Dáil debates

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Public Appointments Transparency Bill 2008: Second Stage.

 

6:00 pm

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I wish to share time with Deputies Feighan, Doyle, Stanton and Bannon.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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It gives me great pleasure to introduce the Public Appointments Transparency Bill 2009 to the House in my name and that of my Fine Gael colleagues. If passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas and enacted into law, it will bring about a radical reform in the way public bodies are governed and how they are held accountable to the representatives of people. In the past 12 years, there has been a massive proliferation in public bodies - agencies, boards, authorities, partnerships, commissions, regulators, quangos - whatever one wants to call them. They exist at national, regional and local level. Some bodies, such as the HSE and FÁS, control budgets of more than €1 billion. Many others such as Enterprise Ireland have budgets of more than €100 million. There are more than 1,000 bodies and they account for almost half of all government spending. This Bill specifically applies to State agencies with budgets of more than €1 million.

There are even sub-agencies of government agencies. Mr. Colm McCarthy claimed to have found "agencies hiding behind other agencies" or as Fine Gael described it in our Streamling Government paper, "sons of quangos". It still has not been possible for us to get a complete list of all Government bodies operating in the State. At local level, many public bodies may have several funding sources, receiving money from one Department under one heading and another Department under another heading. This is a corporate governance nightmare.

Many public bodies do very valuable work. For example, all of us will agree that FÁS does excellent work in running high quality apprenticeships and by providing supported employment in thousands of local communities through the community employment schemes. No one disputes that. Even the HSE, though much maligned, gets it right some of the time. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board has reduced the cost of insurance and IDA Ireland has brought foreign direct investment into the State. The ongoing revelations about waste, mismanagement and profligate spending at FÁS, however, have brought into sharp focus the need to do much more to hold to account public bodies. It is clear that the board of FÁS did not do its job. Board members were more concerned with representing their own sectoral interests than they were about ensuring the public interest and principles of good governance were served. The FÁS executives who are most responsible for the money wasted and the damage done to FÁS as an organisation still have not been held to account. The director general resigned but kept his pension and was given a golden handshake by the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance on his way out the door. Other FÁS executives also retired with their pensions and lump sum intact or still hold their positions.

Public bodies like FÁS and the Dublin Docklands Development Authority might well be the worst examples of the public sector gone wrong. They might be outliers, but they also might be the tip of the iceberg. Either way, the time has come to embark on a programme of deep and meaningful reform. This must involve three pillars. The first is to rationalise and reduce the number of public bodies. The second is to reform the structure of the boards so that appointments are vetted and scrutinised by the Oireachtas. The third pillar is to make sure that public bodies are fully accountable to the Oireachtas.

The Government has, at long last, begun the process of rationalising and reducing the number of State agencies and public bodies. This is welcome. Its programme, however, is limited and lacks ambition. Progress has been slow. Less than half of the decisions announced by the Minister for Finance during the emergency budget speech have been acted on. The Government is in the process of establishing a new quango, NAMA, and we have already seen mission creep set in with NAMA. Initially, it was supposed to be an asset management agency, but now we are talking about giving it additional roles in social housing and so on. The legislative programme contains proposals for new quangos including, for example, a new State agency to manage the Curragh of Kildare, but not the military aspects of it.

Moreover, the Government has yet to respond to the recommendations of the McCarthy report with regard to further rationalisation. In our published policy papers, Streamlining Government and Power to the People, Fine Gael has outlined a far-reaching plan to cull, merge and rationalise more than 70 public bodies at national level. We have also proposed bringing hundreds of local agencies, boards, committees and partnerships back under the remit of local government, where they belong. Fine Gael believes in local government. We want more local democracy with a wider remit and its own revenue raising powers. We stand in opposition to the approach of Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, who have consistently sought to bypass local authorities and to denude them of their powers.

Ministers hold in their hands the power to appoint 6,000 people to positions on State boards. Many of the people appointed to State boards are people of quality and calibre and they deserve our thanks. Some are associated with a particular political party. I have no problem with this. People should be rewarded for participating in the political process and it would be wrong to place a cordon sanitaire around them to exclude them. Of course, they must be qualified for the job. Political affiliation should not be considered a qualification in itself, nor should the fact that one is a friend of the Taoiseach, as a former Taoiseach told us. These 6,000 appointments are made in secret, without the involvement of the Oireachtas. The Public Appointment Transparency Bill 2009 will change this.

The Bill requires that the names and qualifications of appointees to the boards of public bodies must be laid before the Dáil. This will ensure that appointees are suitably qualified and that anyone nominated to the chair of a State board must first appear before the relevant Oireachtas committee, which will have the power to hold up the appointment if it is inappropriate. This vetting process will enable members to question the new chairperson about his or her qualifications, experience and plans for the job. This process is common in many other democracies, most notably, the US. Furthermore, I propose that committees be restricted to asking questions that are relevant to the position, to avoid the prurient trawl of the personal lives of nominees which occurs in the US Senate. We do not want that to happen here.

The Bill enabling the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland contains one measure to allow Oireachtas committees to have some input into appointing half the members of that authority. This is a welcome departure, but it is not enough. It is only one agency out of 1,000, it represents only half the positions, and expecting a committee to come up with names is much more complex than asking the Minister to do so and leaving it to the committee to vet them.

The Public Appointments Transparency Bill 2009 also requires that all members of State boards should be given a letter of appointment clearly stating their responsibilities. It is extraordinary that people can be still appointed to positions of responsibility without being given clear terms of reference. To quote a well known RTE television programme, "Don't learn the rules and you can't be accused."

The Public Appointments Transparency Bill 2009 also improves the capacity of the Oireachtas and its committees to hold State agencies to account on a regular basis. It gives committees the power to summon chairpersons of State boards to give evidence and requires that they appear before Oireachtas committees to present their annual report and annual accounts. The Bill provides for real powers of scrutiny, the kind currently exercised only by the Public Accounts Committee. It gives our parliamentary committees teeth and allows us to do the job the public expects us to do, but which has not been done in the past 12 years.

