Five-star trip for four politicians to Bangladesh with luxury hotels and business class flights costs over €20,000

A TRIP for four politicians to Bangladesh, which included business class flights and accommodation at a five-star hotel, ended up costing the taxpayer more than €20,000.

The delegation travelled to the Bangladeshi capital in April, staying five nights at the plush Westin Dhaka Hotel in the city.

Flights each cost between €3,250 and €3,500 because business class was booked due to the distance they had to travel.

The accommodation bill at the 29-storey Westin – which features an outdoor heated pool, spa, and no less than five restaurants – came to just over €5,000, according to Oireachtas records.

The delegation was led by Cathaoirleach Denis O’Donovan, who was joined by independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, and Fianna Fáil TD Bobby Aylward.

Ms Noone explained: “We were gone for five days, I think. There is a rule that once flights are over a certain length of time, they book [business class]. Certainly, none of us were requesting that.

“The trip was heavy going in terms of the workload. We couldn’t be on our own, so we were in the hotel or the conference centre most of the time. It was a very worthwhile trip but it was exhausting to be honest.”

The Dhaka bill was part of more than €141,000 spent so far this year sending TDs and Senators to the four corners of the globe on official business.

Politicians trekked as far as New York, Chicago, Egypt, and Mongolia as part of their work, according to the records.

One of the largest bills was the €6,752 hotel bill for eight politicians who travelled to Egypt as part of a “bi-lateral visit” during which they raised the continued imprisonment of Ibrahim Halawa.

Flights for each of eight cost €820 with a three-night hotel stay at the five-star Cairo Marriott Hotel coming in at €280 per night.

For one of the TDs who travelled – the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan – the accommodation bill came out a little cheaper at just €633 as opposed to the €844 incurred by each of his colleagues.

The Oireachtas said the Marriott hotel had been chosen on the recommendation of the Irish Embassy in Cairo because of “the security situation … and the business to be carried out”.

Ceann Comhairle Séan Ó Fearghaíl has been on multiple trips abroad this year as well as leading the group that visited Cairo in January.

In February, he travelled to Edinburgh for a parliamentary commission meeting and in July, he went to the Isle of Man for the annual “Tynwald ceremony”.

He also travelled to the Slovak capital Bratislava in April, with the bill for the three trips combined coming to a very frugal €780 … although the accommodation in Scotland and the Isle of Man was paid for by the hosts.

The furthest flung location that any of the travelling politicians reached was Mongolia.

In June, Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers headed to Ulaanbaatar for an “election observation mission” with flights costing €1,531 and accommodation costing €678.

TDs and Senators also continue to be paid special bonus subsistence rates when they travel abroad on certain official business.

Under the system, they get “top-ups” of between 60 and 80 per cent over and above normal civil service rates for trips involving organisations like the Council of Europe or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

On one such four-night trip to Strasbourg this year for example, Independent Senator Ronan Mullen made an expense claim of €1,034 even though his flight and hotel costs were paid for by the Oireachtas.

Mr Mullen did not return calls seeking comment on whether he felt the higher rates were justified for TDs and Senators.

He had travelled to Strasbourg on January 22 and returned to Ireland on January 26 with his hotel stay paid by the Oireachtas and costing €629.

Daily rates of subsistence for places like Strasbourg or Paris can be as high as €260 a day and their continued payment has been questioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

In a statement, the Oireachtas said the €20,000 trip to Dhaka was for the general assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which Ireland is a member.

They said: “The delegation stayed at the Westin Dhaka Hotel, one of the official hotels recommended by the event organisers. Exceptionally, the delegation flew business class because of the duration of the flight involved.”

The Oireachtas said they did not have responsibility for setting the special subsistence rates that apply to TDs and Senators for travel abroad.

They said: “[We have] no role in the setting of these rates and no changes can be made to the subsistence rates without an authorisation from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.”

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Health Minister Simon Harris frustrated as opening of new €24 million A&E at hospital does little to ease overcrowding

HEALTH Minister Simon Harris wrote to the management of a hospital asking them how overcrowding seemed to be getting worse even after a new €24 million A&E had been opened there.

The new emergency facility had opened at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) during May amid promises of three times more space and far better conditions for patients.

However, no sooner had it opened than the chronic overcrowding that had plagued the previous A&E reared its head once again.

Documents obtained under FOI reveal how the patience of Health Minister Simon Harris finally ran out in July when promised improvements had not taken place.

In an email, he wrote: “I see that UHL has worsened this afternoon rather than improved as per their expectation [and] undertaking. 27 on trollies on a summer day … is far too high and a cause of significant concern.

“We have invested heavily in a new Emergency Department and additional staffing for Limerick. I would be grateful if you could convey my concerns and the need for actions [and] improvement.”

The records also show how the hospital was hit with an outbreak of the highly drug resistant superbug KPC, which has been an ongoing problem in Limerick.

