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

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

Before the debate adjourned, I spoke of those who did not favour our present co-operative approach to labour relations incorporating partnership agreements and preferred to return to the old days. Later I will talk about decentralisation. The most significant development in this Bill is the creation of the commission for public service appointments and the public appointments service. They have been given clearly defined roles. Appointments will come through the recruitment regulator and the public appointments service as the centralised recruitment body. This will significantly improve the recruitment process in the public sector.

Under current arrangements recruitment to the Civil Service and the Garda Síochána is carried out by the Civil Service Commission, while recruitment to senior posts in local authorities and health boards is through the LAC. This matter featured in the debate earlier this week. I pointed out the difficulties created in the health arena in particular by delays caused by the LAC. We need a more streamlined approach and this Bill will pave the way for such an approach. It will be a matter for the Garda Commissioner and the Secretary General of each Department to decide whether they should apply for a licence allowing them to recruit directly or to continue to use the service of a centralised agency. It is not true to say that all the power has been taken from those who ultimately must supervise the staff.

The labour market has changed beyond recognition in the past ten years. It used to be that someone would take a job and stay as long as possible, perhaps to retirement. This is no longer the case. Most workers consider taking jobs for three to five years. Many young people will outline where they see themselves being in 20 years. They are likely to change roles on a number of occasions in that time. They no longer fear moving from the public to the private sector and back. We must facilitate such change. The old system failed to do so. Up to now the system of recruitment to the public sector has been too centralised. The Bill tackles the problem by allowing public bodies to undertake their own recruitment process. Many people have blamed the LAC in the past. It is time for a change and everybody should support the Bill.

One of the Opposition backbenchers criticised the prison visiting committees. A very practical reason for not sitting on one's local prison visiting committee is the potential danger involved. Being from Cork city, I would not like to serve on a Cork prison visiting committee and I am sure the same would apply to Limerick or elsewhere. The people who criticise that system fail to point out that members of interview boards must drive throughout the country every day of the week to conduct interviews. They may be senior personnel or people who have retired. While they are clocking up the same mileage, I do not hear anybody criticising them. We should not criticise those willing to sit on a prison visiting committee either. Bodies will be required to respond much more quickly to their recruitment needs and they must be facilitated in this regard.

Decentralisation is a crucial issue and many previous speakers have opposed it. While trying not to exaggerate I believe the decentralisation of Departments is the most important initiative since the foundation of the State. People will be able to return to their places of origin and following yesterday's announcement by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, they will also be able to get permission to build a home in a rural area if they so wish. Considerable lip-service has been paid to this concept from many sources over the years, especially from urban-based Deputies. People have been very vocal and positive on the issue of rural regeneration. The Government is now acting on that concept by providing the possibility of a job in one's area and the possibility of building a home there. I hope the support will continue.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, was right to announce the decentralisation programme during the budget speech. He pointed out there is a particular Dublin mentality affecting too much of our thinking. Those of us who travel to Dublin get into the rarefied atmosphere up here and even start to think along the same lines at times. After his announcement I read a report that described his programme as the "rape of Dublin", which obviously got the headline. However, a similar process has gone on in reverse to the detriment of every village and town in the country since the practice of centralising the public service and Civil Service was begun after the foundation of the State. People travelled up to Dublin without worrying too much about the locality back home. This has led to the loss of young talented people from rural areas and the consequences have been spelt out for us in recent years. The economic reality kicked in a number of years ago. Facilities such as post offices, creameries, schools, etc., all began to close, mainly because the young people who, in normal circumstances, would have been expected to settle down and raise their families in the area, had to move to Dublin. These people were forced to live in the capital if they wished to work in the Civil Service or the public service.

In the past two to three years, those in Opposition were happy to support the concept of rural renewal and the use of spatial planning, etc. They were satisfied once it remained theoretical and they were able to criticise the Government for not delivering in the part of the country they represent. It is time they realised that those days are over. We have reached the endgame; the talk has stopped and action is being taken. We are now in the practical rather than the theoretical part of the programme and matters are moving forward.

Unfortunately, a few U-turns have been made along the way. I have seen banners in various locations on my journey to Dublin such as, for example, "Cashel is suitable for decentralisation". Deputies were happy to join the local town or village groups which inform us about the greatness of their areas and which lobby for decentralisation. However, some of them are having second thoughts and are finding it difficult to say "Well done" to the Government Deputies in their areas. Most of them find some aspect of the programme with which they can quibble.

