Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 24 Feb 2004

Vol. 580 No. 5

Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This Bill is significant in its timing as much as in its content. Coming hot on the heels of the plan to scatter the Civil Service at random throughout the country, it clearly signifies an attempt to undermine the public service as we know it.

Is the Deputy talking of decentralisation?

I will return to decentralisation. I have a few things to say on that matter, and on the role of the Minister of State in it. The quality of our public service is something we can be proud of in Ireland since independence. Over the decades, some very high-calibre people have served in it and done the country proud. Even in these scandalous times, incidents of corruption among public servants have been extremely rare. A great deal of the credit for this is due to the institution of the Civil Service Commission and the Local Appointments Commission. The high quality of civil servants was due as much to the development of a cadre with service-wide standards and often service-wide experience as to the educational level of those recruited.

For eight decades, there has rarely been a hint of concern that recruitment might have been influenced by political considerations. The twin pillars of this record of ability and political independence have been the development of a professional career Civil Service and the presence of the Civil Service Commission. Clearly, in the new scheme of things, they must go, presumably because they are old-fashioned, standing for the values of public service rather than commercial glitz or political graft.

First, we had the ill-thought-out announcement on budget day that the Civil Service was to be fragmented into pockets in all regions, making the idea of interdepartmental transfer all but impossible. Now we have a Bill which would do away with the Civil Service Commission. What would it put in its place? The answer is two bodies sharing some of what the commission has been doing so well. One would set standards, the "codes of practice" as they are called, which would replace the regulations made by the commission, while the other would enforce those standards and do some central recruitment itself.

The first body, a new commission, would also license individual public service bodies including Government Departments, to do their own recruitment. It is difficult to think of a reason to replace the Civil Service Commission with two bodies unless it is to disguise the fact that much of the recruitment will be done in future by the Departments themselves or by private agencies acting on their behalf. If there were to be a continuing pattern of central recruitment to the Civil Service, surely the commission, whether it is called the Civil Service Commission or by the new name of the Commission for Public Service Appointments, could set standards and carry out some recruitment as it currently does.

Why the extra layer of bureaucracy, and why must the commission and the board of the new public appointments service, as proposed, be so big? They are both to have a much larger membership than the three-person Civil Service Commission at present. Is this to give the Government a chance to have greater influence on recruitment by nominating reliable political stalwarts to serve on these bodies? Why was it felt necessary to highlight the possible business which recruitment agencies might get from this change by specifically providing in the Bill for their involvement? There are some excellent recruitment agencies but there are also many agencies which add limited value to the selection process. It will be said this is why the Bill must provide for approving or listing them if they are to be so used. However, the Bill, in section 27, for example, is vague about the criteria to be used in listing agencies. The only criterion specifically mentioned is that it must be tax compliant.

It is impossible not to have serious concerns about the intentions behind this Bill and about the effects it will have. The result will be a more fragmented Civil Service, more closely tied to individual Ministers and lacking the esprit de corps which has been its hallmark up to now. Perhaps that is the intention behind it. Indeed, what other conclusion could be drawn when the Minister who boasted that the soon-to-be dispersed civil servants would be welcomed to Parlon country is the same Minister the Government chose to present and defend its vision of the Civil Service of the future?

In many ways, this Bill will undo much of the reform introduced in recent decades. A significant part of that reform has been the opening up to staff serving in other Departments of promotion opportunities in cases where they are confined to civil servants. The top level appointments committee was perhaps the most high profile of these initiatives, but it was also significant in its impact at lower levels. Badly planned decentralisation, coupled with local recruitment, would reverse this trend. There is a need to have greater flexibility than in the past and Departments must have a greater say in recruiting their own staff, but we should not effectively change the concept of general service grades by turning them into local departmental groups with just a common title.

In short, this is a bad Bill and it should be opposed. Even if a change in this direction is forced through, at least let us make sure that a bottom line is not eroded. That bottom line has to be to preserve the Civil Service Commission in character and function, if not in name, to keep political hands off the business of recruitment to the public service and not to lose the concept of a single professional career Civil Service.

