Wednesday, 11 November 2009
Dáil Eireann Debate
This is a technical amendment to facilitate the addition to the Bill of references to the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 by adding a definition to explain the “Act of 1995” means the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995.
We discussed this matter on Committee Stage. The purpose of the amendment is to control golden handshakes for senior staff within any organisation. This has blown up as a result of the significant and generous golden handshake provided to the former director general of FÁS. There is an argument as to whether the guidelines laid down were adhered to. It is a matter of significant discussion as to whether the Department’s guidelines on additional payments were followed before the termination of contract and whether it was a resignation etc. I will not rehearse all that. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that such a debacle would not arise in future. Has the Minister of State reflected further since he spoke on this issue on Committee Stage? In the interests of clarity and for the purposes of accountability, such a clause represents a useful enhancement of the provisions in the Bill.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I support the amendment. A short time ago in this Chamber we heard the Minister for Social and Family Affairs reaffirm that the Christmas bonus will not be paid to welfare recipients. Yet the chief executive officer of a State body can walk away with a €1 million payment, a substantial pension and a State car. The dubiousness of that transaction leaves a bad taste in the mouth for citizens who must endure cuts in welfare payments and other services. I hope it is not too late to do something about the debacle that has occurred. I support Deputy Penrose’s amendment as a means of ensuring such a situation does not recur.
Deputy Dara Calleary: I acknowledge the Deputies’ concerns on this issue and have reflected on the proposal since Committee Stage. However, the issue of severance packages to chief executive officers is more general than the specific range of this legislation. The Government is reviewing the issue of severance and retirement terms of chief executive officers as part of a broader examination that is under way following the publication of the Green Paper on pensions. Our objective is to put in place a pensions system that is financially, economically and socially sustainable. We have taken this matter forward and are now at an advanced stage in the development of a new and comprehensive pensions framework. The Minister for Finance has corresponded directly with the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts on the broader issues raised by the two Deputies. However, these matters are best dealt with in the context of a wide-ranging review of State bodies.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: This important and relevant amendment stems from the package awarded to Mr. Molloy on his resignation from FÁS. That package, both in terms of the additional top-ups and the discretionary payments, was absolutely not in accordance with either the closed FÁS superannuation scheme or the scheme adopted by statutory instrument in 1998. When this was put to the Minister for Finance, he responded that the severance package was broadly in line with the guidelines that exist for the remuneration of chief executive officers of State agencies. However, those guidelines apply only to early retirements and dismissals; they do not apply to resignations.
I welcome the undertaking to have this matter investigated by the Comptroller and Auditor General because it is clear that what was done by the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance in this instance was extra legal if not unlawful. Does the Minister of State share our concerns in this regard or does he agree with the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance that the package given to Mr. Molloy was broadly in line with existing guidelines?
Deputy Arthur Morgan: Can the Minister of State provide any information in regard to the examination of the severance terms granted to the former director general of FÁS and indicate whether he is hopeful——
Deputy Willie Penrose: This is an important amendment. I have listened carefully to what the Minister of State said and can only hope that this whole scenario has prompted the Government to act with alacrity in putting in place appropriate guidelines in regard to severance payments, pension entitlements and so on as part of what the Minister of State referred to as a “new and comprehensive pensions framework”. My amendment would be a useful element of that reform. The sooner such reform is implemented the better, hopefully early in the new year, so that a debacle of this nature cannot recur. Ordinary people are suffering while others seem to be operating in a cocoon, apparently unaware of that widespread suffering. In fairness, that does not apply to the Minister of State, who I am sure understands the thrust of the amendment.
Deputy Dara Calleary: I understand the thrust of the amendment and I share the Deputy’s concerns that this general issue should be resolved as soon as possible. In regard to Deputy Varadkar’s comments, I have complete faith and trust in the abilities and character of the Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance. The issue in regard to the specific package will be dealt with by the Committee of Public Accounts at its meeting on 26 November.
Deputy Willie Penrose: Given the Minister of State’s commitment in this regard, I do not propose to press it. This is an issue to which we will return, either at the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Committee of Public Accounts. I trust the Minister of State will ensure it is not put on the long finger.
The purpose of this amendment is to remove the gag which prevents the director general from commenting on Government policy. Directors general of State bodies are often a font of wisdom in regard to issues and developments within their remit. The Government’s position is that a situation must not be permitted where such persons may, in an official capacity, make a statement or express a view which places them on a collision course with Government policy. While I accept this argument to some degree, I understand the problem has never arisen and is not likely to occur in the future.
