PART I-GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
MINUTE OF THE MINISTER FOR FINANCE DATED 22nd NOVEMBER, 1976
REPORT DATED 13 JULY, 1972
Recovery of Moneys.
1. The Committee notes that the Minister has had proceedings instituted in the German courts against a German citizen for the recovery of certain money spent and that it will be kept informed of developments.
REPORT DATED 28 JUNE, 1973
Audit of Accounts of State Sponsored Bodies.
2. The Committee notes the Minister’s view that the question of the scrutiny and control of State-sponsored bodies by Parliament and, in particular, by the Comptroller and Auditor General, is one which could be considered by the Joint Oireachtas Committee of the Dáil and Seanad which it is proposed to set up to review the activities of the State-sponsored bodies engaged in trading or commercial operations. The Committee agrees with this view and in the circumstances will defer further consideration of the matter for the present.
Payments to Special Regional Development Fund (Grant-in-Aid).
3. The Committee notes that the Government has instituted an inquiry with the following terms of reference: “to examine and report on the appropriate organisation and structures for the planning, co-ordination and discharge of the functions of Government at sub-national level” and that it will be informed of developments in relation to the further consideration of payments to the Special Regional Development Fund in the overall context of this inquiry. It hopes that the results of this inquiry will be made available quickly.
REPORT DATED 23 JANUARY, 1975
Roinn na Gaeltachta.
4. The Committee notes that the Minister accepts its view that where, in relation to bodies like Gaeltarra Éireann, it is proposed to make an issue towards the end of a financial year in respect of expenditure accrued due by the grantee, the Accounting Officer should be fully satisfied that the expenditure being accrued relates to the service of the year for which the grant-in-aid is provided. It also notes that the Minister considers that details of such issues should be furnished to the Comptroller and Auditor General by way of separate schedule rather than, as suggested by the Committee, being noted on the face of the Appropriation Account. The Committee is prepared to accept this arrangement.
Breaches of Accounting Principles.
5. The Committee notes that it is envisaged that training courses in the principles of Government accounting will continue to be held on a regular basis in the Civil Service Training Centre and that a booklet entitled An Outline of Irish Financial Procedures has been issued and is being made available to the staffs of Government departments. The Committee acknowledeges the copies of the booklet which it received and considers it is a useful contribution towards maintaining efficient and uniform procedures throughout the public service.
Supplementary Grants to Córas Iompair Éireann.
6. The necessity for amending legislation to validate the payment of grants voted in addition to existing statutory grants was initially referred to by the Committee in its report on the 1971-72 Appropriation Accounts in relation to grants paid to Córas Iompair Éireann. Other payments which, in the view of the Committee, require such validation have been referred to in its report on the 1973-74 Appropriation Accounts.
As the matter at issue here is common to all these cases the Committee considers it appropriate to deal with it under one general heading and, accordingly, its views on the legal advice received from the Attorney General’s Office will be found in paragraph 12 of this report.
REPORT DATED 30 OCTOBER, 1975
Central Statistics Office.
7. The Committee notes that the Department of Finance, in consultation with the Department of the Public Service, has issued instructions that, as from 1977, expenditure on office equipment met by Departments from their own Votes should, where the projected expenditure is £20,000 or more, be provided for in a separate subhead of the relevant Vote and that where the projected expenditure is less than £20,000 provision will be made in the “Travelling and Incidental Expenses” subhead. The Committee considers this to be a satisfactory arrangement, provided that exceptional items of expenditure which would not normally be expected to fall within the description “Office equipment” (in relation to the nature and needs of the Department concerned) are referred to specifically.
8. In paragraph 13 of its report dated 24 June, 1976 the Committee sought information regarding the effectiveness of the revised procedures adopted in order to reduce the possibility of motor tax avoidance. It notes that the Minute of the Minister for Finance dated 22 November, 1976 does not refer to this matter and the Committee would welcome the information which it sought.
Agriculture—Recovery of Loans.
9. The Committee notes that the Attorney General has been asked to advise on the circumstances in which recovery of the loans made to the meat industry in 1972-73 could be effected and that it will be informed of the legal position in regard to their repayment when the advice of the Attorney General is received. The Committee trusts that this matter will be finalised without further delay.
Office of the Minister for Education—National College of Art and Design.
10. The Committee is very concerned that there will be no repetition of the delay which occurred in the submission of these accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General for audit. The Committee has had occasion in recent years to comment on similar delays in other cases. It therefore urges that Accounting Officers be informed of the necessity to ensure, in so far as they can, that State-sponsored bodies and other organisations, for whose funding they have a measure of responsibilty, submit their accounts for audit without undue delay.
REPORT DATED 24 JUNE, 1976
Public Works and Buildings.
11. The Committee notes that the Minister for the Public Service, in consultation with the Office of Public Works, is considering what measures are necessary to improve the recruitment of Cost Accountants (now styled Professional Accountants) and that it will be notified of the outcome.
Payments requiring validation by specific legislation.
12. The Minute of the Minister for Finance, dated 20th February, 1976, on the Report of the Committee on the Appropriation Accounts 1972-73, stated
“The Minister notes the Committee’s view that the provisions of an Act of the Oireachtas may not be amended other than by further legislation. While the Minister is legally advised that the Appropriation Act constitutes such further legislation..............................”
The Committee (Paragraph 10 of report dated 24th June, 1976) did not accept the view that the Appropriation Act constitutes the further legislation which it considers should be enacted to validate the issue out of voted moneys of grants in excess of the limits laid down in existing legislation. In addition to the supplementary grants to CIE, which had been at issue, it pointed to further cases (Paragraph 24 of that report) which had come to its attention in which amending legislation to validate payments under schemes covered by specific enactments had not been passed. Accordingly the Committee sought an opportunity of studying the legal opinion received by the Minister and the submission on which it was based.
The Committee notes that the legal advice had been conveyed orally and that, following the Committee’s request, a written submission to the Office of the Attorney General was made on 14th September, 1976 which was replied to on 22nd September, 1976. The Committee is obliged for the copies received. Nevertheless it feels that as the written submission seeking legal advice was made almost three months after its report of 24th June, 1976 and as the matter involved was one of general principle, reference should have been made in it to the further cases to which the Committee had drawn attention in paragraph 24 of that report. If that had been done, the Committee is satisfied that the legal advice would not have been expressed in the form in which it was given. The advice is not compatible with the case of the housing reconstruction grants which were paid at a higher rate than that provided for by statute and in respect of which no supplementary estimate was introduced as the subhead provision in the original estimate was sufficient to cover them. The original estimate had been presented to the Dáil without reference to an increase in the amount of the grants. The end result of the procedures in that case was that the limit laid down by statute on the amounts of reconstruction grants was exceeded without reference to Dáil Éireann.
