Thursday, 15 October 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Charlie O’Connor: The drama was associated with yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the attendance at Leinster House by artists and film stars. There is drama everyday, certainly this morning. The arrival of my friend from Wexford reminds me that I wanted to congratulate his friend, Deputy Connick, who has enrolled in “Wex-Factor”. I am sure that the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will join me in wishing the Deputy well.
It is like groundhog day for me, since I spoke on this Bill last night. I do not want to repeat everything I said, although I discussed Tallaght and the importance of the projects therein. I want to mention the Leas-Cheann Comhairle’s colleague, Deputy Penrose. Sometimes, people get confused when compliments cross the floor, but Deputy Penrose and I have been friends and colleagues since I entered the House and I compliment him on his work.
After reading the newspapers this morning, it is clear that FÁS is getting a great deal of bad press, perhaps much of which is deserved. FÁS was mentioned on the Order of Business again. However, it is important that its image be improved by the people within it. The Government has a clear role, but FÁS must do its own business. All of us have listened to the debate carefully and many colleagues have pointed to the importance and value of the services provided by FÁS in everyone’s community. In Tallaght in Dublin South-West, the case is no different. FÁS must continue to reach out to people who need employment services and training.
I speak with local groups daily. Without being critical, as I do not want anyone in FÁS in Cookstown to telephone me, the Cookstown office and FÁS in the Dublin region generally must continue to reach out. I am a Dubliner, so I will confine my remarks to Dublin. I hope that FÁS will continue to play its role.
Recently, Dublin South-West’s Deputies attended a meeting in the Brookfield community enterprise centre regarding community employment schemes and the worth of the jobs initiative programme in particular. There is a sense that the latter may be under threat, but I believe strongly in the value of such programmes. There is no doubt that FÁS and the Government must consider in an innovative way how to change the direction of some of the schemes to ensure that they are employment driven and that people are trained.
I want to make a strong case for the jobs initiative scheme as it is found in Tallaght in Action Tallaght, the Killinarden and parish community enhancement scheme, the Tallaght development company in Killinarden, the council zone scheme, the Jobstown community enhancement scheme and the Tallaght Centre for the Unemployed. They do great work and look after——
Deputy Bernard Allen: I wish to refer to some of the issues raised by my colleague, Deputy O’Dowd, yesterday. What I have heard is a matter for the Committee of Public Accounts, which I chair, and we will deal with this matter further.
I want to make the House aware that, when my committee sought the report on Safe Pass courses in FÁS, FÁS provided us with a censored version of the Spollen report. Subsequently, it appeared unredacted in a Sunday newspaper. This reveals the anomaly posed by the Data Protection Act and the obstacles that the Committee of Public Accounts faces in getting to the truth of such matters. We were provided with reports that were censored because of alleged data protection provisions while the Freedom of Information Act rightly allowed the total disclosure of facts to everyone. The Spollen report is one example, but another report on safety issues does not seem to have seen the light of day, namely, the Claritas report, which was the subject of a question by my colleague, Deputy Stanton, in October 2008.
From what I have heard so far, I am amazed that the fraud squad has not been invited in to investigate this situation, given the seemingly serious anomalies in good governance and so on. My committee will consider this matter and deal with the limitations placed on us. Due to the Abbeylara Supreme Court case, we cannot pinpoint people who are at fault or issue reports that apportion blame. In our report on FÁS published in February 2009, we needed to couch our statements carefully and use phrases such as “the board should be reduced in number and reconstituted”.
The Bill is a belated attempt to deal with some of the report’s key recommendations. I will give it a reserved welcome because it implements one of my committee’s recommendations, namely, to restructure and reconstitute the board to make it smaller. A new board to oversee the running of FÁS is needed, not only to restore confidence in an organisation that will play a vital role in helping to retrain approximately 400,000 unemployed people, but to change the culture of an organisation — it will have a major job in this regard — that has gone badly off the rails. The problems at FÁS date back many years and, thanks to the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General, a light has been shone on many practices that not only show a poor image of our senior public service, but also besmirch the good name of the 2,000 employees of FÁS who do a good job day in, day out in dealing with the issues confronting the organisation and our economy.
The Committee of Public Accounts will deal with many of the relevant issues that arise in the audit reports in the months ahead, such as weak controls, disregard for public procurement rules, wasteful expenditure on advertising and the allegation that the board was kept in the dark by an executive that had taken its eye off the ball and by poor oversight of FÁS, not only by the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Finance, but by the board of FÁS itself. By its make-up, the board was not capable of doing its job, namely, running an organisation that was entrusted with more than €1 billion of taxpayers’ money every year, even in those years of full employment.
While the committee I chair will do its job, I am speaking today as a constituency and public representative. The committee will do its job in dealing with what happened in FÁS but what it cannot do is question Government policy and decisions and this goes to the root of what is wrong in FÁS. At a time of full employment in the State, FÁS was in receipt of money to do what it wanted and it had so much money it could spend its way out of any difficulty. It was advised to spend European Social Fund money to avoid losing it. That was the attitude.
The Science Challenge programme gave FÁS executives an excuse, along with a large crowd of hangers-on, including senior civil servants, Ministers and other friends including some journalists regarded as friendly, to enjoy the luxuries of first class travel to Florida. There was no value to the taxpayer from that programme. I have some regard for Science Foundation Ireland which pinpointed the uselessness of that project and in its evaluation said the programme did not have measurements to justify the expenditure. Much of the €8 million was spent on advertising. Having plenty of money also allowed FÁS to overspend by millions of euro on its advertising budget and much of the advertising was strategically placed and at times helped to mask the criticism and scrutiny that should have applied. The bottom line is that FÁS spent only what the Department allocated to it. The Department, whose Accounting Officer and Minister should have been keeping a close eye on the organisation, took their eye off the ball. Even in good times it is not appropriate to spend money for the sake of spending it and it is certainly not appropriate in these hard times.
Issues arise for public administration as a result of what was uncovered in FÁS. We need to examine the capability of all Departments and in particular the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to ensure they do not allow the mistakes made in organisations such as FÁS, to recur. Officials from the Department of Finance regularly appear before the committee of which I am Chairman. I refer to a meeting of the committee last week dealing with procurement practices in the Irish Prison Service. The officials were questioned by the committee. I will paraphrase their reply and I will not be unfair to them. They stated they were waiting on the Committee of Public Accounts to come to its conclusions. In my view they should be proactive in dealing with issues such as bad procurement practices. There is still a lot to be desired in this situation.
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment cannot wash its hands of the FÁS debacle. It is responsible through its Vote for allocating funds to FÁS and it must ensure that before one euro is spent on FÁS there are clear performance indicators and measurements in place to justify the allocation of moneys. These measurements must be specific and the Department must have the capability to carry out its oversight function. The Department must also enhance its policy-making role. It is clear that much of that role is now with the departmental agencies instead of resting with the Department.
While I welcome this Bill the Minister could have gone further. I hope the Bill will be amended on Committee Stage in order to strengthen its provisions. The Minister should follow the example shown by her colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan and give an Oireachtas committee a role in the appointment of the board of FÁS.
The Committee of Public Accounts recommended a commitment to gender equality on the board. It should comprise of men and women with good business experience, who value their public duty and who are capable of running one of the most important bodies in the State. I suggest there is a role for a workers’ representative on the board rather than the token representatives of IBEC and the trade union movement. This person would represent the workers in FÁS who have an in-depth knowledge of the organisation and would be accessible to his or her colleagues in order to be alerted if the situation were going off the rails.
FÁS needs to move on while still being open to public scrutiny. Good leadership will enable the organisation to develop a plan to retrain the thousands of people who are unemployed as a result of the downturn in the economy. I wish the new director general well. School leavers and recent university graduates will also require further training to prepare them for entry into the workforce. The State will fail such people if this Bill is not right.
Recent reports of the Committee of Public Accounts and of the Comptroller and Auditor General describe a litany of waste in the HSE, in FÁS and in several other Departments and agencies. One report published earlier this year described public expenditure on the health services. I do not see much sign of any action being taken as a result of that report which pinpointed areas with potential for gross wastage of public moneys. I also have a concern about the new common contract for hospital consultants. The last common contract was a farce and a millstone around the neck of the taxpayer. There was widespread abuse of it by individuals and no monitoring of its provisions. I am concerned that there is inadequate monitoring of the new contract with regard to the ratio of public and private mix in public hospitals.
There is evidence that a two-tier system exists. Public hospitals operate a fast-track approach for those who can pay. This is one area that needs to be scrutinised. The Committee of Public Accounts will be doing so within the next few weeks and will be asking questions. The new contract has cost the taxpayer a fair amount and the committee will inquire whether its provisions are being strictly applied.
FÁS spent €620,000 on a television advertisement that was never seen on a single television set. Another €600,000 was lost on what was termed “nugatory expenditure”. The word “nugatory” is new to me. It means no services were supplied for the expenditure. This is the subject of Garda investigation and steps are being taken to deal with that issue. Another €140,000 was spent on an advertising campaign for which most of the slots had a zero target market audience. It seems many people were asleep at the wheel in a number of agencies and in the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Finance in particular.
When it came to giving an example to State agencies, this Government showed them how to spend money. I refer to a total of €55 million for the failed e-voting system. The luxury travel in the US afforded to Ministers by FÁS was a factor in the light-touch supervision applied to the State employment and training agency. Why was the board of FÁS not fired following the publication of the report last February? We all but said the board should have been fired.  However, a culture in Government led to an over-spending which should not have been incurred by Ministers and Departments and this extended to those high up in some State bodies. Do Ministers and senior officials in State agencies realise how difficult it is for those who are losing their jobs or struggling to survive on social welfare payments to tolerate this appalling extravagance? It cannot be easy for those in employment to see their pay packets shrinking as the Ministers and their cohorts swan around like modern day princes, to paraphrase a Fianna Fáil backbencher.
This Bill is long overdue. I believed that action would have been taken by the Tánaiste before the summer recess once the recommendations of the Committee of Public Accounts were published last February and as a result of the serious nature of the report. I expected action on the implementation of some of the key recommendations. The Bill lacks a true reforming element. The responses to date have been inadequate in that they deal with the board and with some regulations regarding senior FÁS staff. We all know, however, that the problems of the agency go far beyond the board and that there are systematic failures in the organisation. These failures will be the subject of a further investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General. This is serious in view of the fact that we have so many people unemployed.
Along with overhauling the FÁS organisation, the Government must now initiate public sector reform proposals where managers should be made accountable for the projects and budgets for which they are responsible. Success should be rewarded but failure in dealing with taxpayers’ money has to be dealt with too. The whole culture must change from the top in FÁS, out of respect for the thousands of people suffering at present.
I suspect the contents of this legislation will politicise the FÁS board more than ever before and I am not confident that it represents anything other than the continuation of the culture of cronyism that has been so evident in the past 12 years. The Government should introduce reforms by setting up a transparent public appointments system which would put ministerial appointees to appointed State boards before an Oireachtas committee to discuss the experience and qualifications that make them suitable for such responsible positions. There should also be legislation that would allow for the dismissal of senior managers who have not been vigilant in the protection of public finances. I recognise the Bill would allow the Minister to dismiss board members who are not adequately performing or where the removal of the board member is necessary for the effective performance by FÁS of its functions. However, there is no provision for the dismissal of FÁS executives who are most responsible for the FÁS scandals and who have, to date, mainly escaped and in some cases have even been rewarded.
At the most recent hearing of the Committee of Public Accounts, we demanded the documentation from the Department of Finance, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and FÁS related to the Molloy deal, which we have now received. This development has been referred to in the House and in some newspapers. Along with these papers, I am conscious of the review being carried out by the Tánaiste into the retirement package given to the former director general of FÁS and I have asked, on behalf of the committee, for the report of that review in advance of dealing further with issues related to the Molloy package. We have received an indication from the Secretary General of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment that it could be some time before that report is available and finalised, because we have been told it must wait until the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, which I find strange.
The Committee of Public Accounts has also decided that, in advance of future hearings, it will require further information and, therefore, has written to Mr. Saul regarding his recent comments that the board had not been informed by the executive of FÁS on issues. The committee has afforded Mr. Saul an opportunity to give a report to the committee on this matter. We have been in contact with the former director of corporate services to afford him the opportunity to give evidence to the committee or submit a report. We have also asked FÁS for details of the internal audit investigation, comprising 23 modules, into procurement in the corporate affairs division.
The issues that have arisen in FÁS throw up two issues of broader concern and I have written to the Minister for Finance, on behalf of the committee, regarding these. I also wish to put them on the record of the House. The terms of the package available to outgoing chief executives of State bodies as set down in the Department of Finance guidelines, which allow generous top-ups to be given to those whose contracts are being terminated, are not specific enough. We have also written regarding the application of provisions regarding the disclosure of information by a board member to the relevant Minister. This is part of section 8 of this Bill, but that measure should apply to all State boards.
I refer to the package available to outgoing chief executives of State bodies. I am concerned that the former director general of FÁS was not the only person to benefit from a generous package and I question, for example, the retirement package given to the former Financial Regulator. Given the culture in place and the likelihood of future gilt-edged packages being made available, I call on the Minister for Finance to review these arrangements and issue new guidelines. This is the unanimous view of the Committee of Public Accounts. We are also of the view that ministerial representatives on State boards are either not performing or may be prevented from performing an effective role as the eyes and ears of the Minister and, therefore, the provision contained in section 8 of the new Bill on FÁS should have broader application to all State boards.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak here today. The revelations which came about regarding FÁS have shocked and outraged every person on both sides of the House and in wider society. The measures included in this Bill are sensible and necessary given what has taken place. They will go a long way towards restoring people’s belief and confidence in the FÁS organisation. The Minister has been very active in ensuring that everything possible has been done. She has dealt with the various incidents and issues which have been thrown up through the revelations. She has dealt with them very efficiently and effectively, despite what some people wish to portray.
