Inland Fisheries Ireland at the Public Accounts Committee

Inland Fisheries Ireland at the Public Accounts Committee

Full Transcript:

Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: I thank the witnesses for appearing today and I thank Mr.
O’Donnell for the opening statement. It is unfortunate that no board members are here today,
but that is where we find ourselves. This organisation is receiving €27 million in Exchequer
funding but does not have a functioning board in place. The witnesses have come to the Committee of Public Accounts today to ask for an expansion in its services, or at least that is part of the narrative.
When preparing for today’s meeting, I asked somebody where the IFI is headquartered – I
did not know the building. The reply I got was that it was halfway between Ballymagash and
Killinaskully. That is not a good look for an organisation that is making a case here for increased staffing and funding. Many of the issues we will address here would sit very comfortably in the world of the D’Unbelievables or Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. Even the corporate slogan
invites an element of satire, “It’s about the fish”.

The protective crews are not getting out when they should. We do not have the trained RIB
drivers to get out in the nighttime. Invasive species are allowed to get out of hand before being
brought back under control. Lapsed insurance policies are not noticed until there is a crash.
There are property leasing arrangements to employees which could be described as loose at
best. Whatever about the fish, there is definitely something fishy happening here. As usual in
such situations, at the end of the day the taxpayer will be left on the hook here.

IFI has a corporate governance structure that is in freefall, with mass resignations from
the board leaving a board that is non-quorate and non-functioning so that the Minister needs
to step in and take the nuclear option, essentially. There have been a series of internal reports,
protected disclosures and a Garda investigation relating to serious allegations of fraud. There
are questions about dormant accounts funding. We have sense that taxpayers’ money is being
thrown around like snuff at a wake.

In the wider context of the request for increased staffing, there is no doubt that the role and
remit of IFI are changing radically as we respond to the urgency of the climate and biodiversity
crisis. As Mr. O’Donnell outlined in his opening statement, there are increased pressures on our
waterways. Our fish populations are also in freefall. I know that the Minister, Deputy Eamon
Ryan, has called on IFI to be more ambitious and there is a need for more ambition. Its business
case to Mazars referred to a 61% increase in staffing to go from approximately 320 to closer to

  1. I absolutely understand the need for that level of ambition. I would love to be going to the
    Minister, Deputy Donohoe, ahead of the budget to say that I support IFI’s request for this extra
    funding, but it is difficult. It is difficult as a Member of the Oireachtas and as a member of the
    Committee of Public Accounts, which has oversight of the spending of public money, to have
    confidence in an organisation and to make a case for increased funding. There is a whole range
    of issues here and I am aware that time is limited.

    I will begin with Mr. O’Donnell and the issue of his work base and where he was working
    from. I think there are questions for Ms Bradley as well and for Ms Campion. The Comptroller and Auditor General takes issue with how adequately this is reflected in the statement of
    internal control. The decision to move to Ballyshannon was based on the fact that it is closer to
    Galway. I am very fond of Donegal but that is the first time I have ever seen anybody make a
    case for moving to Donegal because it is closer to anything. It might be closer to Galway, but
    Inland Fisheries Ireland also operates in my catchment area of Waterford. That is not close to
    Donegal. I believe it was agreed by the head of HR. Ms Bradley signed off on this. Could I
    ask for the rationale first?

    Mr. Francis O’Donnell: The rationale for it is that it was 2021 and we were in the middle
    of a pandemic. As the chief of the organisation, I was asking my staff to stay at home, to work
    from home and to work from regional bases if possible. We have staff normally based in Dublin, for example, in the research department. They could be from Cork or Waterford. We have
    seven regional offices. It made absolutely no sense to ask them to come in to headquarters, which was only open once a week at that point. I was living in Donegal. I would only have
    access to secure IT systems one day a week. At that point in time, I was also paying invoices
    on behalf of the taxpayer that ranged from €30,000 to €900,000. I did not have a secure system
    at home to do that.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Could Mr. O’Donnell not have set up a secure system in
    Dublin? As a case in point, my staff did not travel to Dublin during the pandemic but I did.

