of Public Accounts has no role in policy but I hope the Minister of State can give an assurance that the compellability and privilege of witnesses legislation will be enacted before the summer recess.
Mr. O'Malley: I welcome the proposal to adopt this new Standing Order in subsititution for the old Standing Order 130. It is necessary, as the Minister of State has said, because of the enactment of the new Comptroller and Auditor General Act, 1993, and it is also necessary to take account of changing circumstances and the wider duties of the comptroller and, accordingly, the duties of the committee.
Recently I became a member of the Committee of Public Accounts. I find the work extremely interesting though it is more onerous than that of any other committee of the House. If you are to do the work properly it requires a great deal of reading and preparation. The function the committee performs — if it does its duties properly, as I believe it does — is very valuable. In the absence of such a committee I hate to think what would go on. Indeed, notwithstanding the committee, I shudder at what is going on but it would probably go on to the power of five if the committee did not exist. The fact that the committee is there and performs its function well is a guarantee for the public.
I support the proposed amendment by the chairman, Deputy Mitchell. I do not understand where the difficulty is. To have what is described as “the body concerned” able to prevent the committee from publishing a report in relation to it is entirely wrong. The whole point is that you publish the report regardless of whether the body concerned wants it. For the body concerned to say, where widespread fraud is taking place, they do not want any information supplied is not good enough. It is perfectly in order for a Minister to make a request that certain confidential information may not form part of a report, even though sometimes that may make a report meaningless. I  can see why that should be necessary but I do not see why “the body concerned”, which in time will probably be construed as covering virtually anything and everyone, should have that power. I do not like the phrase “or equivalent Office holder”. There is no equivalent of a member of the Government. The Minister of State is not the equivalent. Who is this phrase supposed to include? Is it supposed to include, for example, the Attorney General?
Mr. O'Malley: If it includes the Attorney General should it not include a bank manager or somebody else? It was almost at random that I picked out the Office of the Attorney General and the Minister of State nodded his head in agreement.
Mr. O'Malley: We could spend some time debating that point as they are quite different offices. The functions of the Ombudsman are certainly not akin to the functions of a Government Minister. His function is to look at public administration in Departments and this is something akin to the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Our Attorney General tends to be treated as some sort of sacred cow, entirely immune from mention. I recall an exchange in the Chamber a week or two ago when Deputy Harney was stopped in her efforts to refer to the office of President — which again seems a bit unreal — and began to refer to the Attorney General. She was told that the Office of Attorney General is as untouchable as the office of the President.
It is interesting to contrast the way officialdom wish the Attorney General to be treated in this House with the way the UK Attorney General is treated. The UK Attorney General is under very severe criticism for his conduct of the affairs being looked into by the Scott inquiry. I would have thought that the degree of  culpability of the holder of that office in the UK was a great deal less than the degree of culpability of our office holder in a series of incidents and events. It is almost impossible to refer to him in this Chamber. He is, in fact, a political appointee holding a political rather than a judicial office.
In the past Attorneys General have been Members of this House and probably will be in the future. It seems very unreal to treat the Attorney General as if he were a judge or the President. Should the phrase “or equivalent Office holder” cover a great many people it will give them an immunity to which they are not entitled. It is a way of trying to avoid normal proper public criticism of office holders who are not carrying out their duties as they should and who should be subject to questioning. It is wrong not to be able to do so and for that reason I think the phrase “or equivalent Office holder” should be removed, as the chairman of the committee suggested.
The committee is hamstrung by the continued absence of legislation empowering it to compel witnesses to attend. Some people who should have attended have refused to do so and I know that other committees have had such results. In recent months An Post wrote to a committee simply saying representatives would not attend. An Post snubbed the Oireachtas, although it took enough money from it for many years. We had the greatest difficulty also with Aer Lingus and representatives of that company would not attend until everything was signed, sealed and delivered. We have had a similar problem with Telecom Éireann as well as with a number of other organisations. In one of the inquiries the Committee of Public Accounts is conducting a former chairman and a former chief executive of a body whose activities were very properly being looked into by the Committee of Public Accounts simply refused to attend and made no apology. Without the power of compellability in respect of persons and papers this committee and others is somewhat hamstrung.
