Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to introduce this Bill, which has already had a speedy passage through all Stages in the Seanad. This short piece of legislation is needed to allow for the dissolution of the Dormant Accounts Board and to transfer the statutory functions of the board to me as Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. This is in line with the recommendations of the McCarthy report and ties in with this Government's promise to reduce the number of State bodies.

Passage of the Bill will serve to further rationalise the bodies under the aegis of my Department. I recently outlined my Department's progress in the rationalisation programme. Overall, savings in the order of €1.9 million have already been achieved through a reduction of 43% in departmental agencies from 21 to 12. The dissolution of the board will take these savings to in excess of €2 million.

As the rationalisation process continues, I expect these savings would rise significantly. The rationalisation is a direct response to the current economic crisis, and a necessary means of contributing to the reduction of overall public sector costs through enhanced efficiency. I will continue to keep the agency rationalisation and efficiency agenda under review insofar as other agencies under my remit are concerned.

Existing dormant accounts legislation provides for the transfer of dormant accounts in banks, building societies and An Post, as well as unclaimed life assurance policies to the care of the State, while guaranteeing a right of reclaim to those funds. The main purpose of the Bill is to reunite account or policy holders with their funds in credit institutions and insurance undertakings. Part and parcel with a right of reclaim, the legislation provides for a scheme of disbursement for charitable purposes or purposes of societal and community benefit of funds that are not likely to be reclaimed.

Under this Bill, the objectives underpinning disbursements from the fund will remain the same so that moneys from the fund can be used to assist persons who are economically, socially or educationally disadvantaged or have a disability. The Bill will also allow simpler arrangements for disbursements than heretofore, as all expenditure from the fund currently require the approval of Government.

The responsibility for approving programmes or measures will now rest with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, subject to the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and I wish to thank the members of the board for their diligent work in this area to date. Disbursements schemes or action plans will henceforth be prepared by the Minister in consultation with relevant Government colleagues and be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas for a period of 21 days which will allow for debate and discussion. The levels of new measures or programmes for disbursement from the fund are likely to remain low given the current budgetary constraints.

In any case, disbursements will continue to be made from the Dormant Accounts Fund through the Votes of relevant Departments and will be Exchequer neutral. As is currently the case, the assessment criteria and application procedures for dormant accounts funding must be published, as must a list of the projects ultimately funded.

The Bill provides that the cost of engaging service providers, such as Pobal, to administer the application process will be met from the fund, while normal administration costs incurred by relevant Departments will be met from within existing budgets. The Bill will also draw on the expertise, knowledge and resources of existing public bodies, which will enable informed, objective decision-making, consistent with public policy priorities and available resources.

The Bill provides that a statement containing details of the approvals will be laid before the Oireachtas and a list setting out the approved measures and projects, and specifying the amounts to be disbursed, will be published within one month of the approvals being given. These rigorous and extensive measures confirm the Government's commitment to ensure that decisions on the fund are informed by the policy of the Government and will have regard to the public interest, and measures will be accessible to public application and fully subject to Oireachtas and public scrutiny. This ensures the process is transparent and fair, and seen to be fair.

A couple of issues were raised during the course of the discussions and debate in the Seanad that I would like to address to the House. These relate to the size of the fund, its possible augmentation and whether it could be ring-fenced for any particular sector or group. Since its establishment in April 2003 to the end of August 2011, transfers to the fund have totalled some €626.59 million, which includes interest earned of €35.53 million. Funds reclaimed in that period by account holders amounted to approximately €218 million. Some €267 million of disbursements have been approved, with €239 million spent on projects of community benefit to date. The net value of uncommitted funds in the fund is currently €82 million.

In practical terms, increasing the amount available in the fund, for example by adding credit unions to the list of agencies covered by the legislation or by including the proceeds of funds derived from the activities of the Criminal Assets Bureau, does not necessarily allow for the introduction of new dormant accounts measures or programmes. While applying the provisions of the dormant accounts legislation to credit union accounts, for example, would increase the amount available in the fund, Government Departments and agencies would still have to source moneys for dormant accounts programmes and measures from their Exchequer allocations in the same way as any other funding programmes.

It is important to note when the moneys spent on dormant accounts measures and programmes are reimbursed from the Dormant Accounts Fund, they are refunded to the Exchequer rather than to the spending Department. For this reason, dormant accounts expenditure is subject to the same constraints within Departments as any other spending programme.