The economic crisis should cause us all to question the old certainties and long-held beliefs. I firmly believe that if our political process and Parliament had functioned more effectively in the past we would not face today a deficit so large, a banking system so broken or a public sector so difficult to reform. We should use this crisis as an opportunity to change the way politics and public administration function. We should use it to restore public confidence in Parliament, in politics and in Government. We should bring about a democratic revolution involving fundamental reforms to the way the Dáil and Seanad work and are elected, the way political parties are funded, the way local government raises its revenue and exercises its powers, and the way public officials are held account. The Public Appointment Transparency Bill 2009 forms just one part of that democratic revolution and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I support this proposal. For far too long, we have people on boards not just due to political persuasion, but also due to favours that have been done. In Fine Gael, we believe people who are competent and qualified for the task should be appointed to boards.

Millions of euro are expended by the National Roads Authority but it is answerable to no one. If I ask a Parliamentary Question about a by-pass or a road I am told it is not the responsibility of the Minister for Transport but of the National Roads Authority, the board of which is appointed. Who are these appointees? Vacancies on boards should be advertised in local and national newspapers and on the Government website. People of competence, regardless of their political affiliations, should be appointed to such boards. It is galling that although the Minister has no responsibility for the National Roads Authority, he is the first man on the scene, with his cronies, to cut the tape at the opening of a new road. That is wrong. Such bodies should be accountable to the Dáil.

The Department of Agriculture and Food gives millions of euro to Teagasc. Last week, I asked a question about the future of the Boyle Teagasc office. I was told that was not the responsibility of the Minister and advised to contact Teagasc. This is not good enough. There are more than 600 boards and quangos. I accept that we need some boards and that some board members are qualified and have given great service to the State. We must be, however, open and transparent. Appointments should not be political gestures or gifts, and that is what they are.

The people want more local involvement in state boards. They want board members to have the required skills and independent assessment. A board should be established to assess the make-up of state boards.

In the United Kingdom there is a code of practice for ministerial appointments to public bodies. It analyses the potential for conflict of interest which may arise from making appointments. The code identifies the five issues most frequently encountered. One is relationships and associations, including friendships, and the potential for such to influence actions or to be perceived as doing so. Other disqualifying grounds include the potential perception of the appointment as a reward for past or future contributions or favours in circumstances where an awareness of pending government policy arising from a board position could represent an unfair advantage for those with related business interests.

We are very close to a one-party state. Fianna Fáil has been in power for 23 of the past 25 years. They have used boards to exert much influence. Some 600 boards and between 6,000 and 7,000 members are appointed to public bodies. This is undermining our constitutional democracy.

The Government must accept this very important proposal. By looking into their souls, they will see that the people want transparency and openness. The people cannot know what is going on when bodies are run by ministerial appointees. Before the last Taoiseach left office many dozens of people were appointed to various boards. Some of these appointments have not been a great success and have done the country a great disservice.

Former members of An Bord Pleanála were re-appointed as outside nominees. Does this mean the board will continue unchanged forever? If rules are undermined and individuals can change rules to suit themselves, a board will never change. Boards are like football teams. They need young new talent, regardless of political persuasion. I do not mind if someone is a supporter of the Government as long as he or she is open, transparent and qualified to do the job on behalf of the people.

I commend Deputy Varadkar on bringing this Bill before the Dáil. We have seen boards which were rubber stamps for Government policy. They hid the fact that Ministers should have been responsible for certain areas. Matters were passed to boards which should have been decided by the Government or the Oireachtas. That is not government. Deputies are elected by the people and ministers are appointed to make decisions. They cannot hide behind boards whose members are political supporters and unqualified and who are expected to take the flak when times are difficult.

The same is true of the Health Service Executive. If one writes to the HSE with a query about a hospital or similar matter one must wait three weeks for a reply.

It worries me that if one wants something done in Ireland one has to ask a member of a board. Although these members are not elected by the people they are the people who have the power. The Government has given power to unelected people who are faceless and not answerable to anybody. Unless that perception changes the majority of good honourable, hard working and qualified board members will all be tarred with the same brush.

Photo of Andrew DoyleAndrew Doyle (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It is said there are the appointed and the elected and the only people whom the public get a chance to punish are the elected. This is something we all know because we confront it every time we go before the people.

I commend Deputy Varadkar on bringing this Bill before the House. The former Taoiseach defended appointments he made by saying the appointees were not people who gave his party money but were friends of his. It says much that this was regarded as the lesser of two evils. The first requirement of any appointee is that he or she is qualified and able to do the job, whatever it is.

When the history is written of how successful Fianna Fáil has been in staying in power it will consider how the party manipulated the appointments of people to state boards. There was a continuous stream of appointments. There are approximately 7,000 Government appointed members of state boards earning between €9,000 and €19,000. If they were all doing their jobs and were seen to be qualified for those jobs that would not be an issue. The big issue is that these appointments are being used to control a networking system right down to ground. A follow-on from this has been the way partnership has been manipulated. It was set up in the late 1980s as part of the road map for recovery. Unfortunately, it became the road map for survival for the Government parties.

The days of jobs for the boys and girls, especially if they have given money to the main political party, must end. We have a political establishment which is probably at an all-time low in the opinion of the public. We cannot allow this carry-on to continue. It does not help the work of public representatives or of state boards to read of what has happened in agencies such as FÁS and the Office of the Financial Regulator. Even the Health Service Executive now wishes to centralise everything. Medical cards are now administered centrally in Finglas while the former Minister for Finance decided that everything should be decentralised.

There is a contradiction in the way in which we have tried to run our administration. In particular, front line services have been removed from the people. I am unsure about by whom the public accountability agenda has been written, but that accountability has been removed from front line services. This has been evident in the health services, where there has been a deterioration in how they are being run and in the ability to put vital local services on the ground.

Deputy Varadkar's proposal is similar to that of the Green Party except that it puts the onus of approving appointments on the relevant Oireachtas committee, not an all-party committee. It is not a major change, but I hear that the Green Party will state that we are not going far enough. No one else seems to be going anywhere with it currently. By its name, this Bill makes the point that we are trying to ensure that every appointment stands up to scrutiny. There can be no hiding ground for the cronies of whoever of us is in power. It is not too much to ask that they have the relevant aptitude for the job.

I do not know what excuse will be tabled to amend the Bill and weasel out of it. I do not see where is the wriggle room. Last week, the home defence Bill was knocked on its head and had holes picked in it. It could have been amended, as there were no serious problems. Unfortunately, last night saw the high-profile and tragic death of a burglary victim. Perhaps high profile cases are necessary.

The Government is sending the wrong signals. It must listen to what is being said. Fine Gael's proposal is a commonsensical Bill intended to restore confidence in the system. This is all that we are asking. Fault cannot be found with anything in the Bill, but I would be interested in seeing how the Government will amend it.

