Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Public Sector Staff Recruitment

9:45 am

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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3. To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will issue guidelines to public sector bodies to prohibit the rehiring of former public servants on an employment contract or agency basis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16919/14]

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Will the Minister issue guidelines to public sector bodies to deal with what is a serious issue for many, especially younger people looking for jobs? Will he issue guidelines to prohibit the rehiring of former public servants on employment contracts or an agency basis? There is a lacuna whereby people who have worked in the public service and retired on full gratuities, with lump sums and pensions can walk back in the following week through an agency or on a contract basis. This must stop.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I thank the Deputy for his question. As Minister with responsibility for the public service and public expenditure, I have overall responsibility for employment and human resource policy for the public service as a whole. The Deputy will appreciate that the specific decisions made by public bodies on the re-engagement of former public servants reflect the particular circumstances applying in each case and are, in the first instance, for the employing bodies within the general policy framework set out. The overall policy approach is that all appropriate alternatives should be fully examined prior to the engagement of any retired public servant. Any re-engagement should only take place, in so far as is possible, on a limited and restricted basis and be related to a particular set of circumstances such as, for example, where a particular skill or experience is required on a short-term basis. In practice, in the light of the nature, complexity and specialist knowledge required in some particular instances, situations can arise - they have arisen - where the most appropriate and cost-effective way of meeting a specific skills need, for example, in a project environment, would be to appoint a person who has previously worked in that area and has a detailed understanding of the requirements of the role and how they can be met successfully.

The issue raised in the Deputy's question is relevant, in particular, to public service personnel who have, since 2010, been able to avail of several incentivised retirement schemes. These include the Civil Service incentivised early retirement, ISER, scheme, the Health Service Executive targeted voluntary early retirement and voluntary redundancy schemes and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government voluntary redundancy scheme. In June 2012 a collective agreement was reached between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the public services committee of ICTU on ex gratiaredundancy payments to public servants. Staff applying for any of these schemes face significant restrictions on taking up any such position. These restrictions effectively debar them from re-employment in the public service, other than in exceptional circumstances governed by the conditions of each scheme.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister might clarify what he said specifically and try to relate it to my question which essentially is about rehiring former public servants either on a contract or an agency basis.

I accept the generality that people who retire do not come back into normal employment barring particular exceptions. We have had that in the OPW. We are now seeing the scandal of people who have retired from local authorities being taken on by Irish Water with their gratuities, pensions and lump sums moved into Irish Water to get a bonus on top of that. I know the Minister will tell me he cannot do anything about that, but somewhere along the line the Government needs to govern the country.

I have previously asked the Minister about agency staff. He will say that when an agency is involved he cannot control whom they bring in. The Minister should take legal advice about introducing regulations to oblige the agencies to give the PPS numbers to the HSE - or wherever they are working. That would allow us to establish the number of former employees back working in the same employment along with their former colleagues, but now employed through an agency. The Minister needs to deal with that issue, which he has so far avoided.

9:55 am

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I have not avoided it because we have dealt with this previously. I agree with the thrust of what the Deputy has said which is that people who have decent pensions should not come back and displace people who are looking for public service contracts of employment. By and large that should be and is the situation. However, there will be exceptional cases, either through an agency or a direct employment on a short-term basis, where a particular skillset is required which is not available except by rehiring somebody. That can arise, as the Deputy knows.

A unique set of circumstances pertains to Irish Water where a new public utility is being created and people were asked to migrate from the local government sector into it. Certain benefits to them arose to ensure the smooth transition and the smooth creation of what will be one of the most important public companies to be created in the State.

I understand the agency point the Deputy makes. However, all citizens have natural rights and it is not possible simply to debar people from employment, even on a temporary basis because they have worked previously in the public sector. It is possible to do that by way of writing a voluntary deal into the agreement and that is what we have done. As a general rule we need to be careful not to trample on people's constitutional and natural rights.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I understand what the Minister is saying. As a first step I would like to see some progress on this matter, notwithstanding that there might be a constitutional issue. However, we can do a considerable amount within the current Constitution. When agencies are providing staff for a public body, they should provide the details of the staff they are sending in to work in that public body because the public bodies are entitled to know who is coming in to work for them. They should be supplied with a short CV and a PPS number. At least let us establish the extent of the issue.

The Minister keeps telling me that they should not be rehired except in exceptional circumstances. I believe that employment through agencies is far more widespread than simply based on exceptional circumstances. Let us at least gather the information so that we can have an informed debate. The refusal to make an attempt to quantify the extent of the issue indicates that the Minister does not want to do anything on the matter at all. We need to start by gathering the information. It might prove there is none out there but there could be tens of thousands of people and we are entitled to know that.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Minister, Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; Wexford, Labour)
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I understand the point the Deputy is making, but I do not want to set up a new bureaucracy involving a new trawl of every agency or company that applies cleaning or catering facilities even on a short-term basis. We have reduced the number of people working in the public service and do not want to put new burdens on them unless there is an identifiable problem, which I do not believe is very widespread.

This happened in specific sectors. For example, in the education sector, many retired teachers were brought back. While one can understand them doing a day's substitution, recently retired teachers returning to cover for maternity leave when qualified young teachers were available is a different kettle of fish and I believe the Minister for Education and Skills has addressed those. In general terms I do not believe there is a widespread problem, but I will reflect on what the Deputy has said.

Question No. 4 answered with Question No. 1.