Head of HSE says his agency was powerless to regulate Console

Tony O'Brien has told the PAC it's not feasible to look into every private agency funded with public money

hse, dail, console, charity, ireland, pac, news,

Tony O'Brien. Image: RollingNews.ie

The head of the HSE has insisted the executive is not to blame for spending at Console.

Tony O'Brien has been quizzed by a Dáil committee after a HSE audit raised concerns about alleged financial impropriety by Console’s founder, Paul Kelly, and two family members.

Mr O’Brien told the Public Accounts Committee that the HSE was not in a position to regulate the charity.

“We were not Console's regulator. We were not its primary funder,” he said.

“We were purchasing a certain range of services from Console, which will now continue under a different organisation.

“We have no power over its funding activities or other extraneous matters.”

He added that the audit of the charity was delayed amid "considerable resistance" from then CEO Paul Kelly. 

The head of the HSE also said it is unrealistic to ask the agency to audit certain charities, just because of the history of people involved.

Mr O'Brien was asked why it took so long for the HSE to investigate Console, when concerns had been raised about Mr Kelly in the 1980s.

However, he responded by asking TDs how the agency was meant to research the back story of everyone who runs a charity.

"How do you gather that kind of intelligence? [...] It's not realistic to suggest that," he said.

The PAC meeting started with heated exchanges, first from its chairman Seán Fleming.

“What were you doing running about checking how much was spent on a bunch of flowers?" the Fianna Fáil TD asked.

Fine Gael deputy Josepha Madigan also had strong words for the HSE chief.

“I find it extraordinary that you would try and manoeuvre your way out of any responsibility,” she said.

Increased scrutiny

Mr O’Brien told the committee that funding to Console remained relatively static between 2006 and 2013, when it increased from €252,000 in the previous year to €599,000.

In his opening statement, he said financial support was increased to prevent the collapse of its National Suicide Helpline, which previously funded by another organisation.

The funding hike was "predicated on the charity agreeing to a greater level of scrutiny and enhanced governance" by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, he said.

"It was this increased level of scrutiny by NOSP that gave rise to a number of concerns including Console’s continued failure to respond to requests for information, delivery on commitments to commission independent reviews of its service and failure to attend significant meetings ... and to their annual accounts.

"Arising from these concerns in late 2014, NOSP approached HSE’s Internal Audit Division and requested that Console be included in their Audit Work Plan for 2015."

Mr O'Brien told TDs that HSE officials advised Console that the audit would commence on April 27th, 2015.

Following a request from the charity, the audit start was deferred to begin on May 19th, 2015.

"This audit should have taken approximately 12 weeks to complete. However, the audit was particularly complex and challenging and the auditors met with considerable resistance from the then CEO," he said. 

"The audit was completed in April 2016. At all times the auditors were careful to follow fair procedures and due process."