I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House.
Decentralisation Programme: Statements.
I am delighted to attend the House again to update Members on the progress of the public service decentralisation programme.
I will begin by reiterating the Government's commitment to the full implementation of the programme. Since I last addressed the House on the matter I am happy to report that a number of key developments have taken place and that real progress is being made on all fronts. Significant numbers of civil servants will move this year under the programme as a result of these developments. Decentralisation for those who have volunteered will soon become a reality.
One of the aspects all commentators acknowledge is the scale of the implementation task. This ambitious programme involves the relocation of over 10,300 public servants to 58 towns outside Dublin. Over 50 civil and public service organisations are included in the programme. It touches on many of our most important public services and includes the relocation of ministerial offices and the headquarters of eight Departments. It is a challenging objective but one which I, my colleagues in Government and the members of the decentralisation implementation group are increasingly confident the public service can deliver, and deliver well.
Many aspects of the programme are worth re-emphasising. This is a popular programme with many people expressing an interest in either relocating in their current position or transferring to a new organisation that is moving out of Dublin. We now have over 10,600 applications from civil and public servants who wish to relocate.
The central applications facility continues to receive new applications every week. In all, more than 1,500 people have applied on the central applications facility for decentralisation since the closing date for priority applications. It is anticipated that interest will increase further as building and movement timetables firm up.
Site or building negotiations have been completed in 13 locations. Contracts have been received for an additional ten locations. Suitable sites have been identified in a further 15 locations and negotiations to acquire have either commenced or are close to commencement in these locations. By this time next year, the Office of Public Works anticipates that builders will be on site in 16 locations. Each location requires a brief of requirements to be agreed with the organisation concerned, site selection to be concluded, detailed tender specifications to be drawn up and a public procurement process to be completed. As we all know, the purchasing of land, sites and buildings is not an area that allows for definite dates to be set in stone. In this regard, the OPW is currently reviewing its indicative dates for completion of building in light of its experience to date.
In addition to the progress made in negotiating permanent solutions in many locations, I am delighted to see that a number of organisations are being progressive in seeking advance or temporary accommodation to facilitate early moves. These developments will greatly assist the decentralising Departments in taking in many of the civil servants who are currently based in provincial locations, thus giving the organisation a foothold in the location.
Discussions are continuing, and indeed have progressed, on a number of human resource and industrial relations issues. Actual movement of staff within and between Departments and offices is now under way, with over 1,200 staff already assigned to posts which will decentralise.
All Departments and offices have produced implementation plans setting out the detailed arrangements they are putting in place to plan for relocation while also ensuring business continuity and effective delivery of services to customers. The plans are comprehensive and their preparation involved detailed reviews of business processes as well as the logistics of the move. During the latter half of last year the implementation group held a series of meetings with Secretaries General of Departments involved in the programme to discuss the planning framework in place, assess progress to date and hear about the challenges arising and steps proposed to address them. Following this round of discussions, in a recent interview I understand the chairman of the group confirmed his earlier view that senior civil servants are leading the implementation of this programme in a professional and carefully planned manner and, at the same time, are availing of opportunities to improve both their business processes and their delivery of services in conjunction with decentralisation.
We must remember also that decentralisation is nothing new to the Civil Service. At present there are in excess of 13,000 civil servants working in a variety of locations outside Dublin. Members are probably aware of the successful decentralisation of Revenue's collection services, the payments sections of the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the finance areas of the Department of Agriculture and Food. While not on the same scale as the current programme, these were significant movements. The learning from these previous moves has built up an expertise in inducting large numbers of new staff, the effective transfer of knowledge and skills and ensuring quality customer service in the transition phase. This learning is proving invaluable in planning and executing the current programme.
The initial timescale mooted for the decentralisation programme was, quite rightly, an ambitious one. That initial timeframe has been very helpful as a catalyst for progress. The initial focus on a three-year period has greatly assisted in getting preparations off the ground quickly and has been a key factor in delivering the progress evident to date.
Departments are following the implementation group's approach to phasing arrangements for the programme, which makes sense. The group identified 21 Civil Service locations across 17 counties for the first phase of moves. These locations were selected on the basis of an assessment of progress on property acquisition, numbers applying and business readiness to move. The selection was also informed by the implementation plans prepared by each organisation, and the group's recommendations were accepted by the Government. This is a practical, sensible approach and is not in any way a reflection on the Government's commitment to the overall programme, as some commentators have suggested. While on this point I must say I have been astounded at the inaccuracy of some of the commentary on the programme and the distortion of figures by various people.
Indicative timeframes on a further 24 Civil Service locations, which were not announced in the first phase of moves, were provided by the group in its June 2005 report. However, the programme should not be seen as divided into discrete phases. While the most immediate preparations may take place in organisations with early mover status, the remaining organisations will also continue to plan their business, staffing and property solutions in readiness for moving.
Decentralisation is already a reality in a number of locations. People have moved and more will follow. Advance moves have already taken place to date to Sligo, Portlaoise, Thurles, Tipperary town and Na Forbacha, in Galway. As mentioned above, there are over 1,200 individualsin situ in posts that will relocate both during this year and in 2007.
On current indications, the implementation group anticipates that by the end of 2009, almost 7,000 civil and public servants will have relocated under the programme. The managing of moves within this timeframe is a complex task involving a large number of interrelated elements. I am none the less confident that the implementation group will continue to monitor the programme to ensure there are no undue slippages or delays and that, if they arise, they are properly managed.
The issue of effective transfer of knowledge and skills is central to business continuity in the transition phase. A central feature of planning to date is the documentation of business processes in preparation for transfer of knowledge to, and the training of, new staff. The Department of Finance publishes monthly figures on its website showing that staff are now being actively assigned to decentralising posts. The early assignment of staff, on a phased basis, should be a priority for organisations to ensure they balance the pace of integration with their business needs and customer service obligations. The good lead-in time recognises that in many cases only a small number of staff are moving with their present jobs and that there must be adequate time to build up expertise in new staff. This has been done successfully in previous rounds of decentralisation and I am confident it will happen again this time.
Each early-mover organisation is canvassing those who have expressed a second or lower preference for particular locations. This is allowing opportunities for staff to change their first preference to an early-mover location where that location is undersubscribed. Movement right across the Civil Service has been a feature of previous successful decentralisation programmes. Recent media references to only one in nine staff moving with their posts as part of this programme do not properly reflect the circumstances on the ground. This statistic is continuously being touted by those opposed to decentralisation, who are hell-bent on confusing everybody, including themselves.
I am not a bit confused.
The simple fact is that when one takes account of the numbers of civil servants willing to change from their current Department or office to fill a post in the new location, the level of interest is very strong. This is particularly true in the case of the early-mover organisations. Staff new to a Department or office are being trained and this is being given high priority in the preparations.
To suggest that the productivity and effectiveness of the Civil Service will be severely reduced as a result of the number of officers unwilling to relocate with their current post is to do a great disservice to the ability, commitment and dedication of the officers willing to transfer into a new Department. It also underestimates the professionalism of the management of the Departments who are ultimately accountable for the performance of their organisations.
Some people seem to forget, because it suits their cause, that new staff bring with them their own experiences, skills and enthusiasm that will undoubtedly stand them and their new Department in good stead. There will also be new recruits to the Civil Service who will receive the usual induction and other appropriate training.
The implementation group is paying close attention to developments in the information and communications technology, ICT, area and will continue to do so over the coming months. The group has specified the need for detailed planning of the decentralisation of ICT jobs by individual bodies. This planning is ongoing and has been supported by the Centre for Management and Organisation Development in the Department of Finance, which is providing assistance and guidance to ICT managers across the Civil Service. Industrial relations matters relating to this programme are dealt with by the Department of Finance. Discussions have allowed progress to be made on a number of human resources and industrial relations issues which have laid the groundwork for the assignment of staff from the CAF to the decentralising organisations.
Discussions also are continuing between public service management and staff interests in other areas. One will be aware of some of the issues to be addressed in respect of professional and technical staff, who represent about 10% of the total number of posts decentralising. While the professional and technical grades are not a large part of the early-mover cadre, their positions are more complex than those of members of the general Civil Service. The number of applications from these grades has been lower than in the general Civil Service grades. Added to this is the fact that, historically, there has been less flexibility to transfer to posts in other organisations where a particular professional or technical grade is not represented. Discussions between the Department of Finance and the relevant unions are continuing.
The other main issue which requires attention at this stage is that of State agencies. The implementation group recommended, in its report of November 2004, that seven State agencies receive initial priority attention in terms of implementation of the programme while still ensuring progress for the remaining organisations. Between them, these seven State agencies represent around 720 posts.
Members will be aware that a number of issues concerning the movement of State agencies have still to be resolved. In particular, they will have heard of the current industrial relations position in FÁS. The Labour Court recently recommended that the matter be referred back to the appropriate central body. Such central discussions would allow the issues to be teased out with a view to arriving at agreed long-term solutions. I strongly support the full utilisation of the existing industrial relations structures by all parties involved and I believe this represents the best way forward. I therefore urge all the parties to engage in central discussions as recommended by the Labour Court.
The staff remaining in Dublin are key to the success of the decentralisation programme. Moves of Dublin staff to Dublin posts have already taken place on a bilateral basis as posts became vacant through draw-down from the CAF. Arrangements are now in place to allow the reassignment, within Dublin, of staff whose posts are being decentralised and who themselves wish to remain in Dublin. A facility has been established through the Public Appointments Service to allow staff remaining in Dublin to express preferences as to the organisation in which they would like to work. This will be an ongoing process throughout the transition phase of the programme and progress in this priority area will be monitored continually over the coming months.
I assure the House that the property costs of the programme are being managed professionally by the OPW. The objective is that the property acquired at regional level will be matched over time in cost terms by the disposal of property currently held in Dublin. At the request of the group, the Department of Finance has issued guidelines to Departments and offices on the capture of data on non-property costs, including transition costs such as those associated with knowledge transfer and training, as well as any ongoing costs and savings.
I reassure the House that the implementation of the decentralisation programme is proceeding well. It is a popular programme involving over 10,600 applications from civil and public servants who want to move from Dublin or their existing provincial locations. Interested civil and public servants continue to submit new applications every week. The property elements of the programme are proceeding very well, with negotiations completed or significantly advanced by the OPW in 23 locations.
A number of human resource and industrial relations issues have been progressed allowing the assignment of decentralising staff within and between Departments and offices. Implementation plans have been prepared, setting out the detailed arrangements Departments and offices are putting in place to plan for relocation, while also ensuring business continuity and effective delivery of services to customers.