This latest outbreak temporarily shut the orthopaedic/trauma ward of the hospital, causing further chaos in accident and emergency as they tried to deal with surging patient numbers.

The hospital later responded to Minister Harris saying the opening of the new €24 million A&E was never going to solve all their problems.

Chief Executive Colette Cowan told the minister that the emergency department had seen a spike in use of over 5% in its first weeks of operation.

She wrote: “Literature suggests a 10% growth in activity when new infrastructure is opened that normally peaks and reduces after 4 to 8 weeks. A similar rise occurred when the Mater Hospital’s Emergency Department opened.”

Ms Cowan said the hospital had consistently said the new unit would not “resolve our capacity issues” but said it had greatly improved the “privacy and dignity for our patients”.

She wrote: “[A] study in recent weeks … indicated that UHL at 89% occupancy would require 50 additional beds immediately. We continue to operate at 110-115% occupancy.”

The hospital said they had a long list of measures in place to manage their A&E but that they faced a “challenged environment with high activity and low bed stock“.

The documents also reveal how within days of the €24 million facility opening, Limerick was cropping up in daily reports with a surge in patient numbers.

On June 1, an email said: “The system nationally remains very busy and many sites have not been able to de-escalate including … Limerick.”

A separate briefing on the same day said there had been a “very significant admission rate overnight” and that all possible measures were in place to deal with overcrowding.

Repeatedly, throughout the summer the hospital was mentioned in daily briefing reports as one of the “sites of most concern”.

One report described how there was 36 extra beds/trolleys in use on July 5 with “no prospect of reducing same given steady demand”.

A week later, a separate briefing for the Department of Health described how the hospital was now dealing with an outbreak of the superbug KPC (Klebsiella Pneumoniae Carbapenemase).

It said: “One of the biggest risks to flow is that KPC is now in the orthopaedic/trauma ward therefore closed to admissions and transfers out which is impacting very significantly on other wards as this is the main trauma season. Site remains severely congested.”

In a statement, the hospital said a range of measures were in place to “relieve pressure” on the emergency department with a separate plan already in place for this winter.

They said: “While patients still face delays in the new Emergency Department, it provides for a much improved patient experience compared to the old department which had 33 bays and has greatly improved the privacy, safety and dignity of our patients.”

The Department of Health said: “The minister has sought assurances that actions are being taken to address the situation in the UHL Emergency Department. It is understood that the Hospital is currently finalising a plan aimed at improving access to emergency care and reducing trolley numbers.”

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Special accelerated PR contract awarded as matter of “national urgency” to woo European Medicines Agency to Dublin

A SPECIAL accelerated contract for public relations was awarded as a matter of “national urgency” as part of Ireland’s bid to host the European Medicines Agency.

The Medicines Agency, which is based in London, will be moving after Brexit to one of the European Union member states.

The Irish government has been lobbying for it to be relocated to Ireland bringing close to 900 staff and an estimated €180 million into the Irish economy annually.

An internal Department of Health note explained how the only way to award the €93,000 public relations contract quickly enough would be by giving it a special designation.

It said: “To do this we have to proceed on the basis that this is a matter of national urgency and that the requirement for urgent provision of this service could not have been foreseen far in advance.

“A memo on this matter was submitted to the Secretary General and he has now approved the proposed approach, which will involve a small number of potential providers being invited to tender.”

They said that the process would have to be “expeditious” while still involving a “fully transparent selection process”.

The PR firm Hume Brophy was ultimately chosen following the competition and for a three-and-a-half-month period were paid €93,082 with a small amount of expenditure still to be invoiced.

A memo prepared for Health Minister Simon Harris making the case for the contract explained how competition between member states was “already intense”.

It said some countries were already emerging as powerful candidates and were mounting “strong and well-resourced campaigns”.

The memo said Ireland was seen in the EU as having a “very good case” to win the relocation bid but that this needed to be communicated more effectively.

It said this required support both from the government and Irish diplomats, but that the PR campaign needed to be ramped up within a matter of weeks.

The memo said: “Clearly it would not make sense to enter a full competitive process such that the required service would only become available after the key period for promotion of the Irish bid had passed.”

It also explained how normal EU procurement rules could be bypassed where there was a “state of urgency” that made normal time limits impractical.

The memo, written in March this year, said: “The factors giving rise to urgency must be serious, unforeseeable and not due to action or inaction on the part of the contracting authority concerned.”

The Department’s civil servants said they felt the bid for the EMA met these criteria.

“It is now becoming clear that competitor countries are well resourced and already have a presence in Brussels putting their case,” they said. “The Dublin bid must be able to compete for coverage in order to be seen as a realistic option.”

They said a slow full-scale procurement process would stop the Irish bid from getting “on the ground” quickly and be a serious disadvantage.

