I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, to the House.
Appointments to State Boards: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to come to the House today to set out the details of the Government's recently revised arrangements for ministerial appointments to State boards and to report on the progress we have made in implementing the new arrangements.
The revised model for State board appointments that was agreed last September is one of a number of measures that have been adopted or are being brought forward by the Government to create a new openness and transparency in the operation of public life. The overarching aim of these measures is as follows: to deliver greater accountability in the activities of all bodies and agencies charged with delivering services to the citizen; to promote greater efficiency and effectiveness in the public sector; to rebuild public trust in our system of Government; to encourage enhanced participation; and to strengthen our democracy.
In regard to appointments to State boards, Senators will be aware of the arrangements already introduced by the Government in 2011. Under these arrangements, Departments were required to invite expressions of interest from the public on their websites when filling board vacancies in the bodies under their aegis. The intention was that all members of the public could apply for appointment and be considered for such vacancies. A new website portal, stateboards.ie, was created by the Public Appointments Service to offer a single dedicated point of contact to all Departments as a support to the existing selection procedures. In addition, persons being proposed for appointment as chairpersons of State boards were required under these arrangements to make themselves available to the appropriate Oireachtas committee to discuss the approach they intended to take in their new role.
I am informed that approximately 2,500 expressions of interest were received under these arrangements and 220 appointments were made from the applications received. Nevertheless, while these new arrangements were successful in opening up the appointments process for State boards and increasing transparency, the Government felt that even more could be achieved, and during the course of last year I brought a further memorandum to Government on this matter.
In September 2014, the Government agreed to introduce a new system for State board appointments, building on the earlier innovations we introduced in 2011. This revised approach has the following three key principles at its core: the promotion of wider access to opportunities on State boards; the establishment of detailed and comprehensive criteria for these roles; and the introduction of transparent and rigorous assessment of candidates under these criteria. In broad terms, the Government's objective was to have more openness and transparency in a process that encourages the best candidates to apply.
The September 2014 decision required the Department to prepare guidelines on the new process to be agreed by Government. In preparing these guidelines, officials sought the views of all Departments. They also met a number of interested parties, such as TASC and the National Women's Council, and engaged closely with the Public Appointments Service. The new guidelines, which were approved by the Government in November, set out clearly how the new appointments process for State boards is to work in practice. They contain requirements that apply to all State board appointments in terms of, for example, the calibre and quality of candidates and more open access to opportunities to serve on State boards, as well as broader public policy considerations relating to matters such as gender equality.
The guidelines make it clear that, in the end, it is the responsibility of the relevant accountable Minister to make appointments, and the Public Appointments Service will support Ministers in this function by seeking to ensure the Minister receives a sufficient list of suitable candidates from those who have submitted expressions of interest to the Public Appointments Service to enable the Minister to exercise his or her choice from the names submitted.
Where, notwithstanding the Public Appointments Service efforts, its process has not yielded the number of suitably qualified candidates required or if an exceptional alternative candidate is separately identified by the Minister, the guidelines are clear that it remains open to the Minister to ultimately appoint board members other than those that emerge from the Public Appointments Service process, provided that candidates separately identified by the Minister are assessed by the Public Appointments Service and meet the criteria laid down for the specific State board role.
I am confident that these guidelines will assist all Departments in engaging effectively with the Public Appointments Service to draw up clear specifications for board roles. Positions on State boards can then be openly advertised and expressions of interest sought from the widest possible pool of candidates, from which the Public Appointments Service can then assemble a shortlist for Ministers' consideration.
Although the guidelines have been in force only since last November, I understand that a number of appointment processes are already progressing within the new framework. These include, for example, appointments to the low pay commission and the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, as well as the appointment of the chair of the new board of St. James's Hospital.
A number of clearly defined exceptions to the scope of the guidelines have been allowed. These relate, most notably, to entities such as the North-South bodies, which are governed under the Belfast agreement. Arrangements have been also made to accommodate the statutory role that the Oireachtas has already given to NewERA in regard to certain State board appointments. Let me take this opportunity to clarify the NewERA arrangements.
The House will recall that NewERA is the entity established by the Government to manage the State's shareholder function in regard to a number of commercial semi-State companies, for example the ESB, Ervia, Coillte Teoranta, Bord na Móna, EirGrid and Irish Water. The programme for Government contains a commitment to give NewERA statutory responsibility to advise relevant Ministers on appointments to the boards of the NewERA companies. This commitment was fulfilled, in statute terms, in the National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Act, passed by the Oireachtas during the course of last year.
NewERA and the Public Appointments Service have discussed their respective roles and have worked out a protocol that can apply to appointments to the boards of the NewERA companies I set out. These discussions were very much informed by the parallel process of seeking to fill vacancies on the board of Ervia using the new guidelines. It was agreed that these appointments will be subject, as much as possible, to the arrangements set out in the published guidelines, with appropriate modifications to take account of NewERA's statutory role, as set out in law. I intend shortly to bring the protocol arrangements between the Public Appointments Service and NewERA to Government for agreement, and publish it thereafter.
In conclusion, I wish to assure the House that the changes to the process of ministerial appointments to State boards that I have set out today are more than merely cosmetic. They are clear and substantial progress on the Government's reform agenda. In future, while Ministers will retain the legal authority to make the actual appointments, such appointments will be drawn from a list of qualified candidates selected on foot of a transparent and fair process administered by the Public Appointments Service.
