Wednesday, 28 May 2003
Dáil Eireann Debate
The bodies under the aegis of my Department are the National Statistics Board, the National Economic and Social Council, the National Economic and Social Forum, the Information Society Commission, the National Centre for Partnership and Performance, the Law Reform Commission and the IFSC groups.
The following are the changes that are in addition to those stated by me in the House on 11 March 2003. As chairman of the IFSC Banking and Treasury Group, Mr. Walter Brazil was appointed to the IFSC Clearing House Group. Mr. Michael Jackson was appointed to the IFSC Funds Working Group. Mr. John Goggin has been appointed to the IFSC Banking and Treasury Group. The terms of office of both the current NESF and NESC expired at the end of March 2003. They are now being reconstituted.
Mr. Kenny: I know that. However, they are State appointments. Half of them are either serving or former members of Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats. Does this not add to the general level of cynicism about these kind of appointments?
Mr. Kenny: Does the Taoiseach accept that a number of persons on the Aer Lingus board have close links with the Fianna Fáil party and a review of this procedure is necessary to allow Aer Lingus to compete in the global aviation sector?
The Taoiseach: The criteria are as follows. As chairman of the IFSC Banking and Treasury Group, Mr. Walter Brazil is one of the key individuals in the AIB capital markets division. All of the individuals on the boards under my domain are considerable experts. The National Statistics board is equally so. The National Economic and Social Council comprises five persons nominated by the agriculture and farming organisations, five nominated by the business and employer organisations, five persons nominated by the ICTU and five nominated by the community and voluntary sectors. The same applies to the National Economic and Social Forum. The members of the Information Society Commission are all experts in their roles and I can go through this if the Deputy wishes. It is an independent advisory body to Government. The members of the National Centre for Partnership and Performance are drawn from employers' organisations, unions, Government and some independent members. Members of the IFSC groups are drawn from people that are expert in the area, either in the IFSC insurance, banking and treasury, or clearing groups.
Mr. Sargent: I am sure the Taoiseach would like to avoid the impression that appointments to State boards are any form of political payback. With regard to the appointments he has mentioned, does he see any merit in future appointment recommendations coming before the appropriate Oireachtas committee? This would allow the person to express interest and perhaps answer questions regarding the role they would have. Does the Taoiseach see this as beneficial to the overall confidence in which people hold State boards and appointments to them, which may be political in origin?
Has the Taoiseach taken note of the failure to uphold the objectives of gender balance in appointments being made to State boards? The boards highlighted in the Women in Technology and Science study show the percentage of women on those boards dropped from 27% in 1997 to 25% in 2003.
Mr. Sargent: I am trying to stay in order. The area of gender balance is one in which the Taoiseach has expressed interest. For that reason, I hope he will take note of my question and recognise that there is a need for a more pro-active approach to this issue. Many State boards have no female members while many others have only one female member. There is clearly a need to make progress in this regard. What is the Taoiseach doing to lead this progress?
The Taoiseach: With regard to the bodies under my aegis, I do all that I can to ensure the representation is kept to the fixed level, or higher if possible. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and I do this at every opportunity. The most difficult thing is to try to get the nominating bodies to do this. In our legislation over the past 20 years we have given away the political power to nominating bodies as this is seen as the thing to do. Regardless of the group, the amount of effort used in trying to have nominating bodies nominate women is considerable. I would appreciate if nominating bodies put the same effort into this as do all governments.
The Taoiseach: I do not agree with bringing board members before committees. As I said yesterday, we find it difficult enough to bring legislation before committees, never mind establishing a Star Chamber such as that which operates in the United States where somebody is brought before a board and a crowd of backwoods people spend about a year trying to dig up something on the nominee to try to ridicule the nominee. I do not agree with this.
The Taoiseach: I am glad to explain. What happens in the US, and it is well known, is that when someone is before a board people working for the political system spend an endless amount of effort in trying to get something to throw at the person so that they can have a Star Chamber that goes on for weeks. Most of the time they end up appointing the person anyway.
Mr. Rabbitte: From my own personal experience I can tell the Taoiseach that he should not entirely rule out the possibility that some people close to him are doing that already. Is there any truth in the story in last week's Sunday Independent about sinecures being given to two former Cabinet colleagues on the Refugee Advisory Board? Was that story grounded in fact?
Mr. G. Mitchell: Has the National Economic and Social Forum examined the implications for society of prison visiting boards being used to give the members of such boards large expenses when they travel from far-flung places, although they have no particular interest in prison reform or visiting prisoners? Will he ask it to examine this matter if it has not already done so?
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Various Departments, including the Taoiseach's, have failed to meet the target of the second Commission on the Status of Women for 40% of appointees to State boards to be female. The Taoiseach has dealt with this matter in the House within the past 12 months. What further steps has he taken to ensure that a greater balance is achieved? Has he taken any new measures in order to address the difficulties he outlined before, and again this morning, in ensuring that these targets are met? Would it not be preferable that appointments to State boards be advertised? It would make sense to seek the people who are best qualified and have the necessary professional skills and particular interests, along with a proven record of involvement in the area of focus of said boards or agencies. That would enable the Government to avoid all the accusations of cronyism and political appointments and it might even eliminate the issue of backwoods people getting into State boards and agencies.
The Taoiseach: I have spoken to representatives of all the bodies with which I deal directly and asked them to ensure that when making nominations the 40% rule is, at a minimum, adhered to. I am not asking them to stick to the rule but to use it as a minimum guideline. In cases into which I have direct input I make sure that the number of women appointees is as high as possible.
