The Opposition appears to have withdrawn from the House. In my experience I have never seen this before.
Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)
I was called in myself.
I want to put on the record the enormous boost received by various community organisations in Longford and Westmeath as a result of dormant accounts funding. While I realise the levels of new measures and programmes for disbursement from the fund are likely to remain low given current budgetary constraints, I believe it is important to highlight the importance of funding for community organisations such as RAPID.
RAPID is aimed at improving the quality of life and the opportunities available to residents of communities in cities and towns and reduce the deprivations faced by residents of disadvantaged communities. I take this opportunity to thank the RAPID co-ordinators in Westmeath and Westmeath County Council who have done tremendous work in this area.
RAPID operates across the themes of community safety, anti-social behaviour, health, family support, environmental issues, youth, education, training and employment. It has benefited the estates of Grange, Farran Raithín, D'Alton Park, Ennell and Michael's Park in Mullingar, as well as seven estates in Athlone.
Groups such as the Mullingar Youth Cafe continue to look for funding through the dormant accounts fund. Midlands Regional Youth Service is the lead agency supporting this project and the young people of Mullingar are working very hard for the progression of the cafe. While five areas were identified under the dormant accounts fund in 2009, Mullingar included, no actual moneys were provided in 2011. Will the Minister do all he can to get resources for these projects? I hope he will see a way to invest some of the funds into the original 46 RAPID areas as there has been no investment since 2008. A sum of €100,000 would go a long way in Athlone.
The main purpose of this legislation is to reunite account holders and policy holders with their funds in credit institutions and insurance undertakings. It further 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.
I am confident that under the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, this objective will remain unchanged. I welcome the Bill and commend the Minister on his work. I hope communities across the country will benefit from the money that will be forthcoming.
I welcome the Bill and commend the Minister on bringing it to us. The Bill is another example of the reform being proposed by the coalition Government. In his trend of reform, the Minister has already merged local authorities. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, has merged VECs. It is fulfilling the commitment in the programme for Government to make a substantial cut to the number of State bodies and companies. The Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy McGuinness, is present. He will very much welcome the attempt to make Government smaller, more accountable and make it deliver to people. That should be at the heart of Government. It should not be about the creation of fiefdoms. Deputy McGuinness was a long-time opponent of the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, when he was in the House. The model he employed could bear with close scrutiny. It would make a great PhD study of how not to do business. He made Government bigger and it became uncontrollable and unaccountable. Fiefdoms and slush funds were created and money was poured out to keep everyone happy. The fabric of society plummeted in the past 14 years.
In our election manifesto we committed to cutting the number of quangos, regulators and inspectorates, and to end the confusion, wasteful mismanagement and fragmentation in the delivery of services. Those of us involved in national politics with a local authority background fully understand that people and the delivery of service to them must be at the core of what we do. I love the Irish phrase "an gnáth duine". That is what they are. That is who depends on the service of Government.
Deputy McFadden is correct. RAPID was a very good proposal that brought enhanced benefit to communities. The great phrase "enhancement of the public realm" became a reality for communities. In Cork city we have a very good RAPID co-ordinator. She does great work. She is accountable. She attends meetings and she delivers. I am afraid that we have lost accountability in the fragmentation that is now the delivery of Government in different spheres and on different levels. From tomorrow morning I hope we will not have a lack of accountability from those who remain following the public service retirement scheme and that they will not use the excuse of the diminishing numbers to bring it about.
To date, the Government has abolished more than 14 quangos, two more are in the process of being abolished and 15 more are on a list for abolition. A total of nine quangos are being merged and there are plans to merge six more. Three quangos are being restructured and a further ten are due to be restructured. In 12 months the Government has started its reform process. I welcome the changes proposed in the Bill for the amalgamation of the dormant accounts fund. It ends one period and introduces another. The Minister and the Department will be to the fore in terms of expenditure, which will be under the control of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts.
Another aspect of the Bill which I very much welcome is that the role of the Dáil and the Seanad in the disbursement of dormant accounts funding will be also increased. The power to annul the scheme within 21 days will be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. That will allow for accountability, debate, discussion and transparency. It also involves the political responsibility lying with the Minister, which was lacking for 14 years. Ministers could hide behind quangos and say they had no responsibility, that it was not their job. The Minister is doing that. It is important that we have proper oversight of decisions being taken.
The Bill is another example of a reforming Government, one that understands the need for accountability, and of a Minister who is prepared to accept responsibility and accountability. As Deputy McFadden indicated, the RAPID programme has done great work, which must be continued. We must continue to enhance the lives of our fellow citizens.
I welcome the Bill purely for the removal of the board. I was concerned about the board and its inefficiencies. It is our policy to remove quangos and this is a good example of a bad quango. I approve of the way the money is to be disbursed to various groups, especially those whose aim is to ease poverty and alleviate social deprivation.
I wish to examine the workings of the board. I give the Minister a word of warning. On a number of occasions in its annual reports the board has indicated that the disbursement of money could be bureaucratic and cumbersome within the various Departments. The Minister should take on board the point. When he disburses funds, by whatever means he chooses, he should remove the onerous task on groups seeking funding so that it is made as easy as possible for them to draw down funding.
I wish to outline reasons for my delight that the Bill has come before the Dáil and for the disbandment of the board. A comment was made by the board in its 2010 report to the effect that there were no inspectors of financial services to ensure it was complying with the terms of the 2001 Act. I find it strange that a board would indicate its disquiet in 2010 that from 2003 to 2010 the Minister had not appointed an inspector. Why did the board not question the situation previously? Surely it was the responsibility of the board to ensure all necessary measures were in place to ensure the money coming to it for disbursement did so in a proper manner.
