Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to again speak on this Bill which relates to decentralisation as announced by the Minister for Finance in the budget. I would like to give the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, an opportunity to respond at the end of Second Stage to the serious concerns expressed yesterday by the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants and to ask him if this Bill will ever be implemented. Yesterday, delegations of that union accused the Government of treating civil servants like cattle and condemned the programme as announced in the December budget. The Minister will require co-operation from the people directly involved in this programme. Perhaps he will respond to the threat of industrial action in the event of members being adversely affected by the plan?

Ms Martina Feeney of the union's foreign affairs branch said: "We're not cattle, we're people." She also said: "Tom Parlon wants to move where the political grass is greener [referring to the Minister of State in charge of overseeing the programme] but we are not animals, and I'm not Daisy or Marigold." Will this programme be implemented?

Mr. Seán Ó Riordáin the union's general secretary also stated that aspects of the Government's plan did not make sense and that the relocation programme, if handled carefully over an extended time frame, had the potential to be beneficial. We are all agreed it has potential for enormous benefit to different areas but civil servants are concerned about its announcement, execution and time frame. Mr. Philip Crosby, a senior Revenue official said he would have six words for any Fianna Fáil or PD election candidate who canvassed his home and I quote: "Get the hell off my property." How can this plan be implemented if that is the opinion and response of senior people in the Civil Service? Mr. Eamon Corcoran of the union's health and children branch said he would have to suggest a performance review of any staff member who presented a report as poorly thought-out as the decentralisation programme. He stated: "This programme is a disgrace. How anyone can stand over it, I don't know."

The response from senior civil servants to this programme has been so negative the Minister of State should use the opportunity when replying to the Second Stage debate to address the concerns of the Association of Higher Civil and Public Servants as clearly expressed at yesterday's conference. I look forward to the Minister's response in that regard.

There is a great deal of concern that recruitment will be made on the basis of geography rather than centrally through the Civil Service Commission. Will a manager recruit to satisfy a need or will he or she recruit a person with a developmental career in the Civil Service? Concern has been expressed that recruitment will be geared to satisfy a need and that the person recruited will remain satisfying that need for the rest of his or her career rather than, as is currently the case, obtaining skills to allow a move to another area of a Department or to another Department thereby gaining rounded experience with the possibility of promotion to a higher level. Civil servants could be promoted by virtue of their experience in a number of Departments. The Minister should ensure this legislation does not create rigidity, narrow skills and inability to cope with change. An organisation must have the ability to cope with change. Human resource managers and senior management often find it difficult to address the issue of their organisation's ability to cope with change because people have an inherent resistance to it.

Will the Minister address the current problem whereby there is a period of six months between the time a vacancy arises and the time a recruitment is completed and the person is on the job? People have six months to decide to take up a position when they are offered it which means there is a vacancy for a period of six months. That is probably followed by another period during which they give notice to their current section. No private organisation could, under any circumstances, tolerate a vacancy in a senior position for a period of six months.

I implore the Minister to address the concerns expressed yesterday because it will be vital for the successful implementation of his programme.

I am delighted this Bill has finally come before the House. I was looking over my notes going back to 1996 and 1999. As a member of a health board, I made the point that it took two years for consultant appointments to be made and there were long waiting lists in terms of interviews being set up. In middle management a case outlined to me indicated that, in five years, an interview process and an appointment had not been made. The Bill is timely in that an Act of the Oireachtas had not been changed since 1926 and it was necessary that the Government should examine this area and, through the social partners, devolve a way of improving and modernising the system of recruitment.

That issue was brought home last week to those of us who are members of the Committee on Health and Children when it was pointed out that allocations were made by the Department of Health and Children for the appointment of a consultant. The health board in question would receive the funding for the consultant and that funding would be in place for two years before the consultant took up the appointment. I have exhorted the Minister for Health and Children to examine the system of appointment in the health services where, in the first instance, the health board must make the application to the Department of Health and Children for the various posts. The Department must then go through the system and decide to allocate funding and, at that stage, the application goes to Comhairle na nOspidéal for approval of the particular post. That process is extremely cumbersome.

This Bill is welcome but, in terms of the Department of Health and Children and the various new agencies being set up, I hope there will be a recommendation to ensure there is proper integration and progress on all the appointments to be made in the health area because the process has not been working as systematically as it should.