I hope I have given a good indication of progress to date. I and the Government remain satisfied that the decentralisation programme will be delivered.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am surprised he is satisfied given the debate we had on the roll-out of decentralisation in the Chamber after the announcement of budget 2004. I can safely say that in my time in politics, I have never seen a more arrogant attempt by the Government to con the population than the decentralisation programme.
I am forthright in my commitment to the ideal of decentralisation. Fine Gael is fully supportive of the objective. The Minister of State struck the nail on the head when he stated the programme is popular, involving over 10,600 civil and public servants who want to move from Dublin or their existing provincial location. Moving from one's existing provincial location is not decentralisation in any form. A number of public servants are willing to move from Dublin, which I welcome because it is the objective of the programme and represents what we all believe decentralisation to be. However, moving a civil or public servant from an office in Tullamore to an office in Portlaoise is not decentralisation, and could not be understood to be such by anyone. It is a complete misrepresentation of the whole process.
It is quite clear that the Government's efforts in this regard are a shambles. In budget 2004 we were presented with a timeframe. The Minister of State referred to it and said the initial timescale mooted for the programme was, quite rightly, an ambitious one. What a load of rubbish. During the debate on decentralisation, he outlined his commitment to ensuring the timetable would be honoured. Every Opposition spokesperson said it was completely unrealistic but he and Senators on the Government benches said the opposite. When did the realisation dawn on the Minister of State and his Government colleagues that the timescale that was announced in budget 2004 was nothing other than a ball of smoke? The dogs in the street knew that the Government could not live up to the timescale that was announced. There were negligible levels of consultation with the public and civil servants who were involved in the decentralisation programme.
The Government's plans to pursue the programme were announced in the farcical Budget Statement of December 2003, which was the last budget to be presented to the Dáil by the former Minister, Mr. McCreevy. On that occasion, he did not announce much more than the decentralisation programme, which was designed with an eye on the local and European elections which were to take place the following June. It is clear that the Government's plan did not work then and I do not see how it will work now. The Government announced its decentralisation plans a number of months after the publication of the national spatial strategy. As the decentralisation programme did not bear any resemblance to the spatial strategy, it was holed below the waterline before it got started. When the decentralisation programme was announced, I asked the Minister of State to explain why it did not bear any resemblance to the spatial strategy.
The Minister of State spoke about the buildings and sites at certain locations which have been identified or purchased or are in the process of being identified or purchased. He did not refer to the ludicrous case of the relocation of the Department of Defence. A site in Newbridge that will cost €4 million or €5 million has been earmarked for the Department, even though the OPW owns the site of the former McKee Barracks a couple of miles away in Kildare town. Most of the 65 acres in question are lying vacant. I am sure a suitable location for the new headquarters of the Department of Defence could have been located at the site the Department owns at the Curragh Camp. The land in question, which extends to over 700 acres, is just a few miles from Newbridge. It does not seem to make much sense that the Department is so keen to purchase a hugely expensive new site in Newbridge.
It seems that the process of property acquisition is at a different stage in each of the 26 locations which have been earmarked for the decentralisation programme. The purchase of the sites and buildings in question will cost approximately €50 million and a further €300 million will be needed to kit them out fully. The Minister of State said he hopes the sale of lands, sites and offices in Dublin will cover the costs associated with the purchase and construction of buildings to house the civil and public servants who are being transferred to new locations throughout the country. It is clear to anyone with a limited knowledge of the property market that the Minister's ambitions in this regard are unlikely to be realised. The completion of the decentralisation programme will cost much more than the amount of money that will accrue from the sale of offices in the capital city which currently house Departments or Government agencies.
When they are discussing the decentralisation programme, Ministers and Ministers of State often conveniently forget to mention that 60% of the locations which are described as "early mover" locations under the programme are towns and cities in the Dublin commuter belt. That those who will be decentralised to such locations will not go to key unemployment black spots outside the eastern region clearly flies in the face of the decentralisation programme's objectives, as outlined when the programme was first mooted.
While I understand the Minister of State's comments about the potential loss of expertise, I disagree with them completely. If a person who has been working in a section of a Department for a number of years, building up a level of expertise in a specific area in the process, chooses not to stay in the section in question when it is relocated down the country, it is quite obvious that his or her expertise will be lost. The Minister of State rightly pointed out that new people will bring new ideas and, perhaps, increased enthusiasm to such sections but I do not think the Government has fully acknowledged that existing expertise will be lost in such circumstances.
The Minister of State also referred to the ongoing difficulties with the relocation of FÁS to Birr. I was under the impression that all the civil and public servants who are due to relocate to counties Laois and Offaly were delighted to be moving to Parlon country, but apparently that is not the case as things stand. Recent media reports indicated that just six members of the staff of FÁS want to relocate to Birr. That is not unusual. None of the 93 staff of Bord Iascaigh Mhara, none of the 178 staff of Fáilte Ireland, one of the 90 staff of the National Roads Authority, two of the Public Appointment Service's 100 staff, five of the 100 staff of the Valuation Office, nine of the 110 staff of the Health and Safety Authority, which is due to be decentralised to Thomastown in my home county of Kilkenny, 15 of the 210 staff of Ordnance Survey Ireland and 19 of the 300 staff of Enterprise Ireland have applied to participate in the decentralisation programme. Such statistics, which are not unusual, contradict what the Minister of State has told the House and what the Government continues to tell the public about the decentralisation programme. A response to a recent parliamentary question indicated that just 224 of the 1,300 people who work in the Department of Social and Family Affairs, or 17% of them, have applied to decentralise.
That is more distortion from the Senator. He should keep it up.
Just 5% of the 1,000 people who work in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, nine of the 124 people who work in the Department of Foreign Affairs and 13 of the 130 people who work in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism have applied to participate in the decentralisation programme. Those figures are taken from responses to very recent parliamentary questions.
The Senator is relating the figures incorrectly.
I certainly am not.
The Senator absolutely is.
Some 46 of the 445 people who work in the Department of Education and Science, or approximately 10% of them, have applied to decentralise. The Minister of State has said that 10,600 people have applied to participate in the decentralisation programme, but it is quite clear that many of them are already working in regional towns outside Dublin. Many of them have never worked in Dublin. When I spoke with Senator Mansergh earlier, he correctly referred to the relocation of an office of Teagasc at Oak Park in Carlow as a fantastic example of decentralisation. Officials in other sections of Departments and Government agencies which have been decentralised over the years are already working outside Dublin. The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, has shown his brass neck by telling the House that 10,600 people want to decentralise, given that most of them are not working in Dublin at present.
That is not true.
The decentralisation programme that was announced has become a programme of relocation. If one examines the Minister of State's remarks today, one will notice that "relocation" is the key word that he used on many occasions. He mentioned "decentralisation" on a handful of occasions, preferring to refer to "relocation". It is a clear distortion of the original objectives of the programme as they were announced.
Decentralisation is a good idea. I agree wholeheartedly with the objective of moving civil and public servants out of our choked-up capital city and into the regions. No amount of fudge or waffle from the Government can describe the current situation as being anything other than disastrous. It is clear that the programme announced by the former Minister, Mr. McCreevy, in budget 2004 is now up in a heap. When the Minister of State concludes this debate, perhaps he will shed some light on some of the issues I have raised, but I do not think he will be able to do so. It is quite clear that the Government's decentralisation strategy is in a complete mess, although I wish that was not the case. I honestly believe that many towns throughout the country which were promised jobs will never see those jobs because the decentralisation programme is such a shambles. A few months ago, Senator Bradford raised the proposed decentralisation of a particular agency to Mitchelstown in County Cork. He investigated the issue with the Department and found out that there were only 90 people working in that agency, yet the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, had the brass neck to announce that 110 positions would be created in the town. That particular relocation is not in the list of early movers and seems to have dropped off the radar completely. It is quite clear from the level of take-up for decentralisation in the Health and Safety Authority that its proposed move to Thomastown, County Kilkenny, is a long way off. I regret that because Thomastown could do with the lift that such a move would provide.
I wish the Government the best of luck in the task of decentralisation, but its representatives must start telling it as it is. They should be a bit more honest with the House and the public. They should not massage the figures as they have done today and as the Government continues to do on this issue.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials to the House. I congratulate them on the work they are doing in making this a reality. A reference was made to "brass neck". With the amount of Opposition and media flak around, the Minister of State might well need such a brass neck. He is doing very well and is showing much steadiness under fire, for which I compliment him.
The Minister of State's report was echoed by the chairman of the decentralisation implementation group, Mr. Finbarr Flood, when he addressed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service on 14 December 2005. He stated:
I am happy to report that real progress is being made on all fronts. Significant numbers of civil servants will move next year under the programme, with further large movement in 2007 and 2008. Decentralisation, for those who have volunteered, will soon become a reality.
We have just listened to a speech where lip service was paid, at the beginning and at the end, to the principle of decentralisation.
The Minister of State was not like that.
I did not interrupt the Senator's speech once, although I might have been tempted to do so.
In fairness to the Minister of State, he was a bit more positive.
Senator Mansergh, without interruption.
The situation is presented as if the glass is 98% empty, instead of looking at all the positive progress. My criticism is not only of the Opposition; it is also of the Dublin-based media which has presented a grossly distorted view of what is happening. Decentralisation may not be happening quite as fast as originally planned, but according to the newspapers, nothing has happened and the whole thing has been a shambles. In fact, a great deal of progress is taking place. A clear mandate was sought from the people and decentralisation was in the Fianna Fáil manifesto.
The manifesto also contained a commitment to provide 200,000 medical cards and 2,000 extra gardaí.
This was subsequently put into the programme for Government. The manifesto stated that decentralisation would be to those towns which had some difficulty in attracting industry.
There was only one passing reference to decentralisation in the national spatial strategy, which was mainly about the location of private services, industrial investment and so on. If one were to take the national spatial strategy as gospel, Tipperary would get no decentralisation at all as there is no hub or gateway in that county.
There was a certain contradiction in what Senator Phelan said. He spoke about places of high unemployment, yet such places are not hubs or gateways. A complete shibboleth has been made of the national spatial strategy by a certain writer inThe Irish Times. It was clearly set out from the beginning that decentralisation was a different process that was complementary to the national spatial strategy, but not identical to it. If previous programmes are taken into account, nearly every hub and gateway has already benefitted from decentralisation.