These measures will make a difference. Some of the main measures include a reduction in the size of the board of FÁS from 17 to 11 people. That is a very good thing. Section 5 provides for the accountability of the director general of FÁS to other committees of the Oireachtas. This section provides for the director general to attend any committee appointed by either or both Houses of the Oireachtas and give an account of the general administration of FÁS. It is a very good measure in the legislation but I wish to see it go a little further. I realise this has been mentioned before but I wish to see two or three members of the board appointed by the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has introduced a similar facility to the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.
It would be a very positive thing and would give confidence to all Members. It would send out a clear signal to wider society that there is a connection between the committee structures, appointments and important legislation. It would also result in a greater involvement by the committee, of which I am a member, as are Deputies Michael Fitzpatrick and Arthur Morgan. The Minister of State, Deputy Dara Callery is a former member of the committee. It is one of the best committees around and I am sure people would agree with me on this point. The committee is very well chaired. Deputy Willie Penrose is a very proactive chairman and very facilitating to the members. It is important to reward good committees and that good committees are involved more in terms of a greater role. I am in favour of the appointment of two or three members by the committee but I do not wish to be prescriptive. The Minister should take on board this suggestion which was made previously.
A worker director should also sit on the board. This would send out the right message to the staff in FÁS who must be reeling at present. All they read is negative comment about the board of FÁS and this comment is not about the ordinary scheme or the ordinary person working in FÁS. It is about a certain group or cabal of the FÁS hierarchy who have clearly abused their position. The presence of a worker director on the board would send out a very positive message to the staff. It is important that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The introduction of a rolling system of appointments to the board of FÁS is a very good idea. It would cut out complacency, freshen things up and bring a new perspective to the board on an ongoing basis. It would be a good and positive initiative in that regard.
In my personal experience, most of the schemes are very positive. For example, the community employment scheme provides a valuable service. Deputy Creighton will also recognise the contribution that such schemes have made at Ringsend community centre and the St. Andrew’s resource centre. Over a period one can see an increase in the self-esteem of individuals who participate in community employment and job initiative courses. They transform people’s lives and makes them feel included in society. They are also of huge benefit to the wider community by reducing social isolation and thus have a positive impact. People are concerned that these schemes may be under threat but we cannot do without them, including the FÁS schemes. I am not saying they cannot be changed or evolve, which would not be a bad thing, but the principle of having people working in the community through FÁS schemes is a good one.
FÁS community training centres cater for early school leavers. Young people’s self-esteem benefits from these courses. Education and training is so important in this regard. Almost without exception, they become better citizens as a result of their participation in such schemes, being more involved in the community, which is a good thing for society as a whole.
Job clubs offer practical advice and assistance to individuals seeking employment, which is a challenging position now. The professional staff of the St. Andrew’s resource centre are passionate about their jobs and believe they are making a difference. They are having a positive impact on the community.
It is important to acknowledge that there were problems in FÁS, including the misappropriation of funds, which is unacceptable. Those responsible cannot be allowed to get away with it, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that FÁS is a good organisation which has made a positive difference within our communities.
I would like to see provisions in the Bill for the dismissal of staff who are found to have acted inappropriately prior to the enactment of this legislation. When the current investigations are concluded, those people should be fired from their jobs where they are found to be guilty. In the private sector, if anybody was found to have signed off on an expenditure of €600,000 with nothing to show for it, they would not only lose their job but would also be prosecuted. We must ensure that happens to people in FÁS where breaches are established.
As I have said, however, the vast majority of FÁS staff are honest, hard working and give their utmost to the organisation. Unfortunately, the public perception of FÁS has been destroyed by a small number of people. This Bill will go a long way towards restoring the reputation of a body whose sole purpose is to assist and support people in the employment arena. Over the years, FÁS has made a huge difference to communities, but that has not always been highlighted. People may be sceptical about FÁS because of what they have read in the newspapers, but when they see how it functions they realise it does make a huge difference.
Deputy Michael Fitzpatrick: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which was published on 6 October. I commend the Minister for bringing the legislation before the House so quickly. The Bill, which amends the legislation governing FÁS, provides for stronger governance and accountability.
FÁS has been doing tremendous work at national level, but I wish to speak mainly about its operations in my own constituency of Kildare North. Those participating in FÁS in Kildare and rural Ireland generally can hold their heads high, notwithstanding the unfavourable press coverage that FÁS is currently receiving. Those participants are all very decent and honourable people.
FÁS anticipates the needs of, and responds to, a constantly changing labour market, which employs approximately 2 million people. It comprises a regional network of 66 offices and 20 training centres. FÁS operates training and employment programmes, as well as providing a recruitment service to jobseekers and employers. In addition, it delivers an advisory service for industry and supports community-based enterprises.
As someone who has been in involved in a wide range of community activities for many years, I know about the organisation’s operations at local level. I have witnessed the transformation of people on FÁS training programmes and their successful progression into permanent employment.
I acknowledge the work of FÁS for people with special needs, including its work for people with disabilities in co-operation with vocational education committees. In County Kildare, FÁS works with other State agencies, the voluntary sector and communities to do a tremendous job in improving the lives of those with special needs.
The Bill will allow the Minister to restore public confidence in FÁS. It will clear the way for that organisation to continue to deliver its training and employment programmes. The recent details released by FÁS show that the live register and vacancy trends for the second quarter of 2009 indicate that the jobs decline is becoming less severe. Unfortunately, however, redundancies have continued apace. The slowdown in numbers signing on can be attributed somewhat to a significant drop in the number of accession-state nationals joining the live register. Part-time employment has increased and now accounts for one in five jobs in the labour market.
The country needs FÁS now more than ever before because tackling the jobs crisis remains a clear priority. In the April budget, the Government introduced 23,000 additional education, training and work experience places for the unemployed at an estimated cost of €128 million. A number of these measures involve an innovative approach to interventions of this kind, including the introduction of a work placement programme, a short-time-working training programme, and part-time third level schemes.
Since the beginning of the year, we have re-allocated substantial additional resources to boost job search, training, work experience and educational opportunities. These include doubling the job search referral capacity from 6,500 to 12,250 per month and bringing the total number of places for referrals by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to 147,000 per year. Similarly, the Government has increased the total number of training places provided by FÁS this year to a total of 128,000, compared to the 66,000 places taken up last year. Other concrete actions taken were the provisions for trainees to progress their apprenticeships, the provision of more than 6,000 additional places in further and higher education and significantly improving access to supports for individual enterprise through assistance under the back to work enterprise allowance and the back to education allowance schemes of the Department of Social and Family Affairs.
The proposed changes in the legislation will improve the effectiveness and governance of FÁS and strengthen its accountability in a number of areas. It will make the board more manageable through reducing its size from 17 to 11 members — I would reduce the number further because smaller numbers can make boards more effective — changing its composition and including the director general as an ex officio member and introducing a provision relating to the disclosure of interest by board members and the staff of FÁS. These changes are a most welcome development.
In concentrating on what went wrong within the organisation, the good work of its employees should not be overlooked. Their role and valuable contribution to Irish life must be commended. FÁS management has a great deal of which to be proud, in particular, the way managers developed the agency to deliver successful training schemes to the unemployed and people with disabilities in our communities. I thank them for that and for the support and co-operation extended by their frontline staff while working for the betterment of our communities. They developed the agency into a significant organisation delivering appropriate programmes in these recessionary times.
The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment announced earlier this year a number of new training programmes for those who had lost their jobs in the construction sector. The new courses are aimed at helping those in construction to upgrade their skills to take advantage of the new wave of green and clean technology opportunities coming on stream nationally. The Minister detailed seven courses, including gas safety and installation, sustainable energy, building energy rating, smart intelligence building systems and installation technology and techniques. Since 2007 FÁS services to business have also delivered a number of programmes in energy efficiency, renewable technology, carbon footprint calculation and reduction, waste prevention, waste protection and water treatment aimed at the general workforce, including construction workers. All these courses have created a substantial number of jobs since their introduction in May.
Accountability is important when it comes to all boards. The Bill provides for the director general of FÁS to be made accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts and to other committees of the Oireachtas and removes obstacles to the disclosure of information by a member of the board of FÁS to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment regarding an issue of concern.
I refer to governance and the code of conduct. With regard to supervision of the agency, it is important that the Department should be satisfied systems are in place to effectively manage public funds. However, this should not be interpreted as the Department having to take on the responsibilities that probably belong to the bodies concerned. This is why, in addition to the Department monitoring activities — the second mechanism to ensure the requirements of the code of practice for the governance of State bodies are adhered to — it is important that it provides an assurance in the FÁS annual report confirming steps have been taken to ensure the appropriate controls have been effected. This would be in line with Department of Finance guidelines, which require that Accounting Officers should be satisfied that the requirements of the code of practice are being implemented in State bodies under their aegis.
Deputy Lucinda Creighton: I am pleased to have an opportunity to contribute to this important debate. While I welcome aspects of the legislation, it requires significant improvement and I hope the Minister of State will take on board the proposals made by the Opposition and Government backbenchers to constructively improve the Bill and make it more effective for the long-term viability of the FÁS organisation. The revelations about incompetence, overspending, waste and so on relating to the agency over the past 15 months are unfortunate and extremely worrying but it is appropriate that they were brought to the fore in the public interest. We have an opportunity to address the systemic failures in this organisation and other public bodies.
What has emerged regarding FÁS represents a deep and endemic cultural problem within the State across the public sector, in particular, but also across government. An acceptance of gross overspending, profligacy and waste, particularly during the boom years of the Celtic tiger, emerged together with an absolute absence of accountability for these developments. I do not need to list the endless spending programmes undertaken by governments in the past 12 years or so, for which there has been no accountability. No heads have rolled and nobody in Government has stood up and accepted responsibility, taken the flak and come clean to the taxpayer by saying he or she was the responsible Minister or junior Minister or the director or chief executive officer in the case of a public body.
A culture of denial and tacit complicity held sway throughout the State sector and FÁS exemplified this. While much of its budget is diverted to training and upskilling programmes, employment schemes and so on, it is still a huge monolithic organisation, the largest in the State. The many revelations of the past 15 months have been well aired in the media but a number were particularly alarming, for example, €622,000 spent on nothing, €600,000 spent on a television advertisement that was never broadcast and €9,200 paid for a car that was never delivered. That is a small sample of the incredible waste. It is most alarming that, as these revelations emerge in a drip, drip fashion through Freedom of Information Act requests and so on, there is no sense of urgency at Government level, particularly on the part of the Minister.
There was no sense of urgency at Government level, particularly regarding the Office of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There was no sense of accountability or a strong view from the Minister that this problem had to be sorted out, that she was going to get to the bottom of it and root out any waste or weak links within the organisation. That exemplifies the cosy culture that existed but the Minister, in essence, did not want to expose or disclose what was going on regarding the FÁS board and the level of incompetency among senior executives working in that organisation. It was much more comfortable for the Government, and particularly for the Minister, to try to sweep it under the carpet and pretend that nothing was happening but the persistence of the Opposition, particularly my colleague, Deputy Leo Varadkar, and a very small number of journalists including Shane Ross writing in the business section of the Sunday Independent, ensured that the truth emerged, despite the Tánaiste’s reluctance.
In a statement in this Chamber in May 2008, the Tánaiste said she was satisfied that the FÁS board had clarified its procedures and strengthened its internal controls. That was good enough for her. There was no intention on the part of the Tánaiste to introduce legislation of the nature we see before the House today. There was no interest in bringing forward any legislation to deal with the systemic problems within the FÁS organisation.
Similarly, the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, in June 2008, a month later, spoke about Mr. Rody Molloy whom he said was a person of the highest integrity. It is extraordinary that even as the revelations about the waste and the mismanagement in FÁS were emerging both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, holders of two of the highest offices in the land, refused to delve into the problems within the FÁS organisation, refused to take on the senior executives in the FÁS organisation and turned a blind eye to what was going on at board level in terms of the incompetence prevalent in it. That is extremely worrying. Only when the arm of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste was twisted behind their backs did they take any action on this issue, and it was very slow in forthcoming. Throughout this entire saga there has been no sense of urgency at any point from the top level in Cabinet to address those problems. If we look at the history of the FÁS organisation and the way it is operated, the first recommendations for reform of FÁS emerged 17 years ago in 1992. Throughout the period from 1992 to 2009 nothing happened in terms of trying to reform the internal operations of FÁS.
We finally have legislation before the House. There are some meritorious elements to the legislation but it does not even begin to go far enough. The main proposal, which has been much vaunted by the Government, is the one to reduce the size of the FÁS board from 17 to 11. There is no doubt that a board of 17 is too big and unwieldy for any State or semi-State agency and it will be slimmed down in accordance with accepted standards across other State boards. I do not object to the removal of the sectoral interests on the board of FÁS. A type of cosy cartel has developed not just in FÁS, but across all State agencies. It is certainly a cosy arrangement between some of the unions and the representatives from organisations such as IBEC and so on who are all sown into the social partnership process which has played a significant role in bankrupting this country. It is right that this element is removed but I am not sure I am satisfied with what will replace it.