A director general appearing before a committee, where he or she considers that an issue requires to be addressed, should be allowed to explore that issue in response to queries raised by members. Members of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment have a good record of being sharp and incisive in seeking information. Sometimes one can almost see a witness recoil at the realisation that he or she may well have to address a particular issue. I accept that there cannot be open season and that Government policy cannot be emasculated on the hoof by somebody with a contrary view. However, there is scope for some leeway in this regard. At yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, we managed to get a good understanding of how the employment subsidy scheme is working and why the Government may well have to change tack in that regard. Deputies Varadkar, Morgan and I asked various questions and I was very impressed with the responses from the departmental officials. No secrets were given away but they were forthright in their attitude and, without deviating from Government policy, acknowledged that there is a problem. Moreover, they told us in as nice a way as possible that we politicians should get down into the ring and sort the issue out. That is fair enough, the boomerang may come full circle and the buck can stop at either end.
I accept that we cannot allow Government policy to be thrown out as that would make the place ungovernable and effectively invite anarchy. However, if a director general of a State body is of the view that a particular policy or scheme is not achieving the objective for which it was established and implemented, members of the relevant Oireachtas committee should be in a position to ascertain that view without the official in question being unduly constrained by the requirement not to deviate from the strict Government policy of the day. No Government is so sensitive that it would be damaged by the honest views of such persons. It is possible to allow a loosening of the tonsils of officials without allowing them carte blanche to denounce Government policy.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I support the amendment. The Minister of State should imagine a reversal of the current parliamentary situation, with Deputy Penrose and I as Government Members of a strong republican and Labour Party coalition. In that scenario, if we were to seek to silence the director general of a State body who has a terrific notion on a matter within his or her remit, the Minister of State, as an Opposition Member, would be anxious for that director general to be given a hearing at the relevant committee meeting. It may sometimes happen that people who are particularly bright and up for it will have a contrary view to the Minister of the day. Muzzling them in the way the section proposes will not be progressive. It is unfortunate and I hope the Minister of State will consider the amendment. Notwithstanding that, I accept Deputy Penrose’s position that everybody cannot challenge Government policy but they would not do so.
Deputy Dara Calleary: I cannot accept the amendment because this is a standard provision for all State bodies. As Deputy Penrose said, there are ways and means for a good committee chairman or Member to ascertain information regarding Government schemes under the existing regulations. A republican-Labour Party coalition would be an interesting prospect.
Protection is afforded in the legislation to FÁS employees, which is proper and correct. As I said on Second Stage, we have laboured for such a long time regarding whistleblower protection legislation that we have been left in the traps. Every other country has developed policies in this area but we are lagging behind instead of being to the forefront. When my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, was our party leader he was a strong advocate of such a regime and he introduced a number of Bills in this regard. Somebody’s dead hand made sure they never reached the Statute Book and I do not know why that was the case. Without whistleblowers in recent times important life-changing circumstances experienced by a number of people would not have happened nor would they have been subject to the scrutiny of tribunals and the courts.
The provision is important in that context. However, I acknowledge the Minister has made a good start and I can see where he is coming from. I hoped whistleblower protection might be extended to departmental officials because they are in a similar position. They could well find themselves in an invidious position if a FÁS official came forward with information. The Minister of State is focused on the prevention of speculative information emerging. None of us wants to be party to that or party to having people’s reputations ruined because somebody else has a beef with them or has an ulterior motive. That would be frightening. We want bona fide information with foundation. I understand tram lines must be applied under this legislation. I would not countenance anybody using the legislation to even a score or something similar. I am worried that whistleblower protection will only apply to FÁS employees and the same protection will not be afforded to departmental staff who could come into possession of relevant information.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I support the amendment. I acknowledge that one of the positive measures in the legislation is the extension of whistleblower protection to FÁS staff. It should not be forgotten that many of the scandals in the organisation only came to light because staff members would not tolerate what was happening and they blew the whistle. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of these scandals is a bad reflection has been cast on all staff members. Something similar has happened to bank staff and politicians. The behaviour of a minority has caused the entire profession to be devalued. We should not forget that decent, conscientious staff members in FÁS blew the whistle and an internal audit committee would not be rolled over.
