Wednesday, 2 June 2004
Decentralisation Programme: Motion.
That Seanad Éireann—
—conscious of the benefits to communities and the regions outside of Dublin;
—aware of the need to reduce congestion and to restrict housing cost increases in Dublin;
—recognising the need for career opportunities in a revitalised Public Service; and
—conscious of the capacity of modern communications systems to effectively link offices and businesses around the world,
welcomes the Government's plan to decentralise 10,300 Public Service jobs to 53 centres in 25 counties outside of Dublin and invites the Minister for Finance to submit a report to the House on the plan's progress and its future implementation.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House. I am sure many Senators were glad to hear the Minister for Finance announce the Government's decentralisation plans in his Budget Statement. The announcement was universally welcomed, particularly in those places to which the public service will be decentralised.
Some officials from the Office of the Revenue Commissioners will be decentralised to Athy, in my home county of Kildare. If one examines the experience of Athy, one will see a good example of the benefits that decentralisation can bring to towns and regions throughout the country. When I was growing up, Athy was the premier business town of County Kildare. Many people from the central areas of the county went to Athy to do their business, for example, to buy household requisites and agricultural supplies. It was a hub of economic activity. Those days are long gone, however, due to the decline experienced in Athy during the 1970s and 1980s. We welcomed the construction of large public authority housing estates, as such houses were needed, but the job prospects of those living in such estates were poor. Athy suffered because businesses did not thrive or develop there. The town became a shadow of what it was when I was growing up in County Kildare.
The announcement of the decentralisation of jobs in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners to Athy was greeted with acclaim by the town council and the people of Athy. That was also the case in Newbridge, where it is proposed to relocate part of the Department of Defence, and in the Curragh, where it is proposed to relocate the Army's headquarters. The benefits of decentralisation are such that there are no dissenting voices in the county, or indeed throughout the country. The Government stated that it planned to review progress at some stage. I am conscious that Senators on all sides of the House have called for a debate on decentralisation in recent weeks. The motion before the House has been proposed in that context.
I have to ask the Opposition a fundamental question, which applies to Fine Gael in particular. Does it agree with decentralisation as a principle? Its carping and sniping about the proposal is such that one has to question its commitment to the principle of decentralisation. It is important that we be given an answer to that question. Are the Opposition parties, particularly Fine Gael, committed to the principle of decentralisation? If not, why are they not committed to it?
Regardless of the benefits of decentralisation to regions and communities throughout the country, the relocation of public sector jobs has significant potential benefits for Dublin. Driving into Dublin each morning is such a problematic exercise that one would almost be inclined to leave the night before. I exceeded my personal record for a 30 mile journey during the week when it took me two hours and 20 minutes to drive to Leinster House. Many public servants welcome the opportunity to relocate to other areas because they find it difficult to travel to Dublin because of traffic congestion. They are dissatisfied with the lifestyle in this city.
One can understand that some of those who are settled in urban communities, many of whom work at senior levels of the public service and have given many years of service, are reluctant to move. A reluctance to change is a common human characteristic, especially as one gets older. It can become more dominant as one becomes more senior. There are significant potential benefits for such people, however. Many people in the lower levels of the public service are prepared to move to places where housing costs much less, where it is much easier to get access to quality education and where the entire lifestyle is better. Senior people with a residue of capital in the property they bought many years ago might consider it beneficial to transfer from Dublin to a town or city where housing costs are less. If they benefit from the difference between the price of a house in Dublin and the price of a similar house elsewhere, they may build up a nest egg to put in their pockets.
It is important to state that there is no question of coercion in this regard. There are obvious career opportunities and promotion and advancement possibilities in the public service. Nobody is coercing anybody to move. The Government intends to decentralise 10,300 public servants, which is a small proportion of the total of 300,000. I would be surprised if it could not find 10,300 people who are willing to move. I am aware that Mr. Philip Flynn, the chairman of the implementation body, is dealing with these matters. I am sure the industrial relations and other issues that arise will be dealt with to the satisfaction of people who might be affected by change. One can readily appreciate the reluctance of many people to go and I am sure those who do not want to will not be forced to go, which is as it should be.
Mobility of labour and personnel is a common feature of the modern era to the extent that aeroplanes travelling across the Atlantic Ocean or even beyond the nearest jurisdiction, Great Britain, to the continent are frequently filled with executives of multinational companies who travel back and forth to work, often having no discretion in the matter. If one started a job with, for example, one of the banks, although that may be an unfortunate example at present, historically one did not have much discretion as to where one was sent and the fact that one might be transferred several times in one's career was taken for granted.
There is a reluctance inherent in the public service to enduring such changes but we have come to a point in modern society at which there is huge mobility and people are moving not just within countries but between them and across continents at the behest of their employers in the private sector. On the other hand, decentralisation is voluntary.
