Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Questions (2, 3, 4)

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

2 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach his plans for decentralisation of any part of his Department or the bodies or agencies operating under the aegis of his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30744/03]

View answer

Enda Kenny

Question:

3 Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach his plans for the decentralisation of sections of his Department or bodies under his aegis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1037/04]

View answer

Trevor Sargent

Question:

4 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the implications of the Government's decentralisation plans for his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1287/04]

View answer

Oral answers (127 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, together.

There are no proposals to decentralise sections of my Department or bodies or agencies operating under its aegis. A significant part of the Central Statistics Office is already located in Cork.

Although it is unlikely to be announced before the local elections, will the Taoiseach confirm that a re-think of the decentralisation programme as announced is taking place?

These questions refer specifically to the Taoiseach's Department. The question of decentralisation is more appropriate to the Minister for Finance who has responsibility for it.

Does the Taoiseach acknowledge that his Department will inevitably be affected in the event of such a re-think? There is widespread dissatisfaction in the Civil Service, about which I presume the Taoiseach is aware.

Sorry, Deputy, that does not arise. I suggest you submit a question to the Minister for Finance.

Is that dissatisfaction represented in the Taoiseach's Department? What did he think of the "Follow me up to Carlow" interview by the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon?

The Deputy is going well outside the realm of Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive.

The Taoiseach is the Head of Government and this is the first opportunity Members of the House have had to put questions to him on decentralisation.

The Standing Order is quite specific.

That is a time-honoured manner in which to frame a question to enable one to——

The Chair is obliged to implement Standing Orders. Members of the House complained yesterday that they did not have an opportunity to ask supplementary questions. If the time is taken up by asking supplementary questions which have no relationship to the questions submitted, we will not be able to conduct the business of the House.

A Cheann Comhairle, can you imagine what this looks like to a taxpayer outside the House?

I will not engage in a discussion with the Deputy. The questions refer specifically to the Taoiseach's Department.

This is the first opportunity we have had to put questions about a major decision such as the announcement on decentralisation to the Head of Government.

There are many opportunities such as Leaders' Questions.

The questions are precisely concerned with decentralisation as they relate to the Department of the Taoiseach and I merely ask if, as a component of the entire decentralisation programme, the matters I raise also reflect on that Department.

Is there resistance which is causing a re-think? Does the Taoiseach agree with the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, that it is the case that only civil servants who move will get preferment? Does that affect the Taoiseach's Department? Does the Taoiseach believe the breaking up of the commission for the Civil and public service and devolving responsibility for recruitment to a local level is to be viewed in a new light in the context of decentralisation? Will the Taoiseach confirm there is a re-think in this area?

I point out again that the Deputy's question is one more appropriate to the Minister for Finance who has responsibility for this matter.

I am not sure what I can answer. However, I assure Deputy Rabbitte he is wrong in his information. There is no re-think. He is correct that my Department is not moving. I am not aware of dissatisfaction in my Department, but there are a substantial number of people in my Department who would like to move. There might be dissatisfaction on that basis, but staff have not told me so.

Dream on.

Close to 40 people in my Department, which is a small one, want to move. I am sure they are dissatisfied to some degree.

They are afraid they will be sent to Coventry.

I agree with the thrust of Deputy Rabbitte's questioning on this matter. After Deputy Parlon made his extraordinary——

Sorry, Deputy, I ask you to confine yourself to the three questions.

A Cheann Comhairle, you have not listened to what I have to say.

It is relevant to the questions.

The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, clarified that the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, knew nothing about the decentralisation announcement nor had he or any other Minister hand, act or part in it. From questions put to other Departments under what is left of the Freedom of Information Act, there is no evidence that the Department of Agriculture and Food, Ordnance Survey Ireland or the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs had prior knowledge of the proposal. The Equality Authority received an e-mail on the day of the budget.

The question referred to the Taoiseach's Department.

Did the Taoiseach know that the Minister for Finance was considering a massive decentralisation programme?

That does not arise from this question. I suggest that you use Leaders' Questions if you want to ask the Taoiseach that question. Otherwise you should put a question to the appropriate Minister.

This question is in your interests, a Cheann Comhairle.

It does not arise. I call Deputy Sargent.

