1997 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts (Resumed) - Vote 42 - Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands.

Thursday, 29 April 1999

Committee of Public Accounts Debate

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Mr. Colm Dunne (Deputy Director, Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General) called and examined.

Mr. T. Ó hÉalaithe (Secretary General of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands) called and examined.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell The committee is now in public session. We will begin by returning to the 1997 Annual Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts, Vote 42 - Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The relevant documentation - correspondence dated 22 January 1999 from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Review of the Irish Genealogical Project; correspondence dated 18 February from the same Department re overgrazing - ewe supplementary scheme commonage framework plans and correspondence dated 16 February from the Department of Agriculture and Food re the REP scheme - has been circulated. The committee previously dealt with this Vote on 15 December 1998.

I welcome Mr. Colm Dunne, Director of Audits at the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is representing the Comptroller and Auditor General in his absence, and his two colleagues. I also welcome the Secretary General of the Department, Mr. Ó hÉalaithe, and ask him to introduce his officials.

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: On my left are Mr. John Walsh, the Department’s finance manager, Mr. Chris Flynn and Dr. Alan Craig. With me also is Mr. Frank Brinkley of the Irish Genealogical Project.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell The Secretary General sent the Committee a long detailed report. Will he provide a synopsis and indicate the progress that has been made since we last discussed the project?

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack We are in a different sequence from that of the agenda.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell We will deal with this briefly and then move on.

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: We have discussed the Irish Genealogical Project a number of times since the Comptroller and Auditor General conducted a value for money audit on it. At that stage it was the responsibility of the Department of the Taoiseach. It was transferred to our Department subsequently and we carried out an internal review of the project to see if it was necessary and desirable to continue with it. That is the essence of what is in this report. The IGP was established even though it was a genealogical project. It grew from a desire to promote tourism based on genealogy. It has a strong economic focus and we concluded, as did the committee, that it should continue. When the Comptroller and Auditor General conducted his audit there was discussion of expenditure of about £15 million. However, about £12 million of that was money expended on FÁS schemes. To some extent that training would have taken place in one way or another otherwise.

There were criticisms of the project as it was initiated and progressed over a period. The report recommended we should fund the project to the extent of about £210,000 in the present year, for which we have received the approval of the Department of Finance. The project will continue. However, that funding is conditional on Irish Genealogy Limited which runs the IGP. It will produce an acceptable business plan and we will have to closely monitor implementation of the programme.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report was very critical of the project. Some of the criticisms concerned the accuracy of the data. One of the conditions of our funding of it this year is that an independent audit will be carried out on the accuracy of the data.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell The recommendations are listed on pages 49 to 53. Have they been accepted and are they being implemented?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: Yes they have been accepted and are being implemented.

Deputy Dennehy: Information on John Dennehy Zoom on John Dennehy I welcome the continuation of the scheme. It was in a shambles at one stage. However, it should be useful. Mr. Ó hÉalaithe said there would be an independent audit. What would be the cost of this? His Department is contributing £210,000 but will it spend as much on the audit?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: No. It will be much less than that. I do not have the figures to hand but it will be in the region of £10,000.

Deputy Dennehy: Information on John Dennehy Zoom on John Dennehy Like other Members, I was thrown by the change in the agenda. However, I welcome the decision to continue the project with a more refined management approach.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan One of the main themes on the last occasion we examined this issue was the need for a proper business approach, both in terms of delivery of service and the structures within which the project operates. Under the proposals, will the project be able to evolve and expand to provide a worthwhile service? If that does not happen, it ceases to have a valuable function. Criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General is one thing but the other side of the argument is whether there is a need for the service, which there obviously is. Is that need being met in a businesslike fashion? Under the revised scheme of operation, will it be possible for the service to expand and evolve and to provide, to a far greater extent than has been anticipated so far, a professional service?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: Yes, that is what we want to achieve. However, it will take some time. Some centres are more developed than others and have gone much further down the road in inputting the necessary records. The directors of the project are IGL and they will see to it, which is what we require in their business plan, that development takes place in particular areas. Some centres are not under the umbrella and that must be faced. We cannot have gaps in the system. Perhaps Mr. Frank Brinkley, chief executive officer of IGL will speak about that.

Mr. Brinkley: It is our intention to use the moneys to forward the project in a businesslike fashion. We will produce a plan which will commit us to achieving value for the moneys coming from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. The report points out the area where we have to expand the service to ensure coverage of all areas. This will not all happen in the first year. However, we have already proven, even without additional resources since 1996, we can move forward significantly the completion of the database. The number of tourists seeking their roots has increased rapidly, especially in the past couple of years. On whether there is a direct link between that and the services we are offering, we have to devise a mechanism to prove there is. We feel we are making an impact and the database is being built. We will continue to use our energies to do that. We will utilise the resources we receive to achieve that to the best advantage.