It has been suggested that decentralisation will affect the integrity and impartiality of the public service, which displays a very limited degree of confidence in the public service, its traditions, the fact that it has served the State so well over such a long period and that public servants are committed to the service of the State and the communities. That ethos does not rely on offices being located in Dublin, rather it is evident no matter where such people are located. The culture is not about buildings or addresses but the way in which people work, the values they share and the implementation of the judgment calls they make, none of which will be undermined by decentralisation.
Deputy John Bruton seems to have some reservations about decentralisation in his article in today's edition of the Irish Independent. On the one hand he stated, "The private sector of our economy, with the exception of some of the professions, is as efficient as it can be and can be expected to further improve its efficiency by more use of information technology", which bears out the point I made about the private sector. However, Deputy Bruton goes on to state, "The real competitive challenge for Ireland will be that of ensuring that Government services become progressively more efficient to enable them to absorb the extra cost", to which I say "Amen". This can be done in the context of a decentralisation policy which is well-ordered and thought out and will bring benefits to the regions.
The decentralisation implementation committee is chaired by Mr. Phil Flynn. Any concerns about industrial relations problems are being handled by individual management bodies. The first report of the decentralisation implementation committee of last March states:
We identify the people dimension as being far and away the most important element. We are grateful for the earnestness with which the issues are being addressed and would encourage all concerned to continue to engage meaningfully.
That is indicative of the approach which has been taken by the decentralisation implementation committee.
In her budget speech to the Dáil on 4 December last, the Tánaiste stated:
I believe that people elect politicians to get things done. Our decision to decentralise is right for our country, right in its scale, right in its ambition and right in its results. Decentralisation can only work as a stimulus to the economic development of the regions if it is large scale and not piecemeal. It can only work as Government, leading by example for investors, if it involves major Government offices.
She also spoke about the opportunities the policy will create for public servants and their families, to which I have already referred.
Decentralisation will also have the effect of bringing the public service much closer to the people. There is a sense that the offices in Dublin are in some way remote and inaccessible to citizens and that even when one telephones, one feels that a Chinese wall operates. That public servants will become part of communities throughout the country will be of great benefit.
The Minister of State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Parlon, is involved in finding premises and offices for the people who will be decentralised and I understand some 700 proposals have been received by the OPW in response to requests for property, which shows a live interest on the part of communities around the country in having public servants locate in their communities permanently. I am sure the Minister of State will report on the property aspect of the programme in respect of sites and so on. It is beneficial that we discuss these issues. I am a decentralisation enthusiast and I look forward to its advancing at a rapid pace.
I second the motion.
I fully support the national policy to bring Departments to the regions. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, to the House and wish him well in his role in this development. It is important we facilitate in every way the public service organisations, the civil servants and their families who are moving to the regions from Dublin. We well understand the problems such a move might cause for some families when opportunities for promotion become available down the country. It is important we keep the political momentum for the implementation of decentralisation policies on course to ensure that local housing and amenities policies make the decentralisation programme work to everyone's benefit. We should also encourage the programmes of interaction between councils and decentralised public services so that the learning and information sharing takes place in both directions, which will be welcomed in all the regions.
It is great to see 10,300 public service jobs coming to the 53 centres in 25 counties outside Dublin. It is a vote of confidence by the Government in rural Ireland and its future. In all local authorities throughout the country, the decentralisation programme has been welcomed. It is above politics. When the national spatial strategy was announced, it was a boost to look forward to Civil Service jobs coming to the regions. I am particularly delighted to see those jobs coming to the mid-west region. I am convinced it will make a better Ireland for all and wish the Government every success in the implementation of this programme.
I asked about the status of the decentralisation programme for Newcastle-West in an Adjournment debate in the House on 26 May. For many years, I have sought decentralisation to Newcastle West and assisted in the submission. Therefore, I was very pleased to see it coming to fruition at last with a commitment not alone for Newcastle-West but also for Kilrush and Listowel with the provision of 150 jobs in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. Along with my rural colleagues and others, I am delighted that decentralisation will now occur.
The scale of the project announced in the budget on 3 December last surprised many people. In many cases, people did not talk about the budget or make comparisons with other budgets in respect of financial matters because the sheer scale of the decentralisation announcement deflected attention from it so that it became the main focus of interest and discussion. The Minister of State enthusiastically greeted the decentralisation programme in his own county and the banners were out in jig-time welcoming decentralisation to various parts of Counties Laois and Offaly.
That is the political dimension, but what people want to see now is the sequence for the evolving nature of the decentralisation process around the country. In Newcastle West, where 50 posts are being decentralised to Revenue, there is already a great success story of decentralisation there. Between Nenagh, Limerick and Ennis 900 jobs have been decentralised and the area has been extended further to include Newcastle West, Kilrush and Listowel. Within that mesh of activities there will be certain promotional opportunities. If there is a scale of 50 jobs, that level will be achieved.
