Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second Stage [Private Members]

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.

I would love to be able to thank the Deputy for introducing the legislation, but it is a tremendous pity that he opened his statement on this exceptionally flawed Bill by calling the Citizens Information Board the most toxic organisation in the country given that it provides extremely valuable and much-loved services.

They were not my words. They were the words of a volunteer.

The anonymous nature of the way the Deputy put it does him and the Citizens Information Board a disservice.

Can I point out that-----

The Deputy had his 15 minutes and it is now my turn to speak.

The Deputy has just pointed out that the person who gave him that information was a volunteer in MABS. I point out to him that we do not have any volunteers in MABS. The only volunteers we have are in the Citizens Information Board where they are very valuable and we appreciate greatly the work they do. It is a real pity the Deputy started off in that vein.

Approximately 19 months ago, Deputy Brady introduced this Private Members' Bill on First Stage in the House. While it is very short, the Bill has magnificently significant implications for the services provided by MABS nationally. Section 2 of the Bill proposes simply deleting all references to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service from both the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 and the Comhairle Act 2000. At a single stroke, this short section seeks to remove the statutory basis for MABS and replace it with a big fat nothing. It falls so short of the required standard that it would, if implemented, create a dangerous vacuum for an excellent and a vital service that supports, as the Deputy rightly notes, thousands of our citizens. The Government has no alternative but to oppose the Deputy's Bill which seeks to remove the Money Advice and Budgeting Service from under the statutory remit of the Citizens Information Board. The Deputy has not put forward any alternative scenario for how MABS would operate after this change, how it would be funded, where responsibility would rest for the delivery of the service and whether there would be any legislative basis for MABS in the future. The Private Members' Bill is silent in relation to all these important points. If enacted, the Bill would remove the governance structure for MABS and create an accountability vacuum. That said, I welcome the opportunity to talk about MABS. Doing so allows me to emphasise the vital work the service delivers right across the State. As the Minister responsible for MABS and on behalf of all citizens who receive and require its services, I thank MABS staff and their boards for the invaluable support, advice and guidance they offer people every day of the year.

In 2008 in recognition of the need of the MABS network of 53 independent companies for a proper legislative basis and enhanced governance structure, the then Government, following detailed and careful consideration, assigned statutory responsibility for MABS to the Citizens Information Board. It was the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition which very wisely did that. Under the CIB's governance structure, MABS has continued to develop into a professional, well-respected provider of free, confidential and independent advice to help people overcome indebtedness and support them in managing their finances. MABS services have evolved so that they are increasingly responsive to the needs of clients and its work has become more varied and complex over time. MABS assists people in dealing with multiple debts and advises them on the voluntary and statutory options available to them. Under CIB's guidance since 2009, MABS has been to the forefront in delivering a number of specific initiatives. MABS has developed operational protocols with the Banking and Payments Federation of Ireland, or BPFI, and all major energy suppliers to put in place affordable repayment plans for clients. Following the introduction of the Insolvency Act 2012, CIB worked closely with MABS to establish a new statutory service of approved intermediaries to process debt relief notices for people with low levels of debt. More recently in 2015 and again under CIB's guidance, MABS established a dedicated mortgage arrears service as part of the Government's response to providing supports to those tens of thousands of mortgage holders who were in arrears at the time. MABS has played a key role in the Abhaile service which helps people who are insolvent and in mortgage arrears. MABS has a key function as it is the gateway for a person to access the most appropriate professional advice under its voucher scheme.

Throughout the development of all these initiatives, the CIB has worked tirelessly and effectively with MABS to design new services, secure the necessary resources from Government and deliver them to clients. MABS is fully funded and supported by the CIB which has consistently fought during my tenure as Minister and previously for an increase in annual resources for the service. It is interesting to note that prior to moving under the CIB governance structure, the MABS annual allocation was €14.5 million in 2007. With CIB's support, this allocation has increased to almost €21 million in 2019. This represents an increase of €6.5 million, or approximately 45%, over the period. The increased allocation is evidence of the CIB's strong and ongoing commitment over a sustained period to the excellent service provided by MABS. The scale of the increase in investment in MABS over an extended period, the creation of a legislative basis for MABS and the complementary nature of the services provided by MABS and the Citizens Information service are evidence that the transfer of responsibility from my Department to CIB has facilitated the growth and development of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service. That is very welcome.

