Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 14 Oct 2009

Vol. 691 No. 4

Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed).

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,
Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

How much time have I remaining? I am sharing with Deputy O'Dowd.

The Deputies have 17 minutes left.

I have seven minutes left, with the last ten minutes going to Deputy O'Dowd.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary. I noticed that the Tánaiste was late this morning and the Minister of State was late this afternoon. I have often said that the Government is not interested in sorting out the problems in FÁS. Given that its members do not seem to be able to turn up for this debate, I can rest my case.

I wish the new CEO of FÁS the best. There is also a new board, but there is no policy or serious political direction in terms of what type of employment agency we want and need. The corporate and regional directorate structure, much of which is not necessary, costs approximately €150 million. The community employment, CE, scheme is valuable from a social point of view, but this would probably be better done at local government level. The apprenticeships and training integration, which cost €108 million, work well. In many ways, FÁS apprenticeships are exemplars for the rest of the world, but one wonders whether they could be better handled by the Department of Education and Science. Training for people in employment, which costs €122 million, is being cut. The Skillnets model is the way to go in that regard. The budget for training for the unemployed amounts to €248 million.

There is a strong case for reform, even if we were to move to a system in which people were given individual training accounts or vouchers that they could use to choose their own training. For some degree holders, this might involve applying for masters degrees at a third level institution or university. For others, it might involve buying training from a VEC or further education bodies. For others, it might involve going to FÁS.

It is important not to forget that more than 400,000 people are on the live register. The Government is prepared to spend at least an extra €7 billion to give the banks a free gift through NAMA, yet it is unprepared to spend anything like that on private sector pension protection, unemployment, mortgage debt and so on. Even €1 billion set aside for employment could create as many as 150,000 training or supported employment posts, which would remove people from the live register. This is the type of model being used in other countries. Once one's insurance or employment benefit runs out, one is expected to engage in high-quality training or education if one wishes to retain those benefits. Ireland should be moving towards this type of model, but it is a shame that these reforms were not introduced during the good times when doing so would have been easier.

It is important to note the good work done by the Committee of Public Accounts on this issue. Its Chairman, Deputy Allen, and Deputies Shortall and O'Brien made good inputs into the proposals to restructure the board. We should also acknowledge the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports. In my contribution on FÁS last week, I was critical of the media for not blowing the whistle earlier. That the media was well looked after by FÁS in terms of advertising and trips played a role, but we should acknowledge the good work done by journalists such as Senator Ross and Mr. Nick Webb, who blew the whistle on the travels of FÁS executives. Shane Phelan, Stephen Collins and Colm Keena of other newspapers pursued the matter subsequently.

I always make the same point in our debates on FÁS, but it never gets reported. It is important to recognise the good work done by so many ordinary FÁS workers on the ground, be they trainers or clerical officers, whose morale has been sapped and destroyed by this controversy. I hope someone someday will include this point in his or her newspaper article on debates in the House.

Fine Gael will not oppose this legislation on Second Stage, but we will propose the amendments that we outlined this morning.

This Bill does little to address the significant systemic problems in FÁS. Currently, more than 430,000 people are on the live register and face an uncertain future. This country needs and demands a State training agency that can provide expert training courses that meet the needs of industry and labour in order to get people back to work.

We have all spoken on what are termed the "new economy" and the "smart economy" and the new jobs in technology, engineering and science that are the future for our labour force. However, the tools of the State to prepare people for this new labour market are inadequate. In recent days, I have received information on what is occurring in FÁS, particularly in some of its training courses, that makes for damning reading. It is shocking for those trainees it effects, for the businesses they want to be in, for the taxpayer and for the good and honest reputation of FÁS.

A complaint was made about what a contractor working for FÁS was doing. The executive summary of the auditor's report states:

The audit was initiated in response to a request from Training Services in the North East region which raised concerns regarding aspects of the assessment process on contracts run by [a company]. Internal Audit examined some of the assessments.

This audit made significant damning findings against FÁS. The summary went on:

The key issue of the audit was to determine the integrity of the assessment process in these contracts and by extension the integrity of the certification processed by FÁS and issued by the various certifying bodies such as FETAC and City & Guilds.

The stakes for FÁS, FETAC and City & Guilds are high. They are also high for those companies that are part of a multimillion euro industry and provide courses for and on behalf of FÁS.

