Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Public Bodies Review Agency Bill 2016: Second Stage
I am speaking on the Bill proposed by Senator Ó Céidigh to establish a public bodies review agency. I commend the good work of public bodies, of which there are some 257 according to the Institute of Public Administration's report in March 2016. There is the Citizens Information Board, Gaisce, Teagasc and the much-needed Charities Regulatory Authority for which we had all been calling and which needs to be up and running and as active as possible. I would also add HIQA, which has done much in a short period of time to set standards for safer and better care in Ireland and to expose shortfalls that affect some of the most vulnerable in our society, including older people and people with disabilities. The objects of the proposed new agency, as set out in Part 2 of the Bill, are to review the "effectiveness of public bodies so as to ensure that they continue to be fit for purpose, that they adopt and retain a culture of continuous improvement and contribute to society in a positive, meaningful and measurable way." They are good objects and would be valuable for examining the use or purpose of any organisation in the country, whether public, private or voluntary, and including this House. They are good principles. This practice of reviewing public bodies was common in the UK where I worked for 17 years. A process known as quinquennial review was undertaken every five years and was required for all public bodies. These were undertaken by the lead Department of the funding agency and did not require the establishment of an agency as proposed in this Bill. Last month, the UK's Cabinet Office produced guidance for Departments on how to undertake a review such as is being proposed by the Senator. Departments will conduct public body reviews without the requirement of establishing a separate agency as this Bill proposes. The report published by the Institute of Public Administration in March 2016 concluded that, based on lessons learnt from European and UK practice:
What is needed is a formal, transparent and consistent framework for informing decisions on abolishing, amalgamating, setting up, resourcing and monitoring agencies. This would help create the climate for a more reasoned debate on state agencies.
It rightly says that we should not be talking about a numbers game. It is not about how many or how few agencies there are but about whether they serve purposes any more. That is very important. From reading the IPA's report, I understand that while proposing a framework, it does not necessarily propose the establishment of a separate agency as is proposed in this Bill. I am interested in the Senator's rationale for establishing yet another agency to conduct the worthy public body reviews proposed. Could the same outcome or framework proposed by the IPA be achieved without the expense of establishing a separate agency?
I will put forward some other questions for consideration by the Senator and the Minister. Could public body reviews be triggered through public petitions or whistleblowers or individuals who have experienced failures at the hands of agencies? Will there be some oversight by committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas? Could the agency review the governance of the public bodies because that was not in the list? It is an important place to look in terms of reviewing effectiveness. Could section 38 agencies such as the Central Remedial Clinic or St Vincent's University Hospital be subject to similar reviews and scrutiny?
I will turn to Part 3 and the provisions for the composition and appointment of the board of the proposed new agency. I am not in favour of a new agency but the functions described in the Act could be undertaken by Departments. The provisions of the Bill fall short and are a missed opportunity. My concern is that the arrangements set out for the appointment and selection of board members for public bodies in general and this proposed new agency in particular are not transparent.While I understand that all appointments to State boards must be advertised openly on the State boards portal which is operated by the Public Appointments Service and that one can put one's name forward, the selection process is not clear. According to the IPA, in making any direct ministerial board appointment, the Minister is not necessarily confined to those who make the expression of interest. The Minister may also decide, from time to time, not to fill existing vacancies. With a more openly advertised and transparent selection process, there is an opportunity to open boards up beyond the great and the good to a wider cross-section of civil society and to create diversity on boards. For instance, how many people with disabilities sit on boards? How many people from poorer parts of society sit on boards? How many people from a Traveller background sit on boards? How many women sit on boards? According to the IPA, there is a third. There could be a determination in our review of these public bodies, for example, to adopt a 50:50 principle for gender balance to apply to all public boards by a given date.
I thank the Senator for bringing forward the Bill and raising awareness of the issues that inform it and I look forward to hearing the Minister's and the Senator's response. It is an important consideration for us.