At a time of severe budgetary pressures, resulting in reduced allocations across Department Votes, there is a need to prioritise and try to maintain existing funding programmes. Expenditure on new dormant accounts measures or programmes could, in current circumstances, lead to reduced spending on other existing programmes. As such, creating a potential new source of dormant accounts funding would serve little practical use at this time. However, this is a matter I am prepared to keep under review, particularly in the context of any improvement to the budgetary situation.

Dormant accounts funding cannot be regarded as free money as is sometimes suggested. Under Government accounting procedures, disbursements on dormant accounts measures are paid in the first instance, as I said earlier, upfront from each Department's Vote in the same way as any other spending programme. The difference is that once expenditure takes place it is reimbursed to the Exchequer from the Dormant Accounts Fund in the form of appropriations-in-aid payable through the relevant Department's Vote. In this way, the costs associated with dormant accounts measures are Exchequer neutral, though it should be noted that Government Departments cannot spend appropriations-in-aid directly themselves once they are reimbursed from the fund. They are instead refunded to the central Exchequer.

It has also been suggested the fund could be ring-fenced for the community and voluntary sector. Deputies will appreciate that, given its focus as set down in the legislation, a significant proportion of the funding disbursed to date from the fund is already through channelled and voluntary groups. Allocations from dormant accounts are focused on programmes or projects to assist the personal and social development of persons who are economically or socially disadvantaged, the educational development of persons who are educationally disadvantaged or persons with a disability. This is in addition to the other substantial supports provided by my Department to the sector annually through other programmes and schemes.

Furthermore, as I indicated in the Seanad, moneys disbursed from the fund increase Government debt levels as the money continues to belong to the account holder, who can reclaim it at any time, and not at any stage, from the State. Consequently, every euro spent from the fund is regarded in accounting terms as a potential Government liability, regardless of how unlikely it may seem. Therefore, as I said before, the fund cannot be regarded as free money.

The detailed technical provisions of the legislation are set out in the explanatory and financial memorandum accompanying the text of the Bill. At this stage, I would like to outline the main provisions of the Bill.

Sections 1 and 2 are standard provisions relating to definitions and so on. Section 2 specifically provides for the appointed day, to be determined by order, when the Dormant Accounts Board is dissolved and the Act comes into force, transferring the functions of the board to the Minister.

Section 3 of the Bill will replace Part 6 of the principal Act, inserted by Section 8 of the Act of 2005, and sets out the new disbursement arrangements. Sections 40A to 44A are subsets of section 3 of the Bill. Section 40A updates definitions to take account of changes provided for in the Bill. Section 41 sets out the purposes for which disbursements can be made.

Section 42 provides for the making of a disbursements scheme no later than 12 months after the appointed day and will set out the types of programmes or projects for which moneys may be disbursed. The disbursements scheme, or any subsequent amendment to it, must be prepared by the Minister, having consulted with the Ministers for Health, Education and Skills and Social Protection. The Minister may also consult with other Ministers or persons. A scheme or an amendment to a scheme must be approved by Government and must be laid before the Oireachtas, and the Oireachtas will be allowed 21 days to challenge it.

Section 43 provides for the preparation of an action plan each year where the Minister has made a disbursement scheme. The process of making the action plan is very similar to that of the disbursements scheme in terms of consultation with other Ministers and so on.

Once the plan is adopted, it is published and a copy is laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas, so that it may be challenged within a 21-day period. Provision is also made for adopting, or not adopting, an action plan, and for not proceeding to invite applications under the plan, if appropriate in certain circumstances. Any decision not to proceed must be approved by Government.

Sections 43A and 44 of the principal Act, as amended under section 3 of the Bill, provide that the Minister within whose remit lies responsibility for a programme or type of project specified in an action plan is required to publish, or cause to be published, an invitation to apply for disbursements, which must include the assessment criteria, application procedure, deadline and any other information the Minister wishes to include. They also make provision for applications to be assessed by or on behalf of a Minister of the Government. As is currently the case, following assessments, recommendations must be made as to which measures or projects should receive disbursements. These recommendations are submitted in the first instance to the relevant Minister before being submitted to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for approval, subject to the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government's recommendations are submitted to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for approval and the list of approved measures or projects are laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Section 44A of the principal Act, as amended by section 3 of the Bill, provides that disbursements must be paid from the Oireachtas and reimbursed to relevant Ministers, on the direction of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, by the National Treasury Management Agency, and must be regarded as appropriations-in-aid.