There will, of course, be issues thrown up by the new arrangements. We have travelled further in reforming this process in the past three years than was achieved in the previous 90 years. To ensure the success of the new process, the Government has decided that a review will be carried out and completed within 18 months of these new arrangements coming into force in order to assess whether the revised model has been truly effective.
That was an extraordinary speech by the Minister. It was full of hope and promise and, of course, there was no mention of the ghosts at the banquet, namely, Mr. McNulty and Senator Craughwell, which brought this process to light. We were told this was the most reforming Government in the history of the State. The public rejected the old ways in the election in 2011, but we saw more of the same.
We saw Fine Gael and the Labour Party, on a 2:1 ratio, appoint their friends, cronies, supporters, ex-councillors and relations to State boards. We see similar things happening in the Judiciary. There is no mention of it today, and I want the Minister to answer a question. Does the 2:1 ratio, which has been confirmed by a number of people on the record, apply to judicial appointments? What efforts will be made to reform that process?
This all came to light in September, as the Minister said, because of the shame and embarrassment caused by the shocking and unprecedented appointment of a person with no artistic experience onto the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art, IMMA. In the months before and after that, we saw the former Minister, Phil Hogan, appoint quite a number of former Fine Gael and Labour Party councillors onto boards. Former Fine Gael councillors were appointed to the western development commission on €5,985 a year. Bord na Móna and NewERA, which the Minister mentioned, received political appointments over the summer, who were two people who failed to be elected in the local elections. The IMMA board showed the 2:1 process in operation. There were two Fine Gael appointments made, Mr. McNulty and a woman from Limerick, as well as a former Labour Party councillor who apparently had some experience in the arts. I will not fight that battle, but it was part of the 2:1 deal, which is on the record as being in place in this Government.
That is what has happened and what has been the record of the Government, despite the fact that the public rejected what went on before. Most of us thought it was deplorable and I never had a role in any State board appointments. I found some Ministers in the last Government were genuinely on the lookout for good people to do jobs, something I accept also happens in this Government. However, there is evidence that many of the bad practices have continued and will continue.
Let us consider the judicial appointments process. It was reformed many years ago, but the reforms have not worked. Towards the end of the last Government not many Fianna Fáil supporters were appointed, because there were not many left. That is the reality. The process started again in February 2011 when the current Government started putting people onto the judicial benches, many of whom were identified by party label. That is a fact. Some, but not all, were identified in newspapers. I am not saying they were not worthy, but it would be good if the Minister put on the record whether the 2:1 deal between Fine Gael and the Labour Party applies to judicial appointments. The lack of clarity does not do any good for the Judiciary. I am not making any comment about whether judges are good, bad or indifferent.
The Government was shamed and embarrassed by the activities of the Fine Gael Party in making a ridiculous appointment to the board of IMMA. The problem with the appointment is that it passed through a statutory procedure to see whether someone was qualified to run for the Seanad. On paper, the person was qualified because he was a member of the board of IMMA. When a Minister, using his or her powers, finds a fantastic candidate from outside the process, how will the Public Appointments Service tell him or her it does not think the person is qualified? It would be a brave group of people which would reject candidates for office after a Minister has suggested they be put on a board.
I am afraid what will happen will be similar to the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, and names will be put forward and the process will be completed but the Minister will be still able to put through other names. There will be a veneer of transparency and respectability. I am sure for very important boards, such as the board of St. James's Hospital, a Minister will be able to say fantastic people have been appointed.
I am certain the Fiscal Advisory Council cannot operate without people who have a relevant qualification, and the current Fiscal Advisory Council is an example of that. Such a board would never have been politically stuffed because it, by its very nature, requires people who are experts in the field. That is probably written in law.
I would like the Minister to comment on the 2:1 deal. Is it still in place? How does it operate in the context of the new arrangements? Is it in place for judicial appointments, which the Minister did not mention in his speech?
Following its meeting on 30 September, the Government announced a revised model for ministerial appointments to State boards. From 1 November, all appointments to State boards must be advertised openly on the State boards portal, stateboards.ie, which is operated by the Public Appointments Service. The list of available vacancies, along with a full list of State boards with their members, is available on stateboards.ie. After that meeting, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, commented:
These guidelines set out clearly how the new appointments process for State Boards will work in practice. They will assist all Departments to engage effectively with the Public Appointments Service to draw up clear specifications of Board roles. These can then be openly advertised so that the expressions of interest can be sought from the widest possible pool. The Public Appointments Service will then assemble a shortlist of suitable candidates for the Minister to select from.
Heretofore, that was not the practice. Under the previous Government led by Senator Byrne's party, there was a nod and a wink. This is what the Minister will do with this. He will get rid of the nod and the wink,-----
What about the McNulty affair and what about Bord na Móna?
-----and the back of the envelope, as Senator Byrne's party ran the country, in making its appointments.
What about that chap in Irish Water?
Senator Sheahan, without interruption.
They could not even find the name and address of one of the board members of Irish Water, except that he was-----
Senator Sheahan, without interruption.
His forefathers fought in the Civil War on the pro-treaty side. That is all they knew about him.