We must see an improvement in the way the board operates. I have serious reservations, and it has been raised by Fianna Fáil backbenchers in the past hour as I sat in the Chamber, about the lack of any parliamentary scrutiny or input into the appointment of individuals to the new board of FÁS. That presents an opportunity that is worrying. We have seen throughout the decades the cronyism that has been stitched in to ministerial appointments to State boards. My instinct and any sense of propriety has to suggest that we should be moving away from that kind of culture, but the procedure outlined in the legislation before the House will copperfasten it because we are entrusting in the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, the exclusive power to appoint people of her choosing to this board without any scrutiny in the Oireachtas or accountability throughout the appointment process to the Houses of Parliament. That is a dangerous position in which we will find ourselves.
There is a perception, which the Minister might say is wrong but I believe is correct, that for the past 15 years State boards have been the preserve of the friends of Fianna Fáil. I find it amazing that the Government, given everything that has happened, particularly in the past year and a half in terms of public cynicism and scepticism about what has gone on and what has brought the country to its knees, that there is no meaningful attempt to try to address that or move in a new ethical direction for Irish politics. That is regrettable.
Fine Gael brought a Private Members’ Bill before the House three weeks ago which examined transparency in appointments to State boards. We recommended that, in the case of all future appointments, any proposed chairman of a board would come before the relevant Oireachtas committee to answer questions, put forward their credentials to members of the committee from all parties and there would be an opportunity for some robust debate. That would be a healthy and welcome development. In addition, we proposed that all members of State boards should have their credentials laid before the Oireachtas committee. They may not have to appear in person but at least the Oireachtas committee would be in a position to debate those people’s credentials. That is the way we must move forward.
Some of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers proposed a system whereby three members of the FÁS board should be proposed by an Oireachtas committee, but I am not sure that would solve the problem because eight members would still be appointed at the behest of the Minister. They may be friends of Fianna Fáil or personal friends of the Minister who would be appointed to the board without any form of scrutiny. That is not a solution to the problem we face and it is not a way in which to ensure transparency in the appointment of members to State boards, particularly in regard to FÁS because FÁS has been damaged in the eyes of the public, and that is unfortunate. To restore public confidence in FÁS we need a more transparent formula, and I hope the Minister of State will communicate that point to the Minister as I am sure she will not read the transcript of this debate.
Public appointments should be made in public and they should be open to public scrutiny. Given what the people of this country are going through, with 430,000 people on the live register and a budget less than two months away which we are all aware will be swingeing, if we are to restore any sort of public confidence the public should have the right to see that the conduct of public policy and boards, as well as that of the Government, is transparent. I hope the Minister of State will take that on board.
There should be a workers’ representative, which my colleagues have already alluded to. The staff in FÁS are currently extremely demoralised. Every Member of this House knows people involved in training programmes, community employment schemes or who are involved in FÁS at some level. We know that the vast majority of such people are good and decent people who work hard to do their bit to try to assist people who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being unemployed.
They do wonderful work and we must restore some sense of integrity, self-confidence and self-belief in the ordinary and hard-working decent people who work in FÁS at all levels of the organisation. Not all of them have been engaged in the kind of profligacy we have seen at the very top level in FÁS and most are appalled by and disapprove of it. They are very demoralised by being associated with it. We owe it to them to give them a role in restructuring FÁS and restoring it as a body of good repute in the public mind. I hope the Minister will accept the Fine Gael amendment in that regard and we will have a workers’ representative on the board.
I will discuss a number of other aspects of the legislation. There is a proposal for the new director of FÁS to be accountable to the Oireachtas, which is welcome, and I support that element. It does not go far enough as the director will be accountable to the Oireachtas after the appointment of a board but we must see accountability throughout the process and not just afterwards. I hope this will be considered.
There is a protection for whistleblowing, which is welcome, and there is also a requirement for the disclosure of conflicts of interest. We should take this right across the public sector. With the Dublin Docklands Development Authority, we have seen enormous conflicts of interest between people serving on a variety of boards while sitting on the boards for banks, for example. That must be eliminated from the culture in public life in this country. This legislation is a small step in the right direction in that regard and we should see it right across the public sector.
There will be a mandatory disclosure of interests and, importantly, there will be a provision allowing for the dismissal of a director of FÁS. I am not aware of any provision for restriction of a director so perhaps the Minister will clarify that. If somebody fails to disclose a conflict of interest and is subsequently found out, leading the Minister to exercise his or her power to dismiss, will that person be entitled to be appointed to a variety of other State boards? There should be a provision for restriction, even if it is only for a specified period. If the process is to be consistent, we must consider the future as well as the immediate sanction.
There should also be some provision for a breach of fiduciary duty. By this I mean that if an executive in FÁS presides over the sort of waste that we have seen in that organisation or the type or level of abuse of taxpayers’ money we have witnessed, there should be a mechanism to facilitate the speedy dismissal of that person rather than a golden handshake. We must move away from a culture where when the Government is embarrassed by an issue, it may dismiss people but give them a golden handshake of €1.1 million, for example. That is unacceptable and we need robust legislation to allow for the dismissal of such people without any perks or golden handshake.
FÁS plays an extremely important role in every community in this country, from Dublin to Donegal, but it must adapt and adjust. Some schemes, such as the community employment schemes, are wonderful. I know that most of the child care facilities in this city have been staffed by community employment workers so it has been very valuable. Many of the training programmes are out of date and we must adjust that. FÁS needs to raise its game enormously and must respond to the changing market and economic needs of this country. I have much confidence in the organisation for the future but it must adapt, and the Minister should put a framework in place for that adaptation.
Deputy John Browne: I will comment briefly on the Bill, which I welcome. The Labour Services Act 1987, which established FÁS, was enacted a long time ago and even if there had not been any difficulty with FÁS, it is important that the area be reviewed. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to a reduction in the size of the board of FÁS and the introduction of a rolling system of appointments. There will be a removal of the automatic right to nominate individuals for appointment to the board of FÁS from bodies not directly accountable to the taxpayer and the director general of the organisation will be made accountable to the Oireachtas. These are just some of the proposals.
We have all benefited as politicians from working with FÁS down through the years and the shenanigans of recent months, particularly at the high level in the organisation, in no way reflect on the personnel on the ground. Like all politicians, we deal on a daily basis with people working in the local FÁS office, and we find them very helpful, supportive and always looking to do what is best, particularly for the unemployed people up and down the country.
Deputy John Browne: The proposal was put forward by the late Rory Murphy. We all supported it and met with the then Minister, Deputy Quinn, and the first community employment schemes in Ireland were probably born in County Wexford. We have a close affinity with such schemes and we have benefited greatly in the county from schemes down through the years.
The schemes have been welcome and worthwhile, particularly in rural Ireland, and I would like to see the Minister involved in making more money available to allow more people to go on them. I wonder why people who may be 60, 61 or 62 on a community employment scheme may be asked to leave and go back on social welfare because they have been in the scheme for a number of years. There is a need for the Ministers for Social and Family Affairs, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Education and Science to bring about far better co-operation between Departments to ensure that people who want to avail of an up-skilling scheme or want to be involved in retraining or in a back-to-education scheme would be allowed do so without all the bureaucratic nonsense we encounter on a daily basis in the political structures of this country.
It would be far better for people to get an allowance to help themselves secure a job rather than just drawing social welfare and sitting around at home all day. Many people do not want to do this and would prefer to avail of schemes, retrain, up-skill and be involved in work. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to that and in the new programme for Government there is much stated about retraining, up-skilling and ensuring people have an opportunity to be involved.
The live register has 423,000 people on it and tells its own story about the need for a very co-ordinated FÁS approach. It is not good enough that the board of FÁS, which operated in a way none of us would deem acceptable, should tarnish the name of and great work done by that organisation. The figures for 2008 show that approximately 26,000 apprentices were trained to meet future craft skill needs, 32,000 employees were upskilled in priority skill areas, under training for the unemployed, 7,900 people received specific skills training and 24,000 people were on community employment or job initiative programme schemes. It is obvious that, at the coalface, FÁS is doing a great job. However, the Tánaiste must take action to deal with those at a higher level and I welcome the fact that she is doing so.
The Tánaiste must also give serious consideration to reviewing how the more than adequate funding made available to FÁS is spent. Is that money being spent on the right people and in the right way? Like many others, I support communities that want to put in place community employment schemes, training schemes or back to work schemes. However, it is sometimes difficult to obtain a response regarding such schemes from within the larger FÁS organisation. When a response is received, it is usually to the effect that money is scarce or that a new scheme cannot be brought on stream because FÁS is fully committed to those that are already in train. The Tánaiste should examine the possibility of redirecting funds to the areas where they are needed.
A huge number of young people left school at an early age as a result of the boom in the building industry. These individuals earned big money as labourers and as trainee carpenters, electricians, etc., but since the collapse of the building industry, many of them have lost their jobs. These young people want to access schemes in order that they might upskill or retrain. Some of them also want to return to VTOS or the education system in general. I am of the view that here should be a number of schemes which would come completely under the remit of the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Education and Science and Social and Family Affairs. If such schemes were established, people could gain access to them quickly instead of being obliged to wait around for someone to make a decision.
The officials who work in the FÁS offices in Wexford, New Ross, Enniscorthy and Gorey know how the system works and are in a position to inform people about that to which they will be entitled when they are on schemes. These officials, and their counterparts throughout the country, should be consulted in order that we might discover what is in people’s best interests. Those who have been employed in FÁS offices for many years and who have vast experience in dealing with people are never asked for their views. These individuals are never asked about the changes that could be made or what type of new schemes could be introduced in order that the unemployed might benefit from them. That is completely wrong. There should be a system in place under which those to whom I refer would be consulted on a regular basis by their regional or general managers and given the opportunity to have a say with regard to what is best for the unemployed in a particular county.
I ask the Minister to reflect on the different types of schemes that are in place at present in order to discover whether they are relevant to the huge numbers of people who are unemployed and identify any changes that might be brought about. I also ask her to reflect on the make-up of the board in order to ensure that those who serve on it act in the best interests of taxpayers and the unemployed. I met a number of highly qualified individuals in recent times who informed me that they would be prepared to serve on the board of FÁS and that they would not expect to be remunerated for so doing. Those to whom I refer are either retired or semi-retired and have plenty of time on their hands. The Tánaiste should consider appointing such people to the board.
I again welcome the Bill. It is 22 years since the legislation to establish FÁS was introduced. In that context, it is timely that we are reconsidering the position and reflecting on what we intend to do in the future in respect of this organisation.
It is important that the House should remember the history of FÁS and understand how we reached this point. A great deal of ill-informed comment has been made about the cosy cartel, a matter to which my constituency colleague, Deputy Creighton, also referred. FÁS succeeded AnCO, which was established in 1967 and which was a training organisation with responsibility for formulating apprenticeships. It was logical and essential that employers and the trade unions should be represented on the board of AnCO. It would, after all, be their representatives who would ensure that properly qualified apprentices would emerge into the workforce and lift its skills base. That is exactly what happened.
When I served as Minister for Labour in the early 1980s, a proposal came forward that three organisations, namely, the placement service of the Department of Labour, AnCO and the Youth Employment Agency — at one point a fourth agency, CERT, was included — should be merged. Legislation relating to the establishment of a national employment training agency was introduced at that time but it did not progress beyond Second Stage because, in the dying days of that Dáil, CERT mounted a wonderful rear-guard action and torpedoed it. My successor, Deputy Bertie Ahern, introduced the legislation that brought about the establishment of FÁS.
A famous American academic who spent a sabbatical here and who examined the work of FÁS and the way its community employment programmes — to which Deputy Browne referred and which, prior to the establishment of FÁS, were directly administered by the then Department of Labour — famously referred to the organisation’s flexibility and the fleet-footed way in which it operated. He also referred to it as the Government’s Swiss army knife — a tool that could be applied to any kind of task without the need for endless negotiations on devolution, consultation, displacement, replacement, etc. There is a grave danger that we might throw the baby out with the bathwater in this regard. I could say much more about that matter but I will not do so.
There has been a great deal of media comment regarding the social partners who are members of the board of FÁS and their apparent failure to take the necessary action following the revelations that emerged. It was the board, in its entirety, which established the internal audit that revealed all of the unacceptable practices that were prevalent in FÁS. In addition, the board made it known that it was not informed about certain matters by members of the senior management of the organisation. If one is not informed of something and one has no reason to believe one is being excluded from a particular process, then one is surely entitled to be treated with a certain degree of understanding.
The one group of directors who have not been referred to — with the exception of a previous intervention I made in respect of them in the House — were the four senior civil servants who were appointed to the board by the Departments of Finance, Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Social and Family Affairs and Education and Science, respectively. These individuals are full-time public servants, not part-time board members. When they leave board meetings, they are obliged to return to their duties in their respective Departments. What were they doing in respect of the unacceptable practices that emerged? Did they have any suspicions with regard to such practices? Did they meet and consult each other on this matter? Did they bring to the attention of, for example, the excessive amounts of money that appeared to be available to FÁS at a time when an endless number of other priorities required attention? Were proper reporting mechanisms in place in order to allow these civil servants to report to their Ministers?
I do not know when the Second Stage debate on this legislation will be completed. In any event, the matters to which I refer should be dealt with on Committee Stage. Unless there is a proper mechanism in place to allow a civil servant to report to his or her parent Department or the Department of Finance, we will not improve the operational capacity of FÁS. My party will be tabling amendments in respect of this matter on Committee Stage.
One specific issue I wish to raise is the traditional turf warfare that has gone on for decades between what are now called the Departments of Education and Science and Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Formerly it was a war between the old Departments of Education and Labour. The basic point was that the Department of Education and Science is responsible for producing young adults who can read and write and that it is not the responsibility of a training agency to engage in picking up the failures of the education system by running literacy programmes in parallel with programmes in carpentry, electricity or child care.
