I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, to the Seanad. I welcomed the Government's strategic management initiative document Delivering Better Government which was debated in detail in this House. I thought it represented a step in the right direction. My party made proposals around this time last year as to how the public service could be reformed. They were different in tone and content to the Government's document, which nevertheless made a reasonable stab at the matter. From that point of view, it was welcomed at the time.
Does this Bill fulfil the objectives set out in Delivering Better Government? I do not think it does. We all know about the centralised nature of our State, the need for change and the fact that technical development and technology has dramatically changed the way in which services must be delivered to the public. This is accelerating rather than decelerating in pace. I think it was Brendan Keenan of the Irish Independent who said that if the former British public servants who were resident in Dublin Castle came back from the great filing cabinet in the sky, they would fit well into the modern structure and modus operandi of the Civil Service. If that is the case, it dramatically underlines the need for a radical overhaul.
We need a system which is effective, efficient and rewards effort so that people with initiative in the system are promoted. This Bill does not fulfil this requirement either. We are faced with an optical illusion. Nothing in the Bill will change matters. It will achieve and do nothing. Before I read the Bill in detail I thought that perhaps it could be a step in the right direction. I am not even prepared to concede that, having read the Bill. There are few specifics.
The Minister for Finance was right when he said there is no need to repeal the Minister and Secretaries Act, 1924, and successive Acts. There is nothing in the Bill which requires their repeal. The Minister said the Civil Service Regulations Act, 1956, would have to be amended. It is extraordinary to read through the Bill and not find any substantive amendment to either the Ministers and Secretaries Act or the Civil Service Regulation Act.
When we debated the Freedom of Information Bill, which is welcome legislation and part of the platform of the strategic management initiative, many of us made the point that, irrespective of what that legislation sought to achieve, if the culture of the public service and local authorities does not change dramatically and come to terms with the need to provide information to the public, even the laudatory provisions of that Bill will find it difficult to achieve a dramatic overhaul of the degree to which the public will be allowed know. If that pervasive culture of secrecy does not change, the laudatory provisions of that Bill will find it very difficult to penetrate that edifice.
That contrasts with my experience of the EU Commission which is much more open and from which it is much easier to acquire information. Senator O'Kennedy has more experience in that regard and I am interested to know if he agrees with that observation. I suspect he does.
I also bow to the fact that Members with Cabinet experience have contributed to the debate. They obviously have more experience and bring a different perspective to the debate. Nevertheless, that does not prevent us from making legitimate criticisms of the Bill because, from our experience of dealing with the public service, we know where it could be improved.
Many speakers have congratulated the public service and referred to how much we are indebted to it for the wonderful service it has given the State over the years. I will not repeat that but, instead, take it as read that we owe our public servants a debt. The vast majority of them have worked faithfully and patriotically for the good of the State and its citizens.
However, where there are deficiencies in local authority staff, the elected public representatives are held accountable for some of those inadequacies and sometimes they have to pay a fairly high price. That raises the question of the degree to which it is possible to implement discipline and to sort out staffing difficulties in these bodies. It seems to be extraordinarily difficult to deal with some of those unsatisfactory situations and where they are dealt with, certainly at senior level, it seems to cost the State an extraordinary amount of taxpayers' money. It appears that some people have been far more highly rewarded for impropriety than for doing their job well and effectively. That must be looked at very seriously because those who do their job well and effectively should be rewarded.
The fundamental point is that State sector employees cannot be insulated from the gale which sweeps around the private sector in this modern, technological society and to which employees and executives in private companies and bodies are exposed. We require an open and flexible system which the Bill does not deliver.
Section 3 is significant:
A Minister of the Government having charge of a Department shall, in accordance with the Ministers and Secretaries Acts, 1924 to 1995, be responsible for the performance of functions that are assigned to the Department pursuant to any of those Acts.
That underlines my point about how the Ministers and Secretaries Acts remain intact because nothing in this Bill intrudes on any of that legislation. If this legislation were to be effective and good it would intrude on that legislation, require it to be amended and, possibly, repeal sections. The Minister said there was no need to repeal it, which there is not in the circumstances. However, my contention is that if the Bill were effective, elements of the earlier legislation would have to be amended or repealed.
