Other Questions - Decentralisation Programme.

Jim O'Keeffe

Ceist:

38 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Finance when he expects a decision on decentralisation to be finalised; the criteria on which such a decision will be based; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9340/01]

Paul McGrath

Ceist:

39 Mr. McGrath asked the Minister for Finance if he will give details of the Government's plans for decentralisation of the public service during the remainder of 2001. [9761/01]

Seán Ryan

Ceist:

84 Mr. S. Ryan asked the Minister for Finance the position regarding the Government's proposals for decentralisation of up to 10,000 civil and public servants; when it is expected that the programme of decentralisation will commence; when it is expected to be completed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9749/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 38, 39 and 84 together.

I am fully committed to the introduction of a new programme of decentralisation in the next couple of months. It is unfortunate that I have not been able to progress the issue as quickly as I would have liked, but the reality is that I have been heavily involved in a range of very important activities in recent months, most recently with the Finance Bill which was only enacted in recent days and the revised Estimates which were published only last week. I now intend to pursue, with some vigour, my plans for a new programme of decentralisation.

A considerable amount of preparatory work has been done in my Department in the past year or so in developing proposals which I intend to finalise for submission to the Cabinet sub-committee on decentralisation and thereafter the Government. In finalising my proposals I will have regard to all the submissions received by my Department. I will also take into account a number of other factors and views, including those of Civil Service management and the civil and public service unions. I have also in recent months been having informal discussions with my Government colleagues with regard to a new programme.

While I do not want to sound evasive about a final date for a decision, I cannot say definitively when a final Government decision will be taken. The scale of the proposed programme and the range of issues and views which need to be taken into account are such that a reasonable period of consideration is appropriate. It is my firm intention, however, to progress my proposals expeditiously and I assure the House of my determination and that of the Government to decide on a substantial programme of decentralisation in the next couple of months.

Is the Minister joking or serious when he says that he intends to make a announcement on the issue in a couple of months? On 26 October 2000 he said that it was his intention to make a decision on a new programme of decentralisation by the end of the year, but nothing has happened. What is the reason for the delay? Is it because of the traditional Fianna Fáil habit of surfacing when an election is in sight or because politics and not the national interest will be the criterion? Bandon Chamber of Commerce and I made an outstanding case for the town. What are we to say to the people concerned? Is it like "Waiting for Godot"? Is there a genuine intention to proceed with the programme and, if so, when? Why has this not happened already?

There has been great interest in decentralisation with over 120 submissions received from various towns. We have been discussing such weighty matters as the impact of foot and mouth disease, but more Deputies are in the House for this reply. This indicates that the issue of considerable importance to them. I would have liked to proceed with the issue more speedily, but there are many competing interests. The submissions have to be evaluated. No area is excluded or included. The Civil Service unions wished to be consulted. We initiated such a process which had limited success, but negotiations broke off. Civil Service management also had to be consulted which involved a high level committee of senior civil servants. All this work has been ongoing. I have received representations from Members on all sides and the easiest option would be to do nothing. There is a high level of interest among individual civil servants who wish to be decentralised, but this fact is not always reflected by their trade unions. All these issues will be taken into account. I hope to bring the matter to a conclusion as soon as possible.

What is the nature of the group evaluating the submissions? Is it comprised entirely of officials from the Department? If so, who are they and what criteria are they using? Will the Minister confirm that the reason no decision has been made is the unfavourable political response to his initial decision to scatter decentralisation among clusters of towns among which a Department would be divided? The Minister was afraid of the fallout from this response. An excellent case has been made for Mullingar which has never benefited from decentralisation. Is the Minister prepared to give such towns priority in any future programme?

The group in my Department has evaluated all submissions. My officials and I also held negotiations with secretaries general and Ministers from other Departments. I held meetings with all my ministerial colleagues. No one set of criteria is being used and no town is included or excluded because it benefited from decentralisation in the past. The idea of clusters has been around for some time, but that is not the reason for my not making a decision. I will take into account towns which never benefited from decentralisation, but there are as many opinions on the issue as there are Deputies. Over 100 towns have made representations, all of which cannot be accommodated. I accept that there are political difficulties. I am not suggesting that Wexford is not a suitable location, but Deputies Yates and Howlin were Ministers when sections of their Departments were decentralised to Wexford. I will not approach the issue on that basis. I would abandon the process entirely if I thought that was how it would be handled. The Cabinet sub-committee comprises the Taoiseach, the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Environment and Local Government and me.

The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Deputy Dempsey, is, at least in theory, working on a national spatial plan. However, the decentralisation programme and the national spatial plan are rarely mentioned together. I do not wish to be glib, but do the two relate and is there the necessary level of co-ordination between them? I understood the decision had been taken to decentralise the Land Registry to Waterford.

That was never announced by me.

That will be news to some people in Waterford. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position on that.

The latter part of Deputy McDowell's question brings home to me the beauty of the multi-seat electoral system. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government is preparing—

I do not suppose there is any chance of an answer.

I assure the Deputy that there was not an announcement as to any location for any office. I understand from reading the local newspapers that there were announcements in that county but they were not made by my colleague, the Minister of State. The national spatial strategy is being prepared by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government and that is one of the reasons for having him on the subcommittee. If we are to have an announcement on decentralisation, we will have it before the national spatial strategy is published, otherwise we will be waiting for a longer period of time. I hope to get this matter out of the way in the coming months, notwithstanding the obvious political difficulties. However, to give people like Deputy McDowell adequate time to prepare for the next election, we would like to have it out of the way as soon as possible.

