Wednesday, 25 February 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
and the comments of the Minister for Finance on 20 June 2001, that the legislation was enacted in this way to prevent the Government having access to a slush fund that Ministers would use to favour pet projects, urgently calls on the Government to reverse this decision.
The Dormant Accounts Bill 2001 was introduced in the Dáil on 20 June 2001. It received universal welcome from all sides of the House. Approximately €150 million of unclaimed bank and building society deposit accounts, together with funds from unclaimed insurance policies, was to be put into a fund to be managed by the National Treasury Management Agency if the accounts were dormant and the owner had not carried out any transaction in respect of the account for a period of not less than 15 years. A new independent board, the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board, was to be established to disburse the funds. The board would invite applications for funding from charities and from community groups.
He further said “. . . the best approach was [one could say “is”] to give the power to distribute it [the money] to a disbursals board and not the Minister”. The Minister could not have been more explicit. There would be no Government slush fund. No ministerial hand would touch the funds. To avoid any such taint, any such suspicion or any such allegation, an independent disbursements board would decide on who would benefit from the €150 million.
This Government has had its fair share of U-turns in its 21 months in office. Without doubt, however, the announcement last week that the Government was sidelining the disbursement board and giving full disbursement powers for the €150 million, which I understand is now €175 million, and full discretion over the appointment of the ADM board, a new board appointed by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, represents the most blatant and shameful of political somersaults.
Mr. Higgins: Last week, in speaking to a Private Members’ amendment to a Government motion on decentralisation, I accused the Government of unprecedented arrogance. However, the sheer arrogance and indifference to public opinion regarding this motion, the U-turn and somersault shows that matters are getting worse week by week.
The Irish Times editorial on Friday last could not have been more blunt or accurate. The headline “A Political Slush Fund” aptly describes this political U-turn. The Taoiseach has defended the about-turn by trying to explain that the change is being made in the interests of transparency. What baloney. The absolute and only guarantor of transparency, as the Minister emphasised in the Dáil three years ago, is an independent disbursement board. Now this independent disbursement board is to be dumped. It is to be relegated to the role of being able only to comment on decisions taken by a Minister on where the money should go. In other words, it has been sidelined and is now to become a hapless bystander.
What wrong has it done to merit such shabby treatment? That is what I would like to know from the Minister of State when he rises to respond. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, for his part, has attempted to defend the decision by saying that the removal of the decision-making process from the disbursement board would make the process more efficient and effective. He suggested there would be better co-ordination. That is more pathetic political baloney.
Let us be clear that what we are talking about here is a large amount of money, €175 million, on which the Government has set its beady eye and which it sees as a useful slush fund to fund the pet political projects in the run-up to the local and European elections. This is nothing but a smash-and-grab raid on moneys that do not belong to the State, private moneys left untouched for 15 years. The Minister for Finance on that fateful day, 20 June 2001, acknowledged such in very explicit terms. This is money to which the Government has absolutely no right. While the Government indulges itself in the greasy till, what about the community groups, those working in the area of social, economic or educational disadvantage? What about those groups working in the grossly and scandalously under-funded area of disability?
I have admired the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, in the past. He is somebody who shoots from the hip, who says what he has to say. I admired his stance on the public finances in the early 1980s. I admired certain political decisions he made about who should lead his party. I always recognised him and gave him credit for being a straight talker and a fairly straight actor. How the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, can countenance such a complete and absolute betrayal of the commitments he gave to the Oireachtas three years ago is simply incomprehensible.
I now turn to our friends in the Progressive Democrats, the great custodians of the common good, the public watchdogs. We all recall the Minister, Deputy McDowell, up that pole in Dublin with that very decisive poster, “Single Party Government — No Thanks”. What has happened to the watchdogs? The watchdogs have become lap dogs and are nothing other than a spare wheel, a mudguard on this vehicle that is rolling roughshod over the public weal. The Acting Chairman should not nod his head; he is supposed to be independent when in the Chair.
Mr. Higgins: The great watchdogs have become lap dogs. What about Punchestown and all the other decisions? Of all the decisions taken by this Government that the Progressive Democrats are prepared to stand over, this is the shabbiest of the lot. If they are not prepared to stand up on this issue as they were in the matter of the disbursement of lotto funds, then they should throw in the towel and call it a day.
Mr. Ryan: I second the motion. I thank Fine Gael for asking my party to support this motion which it does enthusiastically. Fine Gael and the Labour Party do not agree about everything and sometimes we disagree quite strongly, but it appears we have an instinctive sense of what is decent in politics that the biggest party in the State has lost. We would make mistakes if we were in Government; we would do things that perhaps many of us here in our different parties would not be too happy with. I am certain that neither Fine Gael nor the Labour Party would allow themselves to be pushed into this sort of smash and grab raid on money that does not really belong to the State. This is money which the State has expropriated. When one becomes involved in expropriation, one has a certain obligation to be honest, fair and transparent about it.
When the Dormant Accounts Bill was going through the Houses of the Oireachtas, there was a fairly unanimous view that it was a timely Bill, that when the money was assembled it would be used for worthwhile causes as additional expenditure and that the method of disbursement would be independent and be seen to be independent. The only great question that arose was that nobody was quite sure how much money would be involved. There was a tendency, perhaps correctly, on the part of the Minister for Finance, to warn people that this might be a small sum of money because some of the figures quoted in the media were huge. Like the rest of us, he was a little sceptical about how much money people would leave in accounts. It then emerged that it was not such a tiny sum of money. Even after a few hours searching, I find it difficult to ascertain precisely how much money will ultimately be disbursed. One newspaper report states it could be as high as €250 million. It seems certain that it is at least €150 million and rising, as Senator Higgins stated.
This sum of €150 million obviously began to tempt Fianna Fáil. As I have observed over the years, Fianna Fáil has a couple of key characteristics. One is its inherent allergy or inherent tendency to be allergic to real transparency, as has been seen in the electronic voting debacle and as is evident in its deliberate filleting of the Freedom of Information Act. It also has a profound capacity to be allergic to real project appraisal, as has been seen in Punchestown, Abbotstown and many other projects. It has its pets and wants to spend money on them. However, Fianna Fáil is not allergic to money and its disbursement. In this case it saw €150 million on which it was not going to get its hands. When it was a trivial sum, in its eyes, it was quite prepared to be the advocate of accountability, transparency etc., but when it could make a difference it became different.
Even as it does so, Fianna Fáil tries to talk out both sides of its mouth. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs was reported as saying the Government has to change the procedures because nobody realised how big the sum of money would be. The Committee of Public Accounts was invoked. Last week the Taoiseach stated that it was a very small amount of money and nobody should be making a fuss about it. The Taoiseach thinks it is a small sum of money, the Minister thinks it is a big sum of money and Fianna Fáil grabs it and hopes the rest of us will not notice. We did notice and we will continue to notice.
I have a couple of issues to raise with the Government. It has stated that it will continue to give the dormant accounts board an advisory role. As I heard that said, I thought of the human rights commission which also has an advisory role and which the Government has blissfully ignored on every single piece of advice it has offered. Advisory boards will be listened to and will be ignored and Fianna Fáil will spend its slush fund as it wishes.