There must be a degree to which the public service can be freed from the shackles and bureaucracy which stifle it. I do not underestimate the difficulty of that task but I believe it is possible to address it with determination and radical thought. I do not see any evidence of that in the Bill. It can no longer be denied that the public service should be vulnerable to the influences of commercial realities.
There must be an accountability which moves downwards through the system. That does not mean the Secretary General of a Department should just tell an Oireachtas committee about the prepared statement, which appears to be all that will be required of the Secretary General. Section 4(1) (b) states that a duty of the Secretary General shall be "preparing and submitting to the Minister of the Government a strategy statement in respect of the Department or Scheduled Office". It further states that the Secretary General must appear before the relevant committee to explain that statement.
There is far more than that at stake here. My party proposed the creation of a State body which would be above the public service, to which Department Secretaries would report and which would be accountable to a committee of the Dáil. That should be looked at very closely.
I referred to the ability to deal effectively with the very isolated cases of serious impropriety in the public service. They must be dealt with in accordance with natural justice but not by the provision of the very large sums of money we have seen given to staff required to leave the service. If a public servant broke the law or was prosecuted and found guilty of fraud but not jailed, would he or she be automatically excluded from the public service? I am not sure about that. I understand that almost all these cases are a matter for Government decision and take a long time to be dealt with.
Section 4, which deals with the functions of a Secretary General, refers to "managing the Department". I would welcome the Secretary General managing the Department and being responsible for input and output. The Secretary General would be given a certain amount of money and would be responsible for how it was spent. That would separate the political and policy functions of the Department from the administrative functions. Many activities in Departments, such as the disbursement of social welfare funds, could be devolved to agencies and the focus within the Department should then be on policy making.
The Bill provides that a function of the Secretary General is the giving of advice to the Minister. It then addresses the role of advisers and proposes to put them on a statutory footing, which is extraordinary, especially when consideration is given to their proposed powers relative to those of the Secretary General. Section 11(2) states:
A Special Adviser to a Minister or to a Minister of State, as the case may be, shall—
(a) assist the Minister or the Minister of State, as the case may be, by—
(i) providing advice,
(ii) monitoring, facilitating and securing the achievement of Government objectives that relate to the Department....
Is this not the responsibility of the Minister? I take exception to a Government importing special advisers in such a manner and granting them that type of power. Will the next development be statutory provision for consultants, task forces, teams, etc? The Bill should be confined to the public service, the way it delivers its functions and the manner in which it is effective and efficient. I do not understand how the appointment of special advisers is a matter for statutory provision.
The Bill asserts that the Secretary General will be entitled to manage a Department. What will this entail other than the production of a strategy statement, which should not be the most important work, and giving effect to an outline of how specific elements of responsibilities are assigned to ensure that functions on behalf of the Minister are performed by an appropriate officer, etc? Other than what is set out in the strategy statement, the Bill merely nods in the direction of the powers of the Secretary General. Section 10 states that he or she will "...appear before the committee in relation to any strategy statement that has been laid before each House of the Oireachtas..." Are there to be no other reasons for appearing before a committee of the Houses?
The Bill will be significantly amended because it is only a nod in the right direction. The question of interdepartmental links and how one Department liaises with another must be spelt out in greater detail. In addition, the question of boards of management must be looked at. I understand that following a decision by Seán Lemass, weekly board of management meetings were established in the Department of Industry and Commerce whereby the Minister and senior civil servants considered the work of the Department. It was a good way to conduct business.
It is desirable that powers be devolved downwards and that consideration be given to a code of ethics, an issue about which the public service unions are concerned. There should be rewards for excellence of commitment. When the SMI was debated I outlined some of my party's proposals for reform of the public service, which we published approximately one year ago and which I commend to the House. Many of them could be incorporated into the legislation, which would significantly improve it.
We must close the culture gap between the public and the private sectors. We all wish to deliver a better service; I do not suggest that the Minister would wish to do other than that. It is the objective of all in this House to make it more efficient, accountable, accessible and flexible. My party will support any proposals in that regard.