Dáil debates

Thursday, 3 February 2005

Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2004 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill. The Government has continued the good work of previous administrations in introducing various programmes and measures to tackle disadvantage and exclusion in society. The dormant accounts scheme is one such measure. Every Member welcomed the original legislation to establish a framework for the use of unclaimed moneys in financial institutions to assist the less well-off. There has been considerable public debate on the Government's decision to make changes to the administration of dormant accounts and bring forward the legislation before us. The purpose of the Bill is to build on the progress made to date and address deficiencies which have become evident in the existing arrangements. The Government takes the view that there are compelling governance and public policy reasons to introduce legislation at this time.

Members will be aware that the current value of the fund is in the order of €200 million. While a prudent reserve must always be maintained in the fund to meet claims for repayment, it is anticipated that with further annual inflows the potential spend from the fund will increase considerably. While appropriate corporate governance structures are required to support and oversee the disbursement of funds on such a scale held in public trust, the existing legislation makes no provision for a proper organisational structure to support the board. Currently, the law provides for an ad hoc arrangement for the secondment of staff from my Department. Given the emerging scale of the fund and the independence of the board, the Government is not satisfied that such an arrangement is tenable.

The Government was also influenced in deciding to change the current arrangements by concerns about the accountability of the chairman of the board to the Committee of Public Accounts on disbursement decisions. The chairperson of the board, who is in a part-time post. is accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts for decisions on the potential allocation of up to €250 million. While having the highest regard for the ability and integrity of the chairman, this arrangement is not appropriate. The current arrangements are fundamentally deficient having regard to best practice in governance structures and organisational arrangements.

Questions also arise from a public policy point of view. If we are serious about tackling severe disadvantage, the State must use all available resources for this purpose using a focused and sustained approach. In this regard, it must be ensured that spending from the fund is co-ordinated with policy priorities identified by Government and debated in this House. It is doubtful that current arrangements can secure optimal impact in this regard.

Given the existing deficiencies, it could be argued that a new permanent administrative support structure should be established to enable the board to administer funding programmes. However, the Government has decided for a number of valid reasons not to take this route. First, such an arrangement would dissipate significant dormant accounts funds on administration costs; second, this option ignores the inherent finite nature of the fund; and third, critically, such an arrangement would bypass the expertise and knowledge within existing public bodies in tackling disadvantage and providing assistance to persons with a disability.

A more logical approach is to draw on the expertise, knowledge and capabilities of existing public bodies. This is the approach favoured by the Government and provided for in this Bill. It limits bureaucracy and provides the framework for decision making consistent with public policy priorities approved by Government. It also minimises spending on administration and maximises funding for those who need it most. The Government has decided against setting up a new organisational structure for these reasons. Instead, the Bill provides that the Government will in future decide on disbursements from the fund following a public application process and within a framework of transparency and process set out in law.

Under the legislation, the key functions of independent planner and critical appraiser are being assigned to the board. This will ensure the board's independent input into the overall planning process. The Bill proposes that the board will retain responsibility for preparing the disbursement plan, which is the framework through which proposals for disbursements from the fund will be developed and the board will review and assess the extent to which the plan's objectives have been achieved and whether its strategies have been effective.

Importantly, the board will also be conferred with a new power to report on the additionality of disbursements. In this way, critical analysis of the impact of such spending on the ground will be placed on a statutory independent footing through the board tracking and assessing disbursement decisions. Having regard to these responsibilities, the board will have a key role in influencing the strategies for disbursements from the fund and in assessing the additionality and impact of spend. These arrangements demonstrate the Government's commitment to a structured, transparent and effective board.

While the purposes for which disbursements can be made will be to assist persons who are socially, economically or educationally disadvantaged and persons with a disability, transparency in decision making on disbursements from the fund is important. Genuine concerns have been raised as to the extent to which the changes may adversely affect the focus and impact of spending from the fund. Recognising this, the Government has provided a range of measures in the Bill to secure and enhance transparency and accessibility. The existing objectives of disbursements from the fund and the key relevance of the disbursement plan will be retained. This ensures the focus of the spend.

However, two further critical measures provided for in the Bill are a new requirement to publicise and invite applications for funding and to publicise the criteria for assessing such applications and a further requirement to publish lists of all successful application and the amounts involved. Each year, following Government approval of programmes and projects for funding, applications will be invited for eligible programmes or projects. Following evaluation of such applications by or on behalf of public bodies, the Government will approve a range of specific measures and projects. A statement containing details of the approvals will be laid before the Oireachtas and a list setting out the approved measures and projects and specifying the amounts to be disbursed will be published within one month.

These rigorous and extensive measures confirm the Government's absolute commitment to ensure decisions on the fund are informed by the public interest, accessible to public application and fully subject to public scrutiny. The legislation also proposes that spending from dormant accounts will be channelled through the Votes of relevant Departments. It will be separately recorded and identifiable, thus facilitating the board in carrying out its new function to assess the additionality of spending from the fund. Where approval is given for a project, the relevant funding will be channelled through the Department principally dealing with that sectoral group. Dormant accounts spending will be tracked across Departments in this way and transparency relating to spend and additionality will be enhanced. This mechanism will afford opportunities to streamline funding to organisations that may receive assistance under a number of different headings from Departments and State agencies.

Given the moneys involved and the opportunity presented to improve the lives of disadvantaged persons and communities, the Government, including the Minister, and I are committed to the highest standards of good practice in the operation of dormant accounts funds. It is our intention and the purpose of this Bill that disbursements from the fund will be made subject to the board's plan in a focused way using the existing mechanisms of the State.

On behalf of the Government, I convey the Government's appreciation to the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board for the work it has undertaken to date. The willingness of board members to contribute their time and expertise to the service of the public should be acknowledged. All too often we take for granted and do not stop to acknowledge that members of State bodies are in many cases giving up their spare time, which is becoming scarcer with the demands of modem society. The board has been busy over the past few months progressing the initial round of funding. It has approved 420 projects to the value of approximately €42 million, with a focus on supporting proposals within RAPID, CLÁR and drugs task force areas. As the funding for these approved projects is disbursed, it will have a measurable impact on alleviating disadvantage in the worst affected areas. The Government will ensure that the good work initiated by the board will be continued.

I refer to the main provisions of the legislation. Sections 1 to 5, inclusive, are standard provisions relating to definitions, establishment day, interpretation and so on. Section 6 amends the principal Act in regard to the section on penalties and proceedings, consequent on the removal of the provision in the principal Act on unauthorised disclosure of confidential information. Section 7 provides for a new Part 5 of the principal Act. With the exception of section 31, the other sections in Part 5 substantially reflect the existing provisions in the principal Act. Section 31 provides that the new dormant accounts board will prepare a disbursements plan and submit it to the Minister, and review, assess and report to the Minister on the pattern, impact and additionality of spending from the fund and the effectiveness of the strategies in the plan.

Board membership, including the chairperson, is increased from nine to 11, with a corresponding increase in the quorum for meetings from five to six. The Minister will be responsible for appointing board members, all of whom must have knowledge or experience of matters relevant to the board's functions. As part of the appointment process, the Minister will invite submissions from interested organisations and individuals with regard to the appointment of four of the ten ordinary members. Existing disbursement board members are eligible for re-appointment to the new board. The terms of office of board members are set at a maximum of five years for the chairperson and three years for other members. Other provisions relating to conditions of office, filling of casual vacancies, meetings and procedure, membership of the Oireachtas, the European Parliament or local authorities, and disclosure of interest remain as they were for the former board.

The Bill provides in section 8, the new Part 6, for two stages in the process whereby decisions on spending from the fund will be made. First, provision is made in section 42 of Part 6 for the preparation and submission for the Minister's approval, not later than 1 June 2006, of the new board's plan for disbursement of moneys from the fund. Section 43 provides that the Minister, having consulted with other Ministers, shall, not less than once each year, make a proposal to Government concerning the programmes or types of projects for which applications for funding should be invited and the criteria to be used in assessing such applications. Spending thresholds may be applied to particular programmes or projects.

Subsequent to Government approval of the proposal, the Minister, following a public process of invitations for applications, will recommend for funding a list of programmes or projects that have been assessed by or on behalf of public bodies. In addition to this process, and as previously provided for under the principal Act, the Minister has discretion to approve funding for additional programmes that comply with the core purposes of the fund. All decisions made under either of these processes will be detailed in a statement to be laid before the Oireachtas and publicised, with the disbursements routed to successful applicants through Departments.

Section 9 provides that the National Treasury Management Agency will report annually on the operation of the fund to the Minister for Finance. The new board will report annually to the Minister, who will lay copies of the report before the Oireachtas. The new board's report will reflect the change in functions from those of the former board.

Also, reflecting the changed role of the board, section 10 removes the accountability of the chairperson of the new board to the Committee of Public Accounts. The chairperson of the former board will remain accountable to the committee in respect of decisions of that board. The new board will have power to instruct the National Treasury Management Agency to make disbursements on foot of decisions made by the former board which have not been paid out on establishment of the new board and the chairperson of the new board will be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts in respect of those decisions.

Sections 13 to 15 make standard provisions regarding transfer of assets, liabilities and contracts to the new board, takeover of contracts and agreements, and substitution of the name of the new board in any legal proceedings.

This Bill retains the ethos of the original legislation which is to ensure that the purpose of spending from the dormant accounts fund is to assist persons who are socially, economically or educationally disadvantaged, and persons with a disability. The new dormant accounts board will be assigned the key roles of independent planner and critical appraiser. These responsibilities demonstrate the Government's commitment to a transparent and effective process. Furthermore, the Government has provided for a range of rigorous measures in the Bill to secure transparency and accessibility by ensuring that decisions on the fund are informed by the public interest, accessible to public application and fully subject to public scrutiny.

I acknowledge that there has been considerable public debate on these proposed changes, which is entirely natural and appropriate. It is my job and that of the Minister to develop legislative proposals that safeguard the public interest in the spending of these funds. It is our job as legislators to critically appraise every legislative proposal presented to us. In this case, given the vast amount of money that is to be disbursed, we must make every effort to enshrine a process in this legislation that is robustly and transparently fair and effective in providing support where it is needed most. It is imperative that the legislative arrangements for the dispersal of moneys in the dormant accounts fund have the confidence of the House, of the persons who may seek to secure support from the fund and of the public to whom this money belongs in the first place.

A rigorous and detailed testing of the proposals in the Bill by this House can only serve to strengthen the legislation. I look forward to this in this debate and in the stages that will follow. Deputies will be aware that I and the Minister have been open to suggestions for improving these proposals and have sought at all stages to address all legitimate concerns that have arisen. I assure the House that we will listen closely and consider carefully all comments and suggestion made by Deputies, as we did in the Seanad. I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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It is usual for spokespersons and other contributors on Second Stage to welcome a Bill and in the past I have often had occasion to do so. However, this is a Bill I do not welcome into the House. Fine Gael was in favour of the first Bill dealing with dormant accounts when it was introduced in 2001 because it thought it had a new, honest and above board approach to the distribution of these funds. We welcomed it and thought it was a new departure because we had been used to the abuse of other funds by Ministers and politicians on the Government side.

