Turlough O'Sullivan: refusal 'extremely regrettable'

The general manager of the controversial €60m SKILL health staff training programme, Alan Smith, failed to cooperate with an investigation into why union and government officials went on 31 foreign 'study' trips associated with the scheme. Smith went on 22 of these trips, including five in which he was accompanied by his spouse.

In a statement to the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee, the director of the HSE, Cathal Magee, said Smith's decision not to cooperate with the investigation "was not acceptable".

"We are advised that Mr Smith is not a compellable witness in any non-statutory investigation. However, we will continue to press Mr Smith to secure his assistance with this investigation," said Magee.

Former head of Ibec Turlough O'Sullivan, who conducted the investigation for the HSE, said Smith's refusal to cooperate "does not serve the HSE or the public interest".

O'Sullivan said it was "extremely regrettable" he was unable to speak to Smith because as the senior official responsible for SKILL, he would have been able to answer questions about the purpose of the trips undertaken, what approval procedures were in place and related ­expenses.

"From the limited records available it is clear that Mr Smith travelled extensively and was included in most if not all the long-haul study trips. Given that his primary responsibility was the overall management and administration of the SKILL project and he had no direct involvement in rolling out programmes of education and training, it is difficult to understand why he travelled so extensively and was accompanied by his spouse on a number of occasions," O'Sullivan said.

In an letter to the Public Accounts Committee, Smith said the SKILL office, which he managed, was "meticulous" in handling all procurement issues and said it was advised by HSE and Department of Finance officials.

On recruitment practices, Smith said that when the SKILL office advertised a position "no eligible candidates applied" and they had to fill it urgently.

Smith also stated that taxis were paid by the HSE Employers Agency (since subsumed into the HSE) and that it was his understanding that this was "in order at all times".

Smith added that all trips were directly related to the work of the SKILL project.

Smith was general manager of the HSE-funded programme from 2004 to 2008 to upskill over 30,000 health service support staff. He took early retirement from the HSE in May 2009.