The Department of Justice and the Irish Prison Service have been asked to investigate the whereabouts of three prison-owned vehicles and the finances of staff restaurants in prisons.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharrry made a series of allegations at the Public Accounts Committee about finances in prison that he claimed put the recent controversy about the Garda Training College at Templemore "in the halfpenny place".

On the issue of prison vehicles, he asked representatives of the Prison Service and the Department of Justice to investigate the whereabouts of a Hyundai i40 car which was allocated to the Midlands Prison in Portlaoise; a van at Mountjoy Prison and a tractor in Shelton Abbey Prison.

He asked for a breakdown of all vehicles in the Prison Service because there is a suggestion that management might have been told that everything is in order with vehicles yet he has been told otherwise. 

Turning to the issue of catering, the Fianna Fáil TD asked about staff-run 'mess committees' that have run the staff catering facilities in most of the 12 Irish prisons since 2012.

After a lengthy period of questioning, Mr MacSharry said: "The mess committees to my research do not have any memorandum or articles of association. They don't have any rules. They are not a registered charity. They are not a limited company."

He claimed, after doing some rough calculations, that mess committees may have at their disposal in the region of €1,715,500 in profit, subsidised by taxpayers' payment of resources for the stores, staff costs, heat and light.

"Nobody audits that money, nobody knows where it goes and nobody knows where it is used from," he said.

Caron McCaffrey, the new Director General of the Irish Prison Service, said: "The committees operate on a break-even basis so they don't operate to generate a profit."

She pledged to provide Mr MacSharry with information about the bank accounts held by each mess committee. She said these accounts will show that there are not profits to the magnitude suggested. 

"In fact there are very modest sums of monies in the mess committees' accounts ranging from a couple of thousand to an absolute maximum of about €30,000 for one of the biggest committees in Mountjoy."

Later Ms McCaffrey said that the allegations made by Mr MacSharry will be treated with the utmost seriousness and investigated.

Aidan O'Driscoll, Secretary General of the Department of Justice, warned the committee against making speculative calculations.

Irish Prison Service tackling 'unacceptable' sick leave level

Earlier, the Committee heard that the Irish Prison Service is tackling its "unacceptable level of sick leave" where the most recent available statistics show the sick leave figure was 15.7 days per employee per year.

Ms McCaffrey addressed previous concerns allayed by the Dáil's public spending watchdog about sick leave in the prison service.

She pointed out that there are limited international comparators available to her organisation, as very few countries publish sick leave statistics for their respective prison services.

She said: "However, from the figures available to us, the 2017 sick leave figure of 15.7 days per employee per year places the Irish Prison Service at the lower end of the scale when compared to other prison services.

"Comparable figures for 2017 show, Northern Ireland reported a figure of 19.7, Denmark 21.9, Latvia 18.88 and Slovenia 15.3 days per member of staff."

The committee was told that prison staff work in an "extremely challenging environment" on a daily basis.

Ms McCaffrey said the Irish Prison Service is tackling the sick leave level in two ways.

She said: "Firstly, by providing staff with the best possible supports to target the work-related causes of sick leave. Secondly, through focused, structured management of all absences to identify and reduce absenteeism."

Addressing the committee, the Secretary General of the Department of Justice made reference to a number of whistleblowers in the Prison Service who have been the focus of recent media coverage.

Mr O'Driscoll outlined that a court affidavit by a serving prison officer made allegations about activities in the prison service, including unauthorised surveillance.

He said: "Notwithstanding that it was the subject of a newspaper article, that affidavit has not yet been opened in court and so its details cannot be publicly discussed.

"The committee will be aware that because the Minister was of the view that the publication of these allegations created a public concern, he asked the Inspector of Prisons to carry out an urgent preliminary investigation to determine the facts as far as possible and make a report to him.

"This investigation is now underway and we await its outcome."

Mr O’Driscoll also indicated that he was aware that the PAC met a prison officer recently in private session, in relation to a protected disclosure made by the officer in question.

However, he added: "As there are ongoing issues in relation to this particular case, including matters before the courts, we cannot comment on the specifics of the case during today's proceedings."