I remember being in the Dáil when the National Lottery Act was passed almost 20 years ago. Fine Gael was in Government at the time so it must have been 1986 or 1987. I remember that afterwards the legislation was departed from and the lottery funds became just a slush fund for various Ministers and Government supporters to distribute to their pet projects in every part of the country. The proof is there that this still goes on. I say this as a Donegal representative, like the Acting Chairperson, Deputy Keaveney. I suppose we had the good fortune to have a Minister from Donegal in charge of the relevant Department for a while. I am sure that Deputy O'Shea would agree Donegal got the lion's share. We got it when Fine Gael was in Government or when a Donegal Minister was in charge of the national lottery fund.

The money in the national lottery fund is not Government money, no more than is the money in the dormant accounts fund. The people who buy tickets contribute the money to the national lottery. This money and the money collected from dormant accounts, uncollected insurance policies, intestate legacies etc. is not money collected through taxation. It is just a windfall in the coffers of the Government. If we are about to follow the precedent of the national lottery, I understand why this Bill has been introduced to depart from the original intention to distribute the funds through an independent board not subject to the control of a Minister or the Government. That is the core of the Bill before us. As politicians, we know all too well that the public has become increasingly cynical about politics and politicians. This is reflected in the growing disillusionment with local representatives and low voter turnout at elections. It is also reflected in a greater public disenchantment in people's ability to have their voices heard.

The public is not to blame for the high levels of dissatisfaction with the political process. Much of the blame lies with politicians. As a class, we must put up our hands and bear some of the responsibility. In recent weeks the political landscape has been sullied by perceived political scandals, real or otherwise. A former Minister has been jailed for corrupt practices. An allegation has been made that a major bank robbery was carried out by an organisation which has strong links with a party represented in this House. A cloud of suspicion hung over a serving Minister in regard to the awarding of lucrative public relations contracts. It is irrelevant whether these allegations can be substantiated or not, the reality is they stick in the public mind and reinforce the negative ideas which people already harbour about political representatives and the wider political process. The responsibility lies with Members of this House to clean up the sleaze and scandal which has become associated with politics but the Bill and the thinking behind it is not designed to address that.

It is our duty to restore public confidence in political processes and in the supremacy of political transparency and openness. The public cannot continue to believe that cronyism is alive and well, that after years of tribunals and scandals having been exposed, nothing has really changed. Favouritism and inside dealing cannot be allowed to continue after years of tribunals. That train of thought brings me to the Bill before us. Unfortunately the tone and content of it does nothing but reinforce all the negative aspects of politics. It harks back to another era and smacks of cronyism of the highest order. The possibility of dubious political processes and a lack of accountability are all present in this Bill and it will do nothing but further undermine public confidence in the lack of fairness and equity in the spending and allocation of public finances.

The Bill is a prime example of an underhand attempt by the Government to put its hand in the cookie jar and take out the treats contained in the dormant accounts fund and use these significant funds for its own benefit. It is clear the bottom line agenda, no matter how the Minister will try to justify it, is that two years away from an election the Government hopes to buy the election by flashing the cash and giving to its own pet projects. The fund will be used to extinguish bushfires between now and the election. The result will be that those groups, often the most marginalised and disadvantaged, which for whatever reason are not regarded by Fianna Fáil election strategists as key vote-gaining targets, will be bypassed, overlooked and ignored. It is also likely that other community groups which do not find political favour with the Government will lose out when the decisions on to whom and what to allocate this money are taken. This process of favouritism is already well entrenched within the Department by the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív.

My colleague and spokesperson on Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Stanton, met with members of the Community Workers Co-Op who have had their core funding removed because they disagreed publicly with the policies of the Government. If one criticises the Government or any aspect of the polity one will be penalised. The lesson has not been lost on the community and voluntary sector. The message coming from the Government appears to be that it does not allocate funding to groups on merit or on the grounds of fairness and transparency. The message is that those who dare to bite the hand which feeds it face severe punishment. This is unacceptable behaviour on the part of the Government.

The sum of money contained in the dormant accounts fund is not to be sniffed at. It is a rolling fund and is likely to yield hundreds of millions of euro for years to come. The fund contains almost €200 million. The Minister referred to over €200 million and it could rise significantly. A figure of over €400 million has been mentioned, but the reality is that it is likely to be a great deal more than that, as the amount in unclaimed bank accounts and life insurance rises each year. We have no way of knowing how much money the fund will eventually yield. However, we can be certain that the money it contains should and must go to the most disadvantaged and worthy in society.

The community and voluntary sector continues to be one of the most underfunded sectors in society. It continues to make a significant, and often largely unrewarded, contribution to the community. It is only right and proper that money from the dormant accounts fund should go to such groups. This money has been allocated to projects that are attempting to improve community life in the areas in which they operate. Projects which have benefited from the fund include the building of a care centre and sheltered housing in County Donegal, the provision of training for three women's health projects in Kilbarrack, Dublin, and the provision of a lifelong learning centre for people with disabilities in Dún Laoghaire. We welcome the fact that a significant amount of money has been distributed. We are not critical of this. These are but a few examples of the projects which have benefited from the fund and are typical examples of sectors in society which the Government has neglected in recent years.

I remind the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, and the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, that we are talking about the same projects and community groups which were so delighted with the Taoiseach's announcement before the general election in 2002 that the RAPID scheme would fasttrack €2 billion in funding into our most disadvantaged communities. The reality has been very different. Very little money has been fasttracked to disadvantaged communities.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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That is not true.

1:00 pm

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Most of it was already committed to these communities and very little additional money has been channelled through RAPID. It appears that through this legislation the Government is attempting to pull a second quick stroke on disadvantaged communities.

The legislation attempts to undermine the process of ensuring that the moneys contained in the dormant accounts fund are allocated to communities on the ground in a manner which is beyond question and above suspicion. The enabling legislation which led to the creation of the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board sought to create a safe, secure and foolproof system. The board was established in June 2002 and since then it has presided over numerous allocations of funding to worthy community groups, initiatives and projects that so desperately needed support. The Minister has argued that the board cannot cope with its workload. He commented last year that the changes were proposed only when the Government realised how much money the fund would contain. What point was the Minister making? Is it that he and his colleagues suddenly became interested in the money once they realised how much was involved and the potential it offered them to buy votes? He will rattle off comments about the board being incapable of handling such large amounts of money or other dubious reasons such as an inadequate amount of staff. This is an attempt by the Government to conceal its own greed. Government members are licking their lips in anticipation of having a slush fund of hundreds of millions of euro at their disposal in the run-up to the next election.

The time is long overdue to debunk these ridiculous myths and half-truths by this greedy Government. When one examines the alleged inability of the board to distribute the moneys, there is no evidence to substantiate the Minister's ludicrous claim.

The Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, has also claimed that the board is spending too much on administrative costs and would save money if the functions were to be carried out by existing public servants. This does not bear up to scrutiny. Public servants can be transferred from one Department or another to assist the board.

The existing board is well fit and qualified to decide when and how this money should be distributed. In the space of a year, the board successfully and with apparent ease distributed more than €40 million in dormant funds. I am not aware of any problems, allegations of misconduct or lack of transparency by anyone in regard to these allocations. Some €40 million in the space of a year is no small sum and yet the Minister of State appears to want to sully the good name and create doubts about the ability of the board.

The Minister of State is a member of a Government which itself wasted more than €50 million on the now defunct electronic voting proposals and tens of millions of euro on the vainglorious "Bertie Bowl" and is therefore certainly in no position to give accountancy lessons to anyone. I do not need to remind the House of the most recent injustice and act of greed carried out by this Government when it knowingly robbed elderly people in public nursing homes. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív should not lecture this House about poor accounting.

The second myth which is spread by this Government to smooth its transition to a position where it can enrich its own political agenda at the expense of others is the falsehood that the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board lacks sufficient staff. There has never been any difficulty in transferring public servants from the sponsoring Department when any new public body or structure has been put in place in recent times. This is standard reason trotted out by the Minister but it is one which does not hold water. There is no reason additional administrative staff cannot be allocated to the board to allow it to deal with its workload.

It is also worth remembering that the board has engaged Area Development Management Limited to administer the initial round of funding on its behalf. ADM is a non-profit making organisation which has wide experience in managing programmes targeted at countering disadvantage and exclusion such as the rural transport initiative and the RAPID and PEACE II programmes. It is evident that the picture painted by the Minister of a dormant accounts fund board which is adrift, out of its depth and struggling to cope could not be further from the truth. It is nothing more than another desperate attempt by this Government to create a smokescreen and distort the facts.

The most fundamental element of this legislation lies in the provision which relates to who will decide where dormant fund moneys are allocated and to whom. This legislation will change from the current position whereby the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board takes such decisions, subject to the passive approval of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. This legislation will mean that the Government will now take such decisions, with the money going to each Minister and their Department for his or her ultimate discretion to decide what project will receive grace from the Government and will get this vital funding lifeline.

At this stage, I cannot see how even this will work. The image which comes to mind is one of a Government charged with the task of collectively deciding what moneys go where, but with each Minister pressing for support for his or her own pet project. It is difficult to see how any decisions will be made about this money and even more difficult not to envisage open disputes and rivalries among Cabinet Ministers on who gets what. These tensions are likely to get worse as Ministers, in a bid to retain their seats in a general election year, jockey with one another to get money for their areas. It is laughable that the Minister should suggest that this legislation will put a better system in place. The question is better for whom? It is certainly not the disadvantaged or those who need this money.

If the Minister's utterances on this significant change are anything to go by, he himself cannot even defend the logic of the decision. Perhaps he is under pressure from his Cabinet colleagues to ensure that they get their hands on the pie too. In early 2004, when this Bill was first published, the Minister defended its rationale on the basis that the money involved was simply too much for the board to handle. Despite this, in only a few short weeks, after doubting the ability of the board to handle such large funds, the Minister appeared to contradict himself completely. By announcing that he was empowering the board to double the amount of money it allocated in 2004, from €30 million to €60 million, the Minister had contradicted himself. There appears to be no logic in his public utterances. He is seeking to limit the power of the board on the one hand and, on the other, expand the amount of money it distributes. It does not make sense. The Minister does not appear to believe what he is saying himself. One can only conclude that he is under pressure from his Cabinet colleagues to put in place arrangements to allow them to get their hands on the dormant funds.

The moneys contained in the dormant accounts fund must be beyond question, transparent and fairly and equitably distributed. The Government is on the record as supporting such a need for transparency in the distribution of the dormant funds. When the legislation to establish the existing structures passed through this House in November 2001, the then Minister for Finance, former Deputy McCreevy, reiterated the need for transparency. He said:

To get away from the problem of having the Government blamed as having a slush fund, it has been decided to establish a board of trustees. This board will distribute the money, subject to guidelines and without the direction from the Government. This will get away from the problems of having Ministers accused of favouring pet projects ... that the best approach was to give the power to distribute it to a disbursals board and not to the Minister. It was a decision I took and I think that it is the safest one in the circumstances.

This was the Minister for Finance who was responsible for introducing the first Dormant Accounts Bill. The Minister for Finance was clear in his support that the money should be distributed "without the direction from the Government". That was the position in 2001 when the Bill was introduced and this Bill fundamentally changes that philosophy and the money will now be at the disposal of the Government. What has changed? I call on the Minister to explain to the House why he and his colleagues now propose to direct these funds to their pet projects. This is an unjustified and a dangerous U-turn. It smacks of cronyism of the highest level. The words of the former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, are completely worthless.

