I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It was way back in December 2017 when I first introduced this Bill. It is unbelievable this issue has been ongoing for more than two years. When the Bill was selected in the lottery, I asked myself whether it still had any relevance. I spoke to people on the ground who were involved in the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, across the State. After conversations with them, the importance of the Bill and why it needed to be progressed really hit home. It is more relevant now than ever. One volunteer at MABS to whom I spoke described the Citizens Information Board, CIB, as the most toxic organisation with which he had ever dealt. They are the words of a volunteer who has nothing to gain in raising concerns about the CIB. He volunteers to ensure the delivery of services at MABS for his community and receives absolutely nothing for his work.
The CIB appears to be intent on destroying the community ethos fostered by MABS since it began in 1992. It is that very community ethos that made MABS unique in the work that it did in assisting individuals and families at hugely difficult times in their lives - situations that involved personal debt in struggling with their mortgage, credit card debt and debts owed to moneylenders. MABS has provided immense support for people in financial distress and in assisting citizens in communities across the State it did what nobody else was there to do. I take the opportunity to wholeheartedly commend all of those who have volunteered with MABS since 1992. I refer to those who give of their time for no monetary gain, who simply want to assist people in their communities by ensuring the smooth running of the service. They are a credit to the communities in which they have served for many years. I also mention the commitment and hard work of the MABS national management forum and those in the MABS national development offices in Blanchardstown who have worked tirelessly to ensure the people in need of the service are always kept at the centre of everything that they do.
It should be a matter of deep regret for the Government that it sat back in 2017 when the CIB announced its intentions to make changes to the way in which MABS operated. The major restructuring plans announced by the CIB were opposed by those involved in MABS. The CIB never sought or heard the views of those who actually deliver the service on the ground. The damage the restructuring would do was outlined to the Government in black and white on several occasions, yet those concerns were ignored. The restructuring which is now complete has seen this damage, unfortunately, come to pass.
Ahead of this debate my office reached out to every MABS office in the State to seek views on the restructuring and make staff aware of the Bill. I received several emails in reply. Two were from regional managers who told me of their opposition to the Bill and informed me of the benefits of the restructuring and the support they had received from the CIB. I would not expect them to say anything else, given the fact that they are employed directly by the CIB. The third email was sent anonymously by a MABS staff member who was terrified to disclose his or her identity. As they put it, it was because "some colleagues who were previously very vocal about the absurdity of the restructure plan are being targeted." This staff member spoke about the fear and stress felt among the staff. It should equally be a matter of deep regret for the Minster and the Government that many MABS staff have already left the organisation, either through early retirement or to move to another job. That is what the restructuring has meant for the highly knowledgeable and experienced people on the front line in MABS.
I have been stunned by the information I have received from MABS volunteers on their treatment at the hands of CIB board members. I am utterly appalled by board members' treatment of MABS members and volunteers. As a result of that information, I am deeply concerned about the future of the MABS service. I do not say this lightly. In a recent reply to me the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, explained that the restructuring had been undertaken in order to deal with governance issues. What were those governance issues? They have never been explained to us either in the House or at the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection which held a series of meetings on this important issue. Nobody seems to know and some have been asking this question since 2017. The Minister and her predecessor - the Taoiseach - know this quite well. The Taoiseach also dealt with this issue during his tenure as Minister for Social Protection.
The Minister’s reply cited a figure of €668,240 as the total cost of the restructuring, yet that is not the final cost. Eight regional managers will be paid a salary, which represents an additional and ongoing cost, that will be paid for years to come. Doubtless, it is a very fine salary. The Minister also stated the benefits in service delivery to MABS clients were evident and that the service had been enhanced.
What are these benefits? I have yet to see them. People on the ground have yet to see them. As far as I can see, there are no benefits whatsoever. How has the service been enhanced for users? It has not been enhanced at all. In fact, waiting times for appointments for members of the public have increased and have continued to grow since the restructuring. Morale among MABS staff is on the floor. We are seeing the loss of experienced and highly qualified staff. That is hardly enhancing the service - quite the opposite in fact. All that was given in evidence way back when we discussed the matter at the joint committee and before the restructuring had actually commenced. The joint committee was given examples from Dún Laoghaire where, even at that stage, volunteers were walking away from the service. They felt they were not wanted and that their skills and talents were not appreciated. MABS is busier than ever and its support is need more than ever. The Minister need look no further than the data published on the number of phone calls made to the national helpline each year. The number of calls has increased year on year from 4,556 calls in 2014 to 7,155 in the first quarter of 2019.
MABS staff do incredible work in their communities, but they have been ignored by CIB and the Government. When word of the restructuring of MABS was made known, the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection decided to examine the rationale behind the changes. We brought in witnesses and heard from all stakeholders involved, including CIB itself. It must be noted that the CIB representatives were very reluctant witnesses. After listening to everyone and engaging with them, the joint committee made a unanimous decision that the restructuring should be halted to allow proper consultation to take place. This decision was ignored by CIB which bulldozed ahead against the wishes of the national management forum, MABS ND and the majority of local boards and staff. The views of those on the ground actually delivering the service were also ignored. If the Minister does not see fit to support the legislation this evening, I implore her to, at the very least, undertake to speak to the members of the MABS national management forum, former members of local MABS boards or MABS staff on the front line about the impact of this restructuring. If she does nothing else, the Minister must at the very least listen to them. The Money Advice and Budgeting Service is far too important to ignore issues raised as to what is happening to the service from the very people on the front line. If the Minister does not take this opportunity, there is no knowing what the future of MABS will be.
I commend this Bill to the House and genuinely look forward to the Minister's response and to her answering some of the points I have raised. For example, where are the benefits of the restructuring she has referred to? I have not seen them and people on the ground have not seen them.