MINUTE OF THE MINISTER FOR FINANCE ON REPORT DATED 15 JUNE 1978 OF THE COMMITTEE OF PUBLIC ACCOUNTS ON THE APPROPRIATION ACCOUNTS, 1975
PART I—GENERAL OBSERVATIONS
Paragraphs 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 13, 17, 18.
These paragraphs do not appear to call for comment.
REPORT DATED 28 JUNE, 1973
Paragraph 2—Payments to Special Regional Development Fund (Grant-in-Aid)
The inquiry by an inter-Departmental committee into the appropriate organisation and structures for the discharge of the functions of Government at sub-national levels is continuing. Following the establishment of the Department of Economic Planning and Development, the committee was asked to consider specially and make a report on the appropriate organisational arrangements for the co-ordination of regional planning and development by the Department of Economic Planning and Development. The inter-Departmental committee expects to submit its report in the very near future. The Committee will be informed of the result of this inquiry in so far as it relates to the operation of the Special Regional Development Fund.
REPORT DATED 30 OCTOBER, 1975
Paragraph 4—Agriculture—Recovery of Loans
In advising that the Minister for Agriculture had a satisfactory legal basis for pursuing the recovery of these claims, the Attorney General added that there were many legal difficulties and that matters of policy might also be considerations which would influence the Minister. In commenting on this advice, the Minister for Agriculture took the view that, in addition to legal difficulties, there were practical difficulties and that, after a lapse of over five years during which the meat factories assumed that the moneys, which were interest-free, were of the nature of an operating subsidy, it would be virtually impossible to get agreement from the factories to any voluntary scheme of repayment. In the light of these views and of the legal difficulties involved in pursuing the matter through the courts, the Minister for Finance, on the recommendation of the Minister for Agriculture, has decided, as a matter of policy, to waive formally the obligation to repay. This decision has been taken in the light of all the circumstances surrounding the issue of the moneys, e.g. the circumstances in which the decision to assist the meat factories was first taken, the purpose for which the assistance was intended, the constraints at the time associated with the issuing of a straight-forward subsidy, and also the legal difficulties referred to already. It is the intention to record the write-off by a note to the Agriculture Appropriation Account for 1978.
REPORT DATED 24 JUNE, 1976
Paragraph 5—Public Works and Buildings
Following the failure to get qualified candidates for appointment as Professional Accountants after the Civil Service Commission competition in 1977, discussions took place between the Department of the Public Service and the Office of Public Works to produce a solution to the problem.
The Office of Public Works held a long series of discussions with interested parties including the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants, The School of Professional Studies, Rathmines, the Department of Education and The National Council for Educational Awards before producing a proposal for a new grade of Professional Accounting Assistant.
Further negotiations followed between the Office of Public Works and the Department of the Public Service about an appropriate scale of pay and career structure for the new grade. These have now been agreed and the Office of Public Works expect to produce draft Regulations and Conditions of Service for the new grade shortly.
Paragraph 8—Delays in Collection of Monetary Compensatory Amounts
The amount of MCA charges outstanding in the cattle and beef sector at the end of August, 1978 was £0.89 million. This included a sum of £0.29 million in respect of which court judgements have been obtained but where the judgements have not yet been met. Legal proceedings have now been instituted against a total of 71 debtors but have not yet been completed in 32 of those cases.
With effect from 2 October, 1978, all charges on agricultural exports, including cattle and beef, are being collected by the Customs Branch of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners either through the provision by exporters of an appropriate advance security or by payment of the charge at the time of export. This arrangement is designed to ensure against arrears of charges arising in any sector.
REPORT DATED 21 APRIL 1977
Paragraph 10—Office of the Minister for Education—National Council for Educational Awards
The attention of all Accounting Officers is being drawn to the Committee’s recommendation that, when consideration is being given to the method of financing new bodies, care should be taken to select the most practical method. The Minister accepts that his Department has a measure of responsibility in that regard.
Paragraph 11—Primary Education—Scheme of Adaptation and Extension for a National Teacher Training College
The Minister has been informed by the Department of Education that negotiations are proceeding with the building contractor for the scheme in question in relation to a claim by him for reimbursement of costs arising out of the cessation of work and, pending the result of these negotiations, it is not possible to give the final cost of the project.
As regards the question of securing a contribution from the College authorities towards the expenditure incurred, the Minister has agreed, subject to the College observing competitive tendering in future capital works, with a proposal from the Department of Education that a claim for such a contribution should not be pursued.
The Minister has also been informed by the Department of Education that they are awaiting from the Chief State Solicitor a draft of an agreement for execution with the College authorities guaranteeing the exclusive use of the College for the training of national teachers or other educational purpose approved by the Minister for Education.