I read the reports from 2009 and 2010. I was struck by the ability of the board to reduce its costs by 50% between the 2009 report and the 2010 report. It is interesting to note how when someone feels threatened, one is able to reduce one's costs to show how viable one is at a lower cost. I do not understand the reason that was not done previously.
The funny thing about the board is that it had four auditors. Deloitte were the main auditors. Goodbody Economic Consultants audited the audits. Pobal carried out the audit for the Government and the Comptroller and Auditor General also carried out an audit. That is unreal. The Department of Health, which has a budget of approximately €19 billion, does not have as many auditors. The cost for such audits in 2009 amounted to €124,000. I was also annoyed when I checked the website for the 2010 report, which was laid before the Dáil in August 2011. It was not there. I often wonder about such situations. Why did the board not lay its annual report before the public? When I clicked on the "Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursement to Date" link on the home page, the site was blocked. I could not find out where the money was going. When I clicked on "Dormant Accounts Fund Profile", it was blocked as well. I am nervous that this could be a secret organisation that is unwilling to let the public know where the money is going.
For this reason among other others, I am pleased the Minister has introduced this legislation, given the valid points I have made. With the removal of the board, the Minister will take more control of the fund. This is the key reason that I welcome the legislation.
I am pleased to get the Acting Chairman back on track.
I thank Deputy Lawlor.
The earlier Bill was enacted in 2005 and I am in favour of it in principle. Difficult as it sometimes is for people on this side of the House to credit the other side, the dormant accounts fund was one of the previous Government's better initiatives. Since examples of the large amount of valuable work it has done have been cited by other Deputies, I will not repeat them. As someone who represents a largely working class constituency, I can testify to the volume of good work done thanks to the investment of the money in the community. Its work has always been appreciated by local organisations and projects in disadvantaged areas.
I have a strong opinion that the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, might take on board concerning the criteria used when deciding on the status of a bank account, insurance policy, etc. The timeframe is 15 years. Given what we now know, this could be reduced to ten years. This opinion, which I have held for some time, is based on discussions that were held in the House before the Acting Chairman and I became Members.
Like other Deputies, I am glad that the board will be integrated into the Department. This is the right approach and will lead to a saving. Although €200,000 is not a substantial saving to some, it is a valuable amount in the current climate, particularly given the hardships being suffered by some projects.
I support the amending legislation. That any future structure must be published and laid before the House is good and transparent. I have always viewed the dormant accounts fund as being unique, in that it is the only example of wealth sharing in Ireland. It takes from a pot of money that comes from people who, as we all know, are usually better off than others. I hope my next comment is taken in a humorous spirit. The fund is the only opportunity for the less well-off to benefit from those who have more. The irony is that most of the latter are dead and do not have any say in making the contribution but the money goes where it should.
I support the Bill. For those organisations that will benefit from the fund, this is a welcome amendment.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on and support the Bill. I commend the Minister on restructuring the board and giving the House a greater input into how the money is spent and how it is accounted for. That is how it should be not just in respect of this board, but in terms of most boards. The sooner we make the House relevant to their activities, the better it is for democracy and transparency.
Deputy Buttimer has left the House but I thank him for his kind remarks. As with the Deputy, I like the concept of small government and keeping government out of small business as much as is possible or practical. The reform to which he referred was promised in the context of the general election and is welcome. As we get on track, we can introduce similar reforms in other Departments. If they work in favour of the public, transparency and accountability, the sooner we introduce legislation to commence that change, the better.
Deputy Buttimer referred to the past 14 years. It is easy for the Government to point to the various failures of that time. There are bound to be many failures in any 14-year period. We know what they were. However, we need to remember the positives, for example, the RAPID programme and the dormant accounts fund. The latter was positive, in that it spent and distributed moneys to communities. Compared with lottery grants, the smaller amounts distributed by the fund had the greater effect in local communities.
The last general election and the previous local government election brought to light the devastation in communities in my constituency. A number of housing estates had grown marginalised. In one estate in Kilkenny, the unemployment rate was 85%. Central to this issue is the need for good community structures. For example, a good family resource centre can make a significant difference. A community centre in the old sense of the term can also make a significant difference. Many of the family resource centres established in the past 14 years have made positive contributions and have expanded the range of services they provide to their communities. This was made possible by tapping into national lottery grants initially and, more importantly, dormant accounts.
It is not always the case that these accounts have been abandoned by rich people. They are bank accounts that can be reclaimed through this scheme at any time, yet they are important in terms of their positive impact on local communities and services. Given the pot of money that has built up in dormant accounts over the years, it might be no harm for the Minister of State to consider the question of the corporate responsibility of large companies and, to a certain degree, the issue of philanthropy. Although most of the financial institutions are in serious difficulty, some continue to make profits and, along with individuals, may wish to contribute to society in some way. This is a vehicle they could consider using for their contributions. It is well managed and its funds make a positive impact by going directly to the individuals or organisations concerned. It would be worthwhile to involve others in contributing to the dormant accounts fund. If we want to be all-inclusive and citizen centred, those who are well off could be given an opportunity to contribute in this way.
I commend those who have served on boards over the years and I do not refer to anyone personally when I say that the number of quangos has to be dramatically reduced. If boards are necessary, perhaps a single board should cover a range of activities. I am sure that can be provided for legally. The administration of a company could be undertaken through this single board as the quangos are abolished.
