Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - County Strategy Groups.

Noel Dempsey


5 Mr. Dempsey asked the Taoiseach the way in which the recently appointed county strategy groups fit in with his general plans for devolution of powers to local authorities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17480/95]

County strategy groups are established in each county under the terms of the Operational Programme for Local Urban and Rural Development.

The role of the county strategy groups is to secure the cohesion, from a county perspective, of the various local development initiatives being undertaken by the State and voluntary sector. The membership comprises the chairs of county enterprise boards, area partnerships, Leader groups and county tourism committees, as well as the county manager. A liaison team had been formed in my Department to facilitate the establishment of the groups in line with the commitment in the Operational Programme for Local Development. Its role is to ensure effective co-ordination and exchange of information among groups and organisations involved in local development so as to avoid overlap, duplication or competition between the organisations and to ensure that any significant gaps are addressed. In particular they are preparing co-ordination strategies which will indicate how participating organisations will co-operate, while recognising the need to avoid adding a bureaucratic layer to the local development effort.

I am concerned that the local government system should not be isolated from the local development process.

That sounds like an afterthought.

It is an afterthought. I was not the Minister when it was introduced.

Of course, Deputy Cullen was not a member of that party.

Is the Minister supernumerary?

The islands are safe, Deputy Carey.

Let us hear the Minister's statement.

For that reason, the Government has proposed to the European Commission that the composition of the county strategy groups be amended to provide for the inclusion of local public representatives. I am confident this will be agreed shortly.

The Government's approach to local government reform was set out in the Government statement of 4 July 1995. The Devolution Commission has been established and has been asked to make recommendations so that the local authorities become the focus for working through local partnership involving local community based groupings, voluntary bodies, the private sector and public agencies, and the efforts of local authorities and those of existing groups such as county enterprise boards, Leader groups, and area partnerships are co-ordinated.

The experience of the county strategy groups will be an important input to the work of the Devolution Commission. The involvement of public representatives will also be a step in the direction which the Government wish to support.

I will not repeat what Deputy Cullen said regarding the bypassing of local government. The Minister stated that the Government has recommended to the European Commission that the county strategy groups should include local public representatives.

That is correct.

Was that recommendation made before or after I tabled the question? The county strategy groups that have been set up include a range of non-elected people, such as chairmen of various groups and county managers rather than county council chairmen. I want an assurance from the Minister that irrespective of what Europe says the Government will respect local public representatives and ensure they are represented on the county strategy groups.

This matter has exercised my mind for some time and is not something we recommended after the Deputy tabled his question. I share his concerns in this regard. Anything that is funded by taxpayers, whether from Europe or Ireland, should have a direct accounting procedure to elected representatives. I can account for the overall policy in the Dáil but as many of the groups will be area based there should be county contact and I do not have a difficulty in that regard. The main motivation for this has come from the Taoiseach and me. However, there has been some resistance. The structures I inherited are very rigid and we have given those involved in the structures the right to decide what we do. It is time we stopped knocking each other. I am fed up with questions being put down about the cost of this, that and the other.

The Minister of State was not bad at it himself.

The Government, Parliament and elected representatives should be given priority.

This is some lecture.

I welcome the Deputy's question, but it is time we got our act together because the House is becoming increasingly irrelevant. I will do everything I can to ensure that public representatives are accounted to in respect of these programmes.

The Minister of State must have missed at least one cliché.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will get our support for anything that will enhance local public accountability in respect of these organisations.

The Minister of State spoke about removing bureaucratic layers and bringing matters as close as possible to local people. However, he referred to the establishment of county strategy groups and the liaison committee in the Department of the Taoiseach, two additional layers of bureaucracy. Public representatives and Members of the Oireachtas are being ignored as a result of the establishment of all these groups, but I am glad the Minister of State assured us that will not continue.

I cannot win on this question. Deputy Kitt asked if I could appoint somebody from my Department to co-ordinate matters and when I made proposals in that regard Deputy Dempsey condemned me. The committee is attempting to co-ordinate matters on a cross-departmental basis from the Department of the Taoiseach, which is the correct place for such co-ordination to be carried out. I am examining the question of the involvement of public representatives at county level in the county strategy groups. I am also examining the possibility of devolving as much work as possible under these programmes to county councils and local authorities under the Devolution Commission. I am sure all Members would agree that is the proper way to approach the matter. I support the principle behind the Deputy's question.