In terms of complete Departments, one may not get the necessary transfer rapidly because reservations will be expressed at senior level within the Department. That is as it should be because in many cases people have put down their roots firmly in the Dublin area. They have access to third level education establishments and the commitments of their children in the education process will often dictate whether they move on or otherwise. In addition, spouses may be working. All those considerations influence decisions. A factor which must be taken into consideration, as in rural areas, is that if I decide to live in Newcastle West, my extended family is in the area. Naturally, there is a bond between the older members of one's family and people who are working. That should not be forgotten in regard to the Dublin area.
If expressions of concern are being made by senior people within the Civil Service in regard to moving, we recognise that civil servants, by virtue of their positions, will not be vocal in expressing an opinion which is contrary to Government policy and opinion. Through their unions they have articulated a concern in regard to certain members moving down the country. If decentralisation takes place, and I am an enthusiastic supporter of it, those left behind will have to be absorbed into other organisations. If so, will they lose out on seniority and promotional opportunities or would the evolution be in the country? Where decentralisation has taken place, such as in Ballina, if civil servants want to progress they have a better chance of doing so if they move back to Dublin. If the movement takes place in the other direction, will those in the Dublin area be regarded as not having co-operated with decentralisation and, if so, will they be penalised?
In regard to the scale of the project, I am not sure if offices are being decentralised to 25 counties. The largesse is being spread on a national basis. When the original decentralisation project for Newcastle West was introduced, Shannon Development stepped in and said it would be much better if it was embraced within the mid-west region, Kilrush and Listowel. At the time I said we would have a better chance of success because not alone is west Limerick being accommodated from a political dimension, but it takes in Clare and north Kerry. That is the reality of politics and that is what happened.
There is a level of interest about going to Newcastle West which I welcome. I can understand that level of interest given that recently I inquired about a person, not at senior level, in a Department in Dublin who was anxious to transfer to the area and I was informed that the person was very far down the queue. It struck me forcefully that people would willingly move to an area such as Newcastle West.
When we think of decentralisation we think automatically of Dublin and transferring to rural locations. The Department of Agriculture and Food in Limerick city is placed in an illogical location in regard to community services. If a farmer wants to do business there, it is impossible to get parking. When a Member of the other House, I often advocated that decentralisation should not focus totally on Dublin but should look at Limerick. If people from Limerick city want to transfer west, they should be given that scope. That should happen in regard to such locations.
I support the project in principle although there are many issues to be teased out. One has to recognise that senior civil servants and Ministers were not aware of the commitment and scale envisaged until they were told about it 48 hours before the budget. There was no consultation despite the fact that trades unions had sought, since 1999, an attitude survey to be carried out by the Minister for Finance on decentralisation. Failure to get that commitment resulted in an element of surprise and shock. Before the process is complete, there will be a long gestation process and many teething problems. There is an acceptance and a willingness throughout rural Ireland to embrace civil servants. When they decide to move, whether to Newcastle West, Kilrush or Listowel, they will find that their quality of life will improve considerably.
I warmly welcome the positive tone of Senator Finucane's contribution. Both of us come from the west Munster region where it has been warmly welcomed across the board. I welcome the Minister of State and his officials and compliment the Minister of State on the energy and vigour he is bringing to this task. In two or three years' time I look forward to him saying one can pay a visit to the fine town of Trim, along with Trim Castle, the Wellington monument and Butterstream Gardens where we will be able to visit and admire the headquarters of the Office of Public Works.
This policy of decentralisation is one to which Fianna Fáil has been strongly committed for over 20 years and perhaps even longer. One of the finest examples of decentralisation was in 1964 when the Garda Training College moved to Templemore. The programme has been greeted extremely warmly outside Dublin. I argue that the programme is also in the interests of Dublin. Regardless of where we come from, we want a strong capital of a strong nation. That is not possible if all the development and growth is concentrated in one area which is bursting at the seams and where there are many pressures such as high house prices, congestion and so on while much of the rest of the country is lagging behind. It should be possible to spread development more evenly. Industry tends to concentrate in certain centres There are some exceptions, for example, the village of Dromcollogher in Senator Finucane's constituency which has some significant industry attached to it. In a situation where the Government is accused of breaking promises in its election manifesto, this is one we are keeping.