This provision in the legislation is important and welcome. I agree with Deputy Penrose that it should be extended to departmental staff, although I accept this might not be the correct Bill in which to do so. I hope the Minister of State will commit to honouring with due haste the commitment in the programme for Government to introduce comprehensive protection for whistleblowers. Deputy Rabbitte has a Private Members’ Bill in this regard on the Order Paper since 1998. There has been plenty of time to progress it and I would like a commitment from the Minister of State that such legislation will proceed rapidly. If not, it will be necessary for the Opposition to press the matter in Private Members’ time.
Deputy Dara Calleary: I join Deputies Penrose and Varadkar in acknowledging the role of FÁS staff who provided us with important information on a range of issues and I thank them for doing so. The Government’s approach to this provision is based on a 2006 Cabinet decision that whistleblowing provisions would be introduced on a sectoral basis. Given the focus of the legislation is primarily on FÁS, it is appropriate that the provision focuses specifically on FÁS. However, as Deputy Varadkar said, the programme for Government contains a commitment, in which all of us share an interest, and I will keep him updated on progress. I will not accept the amendments.
This is a simple amendment. My legal advice is that this is gender neutral language in line with modern drafting and, therefore, the wording should be amended. “Chairman” is no longer relevant to current circumstances and “chairperson” should be used. The Minister of State will surely throw us one little bone to satisfy us and accept a genuine amendment where we are trying to ensure everything is gender neutral. While women have lost out in the context of participation in the Oireachtas, hopefully on State boards and so on they will continue to assert themselves and achieve at least 50% membership. In a few years their numbers might well exceed ours. This is an appropriate amendment.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: In the series of engagements and meetings we hold, it is rare to meet an ogre who insists on using the title “chairman”. I have attended meetings where the chairperson was a woman and some people decided to address her as “chairman”. I would not question anybody’s gender because that would be ridiculous. In a spirit of co-operation, I hope the Minister of State will accept the amendment.
Deputy Dara Calleary: While I recognise the spirit of the amendment, the main body of the legislation predates 1993 when gender neutral language was submitted. On that ground that there is an understanding that the language is said to be gender neutral, I oppose the amendment.
Deputy Willie Penrose: I am disappointed with that. I had expected the Government to accept that the word “chairman” had become obsolete and that a person who chairs any board or organisation should be referred to as chairperson. I hope the Government will act in this regard.
This is an important amendment. The smaller the board the more efficient it is. It has been reduced from 17 to ten, plus the director general. A small board is more efficient and effective in its operation and ensures that decisions are made in a focused way, strategy is embarked upon in a defined way and debates are conducted efficiently. Meetings which last longer than one hour go downhill and lead to repetition. The joint committee which I chair had a long meeting yesterday when two or three important topics were discussed and some very influential people were present. Our meetings generally last between an hour and an hour and a half and are very effective and focused. Members present and receive information, are succinct and deal with their chosen issues. The Government’s proposal to reduce the size of the board is a welcome step. I would like to see the number reduced to eight but I do not insist on that. I am happy to accept the figure of ten.
I do insist on the appointment of a worker director. If the Minister does not concede this point, my colleagues and I will call for a vote on this amendment. A worker director plays a pivotal role. In submitting amendment No. 17, Deputy Morgan was more enthusiastic than I. He cites the Worker Participation (State Enterprises) Act 1977, which governs the appointment of worker directors. In the 30 years since that legislation was enacted, worker directors have played a fundamental role on various boards.
I have experience of Bord Na Móna and other boards. Worker directors are elected to boards by a democratic process. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions provides training and advice so that they are acutely aware of their roles as directors. One important principle of worker directorship is that one leaves one’s political or trade union allegiance outside the boardroom door. They take cognisance of issues relevant to the workplace but they must always work for the wider good. That principle has been embraced by worker directors and they have a laudable record. Mr. Mark Nugent, a colleague of my own and a member of the Labour Party, was a most objective vice chairman of Bord na Móna. During a very difficult period in the mid-1990s, he assumed the role of chairman and made some very difficult decisions about peat-fired power stations, including that in Bellacurrig in the Minister of State’s constituency. Stations were closed and jobs were lost but Mr. Nugent took tough decisions for the greater good and the advancement of Bord na Móna. That displays the importance of worker directors.
A worker director can go back to the staff and workers who have elected him or her and tell them, in an objective way, why certain decisions must be taken. There is a significant gain to be achieved by appointing a worker director. The stories of board decisions are carried to workers by someone who is one of themselves. They can explain, for example, that a wage increase cannot be granted because, perhaps, money is required to satisfy environmental requirements or a pension fund issue must be addressed. There are many governance issues in which worker directors could play a significant, positive and constructive role. In the trade union movement, there are people who are eager and willing to play that role.