In a statement, the Department said seven companies had been invited to tender.

They said: “Due to the nature of the work it was deemed essential by the Department that all companies must be able to operate effectively in Brussels and have the capacity to take on the work immediately on award of the contract.”

The Department said they had consulted with the IDA, the Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Office of Government Procurement in the selection process.

They said: “The process fully complied with the [relevant EU regulations] … tenders were evaluated by a five person panel, including two external to the Department of Health. Feedback was provided to unsuccessful applicants and a 14-day standstill period was observed to allow for appeals.”

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Nearly ten years of video footage of Dáil, Seanad, and committee hearings taken offline by the Oireachtas

UPDATE: The footage has been restored after a lot of fuss was raised on social media yesterday.

Hopefully, the archive will now be made permanent, searchable, and easy to access for everybody despite the “minimal traffic”.

UPDATE 2: We are still awaiting a clear statement from Oireachtas on what they plan to do with archive and whether its restoration will be permanent.

NEARLY ten years of footage of debates from Leinster House that was accessible to the public has been permanently deleted from the Internet by the Oireachtas.

The massive bank of footage was widely used by journalists, academics, members of the public, and was particularly popular on social media in catching out u-turning politicians.

However, the database disappeared from the Oireachtas website earlier this month without warning because they said there was “minimal traffic” looking at the files.

The move has been condemned by politicians who said it was scarcely believable that a valuable resource like that could simply be let vanish.

Fianna Fáil Communications spokesman TD Timmy Dooley said it made no sense not to have the video record “as easily available” as it had been in the past.

He said: “I would have thought that in terms of the parliament wanting to be more open and transparent – which is part of the mission statement after all – we should be providing easy access to the archives.

“We have our own TV channel so all of this archival information should be made easily available, particularly when you’re encouraging research in the area, outreach into schools, and the opening up of parliament. We shouldn’t be afraid of scrutiny of what we have said in the past on the record in the Dáil.

“There’s no reason why if it’s already been in the public domain, that it should have been removed.”

The Oireachtas said the archive had dated back ten years but had not covered absolutely all proceedings of the Dáil, Seanad, and committees.

They said most of the videos had been in a file type that had become obsolete and were causing some people difficulties when they tried to view them.

“Many of our users could not access or play these files and we were increasingly being contacted by users who were having difficulty,” they said.

However, the material was in fact easily accessible using one of many video players that are available to download for free online, which can easily play the material.

In fact, at one stage the Oireachtas web page on which the videos were available actually had specific instructions for people on how to get the software to view it.

The Oireachtas said: “We did leave the older files online but the recent change you refer to has been triggered as our service provider decommissioned the infrastructure on which these files were hosted.”

Individual clips can still be accessed by request to their Broadcasting Unit, they said.

They said the written copies of the debates available online still remained the “canonical source” for what has been said in the Oireachtas.

However, instances have been discovered where the record has differed markedly from what was actually said in the Dáil including the controversy over whether politician’s expenses could be classified as “private papers” and kept hidden from public view.

The archiving of the footage had originally formed part of the Oireachtas’ eDemocracy Unit, which planned to use the web to open up politics to a wider audience.

The person behind the Twitter account, who has used dozens of the clips to show up contradictions or u-turns by politicians over the years, said the Oireachtas excuses for deleting the archive simply did not add up.

For finding clips in future, he must now make a formal request that must then go to an off site archive and takes at least several days to be returned.

A request he submitted for two clips of Leo Varadkar appearing to contradict himself on paying a Sunday premium to employees has still not been dealt with a week later.

He said: “It makes a mockery of the term eDemocracy when access has to be requested formally to the Broadcasting Unit. The cost involved in hosting a web server is minimal particularly if as they are saying there is minimal traffic.

“The official report can at times be inaccurate and sometimes can change the context of what was said to a large degree.”

However, he was told the decision was not going to be reversed and instead a new 18-month rolling archive would be introduced with all footage from before that date then deleted.

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Judges looked for special deal on retirement packages saying their pensions were anything but “gold-plated or platinum”

JUDGES pleaded to government for a special deal on pensions as part of the public service pay talks saying their retirement packages were anything but “gold-plated or platinum”.

The judiciary told Minister Paschal Donohoe that no other group of people had been hit with as many different pay cuts and other budgetary measures during the financial crisis.

In a series of letters, the Association of Judges in Ireland (AJI) expressed concern that they were going to be penalised again, this time for their “accelerated” pensions.

Like soldiers and gardai, the pensions of members of the judiciary build up much more quickly than is the case with other public servants.

Under government public pay plans, these fast-track pensions are to be hit with far higher levies to reflect the fact they can become lucrative faster.

However, judges complained they should not be lumped in with other groups in receipt of “accelerated” pensions and that their circumstances were unique.