The Minister added:
This new process will improve corporate governance on our State Boards, widen the pool from which members of State Boards are drawn, and ensure that the process around appointments to State Boards is transparent. I would urge anyone interested in serving on a State Board to visit stateboards.ie and express an interest.
One should not bother with the back of the envelope job.
In November 2014, the Government agreed the publication of guidelines entitled, Guidelines on Appointments to State Boards, to assist Departments in implementing the new arrangements for appointments to State boards. The guidelines were prepared by the Minister and following consultation with the Public Appointments Service, other Departments and interested parties and provide detailed guidance on the appointments process, including issues related to diversity.
I would like to comment, but I will not and will leave the Minister to do so, on judicial appointments. When commenting about judicial appointments, Senator Byrne is verging near the edge.
I welcome the Minister. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the system of appointing members of State boards.
The practice of appointments made with a nod and wink to State boards has no place in our open modern democracy and could damage our economic recovery. We all are in agreement that it is time to end the parish pump system of appointments once and for all and to ensure that the agencies of the State have boards with experience, talent and skills to guide them in the delivery of services to the people. I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Howlin, on his commitment to and work towards this, some of which he outlined in his speech.
I have two concerns that I want to put into this debate. The first one has to do with the diversity of backgrounds of those on State boards. The Minister has made a commitment to this, and there is a certain expression of that, both in what he stated today and also in the guidelines. However, I want to emphasise it and to ask some questions about it. We need persons of all backgrounds and from every section of society on State boards, and people of such diversity of backgrounds should be encouraged to apply. We need to get persons on boards with backgrounds ranging from community activism and public service to business or the arts. Such skills are needed to ensure that we have effective health, transport and education systems for the people, as well as expertise in job creation through investment, promotion of small business, and development of arts, sports and tourism.
I note, and the Minister also indicated, that access is a key objective in widening the pool in the appointment to State boards. Of course, I welcome the ongoing commitment and the specification, in terms of both gender equality and commitments to backgrounds, and also the note in the guidelines, if it is at 40%, to move it to 45% because 40% has been there for many years and there is no reason not to increase it. That is all good. I guess I am wondering about a commitment to, how to encourage and how to assess wider diversity of background. I also note in the guidelines the Minister commits to review the new model which he is putting in place which I think is excellent. No doubt the database will support that. That is part of the guidelines. In the database, as to what they are tracking, there might be some room for tracking types of diversity other than gender. That may be a way in which one could encourage that.
I welcome the website, stateboards.ie. I visited it today and it looks good. It provides an opportunity to break the golden circles. However, there is a need to increase awareness of the website. I am aware from my own communities in Tallaght, there is energetic community activism and a wide range of skills in the hospital, the institute of technology, high-tech business, the strong arts community and many more areas. I am sure all of us can speak about that from the places where we live and work. Those areas of people in Tallaght can provide persons of skill and ability who would be willing to give of their time to benefit their country but I suspect many of them are not aware of the website or the system of advertising vacancies. It would be helpful if the Government outlines how, beyond traditional journalism, it will reach out beyond political insiders to get persons involved. That would be my first area of concern on which the Minister might elaborate.
The second area has to do with remuneration in State boards. It is important to place on record that I am not opposed to remuneration for those who give of their time and provide service for the greater good. However, I am already on record here in October last in outlining my concerns about the disparity in the level of remuneration between the various boards. In October last, I was able to place in the public domain a partial list of remuneration offered to chairs and board members thanks to the research carried out by the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. For example, the chair of Bord Bia receives €20,520, and the chair of Horse Racing Ireland receives €21,600, while board members each receive €12,600. In the arts sector, the chair of the National Gallery receives €8,978 and all the board chairpersons of arts bodies receive approximately the same amount. The chair of the Adoption Authority receives €63,000. The Mining Board pays daily fees of €582.97. The Dublin Docklands Development Authority pays remuneration of €20,520 to its chair. We heard yesterday that the chair of Ervia is getting €31,500 a year while other board members receive €15,570.
We need to know how the figures are reached. I selected these random examples to demonstrate the degree of diversity that exists but, I suppose, the biggest surprise from my research comes from the Department of Education and Skills where there is only one board and chair in receipt of remuneration, namely, the Higher Education Authority, HEA, at €7,695. No other chairs or members of State boards in the Department of Education and Skills are remunerated according to the list that was developed. We need to raise questions with regard to the rationale for that, and the importance of those who contribute their time and qualifications to State boards in education. I suppose I am saying that while I am not against the payments, we need to know the rationale behind them and why the gaps between the various bodies are so wide. I also note that on the database there is no notification that one would also include remuneration in relation to the different State boards.
Those are the two primary areas I want to raise today. We need transparency on State boards. It is an important part of the change and I welcome the Minister's commitment to it.
I am glad to have the Minister, Deputy Howlin, in the Seanad today.
We have taken a long time to get around to this debate on the issue of appointments to State boards and the broader question of political reform. It is long overdue. In Deputy Howlin's portfolio as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the emphasis has necessarily been on the question of public expenditure and the financial side of it because the country has necessarily been obsessed and drawn down the road of having to deal with the financial and banking crises. To some extent, we must be fair. Senior commentators and pundits have stated that there has been no reform and nothing has happened. That is grossly unfair. It is necessary to acknowledge what the Minister has referred to as a suite of developments and proposals and legislation which have been put into effect and which will be to the good for the future.