I emphasise that I am talking about Fianna Fáil because something has happened in the past six months. I was first elected to this House 23 years ago and never had the misfortune to have to serve here under a majority Fianna Fáil Government. In the past six months we have effectively seen a majority Fianna Fáil Government with a collection of PD poodles who no longer know how to be different from Fianna Fáil. It is the long spoon syndrome yet again. The PDs lost their long spoon some time around June 2002 and have been drawn into the Fianna Fáil circle. We have a Fianna Fáil Government with all the arrogance that we read about in those dreadful days 25 years ago when Fianna Fáil was accountable to nobody. Now Fianna Fáil is telling us that it knows what is good for all of us, that it will do it better than the board it set up. There is no rational reason for this except one — it is too big a sum of money for a Fianna Fáil Minister to allow into anybody else’s hands when it could make the difference in a variety of election contexts. The Government has announced that the money will not be disbursed before the local elections which I think means it has given up hope of doing well at the local and European elections and will hold on to it for the real one which will come two years later, the general election. I recall a Minister for Social Welfare who travelled the country with cheques in his pocket from a slush fund which he gave out as £1,000 here and £1,000 there. Fianna Fáil knows how to give out money; it is what it is best at——
Mr. Ryan: Making itself accountable for how it gives out money is what it does not like doing. The evidence is there in the amendment tabled by Senator O’Rourke. I would love to see a PD name on this amendment but there is none. This is among one of the most fatuous amendments I have read from the Government side. The last line of the amendment states: “That Seanad Éireann notes the commitment to publish lists of all successful programmes and projects”. Are they not wonderful? Fianna Fáil will tell the House what it does with the money. Its members will go around the country with their slush fund and apparently, except for the fact that they put it down here, they were not planning to tell anybody about it. Fianna Fáil comes into the House with the brass neck to claim the credit for touting this money. Expenditure of this money will be announced several times and promises made to four places. Yet, when the election comes close, only one place will be chosen for funding. That is the Fianna Fáil style.
Mr. Ryan: There are two Bills to pass through this House in the next six months. The first is for electronic voting and the second is for this Fianna Fáil slush fund. The Opposition will fight every comma of these Bills. Together they epitomise what is wrong with Fianna Fáil and its majority Government which is oblivious to what anybody else thinks. Fianna Fáil believes it owns the electoral system, other people’s money, Oireachtas Éireann, the State, the Civil Service and every semi-State body they will dispatch around the country. In the past, the capacity of the Opposition to shame Fianna Fáil was the only obstacle to this attitude. Now the Opposition must alert public opinion to frighten the Fianna Fáil Party as it cannot be shamed but only frightened. It lost its shame years ago.
Mr. Ryan: The prospect of losing power, and the patronage that goes with it, is the only influence on Fianna Fáil. If it is afraid that inept and sleazy disbursement of other people’s money will bounce back and reverberate, then it might change its mind. However, Fianna Fáil now knows its situation is so desperate. Up to 65% of the population has copped on to it and decided whoever its votes for the next time, it will not be for Fianna Fáil. If Fianna Fáil is aware that it is liable to lose more seats by the image of the slush fund than it can buy with it, then perhaps it can be persuaded to do what the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, so wisely tried to prevent them doing.
Who knows Fianna Fáil better than the Minister, Deputy McCreevy? He had 20 years of observing it as an outsider on the backbenches. He knows what Fianna Fáil does with money and he summed it up better than the Opposition when he said that if Fianna Fáil gets its hands on this money, it will turn it into a personal slush fund. We will not let them.
—notes that key future roles proposed for the Dormant Accounts Board include preparation of future plans, advising annually on priority areas for disbursement and critically assessing the additionally and impact of spend;
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to the House. I also welcome the discussion on this topic because many red herrings have been raised about it in the last number of days. It is clear from the Opposition’s contributions that it is so upset about this issue because there is a lack of validity to its argument. The reality is that the money is still there.
Mr. Dooley: The terms “smash and grab” and “slush fund” have been heard in the Chamber. I could understand this outcry if the Government had decided to move the moneys into the Exchequer and make it part of day to day budgeting.
Mr. Dooley: The Opposition has awoken to the fact that it is not in Government and, therefore, not in a position to manage the economy. In recognising that it will not be in Government for a while, there is this outpouring of grief.
Mr. Dooley: My good colleague on the Labour benches has indicated that there is a necessity to introduce this Bill because Fianna Fáil will lose so many seats in the local elections. I wonder if this is a recognition——
Mr. Dooley: The dispersal of funds or the management of those functions are purely the function of the Government. While the Oireachtas and different agencies have a role, the Government is there to manage. While this situation is a change in the direction of the Government——
Mr. Dooley: ——it is a recognition of what needs to be done. It fits clearly into line with every other aspect of governmental management. I am delighted that this decision has been taken. Why does the Opposition want a different process for the dispersal of these funds?
Mr. Dooley: The Opposition will be aware that this is a catch-22 situation from its time in Government because it is damned if it does and damned if it does not. The Government will be blamed for the agencies’ decisions. It will be blamed if it interferes with what is set down in statute and regulation, such as an independent commission that might have the power to disperse funds. If the Government does not make a decision on advice coming from a State board, it is criticised. The Government has taken a difficult decision and, once and for all, it has taken full authority and stood over its decisions in an open and transparent way, as the amendment to the motion recognises. The legislation will also set that out clearly. It ensures that the Government is in a position to manage the economy well. It is putting its neck on the line and I congratulate it.
I welcome the proposals to retain the dormant accounts board as it is important that an outside body is prepared to advise the Government on its policy. It is advice as opposed to decision-making. The Government is the one in the position to make the decision.
I welcome the underlying objectives of the proposals that target persons with personal and educational difficulties and those who are socially disadvantaged. The principles behind the board’s establishment in the first place are still there. The focus of where the funds will be dispersed is still part of the legislation. I want to see funds made available to tackle mobility issues in rural areas. The proposed legislation will focus on the RAPID and CLÁR areas which shows how all facets of Government policy have been included.
Mr. Dooley: It will even help the Opposition in doing its job in assessing the spending of the funds. I am sure Opposition Members will come into the House, waving its report. The Government is helping the Opposition to do its job.
The proposals on the governance and the organisational arrangements are important and will ensure enhanced accountability to the Oireachtas and the Committee of Public Accounts. It is important that the Committee of Public Accounts will have a scrutinising role and the Opposition generally holds the chair of the committee.
Mr. Dooley: I am somewhat concerned that I will not get the chance to say everything I want. I am delighted with the commitment that the spend will be additional. The money is not coming back into central funds. It will not substitute for spending that is already there. It is an addition and while it is difficult for the Opposition to accept this, we will be in a position to resolve many of the problems arising among those who are disadvantaged. Scrutinising that will give the Opposition something to do.
Mr. Dooley: The word “transparent” is a straightforward one and there is little ambiguity in its definition. I would be delighted to see the Opposition come forward to identify which of those groups should not have received the money as a result of the advertisements and applications. There will be great silence from the other side of the House when the lists are published and I doubt that anyone there will identify groups which should not have received money. We will leave it open.
Mr. B. Hayes: ——which are no different to those of the senior party. I remind Senator Dooley that his former colleague and Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, was once advised “when pressed on this keep repeating the above” and the Senator did a very good job of that in the last eight minutes. He told us that the principles are still in place. I am delighted to hear that but we are not interested in the principles, we want to know whether the money is still in place. That is the issue that has been hived off to the Executive that calls itself the Government. He also said that the new dormant funds board will remain. There will be a new board as a result of the Government’s U-turn and it will be as effective as the old tea council in terms of making executive decisions about distributing the money. This is a very bad day’s work.
