Will the Minister tell the House what particular malaise exists in the Government that means every Bill must have an undefined day for establishment? Are we really not capable of stating that a Bill will be brought into force a day, a week or a month after it is signed by the President? Every time the Government comes before the House with such a proposal in a Bill, it demonstrates a lack of confidence and the lack of an ability to plan or decide priorities because it can be a day, a week, a month or ten years before it comes into force. It is no way to run good, efficient, modern Government.
Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2004: Committee Stage.
I accept the Senator's point in principle. However, in this case there is a good reason for the provision. As the Senator is probably aware, a call was issued under the current legislation for proposals, some €300 million worth of which have now been received by the dormant accounts board, and, at its request, we have advanced permission to spend €60 million. However, there has been a considerable time delay in processing these applications and, off the top of my head, it has not yet approved €10 million worth.
Therefore, I would like to ensure the board can complete the processing of the current round of applications before we activate the changes proposed in this Bill. It is only fair to those who made submissions. It would not be possible for ADM or the board to give me an indication of when the process will be completed. Therefore, it would be wrong for us to have an arbitrary date as ADM might not yet have finished its appraisal of the vast number of applications it has received, out of which the current disbursements of €60 million are being made.
What the Minister is effectively stating, although he will not do so outright, is that if he was not introducing this utterly unnecessary legislation, the existing board could get on with its business and there would be no delay. However, what he means is that because the Government is determined to get its hands on the slush fund, everything has been held up, decisions have been held up and resources will not be provided to the board because it will not be doing this job. Therefore, decisions on applications from all the good causes which are supposed to benefit from this money are being held up and the Government does not know when it will be ready to issue the slush fund. However, I predict it will be in approximately a year and a half when the election is around the corner, for which the Government is waiting.
I regret the Senator's tone.
It will get worse.
I am sure it will.
Bí cinnte faoi sin.
The board has had made available to it all the money it has requested to deal with these——
It does not have the resources to make the decisions. We all know it. The Minister will not give the money to the board because the Government wants it for itself.
An open call was made through newspaper advertisements last December, which closed early in the year. At that time, some €300 million worth of applications were received because the call was so open. The board asked ADM, which is an agency which operates under the aegis of my Department, to evaluate all the proposals received. The dormant accounts board asked for a further €30 million, making €60 million in total, to deal with these applications. However, ADM has to date only been able to process enough applications to approve less than a spend of €10 million. I am not sure how long it will take ADM to process the rest of the €300 million worth of applications, which were made in good faith under the arrangements in place at the time between December and March.
Therefore, I want to afford ADM whatever time it needs, within reason, to process those applications and allow the dormant accounts board to disburse all the money it has asked for to deal with those applications in hand, which amounts to €60 million. This is the board's estimate of how much it will need to deal with that round of applications. When that round of applications has been processed, the next round will be processed under the new system.
We will, no doubt, debate the comparative merits of the new system and the old system under other amendments tabled by the Opposition. However, it would not be fair to cut off the current process in mid-stream. Therefore, I cannot give an establishment date that would effectively take away from the board which initiated this round the right to conclude its work on this series of applications. The process proposed is reasonable, fair and equitable with the money, which is as people generally expect us to be.
On the basis that the existing board is an independent and transparent structure, and while I acknowledge that resources could be a problem if there was extra money to disburse, it could have been resourced fairly and squarely, even on a local or regional basis at ADM level. We would have had a more independent and transparent distribution of funding.
The board should retain its role in sanctioning and directing the disbursement of funds. The Bill seeks to politicise the allocation of moneys. Nobody can counteract that argument because it will be discussed in the Minister's Department and among his ministerial colleagues and money will be channelled into various worthy ventures. It is likely that some of the money will end up in the disabilities and educational sectors and that it will duplicate mainstream funding. Under the original scheme, groups on the margins would have been given an opportunity to get the money. This is a missed opportunity.
While putting in place a dummy board, a man of straw whose only role is to create a facade of independence and fairness, it is crucial that the board retain the right to disburse the funds. That is the reason I tabled the amendment.
We are discussing the section.
I have tabled an amendment.
The Senator is speaking about section 7 rather than section 3.
It is section 7.
We are discussing section 3. We have not yet reached section 7. I asked if section 3 was agreed.
From what sheet is the Chair operating?
We are dealing with the Bill, not the amendment.
As a newcomer to the Seanad, which one——
When we come to section 7, I shall call the Senator to move his amendment.
That is fine.
This is a drafting amendment. The reason for the amendment is that the words "(as amended by the Act of 2003)" in the title of section 7 are superfluous as Part 5 of the principal Act was not amended by the Act of 2003.
I move amendment No. 2.
In page 5, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:
"(a) to establish transparent criteria for the disbursement of funds under the Dormant Accounts Acts 2001 to 2004,”.
The Minister of State, who was mercifully spared the ignominy of having to defend the indefensible on a second occasion today, in his Second Stage speech, which I was spared the frustration of having to listen to, made a quaint but telling comment when he said: "we must be careful about using correctly taxpayers' money". This is what the Government thinks.
I hope the Senator is not going to indulge in a Second Stage debate.
I am not. The amendment is about transparency in the process of disbursing funds belonging to other people which the Oireachtas decided should not be left to make money for the banks and should be used for appropriate causes. It is now turned into taxpayers' money. We have already moved away from what it is, part of the general fund. The Government will say it is not true.
This is a process of talking about transparency. If one distils down what is contained in the Second Stage speech of the Minister of State and some of the more sanctimonious output from the Minister, one would believe there is a wonderful process of transparency. As far as I can figure out, and I have listened to the Minister, what they believe transparency means is that the board produces a plan of which the Government may or may not approve or amend. Therefore, the board is no more than an advisory board. Although there are already sufficient applications for €300 million worth of disbursements, the board will advertise again. It will then go through a process of political decision making with some technical advice and at the end it will tell us who got the money. They think that is transparency.