It was to go to substantial well-located towns that were not necessarily able to attract industry. That is what happened. One still reads editorials about the national spatial strategy. If one takes all the decentralisation programmes together — there were a couple of phases in the early 1990s — every hub and gateway has decentralised offices. The concept of a hub and gateway is that activity surrounds it and is not just concentrated at the centre. In spite of the contribution by Senator Finucane, there are somewhat mixed signals coming from the Fine Gael Party. I noted Deputy John Bruton's personal contribution on decentralisation in an article in the Irish Independent this morning and I cannot but wryly reflect that one of his great achievements was to bring the European Veterinary College to Grange. I do not know if all the studies he is calling for were conducted in regard to that move. I am even more concerned by the attitude from some sections of the Labour Party although I would immediately exempt Senator O'Meara from this. There has been an unfortunate tendency to try to rubbish the programme, presumably in the hope of currying favour with civil servants in Dublin who are not very keen on the idea. That applies only to some members of the party.
Civil servants do not have a right to challenge the principle of electorally mandated Government policy. Of course, they have the right to make choices and to make clear particular practical difficulties. I am glad we are having this discussion and I must thank our Progressive Democrat colleagues for that. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service there was, as I would have interpreted it, an attempt to start a parliamentary filibuster of the decentralisation process and it was opposed. I am not opposed to regular discussion and progress reports on decentralisation.
The announcement of the decentralisation programme had an immediate impact, for example, in Tipperary town. Within a couple of months, before a building was chosen or a civil servant moved, important investments were announced and this has given a significant boost of confidence to the town. I am sure that is replicated in most of the towns around the country and will lead to an improvement in quality of life. I understand the difficulties faced by some civil servants who may have to make difficult career and personal choices. There are many situations where married couples do not work within a hundred yards of each other. People have to adapt to the situation. They may decide, however, not to adapt. I do not see this in terms of electoral stroke politics. Even if this side of the House goes out of Government at the next election, I would be very anxious to see the decentralisation programme being implemented by whatever alternative Government is in power.
This is for the benefit of the country, which is far more important than the benefit to any party. I know that is the view in my part of the country and the view of the chairman of Senator Bannon's parliamentary party. It is the consensus among all political parties in the Tipperary area.
I welcome the debate on this motion and I look forward to hearing the Minister give a progress report.
To pick up on the point made by Senator Mansergh, I too welcome a progress report as one of our concerns is how the decentralisation programme is progressing. I totally favour the principle of decentralisation which offers major benefits to towns. The Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Agriculture and Food have located in Nenagh and one can see the clear benefits to the local economy of having a substantial number of public and civil servants located in the town, not only from the point of view of spending power, house buying and so on, but in terms of the confidence it gives to the area and its ability to attract business and infrastructure development. Another positive benefit of decentralisation, in terms of public servants, is the creation of a potential career structure in a regional area. Qualified women who would like to work in the public service, for example the county council, do not have that opportunity because there is no recruitment, but they would be very happy to work in a decentralised Department. If one is promoted for example from the Revenue Commissioners in Nenagh, one is promoted out of the county and one must work in Portlaoise, Limerick or possibly Dublin and a small number find they are commuting to Dublin, possibly on a daily basis.
I was about to make that point. An improved train service would help. A proper worked out programme of decentralisation could be excellent for the economic life of towns round the country. When one looks at the reality of this programme, it does not appear to line up with that, unfortunately.
The decentralisation programme that was so unexpectedly announced at the last budget, has taken everybody by surprise, particularly the public servants. What is certainly emerging as one of the big issues is that people do not want to move. One cannot force people to move. To a certain extent I agree with Senator Mansergh that public servants do not have an absolute right to question the decisions of a democratically elected Government, but at the same time one would hope that in a well ordered and civilised society people should not be forced to move to somewhere they do not want to move to.
I would like to know what each Department will do if only a percentage of its staff want to move. What will happen to the remainder? Will we have an increase in public service numbers, for example if 200 are due to go to Thurles and only 100 want to move, will an additional 100 jobs be created locally? Where will the 100 staff members who stayed behind be deployed? Will there be a significant increase in Civil Service numbers in order to create the decentralisation programme successfully but also to ensure that nobody who does not want to move is accommodated? It is very important to ask how will that be resolved in practice.
That the public service unions are not happy about how the process has been managed is also a very serious matter. The Government is the largest employer in this area. It is essential that there be a process of partnership, proper communication and agreement at that level. Otherwise, the national partnership process effectively means nothing.
This programme does not line up with the national spatial strategy. In fact, it bears no relation to it. Although I welcome the proposed decentralisation to north Tipperary and to Tipperary in general, County Tipperary's omission from the national spatial strategy was notable. Perhaps the Government might drop the pretence that there is a correlation between the decentralisation programme and the national spatial strategy.