With Exchequer funding and national recognition comes increased accountability. CIB is accountable for the funding provided to MABS.

To improve the governance arrangements and better direct valuable resources to front-line service delivery, the board of the CIB decided in February 2017 to restructure the governance arrangements of its locally delivered services. This decision was made following detailed consultation and assessment, which commenced in 2014. The previous structure, which involved 51 MABS companies and 42 citizens information service, CIS, companies, was restructured into an eight-region model, with each having a MABS company and a CIS company. The rationale for the new regional companies was to improve the governance arrangements for CIB-funded services and to optimise the benefits from operating a more modern and streamlined service delivery model that focuses on citizens. The proposed restructuring has been achieved through the co-operation of local MABS and CIS companies with the CIB. Members of the UNITE trade union in MABS voted in favour of the transfer to the new regional company structure. The restructuring process was completed in October 2018. New service level agreements are in place for all the new companies, in line with best governance practice. The CIB and the regional companies are working effectively together to further the MABS service. The board remains committed to the establishment of local advisory committees. It is working closely with the regional companies on the completion of their establishment.

The Deputy originally proposed this Bill in 2017, which was prior to the commencement of the restructuring process. It was proposed on the basis that the restructuring would have a negative impact on the services offered to citizens. Despite what we heard more than 19 months ago, MABS has been fully protected under the restructuring process. There have been no job losses and no service delivery centres have closed. Most important, there has been no diminution in the services provided to MABS clients. On the contrary, the restructuring process has yielded benefits to MABS companies. Additional resources have been allocated to the eight new regional companies at an additional cost of approximately €500,000 a year. Further benefits for MABS and its clients are being realised. The regional companies have more flexibility in allocating staff resources to areas of need. Specialist skills are more easily shared across the new regions. Administrative resources are being freed up from previous work associated with supporting 51 local companies. This enables MABS to have a greater focus on the requirements of clients and ensures more MABS resources are directed at citizen-centred services rather than administrative overheads.

Other efficiencies have also been achieved. The number of payroll providers has been reduced to one. A single insurance scheme is in place for all the new regional companies. The standardisation of practices across the eight regional MABS companies is being achieved. A greater proportion of resources is now focused on quality assurance and achieving improved outcomes for clients. That is what we are all supposed to be here to bring about. The new structure has not changed the values of MABS. It continues to have a focus on clients. Its commitment to empowering clients with debt problems and supporting them at vulnerable times in their lives is still at its core. The decision to assign responsibility for MABS to the CIB was taken because MABS and the CIS, which was under the legislative remit of the board, complement each other. Both services are involved in providing independent information, advice and advocacy services to the public. That was the position then and it remains the position today.

The Deputy's Bill proposes to remove MABS from the legislative remit of the CIB. This ill-conceived proposal has not been fully considered. The full implications of the enactment of this Bill have certainly not been thought through. It needs a lot of wisdom to guess, but we can assume that the Deputy is proposing that MABS be removed from the remit of the CIB and transferred back under the remit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. This would have significant implications. In essence, it would recreate the approach that was in existence in 2007. It would overturn the decision made by this House in 2008 to align MABS with the CIB, thereby ignoring the concerns expressed about the governance of MABS and diluting the independent role of the service. It genuinely would not have a statutory basis anymore. If the Department is required to take over the functions carried out by the board in respect of MABS, it will have significant policy and legal implications, including but not limited to matters of contract law, procurement, the transfer of undertakings (protection of employment) regulations and administrative law. It will call into question the continued existence of the eight new regional MABS companies and the benefits that are accruing from the new structure, such as enhanced front-line services, improved management and governance oversight.