The attention of all Accounting Officers is being drawn to the necessity for strict compliance with the general policy of competitive tendering for public works contracts.
Paragraph 12—Secondary Education—Local contributions towards capital costs of Community schools
The Minister has been informed by the Department of Education that further difficulties have arisen in relation to the settlement of the Model Deed of Trust and that it may be some time before it is possible to collect local contributions towards the capital costs of community schools. The Committee will be kept informed of progress in this matter.
Paragraph 14—Office of Public Works—Government Offices at Athlone and Castlebar
The Minister agrees with the Committee that exceptional cases of expenditure incurred on the preparation of plans which are not proceeded with should be noted in the Appropriation Account and arrangements accordingly have now been made with the Commissioners of Public Works.
Paragraph 15—Charging of Expenses arising out of Market Intervention
Clearance of payments made on account in the beef intervention sector in the 1974-1976 period is proceeding. There are three main areas of account involved, viz.
(a) Payments to Meat Factories for Transport: So far the accounts of two-thirds of the factories concerned have been fully checked. The clearance of the remainder is in hand and there is every prospect that all of the accounts will have been dealt with by the end of 1978.
(b) Payments to Meat Factories for Freezing Beef: Clearance of these accounts is now at the final stage.
(c) Payments to Cold Stores: This is the largest area of clearance work being dealt with. The task of clearing invoices has in practice proved an enormous one particularly because of the number of different and often very complicated systems of invoicing used by the 80 or so Irish, UK and Continental stores in which the beef was held in the 1974-1976 period. The work has been hampered all along by lack of completed Department store-by-store stock records for the 1974-1976 period (provision of these stock records which form the basic material in closing the FEOGA accounts is covered in the comments on Paragraph 16 of the Report). Every effort is being made to complete clearance of the cold store accounts this year.
In respect of the payments on account under the various headings that have been fully checked, 5 cases of over-payment have come to light involving a total of £1,845 which has since been recovered. There was no evidence of any irregularities on the part of the claimants.
Paragraph 16—FEOGA Accounts
In view of the scope and complexity of the data needed for management purposes and for the preparation of the Annual Accounts for FEOGA on beef intervention operations, and because of the large and consistent scale of such intervention, the Department of Agriculture considered that the relevant records could most effectively be maintained and processed by computerisation.
In consultation with the Department of the Public Service, the preparation of appropriate computer programmes was initiated by the Department of Agriculture towards the end of 1976. It was intended that existing records in relation to beef intervention operations in the years 1974-1976 would be recorded and presented in computerised form and that those for 1977 and subsequent years would be directly computerised on a current basis from 1 January 1977.
However, the preparation and validation of computer programmes took much longer than originally envisaged and turnover in technical personnel responsible for the programmes also delayed progress.
At mid 1978, the major technical problems associated with the computerisation of beef intervention operations had been overcome, but the volume of material to be processed for past periods is such that a considerable amount of work has still to be done. However, the 1974 Accounts, inclusive of beef, were finalised in February, 1978. It is expected that the intervention beef sections of the FEOGA Accounts for 1975 will be finalised in the near future and those for 1976 about April, 1979—the other sections have already been finalised in the case of the 1975 Accounts and are expected to be finalised shortly in the case of the 1976 Accounts. It is expected that the full Accounts for 1977 will be finalised by the end of 1979. In the meantime, separate programmes set up to handle beef intervention operations on a current basis with effect from 1 July, 1978 should ensure that no further backlogs in the preparation of the accounts for this sector occur.
PART II—PARTICULAR ACCOUNTS
Paragraph 19—Clearance of cashed Payable Orders by the Paymaster General
The Minister is still awaiting a reply on the question of the legal position of the Paymaster General’s Office in regard to the claim for recovery of the amounts paid out to certain banks on foot of payable orders which were subsequently found to be fraudulent.
A preliminary report on the computer system to deal with the clearance of payable orders was prepared by the Central Data Processing Services of the Department of the Public Service and is currently being examined.
The Minister will keep the Committee informed of developments.
Paragraph 20—Office of the Minister of Education—National College of Art and Design
The Minister is informed by the Department of Education that the position in regard to the audit of the accounts of the National College of Art and Design has improved; the audit for 1975 is almost complete and that for 1976 is also in hand. In order that the Board of the College might be made fully aware of its responsibilities in the matter of accounting, a copy of the Committee’s latest comments has been sent by the Department to the Chairman of the Board. The Department has been asked to examine the statutory provisions relating to this matter and to consider their amendment, if necessary, when a suitable opportunity presents itself, to meet the problem to which the Committee has drawn attention.