Two issues were raised in the report. It stated:

The first of these matters was that Curriculum Sections within FÁS training centres adopted different approaches to the verification of assessments carried out by contracted trainers. The Curriculum Section in Dundalk supervised independent verifications of contracted courses, in much the same way as they did for in-centre courses. On the other hand, Baldoyle Training Centre did not carry out these independent verifications. Such a divergence of approach between training centres is a matter for concern in the context of FÁS' role in regard to the certifying bodies.

The second matter that arose during the audit was the question of shortcomings in the set-up of contracted training courses which involved a significant amount of IT training and certification. The issues that arose in relation to the contracts included outdated and unreliable computers, the lack of adequate numbers of printers or networked printers during assessments and computer disks being re-used or unavailable.

These are serious and damning situations in which FÁS has allowed contracted companies to do its business and cases where FÁS did not maintain oversight. This report into the certification of these courses is dated February 2009.

The key issue of the audit was to determine the integrity of the assessment process in these contracts. The internal audit examined a total of seven contracts. It is important to place the internal audit findings in an overall context. In all the cases examined, it found that the assessment event took place and in the case of three contracts, the internal audit found that the sample assessments had been processed correctly. The issues identified with the remaining four contracts sampled by internal audit varied in significance. However, the findings point to a number of instances of the manipulation of assessment material in contracts delivered by this company for and on behalf of FÁS.

The manipulation of material initially came to light on a computer aided design, CAD, course run in the north-east region. The company accepted in writing in April 2007 that the assessment material had become unreliable. However, the company ran further courses and the same issues still arose, but it did not address the initial problem. In light of the acceptance that the assessment material had been manipulated on the north-east CAD contract, there was an onus on the company to ensure that the same did not occur on subsequent contracts. The internal audit was of the view that this was not done.

These are important courses, costing tens of thousands of euro, some of which run for ten or 11 months. In many cases they are full-time courses in which the results are fixed. It does not make sense. People pass the tests who could never have passed. Dates of tests have been changed. It is stated that a test was taken on 5 April, for example, but the record will show the test was taken on 13 May or some other date. The whole arrangement is a fix, a con, and it is a disgrace.

One company is responsible for these actions which have been carried out in a number of places. I do not have the name of the company because this information has been redacted. I have contacted the office of the director general of FÁS and requested the name of that company because we are entitled to know it, what it was paid and why it continued to provide further courses when there was evidence that one course in particular had been manipulated.

The internal audit would have expected that subsequent to the CAD contract, further contracts would be conducted with integrity and meet the clear standards set down by the certifying bodies. The internal audit is of the view that the material highlighted in this report shows that this did not happen. I ask if there are other courses where this is happening. I ask the Minister of State to revert to his senior Minister and to FÁS; I ask him to name the company and the payments it has received. I also ask him to say what action he will take with regard to this situation and what changes will be implemented in FÁS.

I refer to a reply I received to Parliamentary Question No. 81 of 8 October 2009. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment referred to "a revision of the relevant procedures, the enhancement of the contract used when dealing with external contractors and the development of a protocol to allow appropriate sanctions to be taken against external contractors". What sanctions, if any, can be imposed on this company? It appears none. Is it a fact that the Minister cannot recover the money or has it even been sought? Is the Minister ensuring independent verification of the results of these tests? The relevant external certifying bodies have been informed of the audit findings. What action has been taken by City & Guilds and other independent examining bodies who run courses on behalf of FÁS? What are they and the Minister and the Department doing about it?

This country could be dragged into the mire by the antics of FÁS. There is evidence of one company which ran four long-term courses. This is not acceptable and it is a scandal at the heart of FÁS. The standard of some of these courses is equivalent to the leaving certificate. I remind the Minister of State of the understandable fury in Drogheda when a leaving certificate exam was inadvertently shown for a few seconds or minutes to a candidate. I ask him to imagine the furore if FÁS courses are not up to scratch because of a lack of proper verification.

Are inquiries currently being carried out all around the country? I want to know the truth about this matter. Does this situation also apply to other companies? If this is the case, I ask the Minister of State to make a statement to the House in this regard tomorrow morning. We need a credible process. The young people participating in these courses need to be assured that such courses are completely above board. If the Minister is spending millions of euro providing these courses, we must be ensured that they are properly and independently corrected.

