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FAS: the €20m-a-week quango

Posted on: July 14th, 2008

SSHH. FAS is in the wars. And billions of euro are at stake.

Whisper it. The national training and employment agency is the object of murky allegations. Inquiries are uncovering odd antics. People are asking: what does FAS do with its €20m a week? The answers are disturbing. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan could find the sudden exposures at FAS the answer to his prayers. FAS has spent billions — and mis-spent millions — in recent years. All Brian needs is half a billion.

FAS, the most profligate of all state agencies, hates the microscope.

I should know. Over the years, they have always over-reacted to probing in this column.

Last Wednesday, I rang the FAS press office. They were all at meetings.

But a charming staff member offered to pass on my questions.

Which she did.

Later, a reply came from FAS corporate affairs manager Sean Connolly. We took the questions one by one.

First was my request for details of conflicts of interests declared behind closed doors by FAS directors.

Sean had not taken a diploma at the FAS school of charm.

Sean: “There were none in 2006, but one in 2007.”

SR: “Could I have details?”

SC: “Certainly not.”

SR: “Why?”

SC: “It is none of your business.”

I protested that it was public money. Even Enterprise Ireland provides it.

SC: “You must not engage in silliness.”

Aware that FAS had, generously, awarded a 10 grand bonus to an employee under investigation, I had posed questions on bonuses for the director-general and other staff.

SC: “You only asked her [the charming member of the staff] about the DG.”

SR: “Not so.”

SC (with a sigh): “Why do you deal with junior clerical people?”

When it came to a query about the bloated agency’s payments to Ibec, another misunderstanding arose. He answered one I had not asked.

I irritated him when I pointed this out. For some reason, I got right up the poor spinner’s nose.

“I am not the car park attendant you normally ring,” he retorted rattily in a reference to a previous call made to FAS after 5pm.

After further testy exchanges, we agreed that the questions should be emailed to him on Wednesday night.

“I will be at my desk from seven o’clock in the morning,” he boasted.

What bull, I thought. Surely nobody hits the desk at FAS before 10?

Mischief in mind, I phoned Sean the spinner on his mobile at 7.15am, giving him 15 minutes grace. I imagined a wife’s voice, drowned by loud snores in the background.

Sean himself responded. Bright as a button. He had received the email. The answers were on the way.

No bluffing. He had already replied by email at 7.07am.

Round One to Sean. A man of his word. An early riser — daily.

It was all downhill for FAS after that.

The FAS budget is a penalty kick for a massive cut. Brian Lenihan has indicated a meagre saving of just €10m. Twenty times that is not half enough.

FAS spends €20m a week. One of the wonders of the public finances is the destination of the loot.

We know the Comptroller & Auditor-General recently scorned FAS for wasting public money.

We know too that the internal FAS inquiry raised the alarm about the advertising spend. The FAS employee under scrutiny even claimed that he secured good publicity by bypassing the agencies and placing ads directly.

Which, unfortunately, rings true.

FAS was almost untouchable in the media for years. Big budgets help.

The boys in Baggot Street headquarters are unused to being held accountable.

That is why poor Sean, the spinner, bristled. The media have fawned all over FAS.

Ditto politicians, who have long claimed credit for FAS community schemes in their constituencies. A sort of symbiotic relationship ruled. FAS delivered the loot to the area, schemes galore sprouted and politicians basked in reflected glory. FAS and the politicians played ball. FAS influenced the media with advertising and politicians with local largesse. It achieved immunity from scrutiny.

No longer. Fine Gael’s gutsy Leo Varadkar broke the taboo. He is in hot pursuit of FAS.

The genie is out of the bottle. The leaked FAS internal report cannot be buried.

I have seen the report. It revealed that awards had been made “without real competitive tendering” and that “contractors were aware that they were getting work before they tender”.

The report covered four years, a time when FAS paraded itself as the guardian of full employment and training. After it was completed, six months passed before it reached the DG, Rody Molloy. Nothing moves fast at FAS. Except the melting millions.

Other findings included FAS setting up a website and paying a million too much without consulting its own IT department. It even interfered in the employment practices of an advertising agency with which it had a valuable contract. You name it, FAS was at it.

With such trouble in the background, a few innocent questions from me should not have flustered the FAS flunkies.

But answers, as always, were hard to elicit. The boys still suffer a siege mentality.

Staff bonuses proved a sensitive area, after the €10,000 to the employee under investigation.

So FAS refused to tell me the bonus — or even the salary — of director-general Rody Molloy! Yet they did admit that FAS gives bonuses under the ‘Scheme of Performance Awards’, that the DG sets the standard for the assistant DGs’ bonuses, that staff come under a different scheme and that there are other ‘Special Merit Awards’ at Molloy’s discretion. Again, they refused to release numbers. What a happy honey pot.

Board members are happy campers too. Chairman Peter McLoone, who doubled as president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu), nets a tidy €24,000 while others receive €14,000. Most directors are ultimate insiders, loyal social partners, four from IBEC and four from the unions.

And what comfort FAS provides for the same insiders! FAS looks after Ibec. In 2006, FAS paid Ibec a €57,000 membership fee.

On top of that, the same IBEC lapdogs received a mammoth €864,000 from FAS — for “training”!

I gulped, then checked whether the figure carried two noughts too many.

A clear case of corporate necrophilia. Politicians are the third part of this magic circle.

Bad and all as these numbers are, they are more than 18 months out of date.

True to form, FAS has still failed to publish its 2007 annual report, pleading that a “preliminary” electronic copy has been sent to the Government. The completed version is expected by September.

Just in time for Brian Lenihan to announce that the €20m-a-week quango has had its budget cut by half. That gives him his €500m. No one would miss it.

Would anyone miss FAS?