Last week I heard our spokesperson, Deputy O’Dowd, filleting the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, on “Morning Ireland” because he had nowhere else to go. The Minister was brought up in Dublin 4 although one would not know that from listening to him now. He gave us CLÁR and was allegedly behind the RAPID programme for procurement of funds for disadvantaged urban communities. Very few funding initiatives have come forward for RAPID despite the fanfare with which the Taoiseach launched it before the last general election. We must get serious on this complete reversal of policy. It is a U-turn representing what Fianna Fáil does best, taking unto itself public moneys, which exist to be spent on public projects, for its own procurement and pet projects within the economy. The Opposition intends to highlight that and to scrutinise the Government because we have heard no arguments in its favour from Senator Dooley or any of his colleagues.
Mr. B. Hayes: They will not be able to put forward arguments for this reversal. The problem is that this came from a cross-party consensus. When the Committee of Public Accounts produced its excellent report following the DIRT inquiry its first recommendation was that this money should be obtained for disadvantaged communities to give them a boost. The Government accepted all the recommendations and put in place a scheme whereby they could be implemented. Why are we seeing a U-turn on this policy in the past two weeks?
Mr. B. Hayes: It does not suit the political times of the party opposite which wants to take this money and decide where it goes. It will go to marginal constituencies in advance of the next general election, of that there is no doubt. Every Member of this House knows that the appalling abuse of public funds by Fianna Fáil in advance of the last general election was the worst example ever of how public funds were used only for political purposes. The criteria were marginal seats, based solely on giving funds to constituencies where there was a marginal Fianna Fáil seat or the possibility of a gain. That is the reality in the schools building programme and lotto dispersal and so it is true of the funds that will shortly become available under the dormant funds accounts. This is utterly regrettable given that the original proposal on this was a cross-party one.
When the Proceeds of Crime Act 1996 went through these Houses I argued here that we had an obligation to ring-fence moneys proceeding from crime for the communities worst affected by the scourge of crime and drugs. I regret that the Government to which I gave allegiance at the time did not do that but I believe there is an obligation on us to ring-fence any money that becomes available for these communities because we have a long way to go to make up funding to them for educational and social projects. Those communities have a long way to travel. I recently saw in my own constituency a drugs prevention group which has existed for the past ten years on very small sums of money. Now, after its ten-year review, it is asking for funding to come from the Government so that it can decide what it needs in its community. These are the people who make life and death decisions. The Government’s recent decision on this fund smacks of the worst kind of political opportunism such as only the party opposite can devise.
Before the last election we heard major announcements on RAPID but since then the funding has not been very rapid. There was a large cutback in the funding that should have been given to some of those communities and, in other cases, there has been a reversal of the very notion that those funds would be front-loaded to allow people to get on with their projects. This is an example of how money going into those communities could make a significant difference. When this legislation comes before the House after the local elections, we will fight it tooth and nail. It reverses the promises made following the first report of the Committee of Public Accounts, what the Minister for Finance told the House three years ago and this Government’s commitments to the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities.
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Mr. N. Ahern): I am very happy to speak on this motion on behalf of the Government. There have been many inaccurate and mischievous reports regarding the proposed legislative change by the Government on the dormant accounts. It is extraordinary that some of that continues here this evening and people do not seem to be listening to the facts. I note the Opposition’s glowing comments in praise of the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. I have never heard such glowing tributes and if he were here I am sure he would be almost embarrassed by the wonderful comments from the Opposition benches.
Mr. N. Ahern: I would like to clarify a number of issues. When my Department began implementation of the Dormant Accounts Act, it was found that there were deficiencies in the arrangements in the Act for the spend of the dormant accounts money, including the size of the spend.
Mr. N. Ahern: These related, in the main, to administration and accountability issues. Under the current legislation, there is no provision for any explicit organisational structure, chief executive officer or executive accountability. Instead, the law provides that a part-time chairman providing a few hours’ work a month on the dormant accounts should be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. Perhaps Members of both Houses slipped up when the original legislation was passed. We might have been carried away with the great idea and the benefits we could bestow without putting a structure in place, as is now clearly required. It is absolutely unfair and unrealistic to expect that a person who gives just a few hours a month to the board could be accountable for the spending of hundreds of millions of euro.
Section 36 of the Act allows the Minister to provide, on an ad hoc basis, some staff to the board to administer the spending of the dormant accounts fund. Currently, five staff are working in the dormant accounts secretariat. No one can reasonably expect this level of staff to administer a fund of the size now materialising.
Mr. N. Ahern: That can be done. The Senator should wait for the rest of my speech. In view of these administrative issues, it was apparent that two possible routes could be followed. One was to establish an independent agency with a large staff, chief executive officer, offices, etc, to administer the fund and the other was to use the existing mechanisms of State and accounting procedures, including Accounting Officers of different Departments, to ensure strict criteria for the application process, transparency and the evaluation of projects.
The first approach would have led to an inordinate amount of the funds being dissipated on administration. Implicit in the second route, using existing agencies, was the requirement that Departments or their agencies would make proposals regarding disbursement of the funds.
Mr. N. Ahern: The advantage of using the existing infrastructure of State to carry out the above work is that it means that much less of the money than otherwise would be the case will be spent on overheads and administration and that the benefit or the expertise of the whole State system will be available for the evaluation of projects. This would mean legal responsibility for decisions would ultimately lie with the relevant Minister and accounting responsibility with the relevant Accounting Officers. This is a much better arrangement from a governance, financial and accounting point of view.
As originally enacted, the whole structure represented a time bomb waiting to explode. Within three or four years we would have been faced with a report from the Comptroller and Auditor General wondering how on earth we had set up a structure like this without proper financial control and governance arrangements. We are taking action now to avoid having such a hullabaloo in a few years’ time. It is not appropriate to spend that kind of money without having a proper system in place.
In considering the best arrangement and to ensure that the commitments given by the Government on the fund will be maintained, it is proposed that the dormant accounts board will be retained as part of the new Act. However, its role will be changed. Under the new Act, the dormant accounts board will draw up the dormant accounts plan. It is intended to retain the dormant accounts plan in its current format. The board has spent considerable time on that plan which was submitted to the Department some months ago. We made some small changes to copperfasten it and ensure the issues mentioned by Senator Brian Hayes were crystal clear so that the funds would not go to marginal constituencies, but to areas and constituencies with people living on the margins. This is what is being done and this is the reason the fund exists.
The underlying objectives of the current legislation, which are to target persons who are personally, educationally or socially disadvantaged or have a disability, will be retained. The dormant accounts board will, in its future role, prepare future plans and advise annually on priority areas for disbursement. Furthermore, it will critically assess the additionality and impact of spend on a regular basis. This is of critical importance and arrangements will be put in place to ensure that spending under the dormant accounts board will be kept separate from the normal Estimates process so that this additionality can be verified, as we want. The proposed improved arrangements will lead to much better governance and will secure and enhance the accountability to the Oireachtas and the Committee of Public Accounts. It is also the intention to publish the list of all beneficiaries from the fund.
Mr. N. Ahern: Last December, the Government announced that it intended to make modest changes to the way in which money from the dormant accounts fund would be disbursed. This announcement was made when the Houses were still in session. To my disappointment and despite my efforts to inform those in the media, the announcement was absolutely ignored by the media.