I welcome the positive response from the Minister and urge him to expedite this matter. The Minister will be well aware of the case we, in Kilrush, have made and of the unique initiative that has been taken by Newcastle West, Listowel and Kilrush in forming a joint approach with a view to getting perhaps some public service offices between the three towns. This is a very enthusiastic response from the three towns and, as the Minister is well aware, it also covers three constituencies – West Limerick, North Kerry and Clare. It is a compact arrangement and one which I am sure the Minister will look at very carefully before he makes a decision.

Is the Deputy looking for extra seats?

Maybe to recover some seats. I am aware of the submission made by the three areas – Kilrush, Newcastle West and Listowel. As Deputy Daly is already aware, during a visit to the Kilrush area in the past year, the people of Kilrush availed of the opportunity to present me with a very fine presentation on video. They made a very good case for their location but so have many other communities, groups and chambers of commerce and political representatives. The difficulty is that everybody thinks their location is the favourite one.

The management group in the Civil Service, the higher civil servants, make the point that we have to have effective management post-decentralisation and that must be taken into account as well. I am not as given to some of the cases made by people in that regard because with developments in technology in recent years, one can do a very effective job in places with which one could never have dealt before, supervise and have an efficient organisation as good as one ever had.

The best co-operation in this round has been from Departments that have experienced decentralisation and do not fear it. It is interesting to note that they are the most progressive Departments because they have done it before and have seen that the world does not end and they are not afraid of it, whereas Departments which have not been over this course keep putting up obstacles.

I had to look up the definition of "decentralisation" before I came in because Leitrim is the only county in which there has not been any decentralisation. I was at a meeting of the finance committee last May attended by the Minister and we discussed this issue. He suggested that the Government would implement a decentralisation plan very shortly after that and that there would be ten locations throughout the country. Will there still be ten locations?

I did not say ten locations.

I am sorry to disagree with the Minister but at the finance committee meeting last May, he said there would be ten locations throughout the country, that he would support the idea of clustering Departments in regions and that he found the greatest difficulty at that stage to be getting the civil servants to move to the regions. Does he still believe there will be ten locations and in clustering Departments in regions? Are there still difficulties trying to get civil servants to move to these areas? Will the Minister give favourable consideration to Carrick-on-Shannon?

Since we have not made decisions as to the locations of the bodies moving, the latter part of the question relating to civil servants does not arise. From meeting civil servants and from the individual representations they make to politicians, it appears that a considerable number want to move to other parts of the country about which I think their managers in the Departments and maybe the trade union representatives would be surprised.

I am sorry to have misled Deputy Reynolds. I would have said to the finance committee that the possibility of clustering was an approach to decentralisation which gives efficiency. Clustering does not have to mean that Departments would have to locate five miles apart. Going 25 miles in Leitrim is like going four miles in Dublin or in the towns near Dublin. I will give consideration to County Leitrim, although it has not done too badly because the rural renewal scheme covers all of Country Leitrim.

I have praised the Minister for that many times.

At least some progress has been made for that county in my time.

On the criteria and to come back to what Deputy McDowell said on the spatial plan versus decentralisation, will towns targeted in the spatial plan get decentralisation? That will urbanise parts of the country rather than fulfil the objective of decentralisation. Will the Minister elaborate on that? On the CPSU and difficulties in regard to discussions with civil servants, thousands of civil servants have requested to transfer out of Dublin into the regions. Has the Minister considered using information technology to allow civil servants to work from home or from rural areas as of now until the decentralisation is in place? When will we see the decentralisation to Roscommon town of the General Register Office which was announced in the early 1990s and has yet to be completed? Does he agree that Roscommon would be an ideal town for clustering in that a couple of thousand civil servants have already requested transfers to towns surrounding County Roscommon? When does the Minister hope to see this decentralisation happen? He said the announcement would be in a couple of months, but when will we see movement?

This will not be judged on one criterion. A call will have to be made about the locations to which decentralisation will take place. That will set off a round of indignation if places that made representations do not get it. If we are serious about doing it, we have to make a call some time or another and get on with it. As I said in reply to an earlier question, the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is on the Cabinet sub-committee. If we are to have decentralisation this year, it will not coincide with the national spatial strategy because that will take considerably more time.

Some ideas are being considered by my Department as regards more attractive work methods for civil servants. I assume they are considering ways of trying to encourage people to work from home. They are always looking at new ideas. I was aware that the General Register Office was to be moved to Roscommon many years ago and was of the belief that part of it had moved.

We are waiting for the rest of it.

I will try to get more up to date information for Deputy Naughten.

I appreciate the cluster idea because we have the model with Limerick, Ennis and Nenagh. I fully support what Deputy Daly said earlier in regard to Newcastle West, Kilrush and Listowel. It would mean a great deal to the economies of the three towns to get decentralisation. As the Minister is probably aware, if one is outside the BMW area in which there are enhanced incentives, it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract industries to locations such as Newcastle West, Kilrush and Listowel. I would like such factors to be taken into consideration because it would mean a great deal to those three constituencies which are outside the BMW area.

I thought it was very progressive of the three towns to come together to make a joint presentation and to argue their case in a coherent manner rather than argue their individual cases. I thought it would have been copied by other groups and I compliment those behind that initiative.