I ask that the Government accept the Bill, which was tabled in good faith. Time and again, the Opposition is told to be more productive and progressive. When we try to do that, it is like hitting a brick wall. I commend the Bill to the House and I ask the Government to take our efforts to try to table sensible legislation in the House seriously.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Some 16 minutes are left in the slot for the two remaining speakers.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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We are sent by the people as representatives to do a number of jobs, one of the most important being to represent the citizen, namely, Mrs. Murphy down the road or the man up the road who has a problem with bureaucracy or the State and who needs help. We are also sent to the House to legislate and to hold the Government of the day to account. This responsibility rests on the shoulder of every Deputy, no matter on which side of the House he or she sits. The structures and procedures of the House are so archaic that they prevent Members from doing this constitutional job.

Ministers are powerful and have been given authority and responsibility, but with that comes accountability. In recent years, Governments and Departments have been establishing quangos that are not directly accountable to the House, particularly through the parliamentary question system. Today, I submitted a written question to the Minister for Education and Science on behalf of a child with special needs who has no school place. I was told to write to the agency, as the Minister had no responsibility for the matter. This is not good enough. We could go on about those times when the Ceann Comhairle returns our requests and we are told that a Minister has no responsibility for a matter and that it is now the responsibility of the HSE, National Roads Authority, FÁS and so on. These quangos are responsible for spending millions, if not billions of euro of taxpayers' money, but we, the people's representatives, cannot get answers about their operations via parliamentary questions.

Since entering the House, I have asked that this system be changed. At least Deputy O'Rourke tried when she was a Minister. While she would tell the House that she was not responsible for the day-to-day operation of some agency, she would give the information that the Deputy wanted and it was put on the record.

The establishment of the HSE has meant that we cannot directly represent citizens through parliamentary questions. As my colleagues have pointed out, that agency shields the Minister for Health and Children. She tells us that it, rather than she, is responsible. The agency writes to us privately after, as my colleague mentioned, three or four weeks or, in some cases, 18 weeks. The real trick is that the response does not go on the public record. We are supposed to be a republic, but the information is a secret, if one likes, between the Deputy, if he or she even gets a response. Our friends in the Fourth Estate and the public are denied the information. Doing this is dangerous.

A part of the reason for our current economic mess is the fact that Deputies were not allowed to do their jobs because of the manner in which procedures have been allowed to develop. It is important that we shake up the political and democratic systems so as that we can ask questions of Ministers and get responses in the House. A Department's first reaction seems to be to determine how not to answer a question or how to give the least amount of information. This culture must change. It is not good enough in our democracy. If we are a democracy, we must allow information to flow.

The NRA takes land from people via compulsory purchase orders. They wait and wait to get paid. When we write to the NRA, the letters in reply tell us that these matters are being considered and that responses will issue in due course. When we ask a Minister a question, it will not even get to him or her. This is not good enough, but it goes on in most of the agencies in question.

I support the Bill. It is a start, but much more needs to be done. We must move away from appointing people to State boards because they are friends of the Minister of the day. We must know their qualifications. They must do their jobs and be accountable to the House. Ministers must do their jobs because they have the authority to tell agencies to give them the information for which they have been asked and to provide it in the Dáil. If Ministers are afraid to do this, they should resign their positions, since this is their ultimate responsibility to the State's citizens.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Some 11 minutes remain in the slot.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy Varadkar, for presenting this important Bill to the House. The incredible position that pertained in respect of the FÁS board and the paralysis of the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment in taking action have been the most recent of a litany of cronyism, abuse of expenses and incompetence on State boards, matters addressed in detail by previous speakers.

Perhaps the most divisive and contentious board in the history of the State has been the HSE, which has acted as a buffer for the Department of Health and Children, effectively causing important issues to fall between two stools and blocking Members' queries. With money being poured into an excessively top heavy organisation and promised reductions in administrative staff failing to be carried through, the concerns of patients are being pushed to one side. I am outraged that hospital consultants, for example, have received an increase of €25,000 on salaries of €225,000 while services at the Midland Regional Hospital in my area and other health facilities countrywide have been cut at great risk to patients' lives. This wonderful top-up is costing the taxpayer €140 million.

Talk of hospital consultants reminds me of a telephone call I received this morning from a person complaining about the HSE and the matter of the ghost consultant in the midlands. It appears that Mullingar Regional Hospital, sanctioned either by the Minister for Health and Children or the HSE, is making appointments with a dermatology consultant that are cancelled at the last minute. The hospital has no such position. What sort of board stands over such playing with people's lives? How can a patient be strung along while his or her life is being endangered? On having been approached on the matter, the hospital spokesperson said she was "acting in good faith". However, she refused to say who had sanctioned such a scam or how the misleading of vulnerable patients can be regarded as acting in "good faith". On being approached by my caller, neither the HSE nor the Minister's office replied to the query. This is what parliamentarians in this House are up against. With the public being held to ransom by the shady actions of the HSE, questions need to be asked. Legislation such as this Bill is urgently needed to sort out such abuses.

While reining in the directors of State bodies, legislation is needed to ensure that cronyism becomes a thing of the past. This is what the public is crying out for. Appointees to boards must be qualified to deliver a service to the public that is above reproach.

Ireland's democracy is under threat from the growing concentration of power vested in spin doctors surrounding the Taoiseach and Ministers and the rise in the number of highly influential political staffers and quangos. The influence of Deputies in daily decision making and policy making has diminished significantly as quangos are taking over their duties. There has been a huge increase in the number of political staffers in this House, even in the past five or six years. This trend really arose when Deputy Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach. He employed staff of all kinds. There was not even accommodation in this House for many of the staff and advisers brought in under his reign. This trend has continued under the present Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, despite the recession. This is removing power from the politicians in this House, who are elected by and for the people.

It should be remembered that spin doctors, political advisers and quangos are not elected. They are not subject to any rules of law of which I am aware and, more important, they do not answer to the electorate. When something goes wrong - such as the cancer care crisis in the health service, the dreadful wastage associated with the electronic vote management system and PPARS or the fiasco associated with the driver testing regulations - nobody is held responsible. The taxpayer must bear the brunt and pay for the mistakes the Government has made.

