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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Vol. 731 No. 1

Ceisteanna — Questions

Appointments to State Boards

Gerry Adams


1 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach his plans to reform the manner in which persons are appointed to State boards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5744/11]

Micheál Martin


2 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his plans to increase transparency in the system of making appointments to State boards. [5908/11]

Micheál Martin


3 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if it is his policy to advertise appointments to all State boards; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6655/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Government has decided that new arrangements will be put in place for the making of appointments to State boards and bodies. In future, Departments will invite expressions of interest on their websites for vacancies on the boards of bodies under their aegis. Ministers will not necessarily be confined to those who make expressions of interest, but will ensure all appointees have the relevant qualifications.

Several Departments have already started this process. The Department of Transport published on its website an advertisement seeking expressions of interest for appointments as chairpersons of the boards of the CIE companies and the Railway Procurement Agency and also for appointments to the boards of transport, tourism and sport agencies. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has also advertised on its website with regard to vacancies that will arise on the boards of bodies under its aegis before the end of 2011. The Department of Finance has sought expressions of interest for appointments to the board of directors of the recapitalised banks.

The Government has also decided that those who are being proposed for appointment as chairpersons of State boards will be required to make themselves available to the appropriate Oireachtas committee to discuss the approach they will take as chairperson and their views about the future contribution of the body or board in question. Following that discussion, decisions will be taken by the Minister or the Government, as appropriate, to confirm the nominee as chairperson.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach as an bhfreagra sin. The soundings the Taoiseach has made with regard to the process for appointment to State bodies is welcome. However, it is a matter of regret that up to 110 people were appointed by the outgoing Government to State boards in the period between the dissolution of the previous Dáil and the formation of the new Government. We all agree this is not the way to do business and we need to ensure an ending to the "jobs for the boys" approach that has pertained in the past.

The Taoiseach gave some information on advertisements that have been placed and some appointments made. Is that an exhaustive account of matters at present? How many appointments has the Government made since it took office? I ask the Taoiseach to expand on the level of scrutiny and transparency that will apply in future appointments. I note that he again referred to prospective chairs of State boards presenting themselves before Oireachtas committees. When will this process begin? Can the Taoiseach reassure us that this will not be simply a rubber-stamping exercise? What kind of discretion will the Oireachtas committees have? Crucially, will a committee have the power to block an appointment to a State board?

The change here is pretty dramatic in the context of what went on before. We also discussed this at the last round of Taoiseach's Questions. This will take effect from the time the Oireachtas committees are set up, which will be in the very near future. The first person to appear before an Oireachtas committee will be the nominee for appointment to Bord na gCon, for which there has been a vacancy for some time. The procedure is that the proposed person will appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee and give his or her view as to what contribution he or she can make to the agency or body to which he or she is proposed to be appointed. The advertisements to be carried by departmental websites or organisations outside the normal remit of Government will carry the requirements as to what is wanted from the personnel who might apply in an expression of interest, in other words the range of specific qualifications or competencies required so that there is a standard that is required which people will know if they apply or put in an expression of interest. This will take effect as soon as the Oireachtas committees are up and running. As vacancies occur, as will happen, Departments will advertise on their websites the range of competencies and qualifications so that those who are interested can put in their expressions of interest.

The Deputy asked if the committee could block somebody's appointment. I made this clear before; if a proposed person nominated either by a Minister or by the Government really falls down in making his or her presentation to the relevant committee, obviously the Government or the Minister would need to take that into account, but it is not a function of the committees — they are not blocking committees. It is an opportunity for the proposed person and the committee to discuss the policy issues in respect of the organisation, agency or body concerned.

I appreciate that the requirements and job specification would be set out, which is absolutely necessary. If the ultimate power of decision is not vested in the committee — if one is to be cynical about it — does it not then simply become an optical exercise? I do not suggest that the committees should become simply blocking mechanisms, but if one were to scrutinise the candidature of any person for any appointment, surely the logical outflow from that is that the committee would have the power to either accept or reject, to endorse or otherwise the candidacy for any particular position. It leads me to conclude that perhaps this is simply optics and a rubber-stamping mechanism.