Mr. N. Ahern: That is the Senator’s opinion; I do not agree. The announcement was made in December and was totally ignored by the media until such time as the Opposition chose to cynically distort the facts.
Mr. N. Ahern: Even the press release from Deputy O’Shea did not receive any publicity for about ten days. Some media people asked me for information and were satisfied with what I told them. While it got one or two small mentions, the matter was knocking around for weeks. The Government was absolutely clear until some media person picked up the term “slush fund” and suddenly people started running around like headless chickens. The information was in the public domain for weeks. It is nonsense to suggest that we suddenly made a decision last week.
Mr. N. Ahern: The only thing it changes was that the information was known and was supplied in answers to parliamentary questions. Let us make up our own minds about matters and not just jump up and down in response to a newspaper headline. The information had been given to several Deputies. We knew it and everybody seemed happy. However, suddenly we got excited when we read it in a newspaper.
Mr. N. Ahern: The disbursements will continue until the new legislation is passed. We had originally indicated that the board could allocate about €30 million per year. It has about 300 applications and has allocated about €2 million to about 20 groups thus far. Despite the comments in the media and from the Opposition, I can absolutely confirm that no decisions on disbursement will be made under the proposed legislation before the elections next June. We will have to see what happens when the legislation is passed, but nothing will happen very quickly. To suggest that this is a fund for the local elections is just cheap electioneering.
Mr. N. Ahern: It amazes me to hear Senator Ryan say how worried he is about what we will do in the future. This is not meant as a fund for any election. The Senator must not be too hopeful about his party being in Government in the future if he is so certain we will corner this fund for eternity.
Mr. N. Ahern: There will be full transparency and procedures will be put in place to ensure proper spending of the funds. If there was any doubt about this matter, why would the Government propose that the board be asked on a regular basis to monitor spending under a number of criteria, including adherence to the objectives of the plan, additionality and impact? There will be a double-lock system in place in disbursing these funds, representing recognition of the source of the money and the fact that the Government is underwriting 100% of these funds.
Listening to the debate in recent days, I wondered about the underlying objection of the media and some Opposition politicians to these changes. All of us who work in the State system, as employees or elected representatives, are subject to a stringent system of checks and balances in the distribution of money. These have been added to considerably in recent years. Ministers are also answerable on a week by week basis to the House. Departmental expenditure is audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General and is also subject to scrutiny by the Committee of Public Accounts. In this case, as a further check, the dormant accounts board will also analyse spending under the criteria mentioned above.
Mr. N. Ahern: What is wrong with Ministers, in this or any other Government, exercising decision-making powers? Are we not elected by the people? Are we not answerable to the people? Are we not responsible and accountable to the people?
Mr. N. Ahern: The people in here are all members of the same profession. I find it difficult to understand how some of them seem to have an amazing belief in any independent board out there but are full of distrust about our own ability——
Mr. Finucane: If the Minister of State had been in west Limerick before the last election he would know all about it. He would know about slush funds being used. I can give an example. What about the matter of the contracts for electronic voting——
Mr. N. Ahern: I do not mean to lecture, but people in here should cop on. They should have more respect for our own ability to make decisions. People on all sides of the House are knowledgeable about what is happening on the ground. They know the problems and the issues. They know where there is disadvantage and they have ideas about how to deal with it. I do not see why we should always be bad-mouthing each other and running each other down.
Mr. N. Ahern: However, they do not have the required structure to do the job adequately. I see no reason for setting up an alternative structure when the existing departmental and Civil Service structure is available.
Mr. N. Ahern: At present we have allocated some staff and are using ADM to process the applications. The other issues of accountability, governance and financial control will arise afterwards. They will be problems down the line when the money begins to be spent. Some money has been allocated. If we were to do all this under one body we would be creating another monster. That can be done, but at a cost. It will take a chunk of the funds. Do we want to set up more bodies with more staff——
Mr. N. Ahern: Legislation will be introduced in the coming months and I am confident that when people in this House have an opportunity to consider it in detail they will feel differently. I understand there is some political play-acting.
Mr. U. Burke: The Minister’s speech was the most appalling and pathetic display of incompetence and justification of a case that was ever presented to the House. The Minister was named as the person with direct responsibility for this board and for the dormant accounts. The distrust in people’s minds in the House as well as outside it stems from events that took place during the lifetime of the last Government. The former Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Ó Cuív, declared publicly that he had no function within the Department and the Taoiseach, as a gesture of goodwill, allowed him to create the CLÁR programme, whose functions were set out on paper. The reality is that if we are to judge the potential of a slush fund based on the record of Deputy Ó Cuív as controller of CLÁR, it is no surprise there is distrust. The record speaks for itself.
There is approximately €175 million in the fund currently, but when dormant insurance policies and so on are taken into account there may be something in the region of €500 million to disburse. That is of concern to many people. The record of Deputy Ó Cuív’s efforts under the CLÁR programme in County Galway shows that he has provided, for example, footpaths to the doorways of individual supporters. He has provided roads and boreens to the homes of certain supporters. This is not hearsay — it is a matter of fact. We are now going to give him far more funds. I do not know what share he will give the Minister of State but in light of his record there will be little to spend on RAPID or the drugs task forces in Dublin and throughout the country. He will not lay a hand on the money if that Minister gets his hands on it first. He will have it allocated; he probably already has most of it allocated. That is the fear and concern as a result of past experience.
I challenge the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, to come to the Seanad and justify what he has done with CLÁR funding. That will give a clear insight to the Minister of State, if he does not already have it, to the Government and to the public of what that man is capable of and, if he gets his hands on this massive amount of money, what he will do to his personal advantage in the internal conflict within the constituency of Galway West, a conflict he created.
More recently, we discovered the Minister has taken responsibility for a new scheme. He has taken it from FÁS and the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey. He said he will take 150 jobs into his Department and take responsibility for payment under a scheme which he has not yet described. He has not said how one can apply to it. All he said was that if anybody wished to participate in the scheme, they must have a herd number. Nobody has heard anything since budget day about the Minister’s intentions. In this dormant accounts fund he sees a means of getting funding for the scheme and I am suspicious of what he is capable of doing. The public, knowing what the Minister has done over the past couple of years, is equally suspicious. That is justifiable cause for putting this motion before the House.
The motion is not put down in response to parliamentary questions in the Lower House. The motion is based on facts and on the fear of allowing the Government, in the person of the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and with the Minister of State carrying the can, to use this fund as a slush fund.
Mr. U. Burke: Can the Minister of State explain why the independent board established by legislation is being sidelined and stifled in its endeavours? It has done good work and the record will show that. However, when the Minister discovered that he could not influence it in line with his preferences, he decided to move the goal posts and take the responsibility. The urgency with which the change is being made makes everybody suspicious that it is related to the run up to the elections and to shore up some of the difficult areas in the country.
The people have had enough lies. They are waiting. They will not be bought off for the second time running. That is the reason it is so important that the status quo be maintained. An independent body would distribute the fund for many worthy purposes. That is the way it has been operated until now. We put this motion forward in support and recognition of the work it is doing. We have confidence in the board and its capacity to deliver funding fairly to where there is greatest need. The applications put forward by the various community bodies should simply state: “We want money for this, assess our project and then our need and grant us accordingly”. If there is any deviation from that, the public will know that the Minister and the Minister of State are doing something that was never intended.