I stress that if this legislation is enacted and responsibility for MABS is transferred back to the Department, it will have significant cost implications for the Exchequer. In such circumstances, the Department would have no alternative but to replicate and probably duplicate the MABS governance structure that was in place in the Department prior to 2008. Substantial additional resources would be required to oversee properly the governance of MABS, given the significant development in the services offered by the service since then. The Department would have to make a further significant investment in the development of ICT systems that create an interface and reporting structure between it and each of the MABS companies. This would be a significant investment and would replicate similar ICT projects that the Department has implemented in respect of other services, such as community employment and the local employment services.

I do not have a glass ball, but I hope I understand correctly the aims of the Deputy's Bill. In light of the costs associated with it, as I have outlined, I ask the House to note that in accordance with Standing Orders 178 and 179, I have asked for a money message to be issued in respect of this Bill. The Bill dates from a time the restructuring of the CIS and MABS had not commenced. At that time, I could probably have accepted that the Deputy had concerns. Nineteen months on, we know the restructuring process has worked well. Despite assertions to the contrary, there has been no diminution of MABS or CIS services, no job losses, no reduction in opening hours and no weakening of MABS's responsibilities for local issues. I, therefore, ask Deputies from all sides of the House to give careful consideration to this Bill and, in particular, the implications it will have if it is passed. If they consider it as I have asked, I hope they will realise that it should not be supported.

The Bill before the House sets out to remove MABS from the remit of the CIB and return it to the remit of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Deputy Brady was correct when he said that the Bill was initiated in December 2017. We probably need to examine the lottery system that applies to Bills to ensure they come before the House in a timely fashion. Having said that, we must deal with the Bill that is in front of us. We must admit that it is somewhat out of date, given that the restructuring of MABS has been completed. While there are flaws in the Bill for that reason, Deputies will have an opportunity to propose amendments on Committee Stage. We will, therefore, support the Bill on Second Stage.

I disagree with the Minister insofar as I think it is too early to say what the impact of the restructuring process has been. We will support this Bill to signify that we continue to be opposed to the manner in which the restructuring process was undertaken, to highlight the Government's blatant disregard for those who expressed reservations about this process and to reflect the majority view of this House when it called for the process to be halted. There was a great deal of debate about this project. It was a futile effort because it was going to be railroaded through at all costs. The Minister has said that this process has been successful, with employees of MABS and others who are involved with MABS jumping up and down and talking about its success. That is simply not happening.

When my party colleague, Deputy O'Dea, brought a motion to the House in March 2017 regarding the restructuring of MABS, he called on the Minister of the day to halt the restructuring process. I mention this to indicate that the changes that were made were not introduced without significant opposition. Deputy O'Dea's motion was passed by a significant majority in the House. As Deputy Brady mentioned, the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection had an extensive range of interviews and meetings with people involved in the CIB, MABS and various other organisations. With the exception of the representatives of the CIB, everyone to whom we spoke was opposed to the restructuring. It is important for the Minister to note that the CIB and the members of the committee who were in favour of this approach failed to convince us of the rationale behind the restructuring process. They failed in every regard when they tried to explain a real rationale to us. They covered themselves by saying it was not about a cost saving. I recall that well. They knew that no cost saving would emerge. They spoke about the complexity of managing 93 companies and the need to reduce that number to 16. When it was suggested that they might save some money in the process, they said it was not a cost-saving exercise.

It is worth remembering that the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, was an initiative developed by Brendan Roche in Cork in the Lough Credit Union in the late 1980s when he became aware of difficulties people had in meeting their debt, difficulties with illegal moneylenders and other related matters. He established a small group of people and together they offered help and support to those who were affected by debt. The project was successful and it was adopted on a pilot basis. The 1992 budget provided IR£250,000 - that was the scale of the figures back in those days - for the establishment of five MABS pilot projects around the country. Since then the number of MABS offices has grown to 51. Between 1992 and 2009 MABS was funded directly by the Department of Social and Family Affairs and then there was a changeover when it came under the Citizens Information Board, CIB.

I mention that because the ethos of the organisation was to take a community-based, bottom-up approach. The restructuring has turned that upside down. That is the point the Citizens Information Board completely missed in all the discussions, namely, that the community-based, volunteer-led organisation that had been created in that form was being radically changed. Those involved did not explain what they was doing but it transpired these individual companies would now act to do and deliver programmes without an input into the process; they would deliver Citizens Information Board-led programmes rather than responding to community-based needs which was their original remit. That was a significant point.