On the decentralisation policy, I would be more convinced of the Government's motives if that same policy of decentralisation were evident in other areas. In the health service, for example, the policy framework contained in the Hanly report on hospitals is all about centralisation. It is about removing local services and incorporating them into 12 regional centres. This entails the loss of local access to an essential service and forces people to travel long distances to avail of a fundamental facility, namely access to acute and emergency care. On the one hand, therefore, we have the Government extolling the virtues of decentralisation while, on the other, the direct opposite is happening in a way that will cause serious and fundamental problems in communities. That the policy of decentralisation is not mirrored in other areas of Government policy is one of the main reasons I question the Government's motives on the decentralisation programme. With regard to the Department of Education and Science, for example, one can hardly fix a window in a school down the country without this fact being imparted to Marlborough Street. I am aware that the State examination section is based in Athlone but the mindset of centralised decision-making is endemic in that Department, to name just one. The Government does not have a worked-out policy of decentralisation. If it had, we would see this policy implemented in more than one way.
In this context, the decentralisation programme is merely a cynical vote-gathering exercise. This is a pity because decentralisation, properly managed, would be a good policy, not only in terms of how the economy has developed in Dublin, but also for the purpose of improving the functionality of local government, as so much of its decision-making is centralised in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and, indeed, with the Minister of that Department. I look forward to the report on this issue and I commend the Progressive Democrats for proposing this motion.
I thank Senator Dardis and his colleagues for introducing this important matter for debate. The last time I spoke on this matter, the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, told me that I had a Dublin mindset, which I thought was teetering on the edge of unparliamentary language although it did not bother me unduly at the time. Dublin is not my constituency; I have no particular axe to grind. I speak on the basis of 50 years of service in the public service. I have enormous regard for the public service in Ireland, both North and South. I have also been interested in planning matters and issues like central place theory.
The overriding priority in planning in this country is to try to move facilities and businesses out of Dublin to provide the space that would give people a decent standard of living there also. We need to demagnetise Dublin and I have reservations about the fact that the national spatial strategy tried to achieve this end by placing too many counter-magnets about the place, rather than three or four large ones. The solution I propose does not exclude the hub and spoke model Senator Finucane spoke of, but I have difficulties with some of Senator O'Meara's arguments, particularly regarding the health service, which should not be decentralised ad infinitum. There is an important consideration of the critical mass at which activity takes place.
I support the movement of public service jobs out of Dublin. The Government, as a major employer, can provide a motor for regional and local development in carefully selected locations. There are different sorts of activities in Departments, however. I ran a Department for several years that had offices in 26 towns across Northern Ireland. Major blocks of work, such as accounting, delivery services, data processing, which can be carried out anywhere. When it comes to a Department's policy-making function, however, over-decentralisation becomes difficult. This is based on the experience of how business is done on that level, which involves interaction between people on the edges of meetings, for example, which cannot be replicated by conference calls, memos or information technology, however good. In Northern Ireland, we had an experience of decentralisation that involved a shift of approximately eight miles in the location of the Department of Education to Bangor. The Department became even more introverted than it had been and it was difficult for other Departments to maintain a dialogue with it. When one consider the principles outlined many years ago in the Devlin report of dividing work into aireachtaí and agencies, there is a lot to be said for decentralising and relocating agencies to the greatest extent possible, while maintaining the overseeing aireachtaí which can be quite small, in as close a continuity as possible. The objective of joined-up Government becomes more difficult when one disperses staff about the place.
In terms of recruitment, one must consider why so many people leave rural areas. It is because they need the anonymity of the city for a particular period of their lives, to facilitate a rite of passage to adulthood. However, this does not have to be provided in Dublin; other urban centres can perform the same function, so long as they possess the critical mass of which I already spoke. Many of these young people will want to return to their local place when they are older and wish to settle down, and that is fine. A potential danger in the decentralisation process is that if recruitment is undertaken at the local level as well, there tends to be a sameness about people, particularly if, as appears likely, the role of the appointment commissioners changes. It is important to develop safeguards for employment patterns. It may be necessary to appoint civil servants who will want to spend all their working lives in a particular urban centre or area as well as others who are prepared to be more mobile. There is always a danger that the public service will lose potentially top-level people because they have become land-locked at some stage in their careers. I strongly support the principle behind the decentralisation programme but I have serious reservations regarding the strength of the spread and, in particular, the diffusion of top-level departmental staff. It is grossly inefficient to have people spending time, for example in cars travelling, trying to hook up with one another over long distances. I hope that will be examined. However, regarding moving jobs out of Dublin, freeing the city and building up strong and progressive poles of growth around the country, I commend the Minister.
