Adjournment Debate. - Ministerial Responsibility for FÁS.

At the outset I want to thank you a Cheann Comhairle, for affording me the opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. It is an issue that is of concern to you in so far as it relates to the rights of Deputies. If Deputy Colley who is in the House, or Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who has indicated an interest in the matter, wants to take up some of my time I am happy that that should be done.

I want to begin by explaining the circumstances in which I have come to raise this question. The issue was highlighted for me when I asked one of my colleagues to put down a question to the Minister for Labour. That question was tabled by my colleague, Deputy Fergus O'Brien, the party Chief Whip, and it sought to ask the Minister for Labour if he was satisfied that the arrangements announced by him in relation to additional payments to certain trainees for Christmas, in fact, operated so as to ensure that there was no disincentive to the persons taking up training opportunities.

That question drew a response from you, a Cheann Comhairle, and the response was to rule the question out of order. In doing so you referred to an answer given by the Minister for Labour to a series of questions that were put down to him on the first day back after the recess. If that decision was to stand and be taken as a precedent, it would have very serious consequences. There are a number of reasons why it is entirely proper that Members of the House should be in a position to raise such questions. I will deal first with the specifics and use those as an indication of my wider concern.

What Deputy O'Brien was seeking to do in his question was to probe a public statement made by the Minister on 25 November and elaborated on by him in this House. He sought to ascertain whether the commitment made in this House had been delivered. To suggest that the Minister does not have statutory responsibility in that area is unreal. It is unreal to suggest that, because at the time the commitment was made and the time certain trainees benefited from the extra payments, FÁS never even existed, the question can be excluded on those grounds.

The second concern we have is that the question contained within it issues of fundamental policy and funding importance and we understood that it was a fundamental principle of the Government that people who are unemployed should be encouraged to avail of any training or temporary employment opportunities that might be available to them. It is for that reason we understood the Government introduced the Jobsearch scheme. Indeed, they trumpeted their enthusiasm by encouraging people to move from unemployment into training or temporary employment opportunities. The question sought to raise the existence of serious disincentives to that. It sought to do that by focusing on the plight of some 4,000 trainees who, we say, were arbitrarily excluded from the terms of the scheme. That seems to be an issue of fundamental policy and one on which the Minister should be answerable to the House. We are concerned also because funding implications arise. What is involved is the adequacy of the funds available to the State agencies operating under the aegis of the Department of Labour to allow them to make payments which will be sufficient to ensure that there is no disincentive and it is entirely proper that the Minister should be answerable to the House on that.

There is a further reason — and I will stick to the specifics before moving to the general — why we are concerned. It seems that the question was excluded by your office, a Cheann Comhairle, in part on misleading information provided by the Department of Labour. It was misleading in the sense that your office were led to believe that the question related only to FÁS trainees, formerly AnCO trainees when, in fact, the Minister's public statement and his statement to this House had dealt with the circumstances of CERT trainees in respect of whom there had been no change in status. That is a further specific reason why we are concerned.

However, my concern goes beyond this and it is a concern that is shared by my party. We discussed it today and it is our intention not to let the matter rest. If we do not secure satisfaction here today we propose to take it further, either through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges or by tabling a Dáil motion dealing with this question. The right of Deputies to ask questions and to be informed in this area is of fundamental importance. What is involved is a central part of Government policy. The activities of FÁS in the area of training, the provision of temporary employment opportunities and job placement are absolutely central to the Government's response to unemployment and to seek to exclude this House from an opportunity to consider it is unacceptable.

It has been suggested that what happened simply followed the precedent of what was done when the Department of Posts and Telegraphs ceded responsibility for the telephone services and postal services to An Post and Telecom Éireann. That argument is, to say the least, disingenuous. The first reason why this is so is that what was involved in the case of An Post and Telecom Éireann was that the Minister and his Department ceded responsibility to two newly created semi-State bodies. What is involved in this issue is simply the transfer of responsibility from a multiplicity of State bodies to one State body. There is the question of the National Manpower Service for which there was previously direct ministerial responsibility, but that makes up a relatively small part of the package as a whole.

A distinction has to be drawn between a commercial State body and one that is engaged in the provision of services. The areas that can be exempt from parliamentary scrutiny in the case of the ESB are inherently wider than is appropriate for a service body entirely State-funded or European Community-funded and operating in an area of central importance.