I am pleased the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, is present in the Chamber because he has responsibility for the area of literacy to which I refer. His cross-appointment in the two Departments is welcome. Nevertheless, I have it on direct account from people in the literacy field that the turf war continues and Members will be discussing amendments on this issue in my name and others when the Bill reaches Committee Stage. While I am conscious of time constraints, out of courtesy I wish to give notice to the Department and the Minister of State, Deputy Haughey, that they will be asked to examine the existing legislation from 1987 and 1999. They will be asked to consider the possibility of granting additional powers to the Minister of State or Minister to give policy directions to both the board and senior management of FÁS and to its local operations, which is where the problem exists vis-à-vis the issue of illiteracy.
If one is unable to read in this economy, one is unable to get a job. I refer to functional illiteracy. While I acknowledge there is a dispute about the figures, which hopefully have improved subsequently, the Minister of State reluctantly revealed to me on foot of a number of supplementary questions that the last time it was surveyed, it was of the order of half a million people. I repeat that the figure is half a million people out of a workforce of 2.2 million people. Moreover, even when virtually full employment obtained, the Governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed and many others noted that the basic reason many people were not getting jobs or would not go for job interviews was that they lacked sufficient confidence in themselves to be able to read the instructions that came with the job specifications. This is the reason many people did not apply for jobs. While they were happy to work in the kind of social and community employment programmes to which Deputy Browne has referred and their work is a valid contribution to the stock of wealth within our community, these jobs were not self-sustaining. The social and community employment programmes that I had the honour of introducing were not designed as a permanent bed. They were intended as a spring from which many people could bounce back up into the sustainable labour market. The third sector was intended as a place to provide an outlet for the energies and creativity of those who did not wish to be at home. No matter what was the rate of unemployment payment, such people would prefer to be out working.
If, on examining the amendments to be tabled by the Labour Party, the Minister of State is dissatisfied with their formulation, he should table better ones himself if he so wishes as I believe we share a similar objective. At present, our education system fails young people coming through the system for a variety of reasons. Members are familiar with both the drop-out rate and the profile of those who drop out. Manifestly and overwhelmingly, they are 15 year old and 16 year old working class male children. These are the individuals who at best drift into long-term unemployment or at worst, straight into Mountjoy Prison via the drugs trail, criminality and so on. It is much cheaper, more effective and more enabling for all concerned to use sections of the training programme of FÁS to pick up where the Department of Education and Science, an overcrowded classroom or an under-motivated family have left off. I consider families to have the primary responsibility to instil an understanding of reading in a child. A child who does not have a story read to him or her going to bed at the age of two or three is put at a disadvantage relative to those children who are lucky enough to have parents who will read. However, there are houses in my constituency that have half a dozen televisions, radios and DVD players but not a single book. No school can counteract this.
I welcome this new legislation. While there is much to be said in this regard, some of it already has been said. FÁS and AnCO have a glorious past and a very good record. In respect of what has happened recently, there will be another day and another place to deal with that issue and it should be dealt with justly. However, Members must ensure that the new FÁS under new direction has the capability to pick up, as a second chance, those young people our education system has failed.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I thank the Labour Party and Deputy Quinn for sharing time with me. At the outset, I entirely agree with Deputy Quinn’s comments on the issue of literacy and numeracy. However, I believe one must go beyond Deputy Quinn’s comments on what one might call the establishment, in the form of FÁS, the education system or whatever, to deal with it. A national crusade to combat the problem is required, which would involve calling on people to volunteer. I believe many people would volunteer for a national crusade that was well planned and laid out to ensure proper instructions were in place to achieve results, which would be critical to the entire project.
On publishing the Bill, the Tánaiste heralded it as a root and branch culture change in accountability and transparency at FÁS. However, I am unsure. The Bill will not do this as it would take political leadership and honesty to achieve such a root and branch change. While I welcome the Bill, it can be significantly improved through amendments. In common with other Opposition parties, I intend to table amendments on behalf of Sinn Féin and the Minister should examine them with an open and generous mind. It should be accepted that the objective of such amendments is to improve the regime at FÁS. While the scandals at FÁS are symptoms of the problem, they are not a disease. The disease, in respect of the corruption and cronyism that obtains, permeates all public bodies. How can one expect the public to have confidence in public bodies when it does not have confidence in the Government? The public perceives that the Government is making no serious attempt to combat what is happening or to put in place measures that will ensure accountability and transparency in such bodies, which is the starting point.
As for expenditure, while Members are familiar with the FÁS budget, I refer to the wasteful expenditure by the Government over the past decade. At this stage it sounds like a poem or a ramble about the M50, the port tunnel and so on. However, the backdrop to this situation is that 430,000 people are unemployed on the live register. Many of those affected are from families whose only income now comes from jobseeker’s benefit or jobseeker’s allowance. While such people try to meet all the other financial needs of their families in respect of feeding and clothing their children, public services are being cut back. For example, there have been cutbacks in respect of the book scheme and elsewhere within the education system that have imposed great costs on families, which is grossly unfair. It further impoverishes and puts into difficulties unemployed people, which will exacerbate the literacy and numeracy problems that have just been outlined by Deputy Quinn. Similarly, there have been proposals from an bord snip nua and there was an emergency budget last April. Members are discussing the NAMA legislation at present and a budget will be delivered in a few months’ time that will impose further difficulties for people, particularly the aforementioned low-income families.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I refer to the FÁS trips in which Ministers partook. How could they not have seen what was happening, given their presence on those trips? Far from not wishing to ascertain what was happening, they joined in. While I do not wish to single out a particular Minister as a number of them were involved, Members are aware of the €400 or €500 hair-do received by the then Minister, Deputy Harney. One should measures that against some of the issues Members have just been discussing. Moreover, it is clear that nothing in FÁS can be addressed without alluding to Mr. Rody Molloy’s departure from the organisation. I refer not only to his €1 million-plus bonus but to the provision of the car that was not even mentioned. There also was the issue of legal advice and whether it was taken. Of course it was not, but the reason it was not taken is the key question. I believe all Members know the reason.
Responsibility for what has gone on at FÁS lies with successive Ministers. Why did they not summon senior individuals from FÁS to ask what was going on, what measures and structures were in place to measure people’s acts and to measure how the massive expenditure of €1 billion was taking place? It is clear that those concerned were not even behaving in the responsible fashion that would be adopted by someone running a small enterprise in respect of simple structural accountability issues. It did not happen.
We all agree there must be a complete overhaul of FÁS and that we must turn it around so that planning and development is introduced to the agency. I accept that new courses have been designed but not enough have been designed over the past five years. There is still too much of the same. This must change and we need vision and upskilling. Will we upskill people to go back to what they were doing previously or will be aspire to go beyond that to achieve something ambitious? If so, we need to plan better courses, delivered more cleverly in the community. Some of this is happening but not enough. We must review expenditure but this has not happened.
I acknowledge a point made by an earlier speaker regarding the ability and honesty of many people in FÁS. Like many other Members, I worked with FÁS on occasions. In my public and private life I found those who worked there to be excellent people of the utmost probity. They are very hard-working and ambitious for the organisation, not for themselves. As when we talk about those who work for the HSE and the banks, it is important to acknowledge that frontline people sometimes carry the can of criticism from the public because of what has gone on at another level in the organisation. That is most unfortunate.
Community employment schemes are increasingly important. We must also be honest and say that some of the schemes are bordering on the ridiculous. Many accounts have been brought to my attention of workers huddling around the trees on the lawn of parochial houses. That is not very constructive and there is plenty of work to be done in the community. People on these schemes should be in the community and the schemes should be developed. I would like to see significantly more community employment schemes throughout the country.
With regard to the provision in the Bill that reduces the number of board members from 17 to 11, I believe nine would have been better but we can live with 11, given the size of the organisation. Page 11 of the Bill deals with the qualifications of the board members and states that they should have some expertise in finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration. These are laudable qualities but we should look beyond this and require board members to have knowledge of training and unemployment. Perhaps there should be someone who came through the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, INOU.
I agree with the proposal of Deputy Richard Bruton to refer appointments to public bodies to Oireachtas committees for scrutiny. The proposal for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to consult with the Minister of the Social and Family Affairs and the Minister for Education and Science is looking in the wrong direction. Proposals for board positions should be taken from the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business in the future. Proposed appointees should appear before the committee for scrutiny. These moves reduce the potential for cronyism.
I am also concerned about the limited period within which whistleblowers can come forward. Cumulatively it comes to six months initially and then it is extended to 12 months, totalling 18 months. From recent scandals we know that sometimes whistleblowers do not come forward for a period considerably longer than that and I hope the Minister will examine this and consider a longer period.
I hope other Members are receiving as many representations on the back-to-education scheme as I am. I have been inundated for weeks on end about the difficulties people have in accessing back-to-education payments to enable people to improve themselves through the education system. I hope the Minister will examine this because it is at crisis point.
Deputy Paul Connaughton: I propose to share time with Deputies Andrew Doyle and Jimmy Deenihan. This Bill is before the House at a crucial time. It is crucial to the 500,000 people likely to be out of work at the end of this year. What a daunting task it is for a training organisation like FÁS to find a job for every one of these people. That must be the mission statement of the organisation and these people must be trained to find a job.
A nation like ours depends almost solely on the export of goods and services. We must have a viable, professional and dedicated training agency that will train and equip young people to enable them to compete with the very best across the world. That is very daunting. The national training agency must be able to retrain workers who lose their jobs and continually upskill the workforce in an ever-changing work environment. Such a training agency must have credibility and must subscribe to best practice standards.
I am long enough in this House to remember AnCO before FÁS came into being. I had a great association with it. What I knew nationally and locally of AnCO and FÁS was that both did tremendous work in the 60s and 70s. Despite the controversy at the moment, to which I will refer later, FÁS has done a very good job. The shenanigans of the recent past are not the fault of local staff. The people who were involved in that have besmirched the good name of a good training organisation.
Through the years, some of the best carpenters, electricians, builders and block layers came through the system in vast numbers. They could take their place in this country or in any country throughout the world with the certification they had. They called it the little brown envelope — I do not mean big brown envelopes.
Whatever we say about the well-documented carry-on of the FÁS executives, their luxurious lifestyles and their silliness in abusing their privilege, what is worse is the question of the integrity of the certification of courses. I sincerely hope it is isolated and that the so-called internal audit unit will tell us over the next few weeks that it is not widespread. I have not been told by anyone in my part of the world that it happened there but the luxurious surroundings and expenses of the head people in FÁS are nothing compared to the question of the integrity of the certification of courses.
In fairness to all Governments and the Civil Service, the leaving certificate and junior certificate both have an outstanding reputation. We want the same for FÁS. It is against that background that I would like to develop my contribution but I am short on time. I hope the accreditations have credibility and that if somebody goes through a FÁS training course, no matter what it is, their expertise and educational attainment will stand up to what is on the certificate. One can put it in any language one likes but that is it.
As I have stated on many occasions, I am and always have been an advocate of the community employment schemes, particularly with regard to how they relate to rural Ireland. I sincerely hope this new board will not alone continue, but enhance those schemes because local authorities are moving away from them due to a lack of funding and outdoor staff. Anything of a community nature that happens in rural Ireland is community employment scheme centred. A major argument is taking place on whether it is training or institutionalised employment. I could not give a hoot what it is called; all I know is that very important work is being done by people who are very proud to be doing it. Unfortunately, there is nothing else for them to do if they did not do it.
I am sorry to state that those who will be appointed to the board will be political appointees. I would have thought the Tánaiste in particular would have learned enough over recent weeks to ensure a broader base and that at least the chief executive would have to come before the appropriate Oireachtas committee for all to see that he or she was the person that should be appointed, irrespective of the Minister in place.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: The purpose of the Bill is stated as being to effect amendments to improve the effectiveness in governance of the board of FÁS. This is taken against a background where, from 1999 to 2008, the budget for FÁS doubled from €527 million to just over €1 billion. It coincides with the time when we got as near to full employment as we were ever going to get. Supervision and oversight of the spending of this substantial amount of taxpayers’ money was given to 18 people appointed by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment representing unions, employers, the Minister and employees. Where did it go wrong? FÁS is in the headlines for all the wrong reasons and this has been going on for up to the past ten months. Rumours have been rife about misappropriation of funds, misconduct, wasting money and even fraud, and these matters have not yet reached their finale.
What the Bill proposes is not only worthy, but essential. However, it is the same old same old. The constitution of the new board will be in the gift of the Minister. In recent weeks, Fine Gael tabled a Bill on transparency of appointments to public office, which would not have cost the State anything. It would not have cost the Ministers involved anything to have yielded to what we were trying to do. It was all about openness, transparency and accountability. The Bill seeks to reduce membership of the board from 18 to 11 and states that people will be appointed on their merits, taking into account particular talents and experience. Previously, we have seen where this has not been the case. There is no due selection process for anyone other than the Minister and accountability is not satisfactory.
People are losing employment at a rate we have never experienced previously. When FÁS had a budget of €1 billion, why did it not prepare for a rainy day? We read about abuses, splurges and money being wasted. Be that as it may, why is there no evidence of a plan for the day when the bubble would burst? Perhaps it was not anticipated that it would have been to the rate, extent and speed that it occurred, but it was inevitable, as night follows day, that this day was going to come. FÁS is not catching up and not only this but its agenda seems to be to firefight the allegations being made about it. I have spoken to people in Wicklow about this and they are somewhat demoralised because the focus is not on new initiatives and training programmes.
We hear the Minister discuss initiatives that are being taken. If a small business which employed five people was wound up, those five people would be entitled to jobseeker’s benefit and allowance. I have spoken to people who were self-employed owners of such a business. They and their families have cried down the telephone to me. Their assets may be in examinership. They are going to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul because they cannot access a bob. FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs need to be able to co-ordinate a plan for such people. These are uncharted waters but we have to be able to accommodate them. People in this situation cannot qualify for retraining programmes because they are not entitled to jobseeker’s allowance.