There have been, so to speak, two periods in the life of the Local Appointments Commission over the years: the valley periods when recruitment levels were very low but there were no problems with the system, and the Celtic tiger era when massive recruitment took place but which saw inordinate delays. One of the measures in the Bill that appeals to me is that, under the new commission being set up, there is a mechanism whereby it can license out recruitment locally for future appointments, thereby relieving any logjams that might exist in the system. Everybody must welcome that facet of the Bill. At times when recruitment levels are quite low, the commission will be able to deal with that, but when there is a fervour in regard to recruitment, it can be devolved, through licensing, to the local areas.

I have already dealt with the issue of advertising at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting and with the Minister for Health and Children. The level of advertising in the Sunday newspapers is extraordinary. During the Celtic tiger years when there was massive employment ongoing in the health system, each health board hospital had a major advertisement in the newspapers, which had to cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. That was money taken out of the system which could have been used at the coalface. I am pleased there has been a radical improvement in that regard in that all the health boards now advertise under the one subhead and similar posts are being advertised. That is welcome because that rationalisation has resulted in significant savings.

I hope the new commission will examine its advertising portfolio in terms of getting value for money. I understand the need for extensive advertising, including abroad, to ensure the best quality candidates are recruited, but it would be interesting to evaluate the amount of money expended by the Local Appointments Commission on that area over the past five years. I am sure the amount would be quite staggering. I hope the new commission will have regard to the level of spending being outlined and better allocate the money it is spending on issues such as this.

I want to refer to the issue of decentralisation, which was raised by Deputy Neville, and the process that forms part of this Bill. This legislation complements what the Government is doing in decentralisation but, listening to Fine Gael Members in particular, I wonder where they stand. Do they stand in favour of the towns that will benefit from the decentralisation programme?

We stand on the thinking that works. It will not happen. That is the problem.

I know Fine Gael always had a problem with decentralisation because, when the rainbow Government came to power, one of its first acts was to take the decentralisation programme off the map. We had to wait until we were back in Government again before it was reintroduced.

Everybody knows the frustration that is part of living in Dublin. Everybody is aware of the gridlock because they experience it every day. They experience the overpricing of houses that is part of the increasing demand for housing in Dublin, and the cost of living which makes Dublin one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

The current debate in the Civil Service is a healthy one but I suggest to civil servants who have made their homes in Dublin that, while decentralisation is voluntary, there are towns with vibrant communities which are crying out for the type of investment the Government wants to put in place. If the State is saying to investment authorities in terms of incoming employment to locate outside Dublin and not locate in Dublin, it is only consistent for it to indicate to its Civil Service that something must be done, given the unsustainability of what is happening on the fringes of the capital despite Government directives. The towns which will benefit from decentralisation welcome it. The process of consultation will take place with all the various parties involved under the national wage agreement. The Government will consult its civil servants.

I recall the decentralisation of the Central Statistics Office to Cork. All hell broke loose. Nobody would move. It was too costly. It was this and that. I heard the same arguments about the transfer of the office to Killarney. In both situations 900 people are employed in the Central Statistics Office outside Dublin. I do not hear any of them crying to get back to Dublin from Cork or Killarney.

We have heard of the business of sustainable development. What is it? Dublin is not sustainable as it is currently. However, there are rural towns that can be made sustainable. By the correct policies of decentralisation, that sustainability can be achieved. In those towns we can improve the infrastructure, trade and employment levels. More importantly, we can sustain the communities themselves because the people who are part of the decentralisation programme will find themselves integrating and being part of the fabric of the towns and contributing in a major way to improving the stature, standing and general well-being of local communities.

This is an outstanding Bill and will complement the decentralisation programme that the Government is putting in place. Now at a local level recruitment can take place. The various agencies in those towns will have a licence to recruit. I hear Deputy Neville refer to "recruitment by geography", as if there was something wrong in recruiting local people and getting local commitment from people who are well-qualified and want to live in their immediate communities. What better commitment could there be in future recruitment programmes than to tap into the local community and to employ somebody in, for example, Mullingar, who has the qualifications, motivation and commitment to the community? Why should there not be future recruitment on a geographical basis if people want to live and work in a given area, provided they have the qualifications?

On the Local Appointments Commission it is important to say that, over the years, while criticism has been levelled in terms of how focused it was and the speed in which individuals were recruited, there has never been any question regarding equity and fairness. It must be acknowledged, as a new body takes on this role, that this has never been in question. The LAC has been a tremendous success since 1926 and it would be remiss not to acknowledge the outstanding part it has played in recruitment over the years. I am delighted with the Bill. It is not before its time and very much in keeping with the decentralisation programme and recruitment system that is in place. It shows once again that the integration of Government between action and act is now taking place.