Having sat at the committee and listened to witness after witness in terms of the whole restructuring process, and this was at different levels throughout the organisation, nobody explained and no rationale was given as to the benefits that would accrue. By the time it was all over, I felt frustrated, annoyed and what really needed restructuring was the manner in which the Citizens Information Board did its business. I thought it was an appalling process.

I advise the Minister that I did not receive the anonymous emails Deputy Brady received but during the restructuring process people were very concerned not only about their employment but that what they were doing was not valued or recognised. Certainly across the Citizens Information Board services volunteers felt the work they had been doing for years was not recognised. It caused much anger and upset in many communities.

I clearly understand that the Bill is flawed. The Minister has clearly put on the record she will require a money message for it and she has set out the grounds for that. She will use a blocking mechanism to stop this Bill from progressing. That is what she is saying. She and the Government have done that with respect to this issue every step of the way. It was debated and the committee came to a conclusion but the Minister ignored it. This House debated it and nowhere along the way was there an effort to accommodate the views of the majority of people in this House or the majority of people involved in providing the services. The only people who were satisfied at the end of this process were the board of the CIB and the officials in her Department but that process missed what community organisations were about and there was a sense of loss and frustration among the volunteers.

I know this Bill will not go any further and that the money message will kick in. The Minister said the service is excellent but time will tell. We believe the jury is still out on how it will function over the longer period. We do not see the savings. The Minister mentioned increased efficiencies and so forth. Many of the efficiencies could have been introduced under the old structure. We could have had one set of accountants, one set of auditors, doing the accounts of all 90 companies. There were other ways to introduce those efficiencies but they were not significantly examined. One model was kept in mind the whole way through the process and it was railroaded through. It is a pity we have come to the point where this Bill had to be introduced tonight to revisit an issue that has been spoken about in the House and in committee and on which no progress has been made because that model was railroaded through.

The Money Advice and Budgeting Service, MABS, is a household name throughout the country since it was first founded in Cork more than 25 years ago in response to over-indebtedness and, in particular, to address the reliance by many less well off in our society on moneylenders, both legal and illegal. It was founded on the basis of involving the voluntary and community sector in identifying local issues in their local area and putting in place local solutions. Such was the success of the venture that the then Department of Social Welfare embraced the local voluntary concept, rolling out and funding the model throughout the country.

MABS flourished, grew and gained the respect of creditors, public utilities, financial institutions and the courts. It was an honest broker which could be relied upon to present the raw details, as they were, of a customer’s perilous financial state. Arrangements were agreed with a certain amount of hand-holding leading to light at the end of that dark tunnel of over-indebtedness for people and their families. The MABS objective was to be an honest broker giving independent, free, and confidential advice to those less well off in our society. This attracted many vulnerable people to open up for the very first time and to share their every hidden secret to a MABS staff member, whom they now trusted, not only as a professional but as a friendly ally to lessen the burden they may have carried all alone for many years, fearful of sharing the stigma of debt with anyone else.

As the years passed the level of indebtedness of people and its complexity changed dramatically. However, MABS did not divorce itself from the likes of the unpaid utility bills, the withdrawal of basic services, the unexpected family events or the local authority rent arrears but it also quickly recognised the need to upskill its staff in the new complexities such as mortgage debt, large unsecured debt, the loss of the family home, the recession, which still lingers in many parts of rural Ireland, debt relief notices, alternative repayment arrangements with financial institutions, debt write-downs and write-offs. MABS is to the forefront in delivering on Abhaile, the national approach to mortgage debt. MABS is the engine room which ensures that the arrangements are put in place, that clients in distress can get access to their vouchers for financial and professional advice, that there are constant communications and protocols developed with all the leading mortgage providers. This all happens quietly under the radar delivering the results for us as legislators and for those in fear of losing their homes.