Last February the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance said that legislation  was agreed in principle and promised that as soon as it was drafted it would be introduced in the House. A year has passed and we still have not this Bill. We are entitled to know when it will be produced. These committees are very ineffective without these powers. It is not in the public interest that they should be unnecessarily ineffective in this way.
Mr. Rabbitte: I have been fortunate to be a member of the Committee of Public Accounts since 1989. All that has been said about it today is true. I note that the former chairman, Deputy Gay Mitchell is in the Chamber and I compliment him on the enormous amount of work we got through under his chairmanship. It is proper that we are taking steps to reconstruct the Standing Order in the wake of the recent Bill passed by the House on the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Giving statutory basis to value for money audits is one of the most innovative and worthwhile decisions that have been taken. Up to now the Comptroller and Auditor General could conduct a value for money audit but had no statutory basis for doing so. Notwithstanding that it was immensely useful, for example he carried out a value for money audit on the efficacy of the BES scheme which highlighted serious issues while observing the sometimes narrow line between policy and the areas within the remit of the constitutional office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is only one such case. Obviously, for reasons of staffing and presumably because it was not on a statutory footing, it was not used as widely as it might. Under the new arrangements there is no reason that this should be the case.
It certainly will be a great deal less onerous on the taxpayer to use this mechanism to inquire into certain matters rather than other methods to which we have been forced to resort. The Comptroller and Auditor General could examine whether moneys were expended for the purposes for which they were voted but it is a major step forward to put this on a statutory basis. It is an important contribution to public policy.
Both Deputies Jim Mitchell — the  chairman — and O'Malley referred to the long promised legislation on privilege and compellability of witnesses. I would not be as optimistic as Deputy Jim Mitchell but that is probably because I am more naive. The Minister of State, Deputy Dempsey, is the Government Chief Whip and he is in a position to tell us with reasonable certitude when the legislation will be ready. We have not seen the tenor of the Bill but it is true that it was promised by previous Governments. Its absence undermines the efficacy of the committee. For example, on occasions in the past it would have been not only desirable but necessary that the Minister concerned would be brought before the committee to assist the committee with its inquiries.
Because of tradition and precedent this has not proved possible. Whatever about Ministers, there is no reason the power to send for papers, persons and so on should not be underpinned by legislation. We should be able to compel the person to whom Deputy O'Malley referred to attend the committee. In finalising a matter this morning relevant persons were not amenable to the committee although their examination was central to its inquiries.
The remit of the committee is being broadened to include health boards, vocational education committees and non-commercial State bodies. This is an important development. Recently a virtue was made out of the fact that a large proportion of the proceeds from the tax amnesty were used to clear the historical debt of the health boards. While this is welcome, for obvious reasons, serious questions must be asked as to how this historical debt was accumulated. It is valuable that the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General will include the health boards, vocational education committees and so on.
Without underlining the arguments by Deputy Mitchell and Deputy O'Malley in support of Deputy Mitchell's amendments, I welcome them as they make sense. I am especially concerned about the phrase “or the body concerned” as this could seriously threaten the good work of the committee.
The public recognise that the work of  the Committee of Public Accounts is of immense value, the report published each year by the Comptroller and Auditor General would never be ventilated in public were it not for the assiduous work of the Committee of Public Accounts. We are now moving a step further. Can the Minister of State tell us when we may expect the legislation dealing with the questions of privilege and compellability?
Mr. G. Mitchell: I am grateful to the Deputy for sharing his time with me. I am a former chairperson of the Committee of Public Accounts and have undertaken a study of its work; no other committee of the House should be considered more important. This extends to the status and remuneration of the chairperson of the committee and I do not say this for any fraternal reasons. The torch has been passed to someone from another generation.
Mr. G. Mitchell: The Government does not have any money; it is the function of Parliament to approve the spending of taxpayers' money. In this context there is accountability to Parliament through the Committee of Public Accounts which is the most important committee of the House. We should never lose sight of this fact.