This is in your interest, a Cheann Comhairle. The Taoiseach has said that many of his staff would like to move. The answer from the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is that 6.84% of the Department's staff say they would like to go to Cavan and 83.96% say they would not like to go there. The Taoiseach says many people in his Department would like to move. If a rethink is going on, would the Taoiseach consider that his Department should move to your constituency, Sir?

The Taoiseach should be from that constituency.

I call Deputy Sargent to ask a supplementary question to Questions Nos. 2 to 4.

A Cheann Comhairle, this is the first opportunity we have had to question the Government and you will not allow the Taoiseach to answer the question.

The Chair will not have its ruling challenged on the floor of the House.

You are making a farce of the House.

You, Deputy, submitted a question——

These are serious questions.

Of course they are serious questions and they should be taken seriously.

The Head of Government is here and you will not permit him to reply. You pass on to Deputy Sargent. What is the answer to the question?

Deputy Rabbitte, you will not challenge the ruling of the Chair.

Sir, I am afraid I have to when it is blatantly unfair.

The Chair is ruling in accordance with precedent in the House. Deputy Rabbitte submitted a question to the Taoiseach regarding plans for decentralisation of any part of his Department or of the bodies or agencies under its aegis and whether he would make a statement on the matter.

And you and the Taoiseach know why I submitted it.

You are entitled to ask supplementary questions related to the question you submitted.

Absolutely, and decentralisation is related to it.

You may not broaden your contribution to include questions which are appropriate to the Minister for Finance.

Since 1919 one can ask questions in this House that relate to the subject matter of the question submitted. One cannot encompass, in the framing of any question, every conceivable area of supplementary. It is entirely unreasonable of you, Sir, to rule out the possibility of Deputies asking questions about the decentralisation issue.

The Chair will not be challenged. The Deputy knows the Standing Order as well as the Chair. If you are not happy with the Standing Order I suggest you approach the Dáil reform committee.

I am not happy with the manner in which you are implementing it, Sir.

I call the Taoiseach.

In reply to Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte, I was fully involved in the process throughout. I was on the committee. The 36 people I mentioned in my Department are on the list for normal transfer. They are properly in the system and want to go to decentralised locations.

Do they want to go to Cavan?

The Opposition Deputies should not be against this measure. It is a good thing.

The Taoiseach talks about being on the committee and being involved in the decision regarding decentralisation. Did the Taoiseach remind his colleagues of the difficulties that related to the relocation of the Central Statistics Office to Cork in June 1991? It was a voluntary scheme and only 60, or 10%, of the former CSO Dublin staff agreed to move to Cork and volunteers had to be taken from other Departments to make up the numbers. This entailed considerable disruption and the move did not happen until 1994. Should the lessons of that episode not have been learnt? The upheaval affected statistics gathering and dissemination in the CSO.

Following the relocation, the training of new staff and additional requirements, how many CSO staff are still in Dublin and how many are in Cork? Was the Taoiseach surprised by the low take-up of the current scheme, given that the closure of accident and emergency services in Ennis hospital will affect people thinking of moving to Kilrush, for example? Does the Government not need to go back to the drawing board and consider real decentralisation rather than office relocation.

The first part of the Deputy's question is in order.

For as long as I have been a Deputy I have dealt with the issue of public servants in Dublin who want to get back to somewhere else in the country.

Not enough.

It has always been the case. I well remember 1991. It was the only previous large decentralisation programme and I administered it as Minister for Finance. I remember the arguments regarding the Central Statistics Office and the reasons for them. I am sure we will experience similar difficulties again. The CSO successfully moved to Cork and the vast majority of the 800 staff moved there. Some senior people, mainly because of age profile, will have difficulties.

This House has been clamouring for more decentralisation since before 1991.

Real decentralisation.

There is now a large body of public servants and members of public service unions who want to move. Some are concerned about how near they can move to their own homes or about clustering of locations. These issues are being considered within my Department but they have been dealt with successfully and will be dealt with in the future.

How many are in Dublin? There were 840 staff in the CSO.

The vast majority are in Cork.

