Finance Minister urged to introduce zero VAT rating for Covid-19 antigen tests after budget “oversight” left them facing significant price hikes

Finance Minister Michael McGrath was urged to implement a zero VAT rating on Covid-19 antigen tests on a “care and management basis” after an oversight threatened to see their prices rise for consumers.

The minister was told that the 0% VAT rate applying to the tests had not been considered during last year’s finance bill discussions due to an “oversight”.

Mr McGrath was warned that while Ireland’s vaccination programme had been a success, there still remained “significant levels of this virus in general circulation”.

A submission said: “This is reinforced by the public health guidelines which continue to advise caution, in particular recommending self-isolation if you have symptoms of COVID-19 and Covid testing for [certain] categories [of people].”

Officials said that antigen tests had been subject to a zero VAT rate up until 31 December of last year based on a derogation from the EU Commission during the pandemic.

They said the derogation had now expired but it was now possible to introduce changes that would ensure the 0% rate would apply permanently.

The submission added: “Due to an oversight this was not considered as part of the Finance Bill 2022 process.”

Officials said it should now be introduced with immediate effect but that it would require legislation, which could take time.

However, the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners had said he would “listen to a request” for a zero rating to apply on a care and management basis until the necessary laws were in place.

Department of Justice discussion paper says most deportations are never carried out and state had shown “considerable humanity” in dealing with refugees

A discussion paper from the Department of Justice said the majority of Irish deportation orders were never carried out.

It said that deportation would never be a direct solution to reducing strain on the immigration system and could only ever act as a “deterrent”.

Figures from the discussion paper show that in the years leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, only between 15 and 45% of deportation orders were actually carried out.

In 2017 for example, there were 930 deportation orders signed but only 140 – or 15 per cent – of them were actually “effected”.

For 2019, the Minister for Justice signed off on 1,468 separate deportation orders but just 299 of them were executed, a rate of 20 per cent.

The proportion did rise higher during the Covid-19 pandemic, but only because a moratorium on signing deportations was introduced.

The research paper said it had to be acknowledged that deportation was “not always straightforward, that there are no easy decisions, and that some may be painful”.

It said that behind every single removal, there was a human element and also cases of individuals that could not be returned to their country of origin.

The paper said the state had faced “obvious criticisms” over its deportation policy but had generally shown “considerable humanity” in how it had acted.

It said: “In contrast to the views of some commentators, it is a fact that Ireland, despite considerable challenges, seeks to treat migrants in a humane manner.”

Prison project went 70% above budget after unforeseen issues with asbestos, wiring, and fire alarm system

A project to extend and modernise the Irish Prison Service College ran 70% over budget after running into a litany of unforeseen problems including asbestos and sub-standard wiring.

The project to redevelop Brian Stack House in Portlaoise was hoped to cost €4.26 million; however, the final bill ended up being just over €7.25 million.

A post-project review carried out by the Irish Prison Service sa­id the job had “quickly encountered challenges” that led to unforeseen delays and additional costs.

Asbestos was discovered and there was a lack of evidence that a previous survey from 2001 on the presence of asbestos had been dealt with properly.

There were problems with wiring in bedrooms – where prison officers would be accommodated while training – which was not of the “anticipated standard”.

Service pipes and cables were discovered below where the extension was set to be built, requiring “remediation and rerouting”.

The fire alarm system in the building was found to be non-compliant with modern requirements and ground conditions were not what had been expected.

In addition, the sewerage system was found to be “incapable” of serving the modernised facility and needed to be upgraded.

As well as the “unanticipated conditions” encountered, there were also significant changes to the project while it was underway.

This included upgrades of bedrooms, changes to external landscaping, enhanced work to the kitchen and canteen, and the development of a gym facility.

An analysis of the financial performance of the project said technical and consultancy fees were expected to be €148,147.

However, the final bill for those services came in at €270,709, an “excess cost” of 83%.

The construction and fitout of the building was predicted to cost around €4.11 million, according to the post-project review.

However, the final tally came to €6.98 million, 70% above what had been anticipated.

Among the costliest items of “major change” were €334,000 for bedroom wiring, €327,000 for sewerage works, and €178,000 for the installation of a new fire alarm system.

The review also said the actual period on site of the project had ended up being around 70 weeks between 2017 and 2018, compared to the 50 weeks “originally estimated”.

College management also raised concerns over the level of consultation on the project, the report said.

They claimed there hadn’t been enough time given to consider potential risks at the start of the project, especially around renovating an old building.

College management also said insufficient time was allocated to multiple other aspects of the project including electrical specifications, an intruder alarm system, works to the canteen, furniture specification, and the location of the gym.

The report did find that procurement and sanctioning on the project had operated well with no major areas of concern discovered.

It also said the extended and completed facility when it opened was “fundamentally and extensively superior” to what had been there before.

Asked about the review, a spokesman for the Irish Prison Service said: “During the construction phases, significant challenges were encountered which needed to be addressed.

