Dáil Éireann - Volume 661 - 25 September, 2008

Other Questions. - Value for Money Initiative.

Deputy Frank Feighan asked the Minister for Finance his views on giving the Houses of the Oireachtas the power to initiate an evaluation of spending programmes under the value for money initiative. [31490/08]

  Deputy Brian Lenihan:As I outlined to Deputy Bruton on 4 June, it is important that the Oireachtas should engage with evaluation of spending programmes under the value for money initiative. In this regard, the Deputy will be aware that the orders of reference for the select committees of the 30th Dáil specifically encompass consideration of the reviews completed under this initiative. The Deputy will also be aware that my predecessor wrote to the Chairmen of all Dáil select committees on 1 February this year encouraging them to ensure the committees schedule time to consider value for money and policy reviews in detail and, where appropriate, to discuss the reviews and their conclusions and recommendations with the relevant Department. This approach, combined with the submission of annual output statements to the select committees, facilitates enhanced scrutiny and evaluation of the Estimates by the Dáil and ensures accountability for what is being achieved with the moneys approved.

  Deputy Richard Bruton:The Minister evaded the question which was whether he would allow the Oireachtas to initiate the evaluation. We represent the people who use public services and see good and bad. The issue for us is that several other parliaments have very strong evaluation arms available to them. They carry out serious evaluations of performance and are backed in doing that work. The Government has a system, whereby the agencies themselves carry out the evaluations and decide what should be evaluated. It is not open to public scrutiny here, which needs to be reversed. The Houses of the Oireachtas should be in the driving seat in cross-examining the extent to which value is being achieved. That would be a useful change that the Minister should consider.

  Deputy Brian Lenihan:I am certainly open to considering it, although the public accounts process encompasses some of what the Deputy is referring to regarding the evaluation of value for money. A perusal of the report submitted by the Comptroller and Auditor General makes that very clear. Regarding the specific value for money initiative we are discussing, the practice to date has been that the Government identifies its priorities for review and reports on the findings of these reviews to the Oireachtas to which it is accountable. The review is being conducted within the executive arm of government and it will be submitted to the committee [946] for evaluation. Through the Committee of Public Accounts, in the context of the evaluation of spending, this Parliament has the facility to consider these matters.

  Deputy Joan Burton:Given the development of Government bodies — quangos — does the Minister believe it would be possible in current form for Dáil committees to examine public bodies seriously? I will give an example to which the Minister referred. The Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland issues regular reports and its representatives appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service. On their last visit some months ago they were questioned robustly by me and others.

  Deputy Brian Lenihan:I read the transcript.

  Deputy Joan Burton:They were also questioned on previous occasions about what they were doing to ensure the stability of the banking system and, in particular, asked to ensure we would not be overexposed to risky practices in lending to developers to purchase land. We received the vaguest answers to very specific questions such as what was the accounting treatment of the interest payments on loans to developers for land banks. We could not get an answer from them. Had they answered the result would have been that they would have exercised more control over the lending policies of banks to developers for inflated land prices. However, nothing happened because essentially the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service was spancelled in carrying out an inquiry. There is considerable language about output statements which are meaningless unless they get to the point. Does the Minister not agree?

  Deputy Brian Lenihan:The Deputy began by raising the question of the 800 agencies. My views on the matter are well known. It is under consideration in the budgetary process. I agree that our public administration has become far too fragmented and divided. The Deputy used the term “quango” in reference to these bodies and agencies, all of which are not quangos in the sense that clearly the Central Bank is an institution that every civilised country must have in its monetary system.

During the summer, since the committee conducted that questioning, I read with interest the transcript of the proceedings to which the Deputy referred. I do not want to comment on the questioning or the answers to the questions. I was not present at the committee and could not fully judge for myself the character of the persons answering them, but comprehensive answers seem to have been given to many of the questions asked.

Deputy Burton raised an important question on the accountability of various bodies to this House. It is a practice that has been extended in recent years in respect of, for example, the Garda Commissioner and the Central Bank which have made themselves available for scrutiny to committees. In regard to the financial system and the bodies charged with ensuring financial stability, there is necessarily an element of confidentiality in respect of the operations of such bodies which is essential to maintain the confidence we all have and want to see continued in the banking system.

  Deputy Kieran O’Donnell:Will the Minister explain why the HSE was exempt from the value for money initiative for the past five or six years, given that employment in the HSE during the past ten years increased by 71%, or 47,000 employees? That accounted for almost 50% of all public sector employees taken on in that period. Why was the HSE exempt? Will the Minister indicate a date as to when it will be brought into the value for money initiative?

[947]   Deputy Brian Lenihan:It was agreed in the circumstances of the health reform programme and the demands associated with its implementation, that further value for money reviews would not be initiated until 2006. Two reviews that were scheduled to take place in 2002 on the accident and emergency departments and on the GMS were effectively overtaken by the extensive reviews undertaken in the context of the health reform strategy. Three large-scale reviews will be completed in the 2006-08 round, covering total estimated expenditure of €1.263 billion. Two of these reviews were scheduled for completion in 2007 and the third review is listed for 2008. An equal opportunities child care programme review was completed and published in 2007 while the review of allocation and utilisation of funds for acute hospitals is at quality assessment stage. The review of the mental health service scheduled for 2008 is at a drafting stage.