I hope the Minister of State does not throw out the baby with the bath-water and abandon something which has been working effectively. I would accept the expansion of the board to 12 members but I believe a worker director could be accommodated in an 11 member board. This would send a good signal to workers and would recognise the 99.9% of workers in FÁS who made a valuable contribution in very difficult circumstances in the 1980s and 1990s. Those same workers are now working extremely hard dealing with the large number of young people who are unemployed. Staff in FÁS regional and district offices do not have a moment to blink, they are so busy with the current demand. The appointment of a worker director would be a vote of confidence in those workers, who have done a very good job over many years. As has been said, 99.9% of the staff of FÁS have behaved impeccably, prudently and with the highest level of dignity and honour in carrying out their duties. We should recognise their contribution and appoint a worker director from within that group.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: These are very important amendments. I acknowledge the diligence of my relatively new personal assistant, Ms Kathryn Reilly from Cavan, who found the correct legislation and cited it into amendment No. 17. This was a significant achievement.
The appointment of a worker director helps to reduce the “them and us” attitude and creates a better flow of information between the board and the coal-face, so that people have a greater sense of team-work and are more clued into the policies being discussed by the board. It gives people more confidence in their enterprise. It is disappointing that this is not standard practice in the boards of all organisations. It would be helpful it that were the case.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I will not reiterate the comments I made on Committee Stage. Can the Minister of State explain the reason for not having a worker director? I accept that it is not the norm in most State agencies but it is the norm in semi-State organisations and it has not caused a problem there. By and large, it has been a good thing.
I presume that in this case, the Government wishes to move away from a representative board to a different type of board. Nevertheless, I do not see the rationale for the abolition of an existing practice of having worker directors. I am not familiar with a previous case where the provision for the appointment of a worker director has been removed. What is the rationale behind this decision?
Deputy Dara Calleary: I accept the Deputies’ arguments but the rationale is that we are moving away from a worker director system. I appreciate the point made by Deputies Penrose and Morgan that the worker director model has served well. In the new board we are moving towards a structure which does not have prescribed nominations, that is, a person will be nominated by the Minister, who is accountable to the House. It may also include the director general as an ex officio member of the board to have a line of communication between the day-to-day operations of the function and the members of the board. That will provide a voice at the table to represent the line of the communication with the day-to-day work of FÁS, that is, the director general will be on the board and will have an input into board decisions. That will suffice for a voice around the table.
I also said on Committee Stage that we are open to recommendations on the composition of the board from the Select Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If it wishes to submit the name of a worker in FÁS, we would view that person in the context of a recommendation from the committee.
Deputy Willie Penrose: I am disappointed with the Minister of State’s response, although I know he is trying to be as constructive as possible. This issue is fundamental and one about which we feel strongly enough to call a vote because it would strengthen the Bill. We are disappointed that a worker director will not be on the board as of right. The director general has a specific role which would reflect some of the points, and I accept what the Minister of State said. However, the worker director has a very specific role and is an important two way conduit of information and a link.