For many years MABS operated under the umbrella of the then Department of Social Welfare, now Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. On many occasions, programmes for Government identified the need to have MABS established as a separate entity allowing it to continue its massive support to national government and to society in a way that no other body has ever equalled. Sadly, the ideals of various programmes for Government never resulted in the implementation of those promises.

As a stopgap, in 2008 the Social Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act transferred statutory responsibility for MABS to the Citizens Information Board. This, in hindsight, was a mistake. MABS and the Citizens Information Board are not happy bedfellows. While the Citizens Information Board has much to offer in its area of expertise it has nothing to offer to MABS. It is no secret that morale in MABS is at an all-time low. MABS staff throughout the country feel that MABS is no longer a service that can pride itself on what it can achieve.

A few years ago, the Taoiseach, and, indeed, the Minister who has left the Chamber, told this House that they could not, on the advice of the Attorney General, interfere with the Citizens Information Board’s decision to demolish the most successful ever locally-based MABS in favour of a regional model. This was another mistake.

More than €2 million of taxpayers' money has already been spent on the project. The results are there for everyone to see - longer waiting times, no training for staff, and no expertise in the Citizens Information Board to lead and support this vital service. The Minister oversaw this in the face of a damning report by the Oireachtas committee and the wishes of this House, which showed the greatest support ever for a motion to halt the process. I agree with Deputy Curran's comments on that process. We now have the results. What has been delivered against what was promised? The answer to that is absolutely nothing other than despair and disaster.

Tonight the Government has an opportunity to take back control before we lose the real benefits of what MABS has delivered over the years. The Minister has already indicated that she will use whatever force she can in terms of stopping this, including a money message, but I point out it is the Ceann Comahirle who decides about money messages.

I advise the Government to allow this Bill to proceed to Committee Stage and get to a point before it is too late to open up the discussion on what has been achieved with the reorganisation of MABS. It would also allow us an opportunity to listen again to the stakeholders who have indicated a lack of satisfaction with the outcomes. It would allow us learn what has been achieved but also what has been lost. We must call a halt to the reorganisation before it is too late. We need to keep the best of MABS and we will be supporting the Bill on that basis.

While it is too early to say with certainty the impact that the restructuring process has had, it did not have widespread support. Serious reservations were expressed regarding the manner in which it was undertaken, along with the lack of a cost-benefit analysis and that it risked disenfranchising those who had contributed positively to MABS for years, namely, volunteers. Volunteers are important in every aspect of Irish life.

Fianna Fáil recognises and values the vital work that MABS and Citizens Information Services do. During the recession many individuals and families relied on the help and support offered by these services. They provided a vital lifeline for many of those who found themselves unemployed, in mortgage arrears and overwhelmed by debt. MABS gave a great service to many families who felt they had nowhere to turn for advice and guidance. It was the link many needed to prevent insanity coming into their lives and families. I know that from people I brought to MABS over the years. The half-hour of advice from MABS or being sent somewhere else for advice was important to those people.

Our party spokesperson on social protection, Deputy O’Dea, brought forward a motion in March 2017 which passed in the Dáil. It received widespread cross-party support calling for the restructuring process to be halted. Members of our party who sit on the social protection committee also welcomed the report from the committee which also called for the restructuring process to be halted for a while. Fianna Fáil raised this issue on several occasions on the floor of the Dáil and by way of parliamentary questions to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Fianna Fáil repeatedly called on the Minister to intervene in this issue and not to ignore the will of the Dáil, as well as that of the many staff and volunteers involved. Deputy Brendan Ryan put it well when he spoke about the trust factor where people were at ease when speaking to MABS volunteers. That link was important to the many families who availed of these services.

Fianna Fáil also called on the Minister to ensure any restructuring process did not result in the downgrading of the quality, effectiveness and accessibility of services to citizens. Fianna Fáil recognises there is scope for greater efficiency and effectiveness. We are not opposed to change and reform where necessary. We are, nevertheless, concerned about the considerable disquiet surrounding the restructuring process. It is vital that the concerns of those directly involved in the provision of services are taken on board. Many volunteers have given freely of their time and energy to these services. They now feel they are being pushed aside while their contribution is no longer valued or wanted. We should never let that happen to volunteers in any sector. As many of my colleagues know, this country would be in a different zone if it did not have volunteers.