Members who lobbied for once-off housing are also trying to backtrack. He is not present in the Chamber, but I was delighted by the fact that Deputy Hayes congratulated the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

He did not.

The Deputy did not state that none of those in his party did so when they had the opportunity but he could well have done so. However, I do not want to upset any Members who may previously have served as Ministers and who are present today. It was good to see Deputy Hayes welcoming the approach taken by the Minister, Deputy Cullen.

We need more political honesty of that kind in respect of decentralisation. In my view, we can proceed to re-balance the overall development of the country or we can continue to take a negative attitude. If we do the latter, we will look back 20 years from now and ask why we did not take action. As stated previously, I compare such thinking with that relating to the pre-funding of pensions for people who retire in 20 years' time. There is an onus on us to ensure that the spatial planning relating to and the development of areas is based on where we want people to live and activities to be based in 20, 30 or 40 years' time. That is what the proper management of resources is about and there is no resource more important than people. Their needs must be considered.

According to some people there is a new way of running Government, namely, via the polls. Deputy Rabbitte seems to have become a great supporter of this idea. He is able to quote chapter and verse on each Department and inform us about the number of people who will not travel or who do not wish to travel to certain parts of the country. I accept that the Deputy has to take a certain line when making his contributions in order not to offend certain areas or towns. He appears to be successful in doing so. I do not believe that the Deputy should be so concerned about the matter at this stage. Some of the polls appeared the day after the Minister announced the programme, while others have been published in the meantime. All of them were taken before any meaningful discussions could take place, especially with the staff involved or their representative unions.

Deputy Rabbitte and any prophets of doom — I do not number him among them — might do well to consider what happened under previous efforts at decentralisation. The one with which I am most familiar, and I hope I will be forgiven for being parochial, is the transfer of the Central Statistics Office to the Mahon area of Cork South Central. I recall that comments were made at the time which are the same as those being uttered now. Some people took particular glee in describing how poverty ridden Mahon was and in commenting on its high unemployment level, the social status of the people who lived there, etc. A great deal of negative comment appeared at the time which made me quite angry because I had lobbied long and hard for decentralisation to the area.

Those on Cork City Council who had responsibility for planning at the time had done a bad job in the case of Mahon. We allowed 4,000 or 5,000 houses to be built without the provision of any facilities, not even a chemist shop or post office. Mahon was saved by the decision to locate the CSO at its heart. That move represented a vote of confidence in the locality and its people. Since the CSO was decentralised to Mahon, success has followed success. Three weeks ago an announcement was made about the Mahon Point development. This will be a major integrated development which will be responsible for the creation of 6,000 jobs in the next seven years. A total of 3,200 of these will be created within two years. This all came about on foot of the situating of the CSO offices in the area. Close to those offices, 360 of the highest quality houses in the country are being built. From day one of the development, these will all be serviced with broadband and every other facility one could want in one's home. These facilities will be provided free at the expense of the developer. What I have outlined is the result of transferring one Department or agency out of Dublin and I want to see it replicated throughout the country. I want us to be able to employ the people living in particular areas and also to transfer others there.

The Government and its predecessor have displayed flexibility and we need to be able to change as time passes. This was shown by the Bill relating to Bord Bia which was debated earlier. We need to be able to facilitate recruitment and cater for attendant considerations. We can either do that ourselves or leave it to recruitment agencies and others who are exploiting people at present. I was informed recently that up to one third of a candidate's first year salary could be paid in commission to a recruitment agency. I do not know if that is accurate but if it is, it is disgraceful. We should be responsible for recruitment and provide jobs for local people in every town and parish to which the organs of State can be decentralised. If we upset some of the people in Dublin by doing so, we should inform them that it is for their own good because, if we do not decentralise, gridlock in the city will become total in ten years' time.

I commend the Bill to the House. As someone who previously worked in the trade unions, I believe it suits everyone's needs.

