Banking & FinancePoliticsPublic AffairsReform

John McGuinness on the Public Accounts Committee

John-McGuinness-2Public Accounts Committee Chairman John McGuinness talks to Stephen Dineen about its work, a possible banking inquiry and public service reform.

For John McGuinness, who was previously a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) between 2002 and 2007, the workload has “increased dramatically” and “there is a huge amount of public commentary now” through phone calls and letters, both anonymous and named.

The committee, which examines the Comptroller and Auditor General’s audits and value for money reports on public bodies, is “poorly resourced,” with three people staffing it compared to 149 C&AG and 37 local government audit service staff.

“What shocks me,” he says, is the fact that, by comparison to 2002-2007, we don’t seem to have made any improvements in the system.” There are still “vast amounts of money poorly accounted for, lost to the State.”

The Carlow-Kilkenny TD would like the committee to be issuing quarterly reports with recommendations for departments, yet with the committee’s workload “those reports are not always carried out in a timely fashion.” Presently, the PAC issues reports with recommendations to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, which the Minister accepts or rejects. Departments then respond to proposals usually within 12 months, stating what action, if any, it has taken, or if it will take any at all.

Since becoming Chairman, he’s noticed recommendations dating back to 2009 to which there has been no response. “It takes them [departments] too long to respond and too long to turn around and to do things differently.”

The committee has cleared the backlog from the last PAC’s work schedule and is now making recommendations. McGuinness would like the committee to be able to suggest sanction of an individual, group of people, agency or department “where they are found to have seriously done wrong.” The recommendation would be sent to the relevant Minister.

He also believes the C&AG should be able to audit (and the PAC examine) local government spending of central government funding. Currently, it does not audit any local government funding (the central government sourced local government fund was €1.16 billion in 2011). Brendan Howlin, the first line Minister to appear before the committee (apart from at the DIRT inquiry), has said he will examine the proposal.

Banking inquiry

The PAC is a prime candidate to conduct any future banking inquiry, due to its powers of compellability (over people, papers and records) and taxpayers’ money having been injected into the banks. McGuinness proposed to the committee that it conduct an inquiry into the financial market collapse and he received unanimous support. The PAC established a sub-committee to take legal advice and consider what kind of inquiry is possible. Recommendations are expected by mid-March.

There have already been two government-commissioned reports (by the previous government) into the banking collapse, but he says no-one has drawn together all the material in the public domain: “My approach to it is that we would have all of the reports analysed by a specialist, that we would bring together the sequence of events, and how these various reports slotted into the decisions that were taken by ministers later on.” As this is done the committee would define the witnesses that it would require, “be they politicians, bankers or others,” judging it against the legal position on compelling witnesses, legal representation and the ability, or not, to make findings. Committees currently cannot make findings or express opinions that adversely affect reputations.

The former Minister of State for Trade and Commerce believes that “we would know an awful lot more if we were to scrutinise what happened in the past, and particularly the individuals that were central to all of it.”

Any PAC report on an inquiry will have to be considered by the Government, and in light of the recent referendum on Oireachtas committees, in which he voted ‘No’. He believes that had it been passed “it would have resulted in all sorts of court cases all over the place” and questioned “whether or not we actually wanted that power in the first place.”

The PAC is “very effective”, he believes. Every Wednesday C&AG officials responsible for a particular audit meet two selected committee members to brief them in advance of PAC hearings on Thursdays. Hearings are public, and McGuinness has insisted that correspondence and committee documents be made public on the website. 

Public service reform

McGuinness is “utterly appalled at the slow pace of reform”. The feature of permanent jobs must end because it takes a “whole dynamic out of a person.”

He states: “I won’t consider the public sector to be reformed until I see that gone, and a seamless transfer of employees from the lower ranking ones to the higher ranking ones, moving from public to private sector, and private sector to public sector.”

Though Fianna Fáil supports the Croke Park Agreement, he says it is unsustainable:s “What you have in Croke Park is the past locked into a deal for an Ireland that existed two to three years ago. That’s not the Ireland we have today.”

As one of the 19 Fianna Fáil TDs, McGuinness says the party is “beginning to understand that, although we were massively rejected, [the public] still placed us on a life support machine because they felt that we, in a cleansed state, would be needed for the future.” He notes: “I think that we’re going through that cleansing and that understanding of where we are.”


Profile: John McGuinness

McGuinness, the son of a shopkeeper in Kilkenny, was influenced by his aunt to enter politics, and was elected to Kilkenny Borough Council in 1979, on which his father Mick also served. After working as a local authority water inspector and in retail he developed a fuel business and a transport logistics business (he retains a small interest in the latter) and got involved in property.

In 1996-1997 he was Mayor of Kilkenny and was added to Fianna Fáil’s Carlow-Kilkenny candidate list by Bertie Ahern for the 1997 general election. In the last government he served as a Minister of State (2007-2009). Married with four children, he likes to read, walk his dogs, and remain involved in business. As for the future, he intends to “continue to harass Fianna Fáil to come back to its roots.”

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