The board was established by legislation in 2002. Now that the Ministers are desperate for funds, they have decided to sideline it. They will give it an advisory role in the background and it will be allowed to make occasional recommendations of insignificance. That is what the Minister seeks. The Minister of State said “it was found that there were deficiencies in the arrangements”. That is not the case. There were obstructions to their plan. When they failed to get their hands——
Mr. Minihan: There were also some nice comments about my party and I heard them with interest. In the course of this debate, phrases such as status quo were used and it was suggested that the status quo should be maintained. However, the status quo has changed.
When this fund was established, people thought it would amount to approximately €30 million. While I can understand the political concerns of the Opposition, we must bear in mind that governments are elected to govern and executives are appointed to administer. The arbitrary element that dictates that is the public. That is the reality. However, it is increasingly evident in this country that a paralysis of government is being brought about by minorities. That causes me concern.
The Opposition has a right to raise issues of concern and to promote ideas. All Members will agree that the principle of applying this money to disadvantaged areas is correct. It is putting the money to good use. Previous speakers have highlighted where the money should go. Disbursement should be among the people affected by economic and social disadvantage, those affected by educational disadvantage and people with disabilities. The figure of €30 million that was initially anticipated is now projected to be between €300 million to €500 million. We cannot have a situation where an independent body comes into competition with the Government of the day with regard to the delivery of services. The Government is responsible for the delivery of services and we do not want communities to fall between two stools in the context of who should provide a service or funding for a project.
Speakers have referred to comments made by the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, when the legislation was being debated, that there was an onus to have transparency and accountability and that it would not be perceived as a slush fund for pet projects of Ministers. That is fair and reasonable. I believe that should remain the overriding principle.
We must remember that the legislation has not yet come before the Houses. Hopefully, this debate will have an impact on the legislation which comes forward. Given the change in the anticipated figures for distribution, we should consider allowing the status quo remain for the €30 million initially anticipated and placing all moneys in excess of that in the Exchequer for distribution, under the same principle and among Departments which would target the areas identified in the initial criteria. The adoption of this approach would recognise the initial principle under which the scheme was set up but would equally acknowledge that the goalposts have changed. They did not change by political will but because the amount of money now available for distribution has far exceeded what was initially anticipated.
If one removes the political rancour and point scoring, there is merit in both sides of the argument. There are moneys to be distributed and it is important those moneys reach the target groups and communities identified by the various guidelines set out initially and that they are used for the betterment of those people. There is merit in the fact the Government now needs to re-examine the matter, given the change in the amount of money available. Notwithstanding that, I emphasise that we should not arbitrarily abolish the initial idea.
We can look at both sides of the coin. We can allow the initial €30 million to be administered and distributed as initially set out. However, if we want growth from the growing amount of money, it would not be reasonable to have an independent body compete with a Department to provide a service to the community. We need a proper cohesive effort to ensure the community benefits in the way initially intended.
I support the Government amendment while anticipating the legislation coming before the Houses will be debated fully. I ask the Minister to consider the compromise I suggest of allowing the initial €30 million to be distributed as set out and of applying the legislation to the moneys in excess of that amount.
Mr. Ross: I came to the Chamber with an open mind on this issue because I have a fairly long memory of what happens with such matters. Inevitably, whoever is in Opposition picks up these issues, hits the Government with them and then when in Government behaves just like the criticised Government, and vice versa. However, listening to Senator Minihan I became convinced that this side of the House is correct.
There are serious flaws in the arguments being made by the Government side of the House. The arguments are utterly inconsistent with behaviour and speeches made previously. The principal argument is that the fund has reached such a size that it cannot be left to people who are independent of Government. Have those on the Government benches never heard of the State agency FÁS which has a budget of €2 billion a year? Do they know about the IDA, Enterprise Ireland or any other bodies which administer grants at their own discretion? Those bodies are trusted, rightly or wrongly, and some of us might be critical of the manner in which they distribute their funds. They do so without too much Government interference although some pressure has been apparent.
This particular fund appears to me to compete, not with the Government but with the national lottery. Members may remember the setting up of the national lottery, which incidentally reported figures today. At the time we got similar assurances that the national lottery funds would be ring-fenced and not interfered with by politicians and that money would be granted to specific projects, originally just sport. The funds grew, rather like this, beyond all expectations and party politicians and Governments of both views got their paws up front as fast as they could. Immediately, the original purpose of the national lottery fund was diluted and the moneys were distributed, and have been since, for the advantage of politicians in certain areas, depending on who is in power. That is what has happened.
This fund will be somewhat smaller, although at €400 million I agree with the Government that it is quite large. I remind it, however, that just a few months ago in this House Senator Mansergh described €380 million as a pittance. I do not know whether €400 million is a pittance or a very large sum as one day it seems a large sum and a pittance another day. It all depends on which arm of the Government is speaking on which day and on which issue.
It is not particularly easy to listen to the admonishments of the Opposition because it did not do much with regard to the abuses of the national lottery funds when in power. It appears to be a regrettable feature of Irish political life that when politicians see a lot of loot they go for it. I am not suggesting any corruption in the matter, contrary to what I think the Minister of State indicated in his final paragraph. What I do suggest is that politicians find it impossible to resist an amount of money because they want to be seen as the people who distribute it, which is natural. However, it is our job to try and stop this happening.
There is no problem about €400 million being distributed by independent people. I suggest that the people who distribute it will have less reason to benefit if they are seriously independent than politicians. The Minister realises this. I was a member of a political party for a while where I saw the mechanism of how grants and moneys were administered. It is quite obvious that this money is good news. There is no downside to approximately €400 million to give away. Politicians want to be the people giving it away and to benefit by eventually getting the votes of the recipients. The Minister and those on the Government side of the House want to be the people who make the announcements. Before my unhappy departure from Fine Gael, I used to get notes from various Ministers telling me something was going to happen in my area — usually money being allocated — on a certain date. The message was for my eyes only and I was to announce it in order to get the credit for allocating taxpayers’ money. This has been happening since the foundation of the State. I no longer get the notes but I expect it still happens.
Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Deputies, Senators and councillors will get wind of where this money will go first and will go to the constituencies to announce it. This will be another opportunity for this sort of time honoured abuse. Why can we not leave this be and say thank God, is this not wonderful, we have €400 million for disabled people and those with other disadvantages? I do not understand why we cannot commit ourselves to getting people who are not seen to be overtly political to distribute such moneys.
I read the Minister’s speech and, as far as I can see, his reason is that it would not be fair to ask the board’s representatives to go before the Committee of Public Accounts. I am open to correction and I apologise if I read it wrongly. Why not? What is wrong with it? They would not have much explaining to do. All they would have to do is say why they gave money to people. Why are politicians any better at doing that than people who have no axes to grind and nothing to benefit from it? They cannot be any better at it and they can be a lot worse.
Mr. Ross: Because their motive is worse and because they benefit from it. That is why. If one appoints truly objective people who cannot benefit in any way from it, they will make more objective decisions.
Mr. Kitt: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern. In many ways the legislation is testament to the successful career of the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, since he was Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs. At that time he introduced many measures that helped people in the Gaeltacht. I often looked across with envy from my base in east Galway at some of the benefits of those schemes.
Senator Ulick Burke referred to the fact that, as Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Deputy Ó Cuív introduced other initiatives outside of Gaeltacht areas, particularly the CLÁR and RAPID programmes which have been a great success. The CLÁR programme highlighted the plight of rural areas where there has been a reduction in population. Measures had to be taken to help such communities.
