Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Ceisteanna (104)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

104. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his plans for a new drive for public service reform as mentioned in the programme for Government; if this will not include a slowdown in recruitment or an undermining of staffing levels; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26723/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Public)

To follow on from our earlier discussion, the way in which services can be maintained on a four-day week, whether in schools, local authorities, hospitals or anywhere else in the public service, while keeping those services, is by recruiting more people, such as more teachers, nurses, local authority workers or youth and community workers. I want to know that we are going to go in the direction of recruitment to provide high-quality public services, rather than the cuts and understaffing that plague our public services.

I acknowledge the extraordinary response of our public servants and their organisations to the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. We can all be proud of the great work that is under way during this unprecedented public health emergency.

A number of reforms that have been introduced under the Government’s public service reform agenda, such as the build-to-share ICT infrastructure, the progressive digitalisation of services, a streamlined and centralised Government procurement system, shared services and centralised strategic HR capability, have greatly facilitated our civil and public services in responding rapidly to the challenges emerging from the pandemic. The current framework for public service reform and innovation, Our Public Service 2020, launched at the end of 2017, builds on earlier programmes of reform while expanding their scope to accelerate the digital delivery of public services, deliver better services to customers, drive innovation and develop our people and organisations. The Minister of State, Deputy Smyth, who has responsibility in this area, is very keen to continue and develop further that ambitious programme.

Our Department has begun consultations on developing a successor framework to Our Public Service 2020 and similar work is well advanced in framing a renewal plan for the Civil Service. The vision and strategy underpinning this will focus on large-scale, ambitious transformation to support greatly enhanced digital service delivery, developing our data infrastructure and building the workforce and workplace of the future following the extraordinary changes that have taken place during the pandemic.

On staffing levels, as the Deputy will be aware, significant increases in Government expenditure have allowed for the recruitment of additional staff across the public service since 2015. Over the past four years alone, the number in the public service has increased by more than 30,000.

When the Fine Gael and Labour Party Government came to power in 2011, it coined its infamous slogan that it would get more for less. As that Government swung the austerity axe, the result was not more for less but a hell of a lot less at every level in our public services, to the point that we have nearly 1 million people waiting for procedures in hospitals, the lowest rate of ICU beds anywhere in Europe in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, the most overcrowded classrooms and waiting lists for housing maintenance, adaptations and developing Part 8 projects because of chronic understaffing. All of the procurement policies and technological streamlining in the world do not substitute for the people who are needed to deliver services. We are not being aggressive enough in recruiting the nurses, teachers, local authority workers and community and youth workers we need to deliver public services.

I have a question on this matter, although we might not get to it this evening. I asked for confirmation on some issues relating to the e-Government strategy which was meant to be updated. I would like to get a timeline for that because it has become much more important in the time of Covid-19. People are interacting more with Government services online because they have to and we need to make sure the strategy is up-to-date.

The plan is that the strategy will be updated in quarter 1 of next year.

At this point, our public service has never been larger. The Deputy is right that there were major cuts to numbers at the bottom or in the trough. These left us with approximately 292,000 public servants and we now have about 343,000. Recruitment in recent years has been essential to keep pace with demographic changes and undo some of the cuts that were imposed during those years. We face great challenges and we are determined to continue with a programme of recruitment. In the overall context, this has to be done in an affordable way. As a result of decisions the Government has made since coming into office, we have seen the initiation of additional recruitment in key areas of the public service in recent months. That will continue.

The facts on the ground speak for themselves. To allude to our earlier discussion, they suggest that there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians. Too much of the money is going to the chiefs and not enough is going to pay the people who deliver the front-line services. Our ICU situation, for example, is terrifying. It is not about beds because we have the beds and ventilators. We do not have the staff because we have not recruited them or created the posts. We are not creating the posts in nursing and we are not aiming to recruit enough teachers to reduce our class sizes to the level of those in Denmark, as opposed to having three times the ratio in Denmark. We are desperately lacking outdoor workers in local authorities to do maintenance work, work in communities, fix the roads and do all of that kind of stuff. There is a clear and obvious shortage of front-line public sector workers in the area of key service delivery and we need to respond to that.

I acknowledge that over the past six months, in particular, some public services have been under huge pressure and some have simply not been able to operate because of the extraordinary circumstances we are all living through. The numbers speak for themselves, however. The number of public servants has increased significantly and across the board, including in our health service, where we have well over 120,000 people working. The winter plan we unveiled will involve additional recruitment. This year alone, we are spending an extra €3 billion on health because we have to do so and it is the right thing to do. We are determined to ensure that we fund our health service properly for next year, not just to deal with the pandemic but also to deal once and for all with the deep-rooted structural problems in the health service and ensure it has the capacity, both in physical infrastructure, such as beds, and in the people needed to run the services. We are determined to do that.