If a teacher were to change the results of a candidate's test in order to give him or her a pass mark which they did not deserve, this would bring the examination system into disrepute. FÁS has been discredited as a national organisation because of the antics, waste of money, arrogance, complacency and lack of accountability, which continues in FÁS in this specific case. The House needs to be reassured that this is being addressed, that something is being done about it and that it will never happen again. The situation cannot be allowed to continue in which a company falsifies results and is then given another contract and falsifies those results also. What sort of country are we running? This is unacceptable and I ask if the situation is continuing. I am asking a very important question. I want to know the answer because the country is entitled to know the facts.

There are other issues which I cannot address here. I acknowledge that people in FÁS have acted with integrity as evidenced by the release of these papers in order to facilitate me. I acknowledge there are very fine people who are doing a great job in FÁS, but there is also a rotten core in the organisation. There has been unacceptable behaviour for a State training body and this must be rooted out now. If this is not done, we will be back in the House with more information on the incredible, appalling, disgraceful situation which the Government has allowed to develop in FÁS through its failure to make it accountable to these Houses.

I congratulate Deputy Seamus Kirk on his elevation to the important constitutional office of Ceann Comhairle. I have no doubt that the fairness which he displayed in another place will be found here as well. I wish him and his family every success in his important role.

The Labour Party views this as an important Bill and the party will not oppose it. However, we will table significant amendments on Committee Stage and I hope the Minister of State, whom I know is interested in this area, will accept them. We acknowledge the Bill contains significant and important sections which will hopefully lead to a re-orientation and re-focusing of the role of FÁS with regard to the provision of training and important courses and certification. In light of what Deputy O'Dowd has revealed to the House, it is time for a complete overhaul of FÁS. The information is mind-boggling and staggering and is a source not just of controversy, but also of deep worry. Deputy O'Dowd referred to certification and to examinations which are the passport to employment. The certification awarded is relied on to indicate that a candidate has the necessary skills and expertise in that area. Therefore, it is very important. That deflates my notion of it, as Deputy Varadkar rightly stated.

This idea originated from my colleague Deputy Ruairí Quinn who was a very innovative Minister and who had much to put forward in this area back in the 1980s, including the idea of the National Employment and Training Authority. Perhaps that is the correct name that should be used given the context and perhaps we should return to the original focus and identity of what Deputy Quinn had in mind because we seem to have strayed away significantly from the very ethos and basis upon which FÁS has grown.

I listened carefully to what Deputy O'Dowd said. In the context of what has been revealed to the Dáil, I call upon the Minister of State to investigate thoroughly the contents of what has been revealed this evening. I was not aware of it but Deputy O'Dowd has been given information and there should be an investigation in order that the Minister of State is in a position to advance the situation in this regard.

Several recommendations and sections in the Bill which are important have been included. I am opposed to the proposed number of members of the board. It is important that the number of members of the board is reduced. I am opposed to the proposal to have 11 members on the board, a number far to high and unwieldy. While it is a reduction, it is still way out of kilter with the number necessary to run an organisation. One can never get down to the meat of a decision when one is going around the table and waiting to get consensus to secure an important objective.

It amazes me that the election of a worker director has not been accommodated in this context. One might say one would expect such a statement from the Labour Party but the truth is far from it. The participation of worker directors in Bord na Móna could withstand the scrutiny and oversight of anyone who wants to independently or objectively examine the situation. A colleague of mine at the time, Councillor Mark Nugent, rose to the positions of vice chairman and chairman of the board at a very critical time, as Deputy O'Dowd may recall. He was not afraid to make the hard decisions to ensure Bord na Móna remained a commercial operation when it was going through a traumatic time and he was the workers' representative. However, he was a person of great guile and integrity and knew that hard decisions had to be made and did not shirk his responsibility. Therefore, I advocate that a workers' representative should be accommodated in this regard. I realise the Minister of State, Deputy Callery, is involved and to reduce the number of board members is a step in the right direction at least, and I accept as much.