Lower grade civil servants are among the lowest paid workers in the State, yet they are vilified by many politicians within the Government and establishment parties in this House. They seek to scapegoat State workers for various problems, be they revenue shortfalls or even traffic congestion in Dublin. The fiction of a highly paid job for life is used by those who wish to reduce public support for low grade civil servants in case they should ever strike for better pay.

The new recruitment structures set up by this Bill mean it will be extremely difficult to attract people to Civil Service jobs that pay far less than many equivalent positions in the private sector unless this is rectified. Some people within this House have called for public sector employees not to be paid their benchmarking increases. Those who make these demands speak of civil servants as one block of employees, ignoring the fact that there are vast differences in levels of pay between lower civil servants and those on higher grades.

The reason civil servants are leaving Dublin is that they cannot afford to live there, in many cases because of their low wages. For many it is not because they want to go to wherever it is their Department is being relocated. I emphasise "relocated" because there is no evidence of real decision-making in the proposed decentralisation programme. We need to ensure that all workers within the public and private sectors receive a living wage. It is time we ceased to ignore the issue of low pay in the lower grades of the civil service. The Sustaining Progress social partnership deal delivered nothing for those workers, nor for low-paid workers in other sectors. This is its main flaw; it fails to deliver for those who need it most. The partnership process has failed to address the needs of the working poor to ensure better quality and better paid jobs are available to enable all workers to earn a living wage.

What has social partnership done to enhance workers' rights and entitlements? What has it done to ensure better quality of life for workers and their families? It has not even deliveredtrade union recognition, despite enormous commitments and concessions to employers from the trade union movement. Social partnership fails the low paid who are expected to survive on miserly scraps from IBEC.

With reference to the Civil Service's failure to implement the 3% employment target for people with disabilities in the civil and public service, set in 1977, will this Bill, in any way, lead to an improvement in this regard? Those tasked with recruitment in the Bill would need to make a real effort to increase the levels of disabled people in the Civil Service. More must be done to enable workers, including those with disabilities, to take up employment. People living in poverty as a result of unemployment, want to work. Many of them cannot, because of disability, poor education and training and career responsibilities for children or older family members.

I am concerned at the provision in the Bill that permits Secretaries General and heads of office to apply to recruitment licences to recruit staff directly. I do not share Deputy Batt O'Keeffe's enthusiasm for the Bill. If this is not managed in an open and accountable manner, it will raise fears of corruption in matters of recruitment, which could be seriously damaging to the reputation of the Civil Service. People are entitled to raise concerns on this issue.

I would like to comment on another employment issue. I refer to migrant workers from the accession states after 1 May 2004. It is deeply regrettable that all other EU states will restrict access to their labour markets for citizens of the accession countries.

Equality between citizens of all member states is a key principle of the European Union. My party is firmly of the belief that the accession states should join the EU on an equal footing to the current members. These restrictions create a second, lower stratum of membership where the citizens of some states have lesser rights, and it will further encourage the creation of a two-tier Europe. Accession states have rightly expressed their annoyance about these restrictions, especially the recent U-turn by Britain, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. It should not be forgotten that the accession states received assurances from many EU members during the accession negotiations in 2001 that restrictions on the movement of workers from the accession states would not be introduced. I call on the Government of this State to use its Presidency of the EU to work with all current members to ensure all restrictions on the free movement of workers from the accession states will be lifted at the earliest possible opportunity and to ensure that equality between workers of all EU member states is restored.

I am also deeply concerned by the indications given by the Taoiseach that this State may introduce welfare restrictions for workers from the accession states in light of the legislation being introduced in the British House of Commons. We do not need to follow the British example. Workers from the new member states cannot be given lesser rights to workers of the current member states simply to ease unfounded fears that workers from those new states will come to this State in greater numbers.

This Bill, particularly its provision to allow Government special advisers to be appointed to established Civil Service positions, is in direct contravention of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 which was enacted to prevent a Government of whatever political hue from packing the public service with political hacks whose only qualification was that they licked the appropriate political rear ends. It institutionalises their eligibility for permanent, pensionable Civil Service posts, appointments that will not be at the lower end of the pay scale, with the approval of the proposed commission for public service appointments that is due to replace the Local Appointments Commission, a body with a long and distinguished record of human resources experience in the public service since the State's foundation. The relevant section of the Ethics in Public Office 1995 is also to be scrapped, a retrograde step that will do little to instil public confidence in the integrity of public service appointments.