The Government has lost its self-restraint. It is no longer even attempting to hide its desire to make decisions based on its own self-interest as a political party than as a Government serving the best interests of the public. The legislation before us today is little more than a shameful attempt by the Government to cover up the Fianna Fáil mentality of pursuing its own survival above all else. None of us could have better summed up this political philosophy better than the Taoiseach when he declared: "The code of ethics is for those of us who are in here to try to stay in here." I am sure the Minister of State remembers that quote too.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I remember it in the context in which it was meant — as a jest.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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The message is clear: Fianna Fáil is prepared to distort the good workings of the dormant accounts fund and its board for its own ends. That is the crux and core of the matter. That very philosophy is the real reason for this legislation. We are now less than two years away from a general election and it is clear that the need to start granting political favours is a high priority in the minds of many Government members. The decision taken to double the amount to be distributed from €30 million to €60 million was likely connected to the then upcoming local elections in June 2004.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is contradicting himself.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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It has been set out in the disbursement plan, drawn up the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board and approved by the Minister, that 40% of the moneys should go to disadvantaged areas, 25% to tackle educational disadvantage and 25% to fund disability projects and initiatives. If the Bill is passed, no guarantee exists that this money will go to these areas or to projects and organisations best positioned to ensure maximum delivery from such funding. The Fine Gael Party does not support this attempt to distort the workings of the dormant accounts fund. We have confidence in the existing board and its distribution structures. They work well and the board must be allowed to continue to fulfil the mandate given to it. If it is working efficiently, why change it? I have exposed the reasons.

I call on the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to fulfil the original tenets of the legislation. He must ensure that concerns raised by the former Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, that the fund could be open to allegations of abuse are not realised. There is a real danger that the moneys will become nothing more than a political slush fund, open to abuse, maladministration and cronyism. The Minister must act in a responsible manner by withdrawing the legislation to ensure the integrity of the fund's distribution is upheld. The existing system is fast, efficient, working and transparent. The Minister must uphold this transparency and not let the fund fall prey to political considerations. He has a duty to ensure that it goes to those most worthy of it.

It is unbelievable that the Progressive Democrats, the other party in Government, tolerates such an approach. Obviously, it is contaminated too. I recall the Tánaiste in a previous life promising to amend and improve the disbursement of lottery funds. This has never happened even though she has been in Cabinet for seven years. The dormant accounts fund will be treated in a similar manner. It is not fair to those who left those moneys in banks or other saving institutions, did not collect insurance policies or died intestate. It was not their intention that moneys left behind would become a slush fund for a Government to buy votes in elections. For that reason, the Fine Gael Party opposes the Bill.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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Tááthas orm an seans a fháil labhairt sa díospóireacht ar an mBille um Chuntais Dhíomhaoine (Leasú) 2004. On 16 December 2003, the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government gave itself a massive Christmas present. It reviewed arrangements for dormant accounts "in the context of ensuring appropriate capacity to evaluate and process applications in the light of the emerging scale of the fund". The key phrase in this statement is "in the light of the emerging scale of the fund".

The Government was agreeably surprised by the amount of moneys available in the fund. The first moneys, amounting to €196.2 million, were transferred from credit institutions to the dormant accounts fund at the end of April 2003. The National Treasury Management Agency, which has responsibility for managing the fund, determined that 15% of the total fund should be kept in a reserve account to provide for the right of reclaim for account holders whose funds had been transferred. The 2003 annual report of the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board states: "To date account holders have reclaimed approximately €24 million from the fund." Interest earned from the fund's investment came to approximately €2.75 million. The Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, alluded to the running costs. The 2003 annual report states that the running costs came to €148,000. As some of these costs were one-off and involved setting up the board, such a figure is not that large. If the size of the board is increased, economies of scale will kick in. I am convinced that when the Government saw this significant and potential slush fund of approximately €200 million, it simply grabbed it.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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No.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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The key phrase in the annual report's section dealing with the changes to the role and remit of the board is "in the light of the emerging scale of the fund". If the sum of money available was less, the Government would not have shown as much interest in how it was administered.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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With a larger fund, one needs a more watertight system of administration. It is not what the Deputy is suggesting.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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I do not dispute the Minister's claim. If the fund is larger, it requires more administrative staff. However, it was not required to change how decisions are made on the fund. The Government is attempting to take this role on itself. No Member can convince me that this was not done for blatant political purposes.

If the Bill is enacted, from its commencement date to the expected date of the general election in 2007, the Government will have many bites of the cherry to buy votes through the fund. The reason for the establishment of the fund and its objectives are admirable. However, the Government came on this crock of gold and decided to grab it for its political purposes. The Bill is a backward step for our democracy. People, particularly the young, already feel cynical towards politics. When an Administration is in power too long, it becomes arrogant. It cannot see how its actions will be rightly interpreted by the public. The Bill can only be interpreted as a blatant attempt by the Government to ensure every possible vote will be squeezed out of the fund. Instead of an objective and independent method of disbursing the moneys, a partisan system will be put in place. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, can now inform the Government of his recommended allocations. Every Cabinet Member will have his or her pet projects. What will emerge in the end will display this approach. I am not seeking to be righteous, but if the Bill is passed into law, whatever Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs replaces the current Minister, or whatever administration replaces the current Administration, there will be a temptation to allocate the money along purely partisan lines. I am not saying that people will not act differently in the future. However, we have a huge responsibility in how this House is perceived because of what has emerged from the tribunals. People see this House as some necessary evil at best but, by and large, there is very little admiration for public representatives today. That is not to say that there are not many admirable people in the House, but we must do a bit more than we are currently doing if we are to win back the respect this Parliament deserves. This legislation is going totally and utterly in the wrong direction.

As Deputy McGinley said, we are expected to oppose legislation from this side of the House. However, on this occasion, both Deputy McGinley and I are speaking as responsible Members of the House in the firm belief that if this legislation passes into law, it will do huge damage once again to the perception of the honourable way Members of the House should act. As the 15 members of the Cabinet cannot represent each constituency and county, what will inevitably happen is that there will be a lopsided allocation of moneys because of the way the divvy up will happen at Cabinet. The legislation proposes to put in place a very unfair system. There is currently a senior Minister in my constituency but that had not been the case for a long time. The constituencies who have Ministers will do better and areas that do not have that kind of representation will suffer. If this is how we handle our democracy, can we complain if people perceive us as operating in a self-interested way where we will flog out the money so that we retain our seats? Taking into consideration the population at large, we are not doing what we should be doing.

The board will be increased from nine members to 11. This will include the chairperson and ten members as opposed to the chairperson and eight members. What always amuses me about this type of legislation is that there is no mention of financial implications. If the final processing of the applications takes place within the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and the present administration is being carried by the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board, the staff in the Department will be diverted from other activities which will result in an overall cost. There are financial implications. The cost is now being borne by the fund but if the Bill becomes law, it will be borne by the Department. I cannot understand how this will not have financial implications. I would like the Minister of State to address this issue.

We are being presented with an either-or situation by the Minister of State. We cannot have the present structure because the fund is so large we must go down the road of allowing the Cabinet to make, in secret, uninhibited decisions on where they may be spent. On Committee Stage, I will return with suggestions on how the present board could be changed so that it could do the job in a way that would be clearly independent, clearly removed from political influence is as much as the Minister of the day will appoint the members of the board.

It was rather touching when the Minister of State said that the Minister would place an advertisement in the newspapers inviting submissions from people, that they would be alerted to the fact that the board was being be set up and the Minister would have regard to the submissions. The Minister of State and I know that is not the case because people will be selected. Whatever Government is in place will select people who are favourable to its political parties. This may not be a direct influence, but it is an influence. I would be the first to admit that it is very difficult to come up with a method whereby one could put together a board which would be truly impartial. Given my experience, the road to travel is not the road of having nominees from various organisations because one could end up with people who are good at getting themselves elected rather than people who can do the job effectively. It is not an easy task to put together such a board.

At this stage I can think of nothing better than the Minister appointing the boards. I have no doubt that the Minister, Deputy Noel Ahern, would be sincere in appointing a board that would work in the overall interest, therefore, he would appoint people who could do the job. However, there is a perception that the Government will not appoint a board which is made up of a majority of people who would be well known for opposing the Government — this is not the way the world works. In the end, it is preferable that a board which is independent in its functions deals with this large sum of money to achieve the objectives in the strategy with which the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board has come forward.

I believe we have reached a watershed. For instance, there is the lottery money, and if any of us were asked in court to swear as to how impartial the allocation of that money is, I do not know of anyone who could say it is allocated impartially. Let us be honest, it is an existing slush fund, and my genuine fear is that we now want to create a similar fund whereby the guiding force is constituency interests or a general interest in a national body and so on. In the main, the guiding force in terms of decisions made will be the self-interest of the particular constituency. The explanatory and financial memorandum notes: "the Bill provides for a two-stage process whereby decisions on spending from the fund will be made by Government following a transparent process of inviting applications for programmes and types of projects". In the name of God, inserting the word "transparent" in that context is disingenuous. There is no process by which applications are invited to allow for any significant concealment. To promise transparency with regard to inviting applications is mind-boggling. At the end of the day, the basic concept should always be that the citizens at large are invited to make applications. The word "transparent" is planted there to give an impression that everything will be transparent.

The memorandum continues: "Having regard to the dormant accounts disbursement plan and following consultation with other Ministers, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs will, in the first instance, submit, at least annually, a proposal to Government regarding the programmes and types of projects for funding following the completion of the assessment of applications." I take that to clearly mean that the assessment of applications in the first instance will be carried out within the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs under the direction of the Minister, who will have consulted with other colleagues who, I would suggest, might not be as concerned about the projects relating to their Departments as much as about their own pet projects on the home front.

The memorandum says that a list of recommended projects will be submitted to the Government for approval. That is to be done by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The memorandum then says that a list of all successful applications as approved by Government will be published along with the amounts involved in each case. This too is drivel. The bottom line is that we will see the list and will know who has been successful, who has got money and who did not get money. We can then make our own deductions as to where money has gone and whose influence was involved. To give the impression that this is a transparent, open process is nonsense. The only way to ensure transparency would be to list the unsuccessful applications along with the successful ones and provide a report as to why certain applications were successful and others were not. That is the sort of information that would be available if we were talking about a true system of transparency and openness but that is not what is happening here.

The way this section is drafted is meant to convey one idea with regard to what will happen, namely the two-stage process. However, while the new board of ten and one will list the types of programmes and projects that should be funded, it is the Government that will decide. The invitations will be sought from the Minister's Department. It amused me to read that the board was being given important functions. The language was crafted to disguise the real issue, which is that the only decision that matters is being taken away from the board. That is the final decision on where the money should go and who should get it.

To tell Deputies these very important functions are being given to the new board is to treat us as fools. The board is losing the only real power it has. I accept the sincerity of the Minister of State in rejecting the arguments made on this side of the House but I ask him to look at the matter between now and Committee Stage. I am pleased the Minister of State is open to new suggestions and I know he will honour his promise. I know any amendments tabled on this side of the House that are seen to be superior to any current provisions of the Bill will be accepted. That is welcome. My problem is that the Minister of State believes that going ahead with this Bill is the right way to proceed. Not many people believe that. No doubt those on the Government side do but I suggest that this belief is very much in the context of winning the next general election and using €200 million of the taxpayers' money.

