Dáil Éireann - Volume 668 - 20 November, 2008

Priority Questions. - FÁS Investigation.

  Deputy Charlie O’Connor: I wish to point out that 30 minutes are allowed today for Priority Questions, with six minutes given to each question as follows: two minutes [258] for the Minister’s initial reply and four minutes overall for supplementary questions and replies. I am looking for the co-operation of all Members in this regard.

Deputy Leo Varadkar asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if she has requested that the investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General into FÁS be a comprehensive audit of the FÁS budget or that it be limited to the aspects raised in the internal audit reports; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41984/08]

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: The Acting Chairman is a very hard taskmaster.

The Comptroller and Auditor General in his report on non-commercial semi-State bodies, published in May 2008, reviewed the issues raised in one specific FÁS internal audit report.

Following discussions with the chairman and the director general of FÁS, I decided that there should be an external investigation into the effectiveness of the financial management and control systems that are generally in place in FÁS, rather than have it limited to aspects raised in the internal audit report which gave rise to the earlier special report. Accordingly, I requested the Comptroller and Auditor General to consider doing such a review and he acceded to that request. My intentions in requesting this review are to ensure that appropriate public procurement procedures exist to prevent or detect irregularities or wrongdoing, and also to examine and report on the activities of the FÁS corporate affairs area since 2000. This is in order to achieve reasonable assurance as to whether there were any occasions of potential fraud or irregularity in that area other than those already brought to light by the FÁS internal audit unit.

It is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General to determine the scope of his investigation. The Comptroller and Auditor General has indicated that in doing so he will take into account the deliberations of the Committee of Public Accounts hearings on the FÁS element of his special report on semi-State bodies.

As regards wider value-for-money issues relating to FÁS programmes, I point out that my Department has already commenced a review into the active market programmes, including those being delivered by FÁS. The objective of this review is to examine these programmes, including programmes provided by FÁS and Skillnets, in terms of efficiency and effectiveness and to draw conclusions about the adequacy and balance of resources in the context of current and future labour market policy challenges, including the national skills strategy.

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: I have three questions. The Tánaiste asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to start his inquiry straight away rather than wait for the report of the Committee of Public Accounts. Has she received a response from the Comptroller and Auditor General with regard to that specific request, and if so, what was it?

Second, the Tánaiste suggested on “Morning Ireland” that she felt the Committee of Public Accounts was following another agenda. Perhaps she will clarify exactly what she meant when she suggested that the all-party Committee of Public Accounts was following another agenda.

Third, and perhaps most important, what is the Tánaiste’s agenda with regard to all these matters? When we first began to discuss this several months ago, she told the House that she was happy with FÁS. Subsequently, she told the House that she believed the matter had been dealt with by the Comptroller and Auditor General. When further revelations came forward, the Tánaiste said that her Secretary General would follow the matter up with the director general. Subsequently again, she asked the Comptroller and Auditor General to carry out a [259] report. It now appears that she has chosen not to allow the Committee of Public Accounts to complete its inquiry and that she wants the Comptroller and Auditor General to do it.

Aside from my first two questions, I wish to know what the Tánaiste’s agenda is with regard to this issue. Does she want there to be a comprehensive forensic audit of FÁS or does she merely want a quick limited investigation that she can brush away and move on — essentially a cover up?

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: What were the last words the Deputy used? Was it “cover up”? Is that the words he used?

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: Does the Tánaiste want a cover up?

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: I am sorry.

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: Does the Tánaiste want a limited investigation that is done quickly behind closed doors, one that is limited to the corporate affairs situation? In my view, that would be a cover up.

  Acting Chairman: We have approximately two minutes left on this question.

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: Unfortunately, a very serious accusation has been made on the floor of the House. My agenda is the following. I want to ensure that those people who have unfortunately lost their jobs as a consequence of the economic difficulties, those who wish to obtain training and those with disabilities will be afforded opportunities. That is the role of FÁS and I want it to remain centre-stage in the context of our economic difficulties.

In saying that, I indicated that I was not happy with issues that arose from the Comptroller and Auditor General’s initial special report. I thought it best, given his independence and his reputation, that the Comptroller and Auditor General would afford us greater guidance. I asked him, through my Secretary General, to facilitate a further investigation. He indicated to me that his preferred option was to listen to the Committee of Public Accounts and to use its findings as an opportunity to make his final determination on how he would proceed.

It is the case that the Committee of Public Accounts of this House has an agenda. It does not specifically relate to FÁS, but is a much wider agenda. It has progressed over the past number of years in the implementation of that agenda. In no way have I ever indicated that I do not agree with the methodologies of the Committee of Public Accounts, on which my party has members, as do all parties. It has a different agenda, namely, to examine and give outcomes. However, it is not specific to FÁS. On this occasion, my agenda is to make sure that FÁS and issues relating to that organisation are raised and addressed.

The broad sweeping statements made by the Deputy have no impact in terms of where I want FÁS to be in the next number of years. As a consequence of these statements, an organisation that is made up of many people will feel vilified, which is not appropriate. I know every Member of this House would agree that there are excellent people working in this organisation. We all interact with them, almost on a daily basis, perhaps even more so now. I do not want to see a situation whereby people would feel vilified by broad sweeping statements made in this House.

Without a shadow of doubt, I have concerns and issues. I wish to have this matter investigated fully by the Comptroller and Auditor General so he can advise me of his independent views when his investigation is completed. I will take those on board and address the issues he may or may not raise. I wish to obtain clarity on the matter.

[260] Under no circumstances will I, or any of my team, or my Department, ever condone a situation whereby information is withheld from the board or from Ministers with responsibilities. The Comptroller and Auditor General has an exemplary reputation in this country. I await his report to me prior to making any further decisions that may be necessary arising from this report.

  Acting Chairman: We are well over time.

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: There is usually a second opportunity.

  Acting Chairman: There is when Deputies stay within the limits. I pointed out at the beginning that Priority Questions take six minutes. We are now one and a half minutes over time.

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: I did not take six minutes.

  Acting Chairman: The Chair is obliged to follow the orders of the day. If the Deputy wishes to make a brief comment——

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: I believe I took about one minute. Surely the time should be shared equally.

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: If the Deputy mentions Tallaght, he will get in.

  Deputy Willie Penrose: I mentioned it six times.

  Acting Chairman: The Chair will be impartial. I will order each six minutes but my difficulty is that we are now almost two minutes over the time and the Deputy’s colleagues will not get a chance to raise their questions. If he wishes to make a brief comment——

  Deputy Leo Varadkar: I note that the Minister did not answer whether the Comptroller and Auditor General had responded to her most recent request to expedite the issue.

I agree with her that excellent work is done in FÁS and that there are some excellent people there. Does she agree that the best way to restore confidence in FÁS, if it can be restored, is to have a comprehensive investigation of the organisation rather than limit it to the corporate affairs department? That seems to be her agenda.

  Deputy Mary Coughlan: It is not my intention to have an overall investigation of FÁS, as I indicated in my reply. We are looking at labour market policy challenges and it is in that context that a review of the workings of FÁS is taking place.

The Comptroller and Auditor General is still anxious to have a conclusion to the deliberations of the Committee of Public Accounts. I am sure that Deputy Varadkar, as the Opposition spokesperson in this regard, wishes equally for this to happen for the betterment of FÁS, which is in the interests of all of us.