Let me explain what transparency means. It means one knows what categories of good causes can be assisted by this fund. It also means that one establishes an objective set of criteria which are open to independent scrutiny. It means people can see. Transparent has another meaning, that one can see through. Those of us on this side can see through what it is doing.
What transparent really means is that we know the objectives, the good causes or the good value issues and we know how they will be evaluated according to an objective scale. Ireland has spent 20 years trying to get a transparent method of working out which primary school was next to get its toilets fixed. We have a pretend transparency but it is progress. What we have here is hoo-ha, big advertisements, great publicity and a process which ends up with Ministers talking to Ministers about what to do with it. The amendment to the Freedom of Information Act specifically means that correspondence between Ministers is secret. Therefore, we will not know how the Ministers arrive at their conclusions. They believe, after all they should have learned from the controversies and the election, that transparency means letting people apply and telling them who got it. The only people who believe that is transparency is the Government.
As I said when I raised the question of the commencement date, what it is doing is delaying further the disbursement of funds that do not belong to it. It simply happens that the only way we can disburse these funds is through legislation which can go through the Oireachtas only when the Government supports it, but which if it was not the intention of anybody would become a slush fund for Government. The only way to prevent it becoming a slush fund for Government is to have criteria that are open to scrutiny and that stand up to objective examination.
Amendment No. 2 seeks that the board establish transparent criteria for the disbursement of funds, not criteria for asking and telling people afterwards who got it. For example, if there are ten drugs task forces, tell us why three get it and three do not. There are drugs task forces and a number of other issues relating to illiteracy, homelessness and so on and the Minister has already said there are €300 million worth of applications when the maximum sum may well be less than that amount. Therefore, some people will get money and some will not. Transparency means we should be able to see how and why the decisions were reached and it should stand up to objective scrutiny. That is what real transparency means.
Nobody in Ireland believes any State body could be totally depoliticised. The only way to start this is to take the decision on who gets the money and who does not away from politics and put it into independent boards. That is what my amendment seeks. Only some extraordinary product of the 1950s or the 1960s would believe we have reached an acceptable level of transparency if we are told publicity who gets it and there is an annual report stating how it was additional to expenditure. There is no transparency here. The final decisions will be political and based on criteria which anyone in politics understands but which are entirely at variance with the spirit of the proposal from the DIRT review committee some years ago.
Funnily enough, I do not argue with much of the spirit or detail of the Senator's contribution. While I do not blame the board, one of the problems with the current arrangement was that it placed a very open advertisement. When one places an open advertisement, one inevitably receives a great number of applications. If we had left the application period open for another three months, we would probably have received requests for €1 billion in grants of all sizes. A great many people put a great deal of time into the application process but very few of them could mathematically have been successful as the level of grant disbursement required in one year would have exceeded the total fund.
We decided early on that we would allow for the dispersal of a modest amount of the fund every year. As there was no disbursement last year, the spend of €60 million should be considered as €30 million per annum. As applications for a total of €300 million were made, only one in ten applicants can be successful. Most community groups are tired of spending endless time and wasting consultants' time making up great plans and applying to find their chances of succeeding, irrespective of what criteria are in place, are negligible. I claim responsibility for having changed three fundamental aspects of the plan from the original provisions. In the context of social and economic deprivation, we put in a reference to CLÁR and RAPID. We also included a particular reference to RAPID in the context of education. We have also made particular reference to those who suffer the most severe disabilities. The changes were made transparently and I will stand here openly and defend them. I made the changes because the RAPID areas are objectively the most deprived and CLÁR areas the most isolated while people with the most severe disabilities should have first call on the money.
Senator Ryan does me an injustice. I have discussed the proposed methodologies I intend to pursue with the implementation teams in the RAPID areas whose members feel a scatter-gun approach is currently in place. Early in this process, the Senator's colleague, Deputy O'Shea, asked in the Dáil whether the area implementation teams which have spent years drawing up plans for their own RAPID areas had any input into the evaluation of applications under the current system. The answer is "No" as the dormant accounts disbursement board and the mechanism we put in place——
The Minister has it all.
I do not have any say at the moment.
That is what the Minister claims. Who has the say in that case?
The Senator will have his chance to speak later.
It is very hard to listen to that.
To explain to the Senator, I have quite rightly no say currently. I have made no representation to or approached the board or any board member on the disbursal of as much as a cent.
Under the old system we can find out about it, but under the new system we will not know as these matters will be outside the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
No. Using the methodology we used recently in RAPID areas, where adequate Exchequer funds cannot be provided, we can decide in consultation with area implementation teams, which are broadly representative of their communities, to apportion fairly and transparently a certain amount of funds to a particular need in cases of social disadvantage. Having discussed such measures with implementation teams and agreed that such funding is additional and unlikely to be forthcoming from the Exchequer, how could I politically influence a particular decision where they were 100% sure of succeeding?
Is the Minister open to suggestions?
Certainly. As it is the reason I stood for election, I defend my right as a politician to create coherence in the way the State moves forward.
The other issue is the ownership of the money. If we knew in detail who owned the money, those owners could claim it back. That would be their preference. The problem is that nobody knows who owns this money. It was placed in a special fund and is akin to taxpayers' money. Elected Members on all sides handle public money in trust. It is not our money. The money in the dormant accounts fund is not as different from taxpayers' money as some have claimed because the State underwrites all of it with a 100% guarantee. In the unlikely event that everyone whose money is in the fund claims the entire €200 million, the State will have to observe its legal guarantee to pay it out in full, irrespective of the amount disbursed previously. We should not forget that the ultimate underwriter of this money is the taxpayer.
