Wanton waste of Siptu fund but guilty will not pay

Key officials will not be held to account over an unmonitored Siptu fund, writes Conor Ryan

WHEN “Comptroller and Auditor General” is on the nameplate you know the office likely errs on the side of caution when it comes to public comments.

So it is something when that office suggests the State’s accounting officers directed unspent resources into an unmonitored so-called slush fund in order to preserve next year’s budget.

The C&AG’s thesis was that there were not enough justifiable reasons to spend money earmarked for labour relations partnership. Instead, state agencies gave it to a Siptu official to spend on their behalf. It is worth noting this was all happening while the State needed Siptu onside in the controversial social partnership process.

Such a comment from the C&AG warrants attention. But, of course, that is unlikely. Individual accounting officers rarely get grief for the choices they make with taxpayers’ money.

Here is the situation. This week the C&AG released a report into carefree spending in the €4.5m fund administered by Siptu. There was scant record keeping and negligible oversight.

Five private holidays to Lanzarote for the fund’s administrator were paid for with the its credit card. The administrator, Siptu official Matt Merrigan, said it happened in error.

Elsewhere, money was paid to a supplier with no record of what services were provided. Funds, initially earmarked for the partnership process, were given to charities and spent in restaurants with little explanation. Tens of thousands of euro worth of cheques were made out to cash at one contractor’s request. Yet not enough records were kept to allow the C&AG full assess the situation.

Before the report was published we knew there were issues with this fund. But we did not know the motivation behind its apparent abundant income. However, the C&AG said there was a pattern of behaviour. This suggested state agencies were scrambling to spend cash they could not find a use for. The report said the timing of the payments indicated this was tactical: “There were many instances of grant funding being provided by funding bodies just before year-end. As a result, the fund may effectively have acted as a mechanism to facilitate non-surrender of unused public money provided for partnership purposes.”

Until now the attention has focused on Siptu’s administration of the fund. There has not been the same scrutiny of the roles of the departments of health, finance, environment, or HSE. This has meant the question of motivation has not been properly explored.

Each year accounting officers, the top officials in each agency, are called to the Public Accounts Committee to answer for the most recent set of financial statements. At no stage during the lifetime of the fund did these accounting officers volunteer that there was excess money in the pot.

Had the accounting officers chosen to volunteer how unspent money was reallocated to Siptu, they could have been asked to account for their decisions. They could have been forced to explain the destination of money made available for the partnership process. And this could have been teased out in the context of bigger issues.

Any of the annual PAC meetings between 2002 and 2009 could have facilitated such an inquiry. For example, at a key point in the social partnership negotiations, there was a lost opportunity to probe the relationship between health managers and the country’s biggest trade union.

In the 2007 visit to the PAC, Michael Scanlan, the then secretary general of the Department of Health, appeared with the head of the HSE, Prof Brendan Drumm.

Financially, times were much better. The Siptu fund received €1m from the State and ended the year with more than €820,000 in the bank. At the PAC, both health managers outlined the challenge of staying within budgets and spending wisely.

But Mr Scanlon criticised the Irish Nurses’ Organisation and the Psychiatric Nurses’ Association for persisting with independent pay claims. In the next breath, he praised Siptu and Impact for remaining within the partnership process and signing up to benchmarking. The health authorities were the biggest sponsors of the fund. The HSE gave it €357,000 in 2007.

It must be said that despite being offside with the Government on benchmarking, both the INO and the PNA were still refunded over €25,000 each from the fund in 2007.

The key officials of that era have moved on, so those questions will remain unasked and unanswered.

Yet again there will be no accounting for accounting officers.


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