Could we have a question, please?

Given that an applicant will set out initially his or her vision for the job based on what he or she can bring thereto, what will be the role of the committee in scrutinising performance on an ongoing basis?

It depends on the organisation, agency or committee involved. The Government sets policy, as decided by the Cabinet, and a range of organisations, agencies and Departments implement it. If one wants to see the scale of change, one should note that Oireachtas committees never had the range of competencies required or the necessary experience. Members were appointed on the basis of friendship rather than competence, as admitted in the House by a former Taoiseach. That is not the way it should be. If agencies, organisations and committees are to conduct their business properly, it must be done in the context of implementing and carrying through on current Government policy in the interests of the country and the people. It would be thoroughly unwise, therefore, of a Government to disregard the view of an Oireachtas committee of anybody appearing before it. That is why expressions of interest will be made by people who deem themselves to be competent and have the experience and qualifications necessary to express an interest in a position in the first place. We want far greater transparency than has been the case heretofore. In the main, the appointments will be confirmed by the Cabinet, or Minister, after the appointees have been proposed and have appeared before the relevant committee to make their case.

I have two questions, Nos. 2 and 3, on the same issue. While not wanting to get involved in party political point-scoring, for decades every Government, before its dissolution after a general election, appointed people to State boards as vacancies arose. On the Taoiseach's last day in office as Minister for Tourism and Trade he appointed a Fine Gael trustee to the board of Bord Fáilte.

That was a long time ago.

We can all——

The Deputy should ask a question.

That is prehistoric at this stage.

While I welcome the change, I do not believe it is dramatic. I am conscious that even Sinn Féin, for example, had made comments——

Questions, please.

I have two. I am building up to them and will ask them if allowed without interruption. Although I heard Sinn Féin articulate concerns about this system, it was no slouch when it came to North-South bodies, for example. With regard to the Northern Ireland Executive——

This is Question Time and questions must be put to the Taoiseach.

——there was a Sinn Féin nominee and a DUP nominee and one could take one's pick. We should not have lectures across the House or be politically cynical about this.


The Taoiseach has admitted the vast majority of the 108 nominees were of good quality.

I come to my point.

I thank the Deputy.

Does the Taoiseach agree that the reforms introduced by a Minister in the previous Government, Mr. Eamon Ryan, went further than those being proposed in that he actually gave authority to a committee to nominate individuals, particularly in the broadcasting arena? It was a novel approach that he adopted with the sanction of the previous Government. While what we are witnessing is welcome in terms of advertisements and committees having a chance to discuss a nominee's views, that is as far as it goes. The power to nominate and confirm will remain with the Government. It is not the dramatic change outlined by the Taoiseach. I suggest Mr. Ryan, the former Minister, went much further by giving authority to a committee to make an appointment. Perhaps the Taoiseach might consider whether the committees of the House should share the responsibility for appointing members to semi-State bodies.

As the Deputy stated, he is not interested in the Punch and Judy business of the past. I am concerned about making changes that will apply in the future. I am not giving committees absolute authority to make appointments but the opportunity to discuss policy with the person proposed by the relevant Minister or the Cabinet as chairperson of the relevant organisation or agency. That is a big change which goes across the board, and not just in the unique circumstances in which the former Minister, former Deputy Eamon Ryan, made his decision. This opens opportunities for people who believe they have the qualifications and experience necessary to give public service to the country in the relevant organisation or agency to appear before the Oireachtas committee and discuss not only what they bring to the table but also the Government policy in that particular area. If the committee finds that the person before it is grossly incompetent, the responsible Minister and the Cabinet would have to take cognisance of that. However, the way this is structured means that only people with the qualifications, experience and competence would express an interest in the first place.

Given that the policy and the parameters of any State agency are set by the Government and the Oireachtas in legislation, it does not fall within the remit of a new chairperson to dramatically change them. What one will be examining is the competence, qualifications and the capacity of the person to chair a board. In that instance, given the majority the Government has in the House and will have on the committees, there is a grave danger that we will get what amounts to a rubber-stamping exercise, unless more teeth are given to committee members and the committees of the House in terms of the actual appointments. Second, is it just the chairperson who will have to appear before Oireachtas committees and any other appointees will not? I understood from the Taoiseach's reply that it is only chairpersons.

