Thursday, 8 November 2007
I welcome the interest of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in local economic and social development and the future of Partnership, Leader and other local companies. As a board member of the Northside Partnership in Bunratty Drive, Coolock, Dublin 17, I was disappointed and taken aback with the changes in the guidelines on the governance of integrated local development companies and urban based partnerships lodged in the non-statutory list of regulations in the Oireachtas library last week. This disappointment and unease is shared by other members and supporters of the Northside Partnership in the Dublin North-East and Dublin North-Central constituencies.
Our key concerns relate to the changes to the board structures given the importance of boards to the administration of successful and fully accountable companies. The cutback in the number of directors to be nominated by the national social partners to only two directors out of 20 in an urban company is a retrograde step, given the long-standing excellent support from local businesses and the trade union movement for the Northside Partnership and similar companies.
Throughout its history of approximately two decades the Northside Partnership has been well served by a succession of volunteer directors from the north side business community who brought unique expertise and experience to the outstanding development of the company and its innovative programmes. I am proud to recall that it was Peter Cassells, formerly general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions who proposed the idea of partnership companies to the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in 1990. Mr. Cassells and his trade union colleagues have always played an important role in promoting local development through partnership and other local community companies.
For most of its history, Northside Partnership was expertly chaired by Mr. Padraig White, the distinguished former public servant and entrepreneur. At present Mr. Willie Hamilton of Mandate Trade Union is efficiently carrying on Mr. White's great work for Coolock and the north side community. The two three-year term limits proposed for directors seems ludicrous given the exemplary service and expertise of experienced volunteers to the progress of Northside Partnership and similar companies. This restriction will impact most heavily on companies such as Northside Partnership where a dynamic chairperson is prepared to give freely of his or her time to develop projects which may take a decade or more to come to fruition.
The banning of Oireachtas Members from service on the boards is also shortsighted and unnecessary. Several Oireachtas Members like myself have been active prior to and throughout their political careers in support of local social and economic development. On the Northside Partnership board I admired the service given over recent years by former Senator Derek McDowell and Deputy Seán Haughey, now a Minister of State. It is reasonable to require Ministers to resign from boards but why disbar an ordinary Oireachtas Member who wishes to serve as a volunteer?
These and other board changes were not necessary for the Northside Partnership and the vast bulk of other local development companies. I understand some of the motives which informed the Minister's decisions. Northside Partnership has always followed the highest company and accountancy standards under our highly impressive CEO, Ms Marion Vickers, and her outstanding staff. Northside Partnership pioneered a wide range of seminal small business start-up, training and employment programmes including the local employment service, the challenger, life and other learning programmes, the local business network, the enterprise and employment development programme and the child care bureau.
I understand the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the Department setting out model corporate governance guidelines for local development companies. However, in this and in his earlier guidelines on social economy companies, the Minister also caused grief. He threatens to eviscerate the dynamic and progressive character of local development bodies. Experience in the UK, the Netherlands, Spain, France, Germany and elsewhere has shown that these companies need to have an efficient commercial as well as social development structure. The result of the Minister's bureaucratic approach will be to reduce these bodies to mere aspirational talking shops.
The Minister appears to be a determined opponent of true co-operative entrepreneurial structures in urban areas and I urge him to strongly reflect on the history of Northside Partnership and similar local bodies, such as those in Connemara, before these non-statutory guidelines are finalised. Is he prepared to refer the guidelines to the Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Sports, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. He made a good case. I will outline what we set out to do. I will not stick to the script because it has been circulated and Deputies can read it for themselves. Sometimes this House becomes a script-reading game where we do not engage with the issues raised.
The partnerships were originally established in selected areas under an EU programme. When I arrived in the Department they were of all shapes and sizes and had duplication. I remember once being asked to go to Howth which is not a thousand miles from Deputy Broughan's constituency. I was sceptical because I knew Sutton and Howth well. However, Howth village had quite an amount of deprivation but the partnership did not cover it. It was brought to my attention that extraordinarily, the Beara Peninsula and Sheep's Head Peninsula were not covered by partnership.
If one considers this rationally one sees we have community development projects which focus on small areas and special groups. However, people are at a disadvantage virtually everywhere in the country. I believed a community development company should cover every citizen who needs a service. This means it would not be intensively active in well-developed areas. However, irrespective of where an individual is he or she would be entitled to a service.
It is a reasonable proposition that if the State wants to deliver items such as the community services programme and the rural social scheme it should be structurally recognised that they be delivered through existing partnerships rather than by new and an increased number of corporate structures. This would strengthen the role of partnerships within communities. As I wanted contiguous borders and one company with a high standing in each area, I wanted amalgamation between Leader companies in rural areas while in urban areas it was more important to extend coverage. The point was often made that a board was chosen unfairly. I stated I did not care who was on the boards but I wanted selecting them to be fair and transparent and then let them get on with the job. These were my guiding principles.
As the Government rolls out new community programmes of universal application in a city or a rural area we should use existing machinery. This was the basis for what we did. We then got into the nitty-gritty where problems always arise. Some people wanted me to be extremely prescriptive while others did not. We had long debates and Departments such as the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were involved. Some wanted small boards and others wanted large boards. I wanted to be as flexible as possible. However, we had to lay down a few basic principles.
It was laid down that every board had to have public representatives and we chose councillors. I will return to the issue involving Deputies. It was also laid down that statutory agencies and the county manager had to be represented because the local authority is key. Social partners, namely, employers, trade unions and farming organisations in rural areas, also had to be represented and the community and voluntary sector had to be well-represented. It had to be split between geographic representation and representation of special interests such as disabilities, Travellers and lone parents. If we included everything and let everyone have what they wanted the board would have had 40 or 50 members but this was the next issue.
A great deal of discussion and debate took place. Eventually, I stated a certain number of statutory agencies would have to be represented but I would not predetermine them and the boards could choose them. Local elected people had to be included but companies were not keen on this as they had not had them in the past. After extensive negotiations, I went to Government but further issues were raised. I held a meeting with Comhairle LEADER na hÉireann, PLANET, which is the network, and my office's community partnership network. I told the attendees they had several months to discuss these boards, on which the Northside Partnership was well-represented, and asked them what they wanted me to change. They asked for additional representatives from local, community and voluntary interests and sought to be allowed to nominate the chairperson. In anticipation of those requests, I received governmental agreement that morning. That is all they wanted, so I signed off on the matter. I am more than willing to debate this at committee but we have to move on with the job.
As someone who has defended the right of Deputies to be local representatives as well as legislators, I have sympathy with Deputy Broughan's point regarding the Dáil. I am open to bringing forward protocols to address the issue so that Deputies are not cut out from information or participation in the boards. I may be wrong, but I understand Deputies are open to election as community representatives. I will reflect on the point raised by the Deputy. It was always my intention to devise a means by which Deputies could be involved in the process or, as has happened in the case of some partnerships in the past, avoid being cut out despite having voted money to the groups.
We are channelling more than €200 million annually through these structures. I have to ensure strong financial control because my Secretary General and I answer to this House for the money. Rather than oppressive financial controls, I want to establish a system that can stand up to the rigours of good accountancy, which has been a concern in the past.