I know that for particular reasons the fund is to be disbursed at a rate of €30 million per annum and I do not suggest the entire €200 million will be allocated in one go. The reasons for keeping the money in any particular year to a level of €30 million is a budgetary concept in terms of the Exchequer and the finances of the State at large. However, if this Bill becomes law, the Government could well be tempted to decide that the figure of €30 million is a little bare, and since the election might be just a year away it could decide to increase the figure to €50 million.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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They will have as much as the people who robbed the bank.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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Very much so.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Where will that leave us? The PDs have their rich friends.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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We will come back with suggestions on Committee Stage.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I object to the suggestion made by Deputy McGinley equating the figures.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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€30 million is €30 million in any man's language.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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To continue with my point, this is an abuse of very substantial public funds. Nothing is easier in this House than to oppose legislation brought forward by the Government. I have seen polls and heard people's views. I understand that some polling was done in my area — though I am not quite convinced of that — to show that politicians are very badly regarded. I ask the Minister to consider this matter again between now and Committee Stage. It is difficult for all of us to be objective but what is proposed will do substantial damage to the body politic. If there were a system in the Bill which would allow for these funds to be allocated in a fair, non-partisan manner, I would be the first to support it and to encourage the disbursement of the money for projects as quickly as possible. That is not what we have in front of us. Instead we have a brazen, barefaced attempt to turn around a publicly-owned fund targeted at proper and desirable objectives. It is difficult to understand why the Government does not concede what is happening. It might be much better if it admitted what it was doing, saying that the Opposition would do the same if in power, though that is no argument. As I said, ultimately, I have no reason to believe that if this legislation were there for the next administration or the one after, it would be used in the same extremely partisan manner. Our duty extends beyond the next general election and the interest of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats in buying it. We are talking about legislation that will remain on the Statute Book in perpetuity. No one is clamouring to have the legislation regarding the national lottery changed in any way. Once such measures pass into law, it is extremely difficult, bearing in mind the culture of this House, to introduce changes. We must, therefore, get it right this time. We owe it to the young people of this country.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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They got it right the first time.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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That is true, but the Government decided, for the worst of reasons, that the approach would be changed, and that is essentially what Deputy McGinley and I are saying.

Calling a spade a spade, this legislation is disgraceful. It is shameful for the Government parties to bring such legislation before the Dáil. I put it very sincerely to the Minister that there is a need for a rethink regarding this legislation. I am totally opposed to it as it stands. It should either be withdrawn or changed substantially. The one issue of any real importance that must be addressed is that under the Constitution the right must be removed from the Cabinet to allocate those funds to the various areas.

I look at the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, who announced the rural social scheme in the budget before last and then told us that he would raid €10 million from the dormant accounts fund to pay for it. I understand that of the 2,500 places there are now only approximately 900. Be that as it may; I welcome the initiative of that payment. In the context of rural Ireland, we must do much more in that vein. I found it most distasteful that the fund was hardly in being when the senior Minister of the day decided he would raid it. That money should have come from Exchequer funds. It is fundamentally wrong to take money out of a fund to help launch and finance a new scheme that in the fullness of time will in any case have to be funded from the Exchequer. The alternative, though there is no indication of it, is that the Minister believes that the dormant accounts fund should continue to shell out in perpetuity to keep the scheme in question going. I re-emphasise that the scheme is desirable.

Photo of Noel AhernNoel Ahern (Minister of State, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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It is in accordance with the core principles of the first plan.

Photo of Brian O'SheaBrian O'Shea (Waterford, Labour)
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That is a matter of dispute. The fact that such a substantial amount was removed is where my problem lies. Would that same €10 million, if allocated to rural problems and projects around the country, make a bigger impact regarding those whom we wish to help? The plans for this fund did not envisage that large amounts of money would be siphoned off for national programmes. I view it as relating more to particular areas, and perhaps to regions in some instances. Funding should be more of the one-off type. However, as has happened with much of the lottery money, it becomes recurrent funding that absolutely paralyses the possibility of health boards, for instance, taking on new projects. Certain very desirable schemes now depend on lottery money every year to pay for their core functions.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Crowe and Connolly.

Séamus Pattison (Carlow-Kilkenny, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is one of the newer ones and as a result may not have gathered a sufficient head of steam to produce more than its share of legislation in the House. In this 29th Dáil, we have seen only a handful of Bills, such as the Bille teanga and a functions Bill regarding how the Minister was meant to be running his Department and granting him certain powers. It is somewhat strange that, even at this early stage in the life of this 29th Dáil, we are revisiting a Bill, albeit one originally introduced by the Minister for Finance. It says much of the Government's sense of priorities that we are amending this Bill when there are others within the remit of the Department that those of us on this side of the House and many outside this Chamber would like to see given greater priority. In citing that example, off the top of my head I could ask why there has been such a delay on the charities Bill, which could radically reform legislation on community and voluntary organisations. It should be before this House, discussed, debated and implemented into law.

Instead the Government is introducing an amendment Bill. If one considers the Government's legislative programme and progress since June 2002, one suspects that the number of amendment Bills in this Dáil has been far higher than in any other. It seems that the amendment Bills have arisen for two reasons. Many of them have had to be introduced on an emergency basis, since the Government, in the way it put the legislation through the House in the first place, failed to ensure that it received proper scrutiny, despite arguments from this side of the House. Those Bills were subsequently shown by the courts system to be legally flawed. The second, more insidious reason is that the Government has sought to change legislation to its own political advantage within a very short time period. This Bill is one of the crasser examples.

As someone who has worked in the community and voluntary sector for a long time, I have many reservations about the existence of separate accounts meaning that services provided in that sector cannot get the proper recognition they deserve from the State regarding guaranteed Exchequer and multi-annual funding. These special funds — the national lottery was the first obvious example — tend to represent a sticking-plaster approach towards the funding needs of many voluntary organisations. They are given in such piecemeal fashion that, even where an independent structure is involved, there is meant to be some sense of obligation to the political patronage of the Government of the time. That is no way to recognise the voluntary sector, on which we still depend to a far greater extent than any comparable European country. We get our social services on the cheap and reward providers by playing silly political games, establishing funds on which people depend but which do not even meet their everyday needs. The Government, through its political philosophy, is especially guilty of that. It cannot be argued that the original legislation introduced by the former Minister for Finance, the establishment of the board and the subsequent distribution of those funds was everything Members of this House and those outside it hoped it would be. There was a necessary degree of independence and a fair distribution of funds to particular groupings throughout the country. The new suggested structure involving the dismantling of the board and the establishment of a new board, and the degree to which the Minister is being put into the picture in terms of approving an overall plan, being able to alter such a plan and come up with a subsequent one by consulting his Cabinet colleagues, will be overtly politically influenced.

It is no coincidence that this change is being proposed half-way into the life of the 29th Dáil when we are now in the electoral cycle towards the election of the 30th Dáil. The Government might think it is a wheeze to suggest these changes that allow access to the fund are being made for its own naked political advantage so that it can buy largesse among the electorate which, in the previous election, showed what it thought of its overall policies.

A much more sinister aspect needs to be portrayed, and I was glad to hear it mentioned in earlier contributions. Not only does the Government want control of funds of this nature and not want the voluntary sector to be brought into a system in which it does not depend on political largesse but is instead guaranteed that its needs for the services it provides will be met through Exchequer and multi-annual funding, the Government has since intervened to introduce the principle that if community and voluntary organisations do not tow the line and do what the Government expects them to do, and if they even go so far as to point out the effects of Government policies in many disadvantaged communities, it reserves upon itself the right to pull the plug on the funding. That was seen recently in the decision to refuse funding for the Community Workers Co-operative. Its only crime appears to be that it is working in disadvantaged communities and operating the basic principles of community development to empower people to identify their needs and try to have those needs met first within their own resources and subsequently from the agencies of the State. Its wants to ensure their needs are met to the same extent as any other citizen. The naked political nature of that decision cannot go unprotested. It has inculcated fear in the community and voluntary sector that future Government funding will be dependent on the extent to which such organisations tow the line in terms of the political philosophy of the Government which, as I stressed in other contributions, appears to derive from a Victorian notion of the deserving poor.

If the Government is not prepared to face up to the fact that it is not really concerned about community development but is only playing political games by shifting funds it believes give the maximum effect, I warn it that despite the access to such a large amount of money, it runs the risk in the election for the 30th Dáil of being seen to be as cynical as many of us on this side of the House already believe. It is not enough to say that money will be made available in a kind of utilitarian way and that those who are happy for most of the time will mean there will be a continuance of this particular Government. It is very unhealthy in terms of the way we want to develop our democratic system to think that when Governments change, as they should and must and I hope this one will after the next general election, the systems will be in place for those who enter Government to play the same game. That is the reason there is a responsibility on us to examine this legislation. My inclination is to reject it outright because if the legislation is to be changed, it should be in such a way that it becomes more difficult for anyone in the political system, be they a political party or individual politician, to take advantage of such a fund and the political uses to which it can be put.

The Minister of State, when he returns to the Chamber, and the Minister might argue that they are sincere in their intentions but this is legislation that confers power not only on the individuals in office at that Department but all those who subsequently hold that office. It would be remiss of us to grant such powers to a future Minister and the future intentions he or she might have to use such a large sum of money.

I cannot stress strongly enough my opposition and that of my party to the Bill, an opposition I am glad to see is shared by Members of the Opposition. I appeal to those in Government, particularly those who have experience of the community and voluntary sector, to recognise this nakedly cynical exercise for what it is and react with whatever shred of conscience exists among them. They should put to rest once and for all the type of State interaction with the community and voluntary sector that results in those who provide the services we need in our society feeling beholden to our political system.

2:00 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Every Member of this House recognises that the decision to use the dormant accounts fund for public benefit was a positive and welcome development. It is far better that these funds be used to target disadvantage in our society than to remain dormant in some sort of never-never land where they would only benefit the financial institutions that held them.

On 7 January the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board announced that its latest list of grants approved totals approximately €12.2 million. All those projects are worthy of support and clearly fall within the criteria of social and economic disadvantage, educational disadvantage and disabilities. In my constituency, the Tallaght Centre for the Unemployed will receive a grant for a play bus and I understand funding is also available for a family support model in Jobstown.

The fund is designed to assist communities in sectors of society affected by those forms of disadvantage, but some of the projects stretch that definition somewhat. However, they are all deserving projects. I suppose the Minister would call on me to name those that are not deserving but some of them do stretch the area of credibility. The approach taken with these funds appears to be to disburse them as widely as possible. Given that the fund is limited and will eventually run out, is this the best course to follow? Would it be better to target specific areas of disadvantage or a particular need in disadvantaged communities, for example, play facilities for children or recreation facilities for young people rather than the sort of scattered approach that appears to be adopted? I accept the fund is weighted towards RAPID, CLÁR and drugs task force areas, and rightly so, but I am concerned that the Government is not making the best possible use of it for maximum long-term benefit. As other speakers said, it is a specific fund but it will run out at some stage.

Some of these grants will go to local authorities for developing recreation facilities, open spaces or play facilities, but what happens to those facilities when the money runs out? In my own area funding was allocated for a playground but the difficulty was that no one was appointed to open and close the playground. For nearly two or three years we had a playground which the children could not use, which was like waving sweets in front of children. Subsequently, somebody set fire to many of the facilities in the playground.