In the context of the impact of the decentralisation proposal on the Taoiseach's Department and the Government's proposal to abolish the Civil Service Commission and the Local Appointments Commission and to give Secretaries General and private contractors the right to apply for recruitment licences and to recruit civil servants, does the Taoiseach propose that the Secretary General of his Department and the Secretary to the Government will apply for recruitment licences or will local contractors, maybe from Drumcondra, be recruiting for the Taoiseach's own Department?

I ask the Deputy to submit a question to the Taoiseach on that matter about his Department.

The question about localisation of recruitment and the abolition of the Civil Service Commission and the Local Appointments Commission is an integral part of decentralisation. That is stated in the memorandum.

We are dealing with Questions Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive. We are not dealing with general decentralisation.

I am asking the Taoiseach a legitimate supplementary question about the localisation of recruitment. I want to know what he is going to do.

That is a question specifically for the Minister for Finance.

It is part of decentralisation.

It does not arise out of Questions Nos. 2 to 4. I call Deputy Rabbitte.

Can I take it that the 36 people in the Taoiseach's Department who will use the transfer system to transfer out of his Department to locations of their choice will be replaced? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that they ought to be replaced under the terms now provided for in the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Bill, whereby recruitment will be done locally and might be done by a private sector agency? Is the Taoiseach concerned that the renowned independence of the Civil Service and the fairness of recruitment to it will be damaged as a result of the arrangements proposed in the Bill? Is the Taoiseach worried that this will damage the effectiveness and traditional independence of the Civil Service? If that is multiplied 1,000 times throughout the country, are there not inherent dangers to the governance of the country in recruitment agencies being charged with recruitment to the public service?

That is specifically a question for the Minister for Finance.

I asked the Taoiseach this question in the context of the 36 people he said would be moving within his own Department. The Taoiseach is perfectly able to answer these questions without the Ceann Comhairle interfering to protect him. In respect of his Department, I suggest——

Deputy Rabbite, I ask you to withdraw the remark that the Chair is protecting the Taoiseach.

How else am I supposed to interpret it?

I ask you to withdraw the remark.

You should then let the Taoiseach answer the question.

The Chair is acting in accordance with Standing Orders. All my predecessors insisted that we stick to the questions submitted. I ask you to withdraw the remark that the Chair is protecting the Taoiseach.

I will withdraw the remark if you permit the Taoiseach to reply.

Some of your predecessors used to nod off occasionally.

I call Deputy Sargent. I will allow the question in so far as it affects the Department of the Taoiseach.

In so far as it affects my Department——

We cannot go on for the next three years of this Government with you ruling like this.

I ask you to resume your seat.

In so far as it affects my Department, the 36 people who would avail of the opportunities — they encompass all grades so I assume they would avail of opportunities — could well be replaced by people who do not want to move. It would be an interdepartmental transfer and would not automatically mean——

What if the recruitment was from outside?

If they were recruited from outside, the new procedures allow flexibility. While there was an easing last year because of the employment situation, in the case of my Department we had great difficulty with the length of time it takes to fill vacancies because of the procedures. The idea of the new procedures is that a Secretary General would be able to recruit directly into my Department. Obviously the protections that exist from the 1924 Act would have to be maintained.

A Cheann Comhairle, you have become very diligent at the start of the new session in implementing your predecessors' rulings. I do not want us to see a repeat of an occasion when former Deputy Paddy Harte spoke from these benches and addressed a Ceann Comhairle who snored away contentedly for about 20 minutes and precedent went by the board.

Does the Taoiseach know the grades of the 36 staff members who are willing to move from his Department? Are they principal officers, clerical officers and clerical assistants? Before the new Bill is implemented allowing Secretaries General to recruit locally, will these 36 people be offered equivalent positions in other locations throughout the country for which they might have a preference? I have referred to Cavan. The Tánaiste's Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, out of which she herself wishes to move, needs 250 people to go to Carlow to make it successful. However, only 69 out of 503 people surveyed are willing to make that move. Will the 36 staff members from the Department of the Taoiseach, be they in the categories of CA, CO, HEO, etc., be offered positions in Carlow or Cavan if they are willing to move there prior to implementation of the Secretaries General Bill allowing local recruitment?

Discerning civil servants would choose Cavan.

Deputies should allow the Taoiseach to answer the question.