Some Opposition speakers appeared to knock these initiatives, but the RAPID programme, in particular, has helped in the provision of community employment schemes and the appointment of more than 80 educational welfare officers in some of the major towns throughout the country. As I indicated recently, they will shortly be appointed in Ballinasloe and Tuam.
The programme has also been useful in getting top-ups and grants from the sports capital fund under the national lottery. We should not knock those schemes and give credit where it is due to the initiatives under the CLÁR and RAPID programmes. As the Minister of State said, drugs task forces also come within the remit of the proposed amending legislation on the dormant accounts fund.
I am pleased that we are retaining the disbursements board. At present it has nine members, including the chairman, Conleth Bradley, a barrister, people from the disability area such as Seamus Thompson, CEO of the Irish Wheelchair Association, Gerry Ryan, former general secretary of the National Association for the Mentally Handicapped of Ireland, Professor Áine Hyland from the educational disadvantage committee, and David Brennan from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. These people are in a good position to help us target people with disabilities and those who are disadvantaged educationally, socially or personally. While we might score points in other areas we are all agreed on this important issue.
Speakers have referred to new boards being set up and I agree with the points made in that regard. I have argued both here and in the Dáil on the difficulty we have in trying to question Ministers. I had this problem a few weeks ago in regard to the closure of a post office. Senator Ulick Burke and I were not successful in raising that issue. If a Minister were in charge of post offices a new post office owner could have been given at least six months to see if he or she would be able to improve the business in order to save it.
Although some boards have been successful I share the concerns of Senators about how to deal with a fund when it becomes larger than anticipated. Senator Ross referred to the national lottery where it was difficult to foresee the amount of money this fund would generate. Perhaps the dormant accounts fund will also increase in a similar way.
As I understand it we have a disbursement plan and we intend retaining the board. Area Development Management Limited will manage applications for assistance from the fund. All those things are in place and it is now a matter of trying to put the pieces together and ensure this funding is provided for people who are disadvantaged.
Disadvantage is not a new concept. We struggled for years in the west of Ireland trying to get funding from Europe. All political parties tried to resolve that issue when in Government. While we made slow progress we succeeded to some extent. South Galway was left out for many years and a great deal of politics revolved around issues of pre-election announcements.
I reject the charges made against the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív. In fairness to him, any project he brought forward was done with the aim of helping people in disadvantaged areas. As I said, he was successful in the Gaeltacht areas. Last year he was criticised when the first-time buyer’s grant was abolished other than in Gaeltacht areas. There are reasons certain benefits go to a Gaeltacht area that do not apply to the rest of the country.
Mr. Kitt: Other problems exist in the Gaeltacht in regard to planning. Not everybody in these areas is involved in tourism. Although I do not live in a Gaeltacht area, I welcome the benefits that pertain there. I am interested in these areas and see the benefit of certain schemes. One has to be clear on the supports required in areas of disadvantage and try to get funds to that area.
I look forward to the proposed legislation. The debate has been useful in terms of raising certain issues and alluding to some of the pitfalls that may exist. When the legislation comes before the House we will get a clearer picture of how moneys from the dormant accounts fund will be decided and where it will go. Above all, let us make sure that it goes to people in disadvantaged areas.
Ms O’Meara: I am happy to support the motion on the dormant accounts fund and refer to the manner in which the Government is turning it into a political slush fund. I listened to the Minister of State’s speech and want to pick up on two elements. He justified the Government’s decision to fundamentally alter the terms of the fund and completely change the nature of the board and how the funds are dispersed. The Minister of State talked about the need for accountability and transparency. He said there were two routes that could be followed to deal with what he termed an unfair and unrealistic expectation on one person, the part-time chairman, to give a few hours to the board every month and the five staff working in the dormant accounts secretariat. Let us accept this is the case and there is a need for reform. One of the routes the Minister of State suggested was the establishment of an independent agency with a large staff and CEO etc. He said this “would have led to an inordinate amount of the funds being dissipated on administration”. As it is too expensive to establish an agency that would give full accountability, be independent of the Government and could have public trust, the Government chose the second route.
It would be interesting if one were to take this logic and apply it across the board regarding the disbursement of all Government funds. The Minister of State has just undermined the establishment in legislation of a huge number of boards that have been set up to administer funds in an open, transparent and accountable manner. It would be worth spending money on the proper administration, if the Minister of State says it is required, so there might be public trust. This is not the Government’s money but the public’s money which has been sitting in dormant accounts. All parties agree it should be used for special needs groups and disadvantaged groups etc., as was envisaged in the original legislation.
How the fund is administered is hugely important. While it is not its money, the Government is acting as though it is. It is like money from the lottery. The Government grabs it, spends it on its pet projects, ensures its friends are supported and this is conveniently done a few weeks before election time. That is how the public sees this is happening and it is how it sees the disbursement of lottery funds.
Ms O’Meara: The Minister referred to this in a roundabout way at the end of his speech. He referred to the fear that politicians exercising decision-making powers might get thanks for spending money properly and wisely. He said that some people have placed an emphasis on an independent board and that it would make better decisions than those elected by the people. The Minister of State continued, “The logical inference of this is that those people believe that politicians are more venal and dishonest as a class of people than non-elected people.” I have news for him: more and more people think this.
Ms O’Meara: This kind of action only leads more people to believe that politicians are only concerned about making decisions for their friends and for themselves. I am appalled at the extent of this. In recent meetings with people that I had never met before, they automatically assumed I was a particular kind of person once they heard I was a politician. Until recently, I did not believe this was rampant. The general view of politicians is that we are low life and cannot be trusted with decision-making.
Ms O’Meara: It is true. A growing number of people think this and one will find this around the issue of electronic voting. The Government is not trusted to bring in the proposed system. The Government had better face up to this because it is true. The changes proposed to the dormant accounts fund only adds to this perception.
The extraordinary thing is that the Government has so insulated itself from the views of the people that it can no longer see this. This is what happens when a Government sits in power for seven years and becomes so arrogant that it can no longer hear the people.
Trust is at the heart of this. It is not surprising as the Government lied to get elected and totally undermined the trust the electorate may have had in it. The Government is not trusted with decision-making with the result that the whole political system is so damaged and undermined that I wonder if it will ever recover.
I appeal to the Government to reconsider this issue. The legislation has not been passed and therefore it is not too late. The board should be given more support if it needs it. Nobody would object to this. The Minister of State should not peddle the pathetic argument about how much it will cost. It costs money to run health boards, hospitals and schools.
Ms Feeney: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I enjoyed listening to what he had to say. I am delighted to support the Government amendment to this motion. There is much hysteria and confusion among the Opposition. It does not want to listen, it only wants to shout and roar back. As the Minister said, this was in the public domain and nobody took any notice of it until the media ran with it and started using provocative terms such as “slush fund”. All of a sudden, the Opposition ignited; it was like turning on an engine. It is sad that this is the only kind of opposition that is offered. The media gives the Opposition a little prompt and everyone in it starts jumping up and down. I listened to Senator O’Meara wondering where it will end and if we can save any of it. Are Democratic Left and Labour to be the saviours of the world or are they only going to try to save Ireland? It will be a sorry day for Ireland if that is what we have to look forward to.
