Public Accounts Committee members were once accused of behaving like ‘wolves’. Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe talks to its head, Seán Fleming, on the restrictions it faces.
JUST metres from TD Seán Fleming’s office in Leinster House lies the committee room where some of the biggest scandals in the State in recent times have been revealed and tackled by politicians.
Abuses of the penalty points system, misspending by state agencies, off-shore bank accounts, Irish Water, whistleblower claims, overspending in the health sector and questions over the care of a young disabled girl in a foster home were all issues investigated by PAC during the last Dáil.
But Mr Fleming, the newly appointed chair of the Public Accounts Committee, every day faces a “cold reminder”, as he says himself, of where the line is drawn between public and private life.
A large cardboard box by the window contains nine lever arch files pertaining to an ongoing High Court case being taken by the former Rehab charity boss Angela Kerins against the previous PAC.
Ms Kerins claims the previous PAC from the last Dáil strayed outside its remit and had no right to quiz her about Rehab’s finances, which, she says, negatively affected her health.
The ongoing case raises questions about how far PAC can go when investigating issues or demanding information. But the committee, under its new chairman, intends to move on and tackle fresh issues.
Mr Fleming is an experienced, cautious and eagle-eyed politician. The Laois TD is also a dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáiler and has ambitions plans for the new PAC. But will Fianna Fáil’s necessary support for the Fine Gael minority government soften his criticisms?
“I guarantee that won’t be a problem. There will be no punches pulled at all,” insists the TD.
Mr Fleming is familiar with the core operations and role of PAC, having sat on it for the last two Dails as well as being a qualified accountant.
The function of PAC is to hold Government departments to account, to monitor value for money generally and to take its lead from the state’s spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG).
Seán Fleming wants to tackle wasted expenditure in the health service, the exorbitant costs of medicines being paid by the State and the questionable sale practices of Nama, the agency currently accused of selling state-owned property assets at knockdown prices.
Above all though, the new PAC chairman, armed with the powers to compel senior civil servants to answer questions about spending, intends to tackle waste in departments, duplication and to make an example of accounting officers who are reluctant or lazy about saving taxpayers money.
“I’m concerned that there isn’t sufficient collective learning across government departments.”
There are some good departments and agencies that are very efficient, including Revenue and Social Protection, says the chairman.
“There’s other departments that make mistakes. And they can learn practices from those who have done well,” says Mr Fleming.
“Ideally I would like PAC to call in collectively together all of the accounting officers in one meeting, I’ve never seen that done before.
“I can pick eight of them and it would cover over 90% of expenditure. I would ask them as accounting officers to explain to us the mechanisms they have in place, to learn from each other.”
Savings can be made when it comes to departments making purchases, getting value for money, including on IT projects and schemes, says the chairman.
Failures to save were evident on previous projects, including on medical card schemes, grants for students under SUSI and Department of Agriculture schemes for farmers.
“They are all common problems, but none of them seem to learn from the mistakes of the other.”
Only last week, the Public Accounts Committee heard that 30% of procurement contracts in the HSE are non-competitive.
Indeed, Mr Fleming is of the opinion that the biggest culprits when it comes to misspending are the Department of Health and related agencies. This goes back to claims HSE authorities have underestimated their spend continuously, to the detriment of other areas which end up plugging the gap.
The PAC chairman explains: “The biggest question I have about health is that they haven’t produced, in the last three or four years, an honest budget ever.
“We’ve always known that they underprovided on the assumption that money would come around during the course of the year. What that leads to is that the HSE can’t do adequate planning of services due in the year.
This all “adds to inefficiencies of the health service”, he maintains.
Mr Fleming also has his sights set on saving the taxpayer money when it comes to bills paid to the large pharmaceuticals for medicines.
“The pricing of drugs, the state pays about €2bn, and I am concerned that sometimes we don’t always negotiate the best price in Ireland because there are so many pharmaceutical companies in Ireland.
“There isn’t a threat [of jobs being pulled], but I worry about the people on the purchasing side of the table, representing the taxpayer, subconsciously have a slight inferiority complex because of that, because they don’t want to upset these people.”
At issue though towards the end of the last Dáil were questions over how far PAC could actually go when quizzing witnesses and whether its actions regards Rehab went beyond its remit.
Since the start of the new Dáil, the committee has been told that it should not stray beyond the legal advice it gets about its actions. Any decision by PAC to ignore this legal advice or to act outside it must be approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, an overarching committee that sets the ground rules and has the strongest authority in Leinster House.
Mr Fleming explains: “So the power has now been taken. So we are in a situation now with the new Dáil, given there are 20 committees out there, they don’t want them operating independently of the commission with free reign.”
The last PAC was heavily criticised for straying too far. There were charges members acted like “wolves and the committee went “off the rails”. Taoiseach Enda Kenny even went as far as suggesting its role was “over-politicised”.
But the new PAC chairman is quite composed about the restrictions for committees agreed under the new Dáil and has a more realistic approach to the work ahead.
“Use the powers you have to the best ability without having to use the powers you don’t have...I think it [the rules] are correct.”
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