Section 4 is a technical amendment updating cross-references to the NTMA and the board. It also provides that the Minister must, before 30 June each year, prepare an annual report on disbursements during the preceding year, to include any findings, conclusions or recommendations concerning such operation. The annual report is submitted to Government before being laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Section 5 provides for the dissolution of the Dormant Accounts Board, with any reference to it in any enactment or legal document to be construed as a reference to the Minister. The chairperson of the former board will remain accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts in respect of disbursements by the board during his or her tenure.

Sections 6 to 8, inclusive, make standard provision for transfer of assets, liabilities, taking over contracts and so on. Section 9 provides that the board must prepare final accounts, covering the period from the last annual accounts up to the day immediately before the appointed day. These accounts are to be submitted to the Comptroller and Auditor General for audit, and the audited accounts must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Section 10 provides for the final report of the board, including particulars for those to whom disbursements were made and the amount of each disbursement since the last annual report of the board. This report will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 12 provides for the Minister to take ownership of the board. It provides that the 2009-2011 plan, as prepared by the board and approved by Government, continues in effect until the Minister's first disbursement scheme is made, and must be treated the same as if it were a disbursements scheme by the Minister.

Section 13 updates the principal Act to take account of the new term "Disbursement Scheme" and other technical amendments. Section 14 provides for the repeal of sections 30 to 40, inclusive, of the principal Act. Section 15 deals with the Short Title, collective citation and commencement.

This legislation strengthens Government and Oireachtas oversight and, at the same time, simplifies administrative arrangements and the associated processes in respect of grants awarded from the Dormant Accounts Fund. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Minister for outlining the provisions of the Bill. We do not intend to contest it. Many community and voluntary groups have benefited significantly through the disbursement of relatively small amounts of moneys from the Dormant Accounts Fund. We are all aware of various projects in our areas which have benefited in this way, such as community alert schemes, schemes to assist elderly people within the community and so on. People throughout the State have benefited directly from the moneys available under the fund. It is sometimes the case that the smaller the grant the more appreciative the recipient. People value such assistance in the times in which we live.

The original Act was introduced in 2001 and has handled significant sums of money. The Minister indicated that more than €600 million has been transferred to it to date. He also mentioned that €82 million is uncommitted and unspent to date. Does that sum represent the starting point when power is transferred to the Minister in terms of accepting applications?

I will address that in my reply.

We have no objection in principle to the Bill, but we intend to put forward at least one and possibly two amendments. We will certainly introduce a technical amendment relating to the practice of accounting for moneys handled by the fund in terms of the contingent liability on the State. Is there a way around having to account for 100% of the moneys as a liability in the national accounts? How long does the money have to sit there before the contingent liability diminishes? Can we find a way of expressing the lesser amount? The Minister indicated that more than €200 million was reclaimed by account holders over the period, representing €218 million out of €626 million, or approximately one third of, account holders.

We should take this opportunity to re-engineer the types of schemes that can be offered. There is no better man than the Minister for knowing what is required in communities. He might, for example, consider offering a 50:50 partnership arrangement to community and voluntary groups which come up with innovative ideas. The various public private partnerships that were agreed in recent years were all large projects involving roads, schools, hospitals and so on. This fund may provide an opportunity to support community alert groups, local voluntary organisations and so on by incentivising them on a 50:50 funding basis. St. Joseph's Foundation in Charleville would be a suitable candidate for such support. It provides a superb service for physically and intellectually disabled people in my constituency and in the north Cork constituencies. It has benefited from the Dormant Accounts Fund over the years through flagship-type projects. We should broaden the scope of the funding to include community and voluntary groups throughout the State.

I agree with the thrust of the provisions which transfer the powers of disbursement from the board to the Minister. For too long my own party was at the forefront of diverting decision making from the relevant Ministers towards third-party quangos. The Minister is right to accept the recommendation in the McCarthy report in this regard. The more of that the better. It is appropriate that Ministers exercise as much responsibility as possible within their role, particularly when it comes to taking decisions.

Is it proposed to have an appeals process directly to the Minister? It is important that he or she be protected from any political charges that may arise. There will inevitably be disappointed applicants and we must provide for that by way of a robust and transparent appeals process.

Fianna Fáil does not intend to oppose the Bill. However, we intend to put forward one or possibly two amendments on Committee Stage.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important Bill, which comes at a time when many of the beneficiaries of the Dormant Accounts Fund are worried about further cuts being imposed by the Government in the forthcoming budget. Unlike the previous Government and the current Government, Sinn Féin values the community and voluntary sector. This sector is worth €6.5 billion to the Irish economy, employing up to 50,000 people. I take the opportunity to acknowledge the ongoing work being carried out by the community sector. This sector provides the services which the State and private sectors are unwilling or unable to provide because of the nature of those services. One of the cornerstones of the sector's success is its independence. This has come under sustained attack particularly by the former Government when it closed down a number of active community development projects. We view any attempt to undermine the sector's independence with suspicion.

