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'We cannot do all the work': PAC's growing prominence leads to tensions among members

An ambulance chaser or an indispensable public spending watchdog? The Public Accounts Committee’s work and role is coming under increasing scrutiny from its own members.

The PAC has been prominent in the CRC, Irish Water, and penalty points controversies in recent months.
The PAC has been prominent in the CRC, Irish Water, and penalty points controversies in recent months.
Image: Screengrab via Oireachtas TV

JOHN MCGUINNESS BRISTLES at the suggestion that members of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) are gaining a reputation for being ‘ambulance chasers’ – going after whatever controversy happens to be in vogue.

“I am not worried about what the opposition would say when that particular party is at nine per cent,” the chairman of the PAC said of the charge levelled by Labour’s Kevin Humphreys.

In the past two months, the Dáil’s most powerful committee has been at the centre of the revelations about both the CRC and Irish Water. And then, last week, it held a five-hour hearing with the Garda Commissioner that left it facing a potential legal battle and another box-office hearing with a garda whistleblower this week.

The implications of that meeting with Martin Callinan appear to be the most serious so far as it is now likely that attempts to hear from two garda whistleblowers will end up in a High Court showdown with the gardaí.

We will find out later today or tomorrow whether or not serving garda sergeant Maurice McCabe will be able to give evidence to TDs. McGuinness told TheJournal.ie that McCabe has been informed of the rules of engagement with the committee – about not naming names – if he does come before it and said that members now await his response.

In all likelihood, if McCabe is to appear he will do so in private session, an approach favoured by many but not all PAC members.

‘We cannot do all the work’

But the garda whistleblower issue forms part of a wider split in the PAC over its remit, the more prominent role it has undertaken in recent weeks and unhappiness at the public pronouncements of some members.

In his regular column in the Sunday Independent yesterday, independent TD Shane Ross disclosed some detail about the PAC’s private meeting over the Rehab issue last week , suggesting some Fine Gael members may have to “declare an interest” if Fine Gael strategist and Rehab director Frank Flannery appears before it.

Unsurprisingly, this has angered several members who are quoted in today’s Irish Times with Labour’s Gerald Nash and Derek Nolan, and Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy expressing unhappiness with the remarks.

Last week, Murphy told this website he wasn’t even sure if the PAC had agreed to bring the garda whistleblower before it despite public comment from other members.

And several PAC members have been unhappy since before Christmas about the way in which the committee is organising and adding to its work programme as new controversies arise.

As well as its long-running work on state bodies such as NAMA and the debacle at the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, the PAC’s foray into the CRC and, particularly, the garda penalty points controversies are going ‘too far’ according to some members.

“We cannot do all the work that is out there. There are 10 other committees that could do the work. It’s not our responsibility,” one member, who declined to be named, told TheJournal.ie late last week.

They raised particular concerns about the penalty points issue, saying this should be a matter for the Oireachtas Justice Committee. Others argue that the PAC is acting off a Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) report, examining loss of revenue to the State.

Another member, who also declined to be identified, took the view that the PAC must investigate issues as they arise, irrespective of the work it is already undertaking.

“All of this is public money one way or another so the PAC has to consider it,” the TD said. “We have to adopt to the changing situation and not stick so rigidly to the work programme.”

‘In the public interest’

McGuinness believes the committee has every right to hear from Rehab and similar organisations: “They get public money [so] there is already a basis there to hear from them. They also have a line in the accounts of the Department of Justice. So we have every right, legally, to bring them in.”

His view is shared by Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, who told this website:

My view is that Rehab need to come before PAC. We have consistently raised the issue with HSE that there are accountability issues to be considered in respect of section 39 organisations. It’s in the public interest.

But Fianna Fáil’s Seán Fleming believes the problem lies with the HSE which, he said, has effectively left the PAC to do its work for it.

“The problem I have us the HSE are the people giving money to the CRC. It’s the HSE’s job to get this audit done,” he said. “I don’t want to see the PAC doing the job that the HSE is paid to do in the first place.”

If the PAC is taking on more work then the issue of resources and whether it currently has enough of them is one that unites most members.

The committee has four full-time staff, including clerk Ted McEnery who is one three from the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, with another seconded from the Comptroller and Auditor General’s (C&AG) office which is headed by Seamus McCarthy.

McDonald said the PAC “could certainly do with more resources” and McGuinness believes this could be done without the need for more staff.

“We are mentioned in legislation to conduct hearings on NAMA and we don’t have access to a banking specialist. The C&AG should have that as well,” he said.

“Maybe what you need us a beefed-up C&AG office with access to appropriate skills when required and then that briefing then given to PAC members, that is an easy, cost-effective way of dealing with all this without a major cost to the State.”

He also wants there to be one, single audit office, under the C&AG, with public hearings conducted by the PAC. “That’s the way it is in other jurisdictions,”  he added.

While members may broadly agree on resources, divisions on remit and workload are likely to fester unless resolved in the coming weeks.

Read: Callinan has “no difficulty” in providing information to PAC

Read: TDs divided on whether PAC should hear from garda whistleblowers publicly

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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