The Bill provides that the Houses of the Oireachtas shall have 21 days to debate proposals made by the Minister. I welcome the political commitment to bring decision making power back to this House.
I agree with other speakers that the overly bureaucratic approach taken by Pobal needs to be challenged. Guidelines need to be set out clearly so that the staff of that agency understand not only the need to examine, scrutinise and account for money, but also the need to be less bureaucratic with organisations that deliver within the community. The removal of the board addresses some of the problems which the McCarthy report identified.
At a time of limited money, we need to focus as much as possible on communities that find themselves marginalised in some way. We speak about reskilling and preparing individuals for employment but we must support communities that have experienced unemployment for generations. The children of some families have not seen their parents, or even grandparents, at work for many years. The dormant accounts fund has supported a number of projects which have successfully broken the cycle. We need to recreate that success in other areas that have been badly affected. This is the only way we can restore individuals' dignity and pride in their communities. It will also help them to understand the need to build up their communities for the next generation so that the devastation inflicted on housing estates throughout the country can be repaired.
In the past we looked to FÁS and other agencies to create social employment but the suggestions must now come from the communities themselves. The dormant accounts fund enables us to do that. We will have a greater chance of success if we look to the communities for the projects they want to champion instead of taking a top-down approach. I have seen how successful the community approach can be in the RAPID areas of Kilkenny city. Areas that were once vandalised have been put to positive use by the community. I am familiar with individuals who managed to turn their lives around by participating in education schemes, family resource projects and community centres and are now making a positive contribution to their communities. The focus has to be on rebuilding communities. Anyone who read the book,Bowling Alone, will realise that the processes it describes are starting to reverse because people are becoming more interested in working together to find solutions to their own problems.
I also hope funding will be provided to deal with the growing problem of drug abuse. I never thought I would see families who are well respected in my parish devastated by heroin. Drug abuse was previously associated with the bigger cities but it can now be found in most small urban settlements. The response over the years has not been perfect. Aislinn, which caters for the entire country from its base in Ballyragget in County Kilkenny, runs a deficit every year. It has been hugely successful in using an American model to help individuals break the cycle of drink and drug abuse but at the end of the year it has to raise as much as €100,000 to make ends meet. The Government needs to step in to make it possible for organisations like Aislinn to apply for money to deal with the problem of drug abuse. They should also be given the opportunity to apply for further funding to expand their services in order to deal with the problem before it grows further. There is no funding available at present to deal with the next phase of the problem.
Aislinn is an example of a successful organisation which has always encountered difficulty in raising the funds it requires. The dormant accounts fund could easily be activated to fund this project and others like it. I appeal to the Minister to include sufficient flexibility in his plan to cater for such projects. Aislinn has grown out of the community in response to an extremely serious problem. Drug abuse affects not only the individual with the habit, but also the next generation, the family unit and the community. I have seen too much of it to ignore it.
Another area on which we should focus relates to the community. It relates to youth affairs generally, activity around youth, the funding for those who fall out of the system and are not in education or are only partly in education and who are looking for an alternative means of participating in society and educating themselves and having a positive role. I have mentioned the Fr. McGrath Centre in Kilkenny on numerous occasions. It began as a family resource centre and then delivered a number of information and communications technology projects. It allowed younger people within that marginalised community to skills themselves for school through the homework club, etc., and to become prepared to continue in school such that the majority of those are now completing their leaving certificate examinations which never happened there before. That only became possible through the various grants the centre received from Government and particularly the occasional grant it received from the dormant accounts fund.
While I have made criticism here, the work of Pobal has been positive and proves that the dormant account scheme works. It has a record of funding projects that continue to be successful in their communities. The Bill will not damage that and will make it more cost effective to do business. I hope it will make it less bureaucratic to do business with Pobal and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. It will give greater participation to the House in terms of the debate. New and better ideas may emerge in the debate we will have on the plan. In that reforming and inclusive way the Minister might consider the different proposals coming from all sides of the House.
In terms of accountability, I note the outgoing board will make its report, which will come to the Committee of Public Accounts. I look forward to seeing that report, particularly in the light of some of the criticism I have heard in this House concerning the availability of the report itself and regarding the numerous audits that the board seems to have put itself through at some cost.
The general local government fund and any funding for local government should come under the remit of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General. There should be one auditor and every cent of taxpayers' money should be subject to the Comptroller and Auditor General, including local government. The Minister should consider that reform. The Committee of Public Accounts has asked for it and I believe it is a step that could be taken very quickly in order to restore confidence in the system generally. It would give greater accountability across the system. The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General along with the Committee of Public Accounts are central to reporting to this House. That is another essential reform at this stage.
I pay compliment to Deputy McGuinness because, as always, he speaks considerable sense and I agree with much of what he said.
Colleagues have reflected on something that happened earlier today when Taoiseach made an announcement in the House about the referendum. It is important that more such announcements are made here in the Chamber so that Deputies here get an opportunity to be the first people to debate and discuss such very important issues. Over the years we have seen ever more power, authority and responsibility being devolved from this Chamber and from Deputies elected by the people to unelected boards which in many cases are unaccountable or hard to get to account to the House and to the democratic process. I am not saying that is the case with this particular board, which has done considerable good work. One of the reasons for dissolving this board is that the fund has reduced. When the dormant accounts fund was initially established, I felt it would be time limited because the money would run out after a while, which is what is happening now.