Since their introduction in the 1970s, special advisers have been the bane of the body politic and, in many cases, did not possess any particular political or specialist expertise apart from their ability to organise a Minister's election campaign, to distribute 30,000 leaflets in a single night or climb the optimum number of trees or poles in the service of the party. The designation of certain individuals as special advisers was, in many instances, the supreme act of political patronage. Some individuals possessed specialist skills which would be useful to a Minister or Department and there were some notable and honourable exceptions to the rule but, in general, special advisers were recruited on a political basis without the bother of submitting to open public service competition as it applied to civil servants generally.

The integrity of the public service and of its recruitment practices is under severe and insidious threat through this Bill institutionalising eligibility for permanent positions without due process. This will enable these political individuals to skirt the normal open recruitment process of the public service purely on the basis of their party allegiance. If that is not institutionalising patronage, I do not know what is. It amounts to blatant patronage of the worst kind, bordering even on corruption, for Ministers to slot their political cronies into permanent public service positions in the dying days of a lame duck Government. This certainly does not constitute best practice and no shadow boxing on the part of the Minister can disguise that fact. How the ghosting of their political friends into permanent public service positions is meant to reform public service recruitment beats me.

This Bill is at variance with established public service practice which requires all permanent and pensionable appointees to be subject to the independent selection process. The bar on the assimilation of special advisers, after they have outlived their political usefulness, into the permanent public service should remain. It is vital that public service recruitment be seen to be free of political interference and, unfortunately, this Bill falls considerably short of achieving that.

Why is it necessary to introduce fines of up to €10,000 and sentences of two years in jail for people who seek to canvass for a publicservice post? When Ministers make strong representations on behalf of job applicants, they will not be seen as canvassing for the applicant and will not be subject to the Bill's proposed sanctions or penalties. They are also not considered to be guilty of a criminal offence as members of the public are under this legislation, an anomaly that must be rectified if the Bill is to mean anything.

Appointments to public bodies and State agencies have been long considered to be within the Government's gift and there is a lengthy history of such patronage being abused by successive Governments. One only has to look at appointments to prison visiting committees where geographic location is subordinated to the maximisation of travelling and subsistence allowances. Donegal party activists would be considered appropriate candidates for nomination to visiting committees in Cork or Limerick and Cork or Kerry supporters are favourites for appointment to Castlerea prison visiting committee.

Similar abuse persisted for many years in judicial appointments and in the allocation of State briefs. A person's suitability was determined by their service to the Government party. This situation was remedied in the 1970s by their transfer to the remit of the Director of Public Prosecutions who, by and large, has done an excellent job. Nevertheless, the culture of jobbery, patronage and corruption remains in many respects and is ingrained in the Bill.

Why not make the proposed commission for public service appointments truly independent, similar to the DPP's position in judicial appointments, with transparency, impartiality and accountability apparent for all to see? In the United States, transparency in public service appointments is a byword and candidates for positions are subjected to rigorous scrutiny and questioning before approval. The Government has the opportunity now to remove public service appointments from any suggestion of patronage or jobbery and truly reform the system of public appointments by making them on intrinsic merit, aptitude and skills and abilities.

This Bill is not about reform or modernisation. It is about the pork barrel politics of the current Administration.

Yes, the pork barrel is what it is about.

It is about the message that was sent by the Minister of State after the budget: "Welcome to Parlon country".

Exactly.

It is about parochial concerns and decisions.

The parish pump.

The Local Appointments Commission has a long and honourable tradition that is being jettisoned in the Bill. A previous Government speaker referred to the equity and fairness that characterise the decisions of the commission. That equity and fairness is being discarded. This Bill is being introduced as a sticking plaster to back up the decision in the budget to introduce decentralisation. Decisions are being made on the hoof and civil servants are being left to pick up the pieces.

A year and a half ago the national spatial strategy was introduced but it was ignored in the budget decision to place Departments in towns that were not included in the strategy. In doing that, the strategy was torn up, even though it was a plan based on careful examination of the towns under consideration for development. That was watered down and now this Bill has been introduced to try to justify the decentralisation talked about in last December's budget. It is a step backwards and, like many decisions taken recently, there have been all kinds of stops, starts and U-turns. Bills are required to back up decisions which appear to have been made almost overnight at some stage just before the budget. There is concern about what county the Department of the Marine will be in this week and next. Such decisions are being modified over time and we are losing out on a long and honourable history. That is what this Bill is doing.