I refer to the whistleblower legislation and the broadening and strengthening of the Freedom of Information Acts, which were torn asunder in the past. We in this House called for the establishment of a charities regulator and we now have the Charities Regulatory Authority. The issue of an independent Garda authority is being addressed. Not everybody is happy about that. At present we are dealing with the regulation of lobbyists, and the Registration of Lobbying Bill is currently going through the Oireachtas. One can say that we have come a long way in a relatively short time by providing in legislation to make known the people of influence who are lobbying Ministers, Government and Departments. Lobbying is a job, and we need to know who the lobbyists are and to whom they are speaking and the influence they are bringing to bear on them. It is important to put on record that we have made significant progress.
It was a joke in the past that if there were two people in a race for one appointment, all other things being equal, the Fianna Fáil man got the job. We have to move past that. I think Senator Byrne is not altogether correct in the allegations that he makes. We must be careful not to impugn the integrity of people who serve on State boards, of people who put their names forward to serve and of our Judiciary, which guards its independence jealously. I am not altogether sure we have driven this stake through the heart of stroke politics. I am not altogether convinced that we have finished with political cronyism and that we have seen an end to political patronage. We should be on the lookout, as the Minister has been, for opportunities to improve the protocols and procedures. We must make them as robust as possible. We live in a small country and it is regularly remarked that everyone knows everyone. It is difficult. Would we say that people who are involved in politics or who have political connections and associations with any party cannot be involved? Are we to say that being involved in a political party disbars a person from serving on a board? How far are we willing to go with this? We are trying to encourage people to get involved in public life and civic duties and to become involved in organisations and activities that will ultimately lead them to community politics. I do not think people should be penalised for that.
With regard to appointments to State boards that were made in the past - and this Government has dropped the ball on a few occasions with regard to appointments to State boards; we must put our hands up and confess that did not get it right on every occasion - there have been cases in which people were appointed who clearly had no clue about the responsibilities of a position and who did not have the skill set, qualifications or acumen to serve effectively and in the community interest on those boards. Some of the appointments were mind-boggling. There is no point in trying to point the finger at any individual. Now we are moving forward with a transparent system in which criteria are set down for the qualifications required. I have two questions and would like to red-flag two issues that have emerged with regard to my exposure to this new process. There is the question of transparency, openness and accountability. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, and recently there was a process to recommend names to the Minister for appointment to certain State boards. The joint committee invited expressions of interest and privately conducted cross-party vetting of the persons who applied. Some people have taken exception to that process, stating that it is not transparent enough. Perhaps that is something we must look at. What concerns me more is that, while we want to encourage people to serve on boards, I have a problem where there is an apparent, possible or potential conflict of interest. There is a danger in trying to serve two masters. Where somebody is actively involved in a business or an organisation that has a vested interest in the activities of a board and has a vested interest in the decisions that may be taken by that board, I think it is dangerous if board members have, or are seen to have, a foot in both camps. I accept that people in the course of their lives take part in all sorts of activities, organisations and businesses, but there have been some glaring examples of people who did not have the qualifications for an appointment, and also examples in which people had a vested interest that in my view undermined public confidence in the decisions of the board.
It has arisen that an entire committee, not scoring political points, reached an unanimous decision of no confidence in the name that is put forward to chair the board, yet the Minister still proceeded, regardless, with that appointment. I do not want to impugn any person's integrity, good name or character but I think the process of vetting and establishing the person's bona fides and suitability is weakened if an unanimous recommendation from an Oireachtas Committee is not taken into account.
I welcome the Minister. This is a topic we have discussed before. I introduced a Bill last June and the Minister persuaded me to leave it in his hands because he intended to come up with new ethics in public office legislation. On that basis I was happy to leave it.
I remember, way back in 1979, there had been a 19-week strike in the post office as well as a significant failure in the telephone service. A report by Michael Dargan recommended that the then Department of Posts and Telegraphs should be divided and set up as two different organisations, one to look after the post and the other to look after telecommunications. There was quite a concern in Government at the time as to how it would ensure that the public would be put at ease. Michael Smurfit and I were approached to take over the two jobs, and it seemed to work very well and was accepted on that basis. Had we been told that we had to apply for the jobs, I am not sure that either Michael Smurfit or I would have done so. I have some doubt about this proposal that everything should be advertised and open. I understand the reason for it, but one will not always get the right people to apply for a job, partially because a person may not be used to making such applications, but also because he or she may fear being refused. One may say that if an individual is not willing to be turned down, he or she is not considered for the job. When I introduced the Public Service Management (Transparency of Boards) Bill to the Seanad in 2014, the primary objective was to ensure that people who commit to serve on the boards of public bodies do so because they have expertise that they are willing to share with the country. It was very clear that there was general dissatisfaction about the scandals that have taken place in State boards over the years. Senator Whelan is very good at explaining that changes have taken place. In particular, there was a lack of confidence in the current system, with appointments based on political connections and cronyism. I believe it is important that we find a way around that. How do we manage to achieve a system to recognise and safeguard the role played by people appointed to serve on the State bodies? The word that Senator Whelan used was cronyism.