I assure Senator Ryan that the Government does not want to do what he alleges. That is not the way I do my business. The Government wishes to use the mechanisms of the State, including area implementation teams and public services, to make assessments and generate proposals. Each sector should be told how much money is available to address each particular issue before proposals are sought. We can all agree that it would be much more effective to meet with all disability groups to agree priority areas for a certain year and the amount of money we will apply.
Now we are getting to the kernel of the matter.
Groups should be invited to make their applications having been informed of the proposed level of allocation and in the sure knowledge that as long as they follow the criteria set out, they can put in the time and effort with a 100% guarantee of success. I have operated many schemes on this basis.
The Minister certainly has, and reaped the rewards.
The system has been very successful in that the beneficiaries on the ground feel the approach is a much more satisfactory way to disburse funds than either of the traditional methods.
We have examined these issues in my Department. In respect of the once-off grants we give out, we receive 30 times as many applications as we can fund. A great deal of frustration builds up in these circumstances and there are better ways to proceed. Without access to the systems of Government, it is not possible to operate this approach. Basically we are trying to bring into the frame all those public servants who have an incredible corpus of knowledge and expertise but who currently are sidelined in this procedure.
When one raises an issue, it is a classic ploy of the Government and, I am beginning to believe, of the Minister, as in this case, to go off on a tangent. I did not ask him anything about what he talked about, although I am glad to hear it and I will deal with it later. I raised the issue of transparency——
What is that?
The Minister is fully transparent in what he is doing.
——which he promptly ignored. He has not yet told me how objective criteria will be established. I will outline the process of disbursement of the moneys simply to explain what the Minister was talking about. The Bill states that the board shall prepare and submit to the Minister, before 1 June 2006 — that will be an interesting time as it will be in or around the next general election but I am sure that date is a coincidence — for approval a plan for the disbursement of moneys from the account. On the next page the Bill states that the plan does not take effect until it is approved by the Minister with or without amendment.
The first stage is that the Minister can approve or amend the plan. This will be prepared by the board which is supposed to give the Minister objective advice. Then, the Minister may, with the approval of the Government, amend the plan at any time after it takes effect. That is the Minister's second power. Then, the Minister shall ensure that the plan under this section is published in a form and manner that he may determine. This is the Minister whose actions are transparent who will decide how we are to be told about it.
The Bill states that after consulting the appropriate Ministers — which will be done in secret because the Government filleted the Freedom of Information Act — the Minister shall, not less than once a year, submit to the Government for its approval, with or without amendment, a proposal. This represents more power for the Minister. We do not know the criteria in this regard.
There are later amendments to this part of the Bill.
The Acting Chairman allowed the Minister to deal with the entire issue and I am entitled to respond to it.
Yes, but other Members have tabled amendments and in deference to them we want to try to avoid debating them now.
If some of the Members on this side of the House want me to stop, I will do so——
The Senator should keep going. He is hitting the nail on the head.
——but I have picked up a considerable level of support from my colleagues in Fine Gael in my pursuit.
The Bill further states that when preparing the proposal, the Minister shall have regard to the approved plan. He is not bound by it. Where will we know how he has regard to the approved plan? We will not know because he will not publish the objective criteria. The Government may approve the submission with or without amendment and so on.
The issue in this regard is not all the fine things the Minister is talking about. We all agree that there may well have been structural problems with the original board. This is a new territory for us. The Minister may well be right about the need to tighten up some of these things, but the officials who are doing the work for the board are the same officials who will be back in Departments doing the same work. The Minister of State said that the work is currently being done by people on secondment. Why will it be suddenly much more efficient when it is done in Departments?
The truth is that it will become a political slush fund. It will be dressed up in fancy language and become a political slush fund. That is what the Minister for Finance said he did not want to happen, which is the reason he set up an independent board. My party and, I believe, my colleagues in Opposition want to return to a position where the criteria for allocating the funding are transparent at every phase and not susceptible to political interference. I cited five stages in the process where the Minister has the right to amend the plan, only one of which he has to publicise.
Regarding the disbursements plan, can the Minister reconcile what is stated in the proposed section 42(2)(b) of the principal Act——
The Senator should speak to the amendment.
I am dealing with the disbursements plan to which the Minister referred and I beg the indulgence of the Acting Chairman.
The proposed subsection (2)(b) states that the plan must be prepared in a form and manner in accordance with any guidelines and directions that may be issued by the Minister. Can the Minister reconcile that provision with a statement made by the Minister for Finance in the other House in 2001? He stated that to get away from the problem of having the Government blamed for having a slush fund, it had been decided to establish a board of trustees. He also said that this board would distribute the money subject to guidelines and without the direction from Government or Minister. How can the Minister explain his acquiring the power to direct in this regard, as Senator Ryan said? It represents a U-turn from the position of the Minister for Finance in 2002 when he established this board.
This change is what the Minister of State objected to when I made a statement in this House earlier this year when we discussed dormant accounts. He came into the House like a raging lion and said that I was making personal accusations about him which were untrue. I had written a simple letter to the Minister, but he misrepresented the contents of the letter, which is on the record. Can the Minister simply inform us, without equivocation, why there is such a U-turn on disbursements policy under this Bill?
I previously spoke on this matter during the Second Stage debate and I do not intend to elaborate on what the previous speakers said. I am disappointed with the outcome of this debate. The original suggestion regarding dormant accounts was made by the late former Deputy Jim Mitchell in his capacity as the then chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts. I was enthused by what the Minister for Finance said about it at the time when I was in the other House. I thought he was rather visionary in his approach that it would not be established as a potential slush fund. I thought there was a degree of objectivity in setting up the board separately.