|Ahern, Michael.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Andrews, Chris.|
|Ardagh, Seán.||Aylward, Bobby.|
|Blaney, Niall.||Brady, Áine.|
|Brady, Cyprian.||Brady, Johnny.|
|Browne, John.||Byrne, Thomas.|
|Calleary, Dara.||Carey, Pat.|
|Collins, Niall.||Conlon, Margaret.|
|Connick, Seán.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cregan, John.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Curran, John.||Dempsey, Noel.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Fahey, Frank.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Michael.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Flynn, Beverley.||Gogarty, Paul.|
|Gormley, John.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Haughey, Seán.||Healy-Rae, Jackie.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Kenneally, Brendan.|
|Kennedy, Michael.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Kitt, Tom.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGrath, Mattie.|
|McGrath, Michael.||McGuinness, John.|
|Mansergh, Martin.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Nolan, M. J.||Ó Cuív, Éamon.|
|Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.||O’Brien, Darragh.|
|O’Connor, Charlie.||O’Dea, Willie.|
|O’Donoghue, John.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Hanlon, Rory.||O’Keeffe, Batt.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||O’Sullivan, Christy.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Sargent, Trevor.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Treacy, Noel.|
|Wallace, Mary.||White, Mary Alexandra.|
|Allen, Bernard.||Bannon, James.|
|Barrett, Seán.||Behan, Joe.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Bruton, Richard.||Burke, Ulick.|
|Burton, Joan.||Byrne, Catherine.|
|Carey, Joe.||Clune, Deirdre.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Coonan, Noel J.|
|Costello, Joe.||Coveney, Simon.|
|Creighton, Lucinda.||D’Arcy, Michael.|
|Deasy, John.||Deenihan, Jimmy.|
|Doyle, Andrew.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Terence.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Hayes, Tom.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Lee, George.|
|Lynch, Ciarán.||McCormack, Pádraic.|
|McEntee, Shane.||McGinley, Dinny.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Morgan, Arthur.||Naughten, Denis.|
|Neville, Dan.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.||Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Keeffe, Jim.|
|O’Mahony, John.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Penrose, Willie.||Perry, John.|
|Rabbitte, Pat.||Reilly, James.|
|Ring, Michael.||Sheahan, Tom.|
|Sheehan, P. J.||Sherlock, Seán.|
|Shortall, Róisín.||Stagg, Emmet.|
|Stanton, David.||Timmins, Billy.|
|Tuffy, Joanna.||Upton, Mary.|
|Varadkar, Leo.||Wall, Jack.|
Deputy Arthur Morgan: I would have called a division on this amendment but we have just had one. It is a pity there is another capitulation by the Green Party Members because their clearly stated policy was in favour of worker representatives.
The Minister of State indicated earlier that he is amenable to accepting the thrust of this group of amendments. If this is the case, I will immediately bow to other speakers and hear from the Minister of State.
Deputy Dara Calleary: Since the debate on Committee Stage we have reflected on the matter. While we are not in a position to accept the specific amendments, the Tánaiste and I have discussed the wishes of the committee. We decided the positions of the board members of FÁS would be advertised in newspapers in the coming days, as soon as the legislation is passed. Public submissions will be sought and we are currently discussing how they will be managed. As I stated on Committee Stage, I will consider the input of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment. If it wishes to nominate names for consideration for the board of FÁS, I will bring them to the attention of the Tánaiste.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: While that is a laudable sentiment from the Minister of State, as a former member of the committee he would have an honest and open approach to that committee. The difficulty is he could be shifted at any time, not least to this side of the House. However, even if he is shifted sideways, given that it is only a verbal commitment, it is not worth the paper it is written on and this is somewhat disappointing.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I will speak to some of my amendments. Deputy Calleary, as an open and reasonable Minister of State, could be shifted either up to Cabinet or out to the Atlantic Sea by Deputy Flynn in due course.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: He could be shifted by Deputy Ring or possibly Ms Mulhern. I welcome the proposed advertisement of the positions and that there will be a call for expressions of interest. Increasingly, this seems to be Government policy. It has happened with NAMA and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. However, the whole point is that there should be scrutiny and those nominated by Ministers to serve on State boards should receive some form of parliamentary scrutiny at some point, especially in the case of the chairman, but if not then for all members. They should come to the Houses to be asked questions and explain their role and qualifications. Those who have been asked are open to it, they see it as something that would be beneficial and which would give them greater authority than at present. On that basis I welcome the fact that the positions will be advertised and that the committee will be asked for its views but that is not what is really needed. What is needed is proper scrutiny of ministerial appointments. In view of this I will press my amendment.
Deputy Willie Penrose: We may as well discuss them all together. The scrutiny of possible appointments to the board of FÁS is important and this is a positive amendment before the House. I do not subscribe to the type of scrutiny that takes place in judicial appointments in America and that is not because I am a barrister. That involves delving too much into the past or into some things one may have done as a very young person. One’s views mature as one goes along and gains experience. I would be uncomfortable if something someone did early on were the subject of intense scrutiny or speculation as to the way someone might act. I do not envisage any Oireachtas Members or committee ever embarking on such a route, which would be self-defeating. However, it is important that some basic scrutiny would apply to a curriculum vitae and that a person would be subject to questions related to their knowledge of the board to which they seek appointment, the question of why they seek the appointment and the qualifications they bring.
It is not simply a matter of academic experience but of life experience too. It is time to put a halt to the notion of the importance of academia. One may have a bag of letters beside one’s name but that does not signify anything. There are many people who live in cottages and small farms with a well of wisdom into which we would do well to tap and that may be where the country went somewhat off the rails. As someone who went through the education system, I can state it only prepares one in a certain way. Some people never get an opportunity to participate, which is why I am in favour of the openness of this process; at least it is opened up.