This trend, which has accelerated over the past ten years, is now posing a danger to Ireland's democracy. It leaves the door open to nod-and-winkn style political interference in the day-to-day administration of Government programmes. It brings about circumstances involving jobs for the boys, which circumstances are all too prevalent. In the case of the National Consumer Association, it brings about controversial jobs for the girls or, rather, girl. Such scandals, which are brought about by Fianna Fáil and which are rampant, are destroying elements of society. My views are based on public opinion as well as cross-constituency and cross-county conversations with representatives from the private and public sectors, in addition to the public, that is, our electorate.

The appalling state of affairs associated with the running of and appointment to public bodies calls into question the Standards in Public Office Commission, and the implementation of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995 and the Standards in Public Office Act 2001 in so far as they apply to the officeholders in prescribed State bodies.

It is alarming to hear of some of the big builders whom the State has bailed out making statements in the Dáil bar and elsewhere that they have more influence on taoisigh than Ministers. What sort of country have we when we allow this to develop? This has been well documented in the media. We have all heard of similar cases.

It is undoubtedly true that under the protected tenure of the current Government, cronyism has led to abuses in the appointments and actions of board members. In many ways they have been above regulation, thus making the Bill before us one of the most important to be before the Oireachtas in recent years.

I compliment my colleague, Deputy Leo Varadkar, on having put great thought and energy into this Bill over the summer months. I hope common sense will prevail in this Chamber over the next two days and that the Bill will be placed on the Statute Book as practical law that will deal with the cronyism that was started 20 years ago when Fianna Fáil took over. Fianna Fáil is guilty and its members should hang their heads in shame for the way they have lowered the status of this Parliament and for the way they have behaved to the citizens of this State.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Deputies Mary O'Rourke, Michael Ahern, Seán Ardagh and Mattie McGrath.

While I would like to compliment Deputy Leo Varadkar on his initiative in drafting and tabling a Private Members' Bill, and on the discussion to which it gives rise, I will be opposing it on behalf of the Government. I have listened carefully to the contribution of the Deputy to this important policy debate. We all want to promote the public interest. Our respective views of how best to do this may differ.

There are undoubtedly diverging views on the relationship and role of the executive arm of the State and the Legislature. There are those who take the view that State appointments belong to the powers of the Executive, as the Constitution suggests, and those who believe that the Houses should play a determining part in this. It is not always easy to reconcile these views. It would be interesting to see whether the same position would still be adopted by the Deputy's party were it to find itself on this side of the House.

The Bill before the House proposes that Oireachtas committees scrutinise all ministerial nominees to the positions of chairman and chief executive of statutory agencies and public bodies, as defined, that receive more than €1 million in public funding.

There are a number of concerns regarding the Bill. It involves the Oireachtas taking executive functions onto itself in vetting and confirming appointments to State boards and it cuts across the normal corporate governance arrangements for boards to appoint chief executive officers.

The normal process is for Ministers to propose appointments to the boards of State bodies, which often proceed by way of memorandum to Government and are discussed before decisions are made. Obviously Ministers can be questioned and held responsible to the Houses of the Oireachtas to justify their appointments.

In making board appointments, Ministers seek to ensure the people appointed bring a diverse range of relevant skills and experiences to the body. These decisions are normally approached in a conscientious manner, following consultation, and usually take time. The ministerial freedom to make appointments is not unfettered. Ministers must take account of any specific legislative requirements that exist, such as requirements to appoint worker directors or representatives of nominating bodies, equality legislative provisions, and relevant Government policies, such as the policy on gender balance on State boards. Increasingly, the governing legislation prescribes the desirable attributes for board members.

Many appointees are people not primarily political at all, but who have specific expertise in the field in question. Sometimes figures associated with Opposition parties are appointed, such as a former Fine Gael leader of the Seanad chosen as first head of the Irish Human Rights Commission. We have also recently seen cross-party appointees to banks and financial institutions. We seek and need the brightest and the best on such bodies at this time.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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The Minister of State did not get them there.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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There are many fine and public-spirited citizens who have contributed to State boards and who continue to do so under the current allegedly flawed system. In the past, the system may not always have been as focused on professional capacity as it has become now. However, there has been a necessary improvement in the calibre of appointees in the recent past. From the point of view of the nominees, given the level of public scrutiny today and the onerous responsibilities of directors, acceptance of a position as a chairman or board member is not to be entered into lightly. Nominees need to be confident of their professional capacity to serve.

A particular aspect of this proposal that could cause concern is the number of perfectly acceptable candidates who otherwise may have considered accepting an appointment to a board but who may be discouraged by the prospect of presenting his or her credentials in a public forum before an Oireachtas committee.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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Go on.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Minister of State with special responsibility for the Arts, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism; Minister of State with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Department of Finance; Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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We may not be pleased with this argument but we must weigh the risk. We should be careful about what process is most conducive to getting the sort of people we seek to serve on State boards in the public interest. In this regard, the House will be aware of the measures which it recently passed for board appointments to public broadcasting corporations in the recently enacted Broadcasting Act. Under these provisions, the joint Oireachtas committee will be able to recommend up to one third of the candidates for membership of the RTE board. These arrangements were well debated in the House and a balance was struck in the final provisions of the Act, which does not involve the vetting process for nominees proposed in the Bill.

In the case of chief executive officers the board involved makes the selection, a normal corporate governance arrangement. The appointment is usually advertised. The board may choose to use the services of a senior executive recruitment agency, especially in the case of a large organisation operating in a complex environment. In fact, the Public Appointments Service recruits to senior positions in the HSE, the HIQA, local authorities and the Vocational Educational Committees. Recent appointments include the national director of human resources in the HSE, the chief executive of the Dublin Transportation Authority, the director of the EPA and director general of FÁS.

State boards are accountable to the Minister and the Departments they serve. The annual reports and, where applicable, statements of strategy of such bodies are first examined by the parent Department involved and then presented to Government before publication. Salient issues are brought to the attention of Government in the memorandum submitting the accounts. In this way, the responsible Minister may give an account to his or her colleagues of the bodies under the aegis of his or her Department. The annual reports and accounts of State bodies are then laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

If State bodies are companies, they are subject to the corporate governance provisions of the Companies Acts, which have been greatly expanded in the past 20 years. All State bodies must have regard to the corporate governance guidelines set out in the Code of Practice for the Governance of State Bodies promulgated by the Minister for Finance, the most recent version of which is dated May 2009. This comprehensive code reinforces the requirement for high standards of corporate governance in all State agencies, whether in the commercial or non-commercial sphere. State bodies and their subsidiaries are required to confirm to the relevant Minister that they comply with the up-to-date requirements of the code in their governance practices and procedures. The latest version includes proposals made by the Public Accounts Committee in its report on FÁS earlier this year. This shows that the system is responsive to the concerns of the Oireachtas and that it can take speedy action to absorb Members' recommendations designed to improve the standards of governance of State bodies.