I return to the point I was addressing when the debate adjourned last week, which is that it was necessary for each Department to carry out a risk assessment of the decentralisation proposals announced by the Minister for Finance on budget day. I stated then that I had tabled a number of parliamentary questions addressing this issue and a number of other aspects surrounding the decentralisation plan. I just received the replies and I have not yet had an opportunity to examine them in detail. However, skimming through them, there seems to be a pattern in the replies I have received from many Ministers which is essentially that the Department is awaiting the pronouncement from the implementation committee headed by Phil Flynn or that it has established some implementation group of its own and that until these implementation groups report, it will not be in a position to carry out an assessment of the risks involved. That misses the whole point.

On budget day the Minister for Finance announced that a number of Departments were to be decentralised, lock, stock, and barrel to a number of locations and that, in some cases, the Departments were to be broken up and decentralised to different towns. It is necessary that a risk assessment is carried out of that proposal. Where a Department knows it is to be decentralised in toto, where it knows, as Departments do, where the locations will be and where it knows that its functions are to be decentralised to a number of locations, it is possible to carry out an assessment of the risks that poses to the functioning of the Department, its strategic objectives, finances, personnel and efficiency. It is something required of Departments to carry out, a point to which I intend to return when I have had an opportunity to study the replies in detail. It is as much a requirement for Departments to carry out an assessment of the risks of these plans as it is to have carried out an audit of activities undertaken in the past. It is not something which comes after the implementation groups have made their reports or recommendations as to how the decentralisation is to be carried out in practice.

Once the Departments know the Government decision and the shape of the decentralisation, there is a requirement to carry out the risk assessment. Any Department which knows it is to be decentralised in toto and knows the locations to which it will be decentralised does not have to wait for Phil Flynn to report before it carries out what is an obligation under the accountability now required of Secretaries General and Accounting Officers, that is, to carry out this type of risk assessment. That is an aspect of this area to which I intend to return.

Since the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, is here and has taken to this plan for decentralisation with a degree of enthusiasm we rarely see in Ministers supporting a Government plan, I wish to say to him in the kindest possible way that I find it fascinating that a Progressive Democrats member of the Government should be able to "out" Fianna Fáil on what is essentially a Fianna Fáil project. If the former leader of his party, Des O'Malley, was here today and was sitting in Cabinet, would he allow, or agree to, the breaking up of the Civil Service in the way it is now being proposed, namely, the physical breaking up of it through the decentralisation proposals, the abolition of the Civil Service Commission, the compromising of the independence of the Civil Service and farming out to Fianna Fáil-connected accountants and recruitment agencies in different parts of the country the business of recruiting civil servants to what was once a proud and independent institution? That is a question the Minister of State can answer for himself.

My constituency of Dún Laoghaire was one of those which responded to the call of the Tánaiste to give the Progressive Democrats eight seats in the Dáil and to the call of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, when he climbed up the lamp post, to elect the Progressive Democrats to act as a watchdog on Fianna Fáil. I can tell the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, and, indeed, my constituency colleague, that there are many people in my constituency who cast their first preference votes for the Progressive Democrats at the last election in the expectation that they were electing eight Des O'Malleys or eight Bobby Molloys. They did not bargain on them caving in and presiding, in the case of the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon——

The Deputy will get his answer in the local elections when we will have four councillors in Dún Laoghaire.

Deputy Gilmore without interruption.

——with such enthusiasm in the compromising of the independent Civil Service and the "Fianna-Fáilisation" of the public service. That is not what people elected the Progressive Democrats to do.

I welcome the opportunity of speaking on the Bill. Listening to the comments of Deputy Gilmore concerning decentralisation one would think he was talking about the whole world, but Ireland is not that big a country. A perception has been a long time in vogue, and rightly so, that the view of senior public servants in major Departments was a view from Dublin. It is time we got a view from the country as well. I welcome wholeheartedly the provisions for decentralisation as outlined by the Minister for Finance in the budget. Time will tell that this is one of the great innovative moves of our era. I will return to the decentralisation issue later in my contribution.

The Bill before us will complement the recently announced decentralisation programme by ensuring that the necessary human resources policies will be in place to support and assist in the changes that are coming in the public service. The Bill's provisions and the overhaul of recruitment practices will be a great support in a highly regionalised public service when the majority of civil servants are located outside Dublin.