This can mean not enough skills are sought from those appointed to State boards, resulting in the basic lack of expertise that should in theory exist.
There is also a problem with the advertising of positions. There should be a legal requirement to advertise all jobs, be they in State or semi-State bodies, but this could dissuade people from applying. The lack of transparency in our current system means everyone does not always have a legal opportunity. I have often called for a public website on which information on every cent of taxpayers' money could be accessed easily. The Minister replied that there was such a site, but there is not. Such a website could include the salaries of public officials, including those in State bodies. Our system of parliamentary questions through which Deputies ask questions about salaries and appointments is antiquated. In this information age, those figures should be available on a website. We could save time and expense, particularly in terms of the charade that is parliamentary questions on these issues.
My Bill had three objectives. First, it would have precluded a person from serving on the board of a public body from being paid for that membership. Senator Zappone has discussed this matter, but the majority of people who are anxious to play a part on a State board do not need to be paid. By all means, though, they should be reimbursed for expenses.
Second, people who serve on the board of a public body would be entitled to be employed or engaged by that body only if he or she filed a declaration with the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, detailing the payments received. Third, a person who serves on the board of a public body would be entitled to be reimbursed for vouched expenses only if he or she filed a declaration with SIPO detailing the payments received. The legislation would mean that unvouched expenses would not be reimbursed.
On this basis, I understand some of the criticisms that have been made. Senator Zappone mentioned the money that was being paid to people. In 1979 when my salary was £1,500, Mr. Michael Smurfit told me that he would not take the job unless he was paid £5,000. That was startling.
Did he get it?
Yes, but he immediately gave the money to charity. He wanted the State to show that it was willing to break the rules. There was a limit of approximately £2,500, £2,000 or the like to the amount that could be paid.
It is a good job I was not deciding.
It went to charity, but he just wanted the State to say it was willing to break the rules to ensure we could succeed.
A number of steps could be taken. Today's debate will be useful and I hope it enhances the Minister's opportunity to take into account some of the points that have been made.
I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for arranging this debate. For many years as a public representative, I have watched what has gone on in this country. Sometimes, I wondered whether we were even living in a republic or what criteria anyone needed to meet other than being a member of Fianna Fáil. I recall a member of that party boasting openly in public houses of keeping his people together by appointing 48 of them to State boards. That was his method of keeping the clan together and happy and of ensuring its members were available to him and his party when election time came. As a young politician, I sat through that in my area. Quite frankly, it disgusted me.
I support Senators Quinn and Zappone's remarks on people being remunerated. There are certain situations in which people need to be remunerated, some of which I will outline. For example, people who come from the community sector might not be in jobs or have financial rewards from other areas but have knowledge of and experience and expertise in community service. They cannot be debarred by being unable to afford to join State bodies. Equally, I do not see the point in well-heeled people being paid excessive amounts of money. There is a happy medium.
Regardless of the level of expertise or profession of a person who is involved in a community, anyone who has a political viewpoint or supports or is active in a political party should not be debarred. To do so would be to enter into farce. If one scratches deep enough, most people who are active in and like to serve their communities and State have political views. Some articulate them by way of political activism. We cannot be whiter than the snows of January. We must be realistic. We are in an era in which people are less willing to come forward to serve, be it at community, State board or political level. There must be a happy medium.
As I sat in the Chamber for the past 45 minutes, I looked through different lists of the fine people who were on State boards and identified many of them. They come from all political parties and serve their communities and State in a strong and forceful way for the country's betterment. That many are involved in politics should not debar them automatically.
The system the Minister has put in place needs a bit of tweaking, as mentioned by Senators Zappone and Whelan, but it is a damn sight better than the system of my younger days when one Oireachtas Member boasted of appointing 48 members of his clan to State boards.
This is my first time to have the pleasure of addressing the Minister. It is rather ironic that I do so on this issue. The very fact that I am standing here tells us that there is something rotten in the State board system.
I would not quite put it like that, Senator.
Every cloud has a silver lining.
Absolutely. Hats off to the Minister. He saw what was happening and acted immediately in September. I admire him for that greatly.
It is regrettable that we do not have a single Act that governs appointments to State boards. I agree with Senator Landy that being politically active should not debar someone from serving on a State board. Unfortunately, it always will be the case that the Government of the time will have the best knowledge of the people from their own parties. I have no difficulty with that.
New arrangements for appointments of State board members were introduced by the Government in May 2011. The Minister was responsible for this. Under that process, Departments were to invite expressions of interest. Unfortunately, this process was not followed. I am not referring just to the situation that led to my election, but to a number of cases. Those who expressed interest and were deemed qualified were asked to appear before a committee of the Oireachtas for interview and to demonstrate how they could contribute to the board the relevant expertise, etc. I agree with Senator Whelan. Where the Oireachtas committee would have difficulty appointing a person who presented before it, there is no facility for the board to ask that the person not be appointed. This point feeds into Senator Quinn's position. Just as a board could reject a nominee, why would anyone in a public position want to put himself or herself forward and risk being rejected by the Oireachtas committee? We have not quite got the mix right. We want to attract the best and brightest, but I am not sure we have found the way to do so.