I believe that if they have assets or money over the value of €40,000 it is counted against them. In time, some of these people will employ again if they get through this, obtain credit and re-establish themselves when the economy picks up. They are our innovators. The problem is that they are not allowed to put money into a seed capital account and this should be considered. They should be allowed to do so and have that money disregarded for the purposes of allowances and benefits. They should then be allowed retrain and reskill because they are the people who had initiative. We saw them on television and read about them when they were starting up their businesses and working 18 hours a day to get them off the ground. Many of these people are now in trouble. This is not of their own making; circumstances have caught up with them.
I know it is outside the ambit of the Bill but I appeal to the Minister of State to take this into account in establishing how the new FÁS board will be constituted and how its role and functions will be overseen. FÁS should also re-evaluate what it wants to do. Unfortunately, as has been stated, everything about FÁS in the media at present is negative. It is not about job creation or stimulating the economy and working with people with initiative. Enterprise Ireland, county enterprise boards and FÁS should work in harmony and there should be a consultative arrangement between the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, FÁS and local social welfare offices.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: From reading the newspapers and listening to contributors on all sides of the House, it is obvious that the image of FÁS as an organisation has suffered immeasurable damage in recent times. Its credibility among the public is gone and its brand fatally flawed. This legislation is merely an interim measure that will not change that. Instead, the whole structure and purpose of FÁS as a training organisation will have to be reviewed. We will probably have to revert to the AnCO structure in place before FÁS which was geared towards training apprentices and the unemployed and upskilling low-skilled workers. Due to the bashing FÁS has taken, some people are reluctant to engage with the agency. The Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, is a pragmatist and should overhaul the agency’s operation as the brand is now fatally flawed.
My experience of FÁS has been positive. What it achieved across the country has nothing to do with the damage recently caused to the FÁS brand at its top level. That damage was synonymous with the Celtic tiger era when no one cared about anything because there was so much money around. The public servants entrusted to look after our interests must all share the blame for the demise of what was a great organisation. Ministerial responsibility must be reintroduced into the agency.
If it were not for FÁS there would not be one tourism product in north Kerry. I have worked closely with FÁS on projects of scale and quality that are still in place as a testament to the agency. Unfortunately, because of a change FÁS can no longer get involved directly in community projects.
Phases 1, 3, 5 and 7 of an apprenticeship must be spent with an employer while phases 2, 4 and 6 must be completed in either FÁS or an institute of technology. This year, the Tralee FÁS centre only took on 60 apprentices when between 2004 and 2007 the annual figure was 300. The reason for this is simple. There are no employers to take on apprentices for their phase 1 placement, meaning they are being deprived of a career pathway in the meantime.
The Minister of State should consider reopening the community youth training programmes to allow apprentices to work on projects providing community services and amenities, thereby allowing them complete their apprenticeship phases. In Tralee, instructors, many of whom are doing other work, could supervise apprentices as they complete their phases through working on community services and projects. There is nothing wrong with local authorities starting people on apprenticeships, paying a fair but reasonable rate. It would ensure these apprentices will be qualified for the future, creating a base of craftworkers for when the building industry picks up again.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I do not agree with Deputy Deenihan’s claim that the FÁS brand is fatally damaged. It may be damaged but not fatally. Most unemployed people look to FÁS as the main public employment service.
As Deputy Deenihan himself said, FÁS has provided many good initiatives. For example, last year electrician apprentices were facilitated by the agency to finish their training with the ESB. My brother went on a placement as an engineer through FÁS to Japan. I worked on a social employment scheme which helped me build up my CV and eventually secure a job as a clerical officer in the public sector. FÁS’s many social employment schemes enabled communities to provide community services. In Lucan, for example, the tidy towns committee had a worker provided by a FÁS employment scheme.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: I am not disputing the work the organisation has done. It is the brand that I am concerned about. People are not associating with the brand any more because of the recent damage done to the organisation. I have not criticised the courses provided by FÁS or those involved in them.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I know it comes down to language. There is a tendency to talk about brands in this context. There is too much bringing in of free market concepts into the operation of the public sector.
I do not agree FÁS has been fatally damaged but accept Deputy Deenihan acknowledges the good work it has done. Many current public sector jobs were initially provided through FÁS schemes such as special needs assistants. Other schemes saw workers provided to the voluntary sector and involved in the restoration of heritage buildings and local community amenities. When I left college, some graduates took a six-month course with FÁS and were able to get jobs afterwards.
The bulk of the budget for employment services in the public sector goes through FÁS. I agree with other speakers that we should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. While I agree the agency’s board needs to be reformed in light of what emerged recently, it is important the right board members are selected. They must be people who care about and have experience in employment. In this regard, trade unionists can provide the necessary experience to facilitate FÁS in pursuit of its programme. I made this point last week. As Deputy Browne said, we are amending a Bill that is 22 years old. The main part of the Bill in 1987 set out the functions of FÁS, but there is nothing in this Bill about reconsidering those functions and whether they need to be modernised. I do not agree with Deputy Deenihan that we need to replace FÁS, but how do we make it better? It is a shame that the Minister is not using this opportunity to consider whether the functions of FÁS should be amended to take account of existing needs. Maybe they are fine but I am surprised that the Bill does not deal with anything like that. FÁS is more than a board. The board is there to help FÁS operate and to oversee it, but the main purpose of FÁS is to provide services to the unemployed through training opportunities and job placements.
An OECD report based on social, employment and migration working papers, published earlier this year, analyses the services provided by FÁS, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, local employment services and other organisations and makes recommendations. They are not all correct but they raise interesting points. The report could form part of the review of the functions and purpose of FÁS to meet modern needs.
When talking about a knowledge-based or smart economy we should not lose sight of the fact that we will always need good, skilled tradespeople although our needs are different now. We need sustainable buildings and it is important that apprentices are familiar with how to mitigate climate change and conserve energy in our buildings.
The OECD report thought that the strong training focus in FÁS was good. We should make sure to keep that up and examine what courses are needed for today and whether FÁS provides enough of them or the right ones. Do the right people know about the courses and are they able to access them? The big complaint in the report is that FÁS does not focus enough on placing unemployed people in jobs.
The report was written when the recession was beginning so it is not up to date. Nevertheless, it states that even when there was high employment here there were more staff working on the unemployment benefit function than on the job placement function. It stated that job matching and placement were not to the forefront of FÁS functions. In the area I represent many people who have lost their jobs are left to their own devices to seek jobs. There is no local FÁS office. One has to go looking for it in Ballyfermot.
The people who live in Lucan and commuter towns have never before lost their jobs. They have had jobs since finishing their education. They are not as familiar with what is available as those who have been unemployed before. There are more local services in areas where there has been unemployment before. We need to consider the needs of communities where this is a new and big phenomenon.
Deputy Joanna Tuffy: I will finish up. My main point is that the energies of FÁS need to refocus on job placement and matching people with jobs. That should not happen at the expense of training which is good. It suggests instead of greatly increasing the number of community employment schemes, we should consider dole to work schemes such as are used in Australia. I am open to any suggestion because it is important that people get opportunities to work.
When we discuss this, it is important not to concentrate on controversies and scandals. We need to consider what is positive in FÁS and how we can improve it. This is the time to do that because FÁS needs to get on and do the work that is needed to get more people working and restore high employment levels. We need to examine whether the functions of FÁS are fit for our current needs.
Deputy Joan Burton: I want to discuss corporate governance in State bodies and what we know about its successes and failures. There was an attempt from the early 1950s to create structures with the involvement of employers, trade unions and workers that would lead to the further development and education of workers. FÁS as we know it, for good or bad, developed in an extraordinary way during the period of the Celtic tiger when a great deal of money was available to the organisation but there was little unemployment and it farmed out a lot of the training of apprentices. Essentially it was an organisation that had a social partnership structure but that had in many respects lost its way. When one adds the statements of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, that he appointed people to boards because they were his friends, the stage was set for undermining public faith in the quality of the participants on the boards of practically every State body and organisation. That must be considered and is one of the principal dangers in this Bill.
I support the reduction in numbers of members of the board but I am not sure that it goes far enough. I do not know that FÁS needs 11 board members. If FÁS continues its involvement in education, training, back to work schemes and skills development, the people appointed to the board must have appropriate expertise. We do not want ideological warriors of the left or the right on the board. We want people who can do the job and who, most of all, are willing to ask questions and to persist with those questions until they get an appropriate answer. The Minister has made a grave error in holding to herself alone the power to appoint the members of the board.
No matter what merit these people have, whether they have any political party connection or none, the Minister will be seen to continue this principle of Fianna-Fáil dominated appointments with, at the moment, a nod to the odd Green. This is fatally undermining not just of the politics of Fianna Fáil which will become hateful to people, of which I am sure the Minister is aware, but of all politics. The Opposition parties afforded her an opportunity to set up for the first time a monitoring structure which would question the panel of appointees about their qualification for and approach to the job which is fundamental to democratic reforms and appointing a good, competent board.
A person with whom I used to work wrote to me recently. He was a long-serving member of a number of State boards under different Governments and in his time had affiliations to many different political parties. He described his association on a board during Mr. Haughey’s time when he asked some questions that were not to the taste of the management of the State body. These were deemed to be either inappropriate or annoying in some way, or, perhaps for pig-iron, the management simply did not wish to answer the questions of this board member who became, therefore, an annoyance. If there is a person on a board who becomes isolated as a result of asking questions which are not answered reasonably, he or she then becomes what the Green Party calls the “squeaky wheel”, that annoying person who pops up at board meetings to ask the awkward question. Very quickly that person becomes isolated and the others on the board join ranks with the management of the enterprise to put him or her in a box. All of us who work in politics are very familiar with this.
Let us remember that what we want from a board is corporate governance. We had a recent example in the Houses that I deeply regret. The much esteemed and admirable Mr. Tom O’Higgins, an accountant with a national and international reputation, who was the chairman of the Dáil audit committee, clearly had a point of view and a communications issue with regard to the governance of Deputies and the expenses regime which was governed by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. A person who is put on a board has a legitimate right to ask questions. Clearly, in the case of Mr. O’Higgins, he became frustrated to the point of resignation. If that is happening within the purview of State institutions, boards or bodies, the State must sit up and take notice and try to change the structure of corporate governance.
Reading about the members of the FÁS board, I can say honestly that I suspect many members of the board were genuinely shocked and horrified by the material that has emerged. I have seen statements to this effect. One must take a step back and ask why there were not detailed board discussions to examine in a real way the nuts and bolts of what FÁS did. One then must ask, and it is a legitimate question, why it was, given the various audit personnel involved whether internal or from the Comptroller and Auditor General, that some of this material or these facts did not emerge. Why did they have to come as a result of whistleblowing? We have not had an answer to that. Are there mechanisms in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office that need to be overhauled and reviewed? At present, we know there are 22 internal audit inquiries, of which I understand ten to 12 have been completed. Whatever the Minister does, it is really important that those inquiries are completed in full, using an effective mechanism, which I understand to be under way through the internal audit sub-committee board of FÁS. The Minister should give a very clear commitment to that.
Ultimately, this is about people being appointed to State boards in this country. If one tapped the average person on the street on the shoulder and told him or her to become a member of this or that board, he or she would have to have training and receive some upskilling. Even if one was a brain surgeon, a chartered accountant or an eminent banker, if one went into an organisation like FÁS, which is complex, has a very large budget and does a great variety of different things, one would have to get some training, refreshment or briefing to become a competent member of the board. There would have to be discussion on what one’s role as a board member was to be. One would have to approach it in a tough frame of mind, because one would be there to represent citizens and taxpayers and make the organisation achieve its duties to citizens, unemployed people and apprentices, and do so in a reasonably cost-effective manner from the point of view of the taxpayer. To be honest, after that everything else is frills.
What we are not getting from some of the people who served on boards in this country is public communication that the boards are operating to the required standard. We must be mindful also that the reputational damage to Ireland in this area, in banking and in a number of other areas is such that people are losing confidence in our institutions. I believe one of the reasons for this is the extraordinary regime of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. Nothing would kill FÁS stone dead sooner than the culture of crony appointments to a crony board. That would become what a FÁS or public board represented in people’s minds. We need a lot of thought as to how governance should be restored.
The Dublin Docklands Development Authority is another example. It was a fantastic idea to regenerate the docklands area but, again, this was another board on which, apparently, there were high levels of cronyism during the height of the Celtic tiger era. At that time some very bad property investment decisions were taken by that board and by the bank with which it had a particularly close association through directors and other mechanisms.
These examples of failures of public governance are very important to every political party. Those who are in government and have been there for too long, and those on the Opposition side who hope to be in government——
Deputy Joan Burton: We expect to be in government. However, we must find a way of fixing a model that is broken. In reducing the numbers on the board, the Minister is on the right track. It might be asked whether even 11 people are needed on the board. I do not know too much about the internal affairs of FÁS and will not comment on them. What the Minister must not do is continue the notion of crony appointments and “Fianna Fáil only need apply” with the odd Green thrown in. That would be a disaster.