The degree of political negativity from the Opposition and from the Dublin-based media is slowing down and delaying the process. I do not doubt that Senator Phelan is in favour of the principle of decentralisation, but if an alternative Government was formed, what would be decided by those who are based in Dublin and who have expressed much hostility to decentralisation? It will be an issue at the next election.
It will be an issue like all the broken promises.
What would an alternative Government do about decentralisation? Would it be committed to seeing the plans carried through? Would it call the whole thing to a halt? Such a scenario happened twice before. In 1981, a decentralisation programme was announced, but it was cancelled by the former Minister, Mr. John Bruton, whose brother is the finance spokesperson of Fine Gael. In 1982, decentralisation was again raised, but was again cancelled by the incoming Fine Gael and Labour Party coalition.
It was the 1977 election manifesto that bankrupted the country.
It had nothing to do with the 1977 election manifesto.
The manifesto bankrupted the country.
Senator Browne will get an opportunity to speak.
Decentralisation saves money.
No it does not. The Minister of State said that it would cost more.
As Minister for Finance, Ray MacSharry introduced a decentralisation programme in 1988 and it saved money.
It is not saving money now.
That remains to be seen.
We would like a bit of order. Senator Phelan should let Senator Mansergh continue without interruption.
In this House, I am often not given the courtesy of speaking without interruption, especially when I point out facts that are not very convenient to the Opposition. This country is crying out for decentralisation.
Senator Phelan has made his contribution. He should not interrupt Senator Mansergh.
I am just agreeing with him. I only echoed his sentiments.
The Senator should not interrupt.
I did not interrupt him. I said "hear, hear".
The Senator was intervening and he should refrain from doing so.
An opinion poll inThe Irish Times showed that two thirds of people were in favour of decentralisation, in spite of the all the negative media coverage. The country has developed in a very lop-sided fashion. The announcements on decentralisation have acted as a tremendous catalyst for development and growth. For example, the people of Tipperary town have not looked back since the decentralisation announcement was made. There is, as the Minister said, a small advance party which was not even part of the original decentralisation programme, namely, the 11 staff working in the Private Security Authority, in Tipperary town. They are working in temporary accommodation while permanent accommodation in an old barracks is being prepared.
I strongly welcome the fact that the decentralisation of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to Tipperary town has moved up the list. It involves 186 posts in the Department. In December we were given an indicative date for construction to start in early 2007. A site has been acquired, although the legal formalities have still to be finalised, and the indicative date for construction completion is the end of 2008. Perhaps the Minister of State will confirm if that remains the situation. I understand that the decentralisation to other towns in Tipperary, mainly in north Tipperary, is proceeding well. The original decentralisation was the Garda College in Templemore and with the expansion of the Garda force I am sure employment there will grow by leaps and bounds.
There is agreement across the floor that the Teagasc move to Carlow, which preceded the decentralisation programme, happened smoothly and without too many industrial relations problems. The problems that did arise were solved. The success of decentralisation partly depends on the terms and conditions on offer, particularly when there is a certain reluctance to move. Some flexibility and pragmatism are required to make it a success.
Recently I read a memoir by a doctor — the book could almost be in the category of religious literature — who was born in the South and lives in the North. He spent some time in Brazil. He says in the book, which was published only a few weeks ago, that if we think there are problems with decentralisation here, consider Brazil where Government departments had to move hundreds of miles inland from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia.
Similarly, in Germany a large number of departments had to move from Bonn to Berlin some years after reunification. In France, the elite civil service training college, ENA, was shifted from Paris to Strasbourg, somewhat to the displeasure of some of the staff. A year or two ago, Mr. Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain, announced a wholesale decentralisation programme which was not on a voluntary basis. If people did not move, that was tough for them. That is not our ethos and I do not recommend it.
However, Ireland is a reasonably compact country. People have referred to very experienced civil servants who are deeply committed to their Department. In those cases, if they believe in the value of what they are doing, they should seriously consider ways and means whereby they can work in the new location. People ought to be more open to the idea. I have difficulty understanding the development co-operation division of the Department of Foreign Affairs. People who work in that division have to be prepared to be posted to Lusaka, Lesotho, Timor-Leste or other such places but the barbaric jungle of Limerick appears to be a bridge too far.
Communications are good in this country and are getting better. People have all sorts of flexible working relationships. There is no reason decentralisation should not work. It is in the interests of the country. People should try not to be too political about it. I plead with the Opposition to be a little more positive about the programme and to see the glass as half full instead of half empty. I also plead with the media to cease its gross propagandistic distortions of what is happening, which is purely pandering to a comfortable Dublin audience.
I will not bring up the issue of the salmon and the River Nore today. This is a similar fiasco and the Minister of State's fingerprints are all over it. Senator Mansergh spoke about the significant public support for decentralisation, at more than 80%, as reported inThe Irish Times. The real opinion poll, however, was the local elections. Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats lost council seats in every proposed location for decentralisation.
They did not lose in Tipperary town.
Nor in Birr. The Senator should be correct in his statements. There is no point throwing out wrong information.
The Minister has been wrong in many things too. People are not opposed to decentralisation but they are not stupid. They realise this is a sham. First, the programme should never have been announced in a budget speech. It had nothing to do with the budget. It just highlighted how empty the budget was of any news that the former Minister, Charlie McCreevy, had to include it in his Budget Statement.
Senator John Paul Phelan and Senator Mansergh referred to Teagasc. That decentralisation was included in the Budget Statement even though it had been completed already.
I acknowledged that.
It shows how disingenuous the Government was and continues to be. It should not have been included in that speech. Thankfully, however, it came back to haunt the Minister later because the civil servants who were being decentralised used it as a precedent. There was a compensation package involved in the Teagasc case. People had no difficulty with the proposal to move Teagasc headquarters to Carlow and I, as a resident of Carlow, welcomed it. I hope we can build on it. Perhaps the empty business park that is only a few miles away from Teagasc headquarters will attract biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries which can link with the expertise in Teagasc and the two third level colleges in Carlow.
The decentralisation programme started badly and, unfortunately, has got worse. Nobody opposes decentralisation; Fine Gael does not oppose it. The problem, however, is that the programme was far too ambitious. I have spoken to people in Departments which have successfully decentralised sections in the past. They had to go outside their Department for personnel. It is not as simple as telling 200 people in an office in Dublin that they must all move to Wexford. That cannot happen because the 200 people have commitments and families where they are.
The programme also showed how out of touch the Government is with reality. It seemed to think it was the 1950s and that the male in the family was the breadwinner, the female remained at home minding the children and there would be no problem in relocating. It forgot to take account of the fact that there might be two income earners in the family and that the other spouse might have an equally, if not more, successful career than the spouse who is obliged to move. That causes problems.
The programme was badly conceived. The Government did not realise that for 10,000 people to move to the country it would have to go far outside that number to get the 10,000. There was no forward planning and we are now paying the price.
There are two major aspects to decentralisation. The first, which the Government cannot get right, is the physical relocation of personnel. Already, deadlines have been missed. Last year I got information from the Minister as to when the decentralisation to Carlow would take place. Today, Deputy Hogan received information stating that it will be delayed by another year and in reality it could take a further year after that.
While some people might think it was fantastic for the Government to decentralise part of a Department to Carlow, I wish to explain the true story. Representatives of Carlow had a fantastic package and offered the Government a prime site in the middle of the town, for which it would not have been possible to pay money. A group comprising Government and Opposition elected representatives met the Minister for Finance with a package offering fast-tracked planning permission if we were successful. The Government accepted our case as it was very good by comparison with other towns.
While we are glad to have decentralisation to Carlow town, many civil servants moved to the town in anticipation of the Department coming. They are very disappointed that the deadline keeps moving. I appreciate that difficulties might exist in other parts of the country in getting personnel and other issues. However, this is not the case in Carlow town. There has been oversubscription for the section of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment that is to relocate to Carlow. Will the Minister of State consider temporarily renting premises in Carlow while the permanent building is being built? People in Carlow will be very sceptical and cynical if they do not see developments. We have the required number of civil servants and, unfortunately, we also have an empty business park on the outskirts with an empty advance building, which could cater for the 300 civil servants due to come to Carlow.
Deadlines are being moved out and I appreciate there are delays in a building programme. It is now up to the Minister of State to indicate that he is prepared to move those civil servants in the agreed timeframe and in some cases move them to temporary premises while the permanent building is being built. This may be possible elsewhere, as many advance factories remain idle throughout the country. Carlow has one such advance building and may also have other suitable buildings.
One of the aims of decentralisation is to deliver better public service. I am concerned that because the programme is so ambitious we will need to seek people from outside Departments, staff will need to be retrained and up-skilled, and we will lose much knowledge and expertise in Departments as people who cannot stay in a particular Department might opt out. They might leave the Civil Service and go to the private sector or go to a different Department and the taxpayer will be the ultimate loser. I reiterate the two points that must be addressed, namely, the physical relocation of Departments and agencies and the provision of a better public service. The ham-fisted approach of the Minister regarding a section of the Department of Foreign Affairs relocating to Limerick would not inspire confidence. Some people with specific and unique expertise might now leave the Civil Service following the handling of the decentralisation process.
I ask the Minister of State about the lease arrangements for buildings now occupied by Departments. If a Department decentralises ahead of the expiration of the lease will the taxpayers end up paying for an unoccupied building in Dublin? Could the State be subject to penalties for overstaying in a building in Dublin?
While Fine Gael is in favour of decentralisation, we would not have done it in the way the Government has. We would not have announced it in the Budget Statement, where it did not belong. Unfortunately the Minister of State is now ducking and diving as he is well used to since coming to office. He is running scared on many issues. Deadlines are being missed consistently.
Is the Minister of State prepared to temporarily relocate particular Departments and agencies, in particular the section of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to Carlow, to a different building while the permanent building is being built in light of the delay in the building programme?
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, and his officials to the House, and thank him for taking this opportunity to discuss the Government's ambitious plan. I am aware of calls from various quarters for the rolling-back or postponing of the decentralisation programme, but it is not always clear why groups make such a call. If the call is for political reasons from political parties, let them say so. If the call is from vested interests, let them also set out why they object. I say this because the calls from Members opposite certainly cannot be based on either a lack of enthusiasm among public servants, or because the programme is in someway being imposed.