In recent years community-based projects have been the victims of an unfair proportion of funding cuts. Of course many in this House would say that happened under the previous Government and now things are different. However, the evidence so far has clearly indicated that little or nothing has changed. The faces at the Cabinet meetings are different but the policies being pursued are the same. This was borne out by the recent 5% cut in funding to projects funded by the HSE.

The aim of the Bill is to provide for the dissolution of the Dormant Accounts Board and the transfer of its statutory functions to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. If the Government has learned anything from the recent referendum defeat it should be that the public simply do not trust politicians with some decisions. Whether we like it or not to propose moving any decision-making powers from such a body back into the Minister's office will be received with a healthy and justifiable amount of cynicism.

Dormant accounts have provided the community sector with much-needed revenue at no cost to the State. Organisations from Donegal to Kerry and from Dublin to Galway have received funding for more than 4,000 projects. The projects have included community-based drug projects; intercultural groups; education groups; security groups to help the elderly; and groups tackling homelessness. It must be remembered that this money was essentially private funding.

Moneys, untouched in bank accounts, building societies, An Post accounts, intestate estates and life assurance policies all went to provide the funding. It was an imaginative approach to providing funding for the community groups. The dormant accounts funded projects tackling marginalisation and providing a voice to those who would otherwise have been silenced during the Celtic tiger years. Now more than ever we must ensure that these projects are resourced and strengthened, and the voices of these groups are heard. To simply slice away these services in the name of cost-cutting measures is totally unacceptable. At times of recession we must redouble our efforts to defend these projects and services.

This Bill arises from the recommendations of the McCarthy report which in July 2009 recommended shutting down the Dormant Accounts Board. Dr. Colm McCarthy estimated at the time that it would save €1.7 million, a figure that was plucked out of the air and was grossly inflated. Last week a briefing from the Chief Whip's office indicated that the saving would be a reduced €120,000. Sinn Féin fully understands that savings need to be made and we need to get better value for money, but at least the Government should get the figures right when proposing these savings.

One of the positive aspects of the Dormant Accounts Fund when it was established in 2001 was that the then disbursement board was independent of Government. The board had the power to prepare a distribution plan and direct the National Treasury Management Agency to make funding allocations. However, this power was greatly limited in 2005 with the establishment of the current Dormant Accounts Board. The Irish Current Law Statutes Annotated stated that the central thrust of the 2005 Act was to transfer power away from the independent board to the Government. The Bill further erodes the independence of the Dormant Accounts Fund.

Sinn Féin has a number of concerns with the Bill. First, it greatly erodes the independence of the channel of funding. Second, in moving the funding into the Department the Dormant Accounts Fund becomes a slush fund for the Government. The new guidelines state that the Minister must have regard for the policies or priorities of Government and the cost effectiveness of the funding proposals. This is very worrying as many in the community sector would by their very nature question the causes of marginalisation and Government policies that may contribute to that marginalisation.

We need a guarantee that the moneys in the Dormant Accounts Fund are ring-fenced and are not used to supplement Government spending. We propose that the oversight and evaluation role must be kept independent of Government. This role should be kept at arm's length from any Minster. Sinn Féin also wants legislation introduced to ring-fence money acquired by the Criminal Assets Bureau. CAB money should no longer be used to supplement the Department of Finance's spending. It should be used to fund the communities most at risk of the drugs crisis. CAB money should not be used to supplement current funding but it should be used to strengthen the battle against the causes and consequences of the drug crisis.

The Criminal Assets Bureau operates under the following areas: social welfare provisions; revenue legislation; and the Proceeds of Crime Acts 1996 to 2005. The area of concern to the community sector is money collected under the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act. Between 2005 and 2009, some €13 million was handed over to the Department of Finance under the Act. In 2010, some €3,114,000 was collected under the Proceeds of Crime Act, under 15 cases. It is of immediate importance that this money is channelled back into the communities from where it was robbed by drug dealers and criminal gangs. It would go a long way to rebuilding and reclaiming those communities which have been abandoned by successive Governments.