Given all that she has been through, the Tánaiste may have a tendency to find people who reflect her views and with whom she feels comfortable. In a way, I feel sorry for Deputy Mary Coughlan. Deputies Micheál Martin and Mary Harney presided as Ministers over FÁS, both for very considerable periods. Some of the worst things happened on their watch, not on the present Minister’s watch. However, because she was in the chair when the aeroplane crash-landed, in many ways she is taking the political responsibility. She has an opportunity to redeem her reputation by thinking about the appointment structure, not making it personal to herself and taking a risk. She could ask the appropriate Dáil committee to be involved in the vetting procedure. For Deputies and Senators on that committee there is also a risk. If they, collectively, were to rush to embrace people with whom they were comfortable and happy, “their” men or women, that would also be a mistake. People who raise questions about the fundamental core activities of FÁS are correct. I do not know whether, like Anglo Irish Bank, the brand is so damaged that a relaunch of FÁS is necessary. Saying this gives me no pleasure because, like every Deputy, I know people who work in FÁS, how committed they are to that work and how hard they work. Over the years, I have met a number of different FÁS directors from the industry and labour sides. When I worked in the Dublin Institute of Technology, the people I met, particularly those involved in apprentice education, always seemed to be dedicated. They came from all political parties and none and were interested in the betterment and education of apprentices in a fine way.
However, all of this is irrelevant. What is relevant is the public’s perception of the organisation and how we can change it. Issues such as the €600,000 wantonly spent on advertising that was never run shock people who are struggling to make ends meet, including small businesses and apprentices approaching the end of their training. For this reason, all politicians, including the Tánaiste and those who serve on the committee dealing with FÁS, must try to devise an appointments system that allows us to restore credibility in the governance and competence of State boards.
Many people would be qualified to do the job, but there is a difference between being qualified and being able to walk through the door in the morning and sit on the FÁS board. Were I or the Minister of State asked to sit on the board tomorrow, both of us would have the necessary technical qualifications, but it would be foolish in the extreme. We would need to be thoroughly briefed and prepared and given information and advice on our roles.
It is a pity that organisations like the Institute of Public Administration, IPA, which utilises a fair amount of State resources, do not seem to be acting in public, although they may be doing it privately. In many ways, we have a State sector that has become terrified of acknowledging where things have gone wrong and of explaining how those wrongs will be addressed and moved past. This may be because Fianna Fáil has been in government for 12 years and many public servants have been culturally colonised by it, in that they cannot imagine a different type of organisation. I have attended many FÁS ceremonies for awarding diplomas, degrees and certificates for, as an example, women returning to education, work and training. I represent Dublin West, but the culture at those occasions is of a Fianna Fáil gig to which I have been invited. They are charming, lovely people, some of whom pop up at different times canvassing for one famous politician in particular.
Deputy Joan Burton: Perhaps the Minister of State would just consider the matter. If we want a quality public service, we should either do as the Scandinavian countries did more than 100 years ago — allow public servants to declare their political affiliation — or maintain our old tradition of a non-political public service. We have the worst of both worlds. The upper echelons of the public service are, in theory, non-political. In practice, some people are close to the ruling party. It does not make any difference that they might not have party cards. This is a problem for Fianna Fáil and the Opposition. I do not have an immediate solution, but it is one of the greatest problems facing politicians and their credibility.
When there is a change of Administration in the United States of America, there is a change in the upper echelons. The US has a system in which public servants can declare a political commitment. We have a non-political public service. This tradition has been valuable, particularly after independence, but when the same party has been governing and closely controlling for a long period, one must ask whether our public service still serves the same function that it did during the change from British rule to independent Irish rule.
This matter has not been debated recently and, consequently, the boards overseeing areas of controversy or those with much discretion have been heavily dominated by political appointees. I was stunned to hear recently that Mr. Sean FitzPatrick was an appointee to the board of Aer Lingus and that he had free flights for the five years following his standing down from that position. Mr. FitzPatrick or, as the former Taoiseach used to call him, Seanie——
Deputy Joan Burton: ——was perceived to have particular affiliations, but the problem is that they have done grave damage to the service of the public interest and the majority of employees in State and other public bodies who are themselves not politically partisan, except that they vote or do not vote in general elections in proportion with the rest of the population. The Tánaiste must take responsibility for the incredible damage done by the FÁS debacle to the morale of public servants.
Last week in the Sunday Independent, Mr. Nick Webb, the journalist who was the first to present the FÁS story in a major way and for which work he deservedly won a journalist of the year award, and Senator Ross published a story about Iarnród Éireann, CIE and contracts that had gone wrong. Reading that important piece of journalism depressed me because here we were going again. I do not know who the directors of Iarnród Éireann and CIE are, although I know who the managing director and chairman of the board are. As far as I know, the Government has not responded.
The critical issue for the Government in its remaining life, be it four months or longer, is whether it will try to repair some of the damage. In reforming the FÁS board, the Tánaiste seeks to restore her reputation and to do the unpolitical, unFianna Fáil thing of trying to open the new board’s appointments procedure to have competent people with backgrounds in the labour, apprenticeship and business sides evaluated regardless of their political affiliations and to subject them to some level of appropriate questioning by the relevant Dáil committee.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Deputy Burton’s comments about the malaise overtaking business were interesting and accurate. This is not a personal accusation against the Minister of State. The channel of accountability has been to the same people for far too long. Nobody had been accountable to this House and this is an appalling situation. This morning with the concession of the Ceann Comhairle I raised an issue which occurs regularly. Along with every other Member of this House I have tabled countless parliamentary questions about subsidiary bodies to various Ministers over the years. Fifteen or 20 years ago answers were given readily and there was no difficulty. However, it then became the practice with the passage of time to restrict the amount of information and slowly but surely and inexorably, we now have a situation in which the Minister has no responsibility to the House. There are one or two notable and honourable exceptions among Ministers but if the House is not deferred to and the information is not given to the Opposition, then there is no accountability. There can be all the paraphernalia of investigations afterwards and wall-to-wall meetings of the Committee of Public Accounts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year but this means nothing because it is retrospective. Like other Members I have served on the Committee of Public Accounts for some considerable time. A retrospective examination of a situation does not do anything to alert the public to what has been going on.
This Bill will not change the situation. It proposes a reduction in the size of the board of FÁS from 17 members to 11. I do not see a problem with that proposal. It also proposes the introduction of a rolling system of appointments to the board so that the same people are not sitting on the board for a lengthy time. The only danger in that proposal is that there needs to be some recognition of the appearance of a new regime when new people are appointed. Such people may be unfamiliar with the practices of sitting on a board but they may also have questions to raise which should have been raised before. The Bill proposes the removal of the automatic right of the trade union movement to nominate individuals to the board. I think trade unions should have the right to nominate and to be represented as they represent a group with an interest in the activities of FÁS.
The Bill proposes that the director general of FÁS should be accountable to the Oireachtas. In my view this proposal is utter rubbish and nonsense. The same situation applies with regard to the HSE where the chief executive is theoretically accountable to the Oireachtas. It means nothing and the Acting Chairman knows this as well as I do. Unless the person who has ultimate responsibility for an organisation is accountable to this House in plenary session, then we are not doing our job. Unless and until a Minister accepts responsibility for every body, subsidiary and otherwise within the ambit of his or her Department, we are wasting our time and this performance will be repeated time and again. This is being done solely to give Ministers a cosy and cushy time in case they might be associated with any whiff of what might be regarded as undesirable publicity. The further one stays away from these things, the better for all concerned. It is not in the interests of any Minister in any Government and indeed in any country, to distance themselves from expenditure in his or her Department. I find it difficult to understand the way we are going. We had no difficulty with these issues 20 years ago, everything was quite open. In those times a Minister would come to the House and apologise if something went wrong. It was open and above board and everybody knew what was going on from the beginning.
A simple question should be the means of finding out information. The Minister would be asked a simple question about the budget for his or her Department, the manner in which it is spent and the answer would be provided. There should be a penalty for failure to respond to this form of question. Members could paper the walls with the number of refusals to do so. I can give the House an example. I asked the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources about a flaw in the intruder alert systems being supplied to consumers. I asked a simple question as to whether the Minister or the regulator had made any overtures to the service providers or others who might have an interest in this flaw, with a view to identifying whether the public were being conned into believing the system was secure when it was not. The reply I received stated: “Neither I nor the regulator has any function in the matter.” This is an appalling admission from a Minister and an outrageous suggestion in a House of Parliament. This is crazy. A Minister is responsible, not only for the direct and indirect funding to the various agencies under his or her remit but also for policy and activity. Why do Ministers not take their responsibilities seriously? Why do Ministers not come into the House to reply to debates on the Adjournment of the House? They arrange for some unfortunate Minister of State to answer four issues raised on the Adjournment. There is no accountability. The only time Ministers show enthusiasm is when they are running up to the Phoenix Park to collect their seals of office in nice ornate boxes. They will walk over anyone who gets in their way. However, when we ask them a simple question as to what extent they are accountable to this House, they do not want to know about it. They will have other important business to attend to and send some Minister of State who has not learned the ropes and who has not achieved the high degree of seniority which they have to represent them. It is a case of to hell with the House of Parliament, to hell with the general public, to hell with accountability and to hell with the money and the poor unfortunate people who provided it in the first place. There is a serious issue which is not being dealt with in this legislation. This Bill is papering over the cracks. I have not dealt with the minutiae of the issue which has resulted in this Bill coming before the House nor do I wish to. If we do not get the big picture right, if the superstructure is not put in place, nothing will happen afterwards. Nothing can move in a positive fashion which will be beneficial to the country.
With regard to the so-called accountability of a chief executive to the Oireachtas, it is the Government not the Oireachtas which spends money. The Oireachtas does not provide the money. When I hear a report on radio that the Dáil passed the NAMA Bill, for instance, this is not a true report. The Government forces its legislation through the House; that is how it works. However, the general public are given the impression that the entire Dáil, the Oireachtas, all Deputies, the body politic, did it. Like hell they did. The Government did it. Once upon a time the report used to state that the Government won the vote, usually with reference to the budget. This is an accurate report of what happened and everything else is nonsense and rubbish and gives a false impression of what is taking place.
The section in the Bill proposing that the director general of FÁS be accountable to the Oireachtas is the daftest thing I have ever heard and I predict in five or ten years that those who are here will be examining some matter or other and will ask why something was not done. The Minister must be responsible to the House. If the Minister were to accept his responsibility seriously, we would not have any reviews, there would be no need to go anywhere and there would be no need for tribunals. This goes right across the board in respect of all the issues that have occupied the public’s mind for the past ten years. We could have saved so much money if we had adopted that simple principle.
My last point on this issue is that for a body to be totally accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas would be better for the public, better for the Administration and better for the Minister concerned. This is simply because such oversight would alert that Minister to what is going on in the various bodies within his or her Department or those outside of it. It is the only way to achieve the level of accountability required in today’s very busy and pressing world. I hope the Minister takes that on board and conveys to colleagues the fact that we would like some accountability in the House and we are not simply calling for this for the purposes of standing up to say it. This matter has come to our attention many times. Unless something is done about it, something far more serious than what has occurred heretofore will occur. Such events have happened already and they will occur again. Something of a serious nature will have to be done and Minister must once again become accountable to the House.
I refer to the requirement of directors and staff in FÁS to disclose conflicts of interest. That is normal, one would expect it and I agree with it. Members must register their interests at all times. Ministers must register their interests and this is something to which we are all entitled. However, Deputy Joan Burton made a very interesting comment. In many cases people are not necessarily card-carrying members of a political party. She made the point that especially when one Government is in operation for a long period, with the best will in the world, administrators may become overawed at the dominance of the great body that governs them, that is, the Government and its members. In such circumstances, members of administrations may feel obliged to respond favourably to the queries raised by their political party. I have no doubt about this and it is not a reflection on the membership, but a reflection of the fact that someone is in a position of power for too long and has become too familiar with the trappings. Such people likewise have become accustomed to deferring to their political masters.
I refer to the proposed ban of directors and staff of FÁS from any involvement in matters where they have a conflict. That is a natural progression of the previous point I made and it is a good thing. It is something that one would normally expect. However, the acid test to check this is if a Member tables a question related to the day-to-day functioning of any given body, he or she will either receive an answer accurately or not. If he or she does not receive an answer there is a problem and if there is an unwillingness on the part of a Minister to give the answer, there is also a problem. Let us not forget a Minister at any time has the right to say to the staff in the Ceann Comhairle’s office that strictly speaking the question is not in accordance with Standing Orders but he or she would like to answer the question. It is that simple and nothing else is required. One does not need Dáil reform or anything else. One does not have to go outside and lead a protest or consult with anyone. The Minister is the person with absolute authority and responsibility and can, if he or she wishes, be accountable to the House in a way that was originally intended. If that does not emerge from this process and as a result of all the other things that have taken place in recent years, we will have learned nothing.
Deputy Burton referred to falling confidence in the institutions of the State, including this House. We have seen evidence of this in recent times and it is not necessarily a good thing from anyone’s point of view. There are some who readily fuel the undermining of public confidence in the institutions they have come to recognise, and this is sad. It is not the first time it has taken place and certainly not the first time it has taken place throughout Europe. We heard rumblings to this effect during the recent Lisbon treaty debate. There were some who suggested the institutions and elected representatives were no longer in touch with the people. Such people should try it themselves sometime. They might be surprised by what they would learn. There always will be people who will encourage distrust and a lack of confidence in the institutions around them. Such people have their own agenda. However, Members need to be alert to such developments, as do Governments. It is not a question of a debate or a contest between the Government and the Opposition. It is simply a contest between good governance and none and there are many examples along these lines.
Previously, I mentioned the question of committees of the House. It has been suggested that all our problems could be resolved by bringing a matter before a committee. Since this has always taken place in retrospect it has been of no benefit. The committees of the House should be used for a different purpose altogether, that is, for holding a discussion on policy before the event. By all means there should be occasional retrospection as well but if the Houses of Parliament are to work properly there must be some input from the Parliament at the formative stages. It should not take place afterwards by begging one’s pardon, tipping one’s cap, bowing or deferring to people. The members of a national parliament have an entitlement to an influence of a positive or negative nature, as they see fit, at the formative stages.
