Wednesday, 7 December 2016
Public Bodies Review Agency Bill 2016: Second Stage
I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome the opportunity to have this debate. I commend Senator Ó Céidigh on bringing forward this Bill and on enabling us to discuss the important issue of governance and accountability of public bodies.
I was particularly interested to hear of Senator Kelleher's experience in the UK and her comments that reviews there tend to be undertaken by relevant line departments in accordance with a framework of assessment produced by the UK Cabinet office. It seems an interesting example of how this can be carried out.
I agree with her in terms of gender balance on boards and in appointments. In the previous Seanad I put forward an amendment on the gender composition of boards of the education and training boards which was accepted and we had a good dialogue on gender balance on those boards. It is an important consideration.
I had the opportunity of discussing with Senator Ó Céidigh the ideas behind the Bill and the principles in it. He is persuasive on it. He puts forward good points about the need to ensure there is accountability of public bodies. His point, which he made earlier, is that the idea behind this is not to duplicate existing agencies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General but to bring in a new body that would oversee other forms of governance and effectiveness beyond the financial auditing that the Comptroller and Auditor General does. His point is that it would remove the need to bring in big management consultancy firms from outside, as is frequently done, and pay them large consultancy fees to conduct reviews of functions of public bodies. I see the purpose and I think we all would agree with the need to ensure there is a better mechanism for reviewing the functions of public bodies.
Where I disagree with the model in this Bill or would have concerns about it, and these have been expressed by others, is that it is hard to see how one body could carry out the functions that would be ascribed to this new agency provided for in the Bill. I share the concerns of others that one would still see some duplication of existing bodies and that this Bill would set up an agency that would take functions that should be those of line Departments, in particular the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and of other existing institutions.
My particular concern is that looking carefully at the 140 bodies listed in the Schedule, ranging from the Adoption Authority to the Workplace Relations Commission, it is difficult to see how one overarching agency could effectively monitor the functions of so many bodies. Senator Ó Céidigh points out there is an existing model with the National Oversight and Audit Commission which oversees local government, but overseeing local government is overseeing a range of local authorities, all of which have the same functions. My concern is that this new entity would be looking at such a diverse range of bodies, ranging from Science Foundation Ireland, to the Parole Board to Fáilte Ireland to Irish Water, which as we know is a task in itself and in which Senator Ó Céidigh has a role, to the Irish Film Board, the Charities Regulator and An Garda Síochána. We already have the Garda Inspectorate. Coming from my criminal justice background, I would say the Garda Inspectorate has a mammoth task in itself in overseeing the Garda Síochána. Another agency is not required to step in there as we already have sufficient mechanisms. I would be concerned that there is such a range of different functions.
Looking carefully at what the Bill proposes this agency would do, section 9 states that the agency's object is to review the role and effectiveness of public bodies to ensure they continue to be fit for purpose. That seems to be very broad. In looking at the composition of the board in section 16, I am not clear what sort of expertise board members would need to have to decide, for example, that the Adoption Authority is fit for purpose as compared with the Workplace Relations Commission. It seems the model of line Departments taking that role may be a better one. Senator Ó Céidigh has looked into comparative models that are trying to do this sort of overarching governance, but it would require careful thought to see how a body could carry out its functions effectively given such a broad definition of these functions. I note section 42 provides for the Minister to set out relevant standards and the line Minister is to be involved, but why not have the line Department carry out the review in that case?
The final issue that jumped out at me, as it were, and for which Senator Ó Céidigh may have an answer is the sanctions or comeback. This agency is to make recommendations for reform where it feels bodies are not fit for purpose, but what happens if a public body does not comply with these recommendations? Where does this report go? Does this overstep the function that should be placed squarely with the relevant Minister or with other bodies where they are in place, such as the Garda Inspectorate?
These are some of the concerns I would raise but I commend the Senator on bringing the Bill forward, putting so much work into it and giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues around governance, accountability and mechanisms to ensure public bodies operate effectively in such a diverse range of fields. It has given us the opportunity at least to review how many public bodies there are and, as others have done, to commend the great work that so many do. In my field of criminal justice, for example, I am aware of the significant cutbacks the Courts Service has seen. Bodies such as the Parole Board struggle with limited resources while doing very important work to the benefit of all our communities. That also deserves to be said. It is not often we get the opportunity to say it on the floor of the House and I am grateful to the Senator for giving us this opportunity.