Thursday, 5 July 2012
Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2011 [Seanad]: Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No.1:
In page 4, line 35, before ", relating" to insert "in consultation with the Board".
I am very happy with how the Minister of State is proposing to deal with this Bill. The amendments we have tabled are based on our core opposition to the dissolution of the Dormant Accounts Board. We see it as an attempt by the Government potentially to attack the independence of the community sector. The board was non-governmental in structure and it gave a fair hearing to all applicants. As envisaged in this Bill, the board will be abolished and the money will be administered by Ministers. This is unacceptable to us. There is a possibility of this becoming a slush fund for pet projects, and Sinn Féin strongly believes an independent board is essential to ensure transparency and fairness when allocating moneys from the dormant accounts. The board was never a huge financial burden on the structures that predate this Bill. The majority of the costs were not incurred by the board. The total cost for the services was €1.7 million, but our information is that the board cost €200,000 over a ten year period, or €20,000 per annum.
All our amendments flow from this basic position and so they are organically linked. The first amendment proposes that any scheme for the disbursement of the funds be done in consultation with the retained board, rather than simply leaving it to the Minister, as outlined in the Bill. We believe the independent board should be one of the stakeholders to be consulted. The Bill simply reduces the consultation process to a group of Ministers, so our second amendment tries to change that. The third amendment calls for the Minister to have regard to the views of the board when drawing up the scheme of disbursement. The fourth amendment states that the Minister must consult the board while preparing an action plan. If the Bill remains unamended, it will simply be left to Ministers to draw up an action plan for the purposes of the distribution of funds in the dormant accounts without any transparency or without any of the expertise that has been built up by the independent board. The fifth amendment ensures the Minister consults the board at each stage of awarding the funds from the dormant accounts, even at the early stage of drafting the criteria to be applied and seeking the application of interest in the funds. The sixth amendment ensures the board is fully consulted when the Minister or an appointee of the Minister is preparing a report on the applications for funding. This amendment will ensure the experience and expertise of the independent board is brought to bear on this important part of the process when many applications will be new and many more may well have received funds in the past. The board will be aware of the challenges that lie ahead in funding many of the applications.
The remaining group of amendments are all linked as they deal with the dissolution of the board. Each amendment opposes a specific part of the Bill that will lead to the collapse of the independent board, which we feel has done a good job in providing independent advice and acting as a critical appraiser on the Government's decision on the dormant accounts funds. The Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Act 2005 provided for a chairperson and ten ordinary members, all of whom were appointed by the then Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. All those appointed had, in the Minister's opinion, a knowledge and expertise relating to the matters that appear to the Minister to be relevant to the board's functions. This will be lost if that last group of amendments is not accepted. As the amendments are linked, I propose to put forward the argument that all the amendments should be accepted to preserve the independence, experience and expertise of the board, which its members have gathered over the years both as board members and in their own fields of work. We believe they have done a good job and that they should be retained. I ask the House to support all of those remaining amendments.
Each of the remaining sections of the Bill deals with the logistical dismantling of the board. This includes the transfer of property rights and liabilities of the board, pending legal proceedings, the preservation of certain contracts and the production of the final accounts and a final report. While we do not want object in any way to the board producing accounts or reports, we hope this would be done on an ongoing basis rather than in one final set of accounts or in one final report.
The money in the dormant accounts fund is in excess of €100 million. It has come from private dormant accounts in building societies and banks. We support how it is being used, as it has been used very well in the past. However, it is going into the system and it will be allocated to projects. There could be a gang of four Ministers having total power and that could be abused by this Government or by future Governments. There is a potential that it could be allocated to favoured projects and we believe that is not a very good way to do our business.
I agree with Deputy Stanley that it is appropriate to take all of these amendments together because, essentially, they deal with the same issue. The legislation proposes specifically to dissolve the Dormant Accounts Board and transfer the statutory functions of the board to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Bill is being put through the House to give effect to these decisions by the Government. If I understand it correctly, the thinking behind the amendment to section 3 of the Bill is to continue the Dormant Accounts Board - Deputy Stanley has just made that case - as well as to give additional roles and functions to the board in respect of future disbursement plans. I am advised these are roles and functions that the board does not have under existing dormant account legislation so, in effect, the Deputy wants to give further functions to the board. Sections 5 to 14 provide specifically for the dissolution of the board and the transfer of its functions to the Department and includes sections on what one might call housekeeping matters, such as the transfer of property rights, liabilities, legal proceedings and the preservation of contracts, records and so on. They also include provision to continue with current schemes and programmes pending the completion of new disbursement schemes and action plans under the legislation. In the circumstances, I do not see any reason to accept the amendments.
I point out that this was recommended in the McCarthy report and I believe everybody in the House agrees that we need to reduce the number of such organisations. The Bill provides specifically for the Government and, in particular, the Oireachtas to have more oversight than they currently have in regard to the fund.
