Is the Pub­lic Ac­counts Com­mit­tee now just a kan­ga­roo court?

Have the watch­dogs of pub­lic fi­nances gone too far?

The Irish Times - - News Features - Harry McGee Po­lit­i­cal Cor­re­spon­dent

“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.

Rep­u­ta­tion

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.”

Re­spected

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

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