However, I thought it was sneaky the way the decision was reversed on 19 December when the Houses were in recess. The Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, announced in a newspaper at the time that the Government was changing the ground rules with regard to it. The board, which was to be active in regard to the allocation of moneys, would now have very much a passive involvement and that role would very much revert to the Minister.
I am disappointed about this change. I remember when Donal Creed was Minister with responsibility for youth and sport a long time ago and the then policy in regard to lottery funding. We talk about transparency in regard to allocations, but the reality of what happens on the ground in regard to allocations to the area of youth and sports is that if one approaches a Fianna Fáil Deputy, he or she will help one to fill in the proposal form. The Deputy will then meet the general group, whether they be members of a GAA club or members of another group, and agree to take the application further. The Deputy will then arrange for a deputation to go through the mechanics of the process to bring it to the level of the Minister. The relevant Department will indicate that details of the allocations of the funds will be published on a website. However, in reality what happens on the ground is the appropriate Deputy is tipped off a few days in advance and will notify the appropriate people that he or she does not know the specific amount but that funding is on its way and the group has been looked after. That is what is happening in this area and it seems to be an accepted norm.
With regard to what the Minister for Finance said originally in this regard, I said that we were changing the ground rules in regard to this, as a board would make the decisions. The Minister of State said that the board received allocations or submissions which could total up to a €1 billion. Some €222 million is available under the dormant accounts fund. If that is the case and if one was concerned about it, somebody, in consultation with the board, should have determined the criteria in regard to the applications for funding. It could have been given out over an evolving period, but there is a deep suspicion that what happened in regard to the lottery funds will happen in regard to the dormant accounts fund and the same criteria will apply as in the past.
Again, it will come down to from where the application comes, the Deputy involved and the presentation made. This is a way of getting elevated within the pecking order in the system, even if an application does not conform to the criteria governing educational disadvantage or otherwise. These are the same circumstances as obtain in respect of national lottery funding for sport. There will be another layer of largesse for the spending of which the various Government parties will take credit. That is not transparent and Senator Ryan is perfectly correct in this regard.
The Minister spoke for a long time, trying to justify his position. He can talk all he likes about this issue, obfuscate it and put a spin on it, but it is another political slush fund. It is regrettable and the Minister is contradicting what he originally stated on this subject. In this regard, let us consider an article that appeared in Comhairle'sRelate newsletter, an excellent monthly publication that outlines areas of concern to politicians and others. The Minister made his announcement on 19 December and the article was published in January. It stated all the criteria originally envisaged that would apply regarding the dormant accounts fund and we assumed the rules and regulations that would apply would be those that were supposed to apply. We know what happened in reality.
There was a certain amount of deception regarding the manner in which the announcement was made on 19 December. It was made during the Christmas recess when the House was not sitting. The Minister can apply all the spin he likes but the fund is another political slush fund for which he, other Ministers and Deputies can claim credit subsequently.
It would be useful if we could return to the amendment and the question of transparency. This Bill is totally transparent.
We can see through it all right.
I did not interrupt the Senator. I have listened to the arguments but the provisions are in black and white. The agency will report to the Minister, who will then lay the results of the report before the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is totally transparent. I realise that the Opposition parties have not been in Government for some years but if they really believe any Government would, in this day and age, get away with using a slush fund, as they call it——
The Government got away with it for seven years.
It is totally transparent. If the Opposition believes that any Government, regardless of how it is constituted, would get away with what it is suggesting, it is completely wrong.
I am sorry that my explanation of how one creates the transparency the Senator requires passed over his head.
It passed through my head and left nothing behind.
What will happen, as happens already regarding other schemes in my Department, is that there will be clear criteria by which the various programmes will be adjudicated. These will be public knowledge and the Senator and the dormant accounts board will be able to measure absolutely when reviewing each year's work whether the disbursal method was transparent, objective criteria existed and the decisions were objective.
Under the legislation as it stands, the Minister has the power to vary the plan. We have exercised that power and I have explained in this House how we have done so. Furthermore, under the legislation as it stands, I can give any direction I want to the board to disburse money for any purpose I see fit.
On a point of order, will the Minister examine the record pertaining to when he last dealt with this item in this House to see what he said at the time——
That is not a point of order.
——and how it contradicts with his last statement? It is unbelievable that the Minister can turn this on its head within such a short period.
What I said then was that as long as a board is independent, it remains independent.
For as long as.
However, where the decision rests with the Minister, it will be made fairly, objectively and properly. That is what I said.
Just like Punchestown.
If the Senator checks the record in terms of decision making and the procedures followed in my Department, he will find that I inherited in 1997 some schemes from the previous Government that had not——
He created a few more.
I created many more schemes and they all operate according to very clear, transparent criteria. In many schemes the decision making on the individual items is not made by me but by the relevant groups. The main advantage of the proposed system is that, rather than being dependent on a small number of civil servants and contract workers in ADM, we will be able to bring the expertise of the whole system to bear on the process and therefore it will be possible — it is not possible at present — to discuss with the disability groups their priorities before we decide on the exact disbursement process. We will be able to use all the agencies of State to engage in the advisory process, to which the disbursement board does not have access because of its structure. I am absolutely confident that, for as long as I am Minister, I will be able to stand over every decision made in terms of its objectivity and fairness.
The Minister has always done that.
I have. It has always stood to the test.
Senator Ulick Burke should stop interrupting.
Moreover, the Senator's own colleague, Deputy McGinley, who attended a committee of the Dáil——
We heard this.
Yes. Let us put it on the record.
The Minister should quote himself and not mind Deputy McGinley, who is not in the House.
We must have order.
He attended a committee of the Dáil regarding scéim na mbóithre áise, the moneys pertaining to which I accept had been badly spent in the past. He said the reinstatement of that scheme, which had been abandoned while the Senator’s party was in Government, was welcome. He complimented me on spending the money fairly.