I trust this will not simply be a window dressing operation because otherwise we are at nothing and the opaqueness of the whole process would be accentuated rather than diminished. I trust any changes will be real and tangible. The Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts is present and as a Chairman of a committee I have no wish to allow any prurient invigilation, investigation, examination or anything of that nature. I would stop any such activity. Most members would agree that I am very flexible but where people are concerned I hold a particular view. I am not in favour of any historical, prurient assessment or invigilation process.
However, a schematic approach in respect of what could be asked could be agreed among the committees. A consistent approach should be taken such that a candidate with a masters degree in law or medicine would not be asked if he knows anything about the latest in respect of a given business regulation. That could come across as Members trying to present themselves as knowledgeable but the candidate might open up and devour us with his knowledge and we would be none the wiser. Such an eventuality is no use. One way forward might be for us to bring life experience to bear on the matter. Any approach would have to be corralled and properly streamlined such that it would not be like an amoeba that could spread into every corner. One should not be able to ask a question on whatever comes into one’s head and I would not subscribe to any such method. That would be dangerous and it would resemble moving forward one inch but going back two feet. However, Oireachtas scrutiny is of benefit to the community, to society at large and to the organisation to which appointments would be made.
Deputy Bernard Allen: One key recommendation of the interim report of the Committee of Public Accounts in February is that the board of FÁS should be reconstituted and reduced in number. I understand positions on the board will be advertised. However, I am concerned this will be simply window dressing, as Deputy Penrose remarked. A balance must be struck between the two extremes of window dressing of advertising for expressions of interest and a Star Chamber type of operation. I trust the people considered would be open to some scrutiny regarding their life experiences and the correct balance between life and professional business.
Too often in recent times we have seen the so-called experts attempting to talk down to Members, people who simply try to do their job in a professional way. Recently, I saw an example of this on “Prime Time” during which a so-called expert on banking pulled rank on a very able Member who was putting forward perfectly valid opinions on NAMA. He was talked down to in a manner that said a good deal about the so-called expert. Experts got us into the troubles in which we find ourselves at present. People who raised voices about matters which caused them alarm were put down, at times savagely and at other times in a very patronising way.
A balance must be struck and I trust lessons will be learnt from what took place on the board of FÁS. There was too much of a club effect. Some board members represented different bodies and were token members because of their affiliation to certain bodies. I trust any new appointments will be of those with an interest in serving the country and the organisation. If the Minister appoints board members to represent the Department, there should be a direct link back to the Minister and the Department. I recognise that is referred to elsewhere. Nominees from the Minister and the Department should be the eyes and ears of the Minister. They should not be barred by any law from reporting when something is going amiss.
Deputy Dara Calleary: There is very little I disagree with in the sentiments expressed. I assure Members that this is not intended to be window-dressing. I can give Deputy Penrose, in his position as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, a commitment to keep him updated on the process. We have already had considerable expressions of interest from people around the country, even before the advertising and public awareness process began. I will keep the committee updated on the process and on how we intend to assess the names coming forward. We would welcome a submission from the committee on prospective members.
We have laid down the areas from which we seek expressions of interest and I completely agree with Deputy Allen’s comments on the role of the board, which must be completely different from what went before. The club atmosphere to which he referred is gone. It has been consigned to history. We have a team of people of talent and life experience dedicated to the bettering of the job of the organisation. That is my aim and that of the Tánaiste.
Deputy Arthur Morgan: The board of FÁS is pretty much like the bankers. The new board will have a long way to go to earn the trust of people and even Members of this House. The Minister of State has far more credibility on this issue than the Government he represents. However, we will not move substantially forward on this discussion. The matter has been considered on Committee Stage. I withdraw the amendment.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Deputy Dara Calleary): I thank Deputies for their input on Committee Stage and today on Report Stage. I acknowledge the presence of the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Bernard Allen, in the Chamber. The Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment played important roles in the work that brought us to this Bill. At a time when this House is under such scrutiny, both committees can stand proud of the work they have done. This is an important Bill, the main objective of which is to improve the effectiveness and the governance of the board of FÁS and to strengthen the accountability of the director general to the Oireachtas. These areas have been highlighted by both committees. The Bill also addresses the recommendations contained in the fourth interim report on the 2007 accounts of FÁS and the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General.