I would like to refer to the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Minister for Finance can only draw down funds from the Exchequer account with the prior approval of the Comptroller and Auditor General who will only grant approval on the authority of the Oireachtas. This is a good safeguard.
There is one exception to this rule, national lottery funding, which is not lodged to the Exchequer account. There is a need to review the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General in relation to the way these funds are drawn down. Any weakness will have to be addressed either in legislation or in a convention to prevent a Government Department drawing down funds without the prior approval of Parliament as certified  by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
We must address the question of contempt. On one occasion the Committee of Public Accounts cited a witness for contempt. He was sentenced in the High Court but this was quashed on appeal — he received good constitutional advice — on the grounds that the sentence was not specified; in other words, in theory any length of sentence could have been imposed and he may have been entitled to a jury trial. The Committee of Public Accounts established an advisory group and sought the opinion of senior counsel, which it attached to its report, on how the question of contempt and the compellability of witnesses should be addressed.
There will be a temptation for some civil servants to advise the Government that it should not extend the provisions relating to the compellability of witnesses to include the Committee of Public Accounts because usually the accounting officer attends at the committee. I strongly advise the Minister of State not to accept their advice. The Committee of Public Accounts should be entitled to compel witnesses to attend if it deems fit.
Mr. Broughan: On behalf of the Government back benchers who are members of the Committee of Public Accounts, I warmly welcome the new Standing Order 130 under which new powers are being given to the Comptroller and Auditor General. I am proud to be a member of that committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Jim Mitchell. I wish him well in the forthcoming European elections and hope that the Committee of Public Accounts will not lose his services if he is successful.
I agree that this committee should always be recognised as the premier committee of the House. For the past 70 years it has played a praiseworthy and noteworthy role in examining the ways in which the taxpayers' money has been spent.
Deputy Yates's remarks about the amount we will receive in European funding were nonsense. We are confident that the sum of £7.2 billion will be forthcoming  for the National Development Plan. When the chairperson of the Committee of Public Accounts invited Ireland's member of the Court of Auditors, Richie Ryan, a former Minister for Finance and outstanding Member of this House, to attend he raised the question of European funding and identified an anomaly in the system as, very often, we do not know exactly where this money is spent.
During our discussion I made the point that during the period of the National Development Plan approximately £4 billion will be transferred to Brussels and that very often we do not know exactly where the taxpayers' money is spent in Europe. People tend to forget, when they see cartoons in which politicians are depicted carrying a begging bowl, that we make a contribution to Brussels, even though we are net beneficiaries.
I welcome the extension of Standing Order 130. A welcome new development is that we are not looking just to see that money was actually spent, the amount that was spent and the way it was spent but will be examining in detail economy, efficiency, effectiveness, evaluation systems, procedures and practices. I thank the Department of Finance for the support it has given the committee by appointing a senior official to it and for giving us a very interesting briefing during the year, including examples given to us by the Secretary, Mr. Cromien, of how other countries conduct their appropriation accounts. I found the document relating to New Zealand particularly interesting. Unlike ourselves and most countries which operate a simple cash in, cash out system, the New Zealanders have established a system whereby the country values all its assets in the manner of a large public corporation. That is a road down which we could go with profit.
On the question of compellability and privilege, I applaud the Minister for telling us that we will have the necessary legislation and we will actually be able to send for persons, papers and records. Against that, the Committee of Public Accounts is not televised and we, as back-benchers, find that a drawback in that we are there for two or three hours every Thursday morning, examining accounts  line by line. We often make interesting comments, I think, and those comments cannot be reported on television. On the question of privilege and compellability, the sooner the legislation is in place the better, because it will allow for transparency and allow people to see their oldest and most famous Dáil committee at work.