If local authorities were adequately funded, Dundalk Town Council, for example, would not have had to apply to this fund to develop playground facilities. It would provide these facilities, as would all local authorities. It is wrong of the Government to hold up this measure as a major contribution to addressing inequality. I agree with Deputy Boyle that it is a sticking plaster approach to the problem and should not be a supplement to long-term programmes that should be in place. Those programmes are not in place, however, and as a result, as exposed in a major report published last week, some 15% of children under 15 are affected by poverty.

To address that inequality we need policy change grounded on a rights based ethos. Massive improvements in education provision and targeted training and employment for disadvantaged areas and an equitable health system are needed. This fund is no substitute for those fundamental reforms. Without these changes, people will continue to receive only crumbs from the table.

My points relate to the fund, as it stands. Overall, I do not have a difficulty with the way it was administrated. However, I have a major problem with the changes proposed in the Bill. The Minister and the Government are giving themselves increased powers in terms of deciding which projects should or should not receive grants. That is a definite step backwards. The dormant accounts fund has been described as a slush fund or a possible election treasure trove. People can call it what they will. The Government defends it by stating that they are obliged to adhere to strict conditions but the fact remains that, under the legislation, the final say rests with the Minister. He will be presented with a list of projects and he will have the power to grant funding to some but not to others. We are creating a similar situation to that which obtains in respect of sports capital grants, in respect of which the relevant Minister has even more power in terms of doling out the goodies.

Under the Bill, the Minister must have regard to the plan for disbursement presented annually by the board. However, he will not be obliged to abide by it and the final say in respect of all projects will rest with him. This is not a personal criticism of the Minister; it could apply to any of his counterparts.

The second major difficulty with the Bill relates to the appointment of the board. We have again been presented with legislation under which all members of a board will be ministerial appointees. Provision is not made for application or open competition for these places. It is disgraceful that provision is not made for representation on the board from those working in the community and voluntary sector. Involvement of such people would strengthen the board because it is that sector which administrates these funds when they are allocated. These individuals work in youth centres, playgroups, adult education groups, disability groups, etc., but they have no say in planning where funding should go. They should have a real and direct input into the annual disbursement plans but it appears the Government wants to hold all the strings.

The Minister argued that he should have a say in this and so on. I see this in the same light as the decision to cut off funding for the community workers co-op to which Deputy Boyle referred. It seems the Government wants to keep all community groups in their local boxes in order that they will not communicate with each other and develop a common approach. The Government will, therefore, not be obliged to come to terms with any real alternative approach to its social policies. The Minister stated, in respect of the community co-op, that community groups and workers were represented. That is nonsense, particularly if one considers the work that was being done. The work to which I refer involved co-ordination and establishing links between different groups, which is vital in the community sector.

The Minister defends the Bill by stating that the fund must be administered. Nobody objects to the fund being administrated more efficiently and in a more accountable manner. However, he and the Government are treating the fund like a bag of goodies to be handed out. Government Deputies will parade around constituencies boasting about their generosity and that of the Minister. We have seen this before. They act as if it is their money and as if they are giving it away out of the goodness of their hearts. This is people's money and it should be used in a properly planned, fair, accountable and effective way. The type of behaviour to which I refer demeans not only those who engage in it but also politics and politicians in general.

The Bill is a recipe for poor planning, unfairness, unaccountability and ineffectiveness. The Government's approach will become more piecemeal and more open to favouritism. I may be wrong but that is my reading of the Bill. I remind the Government of what the former Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, stated when the original legislation to establish the fund was introduced in 2002, namely:

To get away from the problem of having the Government blamed as having a slush fund, it has been decided to establish a board of trustees. This board will distribute the money, subject to guidelines and without the direction from the Government.

We are now moving the goalposts. What Deputy McCreevy said was somewhat rich, given that Punchestown was his pet project. However, he clearly identified the need for independence from Government. This has now been thrown out the window and the dormant accounts fund is being treated like a pork barrel, as they say in America. What we are seeing is pork barrel politics. The dormant accounts fund is a slush fund. The Bill should be withdrawn and the Minister should listen to the Opposition and those working in the community sector. If it is not withdrawn, we will have no choice but to reject it.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill, which is important legislation. This debate should form part of our efforts to redress the balance and divert funds to the most needy in our society. This legislation is a wealth tax and it is important that the additional resources to which it will give rise will be directed towards the disadvantaged and services for people with disabilities. We should not be behind the door and I demand that the extra revenue that will accrue should be pumped into the areas of most need. Again, however, I warn of wastage.

The Bill proposes to amend existing dormant accounts legislation, principally in respect of decisions on disbursements from the dormant accounts fund and also the role of the dormant accounts fund disbursals board. The objectives underpinning disbursements from the fund will, in a move I support, remain unchanged. These core objectives are to assist persons who are socially, economically or educationally disadvantaged or who have a disability. These objectives are an important part of the strategy. I make no apologies for taking money from the fund and spending it in the areas to which I refer.

Let us consider the position of the economically and educationally disadvantaged. We must roll up our sleeves and take action. There is no point trying to make up figures about poverty and disadvantage. The priority in this State is the 66,000 children living in extreme poverty. Surely the Government can take action in terms of reducing that figure. I have put a number of proposals to the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Brennan, in respect of this issue and I understand he has stated on a number of occasions that his door is open to those who make constructive suggestions. In that context, I reiterate that we must target the 66,000 children living in poverty.

The second priority must be to deal with those children whose families have low incomes. Resources must be targeted at these families. There is no point in spreading the wealth around willy-nilly. If we do not take action in respect of educational disadvantage and poverty, we will damage society — particularly young people and children — and be obliged to spend more money to build additional prisons.

On the subject of child poverty, I strongly disagree with Dr. Ed Walsh of the University of Limerick who commented in recent days on single parents and their connection with crime and poverty. I worked in the inner city for 20 years and I served as principal of a small school in an extremely disadvantaged area. The school in question was one of the poorest in the country. It was assessed by the Combat Poverty Agency and was listed as one of the 33 most needy in the State. However, I had an extremely positive experience with the single parents whose children attended the school. I would not have been able to run the school without the help of the parents' council, on which many single parents served and did a great job. These people lived in blocks of flats where addicts shot up heroin in stairwells. However, their children came to school every day, dressed in their uniforms and with their homework done. These children were described as disadvantaged. Their parents played a blinder in their community and also in terms of being a back-up resource for me in the school. I challenge Dr. Walsh's assertions and I question his statistics and analysis. I accept that there are dysfunctional children in single parent families. However, there are also dysfunctional children in so-called two-parent families.

If we target the resources early, we can stop crime and eliminate disadvantage. It is important that if resources are being disbursed, particularly in the educational field, children between two and five years of age are targeted. There is no point in tackling the problem when they are in fifth and sixth classes and aged nine to 11 when the damage is done. At that stage those with a major dysfunctional problem or who are involved in anti-social behaviour are already on the way to Mountjoy Prison. The dormant accounts money and all disbursements should be targeted at the most needy in society and put into pre-school education. I know there are many examples of good practice in this regard and I commend the people who have done this over the years.

The Bill proposes that the reconstituted board retain responsibility for preparation of the disbursement plan. It should periodically review and assess the effectiveness of the plan and the extent to which its objectives have been achieved. That is an important section because we must deal with the effectiveness of the plan and the extent to which its objectives have been achieved. There is no point in spending money in particular areas and throwing it at issues if it cannot be accounted for and there is no assurance it is going to the most needy. I commend the people working in disadvantaged areas, particularly in primary schools, on the way they account every June to the Department of Education and Science for the extra, €6,000 or €7,000 spent on out-of-school activities to look after poor children. They account for every single penny. In comparison, the way some Ministers squander money is an absolute disgrace. On those issues I commend the people who are accountable.

The Bill also proposes that the reconstituted board should "prepare reports on the additionally of the spend". The board shall comprise 11 members with the knowledge or experience relevant to its functions and to be appointed by the Minister. I urge the Minister when making appointments to such boards to take into account that it is important to have the right people who should be committed and have their eyes on the ball. As regards the targeting of resources, we should also look at the plight of Travellers in our society. I thank my 18 colleagues from the Dáil and Seanad who last week joined the Oireachtas support group for Travellers' interests. Part of our focus will be to ensure that Travellers are brought into the mainstream of society. This is something that must be tackled and dealt with head on. I also encourage my colleagues in local authorities to be brave in some of the decisions they make. There is no excuse nowadays for having children living on the side of the road without toilets or water. The figure is small and if the political will exists, the problem can be tackled. I commend the Members of the Oireachtas who have become involved in this group. I hope all the Ministers in the Cabinet will listen to the different issues that arise in this regard over the next 12 months.

The new section 34 of the principal Act as inserted by section 7 of the Bill provides that the Minister may remove a board member, including the chairperson, if that person "has become incapable through ill-health of performing his or her functions or has committed stated misbehaviour, or if the member's removal from office appears to the Minister to be necessary for the effective performance of the Board's functions". This section is very important because one cannot have people on board who are not committed to the issues. Neither can there be anyone on board dealing with the disbursements of such funds who has any type of track record of serious misbehaviour. The new section 34 also provides that "A member of the board ceases to be qualified for ... and ... hold office if [he or she] is adjudicated bankrupt, makes ... arrangement with creditors, is ... sentenced to imprisonment, or is disqualified or restricted from being a [company] director ...".

The new section 38 of the principal Act as inserted by section 7 of the Bill provides that persons who are nominated to Seanad Éireann or are elected as Members of the Oireachtas, the European Parliament or a local authority may not hold office as board members. I welcome that even though I know some people might have reservations about it. I see that as a positive step. It obviates the risk of political influence. It is important to ensure that one has people committed to the ethos of the legislation, whether it is from the viewpoint of educational disadvantage, people with disabilities or services for the most needy. That section provides for matters I believe are important.

The new section 39 of the principal Act as inserted by section 7 of the Bill provides that the board, subject to ministerial approval, may engage such consultants, advisers or support staff as are necessary for the performance of its functions. I have reservations about that section because I become concerned when I see phrases such as "subject to ministerial approval, may engage such consultants, advisers" etc. This is a wake up call. A sufficiently bad image has been created in this House regarding the spending of money on advisers and consultants. I advise the Minister to be extremely careful with section 39 because he is leaving himself wide open. He must ensure there is accountability, effectiveness, leadership and people committed to the area.

Section 12 of the Bill provides for the chairperson of the former board to remain accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts in respect of disbursements by that board. This is an important section, dealing with the Committee of Public Accounts. As well as being accountable to the Cabinet, it is vital the board is accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts in which we can scrutinise, cross-examine and deal with the issues raised. We can also challenge and question the spending of the money. Again, the priority must be the poorest children and the most needy in society. We must also be creative, in dealing with issues such as poverty, disadvantage and housing. As for people's rights and civil liberties, there was an interesting debate yesterday in the House. We should seriously examine the idea of adopting a rights-based approach when dealing with issues such as poverty, educational disadvantage, disabilities and related issues. The reality is that we have a very prosperous and wealthy country with unemployment at a low level. However, there is a small core section of society at which resources and services could be targeted. The public, as citizens and taxpayers, will recognise the wisdom of such an approach and it would be a major boost for our society.