The proposed disbursement of the Dormant Accounts Fund is too simplistic. While the purpose of the funding outlined in section 41 remains the same, the proposed means of distributing that funding is regressive. Under section 42(3) the Minster is to have regard to "the policies and priorities of the Government in so far as those policies and priorities may affect or relate to the types of assistance contemplated by section 41". The distributions of funding should remain separate from and independent of the Minster.

Under section 8 of the Bill a distribution scheme must be approved by the Government and brought before the Oireachtas. However, neither the Seanad nor the Dáil has the power to amend or change the distribution scheme. The only power the Houses have is to annul the scheme. There is no provision in the Bill for Oireachtas amendment. In other words there can be no real debate on the scheme. It is very much a take it or leave it approach. It is a blunt and crude instrument for doing business. When it came to power, the Government promised a more open approach to allow the Opposition to make an input.

The major shortcomings of the Bill are as follows: it has no independent, critical appraiser of Government decisions; the funding mechanism is not independent of the Minister's office; the funding being administered directly by the Department will have a negative impact on community empowerment; there is no commitment to ring-fencing the funding of community projects; and there is fear that funding might be subsumed into the Department's expenditure. The Government will ask us for alternatives. One of the proposals in Sinn Féin's pre-budget submission is that the allowances and the costs of boards be reduced. The cost of this board as reported by the Whip's office is €120,000 and it can be reduced by 25%.

We are proposing a 25% reduction in costs and allowances. We also suggest that an Oireachtas committee be given a role in the administration of this fund or in assisting the Minister in doing so in a fair and impartial manner. It is hoped these constructive points will be taken on board by the Minister.

I wish to share time with Deputies Seamus Healy and Mattie McGrath.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2011. As outlined by the Minister, this Bill enables the dissolution of the dormant accounts board, a recommendation of the so-called McCarthy report which claims savings of €1.7 per annum could be achieved from doing so. However, the Minister, in response to parliamentary questions in this House, stated that the cost of the operation of the board in 2010 was only €118,000. Preparation and enactment of this Bill, in terms of its progress through both Houses, will possibly cost more than the operation of the board last year.

I am concerned about the removal of the board's oversight function. As stated by Deputy Stanley, the operational costs of the board could be greatly reduced. For example, the cost to the board of consultancies in 2010 was more than 30% of its operational costs. There is scope for reductions in this area, which would make the board more cost effective and allow it to maintain its oversight function.

The Bill also provides that a disbursement scheme will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is stated this will strengthen the oversight role of the Houses. However, like other speakers, I believe this provision, which provides that the Oireachtas can only withdraw the disbursement scheme and cannot propose any amendments or alterations thereto, does not provide for any oversight role at all, although it may allow for some form of debate here if pushed on the floor of the House. That, however, would be the only role of the Oireachtas in this regard. The Minister should consider providing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Transport, Culture and the Gaeltacht with an oversight role in respect of the disbursement scheme and with the power to make recommendations which the Minister, in drawing up the disbursement scheme for the dormant accounts funding, would be obliged to take on board.

It is vitally important that dormant accounts funding reaches the disadvantaged groups it was intended to assist. The Oireachtas should have an oversight role in this regard, perhaps through an Oireachtas committee which could make findings and have a proper input into disbursement of the funds. This Bill might not be necessary given that the savings to be achieved as a result of dissolution of the board might not be as great as outlined in the McCarthy report. There is general concern that this fund will be a Government fund and operated as such rather than a fund to help people in disadvantaged areas, as originally intended.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. As stated by previous speakers, this Bill is necessary because moneys in the dormant accounts fund are not public but private moneys belonging to individuals. It is rightly believed that there should be a board to disburse these funds and to ensure they remain at arm's length from the political process and Minister of the day, be that as heretofore on the basis of the dormant accounts fund board or, as suggested by previous speakers, an Oireachtas committee. The disbursement of these funds must remain at arm's length from the Minister of the day.

As stated by Deputy Pringle, there was only modest expenditure in respect of operation of the board during the past number years. Expenditure in this regard in 2010 was only €118,000. However, there is scope for further reductions in terms of board fees of €65,800, almost half the cost of operation of the board and €40,000 in consultancy fees in 2010. These are two areas where serious reductions could be achieved, if the board were to continue. There are however other options open to the Minister, including, as suggested, an Oireachtas committee. As I stated, one way or the other disbursement of these funds should remain at arm's length from the Minister of the day, irrespective of who that Minister might be.