Of course, the Minister of State, the Government, the Progressive Democrats and I all support the programme. More important than my support or that of anyone for the project, is the enthusiasm among pubic servants for decentralisation. This aspect is regularly and regrettably omitted from the debate. Almost all Departments are involved, either wholly or partly, in decentralisation. Some 10,000 applications have been made and new applications are being received every week. Since the closing of the application period in September 2004, I understand an average of 100 new applications have been received each month over the past 14 months. Such is the enthusiasm for the project.
Unfortunately the numbers relating to decentralisation have been manipulated of late, I fear, to serve various agendas. We have had defective reporting of numbers within a particular Department wishing to relocate within that same Department and we have seen issues of internal problems within an agency being conflated with the overall project. This behaviour does not serve the Opposition, workers' representative groups, the Departments, the public servants themselves, or the towns that are earmarked for decentralised Departments.
It has been suggested that the programme is forcing some workers to relocate. I always understood the decentralisation programme to be entirely voluntary. Staff may opt to decentralise with their post or to another post in a decentralised location, or they may opt to remain in Dublin. It may be necessary to explain further to some people the difference between operational realities and so-called "promotional blackmail". However, that is surely a job forthe decentralisation implementation group. Responsibility to drive forward the implementation of the programme lies with the DIG, not with the Minister of State.
I will conclude with a case study. As the Department of Finance has made clear, the potential benefits of decentralisation are immense. Existing civil servants seeking to leave Dublin, for example, in order to return to family and friends back home, or to acquire an affordable and comfortable family home within easy reach of their workplace, will have a broad range of options. It also seems likely that there will be a wider range of work and career opportunities for public servants already working outside Dublin. Present and future civil servants who aspire to senior management positions will no longer need to move to Dublin, although many may continue to do so.
Pressures on traffic congestion and housing inflation in Dublin will be reduced and the programme will provide a very significant boost to local economies. For example, under the programme, the Revenue Commissioners will decentralise 50 posts to Newcastle West, County Limerick, and 20 or 30 spin-off jobs can also be expected. This may be worth more than €1.5 million directly to the local Newcastle West economy. The planned decentralisation to Newcastle West illustrates clearly the points I have outlined. The Revenue Commissioners have prepared and submitted an implementation plan for Newcastle West to the implementation group and this plan is being progressed. I understand analysis of first preferences applications from the central application facility indicated some 81 applicants for Newcastle West, which indicates no shortage of enthusiasm.
Internal information seminars regarding the transfer of work from the Office of the Collector General to the new locations in the mid-west region have been completed, and letters of offer for transfer to Newcastle West were issued to staff in June last year. Again, the information process was put in place and is working. I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, and his Department on accommodating the move. I understand the Commissioners of Public Works are considering tenders for the provision of offices under phase one of the decentralisation programme. I also believe the commissioners expect to have reached a decision on tenders as early as this month. My point is that decentralisation is not only welcome among public servants; many are crying out for it. They are fed up with living far from work and, most important, far from their extended families.
Second, the towns identified for decentralisation look forward to welcoming new families to their communities and new workers to their economies. Political and vested-interest point-scoring is possible if one knocks the programme, but it should be avoided. We should commend the Minister of State on his role in accommodating the relocations and the decentralisation implementation group on its work in driving the project to a successful conclusion.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House.
I am pleased to have yet another opportunity to speak on decentralisation, an initiative which I fully support, since I believe it absolutely necessary from a social, economic and infrastructural perspective. However, it has been dreadfully mishandled by the current Administration and Minister. I tell the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, straight that he and his colleagues have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. When this programme was announced to a hushed Dáil on budget day some years ago, apart from the constituency announcements, there was a hope, expectation and, in some quarters, a belief that it would happen on time. However, no matter what way we twist or turn the figures, progress has been shockingly slow.
On the politics of this question, I listened with interest to Senator Mansergh's contribution. He stated that he expected that decentralisation would become an election issue, something that he seemed to welcome. I join with him in that hope, since based on how the Government delivered on its commitment, the Minister and his colleagues will be judged very harshly. I accept that any Minister, Oireachtas Member or person examining public policy in this country must see the merits of decentralisation. However, the present programme is a litany of disaster and failure.
Senator John Paul Phelan raised an issue in his opening remarks that I have brought up on many occasions, namely, that of Mitchelstown. Some 70 or 80 jobs in Dublin were to be transformed into 200 posts there. That is sadly indicative of the numerous announcements made, which I will not call false but mistaken. Thousands of public servants working in greater Dublin would be extremely interested in moving to more rural or peripheral locations; we must take that as given. However, the way in which the Administration announced the decentralisation programme showed that it was not well thought out. Now the Government is trying to push it through, and we are not meeting with any success.
We must reflect on whence we have come and whither we mean to go. No matter how one considers the figures, the position in March 2006 is that the programme is simply not working. What the Minister of State's colleagues and he set out to do some years ago is simply not happening. If we go through the towns for which decentralisation was proposed, we see that many seem to have fallen from the list. Even in those where progress has apparently been made, which are on a list released some months ago, it has been extremely slow. We must reflect on what sort of decentralisation we practise.
From the outset, many people had genuine concerns about the idea of moving departmental headquarters to the regions, and that issue must be examined. However, the inflexibility of the programme and difficulty in allowing people to transfer from one Department to another are among the big issues. If the Government had announced 20 or 25 towns where decentralisation was to be implemented, where it was interested in establishing agencies, offices of State or Departments, and waited for the response in regard to each, the picture would have been different.
Let us take the example of Fáilte Ireland, part of which was scheduled to come to my local town of Mallow. We are advised that not a single staff member wishes to move there. Undoubtedly, there are hundreds of public servants around the country who would like to move to that region, but the difficulty is that one must marry them with the jobs on offer. We must look at this with much more flexibility.
One way or another, within the next 15 or 16 months we will have a general election. The Minister of State will recall the words of his then senior colleague, former Deputy McCreevy, whom he almost beat to the post in publicising the news of decentralisation. Mr. McCreevy, when Minister, said that if the programme were not fully implemented by election day, it would prove a political failure.
We already know that it will not be implemented in full, but leaving aside the politics, we must reconsider how it was designed to work and the idea of setting in stone what Department, office of State or semi-State board or group should move to a given town. That formula simply has not worked. There may be people working in Bus Éireann who might like to move out of Dublin but who are not interested in moving to Mitchelstown. There are some in Fáilte Ireland who might like to move out of Dublin but who do not wish to move to Mallow. Yet there are hundreds who would like to move to Mallow and hundreds who would like to move to Mitchelstown but who are unable to resolve that dilemma. We must re-examine what offices were planned for which areas and how we might introduce some flexibility to the scheme.
I need hardly repeat that the concept of decentralisation is a very reasonable and worthy one that should be supported because of the many benefits that would flow from it, economically, socially and from an infrastructural perspective. However, when the Minister of State takes leave of his portfolio next May or whenever, virtually no one will have been transferred as a result of this so-called decentralisation bonanza. It certainly will not have worked within the timeframe, and I regret to say that there is no great evidence that it will work at all. Who in his right mind would not want to see civil servants and semi-State personnel adding to such communities as Athy, Ballinasloe, Buncrana, Carrickmacross and Cavan? We would all love that, and we should all aspire to it. However, the system that we have put in place is simply not adding up.
I appeal to the Minister of State and his colleagues to be big and brave enough to say that they will review the type of programme and the mechanism used hitherto. If that does not happen, we will be having bimonthly decentralisation debates in this House from now until election day, saying the same things on all sides without there having been any great progress. It would be disappointing if we did not take advantage of the fact that there are towns crying out for offices to move there and great numbers of public servants in greater Dublin who would be willing to move if we could provide flexibility.
Yesterday we debated the Planning and Development (Strategic Infrastructure) Bill 2006. I said that the key word regarding that legislation was "balance". The key word in the decentralisation debate is "flexibility". We do not seem to have the balance right. Prescribing offices for towns before considering the numbers willing to move to each was a grave mistake. How the Minister of State and his colleagues will extract themselves from this mess I am not really sure, but they must attempt to do so for everyone's sake.
We do not want decentralisation to take the place on the political stage which was held by the draining of the Shannon for almost 50 years. We want it to happen and believe it can. However, the manner in which it was thought up, proposed, announced and deemed to happen is questionable. While this experiment has failed, the concept of decentralisation is still as important, valid and credible as ever and may be needed now more than ever. The Minister of State should be big enough and sufficiently politically brave to admit that the process has not worked out exactly as he would have wished, is not going according to plan and must be re-examined in order to get it back on track.
Rural, regional and provincial Ireland needs decentralisation, as does Dublin city and greater Dublin. While a solution can be found, it will require fresh and brave political thinking. I hope that as the Minister of State was first out of the traps with decentralisation announcements some years ago, he will now accept the responsibility of being the first to concede that a new way forward is needed.
The difficulty with the Opposition Members in both Houses is reminiscent of a comment which I am sure the Minister of State has heard, namely, "I love you darling, but". There is always a "but", and their statements are always contradictory. While the Opposition Members are all in favour of decentralisation and want to see it working, they will always claim that the manner in which it is being done will prevent its success. While this may be fine from an Opposition perspective, in reality the process of decentralisation has been under way for 50 or 60 years or more. Sometimes, progress has been slow or delayed. I can recall when John Bruton, as Minister for Finance, cancelled the entire decentralisation programme after one of the elections in 1981. He did so after matters were almost ready to proceed, in that sites had been bought, negotiations had been entered into and decisions had been made as to what units were to move. That decision delayed decentralisation by some ten to 15 years.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him on his tenacity in dealing with this complex matter. It affects people's lives, livelihoods, personal family homes and everything else, and unquestionably is a complicated business. However, the Minister of State is dealing with it in an extremely forthright manner. He has always indicated his willingness — even this week — to ask people to negotiate regarding their difficulties and problems so that this process may move smoothly.
More than ten years ago, when in the office now held by the Minister of State, I endeavoured to move 1,200 staff from the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Dublin to Ennis, Limerick and Nenagh. While it took some time, it has had a dramatic impact on towns like Nenagh and Ennis. In respect of its impact on Ennis, it has been beneficial for the civil servants who moved there to work and has provided a major boost to the economy of Ennis. It was the trigger which set off the economic transformation which has taken place there in the past ten to 15 years. The relocation to Ennis, Limerick and Nenagh was successfully completed. It took some time because of negotiations regarding office accommodations and because it was a fairly ambitious move. Members should recall that 1,200 people were moved to three locations, while the current scheme envisages the move of 10,000 people to many locations.