The majority was spent in his own constituency in west Galway.
If the Senator checks the parliamentary question——
I brought them in and showed them to the Minister——
Senator Ulick Burke really must stop interrupting continually. If he has a point to make, he should make it when the opportunity arises.
——in the House under those circumstances.
If the Senators check yesterday's Dáil record, they will note that I replied to a parliamentary question in respect of the disbursal of Gaeltacht capital moneys and that no allegation can be made against me of being biased in favour of County Galway.
I am absolutely happy we are not guilty of the malign intent the Opposition is trying to pin on us and that our proposals, in terms of criteria and method, will stand the test of time absolutely. Others will have to answer for what happens under other Governments.
One reason we are having such a robust debate on this amendment is because it is central to the case of my colleagues on the other side of the House.
We are having a robust debate but I am not sure it is on the amendment.
They are concerned with the issue of transparency. Senator Ryan is correct and has set out his stall regarding his definition of transparency. I am not sure there is a great divergence of views but there is a perception, as distinct from a definition, of what transparency means. In this case, perception is just as important. The Minister does not need my defence but I reiterate the point I made in his absence on Second Stage that he is one of the success stories of the Government not only in his constituency, but throughout the country. I said this during the Second Stage debate and I repeat it now. I know this because I keep my ear to the ground. It is important to recognise from where he is coming.
I take the Minister at his word when he describes how this operation will happen. I have been involved in community activities. I have made applications to different funds and been unsuccessful on many occasions. Having spent money on consultancies and had its expectations raised, I know how discouraging it is for an organisation to have an application refused. The Minister has given a commitment that criteria will be put in place to measure where the funding goes. That also applies to the board as it exists at present. I do not take from the board or from what it has succeeded in doing but we cannot ignore the fact that the Minister for Finance made his point in the Dáil in the context of a certain sum of money. There is a huge amount of money there at present and it will increase. It is right to interact with existing agencies, whether local authorities or Departments. The advertisement appears to have been relatively open. If it invited a large number of applications, they would be impossible to administer. We must adapt to the new situation as we find it.
I welcome this robust debate. It underlines the mechanisms at our disposal for monitoring how this will operate. That is what the Oireachtas is for and what representation is about. I do not apologise for making representations on behalf of an individual. It is our role to do that and I am sure all public representatives do the same.
The Minister takes exception to that suggestion.
This amendment is taking so much time because this aspect is central to the case being made.
The Minister indicated that Deputy McGinley said he was fair minded. When the criteria are published and I write to him regarding someone who conforms to the criteria, will he give me, as an Opposition representative, the same attention he would give a Government Member?
I can answer that question in the affirmative. Any Deputy, Senator or public representative has always got the same treatment from me. If Senator Finucane checks with his colleagues, he will find that to be a fact.
In operating a scheme I might decide, after consultation, to spend, for example, €4 million on adult education. In many of the mechanisms I am now operating, the courses which benefit from the money are not decided by me. Today, for example, I had meetings with Departments to draw up schemes under the RAPID programme. In all of those cases there tends to be a double lock system but the common lock in all of them is that the local area implementation team must agree to whatever is being done.
Some Senators may be aware that we recently did top ups of the capital sports grant in RAPID areas. That was a purely mechanical operation. We gave a 30% top up subject to two conditions. The first was that we would not give more money than applicants asked for and the second was that the amount did not go over 80%. The projects had to be in RAPID areas and be endorsed by the local area implementation team. I did not have any choice in the matter. Once the mathematical formula had been applied there was no point in anyone making a representation to me. The grant payments were decided by a mathematical system.
I accept the principle of what the Senator said. It is important that the grants are made according to criteria. However, I have a reservation about putting that into law. If the board was legally obliged to write the criteria it would have to have done a huge amount of detailed work in consultation with all the Departments to get the necessary information to draw up the criteria to operate the scheme. In many cases, such as the AIT schemes, we piggy-back on the State's evaluation mechanism, which is independent of Ministers. We use Departments for payments and for all sorts of reasons. We can do that if a scheme is part of the mainframe system, but not if the Accounting Officer accounts directly to the Dáil.
I will consider an amendment which would oblige the Minister to make the criteria for the assessment of applications publicly known. That would allow both the public and the board to measure what the scheme is doing against those criteria. Senators should remember that if Ministers did what we are alleged to do, the dormant accounts board would scarify us at the end of the year. It will be there as a watchdog.
The board will be appointed by the Minister. Its members need not be involved in the community sector.
That does not strike them dumb.
I do not say that but the Minister is not obliged to appoint people from the community and voluntary sector to the board.
Senator Ryan indicated his wish to speak next.
At the rate we are going we probably will not reach Senator Ryan's amendment.
I do not wish to discuss amendments we have not reached. There is a dilemma here. There is a problem in board members being proposed by various groups who might be beneficiaries of the scheme. There is also a problem if they are appointed by the Minister. I would like to debate this dilemma in detail because I agree that we must be careful in how we appoint boards and make sure we put the best people on them. One of the first things I came across when I became a Minister was a procedure for evaluating funding applications. However, some of the applicants were, in fact, evaluating their own applications. Having got legal advice, we started the procedure all over again. There are difficulties there. I accept both sides of the argument and I am open to the question.
I will consider a mechanism which will oblige the Minister to make public the criteria for assessing the applications. My experience in operating such schemes is that there is a need to make sure that a scheme operates as designed. To do that one must get considerable information before the scheme is designed. For the board to do that at the beginning of the year would make it impossible to maximise the benefit of the funding for the recipients.
I am anxious to allay fears that the criteria and selection will not be objective. I favour telling applicants how much money is available and what the criteria are before they apply, so that they know how much to apply for and that the only tests the Department will apply are whether the applicants meet the criteria and have applied for the correct amount of money.