I do not believe there should be Oireachtas hearings for the casual filling of vacancies on boards that might not rank in the top three in the order of priority. The chairperson has the fundamental function of chairing the relevant body or agency and to steer it in the direction, in so far as the committee is concerned, of the relevant element of Government policy. I am anxious to see how this will operate in practice. I would like to see the first two dozen cases go before the relevant committees, see how they get on, the reaction and how the process works. It is a change that does not transfer absolute authority to the committees but there is a clear inference that somebody appearing before a committee, following nomination by a Minister or the Cabinet to be a chairperson of an organisation or agency, had better have the qualifications, competence and experience to chair the board of the organisation or agency in question.

The Taoiseach will agree that the committees already have the right to talk to the chairperson of a State agency and, indeed, they frequently do so. I ask the Taoiseach to reconsider the idea, even on a pilot basis in the case of some State agencies, of sharing the authority with committees of the House.

The difference is that previously there was a one line announcement to the newspapers that person X was appointed as the chair of a board, agency or organisation. The relevant committee had no function at all, other than to welcome the new arrival as the chairperson. In the case of these chairpersons, the Minister or the Cabinet will make a nomination, the person will appear before the Oireachtas committee, explain what they bring to the board, how they see the future policy evolving and discuss that with the members of the committee. That is a big change. If the person appearing before the committee falls down on that job, the Minister and the Cabinet would obviously have to take cognisance of it. It would be unwise to disregard it.

I will take some quick supplementary questions. I remind Deputies that everybody is entitled to table a question and I want to be fair to those Deputies who did so. We will not spend all day on these three questions. There will be a quick supplementary question from four Deputies.

I call Deputy Higgins and ask him to be brief. A total of 29 questions were tabled for answer by the Taoiseach today. Some of those indicating that they wish to put supplementary questions did not table any of the original 29 questions. I ask those Deputies to whom I refer to respect those who tabled questions.

As a starting point for this debate, does the Taoiseach candidly admit that Fine Gael and the Labour Party were as guilty of cronyism as Fianna Fáil with regard to the manner in which, over decades, they appointed——

The Deputy should get on with it.

——people to public boards? Does he agree that — I will not use the unkind word "hacks" — the latter were activists of the political parties? If the Taoiseach is serious with regard to the new system he proposes, why did the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food rush to make appointments to and to promote people within Bord na gCon? Rather than the somewhat narrow process he proposes, does the Taoiseach not agree that a far more wide-ranging and democratic process involving the users of the services of State boards should be put in place? Does he also agree that there should be a much more proactive role for the workers who supply those services?

I broadly welcome the proposals the Taoiseach has put forward. In the context of some of the outrageous appointments made by the previous Administration — during the general election campaign and on polling day — and in light of what the Taoiseach said about the competency of people appointed to positions on State boards, does the Government have the power to revoke or cancel such appointments or to re-interview those who were appointed? Most of the appointments to which I refer involved people who support Fianna Fáil and who would probably be opposed to the Government parties. Will the Taoiseach indicate if these appointments can be revoked or cancelled or if those who were appointed — who were selected because they are friends of the Fianna Fáil Party — can be interviewed again to establish the nature of their competency and qualifications?

What the Taoiseach spelled out in respect of his plans leaves one suspicious that the holes that are so apparent in it were dug by him and his Ministers. Given that the advertisements to which he refers and the recommendations and operations of the joint committee can be completely ignored by a Minister making an appointment, what is to stop Ministers who do not possess scruples or integrity from making nakedly political appointments identical to those made by the previous Government?

In the context of the questions posed by Deputy Higgins, I will be interested in hearing the Taoiseach's comments on workers and service users. Will the proposals regarding reform of the process relating to appointments to State boards extend to dealing with the outrageous salaries paid to executives on such boards? These individuals are being paid hundreds of thousands of euro at a time when workers are being asked to take savage pay cuts.