However, we need to consider other issues. The dormant accounts legislation enabled taking money from accounts that were unused for a number of years and put it at the disposal of the State. As colleagues have said, considerable good has come from this and many communities have benefited, continue to benefit and will benefit into the future. However, we must not forget that this money is not owned by the State. The money legally belongs to account holders, who have the right to claim back the money in time. I am not sure whether they can claim a refund on any interest that might have accrued. Perhaps when the Minister is summing up he might clarify that point.
In other jurisdictions great effort is put into trying to reunite owners of property with unclaimed property. In the United States, for instance, every state has an unclaimed property agency. Obviously, the United States is much bigger than Ireland and has considerably more wealth. It makes considerable efforts to reunite unclaimed property with the rightful owners. The financial institutions here have that responsibility. Once that money transfers to the State here, how much effort is put into informing people that they might have money, property or wealth that is legally theirs and that they are entitled to claim it?
Deputy McGuinness alluded to the need to fight poverty. I would go further than that and, as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women's Rights, one of the issues about which I am concerned is the need to fight crime and more importantly to fight the causes of crime. That is one thing the dormant accounts fund can do and does.
I bring to the attention of the House another method that might not be as fruitful now as it might have been a number of years ago when I first raised it. This is the issue of escheatment, which relates to a state taking unclaimed dividends. A person who receives a dividend cheque of €2 or €3 will often not bother cashing it. Those moneys can lie in the accounts of corporations, banks and so on and eventually be claimed back into the bank or corporation. In other countries the principle of escheatment is quite advanced and it could be considered here also. Now that we are discussing dormant accounts we may need to consider broadening the ways of claiming properties that are lying idle. I mentioned dividends, but other unclaimed funds exist. This is a well-known procedure in the United States and to a lesser extent in other countries such as Australia, India and so on. It is taken seriously in America and the US Securities and Exchange Commission has issued guidelines to US quoted companies on it. It appears that all states have established escheatment laws based on underlying federal statutes. Individual states are entitled to control the escheated assets belonging to residents or former residents of a particular state. There is also a strict fines system where companies fail to comply with their filing obligations. The definition of escheatable property is wide and not limited to quoted companies, but it includes any category of asset where the beneficial owner has either not received the funds or not claimed them. That issue could be examined in the broader scheme of things.
I know that the Minister is interested in philanthropy. Although philanthropy in Ireland has grown rapidly in the past decade, it is still in its infancy and it will face severe headwinds in the coming years with the situation in the economy. As in all countries, the non-profit sector is large and growing. One count estimates that there are 24,000 voluntary organisations in Ireland, of which more than 7,500 are registered charities. We must examine the charities sector as well. I am keen to see a regulator appointed to the charities sector, which employs 63,000 people. Obviously, the sector here is a good deal smaller than other countries such as the United States where there are more than 1 million public charities and where three out of four people donate. I know the Minister is interested in encouraging philanthropy to bring out the best in people. Deputy McGuinness referred to this earlier. We must build capacity and increase the level of skills of those working in the sector.
I welcome the Bill. We must begin to scrutinise other boards to establish whether we can downsize or amalgamate them. Many boards are rather large and have many members. I question why some of them are so large. Now is possibly the time to amalgamate some of these boards, downsize them and give them more than one function if we decide to retain them. It is important that responsibility and accountability is devolved to the House and, in particular, to the committees of the House because this is where real accountability lies.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill. The dormant accounts board originated from the DIRT inquiry and has raised hundreds of millions of euro. It carried out very good work. When I was Minister we decided this was one quango too many. The dormant accounts board was set up because the usual allegations made about slush funds and so on were being made with regard to the possibility of the Government disbursing the fund. Several years ago, we amended the Act and transferred the giving out of the funds from the independent board to the Department. The board was in place as a general oversight body that drew up the dormant accounts plan. However, the actual disbursement was an issue for the Government. It is fine to have an independent board. My complaint at the time, which in hindsight was a wise complaint, was that it was giving out far too much in current funding. If one gives a two year project funding, after the two years is up the project will come with the hand out looking for a further two years and a further two years again. A problem would then arise because one creates extra liabilities on the State. We now know the danger of creating continuing liabilities on the State.
I always took the view that the vast majority of dormant accounts funding should go to capital projects. The reason we took that function away from the board was to ensure we had control over the fundamental issue of sustainability into the long term without Exchequer funding. The categories involved included educational disadvantage, social and economic disadvantage and disability. By their nature, few of these projects would become self-sustaining in a business manner. Therefore, if one ran a programme that was good, either it would be required to get more dormant accounts funding, although it was not meant to be repeat dormant accounts funding, or one would have to move on to Exchequer funding. We know now the consequences of ever increasing commitments of Exchequer funding.
In the first stage the Department moved to take over the disbursement. Several committees were formed. Pobal vetted the projects and brought them to the committees, several of which I chaired. We examined the proposals from Pobal at these committees. Often, if we were unsatisfied with a proposal to fund or to refuse funding we discussed it with the agencies involved and we asked them to revisit it. By doing so we avoided what some Deputies might have been concerned about, that is, decisions made on the back of an envelope without proper evaluation.