I cannot understand why the relevant joint Oireachtas committee does not have a role in scrutinising the appointments. Otherwise we would have the old "scratch my back" philosophy and one person is appointed to the board simply because he knows somebody else. What can we say? If Deputy Callery were nominated I could not say he should not be on the board or is not suitable, although because he is a Deputy he would not be nominated in any event. There should be a degree of scrutiny and oversight. Otherwise, we will be fixed with the idea that appointments are determined by who one knows. I do not believe that should preclude one from membership because one may well have abilities and competencies that are very important in the context of the board. However, it should be possible, even if one is not subject to scrutiny, for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment to make recommendations, and that was a recommendation of the report of the Committee of Public Accounts. If nothing else, the committee should be in a position to make recommendations to the Minister. At least it would result in two or three recommendations from an all-party committee. I have chaired all-party committees for several years, including the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs and the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, of which the Minister of State is a valued member. The vice chairman of that committee is also present. We work by consensus. We have never allowed any partisan or political side to take precedence. I have often held a view but I have never allowed that to cloud the best interests of the committee. If someone can find something in the record to the contrary I will stand down because I would not behave in that way. My role is to be independent and to do what is best and I trust the committee would have a role in this regard. I recognise the Minister will consider the matter because he certainly played a significant role in the past, which I have acknowledged.

The Bill does not change the way in which FÁS works, how it goes about its work or how it develops or implements the labour intervention measures. It must change from the perspective of how, where and why it was established in the mid 1980s. It must evolve to meet the demands of the new situation and circumstances that pertain in 2010 and that will be in place in future. This is especially important in light of the comments of Deputy O'Dowd.

I have had a good deal of interaction with FÁS. All the people I have met in FÁS, including managers, assistant managers, the Minister's staff, other staff and so on have treated me with nothing but the height of courtesy. They have worked with diligence and respect and have done a good job. Clearly, 99.9% of the staff in FÁS have done a good job. There are obviously several people who have questions to answer and we are not the only people who make that point; it has been verified by various reports. Major issues have arisen concerning the total disregard for fundamental or basic accountability which resulted in a significant waste of taxpayers' money and profligacy. To engage in acts of profligacy at a time when money is very scarce and when the Government is trying to scrape money from the bottom of the barrel for important schemes cannot be tolerated, nor should it be. The concerns have now been added to in the Chamber this evening.

I do not wish to rehash the litany of revelations about FÁS in recent times, which have continued with the recent issues raised concerning the severance package agreed with the departing chief executive officer. My colleague, Deputy Róisín Shortall, has queried the legal instruments under which top-up payments were made and why departing CEOs are entitled to certain rights, irrespective of the facts and circumstances surrounding his or her departure. It is important we do not take the matter too far.

We have examined this matter as it relates to the Bill. We are concerned that the Minister would retain a greater degree of control than previously over who is appointed to a board. We are all subject to public perception. I do not believe it is the be all and end all, and perhaps some of the great public should put their names on the ballot paper and see how hard it is to get in here. However, whether it is a perception, the reality or a fact there is the idea that there is cronyism and that it has bedevilled the organisation. The idea that FÁS has been bedevilled by cronyism is very real. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment should be given a central role in selecting candidates for the board. However, this provision appears to be omitted from the Bill. Is there any reason for this, because the Committee of Public Accounts is a very eminent committee? It is one of the most important committees in the House.

I welcome the whilstleblowing protection offered to employees of FÁS to enable them to speak up against serious wrongdoing in the organisation. However, I am not aware that any such protection is afforded to officials from the Minister's Department. Very often officials from the Department may encounter information that is important. Why should they not have protection if they furnish or reveal such information? It is important that this matter is examined too. I appreciate the Minister of State is trying to herald a new beginning with the Labour Services (Amendment) Bill but in our view it falls some way short in that context. Perhaps now is the time for a major overhaul.

For many years my colleague and former party leader, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, championed and brought forward for consideration a Whistleblowers Protection Bill. As far back as 1999 it was an issue which motivated him and about which he cared deeply. The Bill was introduced by the Labour Party thanks to him. The Government created all sorts of obfuscation, verbal gymnastics and downright empty rhetoric in order to stall that Bill. Eventually it brought forward a motion seeking a discharge of an earlier Order of the Dáil to allow consideration of the Bill. For some time, the Taoiseach and other Ministers continued to give the impression that they working to strengthen and improve the Bill — a process the Labour Party would have accepted — but nothing was further from the truth.