Paragraph 21—Office of the Minister for Education—National Council for Educational Awards
The Minister recognises the difficulty of the Accounting Officer in this case; the difficulty also arises in relation to the 1976 Account. However, as the Council has since become a designated institution of the Higher Education Authority and is now funded through the grants-in-aid of the Authority, the difficulty mentioned will not be repeated.
Paragraph 22—Institiúid Teangeolaíochta Éireann (Grant-in-Aid)
The Minister agrees that moneys voted for the service of a particular year should not have been issued except as required. The requirement that issues should be made from grant-in-aid subheads by installments over the year as needed is clearly stated in paragraph 12 (g) of the official booklet An Outline of Irish Financial Procedures which was brought to the attention of all Accounting Officers in September, 1976. The Minister notes that an assurance was given by the Accounting Officer to the Committee that there will not be a recurrence of this problem.
Paragraph 23—Primary Education—Overpayments of Teachers’ Salaries
The Minister has been informed by the Department of Education that original payable orders for the payment of teachers’ salaries are in fact cancelled at the same time as duplicates are issued. Under the procedure for cheque clearance operated by the Central Bank Exchange, cashed payable orders presented to the Paymaster General’s Office by the banks are paid on sight on the day of presentation, subject to later adjustment for errors. Payable orders so presented may include cancelled orders which cannot be detected until subsequent processing through the Computer. As regards teachers’ salary orders, immediately the encashment of a cancelled order has been detected, the matter is reported to the Department of Education by the Paymaster General’s Office. The Department points out that in the few cases which do occur the overpayments are quickly recovered from the salaries of teachers concerned.
Paragraph 24—Primary Education
The Minister has been informed by the Department of Education that the Office of Public Works has now leased new accommodation in which it is proposed to house all the accounting sections of the Department. A strongroom, in which all payable orders will be kept, is being provided by the Office of Public Works in the new accommodation. In addition to the strongroom, it is understood that the premises will be protected by strict security arrangements operated by the lessor.
Paragraph 25—Secondary Education
The Minister shares the concern of the Committee that accounting procedures relating to the salaries paid to secondary, comprehensive and community school teachers by the Department of Education should have broken down in 1974 and 1975. However, he is assured by that Department that arrangements have now been made to ensure that those deficiencies in accounting procedures are eliminated. The Department has informed him that income tax and other deductions have been paid over to the appropriate Departments or agencies on a regular basis since 1976. Computerisation of these payrolls is proceeding and is expected to be completed this year. The Department of Education has stated that the new system incorporates the necessary controls to ensure the timely pay-over of deductions and to effect the required reconciliations.
Paragraph 26—Secondary Education
The Minister has been informed by the Department of Education that appropriate deductions are now made from the salaries of teachers in secondary, comprehensive and community schools who are entitled to and receive social welfare benefits in respect of absence on maternity leave or ordinary sick leave. Individual cases of such teachers who were paid full salary while on maternity leave in the period 1 January, 1975 to 31 July, 1976 are still being pursued. On the general question of the social welfare entitlement of public servants other than teachers, the Minister is advised by the Department of the Public Service that the sick leave regulations applying to those public servants who are fully insured under the Social Welfare code and are thereby entitled to disability benefit provide that in respect of illness they may, subject to certain conditions, be allowed full pay less social welfare benefits. The public servants concerned are unestablished civil servants, State industrial employees and civilian staff attached to the Defence Force and the Garda Síochána, who are fully insured. The Minister is concerned to ensure that stringent precautions are taken to avoid double payments of the kind referred to by the Committee and he is reminding Accounting Officers of their responsibilities in this matter.
Paragraph 27—Vocational Education
The general situation in relation to Local Government audit staff is being kept under review. This matter is also referred to in the Minister’s reply to paragraph 30 of the Report.
Agreement has not yet been reached with Mayo County Council on the amount of its contribution towards the cost of the improvement scheme at Killala Harbour although efforts to reach agreement are continuing. Two meetings have taken place between officials of the County Council, the Office of Public Works and the Department of Fisheries and Forestry. As a result of the most recent meeting, the Office of Public Works undertook to prepare a comprehensive report on the present condition of the pier and the further works considered necessary and the County Council undertook to reconsider its position when the report was available and had been considered. The report has now been completed and is being sent to the County Council for its consideration.
As pointed out by the Accounting Officer in the course of his examination, the sheet-piling which was purchased for the scheme is not perishable and can be used on some other work should it transpire that it is not required for the Killala scheme.