I welcome the Minister. I reassure Senator Dardis that Fine Gael's position on this matter is very clear. We support the principle of decentralisation. However, the Government's handling, or mishandling, of it does not fill us with confidence. The last time the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, spoke on decentralisation in this House, before it was announced, he said that places that had not fared well in the spatial strategy, such as Carlow which was left out, would receive a bonus through being included in the decentralisation process. While I was delighted with that news, some of my colleagues were horrified. They came from towns that had been included in the spatial strategy and they certainly did not feel they should be discriminated against. The Tánaiste and leader of the Minister of State's party took a completely different view on the issue in the Dáil. There have been very contradictory statements from the outset.
It was wrong to include the announcement in the budget debate, which was done because the budget was so bankrupt of ideas. The announcement regarding the location of the Teagasc headquarters in Carlow was included by the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, in his budget speech. That later turned out to be a stumbling block for compensation agreements with the unions about relocating. It was then removed from the budget speech. The whole incident was handled very badly. The Teagasc deal was concluded before the budget and was not really part of the decentralisation process.
It was included in the speech, which I remember reading. It said that Carlow was to get 350 jobs and that 250 were wanted at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It was a significant issue, and it was on the front page of The Irish Times a few weeks later. Senator Dardis should be questioning his Government colleagues. It is remarkable that there is currently only one Fianna Fáil Senator in the House willing to speak on the subject.
Three of our Senators have contributed so far. The Fianna Fáil Chairperson of the Joint Committee on Finance and the Public Service, Deputy Fleming, first agreed to a debate on the decentralisation process, then rowed back and would not allow a debate on progress though, with all due respect, that would have been a logical step for the committee. Now, suddenly, the Government is willing to debate it, but Fianna Fáil Senators and members seem lukewarm on the issue.
I am amazed at Senator Mansergh's comment that public servants do not really have the right to question something. In a democracy, everyone has that right. People have a right to be consulted, and the sudden announcement of the decision, without consulting the main players, was a fundamental mistake. I query whether 10,000 civil servants can be moved. Would it not be more realistic to set an initial target of 5,000 and see how that works out? I have spoken to different politicians with far more experience than I who were in Government in the past and who relocated some sections of Departments to different areas. They found it extremely difficult to achieve the numbers. Though they might only have relocated 200, to make up that total they had to go outside their own Department. They could not fill the places from within. When one is moving 10,000 civil servants, one does not have the luxury of going to other Departments; one will have to find them within one's own Department. It will be extremely difficult, and there will be major issues concerning people who refuse to go. Will they be victimised? Will they get the promotions they deserve? If they move, will they stay?
I often meet people in Carlow who have moved from Dublin because the idea of a cheaper house and country life appealed to them. However, once they are there, their children might not even settle in the area and they might well move back to Dublin. These are real issues. Of the 250 due to come to Carlow from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, how many will commute to Dublin every day, and how many will build or buy a house in Carlow, send their children to a local school and actively participate in the community? Will they simply look on it as a job and commute? That would negate the full potential benefit of such decentralisation.
Senator Dardis is aware of the furore regarding Magee Barracks in his own neck of the woods, where I understand that 60 acres of State-owned land are available; yet the Government is looking for land and buildings in Newbridge and the Curragh. That does not make sense. Obviously, Newbridge will be delighted to get a Department and the Curragh is also getting a headquarters. However, when one has a barracks lying idle with 60 acres of land — ten are taken up by other activities — that is certainly an issue.
Bus Éireann is to be privatised within the next few years, or so we are told at the Committee on Transport, but it is down for decentralisation. The numbers there simply do not add up. Those currently working there do not equal those whom it is proposed to move. How can one make a privatised company move to Mitchelstown, for example? It does not make sense. I have asked that question on numerous occasions and have yet to get an answer.
I regret the fact that the Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats candidates are using decentralisation as an election gimmick. Some did play a part in it, but in Carlow some people who were not even involved in politics at the time are now taking the credit for it, which is a disgrace. Four years ago Carlow was guaranteed in the Dáil that it would get a Department. We had such a good case that we could not be left out. We were far enough away from Dublin, yet not too far, and we had all the infrastructure.
In Carlow County Council, the former county manager, Tom Dowling, put together a very good plan to explain why Carlow should be chosen. Along with the local politicians, some of whom I acknowledge were Progressive Democrats, the sitting Deputies at the time and the local authority staff, they put together a very good package. We held a meeting in July 2003 to refresh the Department of Finance's mind and we kept lobbying for it. It was a good day when it came to Carlow. The question is whether we will get the full benefit of it. Unfortunately, no really new jobs will be created by the process. People in Carlow to whom I have spoken when canvassing are far more interested in getting a commercial bank in the new business park, which is now lying idle. There are 70 acres of land, but nothing is being done there. That would be far more beneficial in the minds of the people of Carlow.