On the other hand, leaving it to the agency and not having a committee and a political input would have thrown up significant difficulties as well. I remember one case where a project came for a respite building. It was a flagship project and half the money for it was to come from the community involved through flag days and genuine non-State resources. They sought to build a respite centre for people with mental disabilities. Pobal recommended refusal on the grounds that there was no clear demand for the respite centre stated on the application form. The only reason it was not stated was that it was so obvious that the promoters, a well-known body involved in disability, figured they did not need to make the case too strongly. The HSE was at the committee and its view was that it should be funded. A reasonable suggestion was agreed to the effect that Pobal would reinvestigate whether the services would be used and whether there would be a demand for them. They have been used since then and there is always a demand when it comes to people with disabilities. We were providing a building that would be considerably more efficient and built to a higher standard than what was in place previously.
There were few complaints during my time as Minister in terms of the process of giving out the money. When the debate started about the quangos we decided that the oversight should be in this House, just as Deputy Stanton has suggested. I am not in favour of the idea we sometimes throw out among each other that the last people we trust are each other. That has done no one on any side of the House any service. It is easy to check every step that every Minister carries out in the disbursement of money through the freedom of information process. If one believes it is unfair, there are many committees for oversight.
Over the years all of us have gone to Ministers on the other side of the House to speak for a good project. When I was a Minister, if anyone came to me on that basis, I would have taken it into account. If something was recommended for refusal, I would sometimes check with the local Deputies whether they thought it was a right or wrong decision. We bring a knowledge which is incomparable because we are all on the ground. This is especially the case if we are willing to be somewhat interparty about these issues in our consultations to reinforce whether we are making the right decisions.
The board has been magnificent. It has done its job thoroughly with great efficiency and at very low cost. I would particularly like to thank Mr. Michael Morley, the chairman of the board, who has been one of the best chairpersons of any State board. He brought to the board a wealth of skill and knowledge about money from his professional life, but also brought a wealth of knowledge about the community sector because of his involvement in the community. It was difficult to get somebody skilled in both of those spheres. The rest of the board also put in significant time.
At a time people were complaining about there being 400 quangos and despite the fact nobody could complain about the work of the board, it was our view that the board was superfluous to need and that there was no need for a statutory board to do the work that remained, because the plan was simple and focused. Another factor is that the amount of money coming in now is much less than previously. I understand that last year some €38 million came in and that half of that is going out again. Therefore, the account has approximately €20 million a year to disburse.
This leads to the next issue with which we must deal, and I hope the Minister will arrange for this to be taken on board in an amendment. I was working on this issue when I was Minister. I recall the first time I went over to the Department of Finance. Money was going out, but money was coming in from a non-Exchequer source in accrual at the bottom of the Estimates. Therefore, there was no net expenditure. I asked whether we could increase the spend and was told we could not, because all of the dormant account money was considered a liability. This is farcical, considering that in ten years of getting in this money, the outgoing has never exceeded what comes into the account. It is farcical that all of the money coming into the account, some of it from as far back as 1800 and something - which was unclaimed in the banks - is considered to be a liability on the State.
This is ridiculous. We suggest the State could have a windfall profit or reduction of its debt of approximately €400 million tomorrow if it came to an agreement on this. It could say that anybody who put money into a bank and suddenly remembered the money was there, was entitled to repayment, which is in fact the case, and that these people would have the first call on the money that comes in this year. It could say that if by some freak circumstance the amount of money being reclaimed was greater than what was coming into the account, which has never been the case, these people could have the first call on the dormant account money coming in the following year.
Like Deputy Stanton, I do not understand how €30 million a year continues to come into the account. I have suspicions of how these bank accounts arise, but I can dream on because I do not know for certain, since nobody showed me the bank accounts in question. However, the money keeps rolling in. Therefore, it seems reasonable that the State could say its liability to the big fund is wiped away, despite the fact that people are entitled to repayment of their money. People who are due reclaims can get their money from the bank in the normal way before their accounts becomes dormant, because the bank is meant to contact people a number of times before declaring their accounts dormant. If after their accounts are declared dormant, people suddenly remember their money, they would have first call on the money coming in from dormant accounts before it is disbursed through the dormant accounts fund.
If the Minister feels this is too radical, he could provide for a reserve fund in the dormant accounts or could decide to reserve money for another five years and keep those moneys parked and frozen for possible repayment. I do not believe anybody would ever draw from that reserve fund, but if it were a concern, the Minister could make that arrangement to be doubly sure there would not be a risk of somebody not being repaid his or her money. The idea that all the people who ever had a dormant account would come in claiming all this money is beyond reason. We know the banks have written off coinage and notes over the years that got lost from people's pockets, fell down drains or whatever and that this came as a windfall profit to the State and the Exchequer. We know that can be done, although technically that money could be found and reclaimed. However, everybody knows that is not going to happen, although if people find some old legal tender, they can take it to the Central Bank and get money for it. Common sense in this regard could save the Government significant money. Now more than ever, it would be good to free up this dormant account money so that the Department of Finance need not argue that if it gives out €20 million from the dormant accounts fund this year, that is a €20 million liability for the State. If it wrote off all of the fund, apart from the incoming moneys and the money put aside as a reserve, it would still have considerable money to spend.
I suggest this money should be spent in two ways. First, it should be spent on flagship projects. Flagship projects are for educational, social and economic disadvantage and for disability, and all funding provided should be capital funding only, which was my intention when this fund was set up. Providing money for flagship project allows the Government to provide that if a community can, for example, collect €250,000 for a project, it can then apply to the dormant accounts fund for that same amount. What ever the community collected, it could collect the same again from the account. We insisted that none of the funding for these flagship projects could be State funding. In other words it could not be HSE funding or whatever or the Government would not match it. It should be genuine private funding.