Senator McHugh will be familiar with the primary schools playground enhancement scheme in CLÁR areas where grants of €10,000 are available. Applications for €15,000 had to be sent back. Every school in the CLÁR area will benefit by €7,500 if they choose. I do not decide what schools get the grant. As long as they fulfil the criteria they are through the hoop. Any primary school can be guaranteed to qualify for the grant if it is in a CLÁR area and applies for less than €10,000 for the purpose of the scheme. That is the kind of methodology I favour because it is effective for the recipients and it saves money.
It often seems that for every €100 million we spend, the consultants get €20 million and in some cases they get the entire €100 million. Those who win get a little, everyone else loses and the consultants are the only ones who consistently make money.
We have now spent an hour on amendment No. 2 so I ask that we dispose of it.
I welcome the fact that the Minister is moving in the direction of transparent criteria. That is progress and if he had said that in his first reply to the amendment, we would not have been here for the past 45 minutes discussing many other things. If the Minister had said he was prepared to consider an amendment to make his criteria transparent, I would not have a huge difficulty with the board, although it is the simplest way to achieve transparency. I will withdraw the amendment with a view to reintroducing it on Report Stage.
I cannot understand why, if the criteria for deciding disbursement are objective, he insists that the Government may still amend the submission on disbursement before it decides on it. If the criteria are objective, there is no need for the Government to have the right to amend the proposal because it will be done according to objective criteria. The Government can amend the criteria as part of its proposal but once the criteria are written there should be no reason for it to amend the final submission.
We are talking at cross purposes.
The Minister makes a submission to the Government for the disbursement of funds and the Government may approve the submission with or without amendment. Why is there a need for the Government to have the right to amend something which has been objectively set?
I will come back on that point.
On what the Minister said with regard to the fairness with which he will deal with all representations to him, I remind him of what he said in the House. At, Official Report, 7 April 2004, vol. 176, col. 276, he said:
It is only a short time ago that Senator Ulick Burke was strongly critical in the House of the proposals of the Government to change the governance of the dormant accounts. He was loud in praise of the concept of independent statutory boards keeping things away from politicians. One can imagine my utter amazement when last week I received a letter from the same Senator Burke requesting funding from me, under the dormant accounts scheme, for an application from his constituency.
. . . .It would appear that Senator Ulick Burke has a major problem with overt political controls operated in a fair and transparent manner, but has no problem with covert political interference.
The Minister said that in response to representations I made to him and it now rings hollow when he comes in here and says he will treat all representations equally. If he can stand by that statement and then say what he did tonight, I am in complete agreement with Senator Ryan.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 5, between lines 5 and 6, to insert the following:
"(a) notwithstanding any other provision of this enactment, to provide final sanction for the disbursement of moneys if satisfied that such disbursement is within the policies and principles of this Act and the Principal Act,”.
This amendment is in a similar vein. At the outset of the Minister's tenure in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, he talked a fine talk about maintaining and sustaining rural communities and services, ensuring that they remain vibrant and funding communities in CLÁR programme areas. He talked about broadband and other great ideas, but he missed a golden opportunity by failing to stick with the existing board which was working.
Are we talking about the board now?
We are talking about transparency. The Minister missed an opportunity to stick with the existing board and it is politicised now whether we like it or not. Senator Ryan is satisfied that the Minister is moving on his amendment but I am not because the €220 million will be gobbled up by Departments and will enter mainstream funding. Small community and voluntary groups working with people with disabilities will miss out. The board should retain its role in sanctioning and directing the disbursement of funds.
This Bill politicises the allocation of moneys while putting in place a board of straw the only role of which is to create a facade of independence and fairness. It is crucial that the board retains the right to disburse the funds.
The Minister said earlier that he is damned if he does and damned if he does not. Will he give the money to the Ministers who will take it from those involved in the community sector by asking people in the community to contribute towards their own projects? The Area Development Management Limited and Combat Poverty Agency did not do that, they had highly competent people distributing millions of euro through the peace and reconciliation programme without politicising allocation. That was the mechanism the Minister should have used. He missed a golden opportunity and that is why I have tabled this amendment.
I am getting worried about how little faith politicians have in their own integrity.
It is just in Fianna Fáil that we do not have faith.
Senator Ryan may not have faith in Fianna Fáil but it appears that over the years, the public has consistently had faith in it.
That is changing fast now.
The Senator will, no doubt, point to the recent local elections. When the Labour Party is as large as we are following the local elections, it will be delighted.
I would prefer if we returned to the subject matter of the amendment.
I accept the point, however, and I will look at section 44(3)(a), where there might be some ambiguity. I am jumping ahead but the reasoning behind this is that if a measure comes back and there is a flaw in it, it is reasonable that the Government, having decided on it, can amend it.
I accept there might be some implication that we could change projects. I do not want CLÁR to give that impression. I will consider that between now and Report Stage because that was not the intention. I accept that meaning could be taken from it.
I will explain what worries me. I set up a scheme under CLÁR for topping up water schemes and it has been very successful. Very simple criteria were set down. If the scheme cost over a certain amount and if the local authority signalled that the best way of providing water for that area was to provide 100% top up, we would provide that top up once the householder paid a certain fixed amount. The first part was easy because tendered prices were supplied by the contractors and these could not be inflated because they were tendered competitively.