There are some very positive elements in this legislation. I have criticised certain parts as well. Overall, I believe the Bill could be tougher, tighter and somewhat more democratic. I urge the Minister and the Cabinet to target the money available at the people who need it most.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I, too, am delighted to make a contribution to the debate on this Bill. I compliment my good friend, Deputy Finian McGrath, on his reasonable approach. Perhaps he should print his speech and give it to his colleagues on the Opposition side who might read it with some interest.

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I am going soft.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I am glad the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Noel Ahern, is present, because I am always happy to congratulate him on the work he is doing. Representing the constituency of Dublin South-West, I am aware of his efforts, particularly in housing and programmes counteracting drug difficulties. He has been especially supportive of the Tallaght community in that regard and I am happy to acknowledge this and to wish him well.

The Minister in his contribution set the tone for this debate in which he pointed out that the Government has continued the good work of previous Administrations in introducing various programmes and measures to tackle disadvantage and exclusion in our society. He went on to say the dormant accounts scheme was one such measure and made the point that everybody in the House welcomed the introduction of the original legislation which established a framework for the use of unclaimed moneys in financial institutions to assist the less well-off in society. That sums it up and that is what we are about.

I am surprised by some of remarks made by colleagues about dormant accounts. I was of the view that the scheme was being welcomed by community groups that wished to make a difference and which sought moneys for that purpose. On the point about political interference, again I was struck by the manner in which the disbursements were made and announced which was in stark contrast to old-style behaviour, if that is what people are complaining about. The manner in which the fund is being administered is quite healthy in that regard. Other Members made the point about the great work that is achievable with moneys from this source. Like my colleagues, I have watched with interest the various disbursements in my constituency. In the Tallaght area in particular a number of organisations have warmly welcomed, as I do, the different announcements. For example, the Tallaght Centre for the Unemployed was particularly pleased to get a grant for its community bus.

Like my colleagues, I have watched with interest the various disbursements in my constituency. In the Tallaght area in particular, a number of organisations have warmly welcomed, as I do, the different announcements. For example, the Tallaght Centre for the Unemployed, in the village, was especially pleased to get a grant for its community bus. It was warmly welcomed by the wider commmunity. Similarly, the work of the Tallaght volunteer bureau has been greatly assisted by the dormant accounts funds, as well as by other Government funding. This group provides a tremendous service in the Tallaght region and is operating from a full-time office in Tallaght village.

My colleague, Deputy Curran, and I made a case to the Dublin community games organisation to do something positive in our major population centres for the development of sports in the area. We were delighted that the dormant accounts board recently disbursed €80,000 to the Dublin community games organisation so that it could set up a system in Tallaght and Clondalkin and employ a full-time development officer for the next 18 months. It is very important that we support such development.

Many of us bring our experiences to our work in the Dáil. I have no difficulty in remembering that I came from a community background. I was not born a politician and because I did not have a pretty face I had to go about my work in a different manner. I brought my experiences in Tallaght and Crumlin to my politics. I was full-time press officer for the National Youth Federation and I spent ten years as national press officer for the community games. That background assists my work in helping the various community groups with which I deal. I know I have mentioned Tallaght the odd time, but I also represent Brittas, Templeogue, Greenhills and Firhouse. There is a tremendous community spirit in those areas. In the greater Tallaght region, there are many organisations which I am happy to support. It is getting even more difficult nowadays to get volunteers as the economy is doing well and people are at work. There is less time for people to give to community endeavour. We have to stress that volunteerism is very important, whether it is in Waterford, Cork, the north inner city or Tallaght.

There are still pockets in many communities where the little boats still need assistance in a situation where all boats are rising. There are many communities in my constituency where we need to make that point. In doing that work, I have followed the example of my colleague, former Deputy Chris Flood, whom I succeeded and who spent 15 years in the Dáil until 2002 and was Minister with responsibility for local development. He always took the view that we need to support the policy of social inclusion. I am glad I have made my own efforts in that regard. I can speak of the estates of west Tallaght, such as Killinarden, Brookfield, Jobstown and Fettercairn in my own parish. Other communities include Avonbeg, Bolbrooke, Avonmore, St. Dominic's and Homelawn in the Tymon north area. As part of my work with colleagues in the Dáil and in the local authority, we continue to stress the need to assist these communities.

The dormant accounts fund provides an opportunity to do that. They provide us with the means and the funding to make a difference. We must seek out those disadvantaged communities and ensure that the money goes to those projects that make a difference. When everything is perfect, the Government and agencies might look at it in a different way. I am of the view that we should discriminate against those disadvantaged communities which need help lifting their boats.

We are now beginning to make a difference in my constituency and to provide those facilities to which the people are entitled. At the beginning of my political career on Dublin City Council in 1991, I was very critical of Dublin Corporation. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Ahern, loves Dublin Corporation so he will not want me to say too much. I made the point that there were absentee landlords who had built 5,000 houses in Tallaght. No one in City Hall gave a damn and those of us who campaigned made the point that they had to be accountable. We should not just build houses and forget about the need for facilities and services. We have made much progress in that regard.

Since the Square opened in Tallaght in 1990, there has been much progress. People in disadvantaged communities have been able to take account of all the facilities that have been built. Tallaght is now a very vibrant community. It still has its problems like anywhere else, but we are making progress. Disbursements from Government have to continue, particularly from the dormant accounts fund.

Some colleagues have been critical of this Bill and that is fine in a democracy, but we should be careful how we deal with these issues. I see no point in throwing out the baby with the bath water where there are difficulties. In every legislation, even Fianna Fáil backbenchers have queries and concerns. I have never been afraid to make those points while I have been here. Having read this legislation, I believe that the Minister is on the right track. If it is a question of dotting the odd "i" and crossing the odd "t". I know the Minister is amenable to suggestions and will always be happy to consult.

I get a sense that community groups throughout the country will have suggestions to make, and I am particularly interested in those in Dublin South-West which will have points of view to express on this legislation. I hope that the Department will still be open to receiving those suggestions. Despite what we have heard in this debate so far, I suspect that many groups will claim that the Government is going in the right direction. This is all about providing facilities and services in circumstances where they might not otherwise be provided.

It was also the intention with regard to lottery funding. Over the years "lottery funding" was an abused term and I often heard people, as I heard them again today, talking about slush funds and so forth. It is a fact, however, that good use has been made of those funds through successive Administrations. It is important to acknowledge that and not go overboard on the matter.

I attended the meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children this morning and I have listened to this debate in the House. It appears that my Opposition colleagues have suddenly become paranoid about the next general election. I reminded some of them this morning that, according to my calculations, there are at least 800 before it is due to be held. I do not know where the paranoia originates. It is rather early for the Opposition to get into a panic about it.

It should be remembered that the Government is working on delivering its programme. With regard to the legislation being introduced, it is a case of business as usual. While I am the last to lecture my colleagues, although sometimes one is tempted, I believe we should calm down, conduct our business, deliver our programme and conduct reasonable debates. I will always engage in them. However, we should do our job and ensure that the legislation we pass is good for our communities. As my colleague, Senator Ormonde, says, we must give the people what they want. That principle should govern all Members.

The Bill regulates the disbursement of massive amounts of public money which has been left in dormant accounts. The Minister is right to put the current ad hoc arrangement on a statutory basis. Despite the political points which must be made, I hope Members accept that. The Minister and the Minister of State at the Department of Rural, Community and Gaeltacht Affairs and all other Ministers who have responsibility under this legislation must ensure that money is allocated in a proper fashion. They will ultimately be responsible to the Oireachtas while those holding temporary positions on the board will have no such responsibility.

The proposal to ensure that existing structures are used is sensible. There have been too many situations where substantial amounts of money provided for the establishment of new organisations and jobs have been spent on administration. The Bill will ensure that the cost of distribution will be kept to a minimum with the maximum amount of money being given to those in need of it. When one considers the effect of the fund on the various schemes, it is clear that areas of particular disadvantage have benefited greatly, as they should. The schemes have been administered by the Department, not independent boards or specially commissioned quangos.

Communities have benefited, particularly those in areas designated for the RAPID programme. There are RAPID programmes in Killinarden, Fettercairn and Jobstown in Tallaght and in nearby Clondalkin. It is right that those communities would continue to benefit from these funds. We could spend substantial amounts of money administering these schemes but we would then have to explain to the people who are seeking a playground so their children will not have to play on busy roads that the money was spent on administration. The thrust of this legislation is concerned with the need for the Government to take responsibility for implementing the approaches for which it was elected.

I referred earlier to communities in the Tallaght area but I am aware that the Bill is considered equally important for every community throughout the country. I wish the groups throughout the country who are seeking to benefit from the dormant accounts well. When I was preparing this contribution I was tempted to list the organisations in Tallaght who have submitted applications and are waiting patiently by their phones for news about disbursements. However, I decided not to do so and put pressure on the groups concerned. We must continue to ensure that the organisations who need the funds and who have the will and the means to implement their programmes will continue to be funded. As with all grant schemes, it should not be about topping up or administration but about providing services and facilities in environments where they might not otherwise be provided.

I wish the Minister of State well and I support the legislation. He has listened to the Members' contributions and I am confident that where genuine points have been raised on which he could be flexible, he will consider them. It is important, however, that we press forward. I have no problem with party political debates but this legislation is necessary. It will be welcomed, particularly by the groups that will benefit from it. The Minister of State should do his utmost to facilitate as many people as possible and implement the Bill.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I have not seen such bad legislation since I first became a Member of the Seanad seven years ago. It is simply a grab for money from people's pockets. There is a special type of money in the dormant account funds. It comes from the accounts of people who have died and have not used their money. It also comes from insurance policies which remain dormant because the person who would have been entitled to the money has passed on. The money does not come from taxation but from the pockets of ordinary people.

It is a great deal of money. A total of €60 million will be disbursed this year. The Minister showed such confidence in the existing board that he doubled its allocation from €30 million to €60 million. It is right and proper that the Government should decide on a policy issue with regard to what areas of the community should benefit most. It is also right and proper that the Government would indicate that it wants a significant percentage to be spent in RAPID areas, which is most welcome, and on various types of disadvantage. The Government has clear and unambiguous access to policy decisions of the board. It dictates the principles on which the money is disbursed, which is only correct.

It is also correct that ADM Limited assess the applications made by the public. Its assessments go before the board and the board issues a press release, e-mail or fax about its disbursements. I have received an e-mail whenever the board makes its disbursements. The e-mail lists each organisation that benefits and under which category it is allocated the money. There is transparency in how the money is disbursed. There is also transparency about Government policy directing how the money should be disbursed. There is satisfaction in the community with this, particularly the communities that get the funds.

Deputy O'Connor spoke about communities in Tallaght waiting by the phone for a call about whether they got the grant. From whom do they await a call? Is it from Deputy O'Connor or from the dormant accounts board? The board disburses the money, clearly, transparently and openly. There should be no hanging around waiting for phone calls and no writing of letters or whatever people will indulge in after this Bill is passed. We should have a 21st century political system. There should be complete transparency and openness.

