FERGUS FINLAY: University chiefs are creaming it off while students fear fee hikes

THE gardaí are going to have to get their act together.

They only brought in about €21 million in on-the-spot fines last year when it was expected in advance they’d manage to collect about €24 million.

Mind you, the courts collected about €7m more in fines than was expected of them, so that balanced out pretty well.

There’s probably some civil servant trying to figure out how to double the on-the-spot fines income collected by the gardaí. Maybe they’ll revive Michael McDowell’s Garda Reserve and really push hard to have dozens of part-timers on every street corner handing out fines for just about everything.

At the moment there are about 650 members of the Garda Reserve and they’re doing useful things like helping mini-marathons to run smoothly. But couldn’t they be a nice little earner for our cash-strapped Government? The on-the-spot fines and the court fines are just two of the figures from the comptroller and auditor general’s report published last week.

Overall, it provides a fascinating look at how they manage our money. But if you make it through the whole 600 pages or so, I guarantee you’ll be weeping in frustration at the end.

I remember years ago, when I worked in Cork, meeting an old colleague in the street. He was agog with excitement at the news that one of the local senior politicians, a man he’d known for years (you can probably guess who we were talking about) had just been made minister for finance.

“A lovely fella,” he said. “But he couldn’t give you the change of a pound.”

I don’t know how lovely the present fellas are, spread right across the system, but it’s pretty clear you couldn’t trust most of them to go out and spend a euro and come back with the right change.

And when you think of the cuts we’re facing in a couple of months – when you think of all the things that still need to be done and can’t be done – that’s not just a cause for weeping. We ought to be boiling mad about it.

There are big things and smaller things in the auditor’s report. But at the level of principle, all of them matter. And they matter particularly when the “mistakes” that are documented are committed by people who routinely lecture the rest of us on how we should live our lives.

Take the universities, for example. The best and the brightest. Our betters in every way. Especially, it seems, in the matter of their pay. For instance, who told the president of UCD that he should be paid (in total) €273,350 a year in 2007? There was a review body recommendation that said he should be getting €226,895, or 21% less (a not ungenerous package, I think you’ll agree).

But it wasn’t enough, so someone decided, without any authority, to pay him a good whack more. He was only one person, mind you. Over the year that the auditor looked at, UCD paid out more than €Im in unsanctioned allowances to all sorts of people – vice-presidents, heads of school, heads of institutes and so on. What were they at? It looks as if UCD was being run as a private gravy train, albeit with public money – at a time when college authorities were bleating to everyone who would listen about a crisis in funding for third-level education.

Needless to add, although some of the allowances have been stopped (as well as the extra “performance bonuses”), none of the unsanctioned money has been paid back. They were at it in Trinity, Galway, and Limerick as well.

In Limerick they paid three different people the president’s salary, even though two of them were no longer president. . Next time you’re listening to someone from the third-level sector telling us about how students need to be charged more for their education, it might be worth wondering how much more waste and feather-bedding is to be found in the sector.

The disability sector, I’m sorry to say, comes in for a rap, too, in the auditor’s main report. On page 591 he points out the failure of the Government to implement any of the standards for disability services prepared by HIQA (I’ve written about this before).

And he makes the point that people with disabilities who are legally entitled to assessments under the Disability Act are still not getting them.

The act is only being applied to children under five and, as the auditor says himself, “even in this category there are a considerable number of children who have not yet received their entitlement to an assessment under the act. Overdue assessments stood at 884 at the end of 2009”.

But in his audit, the comptroller also found, within a sample of five agencies, a number of cases where the cost of providing services to individuals was less than the money allocated to the agencies for those individuals. In other words, some agencies are making a profit from people with a disability. And still they can’t provide assessments or implement decent standards. Doesn’t it suggest the need for a root-and-branch examination of what’s going on? But shocking as these things are, they’re small beer compared to some of the findings the auditor has made. There has been a lot of publicity, for instance, about the fact that the National Convention Centre has cost perhaps €200m more than it might have.

And 20-odd pages of the report are devoted to the fiasco formerly known as decentralisation. When it was first announced in a blaze of publicity by Charlie McCreevy, 11,000 civil servants were to be decentralised. Seven years later, around 3,500 have gone, the rest have been “deferred”.

BUT we’ve incurred capital costs for this vainglorious exercise of almost €300m. Twelve sites valued at €43.8 million were purchased in locations where decentralisation won’t happen at all. Occupancy levels in five of the buildings leased in relation to decentralisation are less than 75% of that originally planned. The combined annual lease cost of these buildings is €801,296. The five buildings were scheduled to accommodate 320 staff and currently accommodate 190. A building constructed for the Department of Environment in Wexford, costing €19m, was designed to accommodate 270 staff and only has 175. A building constructed for the OPW in Trim, costing €32m, was designed to accommodate 334 staff and currently accommodates 232.

You don’t need to take my word for any of this – you can find it all on the auditor’s website. What’s most depressing of all is that it happens, year after year after year. The auditor carefully, and comprehensively, locks the stable door and looks wistfully after the horse’s dust.

We never seem to learn the obvious lesson. In America, big spending decisions are put up on a website in advance, along with the rules to which they’re subject. Here, we let people spend the money who sometimes shouldn’t be allowed out at all. And then we all live to regret it.


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