There are myriad State bodies identified in the Deputy's publication of 2008, in which he proposes a wholesale culling of State bodies. While he may, rightly, take the view that there are too many such bodies, he cannot seriously put the view that many or most of such bodies are unreformed or lack probity in how they carry out their tasks. The terminology referring to State boards in the Bill can cover areas such as local authorities, harbour authorities, hospitals, universities, industrial development and non-commercial State bodies. I envisage a total overload for Oireachtas committees dealing with all these, and issues arising concerning independence and academic freedom in some cases. Must we go to all these lengths and to risk unnecessarily politicising every State appointment for years to come?

The impact on the conduct of Oireachtas business by taking on executive functions in addition to its legislative and parliamentary scrutiny obligations would be vast, not least given the number of such State bodies and agencies. It is laudable to seek transparency and balance in the matter of public appointments, but it is questionable whether the proposed system would be workable. It is also questionable whether it would deliver the right candidates to the State boards or guarantee that the boards involved would perform better than those currently in place.

It is now common practice to prescribe in the legislation for a State agency that the chief executive will be the accountable person to the Committee of Public Accounts in its examination of reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General. This is an important component in enhancing standards of corporate governance and exposing lapses to the full glare of publicity and probing questioning. Examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General may be scrutiny after the event, but it has a demonstration effect and underlines the public accountability attaching to these bodies. No doubt others will proceed with caution, when they witness State bodies being brought to account where there have been weak controls or mismanagement of resources.

With reference to performance matters, irrespective of the manner of appointment of its members, the board ultimately reports to the relevant Minister and to his or her Department. This is an area of oversight that deserves attention and strengthening.

The call by the OECD for improved governance arrangements for the public service is supported by the Government. In this regard, it is not merely the manner of appointments that matters but the quality of the framework in place for governance and reporting. The follow-up Report of the Task Force on the Public Service was published last November. The report built on the findings of the OECD review, while at the same time taking account of the new economic circumstances. It set out a three-year framework, which the Government has adopted, for what amounts to a radical transformation of the public service. In the case of State bodies, it is proposed that Ministers will be required to demonstrate a clear business case for any incremental resources associated with the creation of a new agency or the conferring of new functions on an existing agency and, in particular, why an existing agency or Department cannot take on a given task with existing resources. All agencies will be required to publish output statements relating to the resources allocated along with target achievements. Departments will put in place, with those agencies involved in service provision, service level agreements which commit agencies to delivering agreed volumes and standards to the public. All this means more supervision, more accountability and more transparency. In this light, it is not clear that it is necessary to add the extra layers of oversight proposed in the Bill. The current arrangements, which follow the practice of previous Governments, have generally worked well, and the State benefits from people with skill and experience serving on State boards.

Earlier, I referred to the change made by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources in the role of the Oireachtas relating to RTE, which seeks to strike a balance between the interests of the executive and legislative branches of the State. In another sector, the Minister for Transport has invited expressions of interest from suitable candidates for appointment to the new Dublin Transportation Authority. For reasons of sound public interest, the Government is therefore opposing this Bill.

In response to the remarks of Deputy Bannon, and as a former spin doctor and adviser but one who is now an accountable Minister of State, the system of policy advisers was introduced by a former leader of the Deputy's party, namely, Dr. Garret FitzGerald. I am proud to have contributed in that capacity as part of a longer period of public service, although I never regarded myself as a spin doctor. However, they have a role to play and they will have a role to play in any Government of which the Deputy may be part.

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State should give us a little more information on the quango responsible for local authorities.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to be able to contribute to the debate on Deputy Leo Varadkar's Bill introduced on behalf of the Fine Gael party. En passant, Dr. Garret FitzGerald is flavour of the month all around the House, or perhaps from our side and the other side as well. However, I do not know if this is the case everywhere else. In his day, Deputy Mansergh was a wonderful adjunct to several prime ministers and taoisigh of various persuasions. It is doubtful if without him the spate of books now coming out from various important people who have retired and who have much to say on what they brought to public affairs would have been possible. Were it not for that constant presence-----

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy ought not undermine her former constituency colleague, Mr. Albert Reynolds.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Deputy Bannon was allowed to address the House without interruption, please.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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-----such work may not have been able to be fulfilled. Be that as it may, Deputy Varadkar is to be commended onintroducing this legislation. It had its genesis in an all-party Seanad report from 2004. Deputy Brian Hayes, who was then a Senator, was involved, along with Senator Joe O'Toole, me and former Senator John Dardis. We had a Labour representative but as the debate went on he decided not to continue, which was his prerogative.

We brought forward a very well-thought out and well-focused Seanad report, of which we have heard no more but within that report Deputy Brian Hayes put forward a motion somewhat similar to what has been put forward here by Deputy Varadkar. There is much good in it. As Deputy Mansergh said, in the intervening time changes have been made to the appointments system which allow much greater transparency and accountability. I was glad to hear that the present Minister for Transport has sought expressions of interest from people willing and wishing to serve on the Dublin Transport Authority, which is to be welcomed.

I remember when I was involved in the Department dealing with public enterprise and the board of the ESB was due to be renewed or replaced. All of the people on the board approached me and there was a very fine woman member who was affiliated to the Labour Party. That was well known and she had been appointed by the previous Minister, a member of the Labour Party. I was quite happy to renew her membership, although sadly she passed away some time after that while in her prime. She was a very fine person and I knew her to be a very good appointee to the board. There was no reason for her not to remain on it.

Such a situation often occurs. I listened to Deputy Varadkar's contribution from my office and thought him to be very measured in his comments. I thought the Opposition indicated that if only it could get into power, it would put all kinds of fine people on boards. There is no doubt about that.

I have several demands for this legislation. Any person to be appointed should be qualified, capable, adaptable and intelligent, which is not too much to ask. The qualification should be relevant to the sphere of activity where the person is asked to serve. The person should be accountable to the chairman and the Minister of the day. That is recognised and would be applauded.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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What about the Dáil?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister is responsible to the Dáil. The appointment of CEOs should be a matter for the board. For members of a board it would be better if the system was more open and accountable and members should have expertise particular to the work of the board to which they are being appointed.