I have a query in respect of one aspect of the current plan, namely, the proposed move of the Irish Aid development organisation to Limerick city at the same time that a move from that city to Newcastle West and Kilrush is planned. This should be examined because if the decentralisation programme is attempting to move people from Dublin to Limerick, it should be noted that a fairly substantial decentralisation from Limerick to Newcastle West, Kilrush and Listowel is already planned. This matter should be revisited because it appears that at present, many people in Limerick city want to move out. That is proven by the fact that the numbers for Newcastle West are fully subscribed, as are the numbers for Kilrush.
The Kilrush, Listowel and Newcastle West concept came about when three towns came together with the help of local organisations and development associations as well as the Shannon Development company. They put forward a scheme whereby a substantial number of staff could be moved to locations within easy reach of each other using the car ferry in Killimer. This has been an important success story, as evinced by the uptake of staff who are willing to move to those three locations. I am glad that the Kilrush site in particular is working out satisfactorily. As far as I am aware, the proposed 50 positions have been offered to people and they have already expressed the desire that the concept would be moved forward. Some discussion has taken place in Kilrush in respect of suitable accommodation and I want the Minister of State to expedite this matter. Even on a temporary basis, accommodation is available. As the Government intends to provide a permanent office for their personnel in Kilrush and given that those people have been advised of the positions, it is important to use temporary accommodation until such time as an office is ready.
Ample accommodation is available in the town of Kilrush in a number of locations. As far as I am aware, the Minister received several proposals after making inquiries in respect of accommodation there. Some parties made representations to Members to have their cases put forward for consideration. That process has now been concluded and it is important that action be taken speedily.
I compliment the implementation team because of its success in many areas although there will always be nitpicking in respect of particular areas with which there will be difficulties. For example, there is a difficulty in respect of Enterprise Ireland as to whether its staff wishes to relocate to Shannon. The vehicle registration unit of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government was transferred to Shannon more than 25 years ago and has operated successfully there since. The unit now employs up to 100 staff in its office in Shannon town. It has been an important office and has also made a major impact on Shannon.
Any Enterprise Ireland staff who have anxieties about a potential move to Shannon should examine the experience of, or talk to, staff in the vehicle registration unit in Shannon. They would hear of the success which the vehicle registration unit had in its relocation there and of the satisfaction its staff have in living somewhere like Shannon, with all its attendant benefits and attractions. For instance, one can walk up the road to the airport. If one tried to travel to Dublin Airport, I am sure that one would encounter some delays. However, one could stroll up to Shannon Airport this afternoon and take a flight to wherever one wished.
While there may be difficulties in respect of some areas, time will settle many of them. In the case of Ennis, a certain amount of relocation was involved and in such cases, it takes a while for it to settle down before it begins to be effective. However, the experiment in Ennis has been extremely successful from the perspective of the town of Ennis. It triggered and spearheaded the economic transformation that has taken place there. I can recall canvassing in Ennis before that took place. One travelled through derelict buildings, derelict streets and vacant places that could not be sold or leased. The place was economically devastated. However, thanks to the Government decentralisation, in addition to the decision to introduce urban renewal schemes for the town, Ennis is now thriving and the impact in many of its surrounding areas has been dramatic.
I look forward to welcoming the Revenue personnel to the town of Kilrush, where they will enjoy great attractions. I compliment the various organisations in Kilrush who worked closely with all the public representatives to ensure that they made their case. They received advice from consultants and had the wholehearted support of the Shannon Free Airport Development Company. Its representatives in both north Kerry and west Clare worked with the various committees to put forward the best possible case. To be honest, at the outset those involved were sceptical as to whether this would succeed, because the towns were relatively small. It was also important to group them together from the civil servants' perspective, because it opened up promotion prospects and made it more attractive for people to locate there.
There will be a certain amount of re-organisation and difficulties in getting decentralisation up and running successfully but the Minister of State has the energy to get the entire operation moving. I do not understand why people are still saying there should be more discussions with unions and other interested parties. This relocation of 10,000 people has been talked about for five or six years. Do they want to continue until the day of judgment talking about whether or not one will do this?
I compliment Charlie McCreevy, the former Minister, for making the decision to go ahead with decentralisation. There is talk now of making this an election issue. I pressed him strongly before the last general election to make the decision on Kilrush and suggested to him that had he made that decision I might not be here now but in the other House.
Senator Daly likes it here.
As for people who want to make this a political issue, it was a political issue before the last election and it will be a political issue in the next election and probably in the subsequent one. It was a political issue in the general elections in 1981 and 1982, when the then leader of Senator Feighan's party, former Taoiseach, Garrett FitzGerald, and his Minister for Finance, John Bruton, scrapped the entire idea. If they want to do that again, they will send out a wrong signal to people. Some people will say that one should wait seven or eight months for an election and that when Fine Gael gets into office it will scrap the programme, as it did previously. It could not do that now. This programme has gone far enough that Fine Gael will not be able to stop it for a second time, but it is important we encourage the Minister of State to press ahead with the work. He has the energy to do so and to do it successfully.
If there is to be a dialogue with unions and others about the differences that might exist over whether, for example, Enterprise Ireland comes to Shannon or goes elsewhere, it is a minor issue which in time will resolve itself. It is unrealistic to accept the sight of young people on Sunday evening lining up in the square in Kilrush waiting for coaches to take them back to Dublin. I never accepted it from the first time I was elected in 1973. Some of them would be in tears coming back to Dublin. At every clinic, mothers, fathers and their children would ask that they get back to the region from the then Departments such as Agriculture and Posts and Telegraphs, why it was not possible for Government to locate to any provincial town in Ireland and to expedite this process and get it moving successfully.
While there may be teething problems, industrial relations problems and other problems, as the Minister of State said only this week, let people sit around the table and resolve those problems so this scheme can work successfully. I hope to see the day when another 10,000 people can be moved to provincial locations where Government business can be done as effectively and efficiently as in Kildare Street, next door in Agriculture House or anywhere else. I wish the Minister of State success in his endeavours and compliment him on the work he has done in expediting this issue to date.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, for coming to the House. The issue of decentralisation raises a few matters. First, I welcome the concept of decentralisation. Over the years any town which has experienced decentralisation has benefited from it. Senator Daly is correct in stating that it makes a considerable difference to an area.
One or two of my brothers worked in the Civil Service and it was harrowing to see them get on the train or bus every Sunday and go to Dublin. They came home, not every week but every three weeks. They put down roots in Dublin. I am not complaining about that but it would have been very different if there had been opportunities to work closer to their home. The concept of decentralisation has been a success, perhaps up until now.
Decentralisation has certainly helped in Sligo, which is my own area, and in Roscommon and Longford. Long before this decentralisation of 10,000 jobs was announced by the former Minister, Charlie McCreevy, it was too much of a political football. If Fine Gael had been in power, it might have done it similarly. Decentralisation invariably always went to the areas of the Ministers or Ministers of State or whoever had the influence.
About four years ago, 100 jobs in the pre-1963 pensions area of the Pensions Board were due to be created in Sligo. At the time there was no accommodation in Sligo town. They were looking for a site and it was proposed that there was a building in my own town. Those 100 jobs would have made a considerable difference to my local area. It would have been as good as 1,000 jobs in a major town like Sligo. There would have been no problems with traffic, the accommodation was a quarter of the price and there were people from north Roscommon and south Leitrim queuing up at the roundabout at Carraroe trying to get into Sligo. It was an opportunity missed. Once again, the common sense, win-win approach did not come into effect and the area lost out on those jobs.
This decentralisation programme was announced with considerable fanfare. I remember the day. There were so many smiling faces that I thought there would be a sing-song in the Members' Bar by members of the Government who were so excited. The next general election was virtually over and done with. It was a good idea but it was overdone in the publicity and PR machine. Sometimes a Government can spin itself back into difficulty and spin itself out. On this occasion there has been too much spin and the Government is spinning itself back into difficulty.
I remember speaking to the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and everybody was told there were certain criteria. The criteria were that a town must be on a railway line and must not have benefited from decentralisation previously. Of the towns that were left out, I would draw attention to those which were not county towns and which did not get a fair crack of the whip.
In my area in north Roscommon there were three towns which came up with the idea of applying to get a Department, where one would be able to go from Boyle to Castlerea in 20 minutes and Castlerea to Ballaghderreen in 20 minutes. It would have made a considerable difference to that area. I am not blaming the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, for this. We are all parochial but the Ministers around the table decided where the jobs would go.
Once again, I welcome the fact that the jobs are going into areas like Carrick-on-Shannon, Roscommon town and Longford but more could have been done by way of decentralisation whereby Ballinamore and Mohill in County Leitrim and Ballaghderreen, Strokestown, Boyle and Castlerea in Roscommon could have got jobs. That would have covered every area. The scheme could have been a little more imaginative and could have had a more positive effect on those areas.
One issue with which I have a difficulty when we speak of decentralisation is that of the county councils. County councils are not being pushed enough to decentralise around the counties. Jobs in local authorities and health boards are much sought after. There was talk of one-stop-shops and, while the councils and county managers are not getting enough funding, the will does not exist to decentralise around the county. In most of the county towns there could be up to 300 people working in the local authorities and it would make a significant difference if these people were decentralised around the county. Some towns are up to 50 miles away from the seat of power. We speak about decentralisation but not in a local authority context.
Decentralisation will be an election issue. There are signs that the taxpayer is being left with a multimillion euro bill for lands as part of decentralisation. The Department of Defence is due to relocate to Newbridge, County Kildare. Twelve sites were considered and a 4.3 acre site has emerged as a contender for the new departmental headquarters but a few miles outside the town, the Defence Forces are in possession of 771 acres. Would it be better practice to locate the headquarters on State lands? I accept the Minister of State must be seen to be doing everything above board but I am concerned that the land of people in the know who have access to Ministers is being considered. I acknowledge the process in place but the Minister of State should be vigilant about individuals being favoured for the award of lucrative Government leases. I am sure he will try to ensure the process is fair.
It is worrying that none of the 93 staff at Bord Iascaigh Mhara has opted to move. In addition, the staff of Fáilte Ireland and the National Roads Authority are reluctant to move. I was contacted by a young man employed by Enterprise Ireland who wants to move from Dublin to the west, where he got married recently, but no mechanism is in place to transfer from semi-State bodies to the Civil Service. I ask the Minister of State to consider a mechanism that will accommodate public servants such as him. Many public servants get married in their own area but if they work for organisations such as Enterprise Ireland in Dublin, they are not getting a fair crack of the whip.