According to my list there are people who want to move to Carlow and Cavan. As is always the case, if they had the opportunity, these people would be gone on Friday. They will not be concerned about the regulations under which this might happen so long as they are on the list for transfer. In each Department and agency there would be a substantial number of such people. In a Department that is being decentralised, there would be a change for those who do not want to move. This happens all the time. It is forever changing between Departments. There are regular vacancies, especially just below the senior levels. However, it is increasingly the case at senior levels that people are moving interdepartmentally, which is good.

A report inThe Irish Times on 5 December gave a view from higher civil servants that the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance would be the real beneficiaries of decentralisation, given that power would be concentrated in those Departments following the difficulties in the other eight Departments to be affected by the moves, which we covered when discussing the Central Statistics Office earlier. Does the Taoiseach agree that higher civil servants have some reason to complain given that they were stunned by the decentralisation announcement by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, and suspect it is a stitch-up by the Departments of the Taoiseach and Finance to concentrate power?

I do not get into these hierarchical issues. However, when I look at it as a matter of interest, I always think the Department of Foreign Affairs believes it is the most powerful because it is spread across 40 countries.

It is mainly located outside the State.

The Taoiseach has indicated that the Secretary General of his Department is likely to apply for a recruitment licence to fill some of the vacancies that will arise as a result of the 36 people likely to move. Is the Taoiseach concerned about the impact this will have? This is a significant break with our tradition, which has existed since independence. It will go from centralised recruitment to the public service to localised recruitment via a Secretary General of a Department, especially one as powerful as the Department of the Taoiseach. Has the Taoiseach given detailed consideration to the impact of localising recruitment to the Secretary General of his Department and perhaps an outside recruitment agency? What impact is that likely to have on the justified reputation for probity of the Civil Service in recruitment? Is the Taoiseach not nervous that this kind of recruitment by the Secretary General will make people feel that, unfortunately, an inside track might develop regarding recruitment?

Does the Deputy have a question?

So far all parties when in Government have maintained public confidence in the integrity of the Civil Service recruitment system.

I can take this question in reference to my Department. It would be the same anywhere. If the Deputy is asking whether the independence and probity of the Civil Service should be maintained, I agree with that and that should be enshrined in the legislation. I have no difficulty with that. However, the Deputy should look beyond that issue. The same standards in recruitment will be required in my Department.

Under the present system, the Department of the Taoiseach might seek to recruit someone for the European division. On his or her first day, a person might be sent by the Civil Service Commission to the Department of the Taoiseach. He or she might be interested in and have considerable knowledge of education, and he or she might have come from a household where education was the major issue. His or her parents might have been teachers. While the person might want to be in the Department of Education and Science, he or she is sent to the European division of my Department. The system that has been in place for years is not a good match.

In this case, at least at local level, the powers of recruitment are given to the Department. This takes nothing away from the standards, probity and independence, but it is common sense. In my Department I imagine it will be a matter for the civil servants to work it out. They would obviously want to interview the people.

In semi-State bodies like IDA Ireland, VHI and the Environmental Protection Agency, recruitment agencies are used and have been since the establishment of these agencies. I do not imagine the Deputy suggests that people recruited to these bodies, because they came through agencies, are unfit to sign the Official Secrets Act or other legislation.

The sense of this is updating the 1924 legislation. What was good in 1924 may have been very good in 1974, but it does not mean it is still good in 2004. This legislation has been carefully examined. Clearly it will have to be approved and go through the procedures. I do not try to detract from the point the Deputy makes about independence and probity. I have no argument that it should be the case. That said, we need to get away from the idea that, on recruitment, a public servant is sent to the last place he or she wants to be and told to make a career there until there is an opportunity to get out.

That is why we lose so many young people and what is wrong with the system. We need to change it so that people have an opportunity. If somebody wants to be in the Department of the Taoiseach, he or she should be located there. If someone does not want to have sight of Government Buildings or anything to do with it, he or she should have an opportunity to go elsewhere. Those with an interest in environmental or educational issues should be allowed to work in those areas. Let us not try to closet people into a system that was made for another generation.

I will take two brief final questions from Deputies Rabbitte and Burton and we will then move on to the next question.