The Government has not shown much regard for those who expressed concerns about the restructuring process. It is guilty of hollowing out the community and voluntary sector, often ignoring and downgrading the valuable experience and contribution of those who have given positively to their communities for many years. That is why we are supporting this Bill. We feel the restructuring has been rushed through and it was not an improvement. I am concerned that the volunteers in question are no longer part of this process. I regret the Minister used those two dreaded words “money message”. It appears that many of us who support this Bill will not be listened to. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, will take my concerns to the Minister. The Government should withdraw its opposition to the Bill and allow it to proceed to Committee Stage to be discussed further.

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. All Deputies recognise the vital service that MABS provides to people at the most vulnerable times in their lives, right across the State. Every Member has engaged with the service at some stage, representing our constituents.

The Bill, however, is ill-timed and simplistic in its approach to the separation of MABS from the Citizens Information Board, CIB. It falls short of logic, rationale and the effective and efficient delivery of modern citizen-centric services. This proposal runs counter to one of CIB’s core functions, namely, the provision of advice on personal debt and money management delivered through MABS. Any attempt to take MABS out from under the remit of CIB will have nothing but a destabilising effect on service delivery, which, in turn will permeate to MABS clients. It will affect those who lie awake at night with worry due to debt issues, those who are at risk of losing their family home and those who MABS supports. Nothing should distract from this work.

Deputy Brady offers nothing to support making such a fundamental change to the MABS governance structure at this time. Any attempt to unravel this model which is delivering results for clients will only be futile. It can only serve as a distraction to the important work that MABS staff are engaged in every day. Under CIB, MABS has continued to develop into a strong, professional, well-respected provider of free, confidential and independent advice, helping people from all sectors of our society to overcome their debt problems and support them in managing their finances.

In regard to the recently completed governance restructuring carried out by CIB, it is important to echo the Minister’s earlier statement that there have been no job losses, no closure of service delivery centres and, importantly, no diminution in services provided to MABS clients. One of the primary objectives of the CIB’s strategy for the next three years is to consolidate and embed the changes resulting from this recent restructuring process, to deliver the benefits of these changes to the clients who need them. It is important to allow for that time to show the benefits.

These changes have led to a reduction in back-office administration, increasing the available resources for front-line services, which all Deputies will agree can only be positive for MABS clients. CIB remains ideally positioned and legally empowered to support and promote two vital citizen-centric services, Citizen Information Services and MABS. Both are charged with the delivery of information, advice and advocacy. Both deliver to citizens at a local level, are entirely State funded and operate successfully under the single governance structure of CIB.

I thank all the MABS staff and their boards for the invaluable support, advice and guidance they continue to offer to people in their time of need.

I could say I am surprised by the initial response from the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection who is no longer in the Chamber. However, I am not. That type of stick one's head in the sand approach has been adopted from day one.

The Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, was in the Minister's position when this issue first arose. He did not want to deal with it. He did not want to engage with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection. We brought a whole raft of witnesses in to the committee and produced a brilliant report which received cross-party support. We sent that report to the Minister who failed to engage or to express any views on it. He stuck his head in the sand and allowed the tearing apart of the MABS structures to proceed. There was a debate on the issue in the Dáil and a motion was passed. It was the will of the House that the process be stopped. That was also the main finding of the report. This was all ignored.

I am therefore not surprised that the Minister's Government, knowing that it will be defeated on this legislation, is again pulling the money message procedure out of its back pocket. That does not surprise me but it does disappoint me because not only has the Minister not taken on board the views of the Members of this House and of the Oireachtas joint committee, she has not taken on the views of the people who matter, the people who have worked on the front line since MABS was set up in 1992. She has not taken on board their concerns. The evidence I have been given shows that there has been a reduction in the standard of service being provided to people. People are experiencing lengthy delays when waiting to be seen. One person who actually works within the service says that there has been a massive brain drain and that people have walked away. This person says there has been:

Loss of knowledge, talent and skills of qualified professional staff in the organisation. As noted, many staff qualified as AMA’s and Al’s. Others were solicitors, barristers, accountants, etc. Many have since left the organisation either early retired or moved on to other organisations.