I agree with Senator Bradford that the decentralisation programme is worthy and I would not be negative about. The Government can only be accused of being too hasty in announcing it and generating too much fanfare. Perhaps the eyes of the Government parties were on various constituencies in anticipation of the 2007 election but they have spun themselves out of an advantageous position.
Advance moves have taken place to Sligo, Portlaoise, Thurles, Tipperary town and An Forbacha, County Galway. Decentralisation could have a positive effect and we do not want to return to the days people queued for buses to Dublin in the 1970s and early 1980s, as they reluctantly returned to work in a Department in Dublin. Will the Minister of State consider towns that were not originally considered for decentralisation? County towns have done well and they are major catalysts for changes. Tesco and other companies have moved in but such towns may become the new Dublins. The Government should consider moving a number of these valuable jobs to other towns not mentioned in the programme. The public sector is one of the best areas in which to work because one enjoys good working conditions, a good pension, overtime and so on and smaller towns should reap the benefit of public sector jobs. I wish the Minister of State well in his future endeavours, as it is not an easy job.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and I compliment him on his contribution. I refer to the speech by the Minister for Finance in November 2004 when two reports of the decentralisation implementation group were published. The recommendations of both reports were accepted by the Government and I very much welcome the decentralisation programme. Every Member supports the programme. It is almost as if they would be opposed to motherhood and apple pie if they opposed it but many "buts" have been mentioned by those who have contributed on this issue.
We are all familiar in the west with successful decentralisation programmes in the past to Galway city, Athlone, Castlebar and Roscommon. It was disappointing when the programme was set at nought in the early 1980s and it did not resume until former Deputy, Ray MacSharry, took over as Minister for Finance in 1987. The national spatial strategy contained a list of towns that were to become gateways and hub towns but a number of them will not benefit under the decentralisation programme, which is puzzling. For example, 1,000 jobs were lost in Tuam when the sugar factory closed in the early 1980s. While the town achieved hub status, it has not been considered for decentralisation. I am even more amazed that the town did not feature in the programme for the roll-out of broadband, even though many towns of a similar and smaller size were included.
The former Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, played a great role in decentralising public sector jobs to the west. He took a back seat role in 1987 when the programme was restarted under the Fianna Fáil Government but he brought his influence to bear on announcements relating to the west. The most significant benefit of decentralisation is the effect it has on employment in a town. That is why I was thrilled that Ballinasloe was listed for the decentralisation of the National Roads Authority in 2004. Loughrea was also listed for the decentralisation of the Department of Transport.
The move to Loughrea has received a successful response but the proposed move to Ballinasloe has been a disaster because the NRA has no intention of relocating to the town. Under the programme, 110 jobs were to be provided. I met a former Minister for Transport in the town last weekend and I asked him whether he had information on the proposed move but he was more than surprised that Ballinsloe has been neglected. If we cannot get movement on this, another agency or Department should be considered for decentralisation to the town. Perhaps the Minister of State can inform me of the progress on decentralising the Railway Safety Commission to Ballinasloe.
At the end of January, a Japanese company, USCI, announced 125 jobs for Ballinasloe. That is the first announcement of jobs for the town since the arrival of AT Cross and Square D in the late 1970s or early 1980s. We lost those two factories and, therefore, a new company is more than welcome. We are all aware that the only way the Government can deal directly with providing jobs in the town is through decentralisation. If we cannot provide the NRA jobs to Ballinasloe, we will have to consider some other agency for the region.
Every week financial institutions publish statements showing they are making more money and people criticise them for the large profits they are making. I do not criticise them for making a profit, but I criticise them for withdrawing services from our towns and villages. The withdrawal of such a service was a huge issue in Carraroe in west Galway two years ago, where the travelling bank was stopped for security reasons. The AIB used to come to Mountbellew, a town close to where I live, once and then twice a week. We all thought that the next move would be to a five-day week service, if only to compete with the Bank of Ireland. Unfortunately, AIB withdrew its service leaving Bank of Ireland with a monopoly. We are lucky to have a bank in the town.
The situation is similar in many towns as I am sure the Leas-Chathaoirleach would agree. We have credit unions and post offices, but I do not see much support for them. The issue has been raised in the Dáil by way of parliamentary question to try to get information from Departments, but there are so many agencies and boards with responsibility for the matter that we are left very much in the dark, whether we are in the Dáil or Seanad. Post offices have closed down in Galway county and been replaced by the smallest post box that cannot take anything other than a small envelope. Recently, I was almost late for the post and met the postman collecting the post from the box. Most of the bigger envelopes were ripped and he said to me that he would have to repackage them or put sellotape on them when he got back to Ballinasloe.
We must wake up to the fact that we are not providing the services through agencies as we did through Departments. Many agencies are withdrawing services. I hope our committees will follow this up at committee level because it is difficult for us to follow up. We cannot raise issues in the Seanad because we are told they are not the responsibility of the Minister and Deputies have the same problem in the Dáil. We must ensure that decentralisation will be across the board. We must consider the towns that are not hub or gateway towns because they need more people and services, whether through decentralisation of an agency or Department.
The decentralisation programme and list published in 2004 is good for most other areas. I remember when I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts some years ago, before the Department of Social and Family Affairs opened offices in Sligo, I was told the departmental computers were so large that they could hardly be moved. Technology has ended that problem and it is great that we have such a good ICT system that we no longer have a problem moving it. We will probably have more of a problem moving people. The move to Sligo is one of the best examples of decentralisation we have and people know what Department and town to contact when they want information on welfare benefits.
We should think of young people when we consider decentralisation. I was at a meeting in Ballinasloe on Monday attended by members of the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business who came to talk about Ballinasloe and the regions. Many young people spoke about the great facilities in towns such as Roscommon which has made great improvements in the area of recreation and sports facilities. This is something the young people of Ballinasloe would like to emulate.
As chairman of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs sub-committee on overseas development aid, I have received many representations from NGOs with regard to the proposed transfer of the ODA unit to Limerick. I do not know if the Minister of State has addressed the issue as I did not have time to go through all his comments. Much money is being spent on ODA, over €600 million, and I am delighted about that. We hope to reach the 0.7% of GNP target by 2012. If, as the NGOs suggest, difficulties will arise as a result of a move to Limerick, we should reconsider it. I have an open mind on the matter. I am in favour of the decentralisation programme, but this appears to be an issue that has arisen again and again. Perhaps the Minister of State will give his view on this particular move.
I applaud the Minister of State on the work done so far and hope he will have accomplish a successful decentralisation programme.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate. It becomes obvious in debates such as this that this House is an overwhelmingly rural-based House where people do not seek to represent Dublin. The burden falls to me to represent, as best I can, those in the Civil Service who work in Dublin.
The Senator is on his own.
We are from God forsaken towns around the country.
I see the Minister of State is disappointed I was not here earlier. I do not want to let him leave without a few statements he can later quote. I will start where Senator Kitt concluded because that is probably the best example of the difficulties arising with regard to decentralisation, namely the decentralisation of Ireland Aid to Limerick. The Minister of State did not address this directly in his comments, although he did hint at it towards the end. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, did refer to it in January. Essentially, he said that experts who provide expert advice, sometimes on a consultancy basis, to the Department should not think they are indispensable and that if they are not willing to go to Limerick they can be replaced by others who will.
That was an unfortunate intervention on the part of the Minister. However, I suspect it is also indicative of a certain desperation that has arisen in dealing with some specialised areas of the Civil Service. These people are particularly vulnerable because many of them are on consultancy contracts. Therefore, they can be easily bullied if that is what the Minister or any of his colleagues want to do. In the case of Ireland Aid, there was a report a number of years ago which examined its efficiency and concluded the section should be integrated within the Department of Foreign Affairs. Now, just a few years later, it is being split away from the Department, not just geographically but in every other way, and when people return from the depths of Africa or Asia, we will ask them to got to Limerick where they will not have the benefit of daily interaction with colleagues within the Department. There is a genuine problem in this regard and it is something the Minister of State should address.
This problem is indicative of a greater problem that needs to be addressed. I appreciate there must be a certain amount of bluff and counter bluff in the way the issue is dealt with. I appreciate the Minister of State cannot say that if 20% of people is the maximum number of people he can get to move, he will not proceed. It is difficult for him to say that. To be objective, there is a point at which it is not worth doing and at which he must say, in particular with regard to specialised agencies of which there are relatively few proposed for a move in the first stage of implementation, that the workforce, or a significant percentage of it, has a veto.
I am afraid that the Minister of State will continue to issue statements, as he does when he answers parliamentary questions on the issue, saying that there is great interest, many people want to relocate down the country and that people in Dublin who may not want to move with their current jobs want to move into jobs which will allow them to relocate. Furthermore, promotion and job allocation is being carried out on the basis that people are willing to move down the country and he does not contemplate doing anything other than moving ahead with the implementation phase as quickly as possible. Of course, such statements are not true because there has to be a point at which he will say "we cannot actually do this" because there is a significant percentage, a majority in some cases, of specialised staff who do not want to move. If the Minister of State is serious about the voluntary principle behind the move, he must say that the move will not happen.
I am afraid that the Minister of State will tell people from the Office of Public Works to go as far down the road as they can, perhaps further than is wise, in acquiring property only to find that the move will not happen. Some progress has been made in acquiring property in Limerick, where Ireland Aid will be located if it moves out of Dublin. In a worst-case scenario, we could end up in a situation where the Dublin office is disposed of, money and effort is spent on acquiring property in Limerick but, having incurred costs and made recruitment and promotion difficult for a period of three to five years, the move does not go ahead.
It would be in everybody's interest if the Minister of State said now that with regard to the specialised agencies, where we must retain the people and their posts, that we can only go ahead in certain circumstances, the move should be genuinely voluntary and we must establish a point where a clear decision is made as to whether a relocation will occur.
In his final comments, the Minister of State alluded to some of the human resources issues that arise. I do not want to go into them in detail but some are extremely important. He has been telling us for some months now that recruitment at senior grades, that is, assistant secretary and higher, is now being done on the basis that the people being recruited are willing to relocate. For the first time, we are recruiting senior people within the Civil Service not on the basis of their ability but their geographical flexibility, which, in many cases, will depend on their family circumstances. There are plenty of people who would be quite happy to move to locations outside of Dublin but whose family circumstances mean it is impossible for them to do so. It is likely that those who are in a position to seek promotion to the senior levels of the Civil Service will not be 21 year olds who have just left college, but people who have put down roots in Dublin, want to stay here and whose family circumstances dictate that they should. This is the wrong approach and I urge the Minister of State to examine this issue closely.