Is the Minister aware of the amount of time spent by county and area managers in attending meetings of Forbairt, Leader, county enterprise boards, strategy groups and so on? Each day their diaries are full of times at which they must attend meetings where nothing happens.

The whole idea of public service is that it serves the needs of the community.

Not by going to meetings all the time.

If we are to ensure that the programme objectives are implemented those paid to attend meetings must do so. That is part of their job. When we do not understand the purpose of a programme we are inclined to adopt such an attitude. I accept this is a new approach which will involve streamlining, but the programmes are exciting and important. I anticipate that the local development programme will create in the region of 8,000 jobs in one to five person enterprises in areas of greatest need in a relatively short period of time. It will also include environmental improvement, training, education and so on. I requested partnership companies to prioritise estate management training for local authority tenants which is important if communities are to be properly run.

I would be happy to organise a morning seminar for Members of the Oireachtas to brief them in this area.

Another meeting.

With all the county managers in attendance.

It is important that Members understand this.

We are all on the same wavelength as far as bureaucratic layers and duplication are concerned. I understand that the ADM and the Combat Poverty Agency have been appointed to deal with some European funding. My area has been divided into three and a new group has been appointed to administer a fund which was successfully administered previously by the Leader group. There is no continuation. There is a breakdown in communication between what was achieved by the Leader funding and this new grouping set up to administer another fund. Can there not be some continuation of the system? Perhaps the Minister of State should arrange something as he has just suggested so that this could be co-ordinated.

I will try to arrange such a seminar and I hope Members will find it possible to attend. In relation to the point just raised by Deputy McDaid, my policy decision, which was offered to each of the Leader groups, was that where there was an existing Leader group they could take on the partnership activities themselves if they wished to do so by a minor adjustment in the boards. A number of Leader groups around the country choose to do so but in other areas people decided they did not want to do it that way.

I disagree vehemently with the Minister of State. A moment ago he said he thought it was very generous to include a few councillors. While the councillors will not object, I object to the whole strategy because it is a load of nonsense. Councillors are now expected to sit and applaud like chimps because they will be included on a committee.

Questions, please.

Local government should be the primary body responsible and all these groups should be answerable to democratically elected people.

I want to assist the Deputy but he must proceed by way of a question.

I ask because it is an important issue at local government level. You now have a situation where democratically elected local politicians are trying to deal with local government without funding, taking the flak and making all the difficult decisions. The public see tens of millions of pounds going throughad hoc groups which totally ignore the wishes of local government.

The Deputy is continuing to make statements. I shall have to ask him to desist. This is question time, Deputy. I want direct, precise questions and time is fast running out.

I appreciate that. Does the Minister agree that the time has come for this to be addressed in consultation with the Minister for the Environment with regard to the future of local government and thesead hoc bodies?

I am trying to undo something that was done and, while I will not point the finger in any direction, I can only presume that it was never intended to be done. However, we have given people who are not elected representatives certain powers and they should be accountable to elected representatives. I am tackling this in two ways, first at county level and, second, by asking the devolution commission to see what can be done about devolving it back to local authorities. That is a generous way of approaching it and I have no difficulty with it.

We all accept there are too many bodies and that it is confusing for the ordinary person who does not know where to make an application. Will the Minister agree that the publication of a brief information booklet setting out all these bodies would help the ordinary taxpayer? Failing that, will he agree with my recent suggestion during the debate on the Securitisation (Proceeds of Certain Mortgages) Bill, that we should have an annual jamboree in Croke Park for all these task forces and quangos. The National Stadium would not be big enough so Croke Park is the only suitable venue to accommodate all these task forces which, I admit, my Government was not too bad in setting up either.

The Artane Boy's Band.

I am grateful that the Deputy has given me the opportunity to inform the House that such a booklet will be published very shortly.

Can the Minister assure us that, following question time which has been very helpful, he will make contact with the Minister for Enterprise and Employment and other Ministers to ensure that what he has just told the House will be done?

I will bring what has been discussed at question time today to the attention of the Ministers concerned.