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Watchdog’s Wasted Efforts

Posted on: September 19th, 2010

IS the watchdog a waster?

Last week the grandly named “Comptroller & Auditor-General” produced more than 1,000 pages of masterly finger-wagging.

He gently took the usual suspects to task for wasting State funds.

John Buckley must have the easiest job in Ireland. Ireland’s wasters’ industry is endemic.

Wherever he looks he will find a waster. Serial offenders crop up year after year.

All he needs is an annual pilgrimage to Fas. That would give him a full chapter. Next he should press the ‘consultants’ button for another chapter. CIE could fill chapter three. After that, a few spectaculars — like the millions on the National Convention Centre or the €340,000 spent on an unpublished history of the Office of Public Works — titillate the media.

There is one area where he never shines the spotlight. In the mirror. He never wonders if the watchdog himself is a waster.

Buckley’s report costs 14 grand to produce. It can be bought by any innocent member of the public in three volumes for €21. All 226 members of the Oireachtas were sent free copies last Thursday. That’s nearly five grand and 250,000 pages down the drain for a start. Two copies in the Oireachtas Library would be plenty for the needs of the slow learners in Leinster House.

While Buckley knows how to raise the nation’s blood pressure, it is a pity that no one in power takes effective action to follow up on his findings. He pinpoints overpayments at Fas, breaches of procurement in the Department of Finance, late returns of annual accounts at CIE and empty State buildings brought about by decentralisation.

He seldom names names. Heads rarely roll. So what happens?

Well, the very, very serious Dail Public Accounts Committee sits down and takes a very, very grave view about the waste of public funds. It summons very, very important witnesses to explain the waste. It issues another very, very long-winded report. All 226 members of the Oireachtas receive a copy. The report costs another five grand. . .

Sometimes the report is even debated in the Dail. Nothing happens. No one pays a price.

Last week Buckley gave us our annual appetiser. It was no more influential nor more shocking than any of his other missives in recent years, but it was dynamite all the same. As usual it was dynamite without the explosion. Expect plenty of outrage and little action.

This year, Buckley introduces a twist to the familiar story. His narrative helpfully highlights the latest extravagance. In the past he reported plenty of plutocrats plucking booty from the boom. Not today. Now that the economy is teetering on the edge of Armageddon, it is the victim of more skilful pillagers — the guys who help the destitute.

Plenty of vultures are enjoying the feast served up by the rotting economy. The Department of Finance — or other equally generous organs of the State — have paid more than €11m to solicitors Arthur Cox, over €6m to accountants PwC and over €7m to investment bankers Merrill Lynch, supposedly to plot a route out of our banking catastrophe.

Welcome to the world of ‘advisers’ and ‘consultants’, Ireland’s fresh, faceless plutocracy. Some of the gigs given to consultants in the banking swamp were awarded without normal procurement procedures. The same names pop up with alarming regularity.

There is little evidence that today’s favourites have merited their millions. What did all their advice do to lift us out of the bottomless Anglo pit?

One foreign dignitary with a big reputation, Andrew Large, was paid €120,000 for scouring the globe and finding the new Financial Regulator, Matthew Elderfield.

Elderfield was a great appointment, but what is going on? A €200 advertisement on the appointments pages of The Economist would have flushed out Matthew from his Bermuda post.

Poor Buckley highlights the payments — but then cravenly points out that, in the greater scheme of things, the massive €34m sting that the financial advisers inflicted on the nation is a pinprick compared with the billions needed to recapitalise the banks.

Instead of downplaying the €34m figure, he should have challenged the assumption that their advice was worth the money. He could have queried how such a blood-sucking industry is ballooning. He should have asked whether we can stomach similar parasites now circling Nama, where Nama-vultures are set to savage the taxpayer for €2.3bn over the next decade.

Auctioneers are risen from the dead, concocting fantasy valuations for Nama. Happily forgotten property consultants and stockbrokers are furtively resurfacing, discredited asset managers are re-asserting their ‘expertise’, ghosts from the gang of compromised economists are touting their services. All the old guard who got it so wrong just three years ago are haunting Nama, hoping to do the State some service. And they are being indulged.

Instead of questioning the Nama monster and its costs, the toothless watchdog retreats into a familiar pattern. We hardly need a squadron of State sleuths to tell us that Fas has paid double the original valuation for a site down in Offaly. Nor to learn that CIE chairman John Lynch failed to inform Transport Minister Noel Dempsey about the losses at Iarnrod Eireann due to frequent procurement lapses.

Misdemeanours at Fas and Iarnrod Eireann were not unearthed by forensic acc-ountancy from Mr Buckley. Both bodies were unmasked by the Sunday Independent, later to be pursued by Oireachtas committees.

The only head to roll as a result of wanton waste in the public service was FAS chief Rody Molloy’s. That was thanks to the Sunday Independent and RTE’s Pat Kenny. The Comptroller had no part to play in it.

Last year it cost €250,000 a week to keep the Comptroller’s office operating. Is the office that pursues wasters worth its €12m-a-year budget?

Last Tuesday, I set out on my monthly Fas hunt. The disgraced State employment agency is easy meat for a journalist in search of a story. The 2009 annual accounts, due by June 30, were three months late — an offence for which the Comptroller had already specifically criticised CIE.

Assuming that Fas was up to its old tricks, I asked the watchdog what had caused the delay. Had his office rumbled a skeleton in the Fas cupboard that had caused the breach of the June 30 deadline?

There was a lot of mumbling down the line from the Comptroller’s office. No, there were no issues with Fas; well, they had to follow procedures; yes, his office had received the Fas accounts in March; yes, they had hoped to release them earlier; yes, they resolved to do better next year; no, the right person was not there to talk to me, he was on leave. The accounts were now signed and certified; they should be released by the department any day.

Later it emerged that several other State bodies’ accounts had not left the watchdog’s office in time to meet the deadline.

An uneasy shiver ran down my shoulders. The watchdog has a name for getting up early. Let us hope he does not doze at his desk.

Or maybe he should. Does anyone fear his findings?