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This year’s trilogy from the public spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG), provides a salutary reminder of just how far the country’s fortunes have fallen. And in unearthing the gory detail of how billions of euro in public money is spent and misspent, it underlines the continuance of a mindset in the public sector that it does not really matter how public money is spent, as it is only taxpayer’s money and, sure, nobody has to be accountable anyway.

Too diplomatic

The C&AG is far too diplomatic to say that the management of the HSE’s sprawling €4.3 billion property estate is sloppy, but reading the report, it is hard to be convinced that a directorate with a €27 million-a-year budget is giving good value for money.

A sample of 172 records from the HSE’s new national property database revealed that only 169 properties registered in the name of the HSE with the Property Registration Authority were recorded in the organisation’s own database.

A review of the 169 properties recorded against source records showed site details (location type, tenure, size) were complete in fewer than half of cases, while site classification (in use/vacant) was incomplete in nearly one in five cases.

The report notes that the HSE’s fixed asset register was used to populate the national property database. However, there were critical discrepancies between the two. Some sites on the fixed asset register were not in the national database, while others in the national database were not on the fixed asset register, even though they had been in HSE/Health Board ownership for several years.

Hard on software

In November 2009, the HSE formally issued the (inaccurate/incomplete) database to 11 Estate Managers in nine locations, in the expectation that it would become the primary reference source thereafter. Estate Managers got special software to be able to run the database. The C&AG found that only one of the four offices he visited was running the software and had continuous access to the database.

Another had the software, used it for a few months, changed over to a different system and never went back. The other two continued to use different systems and did not make the changeover after the new system went ‘live’. Even if they wanted to use the special software, they could not; they were not hooked up to the database. The HSE spent €224,000 on this project between 2007 and July 2010.

In a sample of records from the national database, the C&AG discovered varying levels of legal uncertainty with nearly 40 per cent of property deeds. Also, in the case of 31 leases pre-2006, 12 properties had no formal lease, nine had an unsigned lease in the file, and three had no file at all.

In 13 leases post-2006, which were supposed to be governed by a new national protocol, three had no lease in place and three had an unsigned lease in the file.

Killybegs Centre

The C&AG regales one example of the potential exposure of such informal legal transactions. An internal audit of a project to provide a resource centre for people with disabilities in Killybegs, Co Donegal identified a litany of accidental ‘control lapses’ but found no deliberate intention to avoid due process for the project.

In 2006, the then Regional General Manager for Intellectual Disability Services gave a written commitment to take a 6,000 square foot property for the centre for €69,000.

In 2009, the requirement was increased to 9,000 square feet at a cost of €105,000.

Poor communication

The internal audit found there was no public procurement or advertising to identify sites. Communication was poor and reporting fragmented. It was agreed that if planning for the centre were refused, the HSE would pay half the design fees. When the planning application was turned down, the HSE paid all the design fees.

The report highlights that difficulties were encountered due to encroachment by development on the site onto an adjoining landowner’s site. The Property Manager notified these difficulties to the Regional General Manager in November 2005 and advised him not to continue the project. Early in 2006, and contrary to the advice, the Regional General Manager gave a written commitment to take the property.

The HSE Property Comm-ittee refused to approve the lease in October 2008 and following contacts within the Estates Directorate, approval was given to take the lease and a second lease in August 2009. Both were signed in October.

Out-of-court settlement

In March 2010, the report continues, the Property Manager received a letter from an owner of property adjoining the resource centre land that an out-of-court settlement of €100,000 had been agreed with the landlord in May 2009, for encroachment on land forming part of the of the car park at the resource centre.

The landowner said the settlement was still outstanding and the HSE should not occupy the property.

Although the Executive has no liability, it cannot now occupy the property until the out-of-court settlement between the landlord and adjoining landowner is resolved. It appears to be satisfied that the process, though beyond its control, did achieve value for money.

And in the strange, Kafkaesque world of the HSE, it probably did.