It is a great pleasure for me to mark the appointment of a new Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr. John Buckley, and to wish him well with the administration of the national audit office and with the discharge of the key constitutional office that is the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I was honoured to be reappointed to the Committee of Public Accounts for the 30th DÃ¡il following my service to the Committee of Public Accounts of the 27th DÃ¡il. During my first period of service on the committee, Mr. John Purcell was appointed Comptroller and Auditor General. In the intervening 14 years, he has discharged the duties of this crucial office with great distinction and thorough professionalism. As I remarked last week at his last appearance with his audit team in front of the committee, he has been a role model for excellence in the public service.
Throughout the past 14 years he has launched a plethora of invigilatory innovations in the auditing area to ensure that the people’s money was spent to the best possible effect. The Minister referred to the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 and the famous three â€œeâ€s of economy, efficiency and effectiveness. The long list of value for money reports produced in this era is a clear record of that achievement. However, Mr. Purcell’s weekly statements to the committee on the annual reports and appropriation accounts have always been lucid and concise, and they forensically identified the key points of concern in the audit trails of countless expenditure programmes of the 41 Votes and Departments under the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General. He invariably raised vital issues under the spending headings and gently prodded committee members in the main direction of investigation.
To the public, he will be forever identified with the watershed DIRT inquiry when as Comptroller and Auditor General, ably assisted by my colleague, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, and the other members of the Committee of Public Accounts of the 28th DÃ¡il, he dissected and unravelled one of the greatest scandals in Ireland’s taxation and commercial history. We all remember the famous hearings of that inquiry, when many members of the public listened on a minute by minute basis to the proceedings of the committee. The DIRT reports form a vital platform for the invigilation of taxation and tax evasion for the future in this country.
In the past number of weeks, committee members have witnessed the unfurling of another major scandal, which is the overspend of â‚¬70 million on the drainage infrastructure in Limerick. Mr. Purcell and his team did an exceptional job in unravelling and reporting a fiasco that occurred under the watch of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Accounting Officers are often placed on the spot in front of the committee for gross mistakes in expenditure when the political head of the Department should take responsibility, which in this case was the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey.
I wish Mr. Purcell and his family great happiness in whatever field or services he now enters. I hope that the removal of the immense public service burden of being Comptroller and Auditor General will allow him time for association football and for all his other interests.
I reiterate my warm welcome, on behalf of the Labour Party, to Mr. John Buckley as the new Comptroller and Auditor General. As the State has developed and grown through the Celtic tiger period, the necessity for very tight financial controls in expenditure becomes ever more important. There are so many elements of State expenditure where good forward planning, risk assessment and cost-benefit analysis are critical. These are the lessons which we have learned due to the invigilation of the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General.
Deputy Bruton referred to the problem we have with Estimates. I recall a key recommendation from the report of the DIRT inquiry that we would have an independent official who would report to this House on Estimates in a timely way. Following the report of the DIRT inquiry, the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, responded to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts in a Department of Finance minute. The response indicated that we might have seen very fundamental reform of the Estimates by developing good cost-benefit analysis and by planning expenditure. Unfortunately, those hopes have been dashed over the past eight or nine years. Despite the outcome reports mentioned by the Minister, year after year we end up discussing Estimates many months into the spending of those Estimates. That is a completely ludicrous situation. The committee should return to the final report of the DIRT inquiry and see if we can get some development on the expenditure side.
There is a range of important issues to which we must constantly return at the Committee of Public Accounts. For example, last week I raised the issue of a new tranche of public private partnerships with the Minister for Transport. I questioned his current expenditure, and my questioning was based on financial concerns rather than ideological concerns. There are massive budgets in health and transport and we need very strict and determined audit practices.
I welcome the decision to hold the debate today, which I proposed at a recent Whips’ meeting, given the importance of the Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General in a parliamentary democracy. There are also interesting innovations in other states which we could examine in the future. In Australia, the public accounts committee itself must approve the appointment of an incoming comptroller and auditor general.
I wish Mr. Buckley well in the coming months and years. He has a hard act to follow, given that our outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General has served this nation very well. I salute him as a great public servant and a great Irishman.