PAC to probe Martin’s SKILL funding letter

A LETTER signed by former Health Minster Micheál Martin authorising the continued payment of funds into the controversial SKILL programme health sector training fund will be scrutinised at a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing today.

The letter, sent in September 2004 to SIPTU official Matt Merrigan, refers to the “continued “provision of support” to the controversial SKILL programme, described by members of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee as a “slush fund”. The fund, which spent more than €3 million over a decade of operation, has been heavily criticised following an audit that uncovered a catalogue of waste of taxpayers’ money and serious breaches of corporate governance.

Today PAC is due to question the heads of the organisations involved with establishing and administering the programme and those who had oversight of another problematic partnership programme.

Among those due to attend the hearing is CEO of the HSE, Cathal Magee, the secretary general of the Department of Health, Michael Scanlan and former general secretary of SIPTU, Bill Attley, who was head of the SKILL steering group.

It has emerged that over €3m of state funds were paid into a bank account known as the SIPTU national health and local authority levy fund.

The account was not one officially sanctioned by the union but under the control of two SIPTU officials.

About €2.3m paid into this account came from the Department of Health and was channelled by the HSE, while just under €1m came from the HSE Partnership fund. Much of the funds were spent on foreign travel by government officials and to a lesser extent trade union members, the purpose of which has been questioned.

PAC chairman Bernard Allen TD said: “The information which has come to light to date on this issue points to waste and poor return for the taxpayer. It appears that many people with only tenuous links to the subject matter went on foreign trips to the US and elsewhere paid for by the state.”

He added: “We intend to find out why more controls were not put in place in respect of the funding? Why were the delegations on foreign trips so large and included personnel of whose relevance was questionable? What safeguards have been put in place to ensure tighter regulation in the future?”

Last week an external a consultancy report carried out on behalf of the HSE by former IBEC head Turlough O’Connor into foreign trips undertaken by staff as part of the SKILL programme concluded that the fund had been established “with political support”.

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