It is clear to the Committee that the efforts made in the past to justify, by reference to the Appropriation Act, the making of payments in excess of amounts specifically provided for in particular legislation has now led to the situation in which, as in the case of the housing reconstruction grants, statutory limits are being ignored and parliamentary control is no longer evident.
On the general principle involved, the Committee makes the following points:
(a) The Appropriation Act appropriates moneys voted by Dáil Éireann for services described in Part I, the ambit, of each estimate. It makes no reference to the subheads and therefore gives no legal standing to the subheads. A subhead which provides for a payment to CIE could not therefore be held, by virtue of the Appropriation Act, to provide statutory validation for payments in excess of the limits laid down by the Transport Acts.
(b) There was, in fact, no reference in the long title or in the text of the Appropriation Act to the amendment of the Transport Acts.
(c) If it is being held that the Appropriation Act constitutes amending legislation by virtue of what is contained in the subheads of particular estimates, the subheads themselves then assume a statutory significance which is at variance with recognised principles of Government accounting. It would call in question immediately the practice of virement under which, by the specific authority of the Minister for Finance, savings on one or more subheads can be applied to meet excess expenditure on another subhead or subheads in the same Vote. Virement would be in breach of the Appropriation Act if the subheads had any statutory significance.
(d) Successive Committees of Public Accounts have been adamant that the Appropriation Act provides no statutory cover for payments in excess of the limits laid down by particular statutes relating to, for example, transport, housing, pensions. This Committee holds the same view.
Conceding, as established practice, that ex post facto regularisation of payments in excess of current statutory authority must be admitted in appropriate cases, the Committee nevertheless considers that the ultimate logic of the contention that the Appropriation Act, per se, is a sufficient authority for and validation of expenditure in excess of existing statutory limits, specifically provided by particular statutes, would entail:—
(a) a conflict between explicit provisions of substantive statutory law unquestionably in force and the equally statutorily puissant Appropriation Act—a conflict which a Court, if reference were made thereto, could only resolve by deeming the Appropriation Act to overrule and amend the pre-existing specific statutes; or else, to hold the expenditure to have been ultra vires; and
(b) a general delegation to the Executive of power arbitrarily to vary the amount of expenditure, albeit for authorised purposes, irrespective of controlling statutes without affording the Dáil, at the time of enactment and provision of supply, the information necessary for effective parliamentary control. In this the Committee cannot acquiesce.
The Committee is concerned that, in such a vital area as the control of public expenditure, differences of opinion should arise which might cloud the guidelines by which Accounting Officers throughout the civil service are expected to operate. This development would be particularly unfortunate following the publication of An Outline of Irish Financial Procedures which the Committee hopes will be instrumental in obviating breaches of the principles of Government accounting. In the circumstances, the Committee hopes that, in the interests of full parliamentary control, it will be accepted that where payments of any kind are delimited by statute they can be increased only by further legislation authorising the increases. In the light of the realities of parliamentary business, the Committee accepts that temporary situations will arise in which strict adherence to this principle would simply not be possible; and it accepts that in such situations pending the enactment of legislation, a supplementary estimate could be introduced to allow the increased payments to be made, provided, as stated in the report of the Committee of Public Accounts dated 20th March, 1952, that
“Where such an emergency arises the fact that the proposed vote overrides an existing statute should be clearly stated on the face of the estimate with the reasons for adopting that course, so that no doubt can exist of the deliberate intention of the Dáil.”
Office of the Revenue Commissioners.
13. The Committee notes that consideration is being given to the question of further steps to improve the position in regard to tax collection and that it will be kept informed of developments.
Office of the Revenue Commissioners-Comparison of V.A.T. Returns with accounts submitted for Income Tax purposes.
14. The Committee notes that arrangements for reconciliation were put into operation as soon as value-added tax returns could be accumulated for periods corresponding, as closely as possible, to the accounting years of taxpayers and that these returns are summarised by computer and distributed to the local tax offices where they are placed on the relevant income tax files. It also notes that when accounts are received for income tax or corporation tax purposes the Inspector of Taxes carries out a consistency test as between the two sets of figures. The Committee is pleased to note that, on the basis of returns from tax offices showing the number of queries raised following these tests, the indications are that the arrangements are working satisfactorily.
15. The Committee notes that the Department of Lands has been asked to classify the major items in the heading for miscellaneous receipts for 1977 and subsequent years and that for 1976 the matter will be dealt with by way of footnote to the Appropriation Account. It also notes that the Department of Finance is bringing to the attention of all Accounting Officers the view of the Committee that, where an Appropriation Account includes the general head “Miscellaneous” under Appropriations-in-Aid, details of the principal items involved should be given in an explanatory note to the subhead and that their attention is also being directed to the Committee’s view on the desirability of breaking down sizeable miscellaneous provisions in debit subheads in the Estimates so as to give information regarding the nature of the expenditure proposed.
Agriculture-Delays in collecting Monetary Compensatory Amounts.
16. The Committee notes that the total amount of MCAs outstanding in the cattle and beef sector on 31 March, 1976 was £5,903,800 of which £5,861,000 related to trade with member States and was payable directly to the European Communities while the remaining £42,800 related to trade with non-member States and would be payable to the Exchequer in the first instance. It also notes that the position in regard to other commodities is generally satisfactory.
The Committee is glad to learn that the amount outstanding at November 1976 had been reduced to £2.5 million approximately and that all debtors are being strongly pressed by the Department of Agriculture to clear outstanding debts. It notes that legal proceedings are being instituted in a number of cases and also that some of the amounts outstanding are being progressively reduced by offsetting against them sums due to the exporters in question.
The amount still outstanding is, however, very large and the Committee shares the Minister’s concern that all moneys should be collected as soon as possible. It will await with interest the information as promised on the success of the measures being taken to recover the moneys due.
PART II—PARTICULAR ACCOUNTS
17. The Committee considered the charge to this Vote in respect of overtime payments to members of the Garda Síochána which, as noted in the Appropriation Account, amounted to £5,681,703 in 1974. This represents 26.6% of the charge to the Vote for salaries, wages and allowances and the Committee wondered whether this was regarded as value for money or whether there was a danger of reaching a point of diminishing returns when the money would be better utilised in recruiting new persons rather than paying what might be regarded as excessive amounts of overtime. The Accounting Officer explained that the question of overtime is a very complex one and is related to the general security situation. The allocation of overtime today is and, in the nature of things, has to be dealt with within the Garda Síochána by different Officers. Up to a point, overtime, even though it is paid at higher rates, is more economical than employing extra men. He stated that the problems which flow from high overtime are well recognised but that there were duties to be discharged and that, when the security situation demands increased Garda activity, it is not physically possible to recruit and train additional people immediately.