Photo of Michael AhernMichael Ahern (Cork East, Fianna Fail)
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With regard to the key provisions of Deputy Varadkar's Bill, placing in the public domain names of ministerial nominees to statutory agencies would not be a problem because they are public anyway. I have experience of appointing people to boards over the past 28 years and in considering the plethora appointed, particularly to senior positions, it is clear they are highly-qualified people. In many cases they were not members of my party or Fine Gael when it was in Government. People with necessary qualifications got the important job of chairman or chief executive.

The Bill takes no account of the substantial differences between the processes of appointment of the chairman and CEO. Under legislation the appointment of the chairman is the prerogative of the Minister of the day and it is the responsibility of the Government to appoint a chairman. The appointment of the CEOs and senior executives is a specialised task usually reserved for the board and undertaken in conformity with corporate best practice. As we all know this is done via open competition in most cases or through the use of professional recruitment agencies or the Public Appointments Service. As the Minister of State mentioned, recent appointments such as the director general of FÁS, the CEO of the Dublin Transport Authority and the director of the Environmental Protection Agency were carried out according to those rules and regulations.

Bearing in mind the distribution of the powers and responsibilities under the Irish Constitution, it does not appear appropriate that functions such as those described which are appropriate to the Executive should be assumed by the Legislature. There may also be significant impacts on the conduct of Oireachtas business arising from the Dáil taking on these functions in addition to its other legislative and parliamentary scrutiny obligations. There is no doubt that there would be plenty of discussions on political appointments and so on if that system was in operation.

The model in the United States, where nominees for appointments to senior positions in agencies are confirmed after hearings at the relevant committee in Congress, has been cited as a model to follow. From the experience in the US, many desirable candidates are reluctant to subject themselves to the scrutiny of a parliamentary committee and the uncertainty of a protracted public confirmation process.

The changes recently introduced by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to the system of appointments to certain bodies under the auspices of his Department already represent a middle way between the traditional methods of filling positions on the boards of State agencies and demand for greater transparency and an increased role for the legislature in such appointments. The Minister for Transport also advertised generally for expressions of interest from suitable candidates when filling vacancies on the board of the Dublin Transport Authority earlier this year.

The review by the OECD of the Irish public service published in 2008 recommended, inter alia, strengthening of the governance framework between Ministers and State bodies. A task force established by the Taoiseach on foot of the review set out a three-year framework which the Government has adopted for transformation of the public service. The Department of Finance will lead the development of models of performance in governance frameworks, covering the issues raised by the OECD, including the role and function of the boards of State bodies. It is premature to make further changes to the system of appointment of the chairpersons and CEOs of statutory agencies in advance of and without reference to this work.

Photo of Seán ArdaghSeán Ardagh (Dublin South Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to be able to contribute to the Second Reading of Deputy Varadkar's Bill, which he initially introduced last year. It is barely a year in the House. I notice from the Deputy's speech today that he has matured a bit politically over the past year, and it is a steep learning curve in this House. 8 o'clock

The Deputy stated that people in the political process deserve to be rewarded for their participation if qualified and able for the job. On the issue of whether a person should be examined before a committee, I agree with his statement that there should not be a prurient trawl through the personal life of an applicant. In the past year the Deputy has learned that these processes are easier said than done. I doubt that the same Bill would be produced today as would have been produced a year ago. With regard to his statement on whether people deserve to be rewarded for their participation, does the proposer of the Bill perceive that in the future he may be in a position to favour certain political associates?

The point relating to subjecting an applicant to a prurient trawl in respect of his or her personal life is extremely important. There is no way people will come before Dáil committees and subject their personal lives to scrutiny under the political microscope. This is particularly true when one considers how political parties currently operate. It was interesting to watch the confirmation proceedings relating to the appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court. During those proceedings, the Republicans and Democrats were openly at war in respect of her appointment. The Republicans sought information in respect of Judge Sotomayor's views on race, immigration, gun law, etc., while the Democrats sought to give her credit and applaud her for her efforts in the past.

People who come before committees receive training from communications companies in respect of what not to say and the questions they should avoid answering. In addition, these individuals are also studying the areas that are of interest to committee members in order that they might anticipate the type of questions that might arise. For example, if a member might supports Israel or Palestine in the Middle East crisis, those being questioned will seek evidence of his or her views to anticipate how a discussion might develop. It is not a matter of members asking questions and obtaining information, instead it is a matter of a person seeking to be, for example, confirmed for a position trying to minimise the impact the proceedings will have on him or her.

Adopting good corporate governance is of the utmost importance. The Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, referred to last year's report from the OECD and the effect it is having on the Government. The latter should set a minimum standard in respect of the qualifications and ability - in respect of a person's level of corporate expertise, his or her leadership qualities and his or her knowledge of good corporate governance - it expects from those nominated to serve as chairpersons or board members. I commend the Ministers for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources and Transport, Deputies Ryan and Dempsey, on the initiatives they have taken in this regard.

There must be good governance at the top because this will filter down through the management systems and make a body effective and efficient. As far as customers and clients are concerned, good value must be provided. Those who are chosen to serve as chairpersons and chief executives must adopt the high standards relating to good corporate governance.

I strongly agree with the principle behind section 5(1) of the Bill. When the Government and the Departments have had the opportunity to examine the annual accounts, reports and programmes put forward by State bodies, these documents should be laid before the relevant Oireachtas committee.

I congratulate Deputy Varadkar on introducing the Bill at this opportune time. The Green Party is currently involved in discussions with Fianna Fáil on the new plans for government and has already raised the issue of public appointments. Deputy Varadkar has jumped on the bandwagon in that regard and more power to him.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I also compliment Deputy Varadkar on his initiative in bringing forward this legislation. I wish to pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, a colleague of mine in the South Tipperary constituency, on the role he played as an adviser to many former Taoisigh and various Departments before becoming a Member of the Houses.

The Bill proposes that Oireachtas committees should scrutinise all ministerial nominees for the positions of chairman and chief executive of statutory agencies and public bodies which receive more than €1 million - a considerable amount of money - in public funding. A number of concerns arise in respect of the Bill, which involves the Oireachtas taking executive functions onto itself in vetting and confirming appointments to State boards and cuts across the normal corporate governance arrangements for such boards in respect of the appointment of chief executive officers.