We must ensure that when the decentralisation process goes ahead we have an efficient public service. While I acknowledge the great work that many people are doing at the Department of Social and Family Affairs, in my experience it is very confusing when one starts ringing people and one is put through from Sligo back to Dublin and all over the country via different subsections. Invariably, after seven or eight telephone calls, one still does not have an answer or a result. We must be conscious of that, which is why Deputy John Bruton, who has been in politics for much longer than most of us, is correct to air his views. Simply because we scatter Departments everywhere does not necessarily mean we will have an efficient public service. That is obviously our ultimate goal. We are all chasing social welfare queries that take weeks. Perhaps if we had a centralised approach in some respects, it might be quicker. People are waiting for social welfare benefits.
Fine Gael is in favour of decentralisation. Unfortunately, the Government's record on the national spatial strategy and the national development plan, which is behind schedule and over budget, does not give us much assurance or confidence. However, it is vital that we continue to receive progress reports regularly. I am glad the Progressive Democrats have accepted the Fine Gael position put forward at the Committee on Finance and the Public Service last week.
I welcome the Minister and the opportunity to speak in support of this motion. The decision to decentralise public service jobs from Dublin to other parts of the country has been strongly welcomed, particularly by those towns and communities that will benefit. As previous speakers said, it has already created a new vibrancy in those communities, a sense of self-worth and self-belief that can only augur well. They now see an anchor being given to them around which they can further build their communities. Not only will people come to work there, but they will integrate into communities and contribute to their social lives.
We should approach the idea of decentralisation in terms of a short, medium and long-term plan to ensure efficiency is maintained and that the transition taking place over a period of time in no way undermines the vital role being played by public servants in the administration of the State. The plans and targets set out have to be readily achievable. It would be dangerous to set ourselves plans, targets and timeframes and, in the process, set about undermining the system of governance in the country.
I have a certain amount of concern as to how we approach those civil servants in the Dublin who are somewhat uneasy and unhappy about the proposed moves. There must be a sense of reality. Many people enter careers knowing they are liable to be transferred or moved, for promotional or other reasons. However, people have entered careers on the understanding that they would permanently reside in the Dublin area. That is fine and an acceptable viewpoint. However, there are people at a certain stage of life, with family and educational commitments, etc, who are now being forced to take challenging decisions vis-À-vis their careers and families. I hope that all necessary support mechanisms and systems will be put in place to reassure civil servants going through that decision making process that they will have the necessary supports to help them come to a decision. There is no doubt that the long-term advantage to the country far outweighs the short-term losses in achieving this, but it is a great responsibility on the political system to ensure that this is effected in the most efficient manner, both for the personnel involved and equally for the systems they administer.
I support in principle some of the comments made by Senator Maurice Hayes about senior level management. Whereas technology can fill many gaps in the modern era of communication, a hands-on approach is also necessary. One has to give serious consideration to the senior levels of management. Sections of Departments can be moved and operate efficiently down the country. However, we need to be careful regarding senior management level in Departments. Where there is interdepartmental interaction, this should be kept in place and I hope this will be kept under review.
Senator Browne referred to Government parties and members of my party taking credit for this initiative. I assure Senator Browne that I am taking absolutely no credit for it. I was heartened to hear that we were getting 200 jobs in Cork, but I was somewhat disheartened to discover that the 200 jobs in the Macroom-Fermoy area were coming from Cork city. I was of the opinion that decentralisation involved moving people from Dublin. However, I am allowed to be somewhat parochial, since most of us avail of the opportunity. I found it astonishing that we were moving people from Cork city to Macroom and Fermoy, which for me——
——undervalues and undermines the whole principle of decentralisation in that these people, I suggest, will commute to their new-found employment. They will not contribute to the community, purchase houses or put their children into local schools. It is a decision I fail to understand. Not only could I not understand it when it was originally made, I equally cannot understand it since it was subsequently changed and people who were heading one way are now heading in another.
I have spoken to the Minster of State about this and I hope that particular decision will be kept under review——
——and a sensible resolution will be found to it.
I welcome the fact that this debate is taking place. It is necessary that we have a report and an update. We must give reassurances that the system being put in place by the Government will work. People applying for these moves and those in fear of being forced to move must be reassured that the necessary support mechanisms to help them make decisions that affect their careers and families will be such that they can decide in a confident manner. We have to look at the overriding principle, which is to decentralise from the Dublin area. That is a welcome decision.
——turning up in the run-up to the local and European elections. I use the word "bad" in so far as decentralisation as presented by the Government is mismanaged and totally lacking in accountability. This is in no way to take from the concept of decentralisation which I and my party fully support, rather this is said out of frustration that such an important issue should be used in this way as nothing more than a political football by the Progressive Democrats.