The Committee accepts that the circumstances giving rise to the payment of overtime from this Vote in recent years were exceptional. While it does not propose to comment specifically on these overtime payments it is of the opinion that, as a general rule, in cases in which fairly large sums are likely to be paid to individuals over long periods by way of overtime, regard should always be had to the level of efficiency of persons who are continually employed on overtime and also to the feasibility of recruiting additional personnel with a view to removing or reducing the need for the payment of large sums for overtime.
OFFICE OF THE MINISTER FOR EDUCATION—NATIONAL COUNCIL FOR EDUCATIONAL AWARDS
18. The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention in his report to the fact that, whereas moneys were provided by Dáil Éireann for the expenses of the National Council for Educational Awards in an ordinary vote subhead, the Department of Education appeared to be treating the Council as a body financed by grant-in-aid. He explained that the charge to the subhead, £95,600, represented the net issues made by the Department to the Council in 1974, whereas the correct charge should be £94,116 being the actual amount of expenses incurred by the Council in that period. He also pointed out that, at 31 December, 1974, the Council had on hands £20,305 comprising £14,914 surplus cash out of voted moneys which should have been surrendered to the Exchequer, £4,008 fees received by the Council which should have been remitted to the Department and £1,383 bank interest earned on a deposit account. The Accounting Officer informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that the Council had since surrendered the fees collected and that the Vote issues to the Council in the following year had been adjusted to take account of the other moneys which they had on hands at the end of 1974. In evidence the Accounting Officer said that the difficulty arose because of a doubt as to whether the provision for the National Council for Educational Awards should be made by way of grant-in-aid. He explained that the status of the Council had been a matter of some uncertainty pending the enactment of legislation but that it was in course of becoming a designated institution to the Higher Education Authority. As such it would be grant-aided through that Authority. Arising out of this case the Committee feels obliged to emphasise the fundamental principle that, at the end of an accounting period, surplus moneys must be surrendered to the Exchequer unless they have been provided as a grant-in-aid and it requests that the necessity for compliance with this rule be brought to the notice of all Accounting Officers. The Committee does not propose to enter into a debate as to whether the National Council for Educational Awards should be financed by way of grant-in-aid or not. However, because of the accounting problem which arose from the uncertainty which existed in this case, it recommends that, when consideration is being given to the method of financing newly established bodies such as the Council, care should be taken to select the most practicable method which would not create accounting difficulties but would maintain adequate financial control.
19. The Committee considered paragraph 35 of the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General which drew attention to the absence of proper financial control by the Department of Education over a major scheme of adaptation and extension which was being carried out at one of the teacher training colleges and was being funded from voted moneys. The scheme included the conversion of dormitories into seminar and tutorial rooms, the alteration of hostel accommodation, the conversion of the assembly hall into a lecture theatre, the extension of dining facilities and the provision of a new kitchen. Approval was given by the Minister for Finance in May, 1972 for the commencement of the works but, from an examination of the departmental files on the scheme, it appeared to the Comptroller and Auditor General that the works had commenced before this approval was sought and that the college authorities had awarded the contract to a selected contractor without competitive tendering.
After commencement of the works the college authorities following consultation with their professional advisers, decided that the best way to provide for the requisite dining and kitchen facilities would be the construction of a new building rather than the conversion and adaptation of existing facilities. Accordingly, fresh plans were drawn up and a separate contract for this work was placed in August, 1973 with the contractor who was already engaged on the main scheme. A contract price of £201,000 was stated by the college authorities to have been negotiated on the basis of a bill of approximate quantities for a similar project carried out by this contractor and to have been compared with a check tender obtained from another building firm. It appeared that the Department of Education had not become aware of this deviation from the original plans until March, 1974 when it received architect’s certificates in respect of work on the kitchen/dining hall contract. After an examination of the plans and documentation for this block the Department’s Building Unit expressed the opinion that an excess cost of some £160,000, later reduced to £100,000, would arise due to the failure to process the project in accordance with normal procedures, including competitive tendering, and to the failure to limit the area of the new building to the Unit’s standards. At 31 August, 1975 grants paid from the Vote on the kitchen/dining hall contract amounted to £194,534.
In his report the Comptroller and Auditor General stated that the relevant departmental files indicated that proper financial control was not exercised over this scheme as evidenced by (1) the absence of records of decisions taken on expenditure (2) the absence of any formal authorisation to the college authorities to proceed with the works (3) the failure to have plans and cost estimates checked in detail by the Department’s Building Unit, notwithstanding an undertaking given to the Department of Finance that this would be done (4) the apparent lack of awareness of the deviation from the original plans for the kitchen/dining facilities and (5) the failure to ensure that Building Unit standards in tendering and in area limits were adhered to. He added, however, that the college authorities maintained that they had acted after consultations with the Department of Education and that they had kept that Department fully informed of progress on the main scheme and on the kitchen/dining hall building. The Minister for Finance, in December 1974, approved expenditure on the kitchen/dining hall building subject to strict control by the Building Unit on further expenditure and without prejudice to the question of securing a contribution from the college authorities towards the excess costs.
The Accounting Officer stated in correspondence with the Comptroller and Auditor General that it was misleading to refer to the figure of £100,000 as excess expenditure; what it really represented was the difference between the cost of the scheme prepared by the architect engaged by the college authorities and the estimated cost of a scheme which the Department’s Building Unit would have recommended as providing accommodation adequate to requirements. He also stated that neither the college authorities nor their architects would accept the contention that a scheme within the cost limits set by the Building Unit would meet their requirements. He added that the condition under which the Department of Finance sanctioned the continuation of the work on this project i.e. that it would be subject to strict control by the Department’s Building Unit was being fulfilled and would continue to be fulfilled by his Department. In regard to the future, the Accounting Officer stated that procedures had been so adjusted within the Department of Education that no commitment could be entered into for capital expenditure on any post-primary building project unless the design and cost of the project have been approved by the Building Unit and that all payments in relation to such projects must be monitored and approved by that Unit.
