Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 2 July 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation
Engagement with Chairman Designate of the National Standards Authority of Ireland
I welcome Ms Julie O'Neill, chairman designate of the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, as well as Mr. Maurice Buckley, chief executive officer of the NSAI. I have to complete some formalities. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor make charges against any person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to discuss my nomination as chairman of the National Standards Authority of Ireland. I am honoured to be considered for the position, and in the short period since receiving notification of this nomination, I have taken steps to engage with Department officials and NSAI management in respect of the expectations, roles and responsibilities not only of the chairman but of the authority itself.
From my pharmaceutical background and my role as vice president of operations and managing director of Gilead Sciences, which I have held in Ireland since 1997, I am fully aware of the requirements and significant benefits accruing to organisations from the application of both voluntary and regulatory standards. Coupled with this, I can also bring to the role my experiences as a past president of IBEC and a member of advisory boards to a number of third level institutions.
From initial research, I have established that the NSAI has a strong vision, mission and values and a recently approved strategic plan for the years 2013 to 2015. I take this opportunity to commend the work of the outgoing chairman, Ms Ann Riordan, and the board members on the strength of this plan, which will guide my chairmanship if it is ratified. The NSAI is a significant contributor to the Action Plan for Jobs programme since it was initiated in 2012. It is important to note that the NSAI is not a job creation agency but rather a key element in the trade infrastructure that underpins our economic activity. In this context, NSAI provides Ireland, as a small and open economy, with an infrastructure of products and services to be developed, traded and relied upon nationally and around the world. This infrastructure also contributes positively to decisions on foreign direct investment, in which organisations rely on a regulatory environment, developing standards and a conformity assessment infrastructure to achieve objectives such as the development of the medical devices sector.
I will give a personal example from my own area of operations in pharmaceutical activities in Ireland. The Food and Drugs Administration in the US has not issued a single warning letter to any pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Ireland, which is of strong strategic import in the attraction and retention of foreign direct investment in the pharma-chemical sector. This competency was developed as a result of the strong emphasis of the Irish Medicines Board on the benefits of focusing on compliance and creating a culture of compliance within the Irish industry.
The NSAI delivers on the trading infrastructure through the core programmes of metrology, standardisation, legal metrology and conformity assessment.
As interconnected programmes - four of the five primary technical pillars identified by the UN industrial development organisation for an efficient trading economy are delivered by the NSAI - the authority serves to underpin the national trade infrastructure, which supports the key objectives of government in providing an environment that is supportive of enterprise and maintains Ireland's trading reputation for quality goods and services while protecting the customer.
The interrelated programmes also ensure that Irish enterprise and consumers achieve the benefits of an efficient trading system through the necessary variety, interoperability and economies of scale to ensure quality assured consumers empowered to demand fit for purpose products and services that conform to standards. Through my preparations, even I have been surprised by the pervasive and invisible presence of standards in our daily lives and businesses from the toys with which our children play and the accuracy of measures developed for fuel pumps on garage forecourts to decisions supporting the adoption of cloud computing and the chairs we are sitting in. Standards are all around us.
At its highest level, the purpose is to provide a dynamic organisation using measures and standards to benefit society and give Irish enterprise a global advantage. In the current strategy, the attainment of this mission is supported by four high level goals underpinned by comprehensive operational plans and targets: open market infrastructure to maximise trade development and consumer benefits; business excellence to assist Irish business achieve growth in profitability; knowledge economy providing infrastructure supporting positioning of Ireland as a smart, knowledge based economy; and sustainability through participation in the proactive development of national and international resources to the requirements of sustainable resource management.
From my initial research, I am informed the NSAI has a strong performance operating and governance structures aligned to the delivery of its statutory and strategic objectives. As a member of the business community and as a citizen, I am aware recent years have presented Ireland and its public sector services with unprecedented challenges. The NSAI has delivered on staff reductions of 24% since 2008 with a further 7% required under the employment control framework, which due to the specific technical competencies necessary for operation within the authority will present significant challenges.