We know of the particular difficulties with FÁS and I appreciate that a decision was reached on the basis of the fact that there was insufficient consultation in that case. However, it represents a worrying trait because the Minister of State feels obliged to say that everything is plain sailing and the destination is in sight, which makes it hard for him to acknowledge the real difficulties that arise along the way. I wish it were otherwise.
I got into trouble when I last spoke on this issue for my use of colourful phrases. I will not repeat those particular phrases but I do not resile from the sentiment I expressed then. It is apparently fine for people who represent rural constituencies to have a go, so to speak, at Dublin and Dubliners. Nobody bats an eyelid or thinks it off-side to do so. However, when we Dubliners defend the location of jobs in Dublin or seek to attract more jobs into the county, or dare to suggest that would be a good move, we are regarded as being unsound, at best. In fact, much more colourful phrases have been used and this is not reasonable. There are many thousands of civil servants, from Dublin and elsewhere, who simply want to stay here. If the Minister insists that decentralisation is a voluntary scheme, he must take that basic fact into consideration.
There are a number of well-worn arguments against the decentralisation programme relating to the difficulty that exists with interdiscipline or interdepartmental co-operation and the efficiency of the Civil Service. I will not go into them again because we have beaten the arguments to death at this stage. However, they have not gone away. While I appreciate that the Minister of State will find it difficult to acknowledge this publicly, not least because there is a general election around the corner, such arguments must be dealt with in a serious way in the near future.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and compliment him and the Government on the decision to decentralise, particularly to move a number of Departments to my constituency of Laoighis-Offaly——
That is Parlon country.
—— and north Tipperary. He did not forget——
That is not Parlon country.
The Minister of State did not forget north Tipperary, to give him credit.
Fair play, but we would not have allowed him to do that.
Senator McDowell spoke about Dublin people but there is an enormous number of people who want to move to different parts of the country. The Minister of State said there were approximately 10,600 people working in the Civil Service who have signed up to decentralisation. The vast majority of them are probably in Dublin. In the recent past, up to 13,000 civil servants have decentralised to destinations all over the country and have settled in well. They were made welcome and have made a major contribution to rural Ireland.
I welcome the decentralisation programme. There may be human resource problems with FÁS and its proposed move to Birr but the staff should visit Birr and the county as a whole to see the schools, shops and so forth, which are the best in the midlands. Information technology developments will ensure that decentralisation to the county will be unproblematic.
I do not blame civil servants for fighting a battle relating to decentralisation. There may well be some rewards for their unions in ensuring they receive extra remuneration. Great opportunities exist for civil servants.
Although speakers have commented on the loss of expertise in some Departments, it must be remembered no one is indispensable and everyone can be replaced. Many young well-educated people are coming through the education system who can fill those vacancies. Civil servants may well have to move from one Department to another if they do not wish to decentralise. The programme will work; hopefully sooner rather than later. I understand it cannot happen overnight and that the process will take time. The Office of Public Works and the Department of Finance must secure proper sites and ensure compliance with all planning guidelines.
When the tendering process begins, I hope much work will be done through public-private partnerships. Builders have never been so busy but I hope they will realise the opportunities that exist in decentralisation. In the past building a school was a protracted procedure. That has changed with many builders willing and able to move ahead in the public-private partnership model. When the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, reaches that stage of the programme, great progress will be made. I wish him and his officials well in pursuing it.
Costs must to be considered. If good office accommodation can be secured in rural towns and a Department's business can be carried on, why should we hold up valuable office accommodation in Dublin that costs ten times more? Although the Government is quickly criticised for budget overruns, the future savings from the programme must be considered. The Minister of State has outlined several valuable sites in Dublin that will be sold. That money will be put to great use. Although it may not be put into the decentralisation programme, valuable use can be made of it in looking after much-needed services.
I wholeheartedly welcome decentralisation to Birr, Tullamore, Edenderry, Portlaoise and Portarlington. I compliment the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, who represent the Laois-Offaly constituency on their work on decentralisation. There is no doubt that they will ensure the programme will come to fruition nationwide. It is about the contributions that Departments and agencies will make to cities and towns outside of Dublin.
I wish the Minister of State at the Department of Finance and his officials well with the implementation of the decentralisation programme. I accept Members from Dublin will defend their home city. However, I assure Senator McDowell that had we not to leave for the bus last week, Offaly would have taken Dublin out of the football too.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, and will avail of his presence to point out to him some local aspects of the decentralisation programme. Senator John Paul Phelan ably outlined that the Fine Gael Party is in favour of the decentralisation programme, albeit a properly planned one. He is an able Senator who one day may be charged with cleaning up the mess the Government will leave after itself.
Is Senator Coonan opposing the decentralisation programme?
I am in favour of a properly-planned decentralisation programme.
Senator Moylan and previous speakers have pointed to difficulties with the programme's progress. I have great respect for Senator Kitt as a level-headed and able politician, like the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon. He informed the House of the difficulties experienced at Ballinasloe with the programme. Mention was made of FÁS in Birr, County Offaly. Another area where problems have emerged is Roscrea, County Tipperary, where the Equality Authority is to be located.
Recently, at a meeting the chief executive officer of the authority said that not one member of its staff had applied for decentralisation to Roscrea. If not one member of the authority's staff has applied for it, how will it function when it locates to there? The Equality Authority's work is specifically orientated. The CEO also outlined that the authority requires specialised legal advice not readily available in Roscrea. Such advice is often limited in the capital and must be brought in from abroad.
I raised the matter with the management of North Tipperary County Council which established a decentralisation committee. It informed me that 57 civil servants from other Departments and agencies had applied to decentralise to Roscrea. Will the Minister of State clarify these matters?
The Minister of State said the figure of 10,600 applications referred to regional centres but not Dublin. Civil servants based in Portlaoise are on to me every day of the week to be transferred to the Garda college in Templemore or Nenagh in County Tipperary within the year. The Minister of State must get his officials to give a clear indication of the number of personnel who want to transfer. He should be open about it. He is committed to the programme and is tenacious about its progress. If anyone can get it going, he will.
When the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, announced the programme, he knew in advance where he was headed. He was anxious to win a group one race, so the Minister of State was left at the starting stalls with a mess. The programmes needs to be reconsidered, refocused and reorganised. It is important that we get it right. What good is it to people to have the Equality Authority in Roscrea if it is incapable of functioning? Its CEO claims it is important that the authority is located close to the headquarters of those agencies and organisations who use it most, namely employers, IBEC and the unions. Their headquarters, however, are located in the capital. Although we have unions outside of Dublin, the main headquarters and personnel are not based there. Will the Minister of State address these issues?
The decentralisation programme for towns such as Ballinasloe, Birr and Roscrea is in crisis. A former Minister announced the Garda Síochána Complaints Board was to be located to Roscrea. When I raised it with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Michael McDowell, he informed me Roscrea was not an appropriate location as the board must be at the centre of the action. If he was around Roscrea at the weekends, he would see enough action.
The Government is clearly having difficulties with implementing the decentralisation programme. It will only work when it is properly planned and the unit to be transferred is fully behind it. An example of that is the proposed transfer of the vetting unit of the Garda Síochána to Thurles, County Tipperary. That will work because as one would expect, the Garda authorities will be fully behind a Government decision. A chief superintendent or a higher ranking officer was immediately appointed to oversee decentralisation to Thurles, and it is working well.
I want to bring the Minister of State a little closer to home. The Garda College in Templemore, for example, is being recentralised in that part of it has been moved out of the campus. The authorities are crying out for land to put in place proper training facilities for the students in Templemore. They have told the Office of Public Works, and I have spoken about this matter to the Minister of State, that they require land urgently on which they can develop services and provide further accommodation. That unit has now moved out of Templemore.
There is an unwillingness on the part of the Office of Public Works to spend money to provide them with the facilities. Is that not crazy in this day and age? The Minister of State is shaking his head but that unwillingness exists. There is an unwillingness to give market value for land in Templemore. There was no unwillingness to pay an exorbitant price to purchase a site in Dublin on which to build a new prison. An outlandish price was paid for that site yet the Minister will not give market value for the land in Templemore to ensure the facilities can be located in Templemore instead of recentralising them. The Minister is talking about decentralisation yet an opportunity to do that in Templemore is being passed over. That is an example of where decentralisation can work and I look forward to the Minister's comments on that. If, for example, Dell was coming to Templemore every agency and Government body in the country would be offering all sorts of facilities. They would get grants and so on but the Garda authorities are having to battle with everybody to get what they want to provide the facilities that are urgently needed in Templemore.
I wish the Minister of State well with decentralisation. I am not against it, nor am I against the Minister. I want to see it going well, and the Minister knows that. We want to be positive about this but there are issues that must be addressed and we must come clean with the public as to where they stand. I ask the Minister to deal with the Equality Authority, the Garda inspectorate that was promised for Roscrea and the Garda College issue. I ask him to ask his officials, when they engage with the county council, the public or public representatives, to give a clear and accurate picture of what is happening and not give massaged or inaccurate figures that do not reflect the true position. That is what is annoying people the most about decentralisation.
I hope this process works out but I believe it will take another Government to ensure it does. The Minister of State may well be part of that. I am not being negative in any way but it will not happen in the lifetime of this Government. It will take another Government to get it right, which is essential both for Dublin and the provincial towns where decentralisation will take place. We must get this process right if the services are to be delivered to the people.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will preface my remarks by saying I am very much in favour of decentralisation. The accounts section of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has long been based in Killarney and as the staff will attest, they are quite happy there. Killarney and Kerry have much to offer.
I am sorry to interrupt the Senator. Will he agree to share his time with Senator Cummins to allow the Minister of State conclude at 4.55 p.m.?
I will gladly do that.
It is not my decision——
Will the Chair indicate when I have to conclude?
I will. The Minister of State would like to respond to many of the contributions.
I am anxious to hear the Minister respond.
I thank the Senator for his co-operation.
Serious problems are being experienced in Killarney. We have lost a number of factories. I always accepted that the Dublin Airport Authority was the wrong home for the Great Southern Hotel Group. As the Minister of State is aware, that is an exceptionally fine property. It has been suggested that it could house many offices, including the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, which is earmarked for Killarney and for which a deal has already been done on a site with the local authority, although I am sure that could be re-arranged if they decided to relocate to the Great Southern Hotels group.