The purpose of Deputy Rabbitte's Bill was to challenge the traditional culture of secrecy surrounding the conduct of business and public affairs in this country. In the notorious litany of events which has reached the public domain, one was often compelled to ask whether anybody had stumbled across some of the wrongdoing that has now emerged. If so, why was it not reported earlier? People may well have known or had suspicions, but the consequences for whistle-blowers' careers and livelihoods were such that it may have been easier to turn a blind eye. I acknowledge that the protection being afforded now is important but I wanted to go further in suggesting that even departmental officials would be protected.

Deputy Rabbitte's Private Members' Bill proposed a new set of statutory rights for employees whether in the public or private sectors, to report and transmit information concerning illegality or malpractice which they discover in the course of their employment. Under the Labour Party's Bill, any employee who blows the whistle on fraud or malpractice would be entitled to protection against dismissal or any other sanction which his or her employer attempts to impose.

There is clearly an obligation on the State to ensure that individuals who provide such information are not victimised or discriminated against in the wake of such disclosures. We in the Labour Party welcome section 7 as a move in the right direction. The Government should, however, take the next step by either introducing its own whistle-blowers' legislation, or do the decent thing and accept the Labour Party's Bill on whistle-blowers' protection. It is still fit for purpose and we are eager that it should be accepted. My colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, has been vociferous in that regard.

With the permission of the House, a Cheann Comhairle, I wish to share the last five minutes of my slot with my colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It would be churlish not to acknowledge that FÁS has had significant successes, but I am worried by the degree of rigidity involved in its operations. One may bring forward something that one feels is important, but it may get shot down, so there is a need for flexibility. I have met some excellent people in FÁS over the years, including in my own county of Westmeath where I have had a lot of contact with them. They are perceptive and diligent individuals who often have the genesis of a good idea. They are at the coalface interacting with people and therefore they may well develop such proposals. It should be possible to apply such an idea and put it into practice at regional level, so that it will not have to go through the full cycle of staff for consideration, which can be a merry-go-round. Sometimes we need quick and effective action. We need to strike while the iron is hot, so ideas should be allowed to germinate, grow and be put into action. I am sure the Minister of State would share that notion of flexibility concerning ideas, which may incur the same level of expenditure but would produce more cost benefits.

The Minister of State is from the west and will know that something which works in Mullingar may not work in Geesala. A different application of schemes is required to suit specific problems that arise in particular areas. My colleague, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is aware that something that works in Gurranabraher may not work in Ballynacarrigy. My constituency contains a fair number of rural areas, while hers has a significant urban element. Something that works in rural Ireland may not have an application in urban areas. The Minister of State is also aware of that and while he is from a big town, his constituency is very large.

I am eager that we should not get the one-size-fits-all model in terms of this legislation. It is nonsense to say that if it does not work in Ballynacarrigy, it will not work anywhere. Various people have different skills demands and different levels of training are required to suit them. We in the Labour Party want to see FÁS being strictly fit for purpose, more concerned with its essential core work of upskilling people's competences and qualifications, providing specific and well-resourced training programmes, giving an opportunity for people who may have illnesses or disabilities to participate positively by developing their individual skills. We must get rid of the rigidity that often circumscribes participation in CE schemes. Where these can be shown to be of use from the perspective of rehabilitation, we must allow people to make their contribution so they feel they are part of the workforce.

There is nothing worse than seeing young lads who may have had drug problems being given a year on a scheme and then, because they are under 40 years of age, they must be let go. Effectively, that puts such people back on social welfare. Those people can feel ten feet tall by making a contribution to the local park or community centre. They feel they are part of society because such work rebuilds their confidence and gets them back on the employment ladder by making a contribution. When they partake in such schemes, however, their income may be capped at €20,000. What is the difference between social welfare and CE money? The Minister of State has to find it all at the table, so it would be better to put some social welfare money into CE schemes so people could make a contribution. That would get people working again.

I am more concerned with FÁS returning to its core duties and functions, rather than pursuing esoteric and far-fetched notions about courses, which NASA may have inspired in Florida or elsewhere. That day is gone. I did not know this was happening until I read about it and I was taken aback. FÁS had an annual budget of €1 billion at the time.