In evidence before the Committee the Accounting Officer stated that the Building Unit felt that, had they been in control of the work from the beginning, they could have done it more cheaply but that they were not saying that what was done was in any way unwarranted or unnecessary. He admitted, however, that the control of this operation by the Primary Branch of his Department had been defective but he stated that this could not happen again because such operation are now being controlled by the Building Unit. He explained that the conflict as to whether there had been proper consultation between the college authorities and the Department arose from the fact that the Building Unit is one part of the Department and the Primary Branch, which dealt with the training colleges, is another part. The college authorities had been working in consultation with the Primary Branch of the Department and the matter had not been assigned to the Building Unit. He stated that, when the Department of Education informed the Department of Finance that this project was to be subject to the scrutiny of the Building Unit in relation to cost control, planning had already been done by the college authorities through their usual team of architects and a contractor. This procedure had given complete satisfaction for many years, particularly in relation to the speed of operation, and there had been no practice and no requirement of competitive tendering under the regulations which were then applicable to the training colleges. He agreed that it was the intention in this case that the Primary Branch of the Department and Building Unit would co-operate in working out a building programme but that it seemed that it was the urgency of the work and the fact that a beginning had already been made on the traditional basis that prevented this from becoming effective. However, if the Building Unit had been involved in the project it was very unlikely that it would have got off the ground so soon as the Unit was heavily engaged in other work at the time. The Building Unit accepted that the building which had been put up was value for money. Control by the Building Unit was not a requirement of the Department of Finance but rather a voluntary discipline intended by the Department of Education. In regard to the question of securing a contribution from the college authorities towards the excess costs, the Accounting Officer stated in evidence that the whole concept of a local contribution from the teacher training colleges is something which is inconsistent with the basis on which these colleges were established and on which they have been financed from the beginning. He agreed, however, that further consideration of this aspect of the matter could be deferred until the contractor’s final account for this work becomes available. Following on his examination by the Committee the Accounting Officer submitted a memorandum for the purpose of further clarifying the relationship between the training colleges and the Department of Education, with particular reference to the question of public tendering for capital works and of security for State investment in such works.
In this memorandum the Accounting Officer gave a historical account of the basis on which the training colleges were endowed from State funds over the years and stated that public tendering had not been a requirement for works of enlargement at these colleges. In the case of the training college in question substantial enlargements had been swiftly effected down the years on an extremely economical basis by prudent domestic methods. The Committee has given serious consideration to the issues arising in this case in the light of the comments of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the evidence, oral and written, presented by the Accounting Officer. It cannot accept that the major scheme of capital works carried out at this training college and funded entirely from Exchequer moneys should not have been subject to the normal competitive tendering procedures merely because its execution was directly supervised by the college authorities. The Committee must insist that the practice of competitivie tendering be adhered to in all capital works contracts funded by the Exchequer, whether they are managed directly by Departments or by outside agencies, and it would welcome an assurance by the Department of Finance in this matter.
The Committee notes from the memorandum submitted by the Accounting Officer that it is intended, with the agreement of the college authorities, that all future capital works in this college will be subject to public tendering. It also notes from this memorandum that it is proposed that an indenture will be executed to secure that the college continues to be used exclusively for the training of national school teachers or for some other educational purpose approved by the Minister for Education and that provision will be included in this indenture for the repayment of State capital grants in the event of the college ceasing to be so used. The Committee considers that such an indenture, guaranteeing the usage of the college for approved educational purposes, should have been drawn up prior to the commencement of the works of adaptation and extension. Nevertheless, it welcomes the assurance of the Accounting Officer that such an indenture will be executed and it urges that this be done without further delay.
The Committee agrees with the Comptroller and Auditor General that the financial control exercised by the Department of Education over this scheme was seriously deficient. It would appear that these deficiencies in control arose, in the main, from a complete lack of communication and co-operation between the Building Unit of the Department of Education and the Primary Branch of that Department. The Committee must express its grave concern at this unsatisfactory situation which it hopes has already been rectified. The Committee further considers that the deficiency in proper control and procedures on the part of the Department of Education could result in embarrassment for the college authorities and regards this as unfortunate.
The Committee wishes to be informed of the final expenditure figures for the overall contract and for the separate kitchen/dining hall contract, when available, and of the decision arrived at in regard to seeking a contribution from the college authorities. It also wishes to learn whether there were any other deviations from the original contract apart from the one which related to the kitchen/dining facilities.
20. The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention in his report to the non-collection of local contributions towards the capital costs of eleven community schools, which cost had amounted to £4,188,060 at 31 December, 1974. When approving the provision of these schools the Minister for Finance had directed in October 1970 that a local contribution should be obtained in every case and he indicated that he would rely on the Department of Education to secure the maximum possible contribution in the light of local circumstances. As a local contribution had not been received or agreed in any case by 30 June 1975 the Comptroller and Auditor General sought information from the Accounting Officer as to the steps being taken to implement the direction of the Minister for Finance in this matter. The Accounting Officer informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that the Minister for Education had informed the responsible ecclesiastical authorities that it was expected that a local contribution to be shared between the vocational education committee and the secondary school concerned, would be 10% of the initial capital expenditure in each case. Negotiations in individual cases had not been finalised because of the desire to complete first of all an agreed version of a deed of trust. In December 1975 such an agreed version was available but, before negotiations were entered into with the individual groups of school authorities immediately concerned, it was desired to seek to reach agreement in principle with the ecclesiastical authorities in regard to the amount of the local contribution to be inserted in the deed. In September 1976 the Accounting Officer further informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that an amended basis for dealing with the matter which had been approved by the Department of Finance had been put to the major ecclesiastical authorities for their agreement and that it was anticipated that the Department of Education would be in a position to request local contributions on the amended basis in the near future. In his evidence before the Committee the Accounting Officer stated that their main anxiety at the beginning was to get these community schools built and operating. The difficulty in collecting local contributions was one of establishing the correct and proper basis on which to demand them. As far as the local ecclesiastical authorities were concerned the matter had now been resolved but there was a further difficulty in relation to the moiety of the contribution to be collected from the vocational education committees. The Department’s desire was that this moiety should be a real local contribution which would come from moneys raised by the local rating authority rather than from grants made to the committees from voted moneys. The Department had been in touch with the vocational education committee having, perhaps, the most community schools in its area and this committee and the relevant local authority are extremely reluctant to have this moiety funded by the rates. Consequently, the matter would now have to be discussed again with the Department of Finance with a view to ascertaining whether this would have to be insisted on or whether any alternative arrangement could be made.