“In the case of the Irish Prison Service College project, major risks were identified in relation to fire safety and compliance with the relevant building regulations, particularly for older part of the premises.

“[A post project review of this project was] completed in order to identify lessons learned and they have informed significant changes to the way projects are planned, appraised and delivered.”

Burning smell from back of vehicle, wind damage, and spluttering engines – ambulance breakdowns from last year detailed

Ambulances broke down en route to nineteen emergency calls last year with one damaged by severe gusts of wind while another crew reported a smell of burning from the back of their vehicle.

In one incident in Sligo, the engine was reported to have “given up” while in two cases, the ambulance lost “all power” while responding to a call.

In February, a second emergency response crew had to be dispatched after “wind damage to [an] ambulance door” during a callout in Limerick.

Also that month, an ambulance broke down on its way to an emergency call in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.

There were three breakdowns in April, one described as a “vehicle issue”, another suspected to have a “power steering belt” fault, and a third logged as “engine spluttering – query airlock”.

Asked about the vehicle breakdowns, a spokeswoman for the National Ambulance Service (NAS) said they represented just a small fraction of the 336,000 emergency calls they dealt with last year.

She said the fleet – made up of critical care and emergency ambulances, intermediate care vehicles, rapid response units, and various support vehicles – had travelled in excess of 24 million kilometres during 2022.

“While any vehicle, particularly those working at design extremes, can and does experience mechanical failure, the NAS has implemented a robust eight-week inspection schedule for all patient carrying vehicles which has significantly improved the performance, safety and reliability of our fleet,” she said.

“Together with a sustained programme of annual investment in fleet replacement, the 366,000 112 or 999 calls only saw nineteen occasions where emergency vehicles suffered punctures, warning lights which had to be investigated or a mechanical issue.”

She added that no patient safety, staff safety, or other road user had been impacted as a consequence of any of the vehicle breakdowns last year.

Report into discovery of mass grave of dogs finds they were very likely to have been racing greyhounds

A report into the discovery of a mass grave of dogs said they were very likely racing greyhounds based on the strong muscles and clipped nails of one animal which ended up being well-preserved in a bog.

An investigation found that probably six or seven dogs had been buried at the site in peatland near Newbridge, Co Kildare.

The fact they were buried in a bog meant the remains of one of the animals was very well-preserved, and it was later possible to take DNA samples.

An investigation report said: “You could tell this was a large black dog with well-developed muscles consistent with that of a racing greyhound, and you could see its nails had been clipped in a manner consistent with that of a racing greyhound.”

It said the remains of six dogs had “damage to the top of [their] skull” where it met with their spine.

A vet from the Department of Agriculture bagged up all of the remains, which were later transported to the State Laboratory at Backweston.

The Greyhound Racing Ireland report – which was released under FOI – said: “The remains were spread over an area of approximately forty metres by fifteen metres.

“The remains were of a minimal of six dogs, five of which the skull and spinal cord were in one piece as well as one skull and one body of a dog which may or may not be the same dog.”

The remains were numbered from one to seven, with bag one to six skeletal remains, but the seventh bag in good condition having been “submerged in the bog”.

“When we pulled [these remains] out of the wet peat, the hind quarters were very much intact.”

Department of Justice spent €80,000 on enforced deportation flights, mostly for individuals involved in “serious criminality”

The Department of Justice spent over €80,000 on flights for the enforced deportation of failed asylum seekers over the past two years.

The expenditure included over €16,000 on a deportation mission to Pakistan, which involved a return leg business class flight from the city of Lahore to Doha in Qatar.

The department said the €80,555 spend on flights covered the deportation of thirteen different people, the majority to either Georgia or Albania.

They also said that the only enforced deportations which took place between the start of 2021 and September of last year were cases involving “serious criminality”.

This stemmed from a decision by the Justice Minister to halt routine deportation operations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Government shelves plan for ‘cost of FOI’ exercise as part of ongoing review of the Freedom of Information Act

The government has scrapped plans to carry out a controversial ‘true cost of FOI’ exercise as part of plans for reform of the Freedom of Information Act.

The cost survey was intended to be a key part of the review but has been shelved due to difficulties in nailing down a way to calculate how much information access laws cost.

Feasibility work had begun in 2018 and continued into 2019, when it was delayed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has now said plans for it to form part of the review of the FOI Act had “not been pursued”.

They said: “Estimating the exchequer cost of FOI is something that has proven difficult across all jurisdictions that have attempted it.

“It is not a project that can be undertaken at haste if it is to produce robust and meaningful results.”

The department said the review of the FOI Act had already required public bodies to devote considerable resources to consultations and surveys.

And they said adding a “true cost” project would, given the time sensitivity of the review, be “impractical in the circumstances”.

A slideshow from an inter-departmental working group on FOI also explain how a survey had found low levels of satisfaction with how the information access law works.

Results showed that just 25% of requesters felt it was fit for purpose, while only 40% of public servants agreed.