    Mr. Francis O’Donnell: I would like to explain. The office was only open one day a week,
    so I would have to travel to Dublin once a week to undertake all of that work, whereas in most
    cases I would need two to three days working in a secure environment because I was handling
    various different sensitive issues within IFI.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: I will just point out that the statement of internal control does
    not detail any of this.

    Mr. Francis O’Donnell: It may not have detailed that.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: And there are no contemporaneous written accounts.

    Mr. Francis O’Donnell: It was agreed at that time by the chairperson and the head of HR.
    The Comptroller and Auditor General pointed out clearly that it should have gone to a full board
    decision. It was done with the best of intent. There was no malice intended, and it was done for
    the right reasons. As soon as it was pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor General I took
    corrective action on that. I accept that.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: The decision to revert back to the Dublin headquarters only
    happened when the Minister made the section 18 appointees.

    Mr. Francis O’Donnell: That is correct. The position of the section 18 appointees was that
    once my base changed to Ballyshannon, my expenses were being signed off by the then chair,
    and a second chair thereafter. The section 18 appointees were concerned with the period from
    when they started.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Could I ask Ms Campion about the financial implications of
    the move? How much did it cost the taxpayer?

    Ms Suzanne Campion: Just over €5,000 in terms of the amount spent during the period of
    the base being in Donegal. Since the section 18s were appointed, more than €1,000 has been

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: The figure I have in front of me is up to €5,400. Is that accurate? A total of €1,000 of it has been repaid.

    Ms Suzanne Campion: It was €1,000 of the amount that was claimed since the section 18s
    were appointed. That is the full amount that was due.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Okay. I want to move on to the issue of protection teams in
    general but the protection team in Ballyshannon, County Donegal in particular. A difficulty was
    identified with the activity of that protection team. It might be a question for Mr. O’Donnell,
    but Mr. Fox might wish to respond also.

    Mr. Francis O’Donnell: Could I defer to Ms Bradley on this one?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: Our teams are fairly small and I do not think it is appropriate to call out
    one particular team because the staff would be easily identifiable. What I would say is that—–
    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Was there an investigation into one particular team?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: No.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Was there not an internal process whereby this was checked?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: No. There was no performance investigation with regard to the Ballyshannon team.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Have I made an error there? Was there a performance investigation into a team in a different area?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: No, what I would say to the Deputy is that there were some discussions
    about a number of areas around the country where they needed additional resources. For example, we will choose the north because the Deputy has spoken about it. Our corporate plan has
    placed a focus on development, in particular around the assessment of barriers to fish migration,
    and other development duties. Because our resources are so stretched, it is difficult to stretch
    them across protection and development. There were some protection issues that we were concerned about, so we refocused the team. We put in a pilot scheme called a mobile support unit,
    which put out a call of interest to staff, if they wanted to participate. The idea was that it would
    be a central mobile support unit that could go to any area in the country that needed additional
    resources. To be clear; there was no performance investigation into anyone in Ballyshannon.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Okay. I want to turn to fleet management in particular. I
    think it is the second biggest expenditure outside of salaries. I understand the need for maintenance of the fleet. The valuation for plant and equipment comes to €21.4 million, which is substantial. To a certain extent I can understand it. I just want to get the right page in front of me
    here. There is a question around how many vehicles there are. How many people does IFI have
    in the field? I know there are 320 employees. How many of those employees are in the field?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: Slightly over 200.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Are there slightly over 200 vehicles?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: I should say that there are also another 30 to 40 people in research and
    they also have vehicles because they do fieldwork for six months of the year.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: We are pretty close to a one-on-one ratio in terms of vehicles
    to staff.