In a letter to the Department of Public Expenditure, Association President George Birmingham wrote: “I do not believe that the position of judges can be equated with others in the public service such as gardai and the Defence Forces who receive a pension after less than forty years service.

“In the cases of gardai and the Defence Forces, this happens because they are required to retire early. The position of judges, on the other hand, is quite different in that, far from having an early retirement age, most judges retire at 70.”

The letter said it was difficult for a judge to accumulate extremely long service because they normally had to practice as a solicitor or a barrister for so long first.

The judges also insisted that because many solicitors and barristers had invested in private pensions before joining the judiciary, they were often hit on the double by tax.

Mr Birmingham said that if the combination of their public and personal retirement funds exceeded the pension threshold of €2 million then the excess was subject to “punitive taxation”.

He wrote: “The effect of all this is that the pension regime for judges is far less attractive than might appear at first sight.”

The Association said that excluding judges from public pay provisions planned to reduce the impact of the pension levy on wages would be “quite unfair”.

The judges also pointed out that most of the judiciary had been appointed at a time when there was an “unqualified constitutional guarantee” that their pay could not be cut.

However, that provision had been removed in the referendum in 2011 when an overwhelming majority of the public voted to allow government reduce their salaries.

In their letter, the judges said: “That [decision] simply provides for a derogation from the general and as the country emerges from the financial emergency judges look to see a restoration of their terms and conditions of service.”

The association had asked to meet directly with Paschal Donohoe to discuss their concerns.

The minister did not make himself available to meet him and asked officials to attend instead. He did promise however, to keep himself “fully apprised of developments”.

In an earlier letter, the association pleaded their case saying no other group of workers in state service had been “impacted by quite the same range of measures”.

They said their members had been “impacted upon in a very severe way indeed” and that excluding them from mooted changes to the pension levy “would be greeted with dismay”.

A third letter said judges who had both a public and private pension were being hit with “punitive, confiscatory taxation”.

The letter said: “References to judges having gold-plated or platinum pensions are very wide of the mark indeed.”

Asked about the letters, the association said: “The AJI does not wish to comment on the matters that you raise save to say that we have no issue with the level of engagement with us by Minister Donohoe or his department.”

The Department of Public Expenditure said the correspondence had been received in the context of pay talks that had resulted in the Public Service Stability Agreement.

They said: “The Agreement has yet to be ratified by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

“The Minister was not available to meet with the AJI on the occasion in question, and as is normal practice in such circumstances, requested his officials to arrange a meeting to address any relevant matters.”

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Air emergency service for children who needed transplants was “not sustainable” as some parents chose to leave country to avoid possible delays

THE government considered grounding ministers from the state’s €8-million Learjet because of gaps in services for flying children abroad for life-saving transplants.

The proposal was one of several options considered after the Department of Defence said they did not have the resources to provide a round-the-clock service for the desperately ill kids.

A briefing prepared for Minister Simon Harris explained that the service – which transports children to the UK when life-saving organs become available at short notice – was “not sustainable”.

The memo said one family had even relocated to the UK, because they knew if an organ became available, there were no guarantees of getting there on time while based in Ireland.

Other families on the waiting list for transplants had also been informed that delays were a possibility for their children, while the possibility of encouraging other families to move temporarily was also mooted.

The memo, obtained under FOI, reveals that at one stage the Department of the Taoiseach wanted to look at “grounding” the Learjet for ministers and only have it available as an air ambulance.

However, that proposal would not have helped because so few pilots in the Air Corps were qualified to fly the executive jet.

The aeromedical service had faced major issues from February to June of this year after one of two CASA aircrafts, which is regularly used for transplant flights, had to be taken out of service for engine maintenance.

The Department of Health also put forward a separate series of proposals including rehiring retired pilots, or using civilian pilots, to improve the service.

They suggested “prioritising the transplant programme” by the Air Corps and introducing an incentive programme to keep military pilots from moving to the private sector.

The lack of round-the-clock air traffic control services at the Air Corp base at Baldonnel Aerodrome was also identified as an issue with officials suggesting an aircraft could be moved full-time to Dublin Airport instead.

It also explained how they were trying to maximise the number of hours in the day for which “green” service was available, that is a flight within an hour’s notice.

However, the memo said that “amber” and “red” availability was a problem where transport might take between two and five hours, or even more.

The memo said: “The Department of Defence response was on the lines that [they] … provide an air ambulance service on an as available basis; the Agreement does not, and never has, provided for a dedicated resource.

“They pointed out that the Air Corps is only one element of the service and suggested that other elements, namely the Coast Guard and private providers, should be used to address our emergency transport needs.”

Among other options presented to Minister Harris was offering an organ transplant service within Ireland, with the possibility of it being a joint service with the North.

However, the memo conceded: “It is questionable whether, given the small number of patients involved, that any such service would be sustainable or indeed safe.”