There is no doubt but that moneys arising from this fund have resulted in excellent work throughout the country. Three RAPID areas, Carrick-on-Suir, Tipperary town and Clonmel, have received moneys from this fund for worthwhile initiatives such as child care, after school homework clubs, drug rehabilitation and the community and voluntary sector. I would like to put on record an appreciation of work done through funding from the dormant accounts fund. Elm Park, Clonmel, is a large estate of 310 houses. The Elm Park Area Childcare Committee has, with dormant accounts funding, built and is now operating a child care facility in that area. It is a modern building which provides an excellent service of the highest standard. This facility is a huge support to the local community and young children. We all know that there is huge advantage in supporting and educating children at a young age. Moneys utilised for the operation of such facilities result in huge pay-back over time. Work done with young people in the education field results in huge benefits and savings to a community in later years. I would like again to put on record an appreciation for the work done by the Elm Park Area Childcare Committee and other committees throughout south Tipperary and I am sure the country. Pobal operates these funds. I am involved in the child care facility in Elm Park and in my experience, Pobal is an excellent organisation which is very supportive of local committees and voluntary organisations.

I refer to a situation in south Tipperary last year which, thankfully, was resolved yesterday. People working on a discontinued scheme have been waiting for more than 12 months to receive redundancy payments. I hope the Minister will ensure that participants in schemes provided by means of dormant accounts funding are properly remunerated and are provided with proper access to their full entitlements. I refer to an uncompleted scheme in Tipperary town and now, 12 months later, the participants are only getting their entitlements under the Redundancy Acts.

I thank the Acting Chairman for this opportunity to contribute to the debate.

I apologise for the misunderstanding as I thought I was the third speaker when I was actually the first. Tá mé anseo anois. I thank my colleagues for standing in. I notice Deputy Mathews is smiling at me so we might share some time again.

What about the climate change Bill?

I ask the Acting Chairman to allow me to continue. I know Deputy Buttimer is in a competition for the best heckler in this term of the Dáil and he is well on the way. He should allow me my opportunity and we will not interrupt him.

I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Hogan, is here. I am also pleased that he has shown such an interest in many of these important issues. Deputy Tom Hayes, my constituency colleague, and I had a discussion with the Minister. I am pleased he has responsibility for the areas of environment, community and local government because these responsibilities had been around the House, so to speak, and had been in disparate Departments. I am in favour of getting rid of some quangos because there are too many of them. I was delighted when the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, secured all those billions in funding from Brussels. Pobal was initiated by his Minister for Finance at the time and it was set up specifically to streamline funding and to make it easier for community volunteers to access funds. I have been involved with many community projects and I know there must be complete accountability for every shilling expended. For example, I sat at a meeting which spent two hours trying to explain to Pobal an underspend of €20. This was six years' ago and I compare that practice to what happened in FÁS and many other organisations and in the same regard I note the €3.6 billion which was found and the good man who was trying to explain to the committee how this accounting error happened.

The dormant accounts fund supports many good projects such as the RAPID projects in south Tipperary and many others too numerous to mention. No project would have been possible without the unpaid volunteers who work throughout the country and we all know them. They make a community tick. Our new Uachtarán will be invited to visit many projects as did his four predecessors. He will be invited to open new and also splendidly refurbished buildings. However, even though funding was provided by the dormant accounts funding and by Pobal, the amount of red tape was a hell for volunteers. In many cases, I am convinced that the bureaucracy and red tape was invented to make work.

The McCarthy report recommended that the rural transport scheme be discontinued. I hope the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will never allow this to happen because one of the best rural transport projects is in a triangle of Kilkenny, Carlow and south Tipperary and McCarthy wanted to get rid of it. This was at a time when the Department of Transport was giving €11 million to Derry International Airport under some form of justification. I am not against such funding but McCarthy took the lazy man's view recommending the closure of this, that and the other, instead of taking a closer look at all these overlapping agencies.

The RAPID project in Tipperary has been an outstanding success in the three towns of Tipperary, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir. It is only a pity we did not have it in Cahir and Cashel but, none the less, County Tipperary did well out of it. I compliment all the county council officials, the local urban councils and the volunteer project groups, without whom we could not spend a penny of the funding. The volunteers provided all the ducks in a row and they had the responsibility of providing an annual audit and rightly so.