I said that we regard this matter as one of fundamental importance, and that is so. If there is a change of policy and the effect of that change of policy is to exclude Deputies from pursuing questions of concern about the operation of employment and training measures, we have to respond to that and I have indicated that we are prepared to respond very forcibly. During the course of the day it has been intimated to me that what is involved may not be as all-embracing or sinister as it appeared and that what is involved are simply teething problems. If so, we would be delighted to receive reassurance on that point.

The first point I want to put to the Minister is that there is no justification for a departure from existing practice. In the past Ministers were prepared to answer, in the Dáil, questions in relation to the activities of AnCO and the Youth Employment Agency and now that those two bodies have been amalgamated and have a new letterhead there is no justification for seeking to exclude parliamentary questions. If the Minister feels that the existing practice was causing undue difficulties, we are prepared to hear him on that. We have no desire that the Minister's time and FÁS's time would be taken up in responding to questions about whether an individual applicant would go on a specific training programme or whatever. That is at one end of the scale. However, we do assert the right to ask questions about the general operations of FÁS and we will seek the support of the Chair in doing that.

If the Minister wants to make some changes in existing practices, it would be appropriate for him to discuss, perhaps, with the spokespersons from the other parties in the House, where the lines can be drawn as to what is so specific that it need not be the subject of parliamentary debate and what is sufficiently general and has sufficiently wide implications, that it is a matter that is proper to this Dáil. My party have shown that they accept the responsibilities of Opposition. We have shown that sometimes in areas that are politically difficult for us. We require that the Government accept their responsibilities, too, and we require that a government in a minority Dáil should not seek to exclude the rights Deputies have enjoyed for very many years.

I join with Deputy Birmingham in restating the principles on which Deputies in this House have access to information. I had an experience in this matter along with a number of other Deputies in the last few days. I tabled a question concerning the total number of participants involved in the social employment scheme and I received a letter stating that I could not pursue this matter with the Minister, that it must be referred directly to FÁS. The total numbers involved, rather than individual numbers in any one scheme, is very much an area where we are having regard to whether the policies announced by the Minister are being carried out. A Deputy must have access to that kind of information in order to monitor the implementation of policies. For instance, there is a specific amount of money involved, money allocated in the Labour vote, to fund the social employment schemes. How is a Deputy to ascertain whether that money is being spent on social employment schemes, whether it is being spent properly and whether there is a need for more? One simply cannot look effectively at the policy and how it is being implemented if one cannot have access to global figures and overall numbers.

I am a firm believer in the separation of the policy and executive functions of government. There should be very clear dividing lines between the implementation of a policy in its day-to-day manifestations and the targets that either are or are not achieved. A Deputy in this House should have access to the information as to whether the overall targets are being achieved. Access to that information is absolutely essential.

I would draw the attention of the House to the Minister's statement of 18 June last on the Labour Services Bill in which he specifically declared his interest in relation to policy as opposed to the day to day activities of FÁS. The Minister also referred to a NESC report on manpower policy which had criticised Irish legislation governing the activities of State bodies. NESC apparently argued that our legislation is very specific and detailed in relation to financial provisions but completely ignores the question as to how the Minister or the Department might influence the activities of these bodies in the context of overall policy. I realise that in this new Bill the Minister has taken it on himself to have a very active role in policy making, but of its very nature it is a political activity and something which must be open to examination. That is what this House is for and we, therefore, must have access to the kind of figures and information that would allow us to examine policy. The Minister in his speech said that the policy function is to rest clearly with the Minister and acknowledged that he left An Foras with a considerable degree of flexibility in day to day operations but that under section 17 the Minister may give a direction to An Foras to carry out or not to carry out specified activities. That is a very wide power. It is a political activity, something that reflects a policy decision. If it is a policy decision the Deputies in this House must have access to the information that went into the formation of that policy. I am afraid that if the type of figures I have looked for and the information Deputy Birmingham looked for are not available on a regular basis and on the basis on which such figures have been available up to now, we simply will have no input into judging policies that are being implemented. I would go so far as to say that the democratic process is therefore weakened. I would ask the Minister to give serious consideration to this. Perhaps, as Deputy Birmingham said, this problem might have arisen because of teething problems in how exactly FÁS will operate in relation to this House. I hope we can learn from the Minister that that is the case so that this problem can be ironed out.