I am not trying to take anything from anyone but Fáilte Ireland was supposed to decentralise to Mallow yet none of the staff have offered to transfer. Killarney might be a more appropriate location. The Department and Fáilte Ireland could both decentralise to that location. There are human resource considerations, as Senator McDowell pointed out, which must be taken into account. The problem might not be decentralisation as relocation. Many of the people who are offering to decentralise are not in Dublin. The problem is that it is very difficult to get in and out of Dublin. People who are located in Dublin do not want to leave it and those who live outside Dublin do not want to relocate there, much as some of us would like to visit it occasionally.
Someone said to me that no Sir Humphrey worth his salt would allow his Department move from Dublin. The Minister might be more conversant about those human resources and Sir Humphrey difficulties than me, but Killarney looks forward to that Department decentralising. I am disappointed that only 10% of the staff have offered to move. I do not know where they are from but I look forward to hearing from the Minister of State on that.
Perhaps some of this programme could be rejigged. What Senator Coonan said is correct. This process will not happen in the lifetime of this Government but we should try to keep it on track and there might be some scope in terms of some of the locations. For instance, if decentralisation cannot work in Parlon country, Laoighis-Offaly, I am sure we could make it work in Kerry. Perhaps there could be some rejigging of the decentralisation programme, and I say that without taking from any other designated location.
There is a problem with the figures I have been shown and I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's comments on them. This process will probably come under a ten year plan or whatever. I am sorry I was not here for the Minister of State's opening remarks but I look forward to hearing his closing remarks. In line with the instruction of the Chair, I am happy to hand over to my colleague.
I will be brief. I was present for the Budget Statement of the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, in which he announced the decentralisation programme and the scatter-gun approach to decentralisation of Departments to various towns. The only reason for it was to gain success in the local elections but that gun misfired because this Government got its answer in no uncertain terms in the last local elections.
There was no thought put into this decentralisation programme. I would go so far as to say there was no consultation with the unions or anybody else prior to the announcement of this election ploy but on the fateful day the Minister made his speech about decentralisation, he said the Government should be judged on the delivery of this decentralisation programme within three years. If that is so, what kind of judgment can the people make on this Government? The way towns have been treated is appalling. The Minister is trying to fool people in towns that are expecting decentralisation. The Government is paying lip service to those people. The Minister can fool some of the people some of the time but he cannot fool all the people all the time. Charlie McCreevy's words will come back to haunt the Government. If it is to be judged on decentralisation, it is dead in the water.
I thank the Senators who have contributed to this debate. They have shown great interest in decentralisation and I am very heartened by the high degree of support therefor. I found it amusing — the amusement is wearing off at this stage — that there was a contradiction between Senator John Paul Phelan and some of his colleagues, who were extremely supportive of the programme.
The first point I made was that I supported decentralisation — I said it several times.
The Minister of State is not going to tell the Senator what he said in any case.
I hope the Senator will give me a chance to respond.
Allow the Minister of State to respond, please.
There has been much hypocrisy. Although the Senators claim they are in favour of decentralisation, they are nitpicking. Senator John Paul Phelan asked selective questions and suggested that only one in nine people is prepared to move.
I never said that.
The Senator's finance spokesperson said it.
I never said it.
Generally, it has been said that only 10% are prepared to move. Senator Coonan expressed concern that fewer than 10% of staff want to move to Roscrea to the decentralised Equality Authority.
With their jobs.
I attempted to correct the Senator but I should not interfere. It was never intended to move a whole Departmenten bloc to a particular location. There is a high degree of inflexibility within the Civil Service at present such that people have to crisscross for miles because they are not allowed to move, resulting in a quality of life deficit. The main reason for this is that the public service unions that represent them do not allow flexibility. This is a difficulty.
There is a high degree of interest in decentralisation. Senator John Paul Phelan said a number of people from regional locations were applying to the central applications facility. Civil servants who work in Kilkenny, Portlaoise, Castlebar or elsewhere have the same rights and entitlements as anyone else. If the Senator is suggesting Fine Gael would have proposed a scheme that would have allowed decentralisation from Dublin but would not have allowed the movement of civil servants who had previously applied for decentralisation, he is being ridiculous. It would not work.
I did not say that at all.
All he did was knock, knock, knock.
The Minister of State is being very selective.
I am not being any more selective than the Senator.
It is called spin. He is trying to put spin on decentralisation and on the disaster——
I will deal with Senator Cummins in a minute.
Please allow the Minister of State an opportunity to respond to the questions raised during the debate.
Decentralisation will allow civil servants who previously decentralised very successfully an opportunity to progress through the ranks and become Secretaries General of their Departments, if they qualify. This is a great incentive for them. More than half of the 10,600 applicants are from Dublin, from which city there is a very strong commitment.
It was not only hypocritical but also naïve of the Opposition to be critical while suggesting decentralisation could happen and be well planned. Senator Coonan rightly said the programme should be well planned and that is why it has taken a while longer than expected. It will be rolled out in the term of another Government and we have laid out indicative closing times.
What about the commitment given to decentralise in three years?
We are not trying to fool anyone or pull the wool over anyone's eyes. If the Senator examines the indicative times, he will note that several pertain to 2008 and 2009.
The Minister of State should read the former Minister's speech.
I said when I started that 7,000 people would be moved by 2009.
The Minister of State should read the former Minister's speech, not his own.
This is the Parlon vision.
Very good. There is now a Parlon one and a Government one.
I have consistently applauded the former Minister, Deputy McCreevy, for his ambition.
The Minister of State is applauding him now all right.
Had he not had a——
That is typical.
——three-year ambition, decentralisation would not be happening.
A PD vision and a Government one.
Let me refer to a few other comments. Senator McDowell's proposition was colourful and there was no malice in the terms to which he referred, which of course I threw back at him. I sometimes make colourful statements that come back to haunt me also.
I am disappointed the Minister of State did not.
The Senator's contribution was very thoughtful. He appreciates there are difficulties and complexities associated with the programme, through which we have to work. He referred to the human resources issues, which are complex because every individual values his job and lifestyle. These issues are being addressed at present.
Senator McDowell also referred to the debate involving the unions representing the FÁS workers, who are balloting on a particular issue. The Labour Court recommends they negotiate with the decentralisation implementation group and the representative bodies. I have no doubt but that there are excellent industrial relations procedures in place that will allow this to happen. The Government is allowing time for this to be worked through, and this is being done. In the meantime, the property solutions are being and will be worked out. I outlined in detail the progress being made on these.
Senator Moylan was very positive. There was a time when the only job was a Civil Service job and the only building opportunity was to build a local school or Government building. This is no longer the case. Those who ask how many leave the Civil Service should note that the Civil Service will shortly be recruiting new staff. It was suggested that existing staff do not want to move and that there will be an excessive number of them in Dublin because the scheme is voluntary. The Civil Service will be recruiting new staff in Dublin because people are attracted by jobs other than those in the Civil Service.
Senator Coonan referred to difficulties concerning the National Roads Authority and FÁS. There are certainly difficulties with the specialist agencies. The Civil Service has much scope to transfer between Departments but the agencies do not have this flexibility. This is why there are intense negotiations between their unions and the Department of Finance, the negotiator on behalf of the Government. If a union decides not to come to the table, it poses a difficulty. The union representing FÁS employees is seeking a mandate this week, through a ballot, from 250 of its members. As I stated, the Labour Court recommended that the representatives negotiate with the decentralisation implementation group.
The OPW is charged with organising all the sites and buildings around the country, relocating its headquarters to Trim and moving other parts of its operations to Claremorris and Kanturk in County Cork. One can imagine the extra pressure on the OPW. The same applies to the NRA, which is responsible for a massive roads programme at present. Everybody is working overtime, yet they must relocate. The NRA may take a little longer but I guarantee that the OPW will be moving with the first of the bodies.
I understand 57 people have applied to go to Roscrea, about which town Senator Coonan asked. There is no greater advocate of decentralisation than the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, who is responsible for moving the Garda Síochána Complaints Board and the Equality Authority to that town.
There are 57 applicants, but not one from the staff of the Equality Authority.
I have no doubt that people outside the Equality Authority will be able to operate there. The authority is drafting an implementation plan for itself and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Secretary General have the main responsibility in this area. Progress is being made in every area and every Department is responsible for ensuring it will be able to provide an efficient service in its new location.
On the question of people seeking to join an organisation since the announcement of decentralisation or seeking promotion, their doing so is conditional on their being able to move to a new location. Despite a reference to six people, I believe closer to 70 have either been promoted or have signed up to move to Birr since the decentralisation of FÁS was announced. There are many positive aspects to decentralisation, the most positive of which is that, by the end of 2006, a very substantial number of civil servants will be at their desks in new locations.
Senator Browne asked about Carlow and I am sure he already knows, given that he asked the question, that the OPW is seeking accommodation in Carlow for 80 people on a temporary basis before we establish the full headquarters of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. There is great positivity and if it were not for the Opposition asking questions and trying to distort the reality——
We should not ask questions.
It is the very selective nature of the questions to which I object.
We should touch the forelock.
I was quite positive about the Senator's contribution——
We should touch the forelock.
——when people are trying to suggest that only one in nine people is prepared to move. There will be a high degree of flexibility. After decentralisation, people will work in Departments and locations where they want to work. This will improve their lifestyles and take the pressure from Dublin in a major way. I am very happy to come before the House——
Will the Minister of State deal with the Garda Síochána Complaints Board?
The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will guarantee that decentralisation under his Department will be delivered in full. Roscrea can be very happy that he is the Minister responsible in this regard.
Is the Garda Síochána Complaints Board still decentralising to Roscrea?
I am happy to come before the House to discuss decentralisation and outline the actual position thereon. I look forward to returning to announce continued improvements in the figures. I appreciate that decentralisation will be an election issue and look forward to this, irrespective of whether the bums on seats in towns are associated with temporary or permanent posts, or whether there are new buildings being constructed or new sites being bought, be they in Roscommon, Birr or Thomastown.
Senator John Paul Phelan spoke about the proposal to decentralise the Health and Safety Authority to Thomastown. No agency has an attitude to decentralisation that is more positive than that of the authority. I understand that the authority is actively pursuing a location in the area for a new agency that is being set up. The authority wants to establish the new people who are being recruited to a highly-technical area in County Kilkenny, rather than in any other location, before its headquarters is moved there. The Senator can rest assured that we are making good progress in that regard. I am delighted to advise the House on the progress of the decentralisation programme.
On behalf of the Seanad, I express my thanks to the Minister of State for coming to the House and staying here for the full debate.