A member of the Senator's party who is a county councillor, a member of Údarás and a very good friend of mine, Pól Ó Foighil, tipped me off that due to the creation of the scheme, the road restoration prices had suddenly gone through the ceiling, in other words, the county council was asking me to do the road as well as the water. He was involved in the scheme and he knew about it. I referred the scheme to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which referred it to their officials who inspected the works. They found the county council had raised the specification for the water pipe. The officials advised me that these schemes should be specified according to the minimum criteria laid down by the Department for such schemes rather than being a deluxe model. They advised me of a very useful rule that no more than 25% of the cost of the scheme should be spent on road restoration and on ancillary costs, in other words, engineers and other services who could name their own prices. I amended the criteria in order to protect the State's interests and to close a loophole by which the scheme could be abused. The scheme has been incredibly successful.
People often use these schemes in a way which was not originally intended.
That arises locally.
If I find that arises, I try to insert another rule to stop misuse of a scheme. I have no problem with changing criteria in an open way and publishing it in order to close a loophole. The integrity of the entire scheme is protected in that way. We tried to find a balance between having all the required objective criteria and good systems and flexibility to take remedial action where something does not work out according to that which was agreed. For example, a scheme may be introduced to provide very sophisticated motorised mobile equipment for people with serious disabilities or special computers and it is then discovered that a target group exists which was not considered. If an amendment is proposed to include that very worthy group of people, not an individual, there must be some mechanisms in such cases and without too much convolution to allow the schemes to be changed. We had an internal debate to try to develop this model.
The biggest change is that instead of an unfocused approach there will be a more focused approach to spending the money in consultation with the recipient groups who know their needs best. One of the reasons for that approach is if an advertisement is placed in the newspapers asking for submissions, sometimes those who are the best at making submissions are not necessarily those with the greatest need and those with the greatest need are sometimes the weakest. I want to identify the needs and direct the money to where the need exists. I have no other intention. I will examine that section of the Bill because I accept it is open to misinterpretation and may be open to abuse.
I thank the Minister for being open in his response. The issue of transparency is important in this matter. It is important to instil confidence in the process. I suggest the peace and reconciliation programme could be part of the template as it involved different measures and a process for application. The group which is not in a position to fill out a competent application should be given direction. There are county enterprise boards, Leader groups and county development boards which have people working in the bureaucratic machine. I suggest they could facilitate many of the groups.
Amendments Nos. 4, 9, 10, 12, 13 and 15 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed?
I am sometimes reluctant to agree to grouping of amendments. It is very rarely in my years in this House that a Seanad Bill has been guillotined on Committee Stage. This Bill will not reach the Dáil before next autumn.
That was agreed on the Order of Business.
It was agreed against my wishes and it was agreed again in a motion put by the Leader at 7 p.m. It was against my wishes then also. It is the wrong way and a poor precedent.
Is it agreed to take the amendments together? Agreed. I ask the Senator to move amendment No. 4.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, to delete lines 7 to 10 and substitute the following:
"(a) to prepare, approve and carry out a plan for the disbursement of moneys under Part 6, in accordance with the criteria established by it,”.
I do not wish to spend much time on these amendments because we have discussed the subject matter of amendment No. 4 already. It is simply to repeat what Senator McHugh said. My consideration and concern is about the objectivity of the evaluation and the decision making. If the criteria are published in advance and open to public knowledge, my concern is whether the correspondence between Ministers on the matter will be covered by the Freedom of Information Act following the Government's amendment to the Act. Correspondence between Ministers and the board would be public knowledge or could be easily made public by ministerial order under the Freedom of Information Act. However, because it is now between Ministers, it will be excluded under the Act. Even though I accept the offer by the Minister and am prepared to listen, I still believe we will be left with a problem.
Letters I write to Ministers are not generally on the subject to which the Senator refers.
The Minister can do as prescribed in the amendment.
I operate these things already. We have, for example, a good, open template in CLÁR and RAPID. I invite Senators to look at the printout of how all the schemes operate under CLÁR. It is on my Department's website. They will find that I do not personally make any decisions, except as to the group allocation of money under each heading. In other words, I decide whether to allocate €1 million, €2 million, €3 million and so forth but do not make any decisions on any of the schemes. Everything is done using a scheme and a method as Senators will note if they care to examine the CLÁR printout. We are developing a similar system in RAPID.
I assure the Senator that decisions tend to be taken at meetings between officials in my Department, sometimes accompanied by me, and officials of other relevant Departments, sometimes accompanied by the relevant Minister, all of which are minuted. The work is done in an open and transparent manner.
The intention of the legislation is not to make decisions on projects. We will make political decisions, subject to review every year by the board as to good practice. If €12 million is available for social and economic disadvantage, of which a specific amount will be allocated to RAPID areas, we will consult the AIT schemes and, having done so and secured their agreement for our broad approach, make a political decision on whether to allocate €2 million, €3 million or another sum for a certain measure, as opposed to specific projects. We will then inform those concerned how much has been allocated before disbursing that sum.
I will give an illustration of the type of approach I am trying to develop. Under the RAPID scheme we divided the money between strands one and two. Each strand one area was allocated the same amount, while lesser amounts were allocated to each strand two area because deprivation levels in the latter areas were lower. It was inferred, however, that this was not a thorough approach. As I did not have a better approach, we called in the Central Statistics Office and an expert on deprivation levels who carried out an analysis. We are trying to develop a model to allocate money to each area based on a multiplier, namely, the population of the area in question multiplied by the deprivation index for the area. The areas with the largest population and highest deprivation index will, therefore, receive most money.
This system will be mathematical and fair. An area such as Tuam, for example, which has middle and upper class areas as well as more deprived areas will, as a result, have a lower town deprivation index. The population will then be multiplied by this index to give a result. This approach is open and transparent and reflects the models already developed under RAPID and CLÁR. The type of model we want to model for the dormant accounts is an exact replica of the highly transparent approach in these other programmes.
All the systems we operate under these schemes are available on the website. We are developing the system for RAPID but all parties, specifically the 45 AIT schemes, each of which has 20 or 30 members representing a broad spectrum of society, know exactly how we have operated the RAPID scheme. I regularly meet the representatives of the AIT schemes and I assure Senator Ryan that they are satisfied our approach is fair. While they would like more money, as we all would, they agree they have been part of a process.
