SIPTU account signatories criticised

Friday 25 March 2011 22.35
SIPTU - Account used to fund foreign trips
SIPTU - Account used to fund foreign trips

An internal SIPTU investigation into the controversial account that was used to fund 31 foreign trips and to channel money to unions has criticised the administration of the account by the two signatories - SIPTU National Industrial Secretary Matt Merrigan and National Executive Council member Jack Kelly.

The account has been the subject of a number of investigations after it emerged that significant funds in the account were used to fund foreign trips and other controversial expenses.

The SIPTU Trustee's subcommittee report says that the SIPTU National Health and Local Authority Levy fund was opened without the authorisation or knowledge of the general officers of SIPTU.

It says monies lodged to the account - which totalled €4.4m over eight years - were not for the benefit of SIPTU.

The current balance in the account is €697,894 and will be returned to the public purse.

No income or expenditure accounts were maintained by the administrators despite the control they exercised over sums involved.

The report criticises State agencies which provided funds to the account, including the Health Service Executive, the Health Service National Partnership Fund and the Department of Health and Children for failing to adhere to the most basic standards of governance, transparency and accountability in relation to the disbursement of public monies.

It says former health minister Micheál Martin approved a grant of €190,000 to the account in 2004.

The trustees acknowledge that the mechanisms of accountability in SIPTU were not sufficiently robust, and notes that there were shortcomings in the oversight and reporting mechanisms within the union which should be addressed as a matter of priority.

It found that a significant majority of participants on foreign travel or study visits had no connection with SIPTU, and included senior management officials from a number of Government departments and State agencies. Many spouses travelled on the visits.

It notes that there was a substantial increase in the number of travellers who reimbursed travel expenses to the account in 2010 when the fund was under investigation.

The report also acknowledged that significant reputational damage has been done to SIPTU by its perceived association with the administration of the fund - and by the lack of proper governance exercised by those who had responsibility for the disbursement of public money.

The trustees recommend that SIPTU should review the procedures within the union to keep General Officers informed.

In a separate statement submitted to the Trustees, account signatory Matt Merrigan said the overwhelming bulk of he money was spent on training, saying over 5,000 shop stewards activists and officials had received training through the fund.

He said that in the eight years that he managed the funds, he never received a request for accounts reports or audits from any of the authorities which provided them.

He said that tragically for all concerned, they had ‘erred on bookkeeping’ due to the absence of specified requirements, monitoring and lack of resources.

Mr Merrigan apologised to the union for the criticism incurred due the signatories' administrative errors.

However, he said the biggest losers would be the citizens who depend on the public services concerned, and their members employed in providing them if the controversy succeeded in sabotaging the potential of these projects.

SIPTU General Secretary Joe O'Flynn said that the union will now be engaging a senior counsel to examine issues surrounding the union's employment relationship with Mr Merrigan. He expects a report on that within weeks.

In a statement, the Department of Health and Children said the issues dealt with in the report were the subject of examination by the Public Accounts Committee of the last Dáil.

It is expected that the issues will be considered by that Committee when it has been reconstituted by the new Dáil.

Martin rejects suggestion over fund approval

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has rejected any suggestion that he approved an allocation of funds to the controversial SIPTU account.

The SIPTU trustees subcommittee report quotes from a letter from the then Health Minister to SIPTU National Industrial Secretary Matt Merrigan in September 2004.

Mr Martin confirmed funding was being provided for the continuation of an initiative for SIPTU front line supervisor training, which was to be facilitated by the Office for Health Management in conjunction with the University of Limerick.

Later that month, the Department of Health and Children informed the Midland Health Board that an ‘adjustment’ was being made to the Board's allocation to take account of the allocation to the Office for Health Management for the Supervisor Front line training.

The amount provided was €190,000.

However, a spokesperson for Mr Martin said that he had never approved any payment to the controversial SIPTU account, of which he had had no knowledge.

He pointed out that SIPTU itself had also had no knowledge of the account.

He said Mr Martin's letter merely confirmed what the support was for, and approved funding for the union, rather than for Mr Merrigan.

He was informing Mr Merrigan of the allocation as the national representative for SIPTU health workers.