That does not, however, happen here because we have had the same people sitting in the same seats for the past 22 years with the exception of two and a half years. That does not make for good governance, accountability, clarity or outside evaluation of what takes place at any level. It is a bad thing and I believe our society and time have paid a great price for this unfortunate slow slide into a mushroom system. I need not explain to the House the merits of the mushroom system because Deputy Higgins made reference to it already this morning.
If I were asked for a view as to how effective this proposed legislation will be, it is that it will not be effective at all unless the other points I raised are addressed as a matter of urgency. If I were sitting where the Minister of State sits now and I held the same responsibility, I would very much like to be able to answer a question from the Opposition by asking the question from its perspective. I realise the occasional question is put for political purposes and that is simply a little fun. One must have a little fun to make things interesting from time to time but the most important element is that one would then be able to relax in the clear knowledge that the information provided was either successful, satisfactory or that it was not. If it was not satisfactory then the question of why it was not arises. What action, if any, was proposed to be taken to address the issues arising therefrom? Did anything happen? If nothing happened or if, say, I as a Minister of State decided to indicate that I did not believe I should answer the Member opposite in a given way because it is none of his or her business and that I am here and they are over there, then what can they do about it?
That is the matter to which I wish to refer now because we have seen in the past week the enactment both outside and behind closed doors of a review whereby the critical question at issue was if it will be now or later. Clearly the decision was made that it would be later at all costs because no one wants an election now, which I do not believe. It was stated sagely that the conclusion was that no one wanted it or, worse still, that the country could not afford an election, the greatest laugh of all time. Not only can the country afford an election but it cannot afford not to have one. Until such time as that takes place and a clear mandate is given by the people, it is no good for anybody to complain that all politicians are to blame, the system is wrong and somebody should have done something. Some people may say “If I had my way” or “What we need is a benign dictator to solve the country’s problems”. Others might say we need an astute businessman who knows about these things. It is all rubbish and nonsense, however, and we have heard it all before. For those ensconced in the trappings of power there is a great reluctance to relinquish any of those trappings or to change anything by word or deed that would in any way undermine the positions they have achieved one way or another in recent years.
Deputy Bernard J. Durkan: Unfortunately life is like that. I thank you, Sir, for bringing that to my attention. I apologise for over-running my time. In conclusion, I ask the Minister of State, for God’s sake, to listen to what I have said. I am an auld lad here now and have been in the House a few years. I can assure the Minister of State that I believe every word I said about accountability. If it is not achieved now, it will never happen.
Deputy Róisín Shortall: I wish to make a number of points about this legislation, but principally I want to speak about what FÁS has become and the need for a decent training agency. I will spell out the kind of things that now need to happen in relation to FÁS. The numbers on the live register are approaching 500,000 and there is an urgent need for a properly functioning employment and training agency. It should be one that meets the needs of those who require training, upholds high standards, has a clear focus and is involved in providing support services throughout the regions. It should also ensure that people are sufficiently skilled and trained to avail of employment opportunities. Those requirements must be always uppermost in our minds when it comes to dealing with this legislation and in discussing the role of FÁS.
The difficulty, however, is that in its current shape FÁS is not fit for purpose. It is dogged by scandal, corruption, low standards and ineptitude, as well as a lack of corporate governance and accountability. All those elements make FÁS a dysfunctional organisation. There is no question but that, over the years, FÁS has been a sinecure of Fianna Fáil and there has been gross political interference in that organisation from top to bottom. That has been the dead hand on FÁS since it was established in 1987. People on the Government side of the House have a huge amount to answer for, given the state in which FÁS is now.
If we are frank in terms of how we should go about tackling these problems and putting in place the kind of root and branch reform required, there needs to be an acceptance of the nature of the problems that beset FÁS. In addition, there must be a recognition of the fact that the Minister with line responsibility for that agency is part and parcel of the problem. That is the reality. The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan, is part and parcel of the problem at FÁS. She follows a number of Ministers who have failed to live up to their responsibilities, including Deputies Micheál Martin and Mary Harney. Those Ministers failed to ensure a healthy relationship between the Department and FÁS, including proper standards and accountability, or that it was fit for purpose. The current Minister has carried on that. It fell to her to deal with the problems as they exploded over the past 18 months, but she utterly failed to do so. That is not only in respect of this legislation but also in respect of how she failed to respond to the challenges that arose for her, as line Minister, over the past 18 months. While recognising the need to move and discuss what is required of a training agency in future, we must also learn lessons about what has happened in the past.
The issues now emerging in FÁS first came to the fore in May 2008 when the Comptroller and Auditor General issued his special report No. 10. That report identified huge lapses in corporate governance and breaches of the normal procurement rules that should apply in a State organisation or any company. Unfortunately, the Tánaiste failed to respond to those issues. FÁS was a major agency with an annual budget of more than €1 billion, which was under her direct responsibility, yet she failed to take action on the major issues highlighted in last year’s report. Instead, she sat on her hands and hoped that somebody else would deal with them. In fact, she looked to the Comptroller and Auditor General to do a further report. She sat waiting and hoped the Committee of Public Accounts might do something or that we might have another report. In the meantime, however, there was a urgent need for a proper training agency, yet she allowed that situation to drift. She allowed many of the unacceptable practices to continue in FÁS, thus permitting that organisation to be dragged further into the mire. In the process, she failed to take any responsibility for what was going on there and failed to take action to rectify it.
Media attention was focused on the first-class foreign travel and lavish expenses of FÁS executives, which were highlighted at the Committee of Public Accounts and in the Sunday Independent. It was only when the then director general of FÁS, Mr. Rody Molloy, had a disastrous radio interview with Pat Kenny that people realised the game was up and that Mr. Molloy had to be moved fast. There was a determination to silence him and, clearly, the objective was to get him off the pitch, close down the FÁS story and hope there would be no collateral damage to the organisation’s political masters. That was the strategy, but in spite of what Ministers and Fianna Fáil backbenchers might think, one cannot take the law into one’s own hands. Ministers are not above the law. There are laws, regulations and guidelines——
Deputy Róisín Shortall: ——covering a situation where the issue of expenditure of public money arises. I contend that those regulations and guidelines were utterly ignored in the rush to gag Mr. Molloy. I am not alone in saying that because many others have made that claim.
I now wish to talk about the actual process that took place behind the scenes when it was decided that something had to be done about Mr. Molloy. We know he made demands. They were very high demands, given that this man had presided over an organisation about which there were serious questions of accountability. In spite of that, however, he was always a very spirited man and to the very end he demanded entitlements and payments. He sought two years’ salary as a “thank you” for walking away from an organisation on which he had inflicted serious damage.
Officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment sat down with officials from the Department of Finance and decided what they were going to do about the situation, including the severance package. Perhaps the Taoiseach is denying it now, but everybody knew at that time that what they were doing was governed by a number of Acts and regulations, including the Principal Act establishing FÁS in 1997, under which the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, has discretion in setting superannuation. The Ministers are also governed by the Pensions Acts and, in particular, the guidelines issued by the Department of Finance in 1987 setting down explicitly in a three-page document the terms under which a severance package deal can be done with a departing chief executive officer of a public sector agency. We have finally received that document from the Government.
When this issue hit the headlines recently, the Taoiseach said the guidelines were adhered to and everything was above board. As soon as we read the guidelines, it was evident that the deal was certainly not above board and the guidelines had been breached. They run to ten paragraphs. Paragraph 3 refers to additional years and the top-up available if a contract is terminated and states:
This is important because the initiative in this case came from the chief executive officer concerned. We know this principally because the Taoiseach stated this in the House. He sang Mr. Molloy’s praises saying he knew him well, he had given good service and he had left of his own volition. Every reference made by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance and the Tánaiste subsequently was to this being a voluntary retirement and Mr. Molloy leaving of his own volition.
At the meeting between the two relevant Departments, officials decided sanction for this package was required from the Department of Finance. Officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment wrote to the Department of Finance asking whether the letter they had drafted was appropriate for requesting the sanction. The draft letter was sent to three different officials in the Department of Finance for their opinion. There is a great deal of covering up going on and a great deal of smoke and mirrors on the part of Ministers and it is important that the officials at the centre of this are vindicated in the context of the advice they gave. In correspondence between the three officials, each of them drew attention to the fact that on the basis of media reports, they knew Mr. Molloy had resigned of his own volition and, therefore, the guidelines did not apply. The recommendation was that sanction should be refused because the guidelines did not apply. They also pointed out an exceptional case could be made only on foot of a Government decision because paragraph 9 of the Department of Finance guidelines explicitly precludes an exceptional case being made. The advice from three officials with expertise and experience in this area in the Department of Finance was that Government approval was required to sanction the €1.2 million package for Mr. Molloy.
The correspondence available in the public domain ends there and we need to know what happened after that. Was a request made for Government approval of the package? The indications are that there was no request because the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government denied any knowledge of it. One has to make the assumption that Government approval was not requested or granted. If that was the advice from three senior officials in the Department of Finance, why was such approval not sought? What was the motivation in not seeking approval and adhering to the law? The only conclusion I can draw for the failure to seek Government approval, which is in contravention of the guidelines, is that it was to keep this grubby deal secret from the Green Party members of Cabinet. The Green Party Ministers may have been caught napping on a number of occasions but alarm bells would have rung if a proposal had come before the Cabinet to do a sweetheart deal with an old friend of Fianna Fáil’s who was leaving under a serious cloud.
We still live in a democracy and that means Ministers who are required to adhere to the law should come into the House to answer these charges. The three most senior members of Government did not adhere to the guidelines, as required, in reaching agreement on a severance package for a chief executive officer of a State agency. I regret that the Minister is not present but there is a requirement for the Ministers involved to clarify the position and they need to come to the House to make a statement on this. Last week during the debate on the Labour Party motion on FÁS in Private Members’ time, I raised all the legal and technical questions that need to be answered. We were not given answers to those questions. If time permitted, I could quote all the advice given by the senior Department of Finance officials, all of whom pointed in the same direction. A Government decision was required. It was not sought, ergo, this deal is not in compliance with the guidelines.
I refer to another aspect of the meeting between the officials of the two Departments. A letter was sent to the Department of Finance by a senior official in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which outlined the terms of the package it was proposed to give to Mr. Molloy, including a full pension and a full lump, with four and a half years added on to each, and six months’ salary. The Taoiseach has been wriggling and ducking and diving on this issue over the past few weeks. He said the package was broadly in line with what Mr. Molloy would have been entitled to if he had been sacked. He was not sacked and that is the critical issue. Department of Finance officials pointed out that the proposal to give Mr. Molloy six months’ salary was in breach of the guidelines even if he had been sacked and his contract terminated because the guidelines only provide for a maximum of three months’ salary. Even if his contract had been terminated, Government approval would still have been required to sanction the payment of six months’ salary. The Government is, therefore, in breach of the guidelines on two counts.
The letter, dated November 2008, from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment outlining the terms of the proposed package states, “Please note also that the board of FÁS has given the Director General ownership of the car which he has been using as Director General”. I cannot understand that sentence. How did this arise? The board did not meet after Mr. Molloy was interviewed on “Today with Pat Kenny” until the middle of December. The former chairman of the board, Mr. Peter McLoone, stated the package, including the car, was presented to the board as a fait accompli. The deal had been agreed and it was just a matter of the board rubber-stamping it. It had been done and dusted and the board, as a matter of course, was giving its approval to it. Where did that come from? This car was the property of FÁS. Nobody else other than the board had a right to make a decision about what should happen to that car. How is it that a senior official in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment should put in writing to the Department of Finance: “Please note also that the Board of FÁS has given the Director General ownership of the car . . .” There are serious questions to be answered in that regard. I hope the Minister of State or the senior Minister, the Tánaiste, would clarify that point as well. Three questions of serious accountability arise in respect of the most senior people in Cabinet and their role in regard to this debacle and those questions demand early answers from those three Ministers.
The legislation falls a long way short of what the Committee of Public Accounts sought. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended that it ended the practice of alternating the chair between the social partners and nomination by the social partners of members of the board. What we wanted was a slimmed down, more focused and effective board but we did not want it to be packed with Fianna Fáil cumann members. That is precisely the power the Minister is now proposing to take on herself. The problem with FÁS is that it has been a sinecure of Fianna Fáil. It has been packed with Fianna Fáil supporters and in many ways the culture was created that one must dig with the right foot to get anywhere in FÁS. The proposals in this legislation will make FÁS less accountable, not more accountable. It is a step backwards.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation. It is sad that it had to be introduced and is once again a sign of failure. It reminds me of the culture in our current structure. We had the banks, the builders and all the cronies living in the one tent, so to speak. The banks’ representatives came into the Committee of Public Accounts and gave a full briefing to the effect that they were sound and that their position was beyond question. That view was backed up by the regulator, the Central Bank and others, yet we all know what happened a few months later. We have not been given the full facts, and even the Committee of Public Accounts was unable to get that information out of them. They sat in the Committee of Public Accounts and told it what they wanted the people to believe.
We are now trying to deal with the FÁS situation but, sadly, that organisation, which has a right to be proud in many ways, is now on the front pages of our newspapers being shown in the worst possible light. We read that pass grades were given to failed FÁS students. It is a disgrace that a national organisation should allow that to happen. That story only came to light because people were willing to impose the necessary pressure, both in this House and outside it, to get that information and ensure that everybody is on an equal footing. I will come back to that matter later.
