Tuesday, 13 December 2005
Question 50: To ask the Minister for Finance if, in view of figures showing that fewer than one in nine civil servants wish to move with their jobs under the Government's decentralisation programme, his plans to review or adjust the programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39249/05]
I have no plans to change the scale or scope of the decentralisation programme. There have been approximately 10,600 applications for decentralisation so far. New applications are being received every week. For the past 14 months since the closing of the priority application period in September 2004, an average of 100 new applications have been received every month. I have no reason to believe that the rate of application will lessen as the central applications facility, CAF, remains open and continues to accept further new applications.
Using the statistic that few civil servants are moving with their posts is not accurate. It assumes that no one will move between Civil Service organisations. A career in the Civil Service for most people will encompass service in several Departments and different posts within those Departments. Many Civil Service organisations have a formally agreed mobility policy whereby people move post every five years or so.
Many civil servants have already transferred across Departments to decentralising posts in advance of transfers out of Dublin over the coming years. To date, more than 900 of the 7,200 civil servants are in place, over 30% of whom are in middle management and higher level grades.
To give the Deputy an example of how well the transfer system within Civil Service organisations works, I remind her of the information given by the Revenue Commissioners to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service last year. The Revenue Commissioners set up decentralised offices with 900 staff in the mid-west in the early 1990s. At the time, 10% to 12% of staff in the Collector General's office opted to relocate. If staff who were employed in other Revenue posts are included, that figure increases to 25%. As a result, 75% of decentralising staff were new to the Revenue organisation. The Revenue Commissioners looked on that as an opportunity to examine its internal efficiency. As a result of that exercise, significant improvements were made to processes, systems and work practices which were implemented in the course of decentralisation.
As the Deputy knows, the Collector General's office was decentralised without loss of efficiency or effectiveness, and it has risen to all the business challenges that have emerged in the past decade. I expect that Revenue's experience can be replicated in the current decentralisation process.
Does the Minister have any concerns, particularly regarding specialist agencies due to decentralise? I wish to mention two specifically, the first being the Development Co-operation Ireland division of the Department of Foreign Affairs. According to documentation released to me under the Freedom of Information Act 1997, no senior diplomats serving in that section and no senior specialists in foreign aid are willing to decentralise to Limerick. One must remember that they must also move regularly to take up posts in the rest of the world as Department of Foreign Affairs employees. Does the Minister share the fears expressed in the risk assessment regarding that section that the decentralisation process as planned, particularly by the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, will be "catastrophic", to quote the paper? This comes at a time, next year and the year after, when the Government is increasing development aid spending by €100 million per annum. The total will rise to approximately €600 million next year and continue to rise every year after.
FÁS information shows that six people out of 400 from that organisation's headquarters, many of whom are highly trained specialists, are willing to move. The Labour Party seeks a review of the implementation process. Is the Minister concerned enough to examine areas where there are significant problems regarding damage to the public service and to carry out an appropriate review?
As I said, the central applications facility has received approximately 10,600 applications. The breakdown between city and country is approximately 50-50. The latest progress report from the decentralisation implementation group, which is charged with advancing this Government initiative, came to us at the end of June 2005. We hope that, by the end of next year or early 2007, up to 1,000 staff will be in situ in decentralised locations. There are already 900 sitting behind desks in preparation and training for the move they will make. It is hoped beyond that, despite the challenges, to move another 2,000 by the end of 2007, giving a total of up to 3,000. That is the most recent progress report of the decentralisation implementation group. There are issues regarding the general service. We have had a successful culture of decentralisation before in the public service and we can draw on that experience and proceed fairly well.
There are three other broad areas that must be addressed. Regarding information and communications technology, particularly in the Revenue, the Department of Social and Family Affairs and the Department of Agriculture and Food, there is the question of analysing current applications and working with management and trade unions on proposals to fill shortfalls. That issue is ongoing as we continue with the simpler aspect of the task, namely, transferring general service people to decentralised locations, as was done in smaller-scale initiatives in the past.
Engagement with the trade unions is taking place regarding professional and technical staff, such as engineers, quantity surveyors in the Office of Public Works and environmental experts whom the Deputy mentioned regarding development co-operation. That will be a more difficult situation than with the general service, but we must sit down and work through the issues with professional and technical staff to see how we might proceed.
A third issue concerns the State-sponsored bodies where there has been less of a culture of relocation hitherto. People from the line Departments, the agencies and the trade unions have met to see how we might be able to introduce initiatives to ameliorate that situation. In that general context, we hope that the voluntary initiative will have put up to 3,000 people in place by the end of 2007. We must work through the issues with various categories where specific questions arise because of the traditional culture and background of the organisation or the fact that it was not involved in previous initiatives, and decide how to proceed with them. That is the position, and the progress report from the decentralisation implementation group at the end of June is the latest full assessment.
Does the Minister have an economic or financial assessment of the cost of so many significant sections or semi-State bodies with specific expertise refusing to move, given the Taoiseach's guarantee that decentralisation is voluntary and that people may stay in Dublin? Unless a review takes place, are we not heading for a repeat of the Cahirciveen situation regarding the Legal Aid Board where essentially there is a headquarters in Dublin and another in Cahirciveen? Interestingly, in the recent decentralisation moves, all the staff in Cahirciveen asked to be transferred to Killarney as part of their response to decentralisation. Will the Minister cost the impact of that in terms of the loss of effectiveness in the public service? In the case of development co-operation, as the Minister is aware people have to agree to transfer every three to five years to an overseas posting for up to four years on average, yet we are asking families in that situation to be trilocated, so to speak, to Dublin, Limerick and overseas.
Within Departments there will be certain assessments or views as matters stand in regard to issues but the Government has brought forward this initiative. We are committed to it. Previous coalition Governments, in which Fine Gael and Labour were involved, halted the decentralisation programmes and then cancelled them. When we returned to office in 1987 we reactivated them with great success. Far from compromising the effectiveness of the service, it has been a very good innovation within the service.
On a point of order, the record of the Labour Party in office on decentralisation is that we were involved in hugely successful decentralisation moves throughout the country with the Department of Social Welfare, the Revenue Commissioners——