A presentation said this “suggests an appetite for a fundamental change to the approach rather than just tweaks and fixes”.

The public sector also complained about workload and its impact on other tasks, broad and unfocused requests, and “repeat and abusive requesting patterns”.

For people requesting information, key problems identified included inconsistency, bureaucracy, a “frustrating” process, and being forced to use FOI for queries when it shouldn’t have been necessary.

An agenda for a meeting last September also said there was “no likelihood of a reintroduction of [up-front] application fees”, which has been a major concern for people who make requests.

Questions were also asked over whether there should be greater access to records from organisations that receive very significant state funding.

The agenda asked if there “should be a clearer system to ensure that records relating to services paid for by the state are accessible one way or the other”.

A slideshow from June also showed public servants raising concerns over how FOI worked with 51% saying it gets in the way of doing their job.

Only 41% felt it promoted public understanding of the work of public bodies, while nearly half said information was sometimes used in a way that was “misleading or unfair”.

Asked about the records, a spokesman for the Department of Public Expenditure said it was important to note that the meeting agendas and presentations should not be taken as “conclusive” on how the review of FOI law was progressing.

He said: “As reflected in the update document recently published by this Department, the final report and recommendations have not yet been finalised and will be subject to Government approval.”

More than €2 million in hardship payments for diplomats posted abroad

The Department of Foreign Affairs has paid out more than €2 million in so-called “hardship” payments to diplomats serving overseas during the past two years.

The “hardship postings” are calculated based on the challenges of living in certain cities with payments made to mandarins serving in world capitals like Moscow, Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, and even the Bulgarian capital Sofia.

Figures released under FOI show that €1.18 million was paid out to 162 diplomats last year, or an average of around €6,900 per person.

That figure was up 17% on 2021 when 154 different staff shared hardship payments of €955,770, or roughly €6,200 a head.

Embassies and missions are broken down into five separate categories from A to E, with an A listing considered the most onerous of locations by the department.

There were three cities classified as A postings last year by the department, all in Africa: Monrovia in Liberia, Freetown in Sierra Leone, and Abuja in Nigeria.

Payments totalling just over €128,000 were made to twelve diplomats working in those cities last year, or around €10,700 each.

Five cities were categorised with a B ranking by the department, Jakarta in Indonesia, Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, Ramallah in Palestine, Maputo in Mozambique, and the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Hardship payments of around €190,000 were paid to nineteen officials of the department serving in those cities in 2022, roughly €10,000 per person.

Cities ranked C last year included Beijing in China, Kyiv in Ukraine, New Delhi in India, and the Egyptian capital Cairo.

Kyiv had in 2021 been ranked D by the department but its hardship level was upgraded because of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

OPW were warned crane on Skelligs world heritage site could be damaged or break away in bad weather

The OPW were warned multiple times that a crane installed at the Skellig Islands might be washed away in the event of severe weather.

The Skellig Boatman’s Association had raised concerns “numerous times” throughout the summer before the crane broke loose from the pier in early December.

In emails to the OPW, the association said: “Unfortunately, our fears have now been realised. This is a very concerning situation for us and one which needs to be addressed urgently.”

They said the exact location of the destroyed crane needed to be determined and a plan for its removal put in place to ensure safe navigation for boats.

An inspection of the island – which featured as a key location in the latest Star Wars series – found “no sign” of any of the crane or its components.

An internal email said: “There is no damage to the pier; the crane structure broke off at the anchoring points and, overall, it was a fairly clean break.

“A diver is going to go underwater in the coming days to see if there is any debris in the vicinity of the island but at present that seems unlikely.”

National Gallery paid €1.5 million for Jack B Yeats painting with reservations from some board members about the high price involved

The National Gallery ended up paying a cool €1.5 million for a painting by Jack B. Yeats despite reservations from some of its own board members about the exorbitant price.

The price was more than 75% above the highest amount the gallery had paid for a new painting in well over a decade.

In meetings, the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) board was told the painting ‘Bachelor’s Walk, In Memory’ was being offered by its owners at a negotiable price of GB£1.7 million but that Yeats’ paintings often exceeded their sale price.

One board member Professor Owen Lewis said he was supportive of the purchase but had “serious reservations” about the asking price given the extent of the gallery’s existing Yeats Collection of 37 works.

Others said they also supported the purchase amid fears of controversy if the artwork left the country but said how the NGI would fund it needed to be “fully investigated”.

The picture had been on long-term loan to the National Gallery since 2009 with then director Sean Rainbird saying it and another picture Grief were the “strongest painting[s]” in their collection of Yeats’ work.

The National Gallery had originally refused access to most of the information on the purchase of the painting following a request made under Freedom of Information laws.

However, the case was appealed to the Information Commissioner, who ruled most of the information could be released and was not commercially sensitive given the National Gallery now owned the painting.

The Information Commissioner ruled that the records “relate to extremely specific negotiating positions that are relevant only to the particular transaction”.

You can read that decision here.