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan The need to provide absolutely accurate information should be emphasised. There is no sense in providing inaccurate information because once it is found out the credibility of the system goes down the tubes. I would like reaffirmation of that objective.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell And so say all of us. What does Mr. Brinkley have to say about that? Many errors were made at an early stage. Are they being corrected?

Mr. Brinkley: All the centres have been alerted to the need to improve accuracy. They have been reminded of the procedures laid down for ensuring accuracy and are aware that an independent audit will be conducted, which will obviously pinpoint any remaining errors in the system. People realise they will be answerable for that. Staff of centres argued about the picture of inaccuracy which was painted and its degree. However, everyone now realises there was a perception of inaccuracy which must be corrected.

Deputy Ardagh: Information on Seán Ardagh Zoom on Seán Ardagh Technology has moved on dramatically since this project was initiated. Today, for the first time, this session of the Committee of Public Accounts is being broadcast on the Internet. What developments are in hand to connect the various sites? Are they in locations where there is access to broad band technology? Is there any intention of putting the system on to an e-commerce footing where, for a charge, people can access the data on the Internet, whether they are in America or anywhere else? It could be used as a revenue-generating item so that information about an item, using a Visa card, could be downloaded wherever in the world one might be. One could also use that as a basis for bringing tourists to Ireland to further investigate their roots.

Mr. Brinkley: Yes. It is part of the development plan for the IFHF, the umbrella organisation for the centres to move specifically into that area of payment by credit card as the Deputy suggested. They are currently negotiating with a service provider in Ireland to facilitate electronic payment over the Internet for services offered by the centres. It is our intention to use the relatively modest sums we are being allocated this year to provide computers for centres that do not have them, including the latest facility. They would all be connected to the Internet.

We are not quite at the stage of making data available over the Internet, nor are we at the stage of developing it quite quickly. There are some difficulties to be overcome, one of which is custody and ownership of the records. The bishops and others who gave these records to the centres for indexing are very adamant about the custody of the records and that they be not made available except under very strict guidelines. They do not want databases searched by irresponsible people. We realise that the customer wants searchable databases that they can access over the Internet and interrogate. However, at present our product does not extend to that, it stretches to dealing with the customer over the Internet and to searching the database for the customer, with the information then being provided over the Internet. However, databases are not searchable by customers over the Internet, and it would be wrong of me to give the impression that that is part of our plan at this stage.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell The committee is happy that some progress is being made.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack FÁS was mentioned as a participant. Is the delegation satisfied that there will be enough money in future to runthis service? Will the FÁS involvement continue?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: Yes. It is envisaged the FÁS involvement will continue. The report indicates that to replace that involvement would mean a wage bill of £3 million. It is unrealistic to think that we would readily get funds like that, as it was not easy to get the relatively modest funds that are being provided. The individual centres are stand alone operations, and that is why some are more advanced than others. At the same time, the effort of the central co-ordinating function, which we are funding, is attempting to bring them more into the family, as it were.

We debated last time whether this should be left to the amateurs or to paid staff. Studies have been carried out on this and it would be unrealistic to think we could get, perhaps, 200 people.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack I understand the Heritage Council produced a report. Has that been published?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: My Department is looking at that, but it deals more with genealogy and it recommends that a separate body, unit or organisation be set up to look into genealogy. No decision has been taken on that, but it is intended to publish that report quite soon and to get a reaction to it. The IGP must remember it was set up to increase tourism arising out of the results of genealogy. There are two slightly different angles here.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack I welcome the news that the report is to be published because we might learn something from it. I understand that the Heritage Council has put considerable work into it. What changes are to occur to the management structure in the new system?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: Not a lot. Members should remember that this has been going on for a number of years and the IGP has had a manager only since 1996 to drive it and be responsible for pushing it. The report recommends a marketing manager be appointed and funding is provided for that. An information technology manager is employed by the Irish Family History Foundation, which is a unique arrangement for which we provide funding. That will all have to come under Mr. Brinkley as chief executive of the IGL, which runs the IGP.

It would be wrong of me not to say that it is envisaged that local centres will look more to local government for computer support, as many of them do at present. Mr. Brinkley mentioned the reluctance of some ecclesiastical authorities to release records. As a west Galway Deputy, Deputy McCormack will appreciate that one likes to keep the action in one’s own back garden.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Yes, although I would never relate anything to my own area.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell That is right.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack I think we have only seen the tip of the iceberg regarding the potential that is here for roots tourism. There must be more than 60 million people around the world who have Irish roots. The bishops have been mentioned as guarding the records. Is that stopping us from having an accessible database?

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: No, but that is down the road. We have not gone as far as we would like.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack What can be done to solve the slight holding back of records?