On 3 May 2011, the Taoiseach said that "the way [the appointment process] is structured means that only people with the qualifications, experience and competence would express an interest in the first place". I think I would agree with Senator Quinn that expressing confidence requires an application. Certainly, some high-flying businesspeople in this country would not be prepared to go through an application process. We run into a difficulty there. That is one for the Minister, rather than me, to sort out.
A former Minister in a previous Government, Eamon Ryan, went slightly further by giving authority to a committee to nominate individuals. It was a novel and progressive approach. Is there a case to be made now for a sort of three-way nomination process, in which expressions of interest would be one of the methodologies used? As Senator Whelan pointed out, members of an Oireachtas committee from all parties could work with the Minister in the relevant Department to agree possible individuals who might fill a particular role. If a particular high-flyer was being sought because a certain skills set was needed, and we knew nobody was going to put himself or herself into the firing line to be rejected by an Oireachtas committee, would it be possible for that committee and the Minister to jointly agree a set of names that might be approached with a view to serving on a State board?
I was interested to read the findings of a report, State Boards in Ireland 2012 - Challenges for the Future, which dealt with transparency in the appointments process to State boards. It was based on in-depth interviews with 45 members of the Institute of Directors in Ireland in non-executive and senior executive positions in State boards. A majority - 74% - of the directors surveyed said they do not believe the process of appointments to State boards is fair and transparent. A further 64% said State board positions are not advertised widely enough, despite the policy of advertising such vacancies that was introduced by this Government in 2011. These are people who are sitting on State boards.
That is why we changed it.
Just one in three of those surveyed agreed that the changes to the appointments process that were introduced by the current Government had improved the functioning of State boards. In addition, 72% of them said they believed there should be more defined independence from the political system regarding these appointments. That causes a problem.
I have much more to say but I will not be allowed to say it. I think what the Minister is doing and trying to do is to be commended. We are walking a tightrope here. On the one hand, I want us to try to remove from the political arena appointments to State boards. At the same time, we need to recognise that there is a role for the Oireachtas in identifying and attracting the type of skills set and expertise we need to run our State companies. Perhaps the use of the committee system, in conjunction with the sitting Minister, could provide a way of overcoming issues that might arise if we were looking for chairmen for particular boards. As I have said, high-flying businesspeople in this country, like Senator Quinn, might not be willing to submit formal applications for such positions. Perhaps a formal application process might be appropriate for the general members of the board, while leaving it open for people to be approached to chair that board. I will e-mail the Minister on the other issues. I would appreciate it if he were to go through my suggestions. I commend what he is doing. I hope we can move the political system further away from the State board process because it has left a sour taste in most people's mouths, apart from mine. I have to say I benefitted greatly from the most recent appointment.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Much of what I intend to say has already been touched on by other Senators. I will say it anyway just to get my spake on the record, as they say. Appointments to State boards have often been manipulated by past and present Governments for their own interests. The system of appointment has become a byword for croneyism. This has helped to discredit our political system in the eyes of the public. This issue has called out for proper reform in the past. As others have said, this issue was really brought to light by the McNulty affair last year. A Government that had spoken about "democratic revolution" was trying to appoint its Seanad candidate to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art in an attempt to improve his credentials. This was in contrast with the Labour Party's 2011 general election manifesto, which listed the various ways in which that party planned to reform the political system. One of the ways in which this was to be done was by "opening up positions on state boards to all qualified candidates, and require appointments to be scrutinised by the Dáil". According to the same manifesto:
Labour will end the system whereby appointments to state boards are used as a form of political patronage and for rewarding insiders. In future, appointment to boards must be based on a demonstrable capacity to do the job.
It is unfortunate that when the McNulty affair was made public, some Labour Party Ministers remained silent rather than challenging the affair itself. It seemed not just to those of us who are involved in the political system but also to ordinary citizens that this was a far cry from the radical political reform that was mentioned in the 2011 manifesto. That was unfortunate. Since this Government came to power, having rallied loudly against the previous Administration's system of appointments, it has participated to a fashion in the same type of parish-pump politics as its predecessors. That has been illustrated by the appointment to State boards of a number of people who have particular links to one of the Government parties.
Does the Senator believe that membership of or association with a political party should bar a person from being appointed to a State board?
I do not think such people should be barred. I could mention some other appointments that have been made by this Government. Just days before a Cabinet reshuffle-----
What about the system of appointment to North-South bodies?
I am about to touch on that. The Senator should not worry. I would never-----
We have had little interruption so far. In fairness to the Senator, she has just six minutes.
I will be very brief.
It does not matter whether she is being interrupted by the Minister or by another Senator. The Minister will have time to respond as well.
She is very quick.
I am ready for Senator Landy. As a member of an all-island party, I have to acknowledge the question of North-South bodies.
The clock is ticking. Senator Reilly should be given a chance.
Before last year's Cabinet reshuffle, the then Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, appointed a by-election candidate and a former Fine Gael Deputy to Bord na Móna. That is just once instance. I will touch on the issue of appointments to North-South implementation bodies because it has been brought up. I do not want to be misrepresented. These bodies were established under the implementation bodies agreement of 8 March 1999 between the British and Irish Governments. It is agreed by all parties mandated to the North-South Ministerial Council from the Executive and the Irish Government. All political parties, including the Labour Party and Fine Gael, have a say in those appointments. That is how appointments to implementation bodies happen.