Other options outside of the Air Corps were also being considered including the shared use of a private air ambulance provider in use by the health system in Northern Ireland.

Also raised as a possibility was contracting a private air charter service based in Ireland.

Another option was put forward suggesting that the parents of families needing transplants might actually relocate temporarily.

The memo said: “[We would] ensure that both clinicians and families were aware of the issues and of the efforts being made to resolve these, to explore the options of families temporarily relocating to either Dublin or London, and to ensure that receiving hospitals in the UK were made aware of the current difficulties so as to ensure maximum notice was given when organs became available for Irish patients.”

The minister was told that if families did choose to move, they should be given financial support by the HSE to cover their costs.

In a statement, the Department of Health said air ambulances were being provided by the Air Corps, Coast Guard, and when necessary, private providers.

They said: “Because of challenges faced by the Air Corps to retain personnel and the consequent shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers, Air Corps availability for air ambulance services has been somewhat restricted.”

The Department said they had become more reliant on the Coast Guard and private providers as a result and that all priority one transfers this year had been done with the time frames allowed.

They said that changes to Irish Aviation Authority rules earlier this week meant “some service restrictions” would now apply to Coast Guard transfers.

However, the Air Corps had committed to increasing availability while options were looked at “for continued service provision into the future”.

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Corporate enforcer forced to wait years for key appointments of forensic accountants and computer experts

This is a two part-blog. First half is a story about the chaotic saga of getting forensic accountants appointed to Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement. Second half is about a similarly chaotic process of trying to fill a vacancy for an IT expert who could examine electronic evidence in the office.

Uploaded below are 600+ pages of documents that chronicle six years of communications between the ODCE and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation about staffing levels.

The final three years surrounding appointments of specialist staff make for depressing reading.

Part 1:

HIRING six senior accountants for the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement took more than two years amid chaos over getting the jobs approved and advertised.

At one stage, ODCE boss Ian Drennan said the entire process had been “nothing short of a disgrace” and that he was “mortified” about the prospect of a job advertisement filled with errors appearing in the national press.

The saga over getting the posts filled caused major discord within the Office and also the Department of Jobs and Enterprise, records released under FOI have revealed.

The ODCE first came looking for the posts in April 2013 after Ian Drennan – who had recently been appointed the Director of Corporate Enforcement – carried out a staffing review at the office.

There was public disquiet at the time because the ODCE only had a single accountant available while dealing with major investigations.

A Departmental submission said: “The situation arising where one of the main investigating agencies of those billion euro events has only one accountant’s experience to call upon is an unacceptable situation.”

By February of 2014, sanction from the Department of Public Expenditure [DPER] was still not forthcoming seven months after the ODCE had first come looking for extra staff.

An email between civil servants said: “I consider that the delay by DPER in responding to requests for sanction is not acceptable.

“Enforcement bodies such as the ODCE … should not be starved of key skills which they have identified are necessary to enable them to fulfil their statutory mandates.”

The email suggested that the matter now needed to be escalated and that then Minister Richard Bruton would contact his ministerial colleague Brendan Howlin directly.

By March, still nothing had been done with one email directly linking the delays in getting sanction to the banking crisis.

It said: “It is difficult not to see the delays in sanctioning recruitment (due to scarce public money) as being the result of the State having to aid private institutions that got into difficulty due to poor corporate governance.”

In May, with sanction for the jobs still not approved – the ODCE were separately contacted about cutting their costs by more than 6%.

An email by the Office’s now Head of Insolvency Conor O’Mahony said the latest cut proposed could have a “material risk” on whether they could properly investigate and prosecute significant cases.

By June, a letter from Minister Bruton was finally sent to the Department of Public Expenditure pleading the case for the extra accountants.

Sanction was not granted until October however, at which point the Department of Jobs began the process of getting the job hunt started.

One internal email explained how they were hopeful of getting the jobs filled early in 2015 – but that proved hopelessly optimistic.

By May, nothing had happened and work on the advertisement had been “crowded out” by a variety of issues in the personnel department “too many to number”.

At a meeting in July between the Department and the ODCE, the Office again pleaded for the process to be speeded up and asked that the jobs be advertised the following month.

By September, still nothing had happened and Ian Drennan wrote directly to the Department saying he was “anxious to progress this matter”.

A commitment was then made that the jobs would be advertised early in November but once again, crossed wires saw it delayed.

In late November, the text of the advertisement was circulated but was, according to the records, seriously problematic.

One internal email said: “It would be an embarrassment to the Department if it were to be published as drafted.”

Ian Drennan was also furious and in an email said: “Personally, I have nothing further to say on this subject. The manner in which this has been dealt with is nothing short of a disgrace.”

In another, he said the advert made no sense and “reads as though it was drafted by a child”.

Kevin Prendergast, the ODCE Head of Enforcement, said it did not even include a description of the actual job involved. He wrote: “What will issue tomorrow is something of a slap in the face for us all.”