Mr. Brinkley: That is the question, and we are in danger of exaggerating the size of the problem. I do not want to get into specifics, but we are dealing with a small minority of cases where people are reluctant to pass on records for computerisation. It is not holding up the building of the database, which is already huge and getting bigger by the day, and with the funding it will get bigger more quickly. There is access to the database through the centres. We are aware of the review’s points, and it is obvious that customers want direct, hands-on access to computers and the database. We plan to move towards a greater involvement of the customer in the interrogation of the database, but we must be aware that the scheme is set up to bring revenue and tourism to the centres in every part of Ireland, North and South. It is to get people into those centres. The centres are doing the work, interrogating the database and producing research reports for customers, hopefully before those customers ever come to Ireland. It should encourage customers to come to Ireland.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack How many centres are there? One in every county?

Mr. Brinkley: Essentially, yes.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Are there gaps?

Mr. Brinkley: Yes, there are gaps in Cork, Monaghan and Louth. It would be part of our conditions in the production of the business plan to tackle these problems. We are in a better position to do so demonstrating that we have the support of the Department and the Department of Finance and this committee’s approval.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Is there co-operation across the Border?

Mr. Brinkley: There is absolute co-operation. From the programme for peace and reconciliation we have received funds to build a central sign-posting index in so far as it relates to the six northern counties and the six Border counties in the South. We are well on the way to building that index and there is co-operation across communities and across backgrounds up there on this.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Will Mr. Brinkley accept that the chase is part of the enjoyment for some of the people researching their roots? I visited relations in Oregon a year ago and there were four generations of McCabes who knew only that they came from County Leitrim. The third generation, a lady in her seventies, arrived in Ireland and rang the county secretary in Leitrim who said that the McCabes came from Cloone and that a man working in the planning office was from Cloone. We rang this man and he said that he would get someone who would trace these roots. Within 24 hours a man called from Cloone who knew exactly where they were even though there had been no contact for four generations. These people went up and met their third or fourth cousins and had a great time. This is part of the enjoyment. They got a greater kick out of that than if they had gone into a genealogical service.

Mr. Brinkley: The customer who writes to us or communicates through e-mail from any part of the world is always offered three options: they can do the search themselves - that usually takes a lot longer; they can commission a research report from one of our independent genealogist bodies or people; or they can use some of our centres. Ideally they end up doing all of those.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Mr. Brinkley said that the number of tourists researching their roots has increased greatly. Have we any figures to support that?

Mr. Brinkley: I do not know if there is anyone from Bord Fáilte here. I have been given a figure which has not yet been published in the public domain.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack No better place than here to start it.

Mr. Brinkley: If I am at liberty to say, my understanding of the figure is that it increased to 117,000 this year. It went, I think, from 54,000 to 83,000 between 1992 and 1995.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell Is that the figure for 1996?

Mr. Brinkley: For 1998. It increased from 54,000 in 1991 to 83,000 in 1995. It slumped a little in the intervening years possibly due to the project getting bad publicity because of its inefficiency during those years when it was not managed. It increased to 117,000 in 1998 and, hopefully, it is on an upward trend.

Deputy McCormack: Information on Pádraic McCormack Zoom on Pádraic McCormack Are those figures based on people indicating, when they leave the country, the purpose of their visit?

Mr. Brinkley: There is an overseas travellers survey which asks a number of questions, including, for example——

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell “Why did you come?“

Deputy Durkan: Information on Bernard Durkan Zoom on Bernard Durkan Something occurred to me which goes back to the nub of the problem. Reference was made to the amount of money available. Is there sufficient financial resources to meet the running costs of the programme at this stage?

Mr. Brinkley: It is being proposed, and the Department is happy to arrange funding for us which will manage the project, including the development planning for the project. This will advance the project slowly. Obviously if we had more money we could move faster. I am confident that we can give value for the money being given to us and that it will advance the project.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell I hope the intervention and interest of the committee has helped to move this along. We should not see this as primarily a tourist issue, although that is an important aspect. It is important that these records are preserved for posterity. I would like to ensure that those gaps which have arisen are pursued with a view to eliminating them. The committee will ask the Secretary General when he comes before it in respect of the 1998 report what progress has taken place on this matter.

Mr. Ó hÉalaithe: We furnished the committee with a copy of the report as soon as it was available. This was done in-house by one of my own people, Ciarán Ó hÓbáin, who is with us today. It did not cost us £10,000, taking his wages alone. If we went to a consultant it would cost £100,000. I thank him for the work he did.

Deputy Dennehy: Information on John Dennehy Zoom on John Dennehy I second that.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell From where does the name“Ó hÉalaithe” come?

Mr. Ó hEalaithe: We would want a week for that. It is an old north Cork name. Our people were evicted 200 years ago and went west to the Gaeltacht.

Chairman: Information on Jim Mitchell Zoom on Jim Mitchell I am glad progress has been made and we will raise questions about this later in the year when we come to the Department’s 1998 accounts. We will move on to industrial property.

The witnesses withdrew.

Sitting suspended at 10.45 a.m. and resumed at 10.50 a.m.


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