The Bill is one of many actions taken by the Tánaiste to implement a fundamental cultural change in accountability and transparency in FÁS so that it can concentrate on addressing the key challenge of unemployment through its job search, training and employment programmes. FÁS is a key agency in our work to fight unemployment. It continues to deliver services, support and programmes to individuals across the country to ensure they remain in or return to the labour market as soon as possible.
As many have done before, I acknowledge the sterling work of the vast majority of FÁS staff who engage with unemployed people and communities in response to very difficult labour market conditions. That work was never more needed. I hope this Bill will assist them in doing so in a more productive manner that responds effectively to the current crisis.
Deputy Willie Penrose: This is an important Bill and we know the reasons it has been brought forward. Deputy Allen is in the Chamber and much of this material has emanated from the work of his committee, the Committee of Public Accounts. This emphasises the importance of the scrutiny work carried out by committees. Some of this work is done well away from the public view. People often wonder why this House is not packed to the rafters but many Members are in the committees carrying out important and detailed work. This is for the betterment of bringing forward recommendations, pioneered by legislators. This serves an important role and illustrates the importance of the work they are embarking on.
This is important legislation. I thank the hundreds of members of staff in FÁS for the work they do. Some 99.99% of people work there very well in an area where their expertise and experience has never been more required in tackling this crisis. I refer particularly to youth unemployment. The Minister of State is aware it is an area of which I have some knowledge. I hope the Government pays particular attention to it. I hope FÁS will be buoyed by the new legislation, which will give a new impetus to its work and I hope it will focus on this aspect from here on. I thank the Minister of State for listening to various points, some of which were made in a long-winded way.
Deputy Bernard Allen: I thank the Minister of State for his comments and tomorrow I will take them back to the members of the Committee of Public Accounts. We appreciate the support we have received. However, having said that, I agree with the Minister of State that one of the major challenges facing FÁS is to deal with the tsunami of unemployed people crying out for retraining and support. They deserve and should get services of the highest standards because more than €1 billion of taxpayers’ money has been spent to provide those services.
Further examinations of FÁS are ongoing. The Comptroller and Auditor General is due to publish a report shortly on other aspects of the FÁS operation. The Tánaiste and the Minister of State are aware of the review of the golden handshake given to Mr. Molloy, which scandalised so many people. The committee is eagerly looking forward to sight of that report and it is hoped to have it in ample time to begin our further investigations on 26 November. Once the Comptroller and Auditor General finalises that report, it will go back to the Department and the Tánaiste. I appeal to the Minister of State to pass the report through the Department quickly so that the Committee of Public Accounts can get on with its work.
As the Minister of State said, it is important that FÁS is allowed to get on with its work but, in allowing that, we must not conveniently ignore the many major issues still outstanding. We have a responsibility to get at the root of what happened in FÁS over a period of time of full employment when it had a budget of more than €1 billion. The atmosphere was that it has so much money it did not know what to do with it and if it did not use it, it would lose it. That was especially the case in drawing down European social funding; that money was put through the system and sent out the other end without any great accountability or monitoring of how it was spent.
The investigations to date have brought an unprecedented level of correspondence and complaints to members of the committee, to me as Chairman and to the Comptroller and Auditor General. An avalanche of complaints has been made by members of the public and members of the organisation itself, some of whom have remained anonymous for fear of reprisals against them. There is a responsibility on us all to deal with those issues. Having said that, we must be mindful that the vast majority of people working in FÁS throughout the country are honest and decent and want to serve the public. There is a balance of accountability and performance.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I join my colleagues in complimenting the work of the Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Committee of Public Accounts and Deputy Allen in scrutinising what went on in FÁS and bringing forward the proposals which we are now implementing in law. Sometimes, it can be frustrating to see proposals put forward by committees not being implemented by Ministers. I am pleased that on this occasion a number of the recommendations of the Committee of Public Accounts have been transposed into law by this legislation. That is what Parliament is all about.
I remain disappointed that the Bill does not provide for proper scrutiny of board appointments and that the provision for a workers’ director has been removed. However, good work is done in the Bill and it represents progress. It makes the director general more accountable to Parliament, it slims down the board and it will ensure that we move from a representative board to one that will pursue the interests of FÁS and not the bodies the board members represent. It also protects whistleblowers in FÁS and other agencies who bring important information into the public domain. It is good legislation and my party is happy to see it passed today.
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