The establishment of the dormant accounts fund was a wonderful initiative by the previous Government. The Dormant Accounts Act 2001 and the Unclaimed Life Assurance Policies Act 2003 underpinned this. These important Acts allow for the transfer of moneys from these unused accounts and unclaimed policies into a special dormant accounts fund. The fund is designed to target persons that are personally, educationally and socially disadvantaged, or have a disability. How the fund is administered is important. However, given this is going to be transparent, I do not see why the Opposition is getting upset.
The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs looks after CLÁR, RAPID and drugs task forces. His Department has the expertise to pinpoint where disadvantage exists. It makes sense that a Ministry such as this should look after it. I would go so far as to say to the members of Fine Gael who tabled the motion that, if recommendations come from the commission, or the board as it will be, I am sure they will be known publicly. At the same time if, as the Opposition claims, the Minister repeatedly ignores the recommendations of the commission, giving money, as Senator O’Meara says, to the Government’s friends or spending it in places where it benefits those on the Government side, surely to God that will also be known. The requisite level of transparency is there, and there is no need to worry.
It is a wonderful initiative, and we will see approximately €160 million spent. Areas such as economic and social disadvantage will have 40% of that funding — projects such as those which we know in the CLÁR and RAPID programmes — and 25% of the funding will go towards breaking down other barriers, such as those affecting the educationally disadvantaged. I have looked at the matter inside out and upside down, and I cannot for the life of me see what is the concern. The Senators could make better use of their Private Members’ time than in having a go at something there is no need to attack.
Mr. Finucane: I have listened to many of the contributions. I return to what Senator Higgins said originally. It is remarkable that Opposition politicians are being accused of using the term “slush fund”, since the expression emanated from the Committee of Public Accounts and the great work of the late Jim Mitchell. It was flagged at the time regarding dormant accounts. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, perhaps in one of his more enlightened moods, first used the term. He said that the legislation had been enacted in that way to prevent the Government having access to a slush fund that Ministers would use to favour pet projects. In view of this, the Fianna Fáil Members should not criticise the Opposition for saying what the Minister for Finance said originally.
Senator Ross referred to lottery funding and what has happened to it. A weighting factor was supposed to have been introduced, with various points awarded depending on the project. From experience — not sour grapes or anything of that sort — I can say that largesse was poured into my constituency, which was marginal before the last election. In the final two weeks before polling day it was applied generously, whether by the Department of Health and Children or the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.
The Minister of State asks us to believe his statement that it is unfair and unrealistic to expect that a person who serves on a board for just a few hours a month could be accountable for the spending of hundreds of millions of euro. He should catch himself on. He said that he had announced changes in December. Possibly it was late December, and possibly when we were in recess. Does it matter? He is disappointed that the newspapers did not pick up on it. The Minister of State is very good at spin-doctoring; if he wanted it picked up on, that would happen. The point is this is the document that we received this week from Comhairle, which does very good work. It is dated February 2004. It is a pity that the Minister of State did not even tell Comhairle that he was making changes, because the document states “The Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board is a statutory body which is responsible for disbursing the money from the fund.” The word used is “statutory”. This comes from an organisation that I would trust much more than the Minister of State, who refers to a part-time chairman disbursing funds.
It goes on to state “ADM assesses the applications and makes recommendations to the Board. The Board then makes the decisions on who gets funding.” The Minister of State has tried to spin the impression in a long speech that the board could not do the job properly and that the amount of money was too great for it to cope with. At present there is €185 million in the fund, which will be dispensed. I am sure that shortly, when the insurance aspect arises in April 2004, this largesse will increase dramatically.
I agree with Senator O’Meara, although Senator Feeney disagrees about politicians being distrusted, since I saw her shaking her head. Such changes as these maintain the level of distrust. People are liable to talk about various polls asking whom one trusts most — journalists or politicians. We are far down the pecking order. When the Government makes changes such as this, it lends credence to that, since everyone knows that it wants to get its grubby hands on this money.
Senator Ross is correct. I can assure Senators that, if there was good news for any project in west Limerick I would be the last to know, even if I were making representations on its behalf. Other Oireachtas representatives in west Limerick will know long before me what will happen with the money when it is dispensed. When it came to lottery funds before the election, they could telephone the different project promoters and say that the money was there. In the case of one project it was €500,000, and in the others €100,000 or €50,000. It did not matter that I was making representations to the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. One might say that is politics, and I accept that, but in this case we are talking about more funding again.
The Committee of Public Accounts is to be lauded for suggesting the establishment of this fund. At the time, the Minister for Finance said that he would establish a statutory board. Why can its members not be allowed to administer the money? Reading this document gave me a great appreciation of what the dormant accounts fund was about.
Mr. Finucane: The document dated February 2004 was logical and sensible. It is a pity the Minister of State did not tell them about his plans. He said he was disappointed the press did not pick up on it, but he could not even tell Comhairle what he was doing.
Mr. Finucane: I do not even need the extra minute. I have made my point. This is being used as a slush fund by the present Administration to dispense largesse when it is favourable and convenient to it. It is a retrograde step, and the body politic will suffer for it.
Mr. Browne: I will not rehash the arguments in this debate except to say that I too have grave concerns at the reported changes in the distribution of dormant bank account funds. The money is there because people have passed away. It does not belong to the Fianna Fáil Party to share out among Fianna Fáil projects. It belongs to the taxpayers and everyone in the country to benefit from the projects.
When the Minister of State mentioned ADM, I immediately thought of the taxi hardship panel and its role in that. It effectively overruled an all-party transport committee when it recommended that changes be made. We saw how the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, got his way with ADM in compensating taxi drivers. There are issues still to be resolved.
I do not apologise for being a little parochial. As the Minister of State may be aware, three applications for funding under the dormant accounts fund have been submitted by the Carlow regional youth service. I wrote to the Minister recently to explain that, unfortunately, Carlow town is a RAPID area due to its drug problem which has become so bad that people are injecting drugs into their eyeballs because they cannot locate a vein in other parts of their bodies. We also had recent cases of drug dealers giving themselves up at a local Garda station because they were terrified of their customers who were going berserk searching for their next supply of drugs. This is the reality in Carlow town.
The success achieved in stopping the so-called Westies gang from operating in Dublin has unfortunately resulted in the problem spilling into Carlow and other towns within a similar radius of Dublin, such as Tullamore. We, in Carlow, are bearing the brunt of the problem. It is for this reason that I ask the Minister, when disbursing the dormant accounts fund, to consider carefully the three applications by the Carlow regional youth service. These are for a youth worker for the Greycullen area, which is a RAPID area, a support worker for secondary schools in Carlow — four or five schools in the town have expressed a willingness to get involved in this scheme — and, most important, for the redevelopment of the town’s old library for youth facilities, for which approximately €1 million is being sought.
The applicants have been messed around in recent times to the extent that the local authority, which offered to transfer the old library building to the youth service free of charge, is now seriously considering withdrawing the offer because the organisation has not used the buildings. I urge the Minister to look favourably on these excellent projects, which I hope will contribute to alleviating the drug problem in Carlow. The reason the dormant accounts fund was established in the first place was to assist these kinds of initiatives. Senator John Phelan has indicated he would like to make a contribution on this topic. May I share time with him?
