Tuesday, 1 February 2005
In November 2004 the decentralisation implementation group submitted to me a report identifying those locations and organisations which, in the group's opinion, should be the first to relocate. All the recommendations in that report were accepted by the Government and subsequently published. The full contents are available at www.finance.gov.ie.
In the November 2004 report, the implementation group stated that it would report again in spring 2005 on progress regarding implementation of the programme. In that report, the group will also deal with locations and organisations not covered in its recent report.
What is the Minister's understanding of the status of the locations? I believe that 29 of the 53 locations are included in one of the first three phases. I also understand that the chairman of the group has said that some of those proposals are simply not feasible, do not hold water and cannot proceed. Has the Government completely washed its hands of responsibility for the promises it made and whether they should be delivered? Now the Minister says that they are to be administered through some bureaucratic group at arm's length from the politicians. He tells us that we should value our own role but appears to wish to push decentralisation as far away as possible from himself.
I wish to inquire further about the first few phases. The difficulty appears to be that 60% of those moving in the first phase are doing so within the Dublin commuter belt. That does not seem to gel with the Minister's target for decentralisation. The second feature is that in 11 of the 14 locations in the first phase, the majority of those moving are not coming from Dublin. That does not gel with the Minister's aim either, which was to reduce the pressure on Dublin and promote regional development. Is the new bureaucratic system that the Minister has set up in accordance with what the Government is trying to achieve? It appears superficially very different. When will the Government account to the House for what it is doing instead of hiding behind Mr. Flynn's group?
I do not accept the Deputy's contention. We have taken the decision to introduce a very ambitious programme of decentralisation to change how the Government works. As part of that process, the Government and its agencies will be moved to diverse locations. That decision has been taken and we stand by it since we believe that it was right. We are not washing our hands of the implementation phase. We have appointed someone who, as the Deputy knows, having taken the central applications idea and ascertained the level of demand, is now matching that to those Departments ready to proceed. That is a very intricate industrial relations issue that must be dealt with in the normal fashion. The chairman of the implementation group and his colleagues are well qualified to move those issues forward, and that is proceeding currently.
The Deputy asked me whether the programme is progressing as we envisaged. When the locations were announced, the Departments were matched to them. It was never going to be the case that one would have a "big bang" approach, with everything moved and sorted out in a single day. It was a question of taking those cases where one could clearly see immediate movement possible and acting on those so that the message could go out very clearly that the programme was in implementation mode and that we were proceeding.
One cannot have it both ways. The Deputy cannot say that he is opposed to decentralisation and then ask me why everyone is not already in the new locations.
The Deputy takes both sides of the argument, depending on how he sees it progressing. There are some locations where one can see immediate movement possible, with the construction or identification of premises and people ready to relocate. There is also the question of skill sets and getting people with the necessary qualifications. That is a large and very complicated task. Some of the main criticisms coming from members of the Deputy's party regarding those towns that they represent have been based on the idea that we are not getting people to them quickly enough. The Deputy's view is the more strategic one that perhaps we should not be using this model at all. People speak with forked tongues when in opposition, depending on what constituency group they are addressing.
It is a question of recognising how ambitious the programme is. It was announced, and we stand by that decision. The implementation group is proceeding with matters and there are issues to deal with. No one is suggesting that it is facile or simple. The political decision and the will behind it are no less now than when it was taken. That in no way reduces the complexity of what must be achieved. However, I believe that progress and a way forward are being shown by the implementation group, suggesting that the policy can succeed. We have every intention of ensuring that it does so.
The Minister is very good at answering my points, but it is he who wishes to have it both ways. His predecessor as Minister for Finance, former Deputy McCreevy, introduced what he has called an ambitious political programme without any strategic analysis or thought given to whether it would fit. It was done in the wrong manner. By any standards, that is not the way to make important decisions about the future of the public service.
I accept that it has been done, but now the Minister is saying that the implementation is so intricate that he cannot be held politically accountable to the House or say what is happening regarding the different elements. That is what has happened. If a question were tabled tomorrow on what will happen regarding Ballinasloe, we would get the standard reply that the implementation group was examining all those extremely intricate issues and that we should wait and see. That is not the sort of political accountability that the Minister advocates regarding tax reliefs and many other matters. He cannot have it both ways.
Some of the proposals are nonsensical and seen as such, but the Minister wishes to avoid the political fall-out from his saying that we must abandon schemes that the Government accepts will not work. The Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are trying to have it both ways on this, and that is not the sort of political responsibility or courage for which he has stood in other areas. He must mend his hand and take proper political charge of this matter, abandoning schemes that cannot be implemented and establishing a proper strategic structure for what should be done.
We will have to agree to disagree. I am not abdicating my political responsibility to see this through; the Government intends doing that. The Deputy made an argument regarding my earlier point. If I made a political decision on tax exemptions for stallions, for example, the administrative decision on implementation would be a matter for the Revenue. That does not mean that I am not accepting responsibility for that decision. One delegates functions in the interest of getting the job done effectively. If that were being dealt with simply by the Cabinet of 15 at a weekly meeting, of course we would not make progress on the matter. It must be dealt with — despite its complexity, it is being dealt with — so that the job gets done. It was never going to be the case that the job could be done overnight.
It has been suggested that my predecessor said it would all be done by 2007. He made a very clear statement on that budget night to show our seriousness and that we intend being a fair distance down the road by 2007, and he was entitled to make that statement. The Deputy knows in his heart and soul that the scheme would never have got off the starting blocks if the former Minister for Finance had gone about trying to do the job in any other way. By the same token, even on the day of the announcement, it is a voluntary scheme. We are not tearing up the industrial relations rule book but we are making it clear that a strategic decision has been taken with which I believe everybody in this House agrees, even if they do not like particular aspects of it or the way it was done. Everyone accepts that decentralisation is good for the country and the system. It has worked. It is working as we speak where we have decentralised offices. There is not a sense of dysfunction or people not being able to do their work in a collective and coherent way. That is not the case. The Revenue Commissioners have decentralised and one can now see the level of improved effectiveness and not simply because of decentralisation. The idea that this is an act of national subterfuge is an exaggerated argument. It is not correct. Decentralisation does and will work but we must be prepared to go through the process not just of consultation or determining the level of interest but the change of skills that will be required, the relocation of personnel and so on. It is a big job but it will be implemented and we stand over it.
There is an indication, based on the first series of reports, that despite what people are saying, a considerable chunk of the programme can be implemented in the foreseeable future. The chairman will report on other aspects in the spring with which one can see greater problems arising but that is not to say we should forget about it. We must work our way through this and in the reports the chairman has given me and the few discussions I have had with him on it, he is quite confident that we can work through this process. I take what he has to say with a great deal of seriousness. He is not a gentleman who would go on a wild goose chase. He has many functions but he is perhaps uniquely equipped to make the sort of progress on this issue, despite its complexity, that might otherwise not be possible. Far from it being an abdication of political responsibility by my not handling it every day of the week, that is the reason we give it to people who have those interface skills, with the legitimate staff interests involved, to try to make this happen. That is all I am saying. There was never going to be a "big bang". This was never going to be done overnight. We all knew that, although perhaps some made it look a little simpler than others but it is the right thing to do strategically. Progress is being made and we can make further progress. We intend standing over the decision in the interests of making sure that strategic decision stands.