Deputy Healy referred to the Tipperary hostel project. I am very proud of that project which has received an investment of €5 million. I was at the official ceremony for turning the sod. I was there when the church was opened. It is a beautifully restored Famine church which was the work of craftsmen and FÁS trainees. Deputy Healy referred to discrepancies which arose in accounting and which I condemn out of hand because it is unacceptable. I sympathise with the staff. The project was closed down because an investigation was needed. At the time I spoke to the Minister responsible, former Deputy Pat Carey, several times. A Garda investigation is under way and Pobal is also conducting inquiries but the participants should not have been penalised for whatever happened at board level. They had to go to the Labour Court to get their redundancy entitlements but they had to wait too long. This must never happen again. As a result, those craftspeople were lost to us when they could have been subsumed into other community employment schemes. I hope the Minister will perform the opening ceremony when it is completed. It is a hostel project for the town of Tipperary which would provide low cost accommodation in what was a Famine house. A mass was said in the beautiful church that day and this church can also be used as a theatre. This was a fabulous project built with taxpayers' money and volunteer time and it cannot be left unfinished. I ask the Minister, once the investigations are finished, to see if funding to finish the project can be provided or at least to secure the building and protect it from vandalism. The sum of money gone astray in this scheme seems to be minuscule but all moneys must be accounted for.

I have an issue with the consultancy industry. It seems every project must have a consultant to draw up a plan. I worked with Sister Celestine from east Cork on the board of ICSH, Irish Council for Social Housing. She is a wonderful person, as are most of the sisters who give so much of their time to projects. They have no distractions. At one time, there were two vacancies on the board of Pobal. I indicated I would love to get inside the boardroom to see how it works and she also was interested in doing so. However, the public servants from other Departments did not permit it. I assure the Minister I do not mean to criticise civil servants. However, they told us we could not get on the board because we were recipients of money from Pobal. Of course, we were but we were not robbers. Everything we did was accounted for. If a decision came up for discussion concerning something in which the good sister and I were involved we could have abstained from the meeting. They pulled the wool over our eyes that day and got the position with Pobal.

I only wanted to get on board to play an honest part but I would have liked to have seen what went on. It became very bureaucratic and hard to deal with. I do not mean to pick on this point but when a payment would be approved for a project by an engineer, with everything signed off, audited and sent for final payment, nobody would sign the cheque. Contractors would be waiting for the money that had been promised to them. Most Deputies who are involved in such projects will understand my point. One would be trying to get the money after approval and authority were signed off. I was even on holidays at times when this occurred. It was not good enough to treat John or Mary Citizen, the volunteers and enablers like that. We will not come out of the morass we are in at present without them. We need that community spirit and initiative and we require it to be nurtured and propagated by the Government and Departments.

I know the Minister, Deputy Hogan, probably understands this better than I do. He has been around longer than I have and is a plain speaker. I realise he is not in favour of this and has certain views about giving responsibility back to the county councils. Although that is desirable it can also leave much to be desired. Some councils have not graced themselves in glory. I do not say they did anything wrong but we saw what the county development boards did regarding promoting projects and supporting community . There are also the enterprise boards and others which do outstanding work. There are good and bad systems.

I hope the Minister might meet people from the south Tipperary volunteer centre. I met some of them today. They are under serious pressure. They spoke of a cut of 10%, perhaps more. There is also the south Tipperary community platform, or forum, as exists in all counties. It does great work too. We cannot forget this. Someone put a ban on these people in my county because it was claimed they touched on politics. I know many people who entered politics because of that training ground and the work they did there. Who is better to be in politics? They are doers, shakers and movers. They may not speak in the media about what they do but they do the work on the ground and make an impact on people's lives, aid the marginalised and the elderly. They speak up for the elderly. I appreciate and respect this.

While we have our jostles and other issues on Tipperary County Council in regard to the north and south of the county, we will all come together to beat the Minister's county next year in hurling. The Minister snatched it from us last year but all is fair in, what shall I say——

Dormant accounts.

No, this is not a dormant account. It is anything but dormant. Beidh lá eile ag an bpaorach. The Minister's county team came back last year and celebrated in 2010, snatching the trophy from our hands. I commend it for doing so because we were not mentally focused on the field that day.

The Deputy was discussing dormant accounts.

Yes. I was having a bit of jocose banter with the Minister.

I reiterate we must have political separation at all times. The dormant accounts fund was distributed without fear or favour to many projects and that is mentioned in the Bill. There must be a clear distinction. Like everything else in the country, there is political lobbying for it. It would not be the nature of the work otherwise, from the community up to the county and urban councils and on to us, as Deputies. At the same time there must be a line that can never be crossed.