Unfortunately, I cannot extend the same welcome to the Bill as did the previous speaker. The Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission was quite effective. Everyone knows that this commission was established to depoliticise appointments to the public service. I accept that the latter might not be popular in modern society. The commission served its purpose extremely well. I am sure there have been complaints to the effect that the commission was not adequately selective in terms of determining the precise needs of particular Departments.

Under the Bill, each Department, agency and body will have greater influence on what transpires by way of candidate selection. We must ask whether that is a good development. There has been a great deal of discussion about decentralisation and the notion of dispersing Departments to various parts of the country. We have heard that great welcomes are being extended to these Departments in certain parts of the country.

In every part of the country.

We will not deal with that matter at present, although we may have to revisit it at a later date. Even those Ministers who knew nothing about decentralisation on the night before it was announced were ready on the morning after to welcome public servants of all descriptions to their constituencies. I hope the programme goes well.

Will we return to the good old days when the proposals in the Bill are implemented? Once Departments have moved to the country and become embedded, having been duly welcomed, will greater political influence surround the selection process? This would be dangerous. Over the years, we have all come to recognise the importance of ensuring that appointments of this nature must be above reproach in terms of political influence. It would not be in the interests of the public service or the general public if that were to cease to be the case or if procedures were introduced to change the current position.

I wonder if the proposed decentralisation will result in a re-centralisation process in the new location, because it appears to be a possibility. More important, the political influence I believe could be brought to bear on the selection process under these proposals will not be beneficial. The Government parties will argue that they know best and have a mandate from the people. While the latter is true, the former contention is not the case because the people change their minds from time to time.

In a country such as this, with such a small population, it is not uncommon, even under the procedures of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission, for members of an interview board to know the interviewees who come before it. The criticism was levelled on occasion, sometimes justifiably, that a person or persons on an interview board were known to a person being interviewed andvice versa. To ensure this no longer occurred, a different process was proposed. Unfortunately, the Bill will strengthen the possibility of this recurring because each Department will have greater influence over the selection of interviewees for internal positions. In those circumstances, the risk of politicisation is significantly increased.

While the precise dangers entailed in these proposals may not have dawned on the Government, in democracies it is inevitable that opposition parties will succeed the governments, even long-standing governments. The danger in this respect is that an incoming Government will decide to give its predecessor a taste of its own medicine by pursuing a similar policy, albeit slightly improved and refined. In such circumstances, it is important to remember that two wrongs do not make a right because the new Government could find itself repeating the mistakes of the past. Nevertheless, the Opposition would have some grounds for arguing the case for doing so.

This legislation has the potential to destroy a good system, that is, the procedure applied by the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission. The proposed system has the potential to allow the interviewer, that is, the body, Department or agency which requires staff, to strengthen its hand to an unacceptable level in determining who it wants to employ.

Circumstances may also arise in which the unestablished Civil Service falls within the remit of the proposal. A person or persons with friends in a Government or Department or who may have been an unestablished civil servant in the employ of a Department, could find himself or herself being interviewed by a person whom he or she knows. What course of action is envisaged in such circumstances? What would happen in the event that such a person was informed that it would not be a good idea to proceed with an interview because further positions are likely to arise in the Department in question? Given that such a person would have inside knowledge, would he or she be allowed to go before an interview board? I have serious reservations in this regard. In addition, once appointed to the general Civil Service or public service, such a person would be entitled to a certain degree of immunity from being identified as a political appointee, which would not be a good for the public service.

Public servants know that it is not a good idea to politicise the Civil Service or the public service. While such arrangements may be grand and cosy for a certain period and overcome certain obstacles or meet certain requirements, they are not good from the point of view of the general public or services. From my knowledge of the public service over the years, I believe it has worked extremely well. The reason for the establishment of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commission was to remove political influence from appointments of this nature and it achieved this objective to a reasonable degree.

This is a small country. One would be surprised at the number of people one recognises, particularly as one gets older. The longer one is around, the more faces one recognises. It is not uncommon for people to express surprise at having suddenly encountered on an interview board a person whom they had not seen for years. In the past, strict rules and guidelines were laid down appertaining to such matters. What is likely to happen under the proposed new system? What will happen when a Department is seeking to make new appointments or replace officials who have been promoted?

The Bill will give greater influence to local authorities and Departments and the bodies and agencies accountable to them.

Debate adjourned.
The Dáil adjourned at 4.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 March 2004.