I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Tá fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá sé an-deas é a fheiceáil. Is é seo an chéad uair dó ar ais sa Seanad le píosa, de réir mar a thuigim.
I welcome the Minister and his officials to consider this Bill which is of the utmost importance in supporting the integrity in how State and semi-State bodies operate and achieve their relevant objectives in a coherent and focused manner. I also look forward to a positive and constructive debate and direction on the substance of this legislation whereby the contributions by colleagues both challenge and strengthen its primary objectives. I thank my colleagues, Senators Michelle Mullen and Gerard P. Craughwell, for co-sponsoring the Bill. I also acknowledge Senators Joan Freeman and Michael McDowell for seconding the Bill. We, as legislators, have been entrusted to ensure that the State functions effectively and is relevant to the maximum benefit of the people in an effective, transparent and informative manner.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to create the public bodies review agency, the function jof which will be to independently and professionally evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of State and semi-State bodies at least once every seven years by reference to international best practice. The agency will then report back to the relevant line Minister, as well as to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform with findings and recommendations. Both Ministers will then have 90 days to issue a joint response and put forward an action plan indicating how they will implement those recommendations. This report will be available to the public and could be of particular benefit to the workings of the relevant Oireachtas committees, as well as to both Houses of the Oireachtas. If the legislation is enacted, the agency will be tasked with ensuring that public sector bodies are independently and regularly reviewed to ensure their statutory remit remains relevant and is adapted, where necessary. The agency will also review how effectively the public sector body executes core objectives. With the exception of the statute law revision initiative, the State does not have a practice of systematically reviewing legislation. This means that when a new law is enacted, we rarely take time to look back on its effectiveness or its current relevance.
This is also true with regard to all of the legislation under which public bodies have been established. A significant number of State and semi-State bodies have been created under legislation enacted well over 30 years ago. Irish society has changed significantly since, yet we do not have an effective independent means to ensure those statutory bodies and other organisations have a relevant and integrated mandate to provide real and meaningful benefit for the Ireland of today and tomorrow. There are more than 250 public bodies in existence across 16 Departments. A total of 62 agencies have been terminated since 2010. For the vast majority of those terminations, the functions previously carried out by the agency were transferred or merged into other organisations. A total of 25 new agencies have been created since 2010. Of these, 14 are primarily the result of mergers of older agencies or the transfer of all functions to a new agency, while 11 are new agencies. I am not generally in favour of the establishment of new statutory bodies. However, in this instance, the establishment of a new body is the most effective means of ensuring we have the infrastructure necessary to systematically review and provide objective proposals on the existing stock of public bodies. The body which would be established under this legislation will yield millions of euro in savings on an annual basis, thus ensuring that its cost will be far outweighed by the benefit it will bring.
In its review of the public service in 2008, the OECD found that the process of agency reform had coincided with ad hoc expansion of the organisational complexities of the State. As part of the public service reform plan 2011 to 2013, an agency rationalisation programme was announced and put in place, aimed at making a contribution to the overall reform objective of delivering a public service that is more efficient and integrated. The Institute of Public Administration Research Paper No. 18 of March 2016 provides an objective review of national non-commercial State agencies in Ireland between 2010 and 2015 and states: "There is no clear relationship in Ireland between an agencies legal mandate, size of function and the form of governance adopted".
Before setting out on the journey of preparing this legislation, I drew some comfort from a pledge in A Programme for a Partnership Government:
We will empower frontline service providers to make more decisions, encourage more collaboration between public service bodies, and between the public and private sectors, and reward public service innovation and change. We will also reform the public sector, more generally, to ensure more accessible public services.
A number of other jurisdictions have introduced a law similar to what I am proposing, in particular, the United States and Australia. Closer to home, the National Oversight and Audit Commission is a statutory body which was established under section 126B of the Local Government Act 2001 to oversee the local government sector. The local government efficiency review implementation group was established by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in April 2011 to oversee the implementation of a series of reforms. In its second progress report in 2013 the group reported that €561 million in savings had been achieved between 2010 and 2012. Its key objective is to achieve an annual saving of more than €500 million. The Bill adopts much of the structure and strategy of that group and, therefore, the proposed agency is not unique or a one-off. The agency has broadly similar objectives but it is concentrated on State and semi-State bodies and has the potential to be the catalyst of similar, if not greater efficiencies.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's new code of practice for the governance of State bodies will have implications for such bodies, which will lead to positive change, but I believe more can and should be done. The objective of the Bill is wholly consistent with what the Government has pledged in terms of public sector innovation and change and the Minister's passion and commitment to work on the reform of this area, which I very much respect and appreciate. We do not need to spend millions on third party consultants in providing a stream of reports on the efficiencies, or lack thereof, of the various public bodies under our direction. We can achieve far better and more effective results ourselves and this Bill will go a long way in that regard. We owe it to the excellent people working in State and semi-State bodies to support and encourage a world-class working environment. This is intended as much for them as it is for us and the general public.
I hope I have given the Minister a good sense of the rationale behind the Bill and an outline of some of its key provisions. I ask him to support it and recognise the potential it presents to streamline, in a structured and coherent way, the public sector and ensure that it will continue to be fit for purpose.