Is the Public Accounts Committee now just a kangaroo court?
Have the watchdogs of public finances gone too far?
“I am being subjected to such a tremendous battering,” complained the witness at a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, “that it receded in my mind.
“When I was asked by the committee to say all I knew about the fund, I did it immediately. If I had any intention of concealment, I would have continued to conceal it.”
Sound familiar? What recent hearing of the Dáil’s most powerful committee could it have come from? The cervical cancer screening crisis? Salaries at charitable agencies in receipt of public money?
Or, perhaps, long-running investigation by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) into how An Garda Síochána handled Maurice McCabe’s dossier on penalty points?
No, in fact it was none of those. The tone of protest may be familiar but the comments were made 47 years ago. It was the late Jim Gibbons, one of several Fianna Fáil ministers appearing before the committee in 1971.
The PAC’s reputation has been under the spotlight this week, following former Health Service Executive chief executive Tony O’Brien’s charge that it was nothing more than “a kangaroo court”.
Back in 1971, Gibbons was quizzed robustly over whether he had told taoiseach Jack Lynch about £100,000 allotted for the relief of distress in the North in 1970 when Catholics were under siege in places.
The decades-old quotations are a reminder of the longevity and power of the PAC. The committee is almost as old the Dáil itself, having been established in 1922.
Over the decades it has built a status as the watchdog of public finances, ensuring taxpayers’ money not being wasted. Its work agenda is mainly informed by the Comptroller and Auditor General, currently Séamus McCarthy, who is essentially the State’s bean-counter-in-chief. The C&AG’s annual reports and special reports on departmental and agency spending form the basis of much of its inquiries.
While it is comprised of Dáil deputies from all parties, it has had the reputation of being nonpartisan. The chair is drawn from the leading party of the opposition and until recent years the committee prided itself on being able to conduct its business without ever having to call a division (vote).
But that nonpartisan role has been eroded in recent years, according to a number of former members and accounting officers (department heads) who have come before it. Not only is it becoming political, they argue, it inquired into matters that have little to do with its mandate, but which are the kind of issues that will make headlines. In other words, these critics charge, the committee members have become ambulance chasers, or a kangaroo court, as Tony O’Brien claimed last weekend.
Those involved with the PAC, past and present, agree that the committee has taken on an edge in recent years and that, at times, criticisms have got personalised.
Fianna Fáil’s Marc Mac Sharry’s below-the-belt slight to O’Brien that he would not last 15 minutes in the private sector is the most cogent recent example. Another is the treatment meted out to former Rehab chief executive Angela Kerins.
She faced sustained attack from Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Independent Shane Ross, while PAC members robustly questioned the presidents of third-level institutions last year.
But they differ on whether this is good or bad.
A former member says: “It has become very personal and I have been disgusted with some of the attacks.” Another ex-PAC person claims that habits deteriorated during Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness’s time as chair.
Then, members were “let off the leash to abuse people and to embark on interrogation of people, sometimes against the basis of the committee’s own legal advice”, said the source.
McGuinness rejects this interpretation: “I believe that [during my time] members behaved in a very independent way and focused on all of the issues that needed to be addressed within the remit,” he responds.
“What changed was the intensity of focus on agency and the department which comes before us. Committee members have to have robust exchanges because of the fact that witnesses are often reluctant to give the full facts.
“This accusation that members were show-boating. I don’t accept that at all. I believe that every member worked through the very difficult analysis of what went wrong with money or efficiencies.”
Defending the approach of colleagues, he accepts, nevertheless, that some have occasionally crossed the line: “Officials have a duty of candour to answer. Members have a duty to be courteous to witnesses.
“I do accept that nothing should get personal and there should be no challenge of the integrity of witnesses,” he went on, accepting that “we do end up ruffling a few feathers”.
The other charge is that the PAC has become the political equivalent of RTÉ’s Liveline programme, grabbing the latest headline of the day rather than acting in a more measured way.
There are plenty of examples, say critics: cervical cancer, incorrect allegations about people said to have held Ansbacher accounts, and, most recently, Áras an Uachtaráin’s expenses on the eve of the presidential election.
Meanwhile, there is trouble even within the gates of Leinster House, since other Oireachtas committees, especially health, has accused the PAC of trespass, most recently with CervicalCheck.
“The reason PAC functioned without serious complaint since 1923 was because the chair kept it between the ditches,” said one former member. “There was precedent and good judgment and you did not cross a line. You did not confuse forensic questioning with grandstanding. Remember it even survived the Arms Trial, which would have been in a very difficult environment and circumstances.”
Former chariman Michael Noonan does not go so far though he does believe it has strayed: “PAC operates at its best when it is not political. Secondly, whoever appears should be respected.
“Policy is not one of the things that should be discussed. That’s for the Dáil and Government. In recent years it has become a policy forum where the opposition criticises the government,” he said.
Noonan himself protested vociferously when he was minister for finance after the PAC investigated Nama’s Project Eagle, a multibillion-euro fire sale of Northern Irish property. The issue divided the committee, forcing the first public division (vote) in its history.
Following the money is often the best method of approaching a crisis where something has gone wrong. No committee is better equipped to do that than the PAC.
It succeeded spectacularly when it investigated the banks in the massive Dirt inquiry in the late 1990s, which led the Revenue Commissioners to claw back ¤1 billion in unpaid taxes.
There is some substance to the criticism of populism but most of those recent inquiries have yielded strong outcomes. “All anybody has to do is look at what the PAC achieved,” argues Seán Fleming.
“If you want results look at Maurice McCabe and penalty points; look at the goings-on in Templemore Training College – we were thanked by the Garda for doing that – look at the ‘Grace’ [foster care] case in Waterford; look at Project Eagle where it emerged that the minister [Noonan] and Nama CEO [Brendan McDonagh] met Cerberus representatives on the eve of the Project Eagle deal,” he says.
Even the controversial peek into presidential expenses uncovered important disclosures – an unaudited expenses allowance of ¤317,000 and an audit committee that had not met for four years.
Looking back, a former secretary general is not impressed: “It has had a publicity-seeking role. They think they are the judge, jury and executioner on everything. A lot of what they discuss is not germane to the PAC.”
Fleming disagrees, saying its hearings are substantial, serious and forensic.
Despite its flaws, he says the committee’s merits have greater significance: “I prefer to say that PAC is too robust and too strong than to say that it is a pushover. You always need a bit of healthy tension.”
‘‘ In recent years it has become a policy forum where the opposition criticises the government Michael Noonan