It is a significant reform of the Civil Service recruitment procedures and, like much legislation that has been published in recent years, its origins lie in the social partnership process. In particular, it meets one of the key undertakings for modernisation in Sustaining Progress. It is introducing genuine flexibility into the recruitment process, which will support the Government's decision on decentralisation announced in the budget.

The Bill changes the recruitment and appointment processes of the Civil Service, the Garda Síochána and posts under the remit of the Local Appointments Commission, which include senior and professional posts in local government, health boards and VECs. The Bill allows for orders to extend regulation to other public service bodies.

The provisions of the Bill introduce an important new element of flexibility into the recruitment system. As a result of the changes being introduced, public sector organisations will be able to recruit staff when and where they need them. It is common sense that if Departments and other public service bodies want to ensure a consistent supply of suitable recruits, they should be able to apply for licences to recruit directly. This is an important issue across the public service because senior civil servants need to be able to recruit staff to work in various sectors. When the Civil Service seeks to recruit specialised people to work in particular areas, it goes outside the public service and may use consultants in some cases. I hope the Bill will eliminate the need for a certain number of the consultants who have been brought into various Departments. Heads of Departments should be able to head-hunt individuals for the advice that is sought.

Reform of the recruitment process has been intended for some time and it has been clear that recruitment systems had to change to meet current circumstances. However, it is crucial that change should not lead to a diminution of the public's trust in the fairness of the system. The independence of the public service has been one of the greatest achievements since the foundation of the State. That independence has continued to the present day and I congratulate all those who work in the public service for ensuring that it operates in a fair and trustworthy manner.

The degree of decentralisation decided by the Government naturally means that human resource policies relating to Civil Service recruitment, promotion and transfers will have to be countrywide. The Bill will enable a more locally focused approach to recruitment and promotion, which will be essential in making certain that decentralisation happens smoothly and efficiently.

The Bill is part of a strategic approach to the management of human resources within the Civil Service and those other public service bodies to which it applies. The Bill is not a stand-alone measure, it is a vital component of the programme of modernisation which was concluded with the public service unions in Sustaining Progress.

As is only to be expected from a Government that sets such store by the partnership principle, the public service unions have been fully consulted about these measures and they agreed to the introduction of the Bill in Sustaining Progress. Furthermore, to return to a debate that took up much time in the latter part of 2003, the reforms being implemented are a further sign that the much maligned benchmarking agreement in Sustaining Progress has produced real and effective change in the way the public service operates. That is something we must bear in mind when considering the Bill.

Until now, Departments were obliged to use the Civil Service Commission to recruit staff on their behalf. With this legislation, licence holders will also be allowed to engage the assistance of private sector recruitment agencies which have been approved by the commission in recruiting staff. This step is to be welcomed.

The Bill will provide Secretaries General with the capacity to manage their Departments and offices in a more effective manner. In recent years, it has become apparent that the public appointments system is too rigid to accommodate modern labour market conditions. At times, the centralised recruitment system has brought too slow a response to recruitment requirements.

The Bill dissolves the Civil Service Commission and the Local Appointments Commission and creates the Commission for Public Service Appointments and the Public Appointments Service. The Public Appointments Service will carry out recruitment functions for Departments and other public service bodies within the remit of the legislation, which choose not to recruit directly.

The Commission for Public Service Appointments will set standards for recruitment to the Civil Service and the public service. These standards will serve to maintain the probity of the recruitment process. The commission will also scrutinise the level of compliance with these standards and in the event that possible compromises of the recruitment process are discovered, it will be empowered to issue instructions to licence holders. It is vitally important that if, after the Bill has been enacted, shortcomings are discovered in the recruitment process, corrective measures can be taken by issuing instructions to licence holders concerning recruitment.

The parts of the Bill dealing with standards will be of great importance in progressing the legislation. Since the foundation of the State, the independence and integrity of the Civil Service have proved to be vital assets. The Government is to be congratulated on its determination to maintain the fairness and probity of the recruitment system. The public has great confidence in the way the recruitment process is currently handled and that system cannot and will not be lost.

The modernisation programme in the current partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, combined with decentralisation, will ensure that the Civil Service and the public service are well placed to meet the many new demands which will be placed on them.