The Committee recognises that there was an urgency in getting the provision of these schools under way. Neverthelesss, it considers that there should have been ample time, while the project was yet in the planning stage, to arrive at an agreed basis for establishing the local contributions to be paid. In failing to agree such a basis in advance of the commencement of work on the schools the Department of Education created a serious problem for itself in regard to the collection of the local contributions towards the cost of these schools, a problem which, unfortunately, still remained to be solved in December, 1976 when the matter came before the Committee.
The Committee must take a serious view of the long delay in collecting these local contributions, especially having regard to the high level of expenditure of voted moneys on the provision of these community schools and the high cost to the Exchequer of funding this expenditure. It requests that all possible steps be taken to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion without further delay, if this has not already been done.
Finally, it would urge that, in future, where it is intended that projects are to be funded partly from Exchequer sources and partly from local contributions, from whatever source, expenditure of Exchequer moneys should not be incurred until such time as the local contributions have been collected or, at any rate, until their collection has been satisfactorily guaranteed.
The Committee wishes to be kept informed of the progress made in the collection of the local contributions towards the cost of the community schools.
21. The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention in his report to the expenditure of voted moneys on the construction of sports complexes, including swimming pools, at four community schools and at one comprehensive school and to the delay in collecting agreed local contributions amounting to £335,000. He also pointed out that the specific sanction of the Minister for Finance had not been sought for the incurring of the expenditure on swimming pools and for the financial arrangements regarding local contributions. The Comptroller and Auditor General told the Committee that the Accounting Officer had informed him in December, 1975 that it was not considered necessary to seek the specific sanction of the Minister for Finance for the expenditure of voted moneys on the provision of swimming pools as it was envisaged that the local contributions would fully cover the cost of the pools. In evidence the Accounting Officer informed the Committee that this expenditure was met out of the capital allocation made available to the Department of Education and that, at the time it was incurred, the view was being taken in his Department that, in relation to such a capital allocation, specific sanction was unnecessary for individual items such as swimming pools where the cost was being refunded to the Department.
The Committee must again express its concern at the delay in collecting local contributions which resulted in voted moneys being expended with consequential cost to the Exchequer. It wishes to stress again what it has said in paragraph 20 regarding the expenditure of voted moneys in anticipation of refunds from local sources.
The Committee notes that the specific sanction of the Minister for Finance for this expenditure of voted moneys was not sought. It must insist that this sanction should have been sought, notwithstanding that it was intended that the voted moneys expended would be refunded from local sources; even the temporary use of such moneys involves a charge on the Exchequer. The need to obtain Department of Finance sanction in such cases should be brought to the notice of all Accounting Officers.
22. The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to expenditure amounting to £1,259,171, including £496,565 in the period under review, on the building of three vocational schools which had been charged to the Vote for Secondary Education. The provision of these schools was financed, in part, by way of loan facilities made available to the Exchequer by the World Bank. The Accounting Officer informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that, as the arrangement was on the basis of the acceptance by the Bank that these three schools were in the nature of community/comprehensive schools, the expenditure on their erection was charged against the subhead provision for such schools in the Vote for Secondary Education. He also stated that the Department of Finance had been informed in May 1972 of the intention to make all payments arising under the programme covered by the World Bank loan out of the vote for Secondary Education.
The Comptroller and Auditor General would not agree that the nature of the financial arrangements made to fund part of the expenditure on the provision of vocational schools—in this case a World Bank loan—regularised the charging of that expenditure to the Vote for Secondary Education when it is clearly outside the ambit of that Vote. He also stated that further capital expenditure incurred on these schools in 1975 had been charged in the same way. In evidence the Accounting Officer stated that the charging of this expenditure in this way was because of a bulk-buying arrangement. The standardisation in regard to the erection of vocational schools and community/comprehensive schools was an attempt to minimise costs. He added that the financing of all future similar cases which come under the World Bank loan would be made from loans obtained by the vocational education committees from the Local Loans Fund.
The charging to a Vote of expenditure which is patently outside the ambit of that Vote is a breach of one of the most fundamental principles of Government accounting. The Committee takes a very serious view of such a breach which amounts to a deliberate refusal to comply with the intentions of Parliament when voting moneys. It welcomes the assurance of the Accounting Officer that such a breach will not happen again.
INCREASES IN PENSIONS AND CERTAIN IMPROVEMENTS IN SUPERANNUATION AND RETIRED ALLOWANCES
23. In his report for 1974 the Comptroller and Auditor General stated that he had inquired regarding the issue of £100,000 from this Vote to meet the cost of implementing certain improvements in the superannuation and retired allowances payable to established officers who retired or died in the period 1 June, 1973 to 31 December, 1974. The estimate was passed by Dáil Éireann on 18 December, 1974 and authority to pay the revised lump sums and death gratuities was conveyed to Departments by the Department of the Public Service on 23 December, 1974. The £100,000 charged to the Vote comprised £81,000 transferred to Vote 13—Superannuation and Retired Allowances—and £19,000 transferred to Vote 43—Posts and Telegraphs, to meet expenditure which would be chargeable to those votes in respect of the improvements in the superannuation allowances. As it appeared that these two Votes might not have paid out, before the end of the year, improved lump sums amounting in all to £100,000 a question arose as to whether this amount was a proper charge to Vote 51. The Accounting Officer had informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that the amounts issued were derived from estimates provided by the two Departments concerned but that, because of the late passing of the Estimate, very few working days in which to make payments were left before the end of the year and it was therefore possible to make only a small number of superannuation payments on the improved basis before 31 December, 1974. The bulk of the £100,000 expenditure could therefore be attributed to either pension increases or to superannuation awards paid on the unrevised basis i.e. expenditure which would fall to be met from the original provisions made in Votes 13 and 43.
The Committee has considered at length the evidence given by the Accounting Officer in regard to the expenditure of £100,000 made available for improved superannuation allowances as envisaged in the relevant additional estimate. It notes that, in the course of his evidence, the Accounting Officer admitted that the bulk of this expenditure was spent on ordinary pension increases, in other words it was not expended on the purpose for which it was voted. To the extent that it was not so expended it fell to be surrendered to the Exchequer and should not have remained a charge to Vote 51. The Committee notes that, whereas £81,000 was made available for Vote 13—Superannuation and Retired Allowances— to meet the cost of improved allowances, the sum falling to be surrendered from that Vote amounted only to £14,983. As, on the admission of the Accounting Officer, the bulk of this £81,000 was not expended on the purposes for which it was voted it appears that if it had not been available the provision made in Vote 13 would have been exceeded and this would have required an Excess Vote. The Committee regards this as highly irregular. Having regard to all the circumstances it does not propose to comment further on the matter but it must stress again the need for strict compliance with the principles of Government accounting and, in particular, it must insist that moneys not expended at the year end on the purpose for which they were voted by Dáil Éireann should be surrendered to the Exchequer.