The fundamental change in this process is that the Minister and the Government have taken on themselves the power to finally decide to whom this money goes. That is wrong. It is, at the least, open to being perceived as a slush fund. The first person to refer to a slush fund in the context of the dormant accounts fund was our European Commissioner and former Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy. He said from the place in which the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is sitting that to avoid any consideration that this was a slush fund, he was establishing the Dormant Accounts Disbursements Board. The Minister of State is now introducing legislation to make it a slush fund.

The communities which receive money from the fund are generally disadvantaged and need support. They are crying out for funding due to inadequate Government provisions. They need the money and support now and are happy with the system as it stands. Not one community of which I am aware has registered a complaint with the Department or board on disbursement procedures. The agenda is being set by the Minister of State and his associates and it is absolutely unacceptable.

I submitted a freedom of information request some months ago while I was still working in this area, which revealed no conflict, dissatisfaction, complaints or concerns about the transparency, openness and capacity of the organisation carrying out the work in question. There is no evidence in the Department's records of letters or e-mails demonstrating serious adverse comments on the manner in which the board has been doing its job. While the number of people on the board and the time they require to carry out their duties fully and satisfactorily are issues, there has never been a complaint or demand that their functions should be devolved to the political parties in power.

I saw no letter on behalf of a disadvantaged community asking the Government to communicate through its local Fianna Fáil or Progressive Democrats Deputy or Senator. No letter was written stating that a reply was awaited from a particular politician or asking that a Deputy or Senator call to a person's house to say whether money would be provided from the fund. Ministers, Ministers of State and Government Deputies and Senators will now trapeze around constituencies delivering cheques to the disadvantaged or disability groups with the greatest need for the money and the least need for a patronising approach by the Government.

In the 21st century politics change day by day. The people are not fools and will not be codded anymore by the Government's carry-on. They know what the Government is up to and will not wear it. When I open the newspapers to see Deputy X pirouette on the football field or Senator Y seeking publicity, I will say "Shame on the Minister of State and the Government for this despicable act". This is not the Government's money. It belongs to ordinary people and should be disbursed according to the proper, efficient, effective and transparent mechanisms which currently operate.

I do not know how the Minister of State has the gall to sit in the House and push through this legislation. The Government has reached its lowest ebb. While we will protest in the strongest possible way and make our points firmly to the Government, we know it has the votes to pass this Bill. The people will not forgive the Government. Moneys from the national lottery's sports fund were disbursed politically. According to information obtained under freedom of information procedures, the list of clubs to receive money in a certain county was rearranged to ensure that those closest to the Minister received the largest sums. I remember looking at the list and money was granted to clubs for buildings which were never even constructed. Such activities must stop now. The voluntary community is a pillar of our society and is entitled to be free of political patronage and the intent of the provisions of the Bill. There was no argument in the Minister of State's speech to support the Government's actions other than raw political expediency. I very much regret that the Government has sunk so desperately low.

It is not just the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, who are to blame. While responsibility for dormant accounts currently rests within their Department and specifically with the Minister of State, the Minister is losing his power in this area at the Cabinet table. Under the new system, all Ministers sitting around the Cabinet table will set out their targets and make gains for their local areas. Disbursements will be decided politically, which is wrong. There is no argument to support this approach. The Minister of State spoke about transparency, but it will only exist after the event. We will not see transparency until three months after the election is over when we will be told everything has been audited. While the cheques will have been delivered, hopefully the votes will not have been counted in the Government's favour. Ministers will decide in Cabinet with marginal constituencies should be provided with money to secure seats. The Government will attempt to ensure that certain communities have their needs satisfied by bringing them to the top of the list while forgetting about people with equal if not greater needs.

There is no better or fairer system than the current one to assess equality of need and measure applications objectively and transparently. I urge the Minister of State to change his mind even on this Stage and to have the humility to withdraw his Bill. That is what the public will insist on. We will tell people on the doorsteps in the by-election campaign in Meath and Kildare of the Government plans as they must know exactly what it is up to, and the Government will receive its answer there.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to make a brief contribution on this Bill as the Chairman of the Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. I find it fascinating that a fellow politician would insinuate or make the accusation that politicians cannot be impartial. From what has been said, it appears that all politicians are incapable of being fair. I refute those remarks and do not wish to be associated with them. They are very unfair. It is a very sad day for politics if we are to spend a considerable amount of time undermining each other and the concept that we can be impartial and fair in presenting the case for our constituents. It is sad to imply that Ministers cannot consider assessments and sign off on what has been agreed by a body without some ulterior motive.

Prior to the launch a week ago of a report on volunteerism in Ireland, the committee which I chair spent a great deal of time listening to voluntary agencies. We found that one of the major problems they faced in the context of funding involved the multiplicity of people both within and outside Departments to whom application for funding must be made. Applications were required to be assessed by a significant number of groups, organisations and State bodies. One of our key findings was that ad hoc, multi-agency funding makes it difficult for organisations to plan ahead. We recommended that all funding for voluntary organisations and volunteering should be channelled exclusively through the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to improve efficiency and transparency. Funding commitments should be entered into over a number of years which would greatly facilitate the monitoring of State expenditure. We agreed on this report which issued more than a week ago. The streamlining of the administration of funds was debated and we went on the presentations made by various groups. I am, therefore, surprised the Opposition spokespersons did not allude to this. However, this issue can be debated on Committee Stage. It has not come out of the woodwork without warning. Our committee spent months examining the issues facing voluntary groups and individuals who seek funding.

While I reject the accusation that politicians are untrustworthy, we give away many powers to ensure we have nothing to do with taking decisions and, therefore, the people given the powers are more accountable to the House than its Members. However, the public can only get rid of Members and not the individuals to whom such powers have been delegated. We are Members for the duration of a Dáil, however long that may be, and we are not on three or five-year contracts. We were lucky the previous Dáil lasted five years but on many occasions the Dáil has dissolved more quickly than that. The system is wrong and, as Deputy O'Dowd stated, this will be pointed out by the public during the upcoming by-election campaigns. If we make decisions, we should be accountable for them, particularly when we go to the electorate.

I agree that the amount of the fund is important. Many agencies do good work and they fund essential projects. I was asked to comment at the conclusion of the PEACE II programme about the development of a PEACE III programme. I replied that the opening of a new premises is always a grand occasion but often a few years down the line I am contacted by the people running it to say they have nobody to manage it. Volunteers are not available because they have become fed up or they cannot manage the workload. When a significant sum of money is involved, it is important that a strategic, sustainable approach is adopted regarding its disbursement.

People should examine what happened under the PEACE I and II programmes by visiting the old projects and asking those running them how they are getting on and what are their needs. New projects are continually invented. People are excited about them and a great deal of effort goes into them but the planning and development of such projects is an issue. I was contacted earlier by two different groups who have beautiful facilities but who do not have somebody to manage them and do not know where to obtain funding for such posts. If this fund allocated moneys to pay personnel for a year, does that give people false hope and string them along for another year?

A strategic approach for the next ten years should be adopted whereby groups are not tied over until the next round of funding because there will be a time funding will not be available from as many agencies. As Deputy McGinley will acknowledge, Border counties can access sources of funding that many other counties cannot. Once off decisions are okay and we have a day out when projects are launched. I could list many worthwhile projects in my area but we must be seen to spend money strategically to ensure each project is sustainable and not funded in the interest of short-term political security and glory, as was alluded to by Opposition Members. We are looking for the day out the with cup of tea and a sandwich. We are members of communities and we will still have to go before those communities for election. There should be long-term planning for projects which we celebrate and laud when funding is sanctioned.

Deputy McGinley referred to pet projects. Under the national lottery and sports capital programmes, the Minister has emphasised the transparency of the application process. All applications are subject to the freedom of information process and groups can establish where their applications failed. It is disingenuous to make the accusation that every application is subject to a political lottery. I am slightly taken aback that Deputy McGinley is upset that Donegal received significant funding under the national lottery programme.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Kerry is ten times better off.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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Donegal has deserved significant funding under this programme. All the applications fulfilled the necessary criteria and thus received funding. Even following the resignation of Deputy McDaid as a Minister of State, significant funding was allocated to County Donegal and I am confident that will continue.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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Kerry is ten times better off.

3:00 pm

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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If Deputy McGinley is concerned about pet projects, perhaps he should highlight projects that should not have obtained funding in the past. Every project I have visited deserved funding and they should receive multiples of their current funding.

It is not popular to criticise funding agencies and to quiz their decisions or approaches to applications. However, I am concerned about continuity and the strategic approach to projects in terms of what happens in five or ten years rather than in 18 months. If every Member debated the funding issue rather than playing politics with it, they would agree funding agencies overlap and a number of projects fall between two stools. These issues must be addressed by the new board, the Government and whoever will progress the board's programme. Communities identify what they want, contact a funding agency and sometimes they get what they want while on other occasions a feasibility study is granted. The money is then spent on a report outlining what the communities know anyway and, therefore, the report adds to information that is known as opposed to recommending solutions. This is similar to not awarding grants to students who pursue a second degree course or a lesser qualification. It may not happen in all cases, but it does happen. I know of cases where people have cried halt because although there are many reports the money is not available for the projects on which they want money spent. There is an overlap in some funding and falling between stools in terms of other levels of funding.

I take this opportunity to mention those who come out of the woodwork to volunteer to present and put together the applications for community ventures. The voluntary effort in all our communities is significant. We spent months considering the work of volunteers before putting together the report. I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is here and that we will have an opportunity before Committee Stage to consider the issues of volunteering and volunteers. Our report made straightforward recommendations to keep the volunteers we have, to encourage other volunteers and to send out the good message that not only does volunteering help the community but there is also an added bonus for the volunteer.

In that context, I often meet people who have gone through the process of trying to get an application from A to Z to get their project up and running. Some of these people are weary. Perhaps two or three of those seeking funds for projects have different impressions of what they want in the end and a tussle develops between what one or the other funded. The people caught in the middle are the volunteers. They are not professional funding people but ordinary people who have given up their time to try to do something for their community.

Streamlined funding application processes mean those applying for funds must have the ability to make the application and get the project done. There are a number of very frustrated people who have put much time into projects, but have got caught on petty details. There can be petty jealousies within their community and petty problems between the multiple funding agencies. These are issues which can stand in the way of volunteers. Some people have come to me about particular projects and said that if they knew at the start what it was going to be like, they would never have started. However, I know that when there is a conclusion, when the door opens and the project gets up and running, they get over their worst feelings.

One thing about the Bill that I would change is the proposal that all the members of the board must have knowledge or experience of matters relevant to the board's functions. In as much as we try so hard to keep politicians away from decision making and decision taking, we try to ensure that these boards are made up of people who on paper are incredibly intellectual and knowledgeable. This may not be a fair representation of what is meant in this Bill. However, I know from speaking to ordinary people on the ground that they think it would be much more useful to have the normal person on the board who has tried to get a grant, to have someone with that experience on it.

The Opposition often feels it must challenge the appointments made to boards, no matter if they have been selected from Who's Who, because it feels the Minister might know the person. Often, a person who has no qualifications on paper but who has on-the-ground experience of trying to do the type of work for which the board is responsible has as much to offer. Therefore, I wonder whether it is necessary that all board members should be whizz kids or expert in the dormant accounts area.

Form filling is another issue that causes a difficulty for individual projects. We have had the PNR in our area and I could list the wonderful projects that have been developed under that.