We found that much of the funds raised by communities came to disability groups, who constantly collect money. They are fantastic at collecting money and love the idea of doubling their money for a project they have in mind. Funding for a particular project in Limerick came from a philanthropist well known to many people. Fantastic facilities have been built as a result of this method of fund-raising. People collecting funds could say to the people they were asking to put money in their boxes that for every euro they succeeded in collecting, they would get another euro to back it. That is a huge stimulus to encourage people to give. Despite the downturn in the economy, it is extraordinary how willing people are to give money. I heard recently about a fund-raising effort for a hospital after a young child died in Connemara. A day was spent fund-raising with a sponsored cycle and walk and a sum of approximately €30,000 was raised. That was raised in one day. There are people who will give and all of us know that. Despite hard times, these people are more than willing to give. However, it is a real incentive to people to give if they are told the money collected will be doubled. It would be worth the Minister's while to look at the list of projects that were done by this method.
The Minister should focus - I would do this if I were Minister - on using dormant accounts funding every year to provide discretionary funding to the RAPID areas for small projects. The RAPID areas are the most socially and economically deprived areas in this country and by definition fall into the category of what is eligible for dormant account funding. I found that when I provided €100,000 funding to Pobal for RAPID areas, Pobal went and decided to give that money out to small projects within these disadvantaged areas. It might have provided funding just for a set of uniforms for a band or equipment for a sports club, but the money made a great difference to the lives of people, particularly young people on whom funding was focused.
It gave people a sense of ownership of RAPID. There was a point in going to RAPID committee meetings because there was something to do, such as a firm decision to make. It was not just about co-ordinating Government agencies. By providing €5,000 here or €2,000 there, one could help all the small projects that find it hard to raise money in these areas. I have noticed that something makes it easier to collect money for causes - football clubs, etc. - in rural areas of the county. It is much harder to get financial support in deprived urban areas. The approach we were taking was not costing us a huge amount of money. It would be worthwhile for the Government to consider adopting this approach again.
This Bill will have to be passed in order to do all of what I have said. That is fine. The board does not change what I am talking about. The liability issue will have to be dealt with if it is to be possible to start giving out the money again. In my view, it is more of a mental block than a real block. After that has been dealt with, the Government should decide to use this funding in areas of social and economic disadvantage, rather than dispersing it in a scattergun manner throughout the country. As we did previously, we should focus the funds mainly on the RAPID programme. The rest of it should be allocated through another flagship scheme for capital projects. This will suit the disability groups, in particular. Half of the money will come from box-shaking or philanthropy and the other half will come from the dormant accounts.
I welcome this Bill. More than at any other time, we need to be creative now. We should work together in the interests of people. I hope the amendments we will propose will be accepted in that spirit. If the wording of an amendment is not right on Committee Stage - it never is when one is in opposition - perhaps the Government will come forward with an equivalent amendment to deal with these issues.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Before Deputy Ó Cuív leaves the Chamber, I would like to say I agree with much of what he has said. While we might have our differences on the disposal of effluent and sewage, I agree with almost everything he has said on this occasion. I know he speaks with much experience in this area. It is obvious that he enjoyed his time in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. He probably has some unfinished business in this respect. I acknowledge the work he did on this matter when he was a Minister. It would be for him to take a potshot for the sake of it. I am sure he is keen to go for his spuds.
I have to speak on a television programme.
The points made by Deputies Ó Cuív and Stanton on the role of the Oireachtas in the distribution of public funds are important. I have said previously that we could be abolishing this country's quangos at a much faster rate. We need to dissolve many quangos quickly. We should restore to the Oireachtas the powers that were given to it when it was originally established, including the power to levy taxes and distribute funds. It is difficult to explain the role of an elected representative to people. Deputy Ó Cuív was right when he suggested that Deputies on all sides of the House approach Ministers of all parties to look for the best deals they can get for their constituencies. That is our prerogative and our entitlement. We are put in here to get the best possible deals for our constituencies. To that end, we approach those Ministers who have discretion over certain aspects of funding. When a Minister reports to the House by placing on the public record a memorandum of how he or she has distributed funds, he or she can be questioned on that at an Oireachtas committee or on the floor of the Dáil. When that accounting factor is removed from elected representatives, the role of the Oireachtas is diluted and, in a sense, some democracy is removed from the system. It is a way of taking a step away from those who have ultimate responsibility for the dispersal of public moneys - the Members of the Oireachtas.
The initiative being taken by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in removing a layer of quangos from the system must be recognised as a good thing. Nobody wants to cast an aspersion on the previous board. Although I do not know the members of that board, I am sure they did a good job. Everyone who spoke before me acknowledged the role of the board. I suppose it would be unfair of me not to thank it for the role it played. It is important to bear in mind that this is just one Bill. It is unfortunate that legislation is required to abolish this board. It would be better if it could be done faster and more efficiently. Having said that, I hope the Bill before the House will be passed speedily.
I recently attended a meeting at which the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government demonstrated that a multiplicity of boards, project teams, groups, organisations and companies limited by guarantee are being funded by one agency or Department or another. It is really a spider's web. To be honest, we need to reduce the plethora of quangos much more quickly. Much more legislation needs to come before the House to abolish these quangos and restore the central role of the Houses of the Oireachtas, which is supposed to be responsible for these matters in the first instance. Deputy Ó Cuív was right to say that any decisions on the distribution of funding will ultimately rest with the Minister. I suggest that the Oireachtas committees have an enhanced role in this regard. There is a danger that the committees will become talking shops. Ministers are dismantling the layers of quangos and talking shops. I think they should take suggestions on board before they present their findings to the committees.