In addition to the reform of the appointments process, will there be a greater level of accountability to the public and to this House with regard to the policies pursued by and activities of the executives and boards of State companies? Many of these individuals appear to be a law unto themselves and are able to do whatever they like. We do not seem to be able to obtain accurate information on their actions and the policies they pursue, and we are not in a position to influence those actions and policies.

I do not accept Deputy Higgins's assertion that this is cronyism.

Even the Deputy will understand that there is a difference between what will happen in the future and what occurred in the past. It is clear that there is at least serious intent on our part — and a demonstration thereof — to allow the Oireachtas committees bring before them those who will be nominated to hold positions as chairpersons of State boards and companies. That is a good development. The relevant committees will hold public hearings but these will not be interrogative in the same way as US congressional hearings. However, nominees will be in a position to outline what they can bring to the organisations to which it is proposed to appoint them. The members of the committees will then be able to question these individuals on both the level of competency and the range of experience they possess.

In respect of the question on appointments during the election period made by the outgoing Government, I have been advised that it would probably not be worth trying to go down a legal route to remove people who have been appointed. It could happen where an organisation was being abolished and some quangos will be abolished following analysis by the Government. The Minister for Health and Children asked board members of the HSE to stand down voluntarily because the structure of the entire organisation was being changed, but this is a slightly different circumstance. There is no need for Deputy Shane Ross to be suspicious. The position is as he points out but not in fact. If an advertisement appears for a position, a number of people express an interest in it and the Minister and the Cabinet find that the range of competencies or experience is not available, they are entitled to move away from the list of those who expressed an interest. Such nominees have to be nominated by the Minister and approved by the Cabinet after going through the process of appearing before an Oireachtas committee.

Could they nominate one of their friends?

That could happen in much the same way as the Deputy said to me when he told me he had a couple of nominees for positions whom he said I might consider.

They could be the Deputy's friends also.

I will give the Taoiseach their names again if he likes.

I do not know whether they are the Deputy's friends. Accountability for State and semi-State organisations is part of the Government's focus on the comprehensive spending review. For years, long before Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett came here, when the Minister for Finance allocated money to a Minister, a Department or an agency, there was never a real analysis of what went on, other than an examination by the Committee of Public Accounts following the making of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, which would take place a few years later. We will now have a real analysis of how the money is being spent to ensure value for money is being achieved, see whether it is worthwhile continuing with a programme or increasing the relevance of another. The review will be finished by September.

What about the salaries paid?

The first decision made by the Government was to reduce salaries. We will continue to reduce costs insofar as governance is concerned. The matter of the serious salaries of chief executives of State bodies is one for the Minister for public expenditure and reform.

Constitutional Convention

Micheál Martin


4 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will outline details for the programme for Government commitment to establish a constitutional convention; the legislative basis intended for the convention; and if the 12 month reporting deadline is from 9 March 2011 or from the date of establishment. [8191/11]

Gerry Adams


5 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the proposed referendum on the abolition of the Seanad will be held. [8368/11]

Gerry Adams


6 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when will the proposed constitutional convention be held; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8370/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

The programme for Government commits the Government to establishing a constitutional convention to consider comprehensive constitutional reform and report on the following matters: the review of the Dáil electoral system; reducing the term of office of the President from seven years to five; provision for same sex marriage; broadening the reference in the Constitution to the role of women in the home to one which recognises the role of the parent in the home; removing blasphemy from the Constitution; the possible reduction of the voting age; and other relevant constitutional amendments that may be recommended by the convention.

The convention will be expected to report within 12 months of its establishment. Work has commenced on the preparation of detailed proposals for its establishment and when ready, these will be considered by the Government. They will address matters such as the structure, composition and terms of reference of the convention, as well as the basis on which it will be established.

The Government is committed to holding a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad as soon as practicable. As a first step, it will be necessary to clarify which articles of the Constitution will need to be deleted or amended in the context of abolishing the Seanad and to consider the possible implications of any such deletions or amendments. These matters are being considered in consultation with the Attorney General prior to the preparation of the heads of a Bill for submission to the Government.