People are entitled to examine new areas of activity. I am not against that because one must be innovative and be creative. I represent a rural area and people want to participate in training schemes to gain skills, but it is no use giving people mock computers to work on. The expenditure should be put into value-for-money projects. Whatever income we have should be spent here at home, but in fairness to FÁS executives and board members, they may well have to travel abroad. Realism needs to be brought into the debate but at the same time the Minister cannot say officials are banned from travelling. They will not learn anything sitting in the same room. People ask me why I do not correspond by e-mail but I am a doubting Thomas and I want to put my hands on documents and information. It is important that officials have an opportunity to travel to examine novel and innovative attempts to deal with pressing issues in the unemployment and training fields and so on but they should only do so when it is absolutely essential and when some positive outcome can be achieved or important help secured.

I will illustrate how important are FÁS personnel. I was informed by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan about their important role in monitoring various schemes together with other agencies such as the VEC and the HSE. Each agency had a representative on the board of a scheme and the Deputy was also a member. She was extremely impressed and taken by the excellent level of reporting and oversight undertaken by the FÁS representative and this must be acknowledged. We cannot throw the baby out with the bath water because a few things went wrong. I understand the new director general, Mr. O'Toole, has commissioned in-depth audit reports to address all the issues raised but it is important that the organisation's role in schemes such as this remains uninhibited.

The provisions relating to conflicts of interest are positive. We must get rid of the perception if there is a conflict of interest that somebody knows somebody else — dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean léi — and people are getting something because of who they are rather than what expertise they bring to the table. We must get away from that mentality because we have been bedevilled with it and while it does not permeate everywhere, it only needs to permeate once to become the accepted wisdom. It is important in that context that conflicts of interest are made public. This had to be done on local authorities when I was a member. If one passed by a scheme in one's area, one had to bid goodbye and get out. It was proper order to get councillors the hell out of there because they had nothing to do with it and they should not have tried to influence anybody on the way out. One made a declaration, for example, regarding land ownership and nobody should have tried to influence anyone by looking through the keyhole or winking on the way out. I did not like that either.

I refer to activation measures and courses. I have a long-standing bugbear about the treatment of apprentices. I meet young people every day who did their training as plasterers, electricians, carpenters and so on and they are the best in the business. They do not have grand certificates and so on but I value them as much as any other tradesman. I will not belittle them and ask for their FÁS, City & Guilds or RECI certificate. I know apprentices who reached their final examination where they had to answer questions about mathematical formulas but they failed. I contacted the previous director general of FÁS about this and I hope Mr. O'Toole will take this up. I want these apprentices to be given another opportunity. They have been given the third run. They were told after four or five years as an apprentice they were no good and they were thrown on the scrapheap because they did not pass examinations even though they knew everything about electricity. It is time they were given another opportunity.

I thank Deputy Penrose for sharing time. The apprentices to whom he referred end up working in the black economy. They are extraordinarily good at what they do and they are in demand. If they were encouraged and helped over the finish line, they would work in the real economy and we would all benefit. This issue should be examined.

When I was notified that the legislation was being introduced, I cried "yippee". Finally when something had gone wrong in an organisation, the officials at the top would pay for it, the blame would be laid at their doors and the Government would reorganise at the top rather than at the bottom as was the case for years. When something went wrong previously, the guy opening the door was usually fired not the guy who was responsible or who had benefited.

The majority or 99.9% of people working in FÁS are not engaged in junketeering. They pick up the telephone when a public representative calls about people's apprenticeships or when people need to be transferred from A to B or a particular skill group is needed. They are decent, honourable people who are always willing to help. I no longer jump for joy regarding the legislation because of the reconfiguration of the board. While the number of members will be reduced and the Minister is starting in the right place, which is at the top, where are the worker directors? Where is the guarantee that women will be represented on the board? We are not dealing with the same workforce as when the current board was appointed and the workforce comprises all sections of society.

Media reports state the legislation is about ensuring expertise will drive the organisation, which we all support, but surely there could be no greater expertise than that of those who work in the organisation and who have the confidence of the staff. When times get bad and changes are needed within the organisation, the worker directors would bring the workforce with them. They did in Bord na Móna and the ESB. They are, good decent people who are prepared to give their time to their organisation. The Minister should reconsider this provision and ensure a cross section of representation on the board. I do not want to hear that Ireland is too small and there are not enough women with the expertise to serve. We have enough women and they are waiting to be asked. Whether the worker directors are male or female, they must be considered because FÁS employees did not cause this problem and they should not lose out as a result.