I want to deal with research and backup. We arrive at committee meetings having received a fair amount of documentation but often, because of the sheer volume of the work that must be undertaken, there are not enough facilities for research and back up. The secretarial staff do an excellent job but research facilities need to be much more professional to enable us to focus on the key issues under discussion on a particular day. I accept the Minister's comments on policy matters. These are outside the remit of the committee. However, recently we examined issues like the Kilrush Marina, one of the Aer Lingus companies, the collection of fines etc. and it seemed necessary that we should at least be able to make recommendations to the Comptroller and Auditor General and that he should take those up.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mr. Dempsey): I thank all the Deputies who contributed to this short debate. I joint with Deputy Mitchell, the chairman, in his praise of the committee. As a former member of that committee I join with those who have praised him and his predecessor for their work as chairmen. On behalf of officials of the Department of Finance who cannot speak in the House, I thank the Members who have been generous in their praise of the approach of the Department of Finance to this measure.
I cannot accept Deputy Mitchell's amendment removing protection from people in non-commercial State bodies because I believe everybody should be treated equally and should get equal protection under the legislation and the  Standing Order. It is only fair to allow the body concerned to judge whether confidential information given to the committee would be likely to damage its interests if published. That is not to say that information should not be forthcoming in private session; it is the public session that I am concerned with.
I am prepared to accept the proposal to delete the words “or equivalent Office holder” from the Standing Order. The Deputy will accept that a Minister of Government and the Government are not the same in legislative terms. A question was raised as to who an equivalent officeholder might be and it was suggested that it would be, for example, the Ceann Comhairle, the Ombudsman or the Attorney General.
All Deputies who spoke raised the question of compellability. Like them, I am anxious that this legislation be brought forward. I see it as an important part of the Dáil reform process which began last year. From my experience in the last 12 months I am wary of mentioning exact timetables, but the legislation is at an advanced stage and I am hopeful that it will be before the House before the summer.
I am glad Deputy O'Malley has returned because I hesitated to say anything in his absence. I find remarkable the Progressive Democrats' fascination not just with the Office of the Attorney General but with the officeholder. Hardly a day goes by without one or other of the Progressive Democrats launching an attack on the Attorney General. I do not intend to make judgments on how culpable anyone across the water is, but Deputy O'Malley's statement earlier that the culpability of the holder of that office — referring to the current Attorney General — was far greater than the culpability of one across the water was an extraordinary attack on the Attorney General and it is beneath contempt that the Deputy should use the House to launch such an attack. If Deputies look back over the record of the past 12 months they will find that in practically every case where the Progressive Democrats launched sustained attacks on the Attorney General because of decisions he made, the Progressive Democrats  were wrong and the Attorney General was right.
Mr. Dempsey: That is the case, as is obvious since the Supreme Court upheld the decision. Before Deputy McDowell was elected to this House he told us about how wrong the Attorney General was constitutionally. The Deputy was proved wrong and he did not deny it.
Mr. Dempsey: The Committee on Public Accounts should not attempt to second guess the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports. We should not allow the committee to carry out investigations in advance of the Comptroller and Auditor General. There is a good working relationship between the two and the Comptroller and Auditor General is usually willing to deal with any concerns Members may have.
I take the point in regard to people showing contempt of committees and not appearing before them. The legislation on compellability will address that problem. In regard to the legislative committees, Members are answerable to the House and not to an individual committee of the House. That is a very important tenet of our democracy and we do not foresee it changing. I will agree to the deletion of the words “equivalent Office holder” from Standing Order 130 and commend the motion to the House.
In paragraph (3). to delete “either by a member of the Government, or the body concerned” and substitute “by a member of the Government” and to delete “, a Minister of the Government or equivalent Office holder,”.
As a committee we are concerned that the words “or the body concerned” could be used as a ruse by the body in question. We will be satisfied if that body made the request with the approval of the Minister. Will the Minister agree to the insertion of the words “or the body concerned, subject to the agreement of a Minister of the Government”?
Mr. Dempsey: Some of the State bodies might not come under the remit of a particular Minister. For example, the vocational education committees are independent bodies. I understand the Deputy's fear but if the committee discovers that this measure is being used as a ruse to avoid appearing before the committee I will undertake to review the matter in 12 months. The concern relates mainly to non-commercial State bodies but we must give everybody equal protection. If this matter is abused we will examine it at a later date.
|Last Updated: 22/05/2011 03:22:42||Page of 91|