In the area of funding, as across the public sector, the authority has experienced a reduction in its own grant allocation, which equates to 24% of its total operating costs and its own resourced income as requirements for certification schemes from sectors such as construction contract. However, the NSAI has met and continues to reposition itself for these challenges and has maintained its services through a process of reorganisation and restructuring of its service delivery models.
My approach to the position of chairman is one of consultation and working with the board, primary stakeholders and management to ensure the strategic direction and operations deliver against the strategy, requirements of legislation and national objectives within a strong governance framework. I also see a responsibility for championing the role of the NSAI to ensure its services are utilised and leveraged within the strategies of Departments, the authority's contribution is recognised and the resources and support necessary to achieve these objectives are made available. In this context I would welcome the opportunity to present to the committee on an annual basis regarding the activities of the authority if it considers that beneficial.
Within the invisible infrastructure that is Ireland's trading economy, the authority has an important role to play. If my nomination is confirmed, I would be proud to contribute to that. I am willing to take questions to be the best of my ability, given I do not have the fullest knowledge of the organisation.
Ms O'Neill is correct that the organisation that she is soon to step into is important in the context of the credibility of the State in regard to manufacturing and foreign direct investment. It is a key role. I have looked over Ms O'Neill's impressive career. She has held a large number of high profile and important roles. My questions are not specifically about Ms O'Neill although it is important that we, as a committee, try to get a good understanding of the individual who will fulfil this role.
Does Ms O'Neill have specific qualifications relating to quality and standards? Is she a member of any other public or private body? How many times will she meet the board? Will she be involved in a day-to-day role or will she attend monthly meetings?
I do not mind if Ms O'Neill is happy to answer the questions but we are not here to interview her similarly to interviewing a person to see whether he or she is suitable for the position. Will the Deputy please reflect that in his questions?
None of my questions is meant in a personal capacity. I said at the beginning that Ms O'Neill has had a strong career. As an elected representative, it is my job to hold the process to account. Will she declare whether she has been involved in political campaigns in the past?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I can state categorically that I have no political affiliations and have never been involved in any political campaigns. As chairperson, I will play an active role in chairing all the meetings. I believe the board meets between six and eight times a year at a minimum but my commitment to the NSAI is to do whatever is required for the chairperson to interact with the board and to conduct the business of the board along with working with management to ensure, as chairperson and as a board member, I represent the interests of the NSAI to the key stakeholders such as the Government, industry and various business lobbies.
With regard to my specific qualifications, my curriculum vitae was circulated but I am a pharmacist who has worked in the pharmaceutical industry since I graduated. I have worked as a qualified person, which is another qualification that means I am intimately familiar with the standards necessary for the placement on the market of any pharmaceutical product. I am familiar with the standards associated not only with good manufacturing and distribution practice in the pharmaceutical industry but closely allied to that are the standards developed by the NSAI because they inform much of the work we do in the industry. Metrology is an example. All our weights and balances are certified to the standards issued by the authority. I believe I have sufficient technical expertise to add value in addition to being able to provide the chairperson's governance role to the authority.
I welcome Ms O'Neill and Mr. Buckley to the meeting. I wish Ms O'Neill well as chairperson. What challenges does she face in the role? Are there specific issues, for example, in the corporate plan for 2013 to 2015? With regard to new product development and standards relating to foreign direct investment, where does the authority come on board in this process?
The US FDA was mentioned. Is there or has there ever been a process whereby the NSAI is or was answerable to the US FDA or are individual companies answerable? How does standardisation work?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
I will answer in reverse order again. Individual companies and not the NSAI are held accountable to the US FDA and other regulators. The NSAI, along with other agencies and the Government, has created the environment which supports compliance, good regulations and good standards application. It is a more holistic rather than an individualistic approach. Ireland has been strong on compliance in manufacturing industries. This compliance record has helped attract and retain new industry. Standards play a very important role because they create the framework in which to build the infrastructure which supports industry.
With regard to the challenges, I am not an expert yet in the workings of the NSAI but I am sure the challenges are similar to those more broadly in the public sector, which are funding and operating within the employment control framework. We must also ensure we develop the standards appropriate to small and large industry, create the environment appropriate for the development of innovative products, and help to create the infrastructure which allows small companies in particular operate more effectively in the export sector. I am not yet an expert and I hope in the coming months to become more au fait with what exactly the challenges are as I continue with the board if I am ratified.