That is all right then.
They are mandated. I am sure the Labour Party can veto it.
There is always an answer.
Other public appointments in the North are actually made on merit. They are monitored and regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments for Northern Ireland, who is independent of both government and the civil service there. The purpose of the public appointments process that was established in the North is to appoint the most suitable candidate for any post. The candidate in question will be selected on merit using a fair, open and transparent process. Vacancies are publicly advertised and short-listed candidates are interviewed. This whole process is overseen by an independent assessor who is appointed by the Commissioner for Public Appointments as part of that process.
Sinn Féin has published an internal political reform document on accountability on State boards. This document recommends that the number of directorships should be limited to five per individual, gender quotas should be introduced, equity should be brought to the remuneration of directors and transparency should be brought to the making of appointments. I will not go into it in more detail. It is important for us to restore confidence in State bodies across all sectors. We need to put an end to political croneyism for once and for all. I acknowledge the moves the Minister has made in that regard. There is a large appetite for reform among the public, especially in light of the affairs of the last number of months concerning the Seanad. It is our duty as public representatives to deliver that reform.
I thank all the Senators for their contributions to this important debate. I warmly welcome Senator Craughwell to this House. I should probably not say this, but I greatly appreciate the kerfuffle that has allowed me to change things fundamentally. Like a presenter of a cookery programme, I had it ready to present when the opportunity arrived.
It was important. I will do my best to not be overly partisan in what I say but it is really difficult when people speak about reforming and say we are not a reforming Government. The last time we were part of a Government we brought in groundbreaking freedom of information laws through a Minister of State, Ms Eithne FitzGerald. It was subsequently completely watered down but we restored it. That is important and it should not be dismissed as tokenism. With the Registration of Lobbying Bill, for the first time in the history of the State we will have robust regulation of lobbying legislation-----
The Minister has my full support on those two pieces of legislation.
The Senator should not suggest that no reform has been happening.
I was discussing this subject.
He cynically suggests we are fancifully claiming to be a reforming Government. It is objectively the truth. I am very proud of getting Government support and being able to bring legislation through these Houses. The debate in this and the other House on every piece of legislation I have brought in has greatly improved that legislation. The Registration of Lobbying Bill has just been passed in the Dáil and I will come here with an open mind to see if it can be further improved. There is no sole repository of wisdom on the Government benches. We can consider freedom of information, regulation of lobbying, whistleblowing and Civil Service accountability, and we know they are fundamental issues about which we have all talked. There is real change.
Senator Whelan spoke about the emphasis in my Department being more on expenditure than reform but that is untrue. There is a balance. Perhaps the public focus has been on the expenditure side as when one is putting out a fire, people would notice that over rebuilding foundations of a house.
They would notice the water damage.
They are equally important elements and I am proud of the job done by the Government in balancing the books, which is absolutely necessary if we are to have a sustainable future achieved through reform. I have mentioned political reform but there has also been public service reform. Much of this happens below the water line and it grieves me to see people who should be informed commenting about the lack of Civil Service reform. A Member of this House has made such a claim in a newspaper, quoting a publication that is five years old, but I will deal with that separately. The indication was that nothing had happened in those five years. We have downsized the public service by 10% and moved 12,000 public servants from places where they were under-utilised to where they were needed. We introduced groundbreaking sick leave arrangements through legislation in this House, and I was challenged in the High Court - and it will probably be challenged in the Supreme Court - for my trouble. We have changed holiday entitlements because people did not know what entitlements various sectors of the public service had. People looked askance at some of the holiday arrangements of county chief executive officers, which were formerly county managers.
We have introduced common procurement, which will save €500,000 by having a professional system across the public service. We have established shared services in human resource management, payroll and financial management. Instead of having 60 centres of payroll, we have one such centre. I have already spoken about Civil Service accountability and the tremendous work done by the team lead by Professor Rafter in that regard. We have also joined the Open Government Partnership and we are piloting open data. There is much we can lay out in terms of a reform agenda that, bluntly, is unprecedented, and I am very proud of all that. I will not accept criticism that this is not a truly reforming Government, even in the teeth of having to deal with a financial crisis of unprecedented proportions.
I will refer to the Judiciary. It is important to say that I have no idea of the political affiliation of anybody brought before the Government, except one or two people who previously served in the Oireachtas. I am certainly unaware of any proportionality with regard to judicial appointments. Senators may recall a judicial appointment issue which brought down a previous Fianna Fáil-Labour Party Government, and I was involved in ensuring a judicial advisory board system, chaired by the Chief Justice, that shortlists suitable candidates. It is only from candidates submitted by that process, which is entirely outside political interference, that there can be a selection. It is important that we do not undermine processes in that way.
I thank Senator Sheahan for his support. Senator Zappone touched on many real challenges in getting this balance, and the point was made very forcibly by Senator Quinn as well. There can be an open process which gets people who are no good at the job. I have had three Ministries and sometimes we can see an important job to do. We might persuade somebody to take this on, and I am sure that was the case with Mr. Smurfit and Senator Quinn. It is not that these people are looking for extra work but that people are particularly suitable for a particular job. How can we create a system that is completely transparent but which allows us to reach out occasionally to find people of real talent not only in this country but abroad? With the accountability system for our public service, for example, I hope we find somebody outside this jurisdiction entirely so that there can be a different perspective. We should not rule that out. It is a condition of my approach, and I want it as open and transparent as possible.