I have a personal interest in the RAPID programme, which was mentioned by Deputy Ó Cuív. Before the previous Government left office, it identified Rathkeale, County Limerick, as one of the towns that would benefit from the programme. Deputy Ó Cuív was right to point to the educational, social and cultural benefits of the RAPID programme in addressing disadvantage and helping people with disabilities. I will give the House an indication of the types of projects that were identified by the group that came together to promote the programme in Rathkeale. They identified that funding was required by the boxing club, the scouts, the community centre, the local GAA club, the youth café and the community crèche. Anybody who is familiar with the demographics of Rathkeale will know it is unique in the sense that a large percentage of its population are members of the Traveller community. They live cheek by jowl with the members of the settled community as they go about their daily lives. Since I was elected to this House, I have had many positive engagements with the community council and community representatives in Rathkeale. The common objective of people from both communities is the advancement of the town.
Deputy Ó Cuív was right when he said it is often much easier to collect money in rural areas than in disadvantaged urban areas. There was a false dawn in Rathkeale recently when a circular somehow managed to get out from the Department. It did not relate to Rathkeale alone. It suggested that towns with identified projects would be able to avail of a €100,000 grant. For some reason, that did not transpire. I would like to echo Deputy Ó Cuív's sentiments in one respect. When the next tranche of funding is made available, I ask the Minister to consider towns that are stuck in a logjam on the RAPID conveyor belt as they wait for funding to be approved. Rather than opening the programme to other plausible and worthy projects, the most recent set of projects that were identified and approved by the Department should be approved for funding in the first instance. In other words, that towns like Rathkeale and Ballina in County Mayo and other such places, would be the first towns to benefit from this funding. I am somewhat surprised that this source of funding is continuing. The Department and the individual banks will endeavour to identify the source of these dormant accounts but be that as it may, they are a welcome source of funding. I refer to the late Jim Mitchell, God be good to him, and the legacy of his report of the DIRT inquiry which resulted in this source of funding for legitimate projects which are tackling social or economic disadvantage or projects in the disability sector. The advantage of this funding is that it is outside mainstream departmental funding and it is helping projects which are worthy but for which there would not be mainstream funding available. In an ideal world these projects would be funded without question but we are constrained by economic problems and such projects are of necessity put on the back burner. Therefore, this source of funding is much appreciated but it needs to be channelled at a faster rate.
Previous speakers referred to the notion of matching funding. I have first-hand knowledge of rural communities in particular and there is no shortage of people prepared to put shoulders to the wheel when the call is made. If matching departmental, RAPID or dormant accounts funding is available, those communities will not be found wanting. In my constituency I can cite hundreds of examples of people who have sold raffle tickets and undertaken sponsored walks, for example, to make up the matching funding for projects.
It is no secret that in my constituency we are very fortunate to have somebody of the character of JP McManus who has done a tremendous amount of work for the voluntary and charity sector in County Limerick and further afield, but specifically in his own county of Limerick. We are fortunate to have a philanthropist of his stature prepared to lead very good projects which are desperately needed in communities across Limerick city and county and for which he deserves much credit. I wish to take this opportunity to thank him on behalf of everybody who has availed of a service in which he has been directly or indirectly involved. Philanthropy is regarded as a buzzword for corporate or banking institutions who are taking a new-found interest in their communities but in County Limerick, long before the word "philanthropy" came into the lexicon of Dáil Éireann or anywhere else, we had somebody of the calibre of JP McManus who was always there when the local community needed him and for this we can be very grateful.
I have written to the Department and I have discussed with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, the need for this funding to be used where it could make a real difference, which is in the town of Rathkeale. I may be labouring the point but I implore the Minister of State in the strongest terms to make the town a priority. There is no other town in the country that can compare to it in terms of its social fabric. Equally, there is no other town in the country that could compare to it in terms of the community spirit and community involvement and the get-up-and-go attitude of its people and the various groups who are busy, night after night, working with the young people, people on the margins of society, the elderly or those with a disability. Funding under the RAPID programme was announced by the previous Government but this announcement was revoked. The people need certainty and I implore the Minister of State to do something for them during the next 12 months.
It is projected that there will be a saving of €1.7 million following the abolition of the board and the transfer of powers to the Minister. This is a starting point and other Departments and Ministers need to start looking into their own filing cabinets and introducing legislation to abolish a few quangos. The country has a massive budget deficit and people are expecting to see more change but they are also expecting to see the Houses of the Oireachtas functioning for the purpose for which we are all elected, to be accountable for taxpayers' money. This Bill is one aspect of that responsibility. Every Department contains an agency with responsibility for spending public moneys but which is not accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas, as a Minister would be. Such bodies are invariably asked to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts to explain what went wrong.
I welcome this Bill which allows for money to be used but there needs to be a greater level of involvement. I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that it would be marvellous if these arrangements could be depoliticised. For example, there should be an opportunity for all Deputies, from all sides of the House, to bring forward their ideas in respect of their own constituencies or of particular projects or interests. This should not be confined to the dormant accounts. Former Ministers with responsibility for sport gave out State moneys like snuff at a wake and used it almost as a personal fund to ensure their party was re-elected into government. This left a sour taste in the mouths of many people. The day the line Minister with responsibility for expenditure gives the House an account of his decisions will be a day to be commended.