OFFICE OF PUBLIC WORKS
24. In connection with the provision of Government offices at Athlone and Castlebar a policy decision to revise the project and provide accommodation on a reduced scale was taken at the stage when developed sketch plans had already been completed and submitted for approval and preliminary cost plans prepared. Professional fees totalling £43,258 had been paid for the plans and for design information and the Committee discussed at length whether all or any of this expenditure should be regarded as a constructive loss.
The Accounting Officer in evidence stated that, in considering this matter, one must take into account the fact that it is part of the function of the Office of Public Works to provide and plan for build-ins projects and this function cannot be fulfilled without incurring expense. The Commissioners cannot restrict this service to projects which are eventually executed because there is no way of identifying such projects in advance. Neither can they insist that plans once made should not be altered if detailed examination, changed circumstances or policy changes demand such alterations. It is therefore the Commissioners’ view that it is part of the normal work of the Office of Public Works to provide a planning service for various projects which are not proceeded with or which are changed, to some degree, with consequential expense and they consider that it would be unreasonable to regard such expense as constructive loss calling for the specific sanction of the Department of Finance and for noting in the Appropriation Account. The Accounting Officer added that he proposed to inform the Comptroller and Auditor General accordingly but before doing so he had asked the Minister for Finance for his agreement with the Commissioners’ view.
The Committee accepts that cases will arise from time to time in which constructive losses will occur because of policy changes. Obviously, Accounting Officers cannot be held accountable for such losses. It expects that, when policy changes are being decided on, their financial implications for the Exchequer will be fully considered. It can visualise circumstances arising in which it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to estimate the actual extent of a particular constructive loss. Nevertheless, it considers it desirable that all such cases where substantial sums are involved should be brought to the notice of Parliament by means of a suitable note in the Appropriation Account.
In regard to the particular case under consideration the Committee will await the outcome of the correspondence between the Accounting Officer and the Minister for Finance in the matter.
25. The Minister for Agriculture is the official Intervention Agency of the EEC in Ireland and is responsible for the purchase, storage and resale of the commodities involved and for the payment of the handling, storage, transport, interest and other charges in respect of these commodities. These charges, which are met from voted moneys in the first instance are, subject to certain limits, recoverable from FEOGA, such recoveries being credited to Appropriations-in-Aid. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported that, in the course of his audit of some charges met from the Vote, he noted that a procedure had been adopted which provided for payment of the full amount due to claimants pending a later check of the relevant invoices but that in most cases these invoices had remained unchecked at the time of his audit. He had been informed by the Accounting Officer that payments were made in full one month in arrear to Irish cold stores and six weeks in arrear to United Kingdom cold stores at which time a substantial balance had accrued due in each case.
The Accounting Officer had also informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that the Department could not be taken to be satisfied indefinitely to continue with such payments on account which were an undesirable but still, unfortunately, a necessary feature of payment in some areas of beef intervention and were caused by the unprecedented scale of the operations. Special assignments of staff had been working on a reconciliation of the documentation in arrears and on current work and it was, therefore, hoped to cease payments on account altogether but it would be some time yet before this could be achieved. The Comptroller and Auditor General informed the Committee that, even though the total amount paid to a claimant at any particular stage was less than the total value of the invoices submitted, he considered it undesirable that a situation should have developed in which invoices, which had been met in full, remained unchecked for a considerable length of time. In evidence, the Accounting Officer informed the Committee that the position had improved and that the checking of invoices was now almost up to date. He stated that everybody was now better geared to handle the situation, not only the staff of the Department but also the meat processors and the transport companies, and he was optimistic that the whole situation would be cleared by the end of the year.
The Committee agrees with the Comptroller and Auditor General that the long delay in checking of invoices which had already been met in full is extremely undesirable. It welcomes the assurance given by the Accounting Officer that progress has been made in dealing with the arrears of invoice checking and that it is hoped to have the whole situation cleared by the end of 1977. It wishes to be kept informed of developments.
26. In his report the Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to the fact that he had raised certain matters in correspondence with the Accounting Officer arising out of his examination of Ireland’s section of the FEOGA Account which is audited by him by arrangement with the Department of Agriculture. The matters raised with the Accounting Officer related to the purchase and storage of intervention beef and included such items as stock control, weight discrepancies, payments on account and overpayments. These would normally be dealt with in his reports on the FEOGA Accounts but, as he felt that, should losses occur as a result of intervention operations, a charge to voted moneys might arise, he considered it desirable to bring the matters to the attention of Dáil Éireann also. In evidence the Accounting Officer gave the Committee information regarding the operation of the market intervention system for beef. He recalled that, as a result of the sudden collapse of the international market for beef, the market situation became chaotic at the end of 1973 and the early part of 1974 and they were obliged to bring the EEC intervention system into operation immediately. In 1974, 1975 and 1976 they bought nearly 330,000 tons of beef off the Irish market at a cost of £265 million. These massive arrangements involved a tremendous amount of accounting and documentation in respect of purchases, storage, sales, transport, and all of the other items that go into a commercial operation. The position was further complicated by the fact that from the autumn of 1974 onwards, even though they were buying in beef steadily, they were also selling beef and this involved further accounting and documentation. The Accounting Officer also stated that the quantities which they had been handling in recent months were quite limited on the intake side so that the total stocks on hands at present would be about 35,000 tons. He added that the accounting work is now computerised to a great extent and is much more orderly than it was when they started; but he foresaw that it would still be a very big problem in accounting terms for a number of years. He agreed that, as the Comptroller and Auditor General had said in his report, the Exchequer could be ultimately involved if, at the end of the operation, they had not balanced their accounts and satisfied the EEC Commission as to the disposals and other related matters. If they made serious mistakes the EEC would not meet the losses which could arise and the charge would ultimately fall on the Irish Exchequer. The Accounting Officer also explained that what might be called incidental losses are always liable to occur arising out of such things as unsatisfactory cold storage or mislabelling of consignments sold. In such cases, however, the matter is generally settled in negotiation with the traders concerned, but losses can occur. The EEC allows a 1% tolerance for incidental losses arising on the whole operation of intervention buying and selling. A loss which has been met from the Vote in recent years relates to interest charges. This arises because of a differential between the actual rate of interest paid by the Department on moneys borrowed for intervention purposes and the rate allowed by the EEC for recoupment, which is an average rate over all the member States. The Accounting Officer estimated that this loss would amount to £3.5 million in 1977.