Like Deputies Penrose and Shortall, I am making the case for worker directors. Why should those who continue to work for the organisation be the fall guys in this? The Minister is going the right way but she needs to tweak the legislation a little more.

Notice taken that 20 Members were not present; House counted and 20 Members being present,

I wish to share time with Deputy O'Connor.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Like many of the previous speakers in this debate on the Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009, I have weekly, and sometimes daily, interaction with the front line staff in FÁS and, as the previous speaker mentioned, 99.9% of the people working in FÁS are committed, experienced and have great expertise in terms of the job they do. As with any barrel of apples, if one or two are off colour, the rot tends to spread quickly. However, the body of people I deal with in FÁS on a regular basis are nothing but professional and provide an excellent service not just to their own communities, but throughout the country. As the chairman of the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Willie Penrose, mentioned, this is not just an urban issue. In huge swathes of rural Ireland FÁS plays a crucial role in daily life, and that must be recognised. I want to record my admiration for the staff in FÁS who do a superb job on a day to day basis.

In terms of what FÁS grew from, I recall the time of AnCO and the national manpower service, which were crucial agencies to this economy and this country when they were first established. The reason for instituting those agencies was to ensure that our young people were given an opportunity. In the days of AnCO and the national manpower service many people left school at the age of 13 and 14 with no qualifications and very little in terms of educational achievement. Those agencies were put in place to tackle a deficit that existed at the time.

Over time, the role of our national training agency has changed dramatically, in some cases for the better, but not in all cases. As was pointed out, FÁS provided a myriad of services initially as a training agency, but it has expanded into areas which would be better serviced by other Departments and agencies.

On the core function of FÁS and the reason for this legislation, in fairness to the Committee of Public Accounts, it has done an excellent job regarding this particular controversy, particularly in dealing with issues in the public interest, but also in the interest of FÁS. In fairness to the Minister, the majority of the recommendations from the conclusions and recommendations of the PAC report and the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General are included in this legislation.

Starting with the board of FÁS, the changes that will be made include reducing the size of the board from 17 to 11. A rolling system of appointments will be introduced which is welcome because as with any other agency or board, people become stale, so to speak, having served for many years on a board. It is welcome that they will be changed on a regular basis. That will bring new blood and new ideas to a board.

The removal of the automatic right to nominate individuals for appointment is welcome. We have seen that, because of the way FÁS was structured initially, the board became unwieldy. In my opinion, that filtered down to the rest of the organisation in that in some areas FÁS was dealing with there was a distinct lack of direction from board level. That is something this legislation will remedy.

Other provisions include making the director general of FÁS accountable to the Oireachtas; requiring the disclosure of conflicts of interest on the part of directors and staff of FÁS; and banning directors and staff of FÁS from any involvement in matters where they have a conflict of interest. That is standard procedure in most boards in that if somebody sitting at the table has a conflict of interest, he or she is obliged to declare that and remove themselves from whatever decisions are being made. That is not just in the interest of the individual, but also in the interest of the board.

The final provision is the protection for the whistle-blower. We must be careful with any legislation that introduces a measure such as this because with rights come responsibilities, and people should be responsible. It stitches in protection not just for the person who may have some information which he or she feels must be passed on either to the board, superiors or the Department but also for the agency and board. That is a crucial element because as with other major organisations employing thousands of people, there will be some who will make unscrupulous charges against an individual or section. The way this legislation is framed will ensure that an individual with information is protected while at the same time there is protection for the board, its members and the rest of the organisation.

Since this controversy kicked off early last year, the issue of accountability of staff and board members has become significant. The way this legislation is framed, such accountability is clear and understood. Everybody who will be associated with the board of FÁS will be obliged to ensure that he or she is accountable and any decisions made, whether joint or individual, are subject to scrutiny. People must be held accountable for the decisions they make, and this was not happening at the very highest levels at FÁS. Many of the individual incidents of mismanagement which have come into the public domain with regard to senior management in FÁS can and will be avoided in future.