The dormant accounts fund is decreasing but a stream of money is still coming in so plans need to be in place constantly and those projects which have been stalled need to be given priority. I refer to the role of Pobal in this disbursement of funds. Pobal and the local authorities need to be involved in the process because if the board is dissolved, it is important to use these bodies to find out where this funding should be allocated. I refer to the role of the Oireachtas which is paramount. The presentation to a committee and, ultimately, to the House, of a report both before and after the allocation of funding is very important.
This is a good piece of legislation which will enhance the communities which it is designed to serve, those which are most disadvantaged. Once again I make a special plea for the town of Rathkeale in west Limerick which was promised funding on two occasions and unfortunately it has hit a road block in this regard. I implore the Minister of State to impress on the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, the importance of delivering to that town and the need to show that town, its community council, its local representatives and its people that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, is behind it and that it acknowledges the work of organisations such as West Limerick Resources and Limerick County Council, in trying to bridge the difficulties. I ask the Department to acknowledge the work of the community in enhancing their locality and in building a social infrastructure which will benefit future generations. Everybody in Rathkeale would welcome this acknowledgement.
I compliment the previous speakers. Before I came to the Chamber I listened to the contributions on my office monitor and many valuable points were made by other speakers in this debate. I thank the Technical Group for allowing me the facility of using some of their time to speak on this very important Bill.
It would be remiss of any of us when talking about the dissolution of a board such as this not to acknowledge and thank the members of the board who have served over the years since its establishment in January 2006. We must thank politicians on all sides of the House who worked to ensure the board was set up to distribute these funds and to raise the whole concept of using the money because the funny thing about money is that it is worth nothing unless it is put to use. Having money lying in dormant bank accounts year after year was sinful when it could be put to good use and I compliment the uses to which it has been put. Many projects, some of which have been referred to this evening, have benefited greatly from this unused money.
Not too many people have come rushing to claim back their money, even though the facility is there and will be kept. If anybody comes along and says it is his or her money, he or she will get it.
We are not dealing with a bottomless pit and it will eventually come to an end but now more than ever, we must ensure the money is put to good use. I have every confidence in the Minister and in the political system to ensure the money will be put to good use. Having said that, the situation has changed a lot. When the Dormant Accounts Board was set up in 2006, Ireland was a completely different place. We were led to believe everybody had plenty of money and the gravy train would roll on but now we must be ever more prudent, shrewd and careful in the distribution of this money. As we all know the austerity measures are hitting home in a real and hard way.
I wish to speak about where the money will go. I respect the previous speaker who made a pitch for an individual case as he had every right to do. No doubt he was making a very valid case for a place about which I know a lot because I used to go through it every Friday and Sunday on my way to Pallaskenry many years ago.
When it comes to the spend, we must adopt a bottom up approach, about which Deputy Ó Cuív already spoke. He stated that community groups, in particular in rural areas, are excellent at raising funds, especially if they believe they will get matching funding. If people believe the money they raise for a club or whatever will be doubled, it really gives them an incentive.
A report over the weekend stated that 68,000 jobs could possibly be lost in the community and voluntary sector because of the austerity measures and the cutbacks in funding. The type of work being done in our communities, which was not done before - for example, crèches, day care centres, before and after school clubs, tidy town committees, care of the elderly, dealing with issues of crime and rural transport - benefited from funding. Funding is drying up and the Government is introducing cutbacks which are really starting to hit home. We must be ever more vigilant in ensuring we get value for every euro spent from the dormant accounts fund.
Money may have to be spent in ways we might not like. Deputy Ó Cuív referred to capital projects - in other words, not using the money for the day-to-day running of services. If the money must be used for the day-to-day running of services which perhaps might otherwise close, it is important the Minister takes a hands on approach and says that he might not like using the money in this way but that if he does not have any other choice and if it is available to him, that is what he will do. I am sure the Government would get support from all sides of the House in taking such a decision. It is not ideal but we are not living in an ideal world. Things are not normal at present and they will not be normal for a long time. Ministers might find themselves having to do things which are not ideal.
I very much welcome today's announcement on rural transport made by the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly. It must be teased out further as there are aspects of what he proposes which are not yet clear but broadly speaking, the Government seems to be tackling an issue which I raised before Christmas with the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly. I stated that some action would have to be taken in regard to transport in rural Ireland. He responded positively at the time and the Government has acted on it in that there is now talk of a hackney service being made available in rural areas.
I am not straying off the point of this Bill but am trying to tie the two together. In the disbursement of the funds, if it was deemed necessary that some of these funds should be used for rural transport, that would not be ideal or what we might like to use the money for but, in the absence of other funding, if it would help to keep rural Ireland alive and vibrant and if it would help elderly people living in rural locations, it is something we would all very much support.
There is social deprivation in rural Ireland because of a number of issues. Elderly bachelors are staying at home and are not going out. The reason they are not going out is because of changes to drink driving laws. It has publicly been stated that it is leading to suicides. This matter has been discussed even by county coroners. In County Kerry, our coroner stated in recent times that he believes this type of social isolation is leading to elderly people committing suicide, which is unusual.
Given the austerity measures, the Government may find that some of the dormant accounts money should be used for things such as the rural transport initiative, on which I complimented the Government. It was announced today by the Minister of State, Deputy Kelly, and I welcome it. It is a move in the right direction but the Government should not be afraid to use some of the dormant accounts money for rural transport if it would help people living in rural areas.