The advert – with some of the mistakes corrected – did eventually appear and 46 people applied for the posts. However, interviews were delayed because of difficulties in getting a fraud expert for the panel.

In March 2016, the appointments finally went ahead after successful candidates were selected.

In a statement, the Department of Jobs said: “The challenges inherent in the recruitment of specialist staff resulted in delays recruiting these specialist staff once sanction had been secured.”

The ODCE said these resources were part of the report submitted to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in June after the botched Anglo trial.

“As the report is a confidential document, the ODCE is not in a position to elaborate further on its contents,” they said.

Part 2

THE Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) warned that it was being “compromised” on procurement laws because it did not have the capacity to analyse large amounts of electronic evidence.

The ODCE told the Department of Jobs that it did not have the in-house capacity to deal with huge amounts of data that had been seized as part of its investigations.

The corporate enforcement office had first asked for a computer expert to be hired in 2014 but the appointment did not take place until over two years later.

At one stage, even though it had been listed as a “priority” appointment, it was skipped and a potentially suitable candidate was assigned elsewhere in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.

In internal Departmental emails obtained under FOI, two senior civil servants raised major concerns last summer over why it had taken so long to fill the job.

One message said: “As you know, the sanction was received in October 2014. You will see from the letter that Minister [Richard] Bruton stated very clearly that he considered the ‘filling of these posts/vacancies to be of priority importance’.

“It is very concerning to see that a post that the Minister considered a priority two years ago was not prioritised by the Department.”

In another email, a different senior civil servant asked: “Surely a post that was considered of priority importance by the Minister two years ago should have been at the front of the queue for any available and suitable staff.”

In response, one of their colleagues said the Department was having serious difficulties in filling roles that required computer expertise.

The Department had been in discussions with the ODCE about hiring a person with IT experience but in the meantime, a “critical vacancy” had emerged in another section of the Department and the candidate was placed there instead.

In September last year, an internal Departmental email noted the ODCE still did not have an IT expert and looked for “urgent sanction” to make the appointment.

The memo said: “[Their] ability to progress investigations is hampered by the lack of in-house ICT expertise to analyse electronic data seized as part of its investigations.”

Later that month – further discussions took place saying that the appointment would need to be at a higher level to get the appropriate IT skills.

One internal email said: “The idea that somebody with such exceptional/scarce ICT skills in the private sector would take a HEO [higher executive officer] post in the Civil Service is not realistic.”

The records also show that the ODCE were also consistently raising issues over their lack of a computer expert.

In July 2016, Head of Enforcement Kevin Prendergast wrote: “Our ability to progress this [a case understood to be Anglo] and other investigations is regrettably hampered by the lack of in-house expertise to analyse the electronic data seized.”

They said their ability to go through proper procurement procedures was “inevitably compromised” because they were under so much pressure to deal with tight court deadlines.

As a result, they were being forced to use professional services that had been sourced externally

Mr Prendergast wrote: “Effectively we are caught between the rock of our legislative remit in relation to the pursuit of criminal investigations and the hard place of proper compliance, as staff of the Department, with public procurement best practice.”

He asked that the Department would impress on their management the “absolute priority” of filling the vacancy.

The ODCE has said that resourcing issues form part of the report they submitted to Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald in the wake of the Anglo trial debacle.

Asked specifically about the procurement issues and the hiring of an IT expert, they said they had “no further comment to make”.

The Department of Jobs said in a statement: “The recruitment of specialists in the ODCE was delayed due to a number of factors including obtaining sanction for posts and competition in an improving labour market for specific skill sets.

Queried about the procurement issues, they said: “That email highlighted that the lack of IT expertise in the ODCE may hamper the Office’s ability to comply fully with public procurement practices in certain circumstances.

“The Department is not aware of any instances in which the ODCE did not comply with public procurement guidelines. Further, an IT forensics specialist was recruited by the ODCE earlier this year.”

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Department warns over serious danger of fraud in annual spending of €340-a-million on childcare schemes

CHILDREN’S Minister Katherine Zappone has been warned that childcare schemes across the country are wide open to the potential for fraud.

In a submission, Ms Zappone was told there were “serious concerns” over the Department’s ability to monitor around €340 million in annual spending.

The memo said the current system allowed services to make “over-claims” and that it was impossible to be sure that funding was being used for the reasons it was provided.

More than twenty schemes were identified where the number of children officially registered was much higher than the numbers of kids actually attending.

Five separate schemes benefitting more than 100,000 children each year had been introduced in a “piecemeal fashion … at different times and when governance and compliance requirements were less clear”.

The submission was seen by Minister Katherine Zappone in April of this year who said she wanted a pragmatic approach to dealing with the problems raised.