The Accounting Officer stated that he foresaw the final accounting in relation to intervention beef as one of the points of greatest difficulty facing the Department in the next few years, but he was reasonably confident that there would be no serious problems when the matter eventually comes to be finalised.
Because of the scale of operations and the complexity of the accounting arrangements involved in this area the Committee is concerned lest issues which might prove difficult to solve should arise between the Minister for Agriculture as the Intervention Agency, and the EEC in relation to the settling of accounts and that, as a result, additional charges might fall on Exchequer funds. There is a danger that the longer the final reconciliation is delayed the more difficult will be the solution. The Committee urges, therefore, that all possible steps be taken to deal with the remaining problems as quickly as possible and to reach agreement with the EEC in regard to any discrepancies which may arise.
It wishes to be kept informed of the progress being made in this area.
The Committee is particularly concerned at the heavy loss already falling on the Exchequer, as indicated by the Accounting Officer, because of the differential between the interest rate paid from the Vote on borrowed moneys and the rate allowed by the EEC in recoupment and it suggests that this matter might be pursued further with a view to arriving at a more equitable settlement.
COMPTROLLER AND AUDITOR GENERAL
27. The Committee questioned the Accounting Officer for this Vote regarding the organisation and staffing of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and inquired as to the present staff numbers by comparison with the number engaged in auditing 20/25 years ago. The Accounting Officer explained that the total staff at present was 75 as against 67 in 1954-55, that, of the present staff of 75, 47 were engaged on Vote audits, 19 on audits of State-sponsored bodies and the remainder comprised the directorate staff at headquarters together with typists and messenger. In 1954-55 there had been the same number, i.e. 47, engaged on Vote audits with a lesser number on the audits of State-sponsored bodies. There had been a progressive increase in the workload in relation to the accounts of State-sponsored bodies and the small increases in staff approved in recent years had been assigned, almost entirely, to this area of audits. There had also been a substantial increase in the activity of a number of departments and no additional staff had been made available for the increased audit workload. The Accounting Officer outlined some of the areas where such increases had taken place e.g. the Departments of Education, Agriculture, including the EEC Intervention Agency, Social Welfare, Health and Local Government and he stated that he was concerned that the Office might no longer be able to carry out its auditing duties effectively with the limited staff resources which it has at present.
The Comptroller and Auditor General explained to the Committee that he had decided that, because of the increased audit workload of his Office a separate Director of Audit was necessary to take responsibility for the audits of State-sponsored bodies and he added that a recent application had been made to the Department of the Public Service for additional staff. The staff numbers at the various levels specified in this application were the minimum he considered necessary to enable him to carry out his duties effectively and it was essential that they be available without delay.
The Committee is perturbed to learn that staff shortages are causing serious problems in the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General because it regards this Office as of prime importance in the whole Civil Service structure and one whose effective functioning is vital to the maintenance of proper parliamentary control over State revenue and expenditure. It accepts the case made by the Accounting Officer that the workload of the Office has increased very considerably in recent years both in regard to departmental audits and the audits of State-sponsored bodies. It also accepts that the Comptroller and Auditor General must have sufficient staff to carry out these audits effectively.
The Committee is aware of the existence, at present, of constraints on the sanctioning of increases in staff numbers in the Civil Service generally. Nevertheless, it considers that such constraints should not prevent the sanctioning of the requisite additional staff for the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. It stresses the urgency of this matter.
28. The Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to over-payments of non-contributory old age pensions which arose following the introduction of revised procedures for the award of those pensions. The Accounting Officer informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that, following the extension and improvements provided for in the Social Welfare Acts, 1973 and 1974, there was an abnormal increase in the volume of work in this area. Because the Minister for Social Welfare required these improvements to be implemented quickly this work had to be carried out at an abnormally intensified rate involving prolonged overtime and extended work weeks with a corresponding increase in the incidence of excess payments through errors on the part of the staff concerned. The amount of all overpayments written off in 1974 was £20,700 but it was not possible to indicate how much of this arose directly from the revised procedures. He also stated that the procedures are kept under constant review to eliminate deficiencies and to prevent irregularities, including duplicate payments, and that it was considered that the controls in operation are adequate in normal circumstances.
In evidence the Accounting Officer explained that his Department found great difficulty in acquiring a substantial backing of trained staff and that they were, therefore, dependent on a very junior and inexperienced staff to carry out the work involved in implementing the improvements in Social Welfare benefits. Because there was a build-up of claims for non-contributory old age pensions, both in the Department and with the old age pension committees, the procedures were revised to allow pensions to be awarded on a provisional basis on the recommendations of Social Welfare Officers in anticipation of approval by the committees. This was done to save time and involved no danger of overpayment because pension committees almost invariably recommend a higher pension in cases where the Social Welfare Officer has recommended a pension at a rate lower than the maximum. Overpayments did, however, occur because of the procedures adopted at the time and because of the accumulation of work. Duplicate books were issued and duplicate arrears payments were made and this was largely due to the inexperience of the staff and the difficult conditions under which they worked. The Accounting Officer also informed the Committee that the revised procedures are still in operation and are working satisfactorily and that there is an indication that the rate of error is going down and that the amount being overpaid is much smaller than it was. He felt, however, that there was still a weakness in the Department in that there were three separate sections involved which were not as closedly linked as he would like. There had been no opportunity to do an organisation and methods study on this aspect of the work because the same situation had arisen again in the following year.
The Committee would like to have further information regarding the steps being taken to eliminate this weakness and also on the level of errors in subsequent years.
The Committee appreciate the difficulties encountered by the Department of Social Welfare in this case. It feels that the situation which arose indicates how the impact of legislation of this nature on an administering department can impose almost intolerable burdens and strains in the short term and it therefore recommends that when such legislation is being prepared adequate consideration should be given to the administrative implications involved.
Expenditure in Excess of authorised issues.