At the same time as health boards are being amalgamated to provide economies of scale and a certain coherence to appointments, we are doing the exact opposite with this Bill, namely, devolving power to bodies that I am not convinced have the resources or ability to handle the decisions that will be given to them. The people involved will be under severe pressure from many of those who could benefit from decisions, and I am concerned about that. I have misgivings about conferring all those strong powers on vocational education committees and health boards. We must remember that those bodies have political appointees on them. I am aware that people have been told that they have got the job not by the human resources section of one of those bodies but by a political appointee. I am not convinced that this Bill has enough safeguards within it to prevent those political appointees from positioning themselves as the bearers of good news.

One of this country's finest traditions is that the Local Appointments Commission is above the petty politics and parochial concerns to which I referred. The reasons for the setting up of the Local Appointments Commission and the introduction of city and county managers was the perception and the reality that decisions and appointments were being made for the wrong reasons. That is what we must concentrate on in this legislation. I am not convinced that sections 15 and 16 ensure that there will be no impropriety in the decisions being made.

This Bill, and the decisions that we made on it, are rather akin to those regarding electronic voting. There is a long and honourable tradition of technology and personnel working well. Then suddenly a complete sea change happens overnight. I say the same thing about electronic voting as about this Bill: if it is not broken, do not fix it. I urge the Minister to reconsider the sweeping changes that he proposes in this Bill and ensure that we do not lose the vast knowledge, experience and, above all, untarnished record of the Local Appointments Commission.

Like other speakers, I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Bill 2003. First, I will take a few moments to rebut Deputy Morgan's attack on the social partnership. He said that it had failed to deliver for workers. That is not true or accurate. It is important to point out that it might suit some individuals or parties to have strife, conflict and disruption in employer-labour relations and in the labour market generally. It would probably give them a feeding ground and allow them greater scope to get more actively involved in certain areas.

However, that approach has probably been the most successful aspect of this country's great success over the past eight years in particular. It is an undeniable fact that we have had the eight most beneficial and positive years since the foundation of the State. Nobody will argue with that. People might try to analyse the reasons, and we are quite open to that. However, we will have to fight any attempt from whatever group or individuals to undermine that success. It may be said that not every worker or individual capable of working has gained from that approach and the agreements we have put in place. It may be argued that some people benefited more than others. In percentage terms, we have done better than many workers outside this House.

In general, however, the stability provided by social and other agreements has meant that today in this House the concern is about the number of people who may wish to come to Ireland from other countries, whereas ten years ago we were exporting 40,000 people a year. Those of us who had to go and were lucky enough to come back will not allow any party, whatever its approach, to undermine the stability of what has been put in place through such initiatives as social partnership. It has been successful, and we got rid of the old stoppages as far as possible. Some of them were created artificially and caused civil disruption. We are now in a period of success. The hundreds of thousands of new jobs that have been created are the greatest manifestation of the benefits of that approach, and long may that continue.

I see this Bill as part of the wider modernisation of the public service as set out in the Sustaining Progress programme. It must be seen alongside benchmarking and everything else. The simple fact was that we needed and continue to need change. Some people are unwilling to change; they may be afraid or have got set in their ways. However, extraneous matters are brought in, such as those raised by Deputy Cuffe who was comparing this issue with electronic voting. I have no problem doing the same: both represent progress and welcome change. Deputy Cuffe brought the matter up as part of some other shady scheme.

We heard the same kind of comment broadcast regarding ESB programmes. Looking back at when schemes first started in the country, the company went to places in Waterford and elsewhere and set up fairly small pilot schemes. Almost exactly the same kinds of comments came through: that people's health would suffer, that children would stick forks in the plugs, that the house would burn down around them and so on. People asked how they could ever put up with it and manage in the future. Every imaginable reason that electricity should not be installed was brought up. Now we get the same sort of sometimes stupid, sometimes carefully thought out comments — in nearly all cases negative — against such initiatives as electronic voting. The same is true of progress in this case. All of us involved over the years have seen square pegs put in round holes——

I have seen that.

——often as a result of the centralised appointments commission. My colleague, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, referred to the ludicrous situation of which everyone who has ever served on a health board will be aware, namely, the two year wait to have an appointment sanctioned for consultants. That is blamed on the administration, and politicians of every hue will hop up and down, say it is crazy, that we must do something and that the appointment is needed, and ask what is holding it up. Comhairle na nOspidéal and the Local Appointments Commission hold up such appointments. It is a crazy situation and the public is suffering. It is time to change that. The success this country has enjoyed for the past eight years means we must put new facilities in place and change what we are doing at present.

Debate adjourned.