In her contribution yesterday the Minister stated that FÁS is a key agency, and we all agree with that when we have up to 450,000 people unemployed. I accept the Minister stated the number was somewhat less but, unfortunately, a number of factories have closed since then and major difficulties have arisen in my own Border region as far as the retail trade and so on is concerned. We must face the fact that we will be dealing with a population of some 450,000 who have no job and who are not likely to have a job in the near future unless we do something about it. FÁS is an important part of the fight against unemployment and ensuring that workers do not become distant from the labour market, as the Minister said.
The Minister also said that the Bill is part of her response to ensure that FÁS is fit for purpose and operates to the highest standards of corporate governance. One must ask how this situation came about. Would this Bill be before the House today if it had not been for senior personnel in my party and others bringing this issue to light and making sure that the wrongs were dealt with?
That is the reason I raised the issue of banks at the outset. It is wrong to have a structure in place where the only place we can deal with a problem is in the Committee of Public Accounts and not on the floor of this House. I have made that argument in terms of the National Roads Authority but especially the Health Service Executive and other organisations. We cannot allow this House to be side-lined, where there cannot be accountability on the floor of this Dáil, where the Minister who hands over the money of hard pressed taxpayers to an organisation such as FÁS is not answerable in this House. That is something we should not allow to continue indefinitely.
The Bill allows the Minister to dismiss board members. Those board members have already been chosen by her. As the previous speaker said, we have gone from a situation where in the past the board members were nominated by the relevant organisations working with FÁS to a situation where they will now be nominated by the Minister. They must have the relevant experience and competence, but is the only relevance that they are a cumann member or something like that?
The Bill states that the Minister can sack a board member who is not adequately performing but it does not state how she can deal with FÁS executives who are the people dealing with taxpayers’ money. When we already have a record of the scandal in FÁS it is important that the Minister re-examine that situation and that we ensure that the Bill gives the Minister, whoever that is, the power to deal with a problem as it arises, be it to do with board members or senior executives.
I do not want anyone to get the idea that I or my colleagues in Fine Gael do not realise the great work done by FÁS. It has been a tremendous organisation. It has worked with community groups, the unemployed and older people to try to get them back into work and so on. All the people at local level who have done such good work must not be tainted or damaged by the serious incident involving the head of FÁS and the wrongful passing of people in their exams. The local schemes have not only helped people back to work and given people something to live for but they have also done tremendous work in the local community. I can only think of the graveyards and cemeteries they have cleaned and villages which they have reinvigorated. They have certainly done much great work with the sick and elderly and in other areas. We should recognise that.
The apprenticeship scheme has also been invaluable and in this downturn the organisation has done its best to ensure those apprentices in the system were given an opportunity to finish their schemes. I know there were some difficulties but a great effort was made by FÁS nonetheless. Many elderly people are now using computers because of FÁS training schemes and this must also be recognised.
I got a phone call earlier from somebody who was very worried about the information released here. I was told in no uncertain terms that this is not an isolated incident of certificates being given out or training being done in such a way. There must be proper supervision by independent people of how some of these training structures are maintained. I urge the Minister to ensure the issue is considered sympathetically so that in this extremely serious point in the State’s history, the people who get training and are awarded certificates are entitled to them only after proper training from qualified people. God knows there are enough qualified teachers out there to do this who cannot get jobs, and such people of the highest standard could be used to facilitate perfect training.
I will comment on the accountability of the Minister. The former Minister in this area, Deputy Harney, her husband and six others flew to Florida in the Government jet, spent money and had tickets reserved in case the Government jet was unavailable. It was only when the ruckus arose that the €35,000 paid out for unused tickets was reclaimed. It is not hard to understand how people who saw this going on at the highest level in our State thought that if the Minister could do it, why could they not do so. I listened to the Minister, Deputy Harney, speak on health issues and how strict she has been with services. To learn through the freedom of information system how she dealt with matters in her own way makes one absolutely sick.
That was followed by the ending of Mr. Molloy’s work in FÁS. At this stage we are not sure if he was pushed or went voluntarily. We are told the €1.1 billion and other money was a result of his voluntary departure. If that had happened in a commercial business such as those I have dealt with through the years, somebody who mishandled his position like he had would have gone out on his ear with nothing only his last week’s wages, and he would have been very lucky to get them.
We must look at how the public sector deals with personnel and how they are being paid. Why is Professor Drumm getting a €70,000 bonus and for what is it being awarded? Is it for the great work of closing Monaghan General Hospital? I do not want to speak on that issue or I will get sick again. This is not a case of people receiving unfair benefits — we saw in the banking sector that a man got off with €1 million when he left his post that was meant to be repaid but has never been given back.
Decisions have been made at the highest level and my colleagues, including my party leader, have tried to get the full information on how they were decided but different stories come out each week. The benefits included €1.1 million, a car and more for a person who mismanaged one of the greatest organisations in this country.
The Minister and Tánaiste has a chance at this point to bring a Bill through this House — we are only on Second Stage — and amend it or accept amendments from the Opposition or anybody else. She must ensure the Bill will hold the pertinent people responsible and that the Minister of the day will be able to deal with questions across this floor and make an organisation of this size answerable to this House and the taxpayers who pay the bills.
The release of information relating to the luxury travel of FÁS executives came from board minutes. That is what led to the severance package. If there had not been any pressure, the issue may never have come about. We must ensure we have structures in place to hold FÁS personnel and the board responsible and can deal with a matter if the need arises.
The Minister indicated that wrongdoing can take place in large organisations in both the public and private sectors even where proper internal financial control structures are put in place. It is against this background that she also considers it important to include provisions in the Bill that would protect bona fide whistleblowers from reporting wrongdoing at any level. The person I spoke with earlier today is scared stiff that I would say anything that could link that person to some of the issues I would like to put on the record of this House. That person is afraid it might affect her opportunities to get work in future or in doing business. The whistleblowing issue is vital and there should be cover for whistleblowers so they will not finish as victims rather than the good guys who let us know that wrong reports have been given, money has been misspent or anything else.
I wish the Bill well for the rest of its journey through the House and I hope the Minister will listen to what has been said on Second Stage. I hope she will also table the amendments necessary to ensure it works better. I further hope she will ensure that when the new board is appointed, FÁS will be restored to its former glories and will again enjoy the level of respect in which it was previously held.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary): I want to begin by congratulating the Ceann Comhairle on his election and wishing him every success and happiness.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate on the Bill. I thank them for their suggestions, which we will consider prior to Committee Stage, and in respect of FÁS itself, which we will review during the coming weeks. As the Tánaiste stated, this is an important Bill. Its main objectives are to improve the effectiveness and governance of the board of FÁS and strengthen the accountability of the director general of that organisation to the Oireachtas. The Bill also addresses the recommendations contained in the Committee of Public Accounts’ Fourth Interim Report on Special Report 10 of the Comptroller and Auditor General and FÁS 2007 Accounts and the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
In light of the remarks made by Deputy Shortall, it is important to state that the Bill is one of many actions taken by the Tánaiste, since assuming office in May 2008, to implement a fundamental cultural change in accountability and transparency in FÁS in order that it might, from now on, concentrate on addressing the key challenge of unemployment through its job search and various training and employment programmes. As Members are aware, the Bill specifically provides for a change in the structure and composition of the board of FÁS; making the director general of FÁS clearly accountable to the Oireachtas; requiring the disclosure of conflicts of interests by directors and staff of FÁS; banning directors and staff of FÁS from any involvement on matters in respect of which they have a conflict of interest; and protection for whistleblower members of staff who report serious wrongdoing in the organisation. I will deal with Deputy Crawford’s remarks on that matter in a moment.
The board of FÁS has undergone major scrutiny in recent months and there have been many calls for changes to its composition. Following its meeting of 1 October 2009, the Tánaiste welcomed the fact that following the resignation of the chairman of FÁS, the remaining members of the board indicated their intention to stand down upon the appointment of a new board after the passing of this Bill. This will meet the Tánaiste’s stated goal of achieving an orderly transition to a new board structure for FÁS. Most importantly, it will also ensure that the work of the board’s audit committee — which is concluding a further set of internal audit reports on controls and procedures within the organisation — can be completed in the coming weeks.
The restructuring of the board of FÁS was one of the principal recommendations made by the Committee of Public Accounts in its Fourth Interim Report on Special Report 10 of the Comptroller and Auditor General and FÁS 2007 Accounts. The Bill proposes to reduce the size of the board from 17 members to 11, including the chair, which will make it less unwieldy. In addition, there will be changes to the composition of the board, the members of which will now be appointed on the basis of relevant experience and competencies in areas such as the functions of FÁS, finance, corporate governance and public administration. These are the correct competencies for the members of the next FÁS board. References to Fianna Fáil cronies, etc. — most of which were made by Labour Party Members — are completely unnecessary and irrelevant to this debate. In making appointments to boards, the Tánaiste has shown preference for people who possess the skills that are required. However, I will follow up on Deputy Burton’s point in respect of training for board members.
The Bill also provides for a system of rotating appointments in respect of board members. Experience has shown that this type of system has the advantage of preserving corporate knowledge while also bringing fresh ideas and fresh faces to the boardroom. The Tánaiste will appoint the members of the Board in consultation with the Minsters for Education and Science and Social and Family Affairs. It is also proposed to include the director general of FÁS as an ex officio member of the board. This will enhance communication between the executive and the board, something that was lacking in recent times.
Another recommendation made by the Committee of Public Accounts in its fourth interim report that is addressed in the Bill relates to the accountability of the director general of FÁS to the Oireachtas. In order to resolve this matter, provisions are included in sections 4 and 5 which set out clearly the accountability of the director general to the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees of the Oireachtas. It is through the committee system that the issue of accountability is best pursued. The various sectoral interests of members of the committees ensure that they are best placed to ensure this happens.
The Committee of Public Accounts also requested that the legislation should address the issues surrounding the fiduciary duties of a director of FÁS and his or her responsibility to report matters to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. This concern is addressed in section 8, which provides, in certain circumstances, for the removal of the prohibition on the disclosure of information obtained by a member of the board in the course of his or her duties. This amendment will remove any doubt with regard to there being a legal barrier to a member of the board reporting issues of concern to the Minister.
Since the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s Special Report 10 in May 2008, the Tánaiste has worked tirelessly with the Chairman, two directors general and the board of FÁS to ensure that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. I also wish to acknowledge the work done by the Chairman, members and staff of the Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General in this regard. In response to these actions, the financial control and governance structures across the organisation of FÁS have been improved. However, to strengthen transparency in this area, section 6 includes provisions that will prohibit staff and board members from engaging in procurement matters where a conflict of interest exists. These provisions also provide for appropriate penalties where these rules are broken, including dismissal for members of staff and removal from the board for board members.
As the Tánaiste indicated, misconduct can take place in any organisation — public or private, voluntary or professional — even where proper internal financial control structures are put in place. The protection for whistleblowers introduced in the Bill is a welcome strengthening of the position in this regard. Deputy Crawford or any other Member who harbours concerns regarding the operation of FÁS can discuss them with me confidentially and I will ensure that they are addressed without the need for compromising anyone’s wish to remain anonymous. If there are specific issues which need to be addressed, they should be brought to my attention or that of the Tánaiste. I guarantee Members that I will treat any information put forward in total confidence and in a completely secure manner.
The matter of training services in the north-east region, to which Deputy O’Dowd and many others referred, has been examined by the Department. I am in a position to provide some information in respect of it now and further information will be given later in reply to a matter raised on the Adjournment.
FÁS local management had concerns about aspects of the assessment process carried out by a firm which it had contracted to provide training. Based on those concerns, it asked FÁS’s internal audit division to report on the matter in May 2008. It should be noted that in the specific case to which Deputy O’ Dowd referred, which occurred in 2006 and 2007, it was the monitoring procedures in FÁS which enabled a member of staff to identify the non-compliance issues. FÁS then reported the matter to the contracted training provider and to the appropriate certifying bodies. In 2008 it ensured that a comprehensive audit was set in train. The latter was completed in February 2009. In order to maintain the integrity of the training provided, FÁS reassessed the trainees and the certifying bodies, which are independent of FÁS, were satisfied to issue the appropriate certification in each case. The Department is asking FÁS to report to it on the action it is taking in respect of the findings of the February 2009 internal audit report in order to ensure there can be no recurrence of events of this nature. I reiterate that if there are Members of the Oireachtas, either Deputies or Senators, who possess information regarding matters about which they are concerned, they should bring it to my attention or that of the Tánaiste.
The overall mission of FÁS has never been more important, particularly in view of that fact that there are 423,600 people on the live register. I reiterate that during this difficult period, the Government is committed to continuing to provide these individuals with the assistance necessary to ensure that they can return to work. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is investing €1 billion in the provision of a range of labour force measures that will provide training and work experience opportunities to assist those who have lost their jobs.
FÁS employment services, together with local employment services, have put in place measures to double the capacity to cater for the rise in referrals from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. The implementation of these measures has increased the annual referral capacity to 147,000 persons in 2009. These measures and many others represent a significant step in meeting the huge challenge of supporting the unemployed.
The FÁS response, through those specific measures, demonstrates it is a key agency in the Government’s plan to fight unemployment. It has delivered and continues to deliver services, supports and programmes to individuals across the country to ensure they remain in, or have the qualifications to return to, a changing labour market.
I again acknowledge and endorse the fact, as have many Members who participated in this debate, that the problems FÁS has experienced in one area do not in any way reflect on the hard work that continues to be done by the majority of workers in FÁS nationwide, who are committed to helping those who avail of the job search, training and employment opportunities the agency has to offer. I wish to acknowledge their hard work and commitment, which is needed now more than ever in these difficult circumstances.
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