This was a direct result of what has taken place. There have been negative consequences to the restructuring process. The Minister has said that the legislation is deeply flawed. I find that insulting, although not to me personally because I did not draft it. This legislation was drafted by the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers. If the Minister is having a go at the people employed by the Houses to draft legislation, it is a serious error on her part. I certainly do not believe this legislation is deeply flawed. I am not precious about it. If the Minister thinks there are flaws within the legislation I will happily accept constructive amendments on Committee Stage in order to strengthen the Bill and to put meat on the bones, so to speak. I will absolutely do that. The Minister should not, however, hide behind the nonsensical argument that this legislation is deeply flawed.

I spoke about the anonymous correspondence I received. It would be worthwhile to put some of it on record as it shows what people who actually work within the service feel:

Anonymity and Fear

Apologies for being anonymous but some colleagues who were previously very vocal about the absurdity of the restructure plan are being targeted. There is a general feeling that we are NOT allowed to talk to media or anyone else about what has and is going on.

What was/is the purpose of the restructure? Well not for the benefit of all stakeholders nor primarily the public (the old vision, mission, etc) which we are supposed to serve!

From the very first commissioned study (by contractors!) in 2014 it was very clear that not all stakeholders were being considered. Over the last two years it is abundantly clear that the only stakeholders represented are CIB and the many expensive consultants contracted at regular intervals for lots of projects.

No valid reasoning/evidence was ever provided for the need to restructure. Derogatory comments had been made such as ‘there is a horrendous lack of governance...’ One possible example being constantly repeated as such evidence. But it made no sense because ... This was against a background of much increased governance and controls

These are the words of a person on the front line regarding the impact this restructure is having. These are the views I take on board and the views to which the Minister and her predecessor have not listened. That is an absolute shame.

In her opening comments the Minister unfortunately attacked me for quoting someone on the front line who talks about the toxic organisation that is the Citizens Information Board. She tried to muddy the waters and to suggest that I was making a direct attack on everyone involved in the Citizens Information Services. That is completely disingenuous of the Minister. I know from dealing with people, as does everyone in this House, that the work done by the staff of the Citizens Information Services is phenomenal. There is a distinct difference between the Citizens Information Board and the Citizens Information Services, which it funds. A person who works on the front line categorises that board as a toxic environment. To suggest that is an attack on all staff in the Citizens Information Services is absolutely pitiful. To use that to try to take away from what this legislation seeks to do is very sad.

The Minister also says that this Bill is 19 months too late and that, had it come before her at that time, she would have looked at it or taken it on board. Neither she nor the Government would have. I have outlined all the reasons. The Minister who was in charge at that time would not even engage with the committee. He outlined all the reasons he could not intervene and hid behind advice from the Attorney General, even though previous Ministers had intervened to stop the exact same thing happening in the past. So many false arguments have been put forward and that is pitiful.

My sole objective in all of this is ensuring that the phenomenal work carried out by MABS over many years is allowed to continue into the future. The evidence shows that this restructuring has cost a fortune. The Minister said in a reply to a parliamentary question of mine that it has only cost in the region of €660,000. The actual figure is closer to €2 million. As a result of this, not only have we seen the brain drain described by one worker on the front line, but a reduction in services. That is my sole motivation in bringing forward this legislation. I want to ensure that MABS is allowed to continue doing the phenomenal work it has done in the past.

The Government is going to be defeated on this. There is cross-party support for this Bill. Unfortunately the Government will again hide behind a money message. That is no surprise. There are now 55 Opposition Bills being held up by the money message procedure. That is a disgrace. If the Minister is serious about MABS, about protecting people, and about providing service to people who need it, she will allow this Bill to move on to Committee Stage. We can then bring in expert witnesses, tease things out, and make amendments to strengthen the legislation to ensure that MABS can go forward on the strongest possible footing.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 70(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time on Thursday, 4 July 2019.

The Dáil adjourned at 6.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 2 July 2019.