29. To enable the services of public Departments, for which supply grants are voted by Dáil Éireann, to be carried on pending the passing of the annual estimates, section 2 of the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act, 1965 authorises the Minister for Finance to issue from the Central Fund in any financial year for such a service a sum not exceeding four-fifths of the amount appropriated for that service in the preceding financial year. The Comptroller and Auditor General reported that during the period under review expenditure from 17 Votes temporarily exceeded the sums statutorily authorised. In addition to communicating with the Accounting Officers responsible for these 17 Votes, the Comptroller and Auditor General had sought the observations of the Secretary of the Department of Finance in the matter, as that Department exercises a general control over the expenditure of all voted moneys. The Secretary of the Department of Finance informed the Comptroller and Auditor General that, while there was no question of a breach of the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act, 1965 by virtue of Exchequer issues to any Vote being in excess of that authorised under the 1965 Act, it was regrettable that, although the expenditure involved was in respect of matured liabilities and could not have been avoided, payments from certain Votes exceeded the sums statutorily authorised. He also stated that this situation had arisen during the changeover of the financial year to a calendar year basis when the usual parliamentary business had to be effected in the nine months to the end of December 1974; that, even within the nine months, the time available to Dáil Éireann for Estimates discussion was curtailed by special circumstances and that the bulk of the Estimates was not taken by the Dáil until 18 December, 1974. He further stated that the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges had agreed that all Estimates and the Appropriation Bill would be passed before the summer recess in future years and that the Minister for Finance was issuing instructions to Accounting Officers emphasising the need for compliance with the limitations imposed on their Vote expenditures by the 1965 Act in addition to the observance of the overall limits on the annual supply granted by Dáil Éireann.
In evidence the Secretary of the Department of Finance explained that the payments during the course of the year in excess of the amounts authorised were similar in nature to the excess which would have to be covered by an Excess Vote after a year had closed but that in these cases it was not necessary to take Excess Votes because, in the course of the year, supply was voted by the Dáil to cover the temporary excesses that had arisen.
All of the Accounting Officers responsible for the 17 cases reported on by the Comptroller and Auditor General offered the same explanation for the excess expenditure as that given by the Secretary of the Department of Finance i.e. the necessity to meet matured liabilities which could not be postponed and the delay in passing the Estimates for 1974.
The Committee accepts that the changeover of the financial year to a calendar year basis which occurred in the period under review created problems for Accounting Officers because of the delay in passing the annual Estimates. Nevertheless, it must agree with the Comptroller and Auditor General that it is a fundamental principle of parliamentary financial control that expenditure on a supply service must not exceed the amount statutorily authorised. It stresses that it is the responsibility of the Accouting Officer to ensure that this principle is strictly adhered to in respect of each Vote under his control and it considers that with proper monitoring of expenditure Accounting Officers should have been alerted in advance to the fact that Vote payments were approaching the limits authorised by the 1965 Act. As the excesses in question occurred, in the main, towards the end of the year, when Dáil Éireann was sitting, there should not have been any insurmountable obstacle to the passing of the annual Estimates in time to prevent the unsatisfactory situation which arose, but the Committee accepts that this is not a matter entirely within the competence of Accounting Officers to arrange. It welcomes the agreement of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges that all Estimates and the Appropriation Bill will be passed before the summer recess in future years. It notes that instructions have been issued by the Department of Finance to all Accounting Officers reminding them of their responsibility to ensure that, at all times, expenditure is kept strictly within the sum authorised by Dáil Éireann and requesting them to initiate monitoring arrangements where such are not already in existence, in respect of payments from Votes under their control so that they will have timely notice when such payments are approaching the authorised limits. The Committee must, however, express its concern once more at a breach of a fundamental principle of Government accounting, one that was all the more serious, involving, as it did, 17 separate Votes. It sincerely hopes that the steps taken will ensure that such a breach will not occur again.
Delays in furnishing information to the Comptroller and Auditor General.
30. In paragraph 20 of its report dated 28 February, 1974 the Committee of Public Accounts stated that it expected that requests by the Comptroller and Auditor General for information would be dealt with promptly and the Minister for Finance, in his minute dated 24 September, 1974, assured the Committee that instructions had been issued that, in future, all queries from the Comptroller and Auditor General were to be dealt with promptly.
In his report on the Appropriation Accounts for 1974 the Comptroller and Auditor General drew attention to a number of cases in which information sought by him during the course of his audit of these accounts had not been furnished to him in time to be included in that report. The Committee is concerned that this unsatisfactory position has persisted, notwithstanding the instructions issued by the Minister for Finance in 1974 as indicated above. Some of the delays in replying to queries raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General were, in the opinion of the Committee, unnecessary and unwarranted and it therefore took the opportunity of expressing its extreme dissatisfaction with the dilatoriness of the Departments concerned to the responsible Accounting Officers when they appeared before it for examination.
The Committee wishes to impress again on Departments the importance of replying promptly to queries raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Failure to do so may obstruct him in carrying out effectively his Constitutional duty of reporting to Dáil Éireann. Dáil Éireann may thus be deprived of very relevant information on matters which the Comptroller and Auditor General wishes to bring to its attention. Moreover, the work of the Committee of Public Accounts may be hindered, in as much as the absence of information from the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General deprives the Committee of any opportunity of considering such information in advance of its examination of the responsible Accounting Officers.
Delays on the part of Departments in furnishing information or documentation to the Comptroller and Auditor General may have other unsatisfactory consequences. The Comptroller and Auditor General informed the Committee that it sometimes happens that he has no option but to report on a matter when relevant information or documentation sought by him has not been furnished by the Department responsible at the date of his report. His report on the Appropriation Accounts for 1974 included one such case in which certificates, confirming the publication of books in Irish for which grants had been paid from Vote 28—Office of the Minister for Education—subhead D.1., were not available during the audit. A formal query asking for the certificates was issued on 3 July, 1974 but they were not furnished to him until 23 December, 1974. Nevertheless, the representative of the Department of Finance informed the Committee in evidence that the certificates had been forwarded by his Department to the Department of Education on 15 July, 1974. The Comptroller and Auditor General assured the Committee that, had he received the certificates before 15 September, 1975, the date of his report, he would not have reported on this matter. The Committee is at a loss to understand the serious delay in furnishing the required certificates to the Comptroller and Auditor General in this case, especially as it would appear that they were in the possession of the Department of Finance when they were originally asked for.
Another matter which is a cause of some concern to the Committee is the delays which occur from time to time in getting the sanction of the Department of Finance for revised limits for capital expenditure. Such delays have been referred to on a number of occasions in the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General. In relation to one such case which arose on the Vote for Fisheries in the period under review the Accounting Officer stated in evidence before the Committee that in cases involving a number of Departments it takes some time to get matters finalised but he agreed that these delays should not occur.
The Committee accepts that the Comptroller and Auditor General has no option but to report in cases of expenditure of voted moneys where, because of the dilatoriness of Departments, he has not obtained all the information that he requires or where the necessary Finance sanctions have not been obtained. It must, however, protest that, as a consequence of such dilatoriness, the time of the Committee is being taken up with matters which need not come before it if the Comptroller and Auditor General receives from Accounting Officers the service to which he is entitled. It trusts that it will not have to refer to this matter again.
VIVION de VALERA,
21 April, 1977.