Alarm bells had been set off in December 2014 when an audit of one childcare facility discovered over-claims of around €500,000. It is currently the subject of a garda investigation.

However, the internal memo warned that the problems identified were “systemic in nature” and could only be dealt with by new law, strong rules, sanctions, and new contractual requirements for service providers.

It said: “Various audit reports have found concerning levels of inadequacy with financial and compliance rules.”

The submission – obtained under FOI – said the so-called Community Childcare Subvention scheme was particularly problematic because the rules surrounding it were so ambiguous and inadequate.

It warned: “Fraud may be facilitated where the design of a scheme does not provide for a process to appraise the financial, administrative, and structural fitness of recipients of state funding.”

The memo said that Pobal – which manages programmes for the government and EU – was responsible for auditing the childcare services but that their hands were sometimes tied by the lack of clear rules.

Minister Zappone was also told that they also needed to examine whether Pobal was “adequately resourced to provide a robust compliance and audit function”.

In 2016, the Department had commissioned an audit by accountancy firm Mazars to look at early years services, according to the records.

Thirty different services had been looked at and while widespread fraud had not been discovered, the report says there were weaknesses in financial control and management.

The submission explained: “In some cases, Pobal … has been unable to satisfactorily complete audits due to lack of adequate records.

“Services themselves often report that they do not have sufficient resources to dedicate to the administrative burden of meeting governance requirements.”

According to a compliance report by Pobal, 1,314 out of 3,000 services visited were ‘major[ly] non-compliant’ with the terms of their childcare scheme.

They said weaknesses identified were not always evidence of fraud or the misappropriation of funding.

However, in many instances, the number of children recorded at the centres was inaccurate and created a situation where “the accuracy of subvention payments cannot be assessed”.

In almost two dozen cases, serious compliance issues were identified where the number of children registered was significantly higher than the numbers attending.

“At present there is no effective means to verify the scale of the problem,” the report said.

Minister Zappone was also warned that expansion of childcare funding – some of which was announced in last year’s budget – could leave the Department open to further problems.

It said: “Issuing new contracts and providing increased funding to existing or to new services without appropriate governance systems and structures to enable assurance of good practice regarding state funding could leave the Department unable to verify the proper use of money provided.”

In a statement, the Department said they were working “intensively” to address the issues raised in the submission.

They said the schemes had been introduced quickly with limited resources to manage them but that tens of thousands of families had benefitted over the years.

The statement said: “The Department has been working for some time to ensure appropriate financial and administrative compliance in this area, balanced with sufficient flexibility to enable small, local providers to meet important needs of young families.”

They said many of the governance and compliance issues would be addressed when the new Affordable Childcare Scheme is put in place.

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RTÉ should review loss-making public service broadcasting, internal Department of Public Expenditure documents say

THE Department of Public Expenditure said RTÉ needs to cut costs more before any commitment should be made to give them extra funding.

RTÉ should be asked to review loss-making public service broadcasting and even look at what services it was providing, an internal Departmental briefing note says.

The memo for Minister Paschal Donohoe was prepared as part of discussions over the sale of lands at the broadcaster’s campus in Montrose.

It said that both RTÉ and the Department of Communications were looking for funding for the broadcaster to be restored to 2009 levels when it was €20 million higher.

However, the Department of Public Expenditure said that they “did not necessarily accept that further additional Exchequer funding should be provided or that the level of Exchequer funding should be restored to its peak”.

The submission said that they expected RTÉ would again ask for more money in Budget 2018 and that chair of the board Moya Doherty was seeking a meeting to discuss the broadcaster’s “poor finances”.

It said that the broadcaster had done all it could in cutting operating costs but that savings might be available elsewhere.

“That does not mean that the level of loss-making public service broadcasting could not be reviewed and/or that non-Exchequer solutions to RTÉ’s problems could be pursued,” it said.

The report said other options were available including increasing the licence fee, tackling its evasion, and targeting “advertising leakage”.

“In short, all factors driving RTÉ’s costs (including assumptions about what services it should be providing) and revenues should be examined before concluding that additional Exchequer funding should be given” it said.

Minister Donohoe was also told he should approve the land sale at Montrose and that the money raised was not going to be used to shore up operating losses.

RTÉ had not been prepared to share what they hoped to receive from offloading the nine acres saying that it was “commercially sensitive”.

However, the Department significantly under-estimated the amount that RTÉ did eventually receive saying a sale figure of between €50 and €70 million could be expected. In the end, the land was snapped up by Cairn Homes for €107.5 million.

The briefing note, obtained under FOI, also warned that the sale of the lands could have a significant impact on the amount of fiscal space available to the government.

It illustrated how it would be preferable if RTÉ spent the money they raised very quickly because of EU rules on accounting for land sales.

The submission explained: “If €50 million was received in 2017 and was spent by RTÉ in 2017, it would have no impact on fiscal space in 2018.