Public expectation of better and more efficient public services for people and communities is entirely justified. The Bill must be viewed in the context of that expectation. The Bill aims to modernise a key aspect of our public service system and it signals the Government's determination to secure real change in line with the approach in Sustaining Progress.

Various commentators view decentralisation as a backward step and they have been giving out about it. The Opposition parties are probably disappointed they are not implementing the programme and that is painful for them. As soon as the programme was announced, it was suggested the various heads of Departments would not be able to meet because they would have to travel from all over the country. However, it is about time heads of Departments worked in rural Ireland. "Prime Time" recently reported on who dictates the standards to be applied in rural Ireland but the mindset in rural Ireland is that the country is run from Dublin and it is time for other cities and towns to become part of the decision-making process.

I recently heard a Member say he was in favour of decentralisation as long as it took place around the M50. Those of us who travel long distances to Dublin every week know there is life outside Dublin and a different perspective must be taken. Many departmental offices are located in rented buildings throughout Dublin at a significant cost to the Exchequer but buildings could be constructed in the towns to which offices will be decentralised at a fraction of the rent paid in Dublin. I welcome the vigour with which the Government has attacked the decentralisation programme.

Many decisions have been taken by successive Governments over the years but the necessary impetus to implement them was not forthcoming from everybody concerned. However, this cannot be said of decentralisation. The programme was announced in the budget and expressions of interest from individuals in the designated towns were sought on 16 January, which included information on sites and so forth. OPW officials have visited every location, examined the sites and met the local authority planning officials to seek advice. It is an inclusive process, as local bodies are being engaged to advise the OPW on what should be done in these towns. I welcome the Government's initiative on this issue and I hope it will keep it up to secure decentralisation for these towns. It has been welcomed throughout rural Ireland.

The recommendations of the cross-party departmental group are being implemented in the legislation. Its members recognised there was a need to update Civil Service recruitment procedures and I hope, when the Bill is enacted and decentralisation has taken place, senior civil servants will source their staff from both the public and private sectors locally. The Bill should go a little way to reduce the amount expended by the State on consultants and so-called experts in regard to every facet of the public service. I hope the Bill will allow State agencies to head-hunt people for specific jobs within the public service.

I congratulate public servants and politicians who, through the years, have ensured Ireland has built one of the most reputable and independent Civil Service bodies. All civil and public servants should be congratulated on their work. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. The Civil Service has provided excellent service since the foundation of the State and it has retained absolute credibility in its work. Difficulties always arise but civil and public servants have given excellent service through the years. Questions regarding inefficiencies and so on should be looked on positively rather than negatively because, if one does not challenge and examine what is going on, one is not of assistance to anyone. People must reflect on where they are and how services can be improved.

The legislation was introduced to support the Government's decision to decentralise and concerns have been expressed that the recruitment system is also being decentralised. There is a great deal of confidence in the Civil Service Commission and its recruitment procedures and the Government should ensure confidence is maintained in the new body because, regardless of the concerns and votes of Opposition Members, the Government has the numbers to pass the legislation. The worry about the maintenance of the current system's credibility is important.

Members have used the words "jobbery" and "having influence" in regard to the appointment of civil servants in local communities following decentralisation. The system must be transparent, open to examination and free from doubt, similar to the current system. If decentralisation ever takes place, such credibility must be maintained and no questions must be asked of the system.

One third of civil servants will be decentralised to 54 locations and the announcement in this regard took no more than three or four minutes during the Minister for Finance's Budget Statement. There is a great deal of concern regarding how the announcement came about and the lack of transparency and openness in reaching the decision to decentralise. A private company, for example, would undertake a strategic management examination of all aspects of its operations and likely outcomes of a decision to decentralise.

A policy statement outlining the reasons for decentralisation, how the locations were identified and the positive aspects of these locations should have been published. We do not know what the thinking was behind the decision and how the policy was developed by the expert group. Did the Minister of State examine the downsides of decentralisation? Were potential difficulties identified, such as a reduction in services? What plans have been made to minimise such difficulties? It is important that we have an open debate on the difficulties that will arise with regard to decentralisation and how the Government proposes to minimise these difficulties.