On the Deputy's last point that there is a significant amount of money in the fund, the way in which the money must be accounted for is up-front in the departmental Vote - in other words, it has to be found within the departmental Vote initially. In the current economic situation, it is unlikely that significant amounts of money will be spent out of this fund. As the Deputy said, this money belongs to other people; it does not belong to the State. For all of these reasons, maintaining a board does not in our view appear to be a good thing in so far as it is obviously a cost to the State. I do not propose to accept the amendments.
The main point the Minster of State made is in regard to the cost of the board. While everyone wants to cut waste, and Sinn Féin certainly does not want to see public money wasted, the cost of the board, according to our information, is €20,000 per annum and €200,000 over the period of its existence. A figure of €1.7 million has been mentioned but our information is that €1.5 million of that was not incurred by the board itself.
The key point is that there should be accountability. Ministers should be open to seeking advice. This board is one body that has worked well. Obviously, one can find fault with certain decisions or aspects but, in general, it has worked very well. If something has worked well, we should not scrap it completely. We should be looking to improve it.
I apologise for not being in the House earlier in the debate. The Dormant Accounts Fund has been very successful in getting money to communities over the years. This is why we have argued not to end the system as it is - if it ain't broke, don't fix it. That said, this does not prevent us from cutting back and reducing costs. I have argued in the House before that we should at this stage be trying to find people who are willing to sit on boards with no costs or relatively few costs being incurred. In the case of the Dormant Accounts Board in particular, given the benefit some communities have gained from disbursal of these moneys, we will be able to find people willing to serve and to reflect the needs of communities and educational facilities which have benefited from dormant accounts. That is one of the reasons we have argued this point.
We have also argued it is dangerous and bad practice that such a fund would fall to a Minister to disburse, because this raises the possibility that it becomes the largesse of the Minister, to be disbursed on his or her pet projects or constituency over and above others. We have had allegations against Ministers in the past that, where they have had control of grants and the like, they have not been fair across the board. That has never been said of the Dormant Accounts Board, which has been fair in terms of grants and disbursal of funds over the years. As I said, it is not broken, so do not fix it.
I again make the point that the role of the board is sometimes believed to be larger than it is. Following the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Act 2005, there has in fact been very little involvement of the board in the approval process. Its main role is to do with drawing up the three-year plan and preparing an annual report. In terms of the actual disbursement, the board has had a very small role since 2005.
The Bill actually strengthens the Government's and the Oireachtas's oversight of the area. Under the proposed new arrangements, disbursement schemes and action plans must be prepared in consultation with relevant Government colleagues and must be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas for a period of 21 days, which will allow for debate and discussion. Before the legislation was amended in 2005, when more money was available, the role of the board was probably more hands-on but it had a small role in terms of disbursement. I reiterate that there is now a role for the Oireachtas in examining the proposals in the plan and discussing it. As Members know, the Minister can be called before Oireachtas committees to account for this as well as for other functions he holds.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 82 (Pat Breen, Tommy Broughan, Jerry Buttimer, Catherine Byrne, Eric Byrne, Dara Calleary, Joe Carey, Paudie Coffey, Niall Collins, Michael Conaghan, Seán Conlan, Paul Connaughton, Ciara Conway, Noel Coonan, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Joe Costello, Barry Cowen, Michael Creed, Jim Daly, John Deasy, Pat Deering, Regina Doherty, Paschal Donohoe, Timmy Dooley, Robert Dowds, Andrew Doyle, Bernard Durkan, Alan Farrell, Anne Ferris, Charles Flanagan, Terence Flanagan, Brendan Griffin, Dominic Hannigan, Noel Harrington, Simon Harris, Brian Hayes, Tom Hayes, Martin Heydon, Brendan Howlin, Derek Keating, Colm Keaveney, Paul Kehoe, Seán Kenny, Michael Kitt, Anthony Lawlor, Ciarán Lynch, John Lyons, Michael McCarthy, Charlie McConalogue, Shane McEntee, Michael McGrath, John McGuinness, Joe McHugh, Tony McLoughlin, Michael McNamara, Eamonn Maloney, Peter Mathews, Olivia Mitchell, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, Michelle Mulherin, Gerald Nash, Dan Neville, Derek Nolan, Patrick Nulty, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Kieran O'Donnell, Patrick O'Donovan, John Paul Phelan, Ruairi Quinn, James Reilly, Michael Ring, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Róisín Shortall, Brendan Smith, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Robert Troy, Joanna Tuffy, Jack Wall, Alex White)
Against the motion: 17 (Joan Collins, Seán Crowe, Pearse Doherty, Dessie Ellis, Martin Ferris, Luke Flanagan, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Finian McGrath, Sandra McLellan, Catherine Murphy, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Jonathan O'Brien, Maureen O'Sullivan, Thomas Pringle, Brian Stanley, Peadar Tóibín, Mick Wallace)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Brian Stanley.
Question declared carried.