I welcome Mr. Buckley and Ms O'Neill. I particularly welcome Ms O'Neill because of her history. I became chairman of An Post more than 30 years ago and I remember being on the radio during the first weeks to answer questions and I stated I did not know the answers. I am sure Ms O'Neill is in the same position but having Mr. Buckley beside her will help. Somebody ticked me off and told me that as chairman I could never admit I do not know, but in the first few weeks one cannot possibly know everything that is going on.
Will Mr. Buckley and Ms O'Neill spell out their target of where the NSAI will be in five years time? What do they hope to have achieved by then? I am not quite sure I understand all of the intricacies of what the NSAI does. Is there anything they would like from the Government? I am sure they will want to answer "funding", but is there anything they would like from the Government which the NSAI does not receive already?
With regard to standards, Ireland discovered the horsemeat scandal because we must have had standards that others did not. Did this come about because of the NSAI and the standards it had set itself?
Mr. Buckley spoke about the certification of construction contracts. I am not sure I understand what this is about.
Mr. Maurice Buckley:
The NSAI does not certify construction contracts but the world of construction like every other sector has hundreds if not thousands of standards associated with it for every conceivable product one can imagine which goes into the building of a house or a large public building. As Senator Quinn mentioned, yesterday a new regime was introduced under the construction products regulation which has come into effect fully throughout Europe. It will create many extra requirements for the NSAI to transpose European standards fully as national standards and reference points, and provide certification schemes for Irish companies so they can CE mark their construction products. This is very new as up to now construction products did not have to be CE marked to be placed on the European market. There is quite a lot happening in this arena.
With regard to five year objectives and where we would like to be, I will pick up on a previous point made on the link with research and development. During the 1980s and 1990s Ireland was a manufacturing-based economy and we would like to think the NSAI played a strong role during this period, promoting quality through ISO 9000 and various systems. As we come through this difficult time we will be a much more knowledge-based economy investing in people and developing products and services. This requires much more intensive interaction with standardisation.
This country needs to go from standards takers to standards makers, and this is a role in which the NSAI can support business and we actively promote it. As a small country Ireland has exactly the same access to the international standardisation committees as the US, Germany and China, which is a huge benefit not only to indigenous Irish companies which are our primary target but it is also of great assistance to the IDA in attracting international investment, because the sites in Ireland which at one point in the distant past were manufacturing only can now play a big role in research and development. They can also be a conduit to international standardisation through the work of the NSAI. Over the next five years we would like this to become part and parcel of the package Ireland offers through the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to foreign and domestic businesses. We are not looking for money or support; we will fight our corner like anybody else, but preaching this message and establishing this culture would be the great hope and objective of the NSAI, and this is where we need the support of the good people in this room.
I welcome the fact the NSAI is willing to come before the committee on an annual basis and we will take up this offer. The size of the organisation has contracted. How will it be able to maintain the standards in the sectors which it supervises?
Ms Julie O'Neill:
From the short time I have worked with Mr Buckley and the team I can see it will be a challenge, particularly as new roles and responsibilities are provided or given to the NSAI. It is something which needs to be closely considered and we work very closely will the Department to ensure the right human resources are available to support the strategy which underpins not only the NSAI strategic plan but also the Action Plan for Jobs.
Mr. Maurice Buckley:
I support what Ms O'Neill stated. It is obviously a challenge and like every other public body we face a tough challenge. The NSAI has had a 31% staff reduction after having had a very stable level throughout the previous decade. It is a very difficult situation. Through the good offices of the people involved who have taken on extra responsibilities, and working very closely with the private sector where we can jointly deliver services, we have kept all of our services going and have even added services. As Ms O'Neill stated, there are very important standards and certification related services in the country, such as Excellence Through People, a scheme which nearly died a death but is of immense value to the country. The NSAI has been able to pick it up in recent years, although with a very threadbare support structure until we can work our way through this difficult period and, I hope, strengthen the organisation somewhat were necessary.