Representative of the AIT schemes have also been enthused that the same system applied under RAPID will apply to dormant accounts, that they, as the representative groups in the RAPID areas, will have a say and that the process will in some way match their plans for projects which are unlikely to materialise in the foreseeable future without Exchequer funding. This is the type of methodology we hope to introduce. In time, I hope the Senator, who is a fair-minded man, will accept that this and nothing more is what was intended.
I agree there is a political element. As a politician, I honestly believe that there is a political gain to be made from doing my job well and I would never go behind a door to say so. Surely the whole idea of elections is that those who run the country well are rewarded while those who run it badly, unfairly or in a discriminatory manner get their just rewards.
The Government recently got its just rewards.
That is not the case because we are still in Government. Is this not what democracy is about?
Each year, we will answer to an independent board which will make an evaluation and, ultimately, to the electorate. The electorate are not fools and I guarantee that if we were to do the crazy things outlined by Senator Ryan and were slated by the independent board, the electorate would let us know at the next election.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 5, between lines 10 to 11, to insert the following:
"(b) to prepare and approve detailed proposals for disbursement under the Dormant Accounts Acts 2001 to 2004,”.
We have discussed the amendment.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 5, to delete lines 30 to 35 and substitute the following:
"32.—(1) The Board shall consist of a chairperson and 10 ordinary members appointed by the Minister and shall include——
(a) an officer of the Minister not below the rank of principal officer,
(b) a person who, in the Minister’s opinion, represents the interests of the financial services industry,
(c) 4 persons who——
(i) in the Minister's opinion, have knowledge of, or experience in relation to, the purposes for which disbursements may be made, and
(ii) are appointed by the Minister after consultation with the organisations that the Minister considers to be representative of the purposes so specified,
(d) 4 persons who, in the Minister’s opinion, have knowledge of, or experience relating to any other matters that appear to the Minister to be relevant to the Board’s functions.”.
It must be a condition that at least four members of the community and voluntary sector are appointed to the board. This matter should not be discretionary but the question of how it is done is a matter for another day. It is essential that the community and voluntary sector is involved in the board because it is involved in the areas in which the money will be distributed and consists of competent people.
I agree with the spirit of the amendment. There is no way I would appoint a board that was not representative or did not include high calibre people, particularly from the voluntary and community sector. It would not enter my mind not to appoint the number of representatives from the voluntary and community sector specified in the amendment. Normally, in appointing a board one seeks competent, capable people, who are not deeply involved in the corporate politics of the sector in question. In travelling to various events around the country I seem to see the same people at all of them, but they may not be the people delivering most on the ground.
I accept there is a dilemma in this regard. I remember, for example, being told to set up interview boards and so on when I was dealing with the issue of the Coimisinéir Teanga. The problem I had with this approach was that the persons I considered most appropriate for the position may not have applied for it, whereas I was confident they would apply if I approached them and told him I considered them eminently suitable. I get things right and wrong but in the case of the Coimisinéir Teanga most people have said I picked well——
——and carefully and that the person selected is of the utmost integrity and independence. I am not sure, however, that he would have considered himself a candidate if I had established an extensive interview system. I remember meeting him by chance on a Galway street one week before the nomination. He asked me when I would appoint the Coimisinéir Teanga to which I replied I would do so in due course. I remember walking away smiling to myself and thinking little did he know that he was the person I considered by far the most eminently suitable for the position because he was young, vibrant, capable, independent and had a massive track record. I accept the principle of the amendment.
Does the Minister accept the amendment?
No, but I will reflect on it overnight.
There is no rush as we will not take Report Stage until the autumn.
I will reflect on it. The issue is one of balance. I remember from my time as Minister of State at the then Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development that I always had reservations about the idea of particular organisations nominating people to boards. I am not keen on that approach. Some of us believed that this system, which I accept was introduced for good reasons, has not served well, for example, in the case of An Bord Pleanála.
There are also sometimes problems with gender equity in that system. Senator McHugh has a valid point and it comes back to the issue of trusting the integrity of Ministers to make good appointments. The systems in place have thrown up their own quibbles and quirks and have not always had the approbation of the public in their implementation. I shall consider this issue before Report Stage.
I welcome the Minister of State's comments and look forward to hearing the result of his deliberations.
As it is now 8.30 p.m, I am required to put the following question in accordance with an order of the Seanad of this day: "That amendment No. 6 is hereby negatived, that the Government amendments indisposed of are hereby made to the Bill, in respect of each of the sections not disposed of that the section or, as appropriate, the section as amended is hereby agreed to, that the Title as amended is hereby agreed to and that the Bill as amended is accordingly reported to the House."
- Bohan, Eddie.
- Brady, Cyprian.
- Brennan, Michael.
- Callanan, Peter.
- Dardis, John.
- Dooley, Timmy.
- Feeney, Geraldine.
- Fitzgerald, Liam.
- Glynn, Camillus.
- Kitt, Michael P.
- Leyden, Terry.
- Mansergh, Martin.
- Minihan, John.
- Mooney, Paschal C.
- Morrissey, Tom.
- Moylan, Pat.
- O’Brien, Francis.
- Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
- O’Rourke, Mary.
- Ormonde, Ann.
- Phelan, Kieran.
- Scanlon, Eamon.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Bannon, James.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Browne, Fergal.
- Burke, Ulick.
- Coonan, Noel.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- Feighan, Frank.
- Finucane, Michael.
- Hayes, Brian.
- McHugh, Joe.
- O’Toole, Joe.
- Phelan, John.
- Ryan, Brendan.
When is it proposed to take Report Stage?