Decentralisation will present opportunities. We would like to be informed of the opportunities for improved service in each of the 54 locations and how those opportunities will be maximised while the difficulties are being minimised. We do not know what those opportunities are or how the Government proposes to maximise them. There has been a lack of discussion and information. If the Government were legislating for this measure the House would have an opportunity to tease out the issue on Committee Stage of the Bill, to ask the relevant questions and to put the Minister on the spot and make him give detailed answers to those questions.

The decentralisation proposals must be seriously scrutinised. To ask the House to accept, as an act of faith, the Minister's assurance that everything will be all right on the day is not good enough. As a Legislature and a House of Parliament, the Dáil should be in a position to debate fully this serious and complex proposal with far-reaching implications for the delivery of service to the country, how it has been thought out and how the Government sees it going forward. It is unfair to ask the Oireachtas to make an act of faith in what is happening without flushing out all aspects of the proposal to decentralise and all its implications. For example, we do not know why the Minister for Finance decided that a quarter of the jobs should go to the hubs and three quarters to other locations. I am not saying the Minister does not have a good reason but I do not know what the reason is. It has been seriously suggested that this decision was taken for political reasons. Will the Minister of State tell us why only a quarter of the jobs went to the population hubs? That is a reasonable question. How will the system operate in practice? The media inform us that the Government is having difficulty in obtaining people to transfer to the new locations.

Even in Parlon country they are finding it difficult.

At this stage I am sure the Government has a fair idea of the number of people who are willing to transfer. We do not know how many are involved. Is it 5%, as some people speculate, 10%, 20% or 30%? We do not know. Will the Minister of State indicate the level of up-take of the proposal? Is it sufficient to ensure that decentralisation will come about within the timeframe the Government has outlined?

Concern has been expressed that experienced teams of service deliverers in different Departments will be broken up, with officials from the Departments of Education and Science, Agriculture and Food and the Prison Service, for example, coming together in Parlon country to set up a new office. The Government accepts that relocation will be on a voluntary basis. However, 100%, or even 50%, of any Department will not volunteer to go to Killarney, Cavan, Portlaoise or wherever. Interdepartmental people will come together to form new inexperienced teams. What effect will this have on the quality of service delivered over the learning curve period? How long will the learning curve period be for those new teams? There must be a learning period for people who will be operating in a new area. A decentralised office will be doing very well if 30% of its staff are experienced in the area of work, but that will mean that 70% of the staff will have to read into the new situation. What will the learning period be for those people? Will it be two months, five months, 12 months or two years? That issue must be addressed. Civil servants have expressed concern about decentralisation.

I have not heard that concern expressed, except by some of their union representatives.

I have great regard for trade unionism. If representatives of the trade union movement are expressing concerns they are expressing the views of their members. I dealt with trade unionists for 20 years and I found them to be upright, fair and honest in all their dealings with me. If the trade unions say civil servants have concerns I believe them.

The Minister cannot load civil servants up in a truck and bring them down.

How are these difficulties to be overcome?

I assure the Deputy that everything is in hand.

The Minister of State is asking us to make an act of faith. On behalf of the people, we ask to see the nuts and bolts of how this will be done. The people want to know how this will operate. Rather than telling them the matter is in hand and asking them to make an act of faith, for the people to have confidence they must be informed, through the Members of this House, how these complex structures will give a satisfactory service and how long it will take for new teams to become familiar with their new roles.

Concern has been expressed about the issue of cross-cutting policies. This is already a problem in the Civil Service. When the rainbow coalition was in government——

An excellent Government.

Do not remind us.

——I had much contact with Mr. Austin Currie who was Minister of State with responsibility for children. The three key Departments of Health, Education, and Justice combined to deliver services for children. Deputy Currie experienced much difficulty in trying to achieve understanding of the issues and co-operation between the three Departments. Even with senior officials present in Dublin and available for committee meetings, difficulties were experienced. How much more difficult will this be with people spread around the country? Lack of promotional opportunities and the inevitable restrictions of personal development which will result from geographical reasons will create greater difficulties for the cross-cutting policies giving service to the areas which need them. Many policy areas are not specific to one Department. Departments have traditionally operated within their own territories and have found it difficult to involve themselves in cross-cutting issues. With Departments located in different areas and with promotion and recruitment likely to come from those areas, how will the Minister ensure that efficiency is maintained and enhanced?

Debate adjourned.