Unfortunately, as everyone is aware, we have been let down by a few individuals. There are many hundreds of decent and honourable people who serve on State boards, who give freely of their time and expertise and who bring to those boards a broad range of diverse ideas. The normal process is for Ministers to propose appointments to the boards of State bodies. These appointments often proceed by way of memoranda to Government and are discussed before decisions are made. Ministers can be questioned and held accountable by the Houses of the Oireachtas in respect of such appointments and can be asked to justify them.

In making appointments to boards, Ministers seek to ensure that those who are nominated to serve bring with them the best range of relevant skills and experience required by a particular body. These decisions are normally approached in a conscientious manner, following consultation, and usually take time to complete.

Ministers are not completely unfettered in the context of making appointments. They must take account of any specific legislative requirements that exist. I refer here to requirements relating to the appointment of worker directors or representatives of nominating bodies, the provisions contained in the equality legislation and relevant Government policies, such as those relating to the need for gender balance on State boards. Increasingly, governing legislation prescribes desirable attributes in respect of prospective board members.

As already stated, there are many fine and public-spirited citizens who contributed to State boards in the past and who continue to do so under the current, allegedly flawed, system. In the past, that system may not always have been as focused on professional capacity as is the case at present. However, the necessary improvement in the calibre of appointees has taken place in the recent past.

In light of the level of public scrutiny and the quite onerous responsibilities of directors, a decision to accept a position as a chairperson or board member is not to be entered into lightly. Nominees must be confident of their professional capacity to serve. I would not like all of the criticism being levelled to be reserved for those on this side of the House. In the past, a few people who were appointed to particular positions by Fine Gael-led Governments were involved with failed institutions. The making of questionable appointments is not the preserve of any one party. It is time this matter was examined.

In light of the existence of so many quangos, it is important that legislation such as that before us be considered. I have been in the House for only a short period and the learning curve has been steep. I discovered, for example, that when Members table questions to Ministers in respect of the HSE, the NRA, the RSE, the EPA and countless other quangos, they do not receive proper replies. Our questions are forwarded to the agencies to which I refer, which is extremely unsatisfactory. Ministers must be held accountable in respect of the boards for which they are responsible.

We should look to the example provided by the boards of organisations which operate in the voluntary sector. These boards provide exemplary leadership in the communities they represent.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I wish to share time with Deputies Morgan and Penrose.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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That is agreed.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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I join the general commendation to Deputy Varadkar on introducing this Bill, which attempts to commence the reform of the process relating to public appointments and to introduce a measure of transparency. The Government should accept the suggestion to the effect that there should be a greater level of transparency. If it has its own proposals in this regard, it should bring them forward.

A person offers an immense gift to the public - in an intergenerational sense - when he or she decides to serve on a public body. Many individuals have served in the capacity to which I refer. This generosity of spirit and practice has been recognised by all speakers. However, when one looks at the boards of State bodies, there are a number of characteristics to which I will turn, but one issue on which Members must be clear is that the single biggest failure has been in respect of ethics in the private sector. As Members will have an opportunity to note while discussing the NAMA legislation, the entire country is absolutely appalled at the breaches in regulation and the failure in basic standards of those who served on boards in the banking sector, which constituted an outrageous abandonment of public responsibility.

Members are reluctant to comment in the House on the ease with which people in highly distinguished professions moved onto the boards of such banks to serve as chairpersons or non-executive directors. Moreover, it was accepted that this was their normal transition. For example, Members should consider how it could be accepted that senior members of the legal profession automatically make non-executive directors par excellence. They did not; they let down the country and this should be printed across the front pages of all the newspapers. If one moves to consider other aspects, one can note that such persons are not only automatically deemed to be good appointments but that they should be on several boards. As it would be a reflection on their excellence were they merely to be on one board, they should be on several. Therefore, being on the board of one bank means one automatically should be on four or five more. Moreover, if one has served as chairman for a period, on stepping down why not go on another board as one's friend steps in? If one considers the network of directors across the financial services and banking sectors, it is a rather small and relatively limited number of people.

I move to the other side to find, for example, the ease with which former county and city managers automatically find that their excellent competence regarding matters pertaining to building development automatically qualifies them for property development companies. There are a number of examples in this regard. I do not for one second suggest they are guilty of the slightest of improprieties. However, I have been shocked by how few city and county managers have been moved to utter a single word of criticism, not to speak of condemnation, against the one of their number who came before the courts and was sent to prison. Therefore, as background to my support on behalf of the Labour Party for Deputy Varadkar's initiative, I am not fooled for one second by suggestions there are behaviours, practices or ethics in the private sector that could be transferred to the public sector. My comments stand as a condemnation of a terrible derogation of duty.

Incidentally, as a former Minister who is strongly in favour of the public service, I also wonder whether it is fair that former Secretaries General of Departments, who are mostly male, should have moved into directorships in so many semi-State and private companies. There should be a long period during which they disqualify themselves from such appointments. While engaging in this fit of honesty and candour, I have noticed a significant shift regarding the migration of such persons from the time of T. K. Whitaker and his successors. Prior to and during his time, it would have been highly unusual for people to move from the public sector, in which they would have had access to much information, to private sector companies. I will add for good measure that there have been some fine examples in which it has been singularly inappropriate.

I will turn to the current position and the future. Deputy Varadkar is suggesting a method of transparency and scrutiny by which one would examine people. As a Minister, I appointed people without ever knowing their political affiliations, some of whom were more controversial than others. I did not ask what were the political party preferences of Niall Stokes or Lelia Doolan. Equally, I have served with both main parties in government and when boards were being filled, the different parties had a certain quota to fill. Everyone in both Governments was in favour of improving the gender balance to a ratio of, say, 60:40. However, I support Deputy Varadkar's desire to move away from all this, which is a good idea.

Interestingly, when considering boards in the public realm, I find it difficult to understand the reason the universe was so limited. Some people are on four, five or six boards. Moreover, some people were so important they never could leave. They did not leave after serving one term but were reappointed repeatedly. I know of some persons who have spent nearly all their lives on State boards. As it happens and in order that they will not be too embarrassed, they have not delivered successes in such a significant sequence as to make them indispensable. Moreover, some are in the transport area. It is good to have reforming Ministers in the broadcasting and transport sectors, about which people should not be too upset. Others move from one board to another as such boards have a habit of spawning like fish and consequently one has sub-boards, agencies and so forth. The same people are in control to such an extent that they find they must chair such bodies also. Before one knows where one is, one has a plethora of boards on which the same few worthy but unselected individuals serve.