I strongly agree with the Senator's point about diversity, and that links to his argument about remuneration. We need diversity in income levels as well. Senator Quinn has indicated that nobody should be paid - he argued that no Senator should be paid either - but one of the first actions of the Labour Party when it entered government in the early part of the 20th century was to demand that Members of Parliament got paid. This was so it would not be a rich man's job, with barristers coming in after hours in the law courts or landed gentry doing the work on a part-time basis. Some people need a few bob to do the job and not everybody is "independently funded" in that regard. We must have real diversity in that regard. The Senator made a very strong point in terms of diversity tracking and I will keep it in mind.
I do not wish to pre-empt debate on a future piece of legislation but one of the amendments from Fianna Fáil I did not accept with the lobbying regulation Bill would have outlawed lobbying for State board appointments. I want to encourage lobbying for such appointments, as I want the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Irish Farmers Association, the National Youth Council of Ireland and others to argue that they have great people. As long as the process is open and transparent, it should happen.
I have answered Senator Whelan's point regarding the reform agenda, which will stand up to any scrutiny. He mentioned another couple of points. There is a question of determining suitability by a committee, which is a very tricky question to be teased out. People situate it as a dilemma but do not tend to provide a solution. If somebody has national or international standing or expertise, will he or she want to be presented to an Oireachtas committee to be parsed and analysed in public? He or she will not. For example, will professors of economics being considered for the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council present themselves so that some can be labelled crummy and others can be labelled good, with the determination being made by an Oireachtas committee? That may be an extreme example but all of us have a sense of our own pride and we do not want to be presented in that way. Finding a process to ensure we find good candidates rather than "grey" candidates that might be both unexceptional and inoffensive is the way to go.
To get that balance right is a challenge.
I do not accept that people with expertise or a track record would be rejected. Consider the question of whether a teacher should be debarred from a board dealing with education because of a vested interest. A teacher has expertise, and it is difficult to have expertise without having a vested interest or track record. Sometimes we need people with a track record. A women's advocate should be on the National Women's Council of Ireland and should be not debarred for having a track record on an issue, a vested interest or point of view. This is important, as long as there are balancing voices regarding all these matters.
I have dealt with most of what Senator Quinn said and I hope I have addressed the points he raised.
Senator Landy talked about political diversity. His was an important point made by number of Senators, and I have made it repeatedly. It is like when people say the only objective people suitable to chair a tribunal are judges because, by definition, they are somehow impartial. It is believed that when they walk across the threshold of judgeship, all their previous partial decisions evaporate into the skies and they suddenly become impartial in all their dealings. We have to say that at least or we might be answerable to them. However, we have to be aware that people have track records all their lives. I strongly agree with the point made by Senator Landy in that if we were to have a future in a robust political system, we need to attract people to become involved in their communities, including the political system. With all due respect to distinguished Independents gathered here, being independent is not a unique purification in and of itself. Being involved in grassroots activism for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party is good and we must encourage more of it. If we kill the political system by saying those associated with it are somehow contaminated and unworthy, it is absolutely destructive of politics and, ultimately, of democracy. I do not believe we should state everybody appointed who happens to have been a politician previously is somehow unsuitable. This is certainly not how any other political system I know operates. Exemplary politicians get other jobs. For example, Ms Christine Lagarde visited this country this week. She had been an exemplary French politician, and that gave her the authority and qualifications to become the senior person in the IMF. It did not debar her from it. We need to consider people's experience in the round in that regard. That is a matter I feel strongly about.
I started with Senator Craughwell and will revert to him now. I thank him for his kind remarks on these proposals. He posited questions without necessarily positing a solution. One job I must do all the time is make matters practical. Sometimes one can design a perfect system that does not work. Therefore, we need to have a system in which we can get people to serve rather than one in which one just cannot get people of quality to serve. The system to which I refer is very fitting in this regard.
I wrote down a remark Senator Craughwell made that very much merits reflection. He said he wants to remove the appointments system from the political arena, yet he wants to give a role to the Oireachtas. I do not know how he regards the Oireachtas as being apolitical. My experience is that a lot of politics takes place in these Houses. Perhaps that is my unique perspective.
I strongly agree with much of what Senator Reilly said, including the policy position she laid out. I produced the Labour Party policy position that she quoted. I just read through that document again. I will be bold by saying the quote I used at the beginning of it was from the former leader of Fianna Fáil, Mr. Bertie Ahern, who said he did not appoint people to boards because they gave him money but because they were his friends. We need to move away from that. Being a friend of Mr. Ahern should not debar one but it should not be the unique qualifying criterion either. There is a balance to be struck somewhere between the two. We must temper our pureness in regard to lecturing others. I looked at the list of the North–South body nominees of the Sinn Féin Party. I am sure they are all perfectly qualified but they are all Sinn Féiners. It is not true to say that we can somehow veto them by agreement. All nominees put forward by either of the parties are accepted, for fairly obvious reasons. Understanding all our individual foibles in that regard, let us determine whether we can build a better system in which we can all have confidence. That is certainly my absolute objective.