I apologise to the Chair and his office and to my Opposition colleagues for the annoyance and confusion caused by this matter. That was not my intention. I totally agree with what has been said. I will clarify what caused some of the confusion. This motion must be looked at in the context of the formulation of manpower policy and the management of manpower programmes. The distinction between the policy formulation and the programme implementation was dealt with in the White Paper on Manpower Policy published in September 1986. The Dáil and the Seanad in their debates on the Labour Services Bill also dealt with the question. It would be fair to say that during these debates there was general agreement that the Minister of the day and his Department should be responsible for policy. The major issue was probably the failure of the Minister and the Departments to formulate policy and by default leave the functions to executive agencies. It is my intention to discharge this role fully and to answer to the Oireachtas for policy matters. There was also agreement that efficiency and effectiveness considerations would best be served by leaving the management of programmes to the board and management of FÁS.

In talking of parliamentary questions relating to day to day matters I have in mind for example requests for information on the conditions for entry to programmes, the eligibility of a particular person or body to participate in programmes and individual problems or group problems in relation to payments or some related matter. Clearly, because of limited staff resources, and in the interests of avoiding long delays in communications, these questions are best dealt with by direct contact between Deputies and FÁS or CERT as the case may be. At one stage a lot of questions from Deputies by way of phone calls to Departments could be dealt with in the Department by an officer walking down the stairs and getting the information. That was the practice in dealing with a lot of these schemes and services. Now that many of these services have gone out of the Department that is not possible. There is a totally different structure and it is a far more complicated process for individual staff to get the information. In the case of straightforward questions there is that difficulty and it is only possible to have questions answered now in a matter of days.

For example, of the 31 questions which I received today, almost all arrived into the Department late on Friday afternoon. Thus the Department officials are left in the position of getting all that information to me by mid-day yesterday so that I may prepare for Question Time.

There is a complication in that we do not have the staff within the Department. These people who gave information or answered queries regarding the schemes are gone from the Department and are elsewhere. To play the matter down and to say that it is all the same is unfair, particularly as it would pose an impossible burden for the individuals concerned. On day-to-day questions and policy questions, I totally accept how that information has to be given.

The Labour Services Act which followed two very constructive debates in the Dáil and Seanad provides a framework for policy formulation by the Minister. The Act also uses the expression "day-to-day activities". This is written into the Act.

Section 12 of the Act obliges FÁS to report to me as to proposed future activities within three months of starting and to obtain my approval and that of the Minister for Finance. This is a new departure, as Deputy Colley has said, in the relationship between the Minister and the State-sponsored body. It will allow me to ensure that the programmes of FÁS are consistent with my policy priorities.

Section 72 of the Act allows me to give direction in writing to FÁS in relation to policy generally, or in relation to their annual accounts, or annual reports, plans for the coming year — any information which I am entitled to obtain under section 12 (5).

Section 12 (5) deals with the furnishing of information to the Minister by FÁS at the request of the Minister. This section obliges FÁS to furnish me with the information on its activities, its strategy, its annual report, plans, or annual accounts. The subsection, however, specifically relieves FÁS of the obligation to furnish me with information on its "day-to-day activities". Legally, therefore, FÁS need not supply me with information on day-to-day matters and, by extension, it would be wrong to say that I am failing to answer questions for which I have statutory responsibility. As I have indicated, it is my intention, of course, to respond fully to the Oireachtas on policy matters. I believe that the approach which I am adopting is fully consistent with the Act. It will allow us to meet the twin objectives of proper ministerial responsibility to the Dáil and the efficient discharge of Manpower business.

Finally, if it is a matter of trying to formulate exactly what is in or out so that we do not have the confusion we had in the last few days, I should be very agreeable to assist. I wish to answer any question, I should answer and, at the same time, not to have a cumbersome and perhaps over-bureaucratic approach which would be unfair to the staff involved. I do not know who can arbitrate in this matter, whether it is the office of An Ceann Comhairle or not, but I should be very agreeable, before Question Time on the day when Department of Labour questions come up again, to have any of these matters clarified to the satisfaction of the Opposition spokesman.

On a point of clarification, may I take it that the Minister is agreeable to discussing the situation with the Opposition spokesman before the next day for questions?

I shall welcome that.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 February 1988.