Whatever about the old system, in the vast majority of State boards it is becoming increasingly difficult to find eminent experts and people of high qualifications to serve on these boards, regardless of whether they are affiliated with a political party, although it is increasingly the case that they do not have any political affiliation. The boards are time-consuming and it costs most people a lot of money to serve on them. There are also all the other regulatory regimes. For the key boards – commercial and non-commercial semi-States – or any of the other expert boards, it is quite difficult to find people to serve, especially eminent people, from abroad or elsewhere. To ask them to advertise for people to come and give up their expert time to serve on a board, chair sub-committees and give an input would be entirely unrealistic. People would not do that and if I were them I would not either. More often than not, it is the case that either I or a Minister must ask people whether they will offer their services. I am talking about the main boards, not some of the ones that were mentioned. I am just telling the truth.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: If the Ceann Comhairle would just be tolerant for one moment, I wish to ask the Taoiseach a brief question. Is it not perhaps the case that the pool of people the Taoiseach is considering may be very limited in terms of the names that are known to the Taoiseach and his Department and those who are actually seeking candidates for these appointments? Is it not the case that by advertising, they could widen the pool? There is a great reserve of ability and knowledge and talent out there that has not been accessed. Could the Taoiseach not take that into account?
The Taoiseach: I will give the Deputy a list of some of these boards. I have already given the names of the social partnership boards, but even in those it is not easy to persuade trade union leaders and employer leaders to take on another board or another position. When it comes to the IFSC, we are talking about people from AIB Capital Markets, Bank of Ireland Securities, the Central Bank, the IDA, the Docklands, Merrill Lynch, Irish Permanent, the Revenue Commissioners, Aon Insurance, PricewaterhouseCoopers and the State Street insurance group. A great deal of searching must be done. Other than the people involved in the State, I do not know most of the people. It is the same with most of the State boards.
There might be a limited number of people known to me, but even with the people one knows the job is not as it is made it out to be. I say this from my position, although other people have had this job in the past and will do so in the future. This issue keeps coming up, but nowadays it is hard work to persuade eminent people to serve on State boards. One might have to go down five or six people on the list because of the time commitments required – the appointee must serve on sub-committees and give up a lot of time. It is no plum job. Whatever small benefits an appointee might receive, he or she will be too busy ever to bother making use of them. Admittedly, I am not talking about prison visiting committees but about boards, but that is the reality. I respectfully suggest that Members should stop thinking it is an easy job because it is not.
Mr. Stanton: Who draws up the lists of names for his perusal and final decision? He said himself that he had no say in this and very often does not know these people. What is the mechanism employed in selecting people for State boards? With regard to what the Taoiseach just said, we probably owe many of these people a debt of gratitude for giving of their time and expertise on many of these boards. Would the Taoiseach agree, however, that a certain amount of transparency is required? Much of this happens behind closed doors. It is often unknown to the public and to many Members that people are appointed to what are in many instances positions of great influence to make important decisions on behalf of the State. Will the Taoiseach consider ways of making the whole operation more transparent and more public?
The Taoiseach: I accept the Deputy's point; it is not a totally transparent system. I can speak best about the bodies I deal with. In the National Statistics Board, these positions only go to a handful of people, mainly university people. As the Deputy said, they give enormously of their time and expertise. The chairperson of that board has now been there for ten years under successive Governments. They give up an enormous part of their lives, never mind their working lives. When it comes to the NESC and the NESF, I go to IBEC, the Irish Council of Trade Unions and the farming bodies and ask them to nominate people. I accept their names without question. That is what happens.
On the Information Society Commission, we request the groups in the software society to provide us with names. I am not saying every person is picked in that way, they are not. Because of the burdens now placed on boards, chairpersons, even in ministerial political appointments, make it abundantly clear they do not wish to have unsuitable people on their boards, and if such a person is appointed they make sure it does not happen again. Ministers should not appoint people who wish only to sit around the table and not become involved. That is the way things are moving and appointments will, increasingly, be made in that way.
Mr. Boyle: Having once been nominated by the Taoiseach to the National Economic and Social Council, I accept much of what he says in relation to his room for manoeuvre in nominations to boards within his own Department. Will he accept that the current system brings about a small gene pool from which to select? Very often, particularly among the social partners, one finds individuals who are members of more than one body in the social partnership process. There is a need to broaden the process through advertising or the establishment of a public appointments commission that would mirror the local appointments commission. We need to open up this process so that as many people as possible know what is available in terms of public service positions and how to go about filling them.
On Deputy Sargent's question, will the Taoiseach consider, at the very least, a suitable adaptation of Standing Orders of Dáil committees to allow for some form of questioning by the chairpersons of nominated public bodies to ensure we know at least the background of the individuals concerned and the strategic vision they have in the roles they are asked to perform? That would be an excellent role for the committees of this House.
The Taoiseach: I am not unreasonable in such matters. Deputy Boyle is correct in saying that sometimes individuals end up as members of a number of committees. It is hard to ensure that does not happen. I am against being overly bureaucratic, I would rather matters are settled in a more meaningful way. I am in favour of a number of people becoming involved. I have tried to do so in regard to financial services boards where I have asked that they not put forward people from the same companies but should try to involve new people. I am not against exploring how we can broaden this area.
Mr. Sargent: I am interested to know what happened to the request from the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dea, when he circularised all Departments, including the Taoiseach's, on what was to be done, what progress was to be made and what new impetus could be given to achieving the 40% gender balance on such boards?
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