I welcome the proposal in the programme for Government for a constitutional convention. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to the House that the convention's remit will be wide enough to allow for a real debate about radical reform of the Dáil and its relationship with the Government?

The Taoiseach mentioned reform of the electoral system. Does that mean merely a reduction in the number of Dáil Deputies or real reform of the electoral system, for instance, moving to a different system such as a single-seat STV system? Are these issues up for consideration?

In essence, the convention is to consider reforms to the Dáil and the Government which should be implemented at the same time as the abolition of the Seanad. We want real reform here, not merely superficial and shallow reform. We want substantive reform of the way the House does business, of how it is elected, of the relationship between the Parliament and the Executive, and right across the board. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that the remit of the convention will be wide enough to encompass that?

Will the Taoiseach ensure, given it is to report within 12 months from its date of establishment, that immediate consultation takes place between all of the political parties in the House on the nature of the convention and the legislative basis for it? This is substantive work which should involve all Members of the House in putting a proposition such as this to the people. Rather than merely presenting a Bill as a fait accompli, perhaps it would be wise to facilitate all-party consultation and discussion on the legislation that will underpin the establishment of the constitutional convention.

I agree with that last comment. I do not see why we cannot have a proper discussion about that when it is in the interests of the country and the House and those who are elected and will be elected here in the future, and I am amenable to that.

The terms of reference will be broad enough to encompass all of these matters. I hope the constitutional convention will be a more focused and more engaging process than, for instance, the forum on Europe turned out to be when people might have lost interest for one reason or another. It will include all of those issues Deputy Martin raised about the electoral system such as the relevance of the number of Oireachtas Members elected, but I hope we can deal effectively with changes in respect of the House and the running of the House and the Members of the House. I have asked the Whip to engage with other whips as an initial point here. I would like to have real change brought about in the way the Oireachtas and the Houses do their business so that for the session following the summer recess changes are implemented. Between now and the recess, sometime towards the end of July, I hope we will hold a series of inter-party discussions with the people on a range of proposals on how to change this House, make it more relevant, more challenging, more engaging and more efficient and professional in the interests of the work that people must do. I know that Deputy Martin and, I hope, everybody else will participate fully in those discussions so that we can make the place relevant for the people whom we serve.

How does the Government propose to define the composition of the convention? I have heard various suggested comments, in terms of one third experts, one third the public via a jury system and one third Members of the Oireachtas. Will the Taoiseach give serious consideration to ensuring that elected public representatives are given a substantive input into the work of the convention not merely at the level of the Oireachtas but at local authority level, and that councillors, perhaps on a representative basis, will have the opportunity to participate in a convention of this kind as well? In all of the debate on reform of the Constitution there tends to be a theme emerging that the last to be consulted will be those who are directly elected by the people. The experience of representatives directly elected by the people is a valuable input that needs to be acknowledged and recognised for what it is notwithstanding the need for change and the need for reform and a new type of politics.

I am interested in getting greater clarity on how Seán Citizen is to be nominated to a convention of this kind. Has the Taoiseach thought that matter through yet?

I have not decided on the nature of the make up of the composition yet. As Deputy Martin will recall from being a Minister from many years, one of the weaknesses of social partnership was that the last people to be informed of the decision were Oireachtas Members. I do not envisage this would be the case with the constitutional convention. It will have an inclusivity which will allow elected Members of the Dáil, Seanad and local authorities and ordinary citizens to have their say. This can be a fundamental platform for the future, leading a democratic drive to make politics transparent, accountable and relevant to the people. I have no fixed view on the fractions or percentages mentioned; I do not know from where they came. Suffice it to say I would like to see the convention being inclusive and representing an opportunity for Seán Citizen — to whom the Deputy referred — being represented and being able to play his part, and that it would move throughout the country in the same way as the Forum on Europe and give everybody an opportunity, physically at meetings and also by the use of new communication methods, to voice their opinions. The convention would report within 12 months on the range of topics given to it.

