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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 26 Mar 1987

Vol. 371 No. 4

Adjournment Debate. - Appointment of Secretary to Department of Finance.

Deputy Barry Desmond gave me notice of his intention to raise on the Adjournment the Government decision in regard to the Top Level Appointments Committee relating to the appointment of the Secretary to the Department of Finance. The Deputy is in order and has 20 minutes to make his case and the Minister has ten minutes to reply.

I am raising this matter because in the first instance I am concerned that the Minister for Finance and the Public Service should clarify for the House a number of considerations in relation to the appointment of the Secretary to the Department of Finance recently. I wish to state very clearly that I am not raising any personal objection whatsoever to the civil servant in question. Rather am I concerned to know the method of appointment and the interaction between that and the system which has operated for the past four years, namely, the TLAC, the Top Level Appointments Committee, which was set up by the former Government. I am also anxious that we should clarify for the future the policy intentions, if any, of the Government or any policy changes in this area which may have been considered by the Government to date. I appreciate that a number of those matters may not yet be on the agenda of the Government but inevitably appointments of this nature must be on it.

As the House is aware, a major new method of appointment was decided on by the previous Government. We set up the Top Level Appointments Committee. As is generally known, the Secretary to the Government was in the chair for many of those appointments. Many departmental secretaries, assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries of Government Departments were appointed by the TLAC. The committee, as we know, consisted of the Secretary to the Government and a number of senior departmental secretaries. There was an independent member of the committee who was a distinguished former chairperson of the Public Services Advisory Council and other major review bodies set up over the years. The TLAC worked very well. There were problems with it, not the least of which was the reluctance of Ministers and portfolio holders to give to the TLAC the selection process whereby they interviewed candidates from a broad range of public service Departments. They then recommended one name to the Minister of the day and the Government made the appointment. There were problems from time to time but, by and large, a consensus emerged that it was a singularly effective method of appointment for a number of reasons.

The reasons were that it opened up within the Civil Service — and perhaps in time it would have extended outside the Civil Service — senior major Civil Service vacancies within the Government Departments. There was a broadening out of the system whereby persons could be appointed. Secondly, to my personal knowledge, a number of people emerged who were high fliers, who were singularly capable of doing that work at top level and who were circumscribed within their own Departments due to lack of vacancies or for a variety of reasons. Thirdly, it introduced a climate of broader objectivity in the assessment of the relative competence of different candidates for the positions of departmental secretaries and assistant secretaries. Finally, it encouraged a degree of mobility between different Departments which I found to be beneficial.

Like any innovative system, of course, it was open to criticism. I will not delay the House unduly with the criticisms which were made. It had considerable problems not least of which was the fact that for a protracted period the Department of Finance were not represented on the TLAC. That was remedied towards the end of the period of office of the TLAC. If the person appointed as departmental secretary was aged 55 years or over that person had a five year contract of appointment. If the person was under 55 years of age he or she had a seven year contract of appointment. These changes were brought in.

There was considerable discussion at Government level on the overall role of the Top Level Appointments Committee. It had one other major benefit. It removed from the office holder of the day the personal responsibility of decision as to who should become Secretary of his Department for the time being. He was able to look at it at second remove. That responsibility was shared with the Public Service, the Civil Service and with his colleagues in Government. Some were reluctant to have that responsibility taken from them but that did happen.

My query to the Minister this evening is one entirely in good faith. I conclude on this note: I hold the person appointed, as do Members of this House, in the highest esteem with regard to his competence, his integrity and his contribution within the Civil Service. However, I feel it is in the public interest and entirely necessary that we should know today what considerations the Government gave to the TLAC system or any other form of appointment. As the Minister knows in relation to other Departments such as the Department of Foreign Affairs, individual decisions were taken whereby the TLAC system had a different, non-involved role. Will the Minister clarify the matter? Deputy Noonan wishes to contribute also to this discussion and, accordingly, I have shortened my comments to enable him to contribute, with your permission, a Cheann Comhairle.