From the figures I mentioned, there is one about which I am sceptical. It featured in the Minister's speech. I hate to criticise it because I am for rationalisation, streamlining and cutting out red tape. The outside is red tape and what is on the inside is like bailing twine stuck in a bailer. It is at the heart and one cannot get it out. That is where we must go — into that bailing twine, the nylon stuff that is tied up inside official Ireland. It does not come from the elected Government — I was a member of the last Government; the Minister belongs to this one — but that official clasp is like a seal around the heart of things. There is Vaseline or some kind of wax over it and we need a hammer and chisel to break it. It must be broken, however, or the country will go down. We will kill the entrepreneurial spirit of business people, on the one hand, and volunteers and community groups on the other. They are struggling and worried. The media worries them with mention of the cuts in store. These are the people without whom we cannot survive. They are at the match tonight, supporting our team. They give hope to us, to our children and to community groups.

I appeal to the Minister to be mindful of that. He knows this better than I do and I thank him for meeting Muintir na Tíre and other such groups since he came to his ministry. He knows what to do in any case, and has good people in his own area. I referred to a namesake of his. They do great work in their volunteering role. They did so last year with Community Alert in inclement weather.

I commend the Bill and thank Members for listening to me.

I understand Deputy Paul Connaughton is sharing time with Deputies Áine Collins, Nicky McFadden and Jerry Buttimer.

I will not mention hurling at any stage but will stick as much as possible to the Bill. I welcome the development mentioned in the Minister's speech, whereby since he took office there has been a reduction in the number of departmental agencies from 21 to 12. Cost savings in this area are of great importance. I wish to emphasise what it means, to the Government and the public, to see this level of waste is removed. I encourage the Minister to continue in this line.

The decision to dissolve the dormant accounts board is correct, for two main reasons. There is a decrease in the level of funds within it and the removal of the board will save a certain amount of money. This sum may not be large but considering the state of finances it must be taken into account. The level of funds getting into the account is decreasing at a rapid rate.

As one who worked in the area of disadvantage for some years, I saw how the dormant accounts money was spent. It played a role in improving living standards for people through money spent on new projects, community groups, etc. This money is very important to communities and for many people it opened doors that previously had been closed. It allowed an opportunity to other people who may have believed their chance in education or in life was gone. From the examples I have seen, this money has always been very well spent in areas of real need. That is why I welcome what the Minister stated in his speech to the Seanad, namely, that the objectives underpinning disbursement from the dormant accounts fund will remain unchanged. This disbursement will assist persons who are economically, socially or educationally disadvantaged, or who have a disability. That is welcome.

Considering the economic times we live in and that, as a Government, we must attempt to balance the books, it is important not to forget the most vulnerable among us. That is why, no matter what changes take place following the passing of this legislation, the fund should be aimed at those who need it most. I encourage the Minister and his Department to continue to work with the many groups who work within the community and explore how best such funds may be wisely spent. These groups are best placed to see how to get the most out of the money. I hope regular consultations will take place and allow these organisations the opportunity to plan how best to do this.

One example of the many successes of the dormant accounts fund was the RAPID programme and the way its money was spent. Areas that were designated with RAPID status can show tangible results, whether providing for the purchase of community buses or allowing educational courses to proceed in disadvantaged areas. These sorts of projects were very quickly visible on the ground. Even though the fund is becoming small I hope they will continue to exist.

The Bill transfers the statutory functions of the dormant accounts board to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. This change will lead to savings that many may consider small but which are still important. Even though the fund involved has decreased it can still be used to fund important projects and I hope the Department will use the money wisely. The Bill will strengthen the oversight of the Government and the Oireachtas in this area.

Taking that into account I welcome the fact that any plans for disbursing these funds will be brought before the Oireachtas for debate and scrutiny. At a time when scrutiny of our public finances has never been more important it is important the public believes that even funds which are diminishing are spent as wisely as possible. Perhaps one of the main reasons for this change is the dwindling amount of money in the fund. In 2003 the amount was €198 million; in 2011 it is down to €38.4 million. Disbursal of this money began in 2004, peaked in 2008 with €73 million being distributed, and went down to €20 million in 2010. Considering the decline in the level of the fund it is hard to justify the need for a board to oversee it. The board itself raised some concerns about this matter, stating that bringing the fund into the Department may be seen as streamlining the money along with other services and projects. However, from what the Minister stated, I do not believe this will become an issue. It will be necessary to ring-fence the money within the Department from now on and give it to those who need it most. I encourage the Minister to spend this money in a proper way when he sets out budgets on a yearly basis for relevant Departments.

I welcome this Bill which will allow the State to save money while continuing to focus the fund into specific projects that will benefit from it. I encourage the Minister and his Department at all times to consult with relevant bodies to continue with the great work they do.

Debate adjourned.