As Mr. Willie McCarter retires this month as chairman of the International Fund for Ireland, I acknowledge the solid projects to which that fund contributed, for example, a car ferry across the Foyle that carried 700,000 passengers in the first two years of its existence. This project came about as a result of the agreement by Mr. Charlie McCreevy to release European funds, supported by the International Fund for Ireland. That is a sustainable project. It has brought the two sides of the Foyle together, new tourism interests and reconciliation on all levels because people go to shop on both sides of the Border. This is the type of project people like to see because they know it will still be there in ten, 12 or 15 years' time and will have fulfilled an important need.

We must look at the bigger picture. In the week that is in it I would like to acknowledge the huge job done by Mr. Willie McCarter. Some people might say that he lives in Inishowen and that much of the money probably went there because of that. That is not true because he was totally impartial. However, that accusation would not be made as fast as if he was a Minister from Inishowen with responsibility for the disbursement of dormant accounts funds.

On the matter of the 420 projects and the €42 million already spent, my area of Inishowen has a population of 30,000, the same size population as Counties Leitrim or Louth, and covers a broad area, yet only small parts of the area got into the CLÁR programme on the second evaluation of that programme. Much of Inishowen is not in the CLÁR area, yet in overall terms it has suffered one of the greatest declines in the textile industry in the country and, therefore, significant job losses. However, the area covered by CLÁR is small, it does not have a RAPID programme and it is not in a drugs task force area.

Location should be a consideration. I know there are criteria in terms of social and economic disadvantage and in terms of disability. We have many projects relating to disability and I hope the disability aspect of the funds will not be placed third or fourth in comparison to that of the task force or the CLÁR and RAPID area status. Many of the projects waiting for funding, including many in my constituency, are not under consideration currently on the basis that they have not prioritised under the criteria set down. However, I believe they are as eligible as many of the areas in central Dublin or elsewhere that are so designated.

Retrospection should be an element of this Bill. We should look at projects post-funding to see how they have done. I think an element of this is provided for in the Bill. There should be a facility for the newly constituted board to look back after funding has been granted. This is one of the issues put forward by the Opposition which is concerned that projects will be chosen politically, which I refute. At least, there must be retrospection in terms of checking years later to see how the money was spent, whether it was well spent and whether further funding is needed.

It may not be popular to say this, but a few projects well carried out is better than a plethora of unsustainable projects. It is better to have a strategic approach so that we can stand over the fact that the projects will be there into the future. We have some examples of this, but we also have examples of projects where people have been left high and dry after getting the good news story and a good day's celebration with the tea, red ribbon and scissors. Sporting organisations and many others know what it is like to have a wonderful facility with nobody to run it.

This issue should be central to this Bill. We must have a system where we can challenge on the floor of the House, or through the Votes of the Ministers in the Estimates each year. I expect to see much more of this Bill before we finish and hope the Minister will be open to the tweaking of issues that genuinely need tweaking. I look forward to working with him and bringing the Bill through Committee Stage.

Photo of John DeasyJohn Deasy (Waterford, Fine Gael)
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I do not expect the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, to remember every letter he receives from Deputies. I will remind him of a letter I sent him early last year concerning the allocation of money from the dormant accounts fund. I made the suggestion that serious consideration should be given to the notion that the money would be used for the provision of radiotherapy services in the south east. The Minister of State was kind enough to acknowledge the letter and respond to it. He made it clear that the current tranche of funding had been allocated but stated that it could be considered once further legislation had been passed. He also explained the advertising process and other aspects of the system.

I do not know if the Minister of State is aware that the Tánaiste met the Cancer Care Alliance two or three days ago. It was the opinion of those who met her, and of other people, that the perspective on this matter has changed. Previously the provision of radiotherapy in regional treatment centres was not looked upon favourably in Government circles but the Tánaiste appears to take a different view. An application should be made for funding for radiotherapy services, especially in view of the apparent shift which has taken place. This is an opportunity to deal with this matter. Speculation on the amount of money required varies. Some people say a linear accelerator would cost between €2 million and €3 million while others say it would cost €10 million. Whatever the cost, it is time to deal with this matter.

Following the meeting it was reported that departmental officials had expressed concern as to where funding would be found. The dormant accounts fund would be a perfect way to solve the problem once and for all.

At the meeting it was made clear by the Tánaiste that she would prefer a public private partnership. A couple of private entities have put together plans for the building of a radiotherapy centre in a private facility in Waterford. We have not had a definitive answer from Government as to whether it would pay for public patients who are catered for in a private facility but whatever we end up with, this is the perfect solution to the problem of financing the project.

In his reply to my letter the Minister of State referred to the purpose of the fund being to benefit those affected by economic and social disadvantage, educational disadvantage and people with disabilities. In this case we are talking about people who are dying because they have to travel long distances. I assume Deputy O'Shea has had a similar experience of people coming into his office who are dying because of the journey they have to make from Waterford to Dublin for radiotherapy. Doctors will confirm that travelling, be it in a taxi or minibus, is killing these people.

The previous speaker referred to criticism about transparency in the allocation of funding. I am not interested in that. I am not bothered about who makes the decision but this issue must be on the Minister's radar screen. This is a good suggestion of how to deal with the funding aspect of this problem once and for all.

The Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, is not from Waterford but he understands the political issues that exist in Waterford and the south east when it comes to radiotherapy. It is time the Government parties dealt with this matter. There is no need to remind him that Fianna Fáil has only one councillor out of 15 on the city council. The provision of radiotherapy services impacted on the local elections. He does not need a lecture from me about local politics but I remind him that this matter is worth dealing with and I believe this is the way to do it. I would welcome a guarantee that funding would at least come from some source.

I have been criticised for not saying a great deal about radiotherapy. I have tried not to politicise this issue. However, when I say something I usually end up being criticised for what I say. If the result of this legislation is that Ministers would have more input in the process then I suggest that the Minister of State would take this on board and speak to officials in the Department of Health and Children. Funding must come from somewhere. One cannot just pluck it out of the air. I do not know if the estimate of in excess of €500 million is overblown in terms of unclaimed life assurance policies. If that is the case, these services could easily be provided within the remit of this funding.

I have been a Deputy for two and a half years and was a county councillor. We are anxious to deal with this issue. The next election is probably two years away. Now that the Tánaiste has changed the complexion of things in recent days it is time we dealt with the matter. I am tired of dealing with people who are dying and who have to travel to Dublin. This cannot be allowed to continue.

The previous speaker referred to the centralisation of Government funds. If money were disbursed regionally this matter would have been dealt with in the region by now. Radiotherapy services are badly needed. Almost every other area of cancer care and treatment already exists in Waterford Regional Hospital.

I will say no more as I am sure the Minister of State has got the point. I appreciate his reply to me and his explanation of the process as far as funding is concerned. We will ensure an application is made. I am not clear on how these decisions are made in Government circles. Some people say one thing while others say something else. I plead with the Minister of State to say whatever he can in response, although I do not expect him to be able to give a definitive answer. Perhaps somebody could speak to the Tánaiste or somebody else in the Department of Health and Children to sort this out between now and when the legislation is passed and applications are received. We are not talking about a great deal of money. The service is urgently needed. It is high time this matter was dealt with.

Photo of Peter KellyPeter Kelly (Longford-Roscommon, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Government's position on dormant accounts. It was a good idea that this money would not be left lying in banks but that it would be distributed to people affected by economic, social and educational disadvantage and people with disabilities. I am glad the banks did not get their hands on this money which was not rightfully theirs. Banks have enough money.

I compliment the Ministers involved in bringing the Bill to the House. I have worked with the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, and I know he is a man of social conscience. He is fully committed to helping people who are disadvantaged.

I welcome the Bill. It is right and proper that the disbursement of these funds is advertised so that everybody can be aware of them. Some people were unaware until recently that money could be obtained from the dormant accounts fund. This debate will highlight the fact that money is available from the dormant accounts fund. I also welcome the fact that each application will be processed and detailed and that the groups seeking funding will have an opportunity to put forward their case.

I also welcome politicians' political input into making representations on behalf of various bodies in their localities. As I travel the country, I find there is no one as aware or as knowledgeable as the local and national politicians in their own areas. I do not see how anyone could doubt or question the huge commitment which politicians make to the people and their areas, regardless of to which political party they belong. People are getting a good service from their politicians. Most of them work non-stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They are committed to their job, enjoy it and are good at it. Moreover, they have the faith of the people.

It is up to politicians of all political persuasions and parties to promote the dormant account fund so that money goes to the most disadvantaged people in their areas. The people of Longford-Roscommon have been slightly disappointed that more funding did not flow into the constituency from the dormant accounts fund given that Longford town is in a RAPID area. If we formulate policies to map the best way forward, they should be implemented. We should not have discussions and come up with papers and ideas if they are not pursued. It is important that when the people elect a Government on its policies, it should implement those in its programme for Government as mandated by the people. This would give the Government a chance to take responsibility for implementing strategies concerning that which it was elected to do. This is precisely what this Bill proposes.

I am surprised by the colossal amount of money which people have left lying in dormant accounts. Nonetheless, I welcome that the money will be spent properly and appropriately and will benefit people. In that respect, perhaps it is not a good idea to tell people not to retain dormant accounts. However, it is sad that people have placed money in accounts and left it there while they, their families or friends could have benefited from it when they were alive. Perhaps people should not hoard money so that, when they pass away, the money is of no advantage when they could instead have obtained some joy, pleasure or fun from it in their lifetime.

I welcome this good debate on the Bill because it highlights the fact that the fund exists at a national level. I compliment the members of the board and the other people involved with it on the work they have done. It is also critical that the board is being conferred with a new power to report on the additionality of disbursements. I welcome the Bill and commend it to the House. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, on his work on behalf of the country and the underprivileged. Long may he continue his work.

Jim Glennon (Dublin North, Fianna Fail)
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It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate on this Bill and I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing it before the House. As a former bank official in the dim and distant past, it was always a source of some considerable curiosity to me to see the amount of money in any single bank branch which was classified as dormant. For many years before the original Dormant Accounts Act came into being, serious questions had to be answered by the financial institutions about the system of classifying accounts as dormant. Sometimes these accounts arose in an innocent and genuine manner but there were other occasions on which the genesis of the accounts might not have been clad in such lily-white clothing.

The concept behind the original Dormant Accounts Bill and this one is very solid. The disbursement of moneys towards the less well-off sections of society is entirely apt and appropriate. When one considers the amount of money involved at present — something of the order of €200 million — it brings the issue home to anyone with an interest the level of imbalance that sometimes exists between the better-off and the less well-off.

It must also be stated that it is not always the better-off whose accounts are dormant. In many cases, dormant accounts arise from a genuine oversight on the part of ordinary decent people who either forget themselves or forget to inform their families what they have. I was not paying a great deal of attention to the debate on my monitor but I heard my colleague, the Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Keaveney, refer to certain statements which were made by Opposition Deputies suggesting that there may be something inappropriate about the manner in which these funds are disbursed. Such a suggestion in not only fundamentally wrong and inappropriate, it does no service to the profession of politics, ourselves as politicians, our democracy or those who make such statements. While I am a relative newcomer to politics, professional politicians have been only too quick to do down an opponent for petty political advantage. We often overlook the duty that we all have to our profession and its importance to the institution of democracy.

Debate adjourned.