I am not any the wiser about the constitutional convention. I understand the Taoiseach is figuring his way through its composition. Will he assure us that the convention will be all-Ireland in nature? This is a matter we have raised previously. It would be ludicrous to discuss current or future constitutional arrangements and provisions for the country if we were to approach them in a partitionist manner. As the Taoiseach works out the fractions and percentages, will he ensure that Síle Citizen gets equal billing with Seán, and that youth is considered? All other stakeholders such as NGOs and various community interests should also be involved because for this to be a dynamic process it has to be genuinely inclusive.

On the matter of the Seanad, and I am conscious that we are here today just as the election has concluded, nobody with an ounce of wit could defend the current arrangements whereby it is elected by an elite group of Deputies, councillors and third level graduates — although not all of them — and that it is then in the Taoiseach's gift to appoint 11 Members.

It is the Taoiseach's position to abolish the second Chamber. We contend that before proceeding to that we need a discussion and debate on the value of a second Chamber. I understand with such a large majority as that which the Taoiseach commands in this House, he may see it as useful to dispense with the second Chamber. I do not think he should proceed in haste. Will we have a debate on the merits of a second Chamber, albeit a radically reformed and functioning one? When the time comes for the referendum, will the people be given that option or does the Taoiseach propose to simply put the bald proposition that the Seanad as it is currently constituted be abolished?

As Deputy McDonald knows, all referendums end up with a "Yes" or "No" question, and voter is asked to put an "X" beside the box of his or her choice. The difficulty in framing the question is always with regard to the consequence of the changes that occur in the Constitution. I have made clear for some time that the Attorney General is working on a range of Articles which need to be either removed or amended. To give effect to any referendum one must produce legislation which allows for debate.

Deputy McDonald's party has had a number of Senators elected and it may not want it to fade away too quickly to give them a chance. Perhaps that is what Deputy McDonald is at. For quite a long time, my view has been that in terms of comprehensive analysis of legislation our current bicameral structure is no longer suited for its purpose. It is my view this House, as the directly elected forum of the people, will be able to perform a thorough and comprehensive analysis of legislation if the circumstances are changed, which is my intention. Legislation will be introduced to give effect to the proposal to abolish Seanad Éireann and there will be ample opportunity for the citizens to discuss it. At the end of the day, it will be the choice of the people. We can change the nature of our work in terms of drafting legislation, sending heads of Bills to committees at a much earlier stage, the process of committee work and the calling of groups, agencies and citizens before powerful legislative committees. Review clauses can be built into Bills in order to examine their effectiveness in the 12 or 18 months after they are enacted.

Seanad Éireann has never been an Upper House. It has been a second House and second Houses tend to replicate the work of the first House. It has acted as a brake in many ways. The work currently under way will be reported on as we proceed to draft the legislation necessary to give effect to that question.

Given that the Taoiseach's party also had several Members returned to the Seanad, we are not alone in that regard.

It may prove extremely short-sighted to decide that, because the Seanad has been a disaster as it is currently constituted and misused, we should use the blunt instrument of abolishing it. A more considered approach is required, including a public debate.

In regard to the Taoiseach's comment on referendums, the practice in this State has been to put a single question which seeks a "Yes" or "No" answer but there is no reason that cannot be modified. Other jurisdictions make use of preferendums and other mechanisms and I ask him to consider such alternatives. I would also like to hear his response in regard to a constitutional convention which is all-Ireland in nature.

In regard to the 11 appointments he can make to the Seanad, we spoke earlier about stuffing State boards and I assume in this era of political reform and transparency that he does not propose to stuff the Seanad with hacks or friends of the Fine Gael Party or, for that matter, the Labour Party.

I am not sure what the Deputy means by a stuffed Seanad but the Attorney General is currently examining the Constitution to determine what Articles need to be amended or removed.

I will give consideration to including a northern connection in the constitutional convention. That is an important issue and, as I previously stated, the convention will be as inclusive as I can make it. As Deputy Martin noted, it will have broad terms of reference and I hope it can complete its work within 12 months and that Deputy McDonald will participate in it.

In so far as the Taoiseach's nominees to the Seanad are concerned, the Deputy will have to wait until the Seanad convenes to find out who has been appointed.