Is there not a definite risk of placing every Member of the House in a position where they will be at the behest of people making representations to them to be recruited to the Civil Service or the public service? Will the traditional independence and probity of the recruitment procedures relating to the Civil Service not be at risk if we go down the road of decentralising them and permitting outside recruitment agencies, etc., to adjudicate on people being recruited to the service?

In terms of the chances of the 36 people in the Taoiseach's Department, does the Taoiseach believe that the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, articulated matters correctly when he stated that resistance in the Civil Service will abate as soon as the evenings grow longer, at which time civil servants will become more likely to travel outside Dublin? Does the Taoiseach deny that matters have been reconsidered? I refer, in particular, to the Tánaiste's remarks on 17 January when a newspaper article stated that she had hinted at a relocation rethink? Does that refer only to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment?

The Deputy has already asked that question and it has been answered.

Perhaps the Tánaiste knows the real story about relocating.

The Deputy is taking a great interest in everything I say. I will send him all my scripts from now on.

I am indebted to the Tánaiste.

Will she be sending them from Boston or Berlin?

Will the Taoiseach elaborate on his comment that the reason for the localisation of recruitment is perhaps that inappropriate people are allocated——

That matter does not really arise out of the three questions originally tabled. The Chair allowed questions because the Taoiseach referred to the matter earlier.

I am asking a question as a consequence of the interesting answer the Taoiseach gave. Why is it not possible, within an independent Civil Service recruitment process as opposed to a localised process to introduce a system whereby candidates could indicate their preferences in terms of the Departments in which they would be interested in serving?

I suggest that the Deputy submit that question to the Minister for Finance.

That would provide a simple solution.

The Civil Service Commission has always been perceived as being impartial in terms of the way it does its business. I accept part of what the Taoiseach said about not wanting to closet people into systems. In that context, does he agree with the action by the Minister for Finance which will mean that, regardless of whether he or she joins by local or central recruitment agencies, a person joining the Civil Service at 17 will have to work for 47 years before he or she qualifies for pension rights? Is that not closeting people into a system?

That issue does not arise. It is a matter for the Minister for Finance.

It is a matter for the Taoiseach who does not want to closet people into a system.

The current pension age is 65 or people can retire after 40 years service. There is no change in that. I am sure that all the Civil Service Commission's good standards of probity will be maintained. It has been the rule for many decades, perhaps since 1924 but certainly since I started dealing with people in the public service in the early 1970s, that one is not allowed make written representations on behalf of a person in a recruitment process. That will remain the same. If such representations are made, one is automatically disqualified.

This is Ireland.

It is a strict rule of the Civil Service Commission and of the Departments.

How can we rely on private recruitment agencies to observe that rule?

Allow the Taoiseach to speak without interruption.

Does the Deputy believe that is what is being done by State companies at present? What I have outlined is the way the system operates. The Civil Service is stricter and will continue to be so.

With regard to decentralisation in my Department, the reality is that some people would like to get out of Dublin city next Friday while others would not like to leave it for the next 50 years. With large numbers of staff, we must do our best to facilitate everyone. We have done it before and we can do it again.

Opinions are put to me concerning the level of congestion in the city, high house prices and the fact that we should be engaging in greater regionalisation. In this case, that is what we are doing. The State is taking the lead in moving people into the regions to try to better develop the country. We have a population of 4 million, 2 million of whom live in Leinster and the greater Dublin area. We are trying to change that and I would have thought that everybody involved in the political process would see the advantage of doing so. If we are successful, we will no longer be obliged to divide counties, etc., as happens in certain reviews. It is the way we should try to develop Ireland over the next 20 or 30 years. Unfortunately, those years will pass quickly. We must start somewhere and do so in a determined way.

We will have to wait 30 years for the release of State papers relating to the present to discover what the Government is doing.

Ten thousand people will be moved out of Dublin. It will take time to do so and structures and people's mentalities will have to be changed. It will happen and will be a good thing for the Civil Service.

As there are only a few minutes remaining, it would be better to proceed to the next business rather than dealing with the next question.

We would do a disservice to the Barron report if we were to try to cramp questions on it into the remaining minute. I regret that I must agree with the Ceann Comhairle for once.

That is the peace process at work.