    Ms Róisín Bradley: What I would say to the Deputy is that we have done some research
    with other agencies that are quite like us in terms of the use of vehicles, for example, the Garda.
    This was at the time when we decided we wanted to bring in a telemetric system so that we
    could monitor each of the vehicles. We asked how the Garda manage vehicle utilisation. They
    said that the vehicle is a tool and they do not monitor the tool, they monitor the individual performance of the officer.
    We do have 205 vehicles, but 31% of our fleet comprises 4X4 crew cabs. These vehicles are
    utilised for specific heavy-tow operations and off-road protection and development activities.
    Some 22% are sport utility vehicles, SUVs, for higher ground clearance and all-wheel drives and another 22% are cars and vans, and then we have a number of special types such as tractors, dumper trucks and stuff like that. It is not the case that every employee has a vehicle.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: I accept that. Given the type of work IFI does, I accept the
    fact that there is a need for specialist vehicles but it just seems a very high ratio. It also seems
    that there is a very high figure included for general car hire; €350,000.

    Ms Róisín Bradley: Again, we have spent a lot of time looking at what is the best way to
    meet the needs of the operations, in line with what type of vehicles are needed. Because we
    have what we consider a high season between March and September-October, which is when
    we bring in our seasonal staff, we have a lot more staff in the operations section of the organisation. Researchers are now out doing fieldwork and then other staff, such as people in my team,
    might need to travel around the country. We use pool cars. If somebody needed a vehicle to
    perform a duty, if they are in an operational team there would be a number of vehicles managed
    by the inspector locally. If they are in research, there are usually older vehicles that they use or
    we would lease vehicles. A lot of times they are externally funded through the research funds
    that they would be carrying out work for.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: In broad strokes, there is the guts of €500,000 being spent on
    fuel and €350,000 spent on car hire. The size of the fleet means that depreciation is a very serious cost. I understand there is a need for that but I find it astonishing, considering the size of the
    fleet, a fleet manager was only put in place after somebody had a crash in an uninsured vehicle.

    Ms Róisín Bradley: I would not go so far as to say that.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: Is the timeline wrong?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: No. We had what we called a logistics manager, who was responsible
    for the fleet, which is cars, boats and trailers, and for health and safety, procurement, facilities
    and warehouses. We have so few—–

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: It is evident in the fact there were 16 uninsured vehicles
    driving around the place that there was a need for a fleet manager.

    Ms Róisín Bradley: I agree.

    Deputy Marc Ó Cathasaigh: I have a follow-on question on the climate commitments IFI
    set out. I think it is high level objective 4 and it refers to the type of reductions needed in carbon emissions across the organisation. The guts of €500,000 is being spent on fuel to get that
    expensive fleet around the place and that is not counting fuel for the RIBs, which is a separate
    cost. A significant amount of money is being spent on car hire and the maintenance and upgrade
    of the fleet. What steps is IFI taking towards electrification of the fleet? Have we a significant
    component of electric vehicles, EVs?

    Ms Róisín Bradley: We do. Some 22.5% of our fleet is electric, which is 46 vehicles. I will
    go back to say one thing. In 2021, we were still at the height of the pandemic and, with regard
    to vehicle occupancy, rules kept changing. Our staff were deemed essential workers so we were
    doing everything we could to make sure they were out on the ground carrying out their job and
    doing it safely. At certain points in the pandemic, we could only have one staff member in a car
    where normally we would have four or even sometimes five. At other times, we had screens
    allowing two people in the car, one in front of the screen and one in the back. In 2021 we had,
    I think, 102 lease cars. The following year we had 38. It was an unusual year.

    Getting back to the Deputy’s question on EVs, 46 cars in our fleet, or 22.5%, are EVs.
    They have travelled more than 665,000 km in the course of duty since 2019. We recognise that
    70% of our emissions are attributed to our fleet but we are proud to say we have made a 44.5%
    improvement in energy efficiency compared to our baselines, which is an SEAI performance
    energy indicator. We are a leader in energy performance and proud of that fact.