(Limerick East): First, I should like to thank Deputy Desmond for allowing me to contribute here and to thank the Minister for coming into the House on the Adjournment. I congratulate him on his appointment. I congratulate also the gentleman who is the subject of this Adjournment debate. When I raised the matter with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business this morning, I was aware of the competence and integrity of the new Secretary of the Department of Finance. It is the general issue of principle which is being raised and no issue of personality arises here.

The TLAC system has worked well. Any system is subject to refinement and modification and if the Minister has proposals to change, modify or refine we shall deal with those on their merits on a suitable occassion when the House is informed of them. For the purposes of this debate I have a number of questions. First, as I remember the TLAC system, the Department of Foreign Affairs were excepted. Are we to take it now that the Department of Finance are also excepted from this system? Secondly, is the TLAC system of appointment being discontinued, refined or modified in any way? If there is no intention of discontinuing the system which has applied successfully over a number of years, why is this single exception being introduced at the start of the life of the Government? Was there a particular need to act quickly, or were there some circumstances, of which the House is not aware, which caused an exception here which is out of line with the general parameters of the TLAC appointment system?

Thirdly, I should like to raise an associated question. The Taoiseach in the House on the day on which he announced his Cabinet talked about certain changes in the role of Ministers. He announced he was merging the Department of the Public Service with the Department of Finance and that Deputy MacSharry would be Minister for Finance and the Public Service. I took it from that statement that we were going to have one merged Department presided over by a single Minister, rather than two distinct Departments with the same Minister. It would seem that a merger would imply that one would have one departmental secretary and not two. I would have thought that if there was a vacancy in Finance an appropriate way of filling that vacancy would be by the appointment and designation of the Secretary of the merged Department, the existing Secretary of the Department of the Public Service, to take over the two roles. Are we to take it now that as a result of this appointment we will not have a merger of both Departments, but that we have, in effect, two distinct Departments presided over by the same Minister? I should like to thank you again, a Cheann Comhairle, and also Deputy Desmond for allowing me the opportunity to contribute and put those questions to the Minister.

The first thing I would like to do before I reply is to congratulate Deputy Noonan on his appointment today. I look forward to working with him and co-operating with him in every way possible. I wish him well in his new task. I want to thank both Deputies for their contribution and I am glad also of the opportunity to clarify this matter.

Under section 2 (2) of the Ministers and Secretaries Act, 1924, the Secretary of a Government Department is appointed by the Government on the recommendation of the Minister of the Department concerned. I find it interesting that, when the previous Government set up the Top Level Appointments Committee to advise on appointments at Assistant Secretary, Deputy Secretary and Secretary level, they exempted two important posts from the committee's remit. One was the Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners, the other the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and, indeed, all senior posts in that Department.

The previous Government clearly felt that certain posts were best left to be filled directly by the Government on the nomination of the appropriate Minister. The present Government were strongly of the view that the post of Secretary of the Department of Finance should also be filled directly by the Government because the post is so important and unique. In addition, the Top Level Appointments Committee contains among its members Secretaries of other Departments who might have been potential candidates and that could have proved difficult.

I am quite sure the Top Level Appointments Committee will continue to work well, as Deputy Desmond has said. It is important to clarify why I am saying the Department of Finance because in relation to the involvement of secretaries on the TLAC Committee there are a number of posts of Secretary in various Departments, Finance, Public Service, Revenue and Agriculture. That is really the order. Finance is a very important post in the whole Government mechanism. That is why the present Government felt, as the previous one did in relation to two other posts, that it should be filled by the Government rather than by the TLAC.

That is the clarification I can give and the explanation of what has been done by the Government. I shall take the opportunity of conveying both Deputies' good wishes as expressed here to the new secretary of the Department of Finance. In addition to the motion before us, there were the questions raised by Deputy Noonan in relation to the amalgamation of the two Departments. That is proceeding — there will be one Minister and one Department.

May I ask the Minister one question, briefly? What would be the position relating to vacancies for Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretary in Finance? Will the TLAC apply to those?

At this stage I would expect that it would.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 31 March 1987.