The disclosure of people's interests is a standard procedure with all boards in State and semi-State agencies. There is a requirement on people to disclose a particular interest they have; as far as I am aware, it is a legal obligation. The Committee of Public Accounts has done significant work in unravelling the series of events which has led us to where we are today with the introduction of this piece of legislation. The Minister and the Department have acted quickly and listened to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the committee. The recommendations have been taken on board and this will lead to a meaner, leaner and more efficient and effective FÁS.

Economic, financial and employment factors mean we require, now more than ever, a State agency for training, further education, business support and to help people who have made an effort. These people may have remained in education up to the leaving certificate and on to higher level education or they may have returned to education to improve the skills they may or may not have been able to tap into when they were younger. In this economic climate, such people must be supported, and that is what FÁS is there to do.

The Government and these Houses must ensure any decisions, whether at board, director or at front-line level, are in the interest of getting people back into employment and improving people's training and education. The jobs, education and training which people receive should be sustainable and stay with people into the future.

As public representatives, we are dealing with people on continuous education schemes and jobs initiatives. We deal with partnerships, jobs clubs and organisations for the unemployed. FÁS plays a significant role in this respect so the more we strengthen and build it, and the more we ensure that it is efficient and effective, the more dividends we will see in the long run.

I advise the Deputy that we will finish today's consideration of this legislation at 5 p.m. before moving on to the National Asset Management Agency Bill.

I will adjourn the debate at 5 p.m. I thank my colleague, Deputy Cyprian Brady, for allowing me to share his time. I preface my remarks by warmly congratulating the Ceann Comhairle on his much deserved elevation. I hope he has a lengthy stay in the Ceann Comhairle's chair and I am sure Deputy Allen would join me in my comments.

I would not get too carried away.

If the Deputy is not embarrassed——

I was referring to the Deputy's comment about a "lengthy stay". I concur with the Deputy's other comments.

As my colleague has already done, I would like to praise Deputy Allen's work. We have all been impressed with it and he has a proud record to follow. I am quite happy to say that from the Government benches.

I thank Deputy Brady for his comments as he may not be here in the morning when I speak on the issue.

The Deputy might tell Deputy O'Brien that we said as much. I welcome the Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009. Deputy Brady referenced the AnCO days and although I am even older, I can remember those days. I remember standing beside Gene Fitzgerald, a good man from Cork who was then Minister for Labour, when he opened the old AnCO centre in Cookstown industrial estate. The refurbishment and redevelopment of that centre in recent times got some headlines.

It is good that people who are unemployed and seeking training or other help at any time, and particularly in a recession, are able to do so in first-class facilities where they can be comfortable about what they are doing. I was glad to hear other colleagues make the point about the importance of the service locally. I heard such comments in recent Private Members' motions. There are difficulties, which this Bill addresses, and there has been much recent controversy surrounding FÁS. However, we are also entitled to be positive about what FÁS has done in all our communities throughout the country.

To be parochial for a moment, I went to the opening of the new St. Dominic's community centre in Tallaght. Those of us who attended it were deeply impressed by what we saw and it was good to hear community representatives pay warm tribute, in these difficult times, to the efforts of FÁS and its local personnel. It is important to do so.

Like everybody else, I live in a community which has been affected by the recession. Tallaght is the third-largest population centre in the country and we have seen significant increases recently in unemployment, with over 10,000 people now unemployed. It is very important for us to make the case, in discussing this Bill, that FÁS resources must continue to respond to the needs of the people. People are finding themselves unemployed often for the first time. There is a new poor and people who were always in good jobs and able to find employment are now being suddenly challenged. I do not wish to be smart about it but I bring to my politics my own experience in being made redundant three times. I know what it is like, although I do not mean this in a flippant or virtuous way. It is important for us to support people.

There are many reasons for the public to be angry about what happened in FÁS but those of us representing communities where there are issues and where we use FÁS are entitled to say that an unemployed person needs a course, in their own community as far as possible, regardless of whatever else is going on. Not a week goes by in my Tallaght office when representations are not made to FÁS management asking for constituents to be looked after. I hope that will continue to be the case.

I hope the management of FÁS will consider this debate and build on its previous efforts, improving as it goes along. For the first time in ten years there are serious employment problems in our communities, and my community is no different in that regard. Many well-educated young people are emerging from schools but cannot access employment immediately. FÁS clearly has a role to play in that regard.

The Deputy only managed to mention his constituency twice.

Debate adjourned.