“If €50 million was received in 2017 and was spent by RTÉ in 2018, it would reduce fiscal space in 2018 by €100 million.”

A separate briefing document prepared for Communications Minister Denis Naughten explained that just over one third of the money raised was going to be used to fund “organisation restructuring”, understood to be a redundancy scheme.

It said that 46% of the cash would go towards “capital investment in digital technology and services and upgrades of buildings in Donnybrook to facilitate collaborative work spaces”.

Just under a fifth of the money was going to be used to refinance existing debt, the memo said.

Minister Naughten was told that early in 2017 was the best time to sell the land to avoid the property slowdown that comes each summer, and the risk of any unforeseen economic shocks.

The submission also explained how sales agent Savills thought it would be better not to put an advance valuation on the property because it could have a “detrimental impact” on the bidding process.

It said that Minister Naughten should approve the process only if the offer met “value expectations” and that his consent would be for twelve months only.

The Department of Public Expenditure said in a statement that it had a shareholder function in relation to how commercial state bodies like RTÉ operate.

They said: “[We believe] that all factors driving RTÉ’s costs should be given consideration as part of ongoing efforts to ensure the commercial sustainability of the broadcaster.

“In relation to funding, an additional €5 million was provided to RTÉ in Budget 2017. The Department … has no further comment to make on the content of this submission.”

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Irish Water’s parent company Ervia looked for €250,000-a-year salary for new chief executive, €30,000 more than agreed

IRISH Water’s parent company Ervia looked for a €250,000 salary for its incoming chief executive despite being told the pay for the position had to be €30,000 less.

The appointment of former Bórd Na Móna executive Mike Quinn was eventually agreed with a pay package of €225,000, a hike of €5,000 on what had originally been agreed on by government.

A significant bonus of VHI health insurance for the candidate’s family was also included as part of the deal along with a car and pension entitlements.

Departmental documents obtained under FOI by Right to Know also show how Ervia, which runs Irish Water along with gas networks in Ireland, was having serious difficulties in finding a candidate for the job.

In January 2017, a €220,000 pay package was agreed by Minister Paschal Donohoe with the use of a car also provided for the role.

Health insurance would be available through a group scheme – however, the candidate was going to have to pay for it themselves.

In May however, Minister Donohoe was told by civil servants that following the recruitment process “a change to these terms” was needed.

A submission to Mr Donohoe said: “The revised package includes a salary of €225,000 and health insurance for the CEO, his spouse and his dependent children through the company’s group membership at the company’s expense.”

It also said the contract should be flexible regarding the nature of the role if unforeseen changes, including upheaval over Irish Water, ended up with any major restructuring of the group.

A note on the submission from Minister Paschal Donohoe says simply: “I agree.”

Internal records from the Department of Communications explain that 187 different candidates had been identified for the job originally.

However, many had withdrawn “due to the complex nature of the job” and what was described as a “significant gap in salary expectations”.

A briefing document explained: “Eventually six candidates were shortlisted with three progressing to the final interview. One of these withdrew due to the salary package on offer.

“The Ervia chairman has indicated that, following detailed psychometric testing, a standout candidate was chosen by the interview panel.”

After discussing terms with the candidate, Ervia decided that a salary package of €225,000 per annum plus the family health insurance would be required.

NewERA – a branch of the National Treasury Management Agency that offers advisory services to government – were asked to examine the proposal.

In their report, which has been withheld under FOI, they are understood to have agreed with the increased rate of pay.

The briefing document said: “Having considered the strong advice of the board [of Ervia] that they have one recommended candidate only, NewERA has recommended that reliance is placed on the Board’s assessment of the require remuneration terms and that the requested approvals are given.”

The views of Minister Denis Naughten were also sought and in May, he signed off on the enhanced deal.

The submission also explains how Ervia had originally wanted a quarter of a million euros for their candidate but had come back with a lower offer.

It said: “Ervia had initially sought an increase in the package to €250,000 plus VHI family insurance. Following further negotiation, it appears that €225,000 plus VHI family insurance will be acceptable to the candidate.”

In a statement, the Department of Public Expenditure said they agreed with Ervia that an improved package had been needed.

They said: “The Board of Ervia made a strong business case for the proposed terms and conditions. This was accepted by both the Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform, and Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

“Under the circumstances, the Department is satisfied that the specific terms are appropriate for this post.”

They said that the salary range allowed for the post was between €190,014 and €238,727 and that the new chief executive, who will start in October, will be paid less than his predecessor.

Michael McNicholas, who had held the role, had been given a more generous salary “on an exceptional basis, reflecting the challenges for Ervia in establishing Irish Water as a subsidiary”, Departmental documents said.

In a statement, Ervia confirmed they had originally sought €250,000 for the new candidate and said the package eventually decided upon was “a matter for DPER [the Department of Public Expenditure]”.

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