Other issues arise and I can discern matters regarding the implementation of reforming legislation. For example, I will take a board like one for which I had responsibility, namely, An Chomhairle Ealaíon or the Arts Council. I had two criteria when appointing members to that board. One was that, as Minister, I should be at arm's length from the operation of any board for which I had responsibility, be it the RTE Authority as it then was or the Arts Council. The other was that those appointed to the board would not be simply representative of interests as one would be obliged to ask them to take decisions beyond their own qualification or interest. One must be careful in this regard. For example, an appointee who is familiar with music also will be obliged to take decisions on the Arts Council that go beyond music and include dance, the visual arts, the future of education, access to artistic activities and so on. Consequently, one must find people who are both qualified in a particular interest and who are able to perceive a more general interest. However, the great value of having people who would come through a process such as that suggested by Deputy Varadkar or an amended version, were the Government willing to do this, is that they are not bound by time.

As any Member who has been a Minister is aware, on taking office one has four years - five at the most - to implement one's policy. Consequently, there is a very good reason to appoint, for example, a programme manager or an adviser and such individuals have been scandalously misrepresented. If one is to achieve one's programme, one really needs someone to move it along and a highly unfair opposition to that practice was generated. Equally, however, a person who is appointed to a board must take account of what will happen beyond the Government's term. One must think of the public interest as it extends over time. The great value of having someone who would be interviewed is that they would not be limited to the particular programme of a particular Government but genuinely would represent the public interest as they would construe it in the long term. Moreover, although it was ridiculous in many ways, it always was the case in a public service that was patriarchal, hierarchical and structured in Weberian terms that when they had all retired, they automatically found themselves on all-male boards. There was an under-representation of women, an under-representation by age and so forth. If one wants to understand how the old system does not work, one simply should ask oneself how many Secretaries' General of Departments are women, how many women are city and county managers and so forth. If the Government does not want to support Deputy Varadkar's Bill, let it come forward with its own but let it not suggest that everything is fine or that this is an interference with the balance between executive and representative Government. We urgently need ethics in the private sector, which is in a morass, and we need it in the public sector. This Bill is a very good beginning and I support the initiative.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I thank Deputy Higgins and the Labour Party for sharing time. When I find myself agreeing with Deputy Varadkar, I must examine the matter very carefully. I have done so on this occasion and found that, notwithstanding the reservations that I understand to be mutual, I wholeheartedly support this Bill. The title, Public Appointments Transparency Bill, is brilliant. I also agree with a number of points made by Deputy Higgins.

Let us not cod ourselves about political cronyism. It does not just apply to the current Government. Deputy Higgins made the point but it is worth repeating. The political cronyism in respect of appointees has existed for decades and possibly since the establishment of the Oireachtas. Perhaps it did not apply to those at the very beginning because there were people of major political conviction. I am not sure that the House has been peppered with similar sentiments since then but perhaps they were well-intentioned. I refer to political cronyism not just in respect of appointments to boards and public bodies but also judges. I understand there have been some honourable exceptions in the case of judges. I hope that is the case. One of the difficulties when people are appointed to boards is that they forget their function. Their first obligation is not to the politician who appointed them but to the Irish people. We hear talk of patriotism from a Minister, referring to someone not shopping in Newry, and it shows how mistaken these Ministers are. Patriotism is about working honestly and openly for the people of one's country. We have not seen too much of that.

A few years ago a man from Sligo was appointed to a public body in Louth. During a tea break at one of the meetings, a colleague of mine asked how it came to be that a man from Sligo was appointed to a body based in Louth. Without any sense of irony, the man replied that he had gone to school with a Minister, whom he named. Apparently, this was laudable qualification to be appointed to the board. Perhaps the expenses for coming such a significant distance and the overnight stays were an attraction. It shows how casually these matters are taken. In some cases people appointed in the fashion I have described take it casually.

Dáil accountability has been referred to and it is particularly important. We submit parliamentary questions and are told that the Minister for Health and Children has no responsibility to the Dáil for the HSE. It is a similar situation with the NRA and the Department of Transport. Accountability and transparency in respect of these bodies is not being brought back to the anchor, with Ministers responsible to this House. We also see this in social partnership, which I am not against even though I have problems with some of the framework of the current model. Deals are done in Government Buildings and it is a done deal when legislation is published to implement the deal. The voices in this House carry almost no value.

Everyone agrees that more transparency and accountability is needed; but where is the action? The Government has the apparatus to influence and effect legislation and put this accountability in place. The Government chooses to ignore this opportunity, which would go a long way to begin this process to ensure some type of accountability.

I was working in my office a few moments ago and I thought I heard the Minister of State, replying for the Government, say there was a swift and speedy response to the FÁS carry-on a few weeks ago. For goodness sake, Mr. Peter McLoone said he considered offering his resignation to the Government but was told by the Tánaiste to remain in position and continue working. How ridiculous is that? I can appreciate that there are situations where it is better to leave a board in place rather than create a void but matters should have been speeded up to ensure legislation was passed to replace the board and ensure proper strands of accountability. This does not just apply to boards.

With public contracts, we see that the Dublin Port tunnel began as a €22 million project in 2000 and ended as a €580 million project in 2006. Who sanctioned these increases and what measurements were brought to bear on how the taxpayer was being ripped off? The M50 widening project began at €190 million and ended up costing €562 million. Apparently, taxpayers' money has very little value in the eyes of this Government and the previous Government. That is grossly unacceptable. The Luas began as a €290 million project and ended up costing the taxpayer €750 million.

The previous speaker referred to the example of county managers. After having been elected a county councillor in Louth, I tried to be punctual for my first meeting and was there 15 minutes early. The second person to arrive was the then county manager. He offered his hand and I shook hands with him. He welcomed me to the best club in Ireland. I immediately responded to tell him that I was not part of any club but was there to represent the people who had elected me and those in the constituency. Thanks but no thanks to club membership, I will carry on my function as best I can.

Some of the carry-on that emerged from the FÁS debacle beggars belief. There was a culture of malpractice within the hierarchy of FÁS. One can compare and contrast the activities of a small number of executives and the people they were supposed to serve, those who had been made unemployed and who were doing their best to be retrained so that they could get back into employment. It could not be more black and white yet this was allowed to go on for many years. The FÁS bosses breached their financial procedures but did so at great cost to the taxpayer. This was grossly unfair.