Paragraph 29—Roinn na Gaeltachta—Personal Responsibility of Accounting Officers
Roinn na Gaeltachta has informed the Minister that everything possible will be done to ensure that the Bill to make all the necessary amendments to the Housing (Gaeltacht) Acts will be ready for the next session of the Dáil.
Paragraph 30—Local Government
The staff position of the Audit Branch has been considerably strengthened since May, 1977. Competitions have been held to fill three vacancies in the auditor grade and six in the trainee/assistant auditor grade. In the latter case, six executive officers have been assigned to audit duties pending the outcome of the competition.
The following figures indicate the progress which has been made in the audit of motor tax accounts:
In respect of the audit of housing subsidy claims, the following table indicates the progress which has been made:
Accounts Outstanding: (1) 19 October, 1977 (2) 31 July, 1978
No claims have yet been audited in respect of 1977 when, however, revised housing subsidy arrangements applied.
Paragraph 31—Local Government—Overissues of Housing subsidy
An overissue of a housing subsidy arises when the amount paid on account based on estimated claims by local authorities exceeds the amount certified as payable by the Local Government Auditor when the final claims of the authorities have been audited. Accordingly, overissues of subsidy and their amounts are not established until the final claims have been audited.
The present position in regard to established overissues is as follows:—
The Minister can inform the Committee that the amounts of those overissues have now been recovered in full.
Paragraph 32—Public Works and Buildings
The Minister has been assured by the Accounting Officer that the systems of supervision and control of stores are fully adequate to their purposes; the problems at the local centre referred to in the Committee’s Report appear to have arisen because these control systems were not properly operated. The Accounting Officer has reminded all supervisors of their responsibilities in this matter.
The Minister shares the Committee’s concern about the accounting and recording deficiencies of some Health Boards in their earlier years. He has now been assured by the Accounting Officer concerned that the necessary steps have been taken to remedy these deficiencies. He has also been informed that, apart from action arising from consideration of the auditors’ reports, the Department of Health has initiated measures aimed at improving financial control in Health Boards including:—
(a) the development of computerised financial systems in a number of Health Boards in association with the Central Data Processing Services of the Department of the Public Service and general supervision of the installation of comparable alternative systems in the remaining Health Boards;
(b) the adoption in Health Boards of a standard approach to estimating and budgeting techniques;
(c) the establishment of a monthly financial reporting system (expenditure and budgetary allocations) in each Health Board supplemented by regular visits to local centres by officers of the Department to discuss the report material; and
(d) the fixing of annual expenditure limits for each Health Board.
The Minister fully supports the Committee’s view that it is essential that effective arrangements for proper financial controls and accounting procedures be made well in advance of the setting-up of any new agency involved in the expenditure of public funds. The Minister is arranging to have all Accounting Officers apprised accordingly.
The Minister has been informed by the Accounting Officer that the overall position with regard to arrears in the auditing of accounts of the Health Boards has now improved considerably. It is expected that before the end of 1979 the audits for the financial years up to and including 1977 will be completed. The aim generally is to have abstracts of accounts in the case of each Health Board available for audit within 6 months of the financial year and continuous pressure will be exerted to ensure that this objective is achieved.
Paragraph 34—Health Contributions
The Minister is in full agreement with the view of the Committee that the aim should be to achieve a 100% collection of farmers health contributions in all regions and he is assured that this view is also accepted by the Department of Health. That Department has urged Health Boards to take all necessary steps open to them to collect arrears. The question of how best to effect an improvement in the collection rate has been under examination by the Minister for Health, who is considering the question of introducing certain legislative proposals in the matter in conjunction with the proposed amendment of the Health Contributions Act, 1971.
The Minister has also been informed that the Health Boards are being consulted in regard to the detailed information regarding levels of collection and arrears requested by the Committee. This information will be forwarded to the Committee as soon as possible.
Paragraph 35—Comptroller and Auditor General
The Department of the Public Service would like to inform the Committee that it is prepared to co-operate fully in the procedure suggested. The Minister for the Public Service is prepared to authorise the provision of such extra staff as has already been shown to be necessary.
Paragraph 36—Explanation for savings or excesses on subheads
The Minister notes the Committee’s comments and is reminding all Accounting Officers of the need to provide adequate notes in the Appropriation Accounts of the main reasons for the savings or excesses.
Paragraph 37—Provision of Secretarial Service for the Committee
The Minister is informed by the Department of the Public Service that an additional post of Senior Clerk was sanctioned for the Questions Office in June 1978 and it is understood that an appointment has been made to this new post. It is hoped that, through appropriate delegation of his work to the additional Senior Clerk, the Principal Clerk will now be enabled to give adequate time to the affairs of the Committee.