Mr. J. Phelan: I thank my constituency colleague for his generosity in sharing his time. I am delighted to have an opportunity to support the motion tabled jointly by the Fine Gael and Labour parties on the dormant accounts fund. I noted a number of excellent contributions to the debate, particularly from the Opposition side. I was struck, in particular, by the comments of Senator Ross when he affirmed his support for the motion and outlined his concerns. Having listened to the Minister of State and all the speakers on the Government side, I am not convinced in any way, shape or form that the proposed change is necessary. Nothing the Government side stated indicated any requirement to change the structure of the dormant accounts fund, as it was envisaged several months ago, in the manner described.
I was shocked to learn of the proposed changes in the past week or thereabouts. Perhaps the Minister of State lives in cloud cuckoo land, one in which Ministers do not use funds for political benefits. This practice has taken place in County Kilkenny, from where I come, and I heard other speakers outline other instances of it.
Several speakers referred to the schools building programme. Before the previous general election, a number of schools in Kilkenny were given definitive commitments by the two Fianna Fáil Party Deputies in Carlow-Kilkenny that new buildings would be constructed in the near future. The principal of one school, through its students, asked parents to support the local Fianna Fáil Party Deputy in the election because he would deliver a new school building but, lo and behold, once the election results were announced and the Fianna Fáil Party was returned to power with its poodles in the Progressive Democrats Party, nothing more was heard about the schools promised before the election.
A couple of weeks ago, I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for Education and Science about Wandesford Church of Ireland national school in Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, which is another of the schools promised a new building several times in recent years only to discover that there is no prospect of it materialising for a long time.
I see no cogent case in the Government’s argument for removing from the independent body the final decision making power as to where these funds should be allocated. We are now seeing the establishment of another political slush fund for the Government and it should not be accepted. It is the task of the House and other bodies to ensure we do not accept this kind of practice, which most non-political people believed was a legacy of the past of which they would see no more in the future. By all indications, particularly the amendment before us, the common saying that a leopard never changes its spots certainly applies to the Fianna Fáil Party. I urge the House to support the motion.
Mr. Higgins: I listened to speaker after speaker on the Government side attempt in vain to defend what is an indefensible plundering of funds which do not belong to the Government or taxpayers, but to private individuals who, for some reason, have not activated bank accounts or building society accounts or have not accessed insurance policies they should have drawn down. I note, in particular, that the amendment is tabled in the name of the Leader, Senator O’Rourke, who has been noticeable by her absence during the debate.
Mr. Higgins: I appreciate that but one would imagine that if an amendment is published in a person’s name, he or she would have the courage of his or her convictions to come into the House and defend it, particularly if it has been tabled by the party to which he or she belongs and is part and parcel of its policy.
I listened to the defence of the proposal mounted by Senator Dooley who was sent in first to punch on behalf of the Government. The word “punch” is an overstatement because he did not punch at all. He stated that the Executive manages the economy and that far too much power is vested in agencies and semi-State bodies, but did not advance a single cogent argument in defence of the Government’s actions. I wonder who sent him into the House.
I listened to the Minister of State indicate that deficiencies were discovered with regard to the disbursement of funds. The only deficiency in this regard is that the Government could not get its hands on the fund, failed to anticipate its enormity and now wants to disburse it. The Minister of State stated, for example, in an odd form of acknowledgement, that the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, slipped up when introducing the legislation. I read the Minister’s Second Stage speech and summation in the Dáil on 20 June 2001, when he was at pains to point out that his officials and the officials of the Office of the Attorney General had done tremendous work in laboriously going through all the possible infringements of the rights of the public as regards access to money and the State’s right, in certain circumstances, to access money belonging to the public. It was, he stated, only after the officials had gone through the legislation line by line and dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s that they decided to introduce it. Where were the deficiencies to which the Minister of State referred at that point? The only deficiency is that the Government has discovered there is a bonanza waiting to be tapped and it cannot countenance the possibility of any independent agency having access to it.
The Minister of State referred to a recent meeting he had with the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board and stated it only has five staff. The easy way to redress that problem would be to transfer staff from Departments and provide the fund with additional resources, instead of making a decision to sideline the new disbursements board by replacing it with ADM. The composition of the board was seen as manifestly suitable when the Minister appointed it. It was composed of one representative of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; one representative of the financial services industry nominated by the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority; three persons with knowledge and experience of the sectors that would benefit from the fund, that is, from the voluntary community sector, the disability sector and the education sector; and three nominees of the Minister, including the chief executive of a disability organisation. The Minister had the power to appoint four board members. That simply was not good enough. It could not guarantee that the money would not be dispensed as a political favour in the context of pet projects identified by the Government. Now the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, is proposing to give the Government responsibility for appointing the chairperson and the board of directors of ADM and has asked that the existing ADM members stand aside. What neck, gall and arrogance. This is in order to allow the Government to stuff the board with its own political cronies in order to decide where the money should go. That is an absolute disgrace.
I was very interested in the PDs’ suggestion that the status quo should remain for the €30 million that is about to be disbursed — what a sop that is — and that the proposal should go ahead. That is a typical PD out. It is a way out because the PDs do not have the gall, the guts, the conviction or the political determination to stand up to what is manifestly a travesty of justice in the disbursement of these funds.
What I cannot understand about the PDs is that once they showed bottle. They showed bottle in regard to Abbotstown, the “Bertie Bowl”. They showed bottle regarding the disbursement of lottery funds. They insisted on legislation being introduced to ensure that the disbursement of lottery funds would at lease have some fragment of transparency to them. Here there is a fundamental wrong, an indefensible situation, a volte-face by the Government, and the PDs are prepared to jog along with it. I know from the comments of Senator Minihan that he has a problem with this. If he has a problem why does he not take the ultimate action and go to his party leader, the Tánaiste, who is second-in-command in the Government, and tell her the PDs cannot countenance this and will not agree to it and that the Government will simply have to reverse the throttle? The PDs have lost all their backbone. They are what we always believed, a microcosm of Fianna Fáil, and they should go back to their roots.
Mr. B. Hayes: On a point of order, in order for the amendment to be put it requires to be moved formally in the House. At 5.30 p.m. the Acting Chairman, Senator Leyden, asked the speaker in possession on the Government side to move it. To my recollection, it was never moved. I put it to the Chair that the vote that we should now proceed to is the substantive motion in my name and that of my colleagues.
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Cox, Margaret.||Daly, Brendan.|
|Dardis, John.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kett, Tony.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Leyden, Terry.|
|Lydon, Donal J.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Minihan, John.||Mooney, Paschal C.|
|Morrissey, Tom.||Moylan, Pat.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Scanlon, Eamon.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Ulick.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Coonan, Noel.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Finucane, Michael.||Hayes, Brian.|
|Henry, Mary.||Higgins, Jim.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||Norris, David.|
|O’Meara, Kathleen.||Phelan, John.|
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Cox, Margaret.||Daly, Brendan.|
|Dardis, John.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kett, Tony.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Leyden, Terry.|
|Lydon, Donal J.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Minihan, John.||Mooney, Paschal C.|
|Morrissey, Tom.||Moylan, Pat.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Bannon, James.||Bradford, Paul.|
|Browne, Fergal.||Burke, Ulick.|
|Coghlan, Paul.||Coonan, Noel.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Finucane, Michael.||Hayes, Brian.|
|Henry, Mary.||Higgins, Jim.|
|McCarthy, Michael.||Norris, David.|
|O’Meara, Kathleen.||Phelan, John.|
|Ross, Shane.||Ryan, Brendan.|
|Last Updated: 09/09/2010 20:39:57||Page of 12|