I inform Senator Dardis, the spokesperson for the Fianna Fáil B team, formally the Progressive Democrats, that Fine Gael supports decentralisation. It was the first party in the State to propose decentralisation when Fianna Fáil was closing small rural schools——
Decentralisation, despite indications to the contrary, was a live issue in the run-up to the last general election. It was part of the Agreed Programme for Government to be delivered by the end of 2002. Now we are approaching the local and European elections and again it is hot news from the Progressive Democrats. Will it hold good as a promise for the next general election?
That urgency is still with us. Decentralisation is important for this country, both from urban and rural perspectives. I support it and want to see it implemented in an open and transparent manner. This motion calls for the Minister to submit a report to this House on the plan's progress and its future implications. We heard Senator Minihan's comments on Cork. I fear that reports in this case are another stalling action which will preclude action, rather than be an open statement of the Government's plans for decentralisation in all its aspects. This country is primed for decentralisation. Communication systems are in place to link offices and businesses effectively, and the need to alleviate pressure on Dublin housing and traffic gridlock is undisputed. However, decentralisation that is not open to public scrutiny in all its aspects is not the way forward. Decentralisation makes sense but it is vitally important that its inception is no longer used as another political promise and that it is fully implemented without further delay. I hope the Minister is prepared to end the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over it and allow his plans to be opened to public scrutiny. This is very important coming from the Progressive Democrats and where they stand on the issue. They have recently been obscured by their immersion in Fianna Fáil and its policies.
The lack of transparency by the Government and the Minister of State has led to a situation whereby they are arrogantly overriding the standard procedures of our democracy. It is incredible to think that since the plans for decentralisation were first mooted prior to the local elections in 1999 no motion in this regard has been debated in the Dáil. No Government memorandum has accompanied it. No business case or risk assessment of its effect on any of the agencies has been presented. No human resource plan has been developed and no proper assessment of the financial implications has been presented. None of the selected locations has been justified against criteria for successful regionalisation. Neither those who fear a significant loss of "organisational memory" nor those who say that the dispersal of a majority of Departments across the countryside runs counter to international best practice have received an answer.
Decentralisation is not, and should not be allowed to be, shoved in through the back door but it is becoming clear that this is how the Government regards its implementation. The introduction of decentralisation in the budget was a deliberate ploy, as Senator Browne said, to avoid the scrutiny which has been established to protect our citizens from ill-considered proposals. The Government is not above accountability and the need for such accountability and transparency is laid down in the Article 28.4.1 of the Constitution which states "The Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann". Sadly, it appears that the Government sees itself as being above such restraints. In demanding accountability from the Government, I am conscious of the human element involved in any decentralisation plans. A total of 10,000 families are being asked to move, lives are to be disrupted, and public servants are being put into a "Dutch auction" situation by the Minister of State.
They are being required to make a bid for their own jobs before a deadline or suffer the unknown consequences when their jobs are allocated to others. So much for voluntary relocation without duress. In a proposal worthy of farce, if not amusement, 200 staff from Bus Éireann's Dublin headquarters were scheduled to be moved to the proposed new headquarters in Mitchelstown as part of the Government's decentralisation programme. The only problem was that Bus Éireann has only 80 employees at its head office almost all of whom opposed the move. The 120 phantom staff have not been consulted. Voluntary decentralisation with no alternative plans for those who do not wish to relocate is tantamount to compulsion. What are the alternatives for civil servants who do not wish to move?
It would be more appropriate if the Progressive Democrats had tabled a motion on their lack of support for the European initiative. Not for the first time it has been shown that the party is anti-Europe. It has failed to put forward candidates in any constituency and it has let down the people who propose to support the European institutions.
I was anxious to hear Senator Bannon's contribution before I spoke. The cloud of uncertainty and confusion he reckoned was over his head is spreading over that side of the House. There is a great deal of hot air——
I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the Seanad this evening on the Government's decentralisation programme. When the Minister for Finance announced the details of the extent of the new decentralisation programme in his budget speech in December last year, several commentators were of the view that it would be many years before progress could be achieved on moving the programme forward. When one sees the extent of the progress that has been made, with the assistance of the decentralisation implementation group, in advancing this important Government programme one will agree, on hearing the facts, that we have delivered fully on our promise to translate our targets into real action in a very short timeframe.
The chairman of the implementation group is Mr. Phil Flynn who reports directly to a special Cabinet sub-committee on decentralisation. The group was asked to prepare an implementation plan and report back to Government by the end of March 2004. In parallel with the work of the implementation group, each Minister has been given overall responsibility for the decentralisation of his or her Department and of the State agencies for which he or she is responsible. The Minister in each case established a decentralisation unit in his or her Department which reports to the management advisory committee of that Department and to the Minister. All decentralising departments and agencies have appointed decentralisation liaison officers.
The Flynn group submitted the report of the decentralisation implementation group to the Government at the end of March 2004. The Government approved the terms of the report which has been published and which contained several key recommendations. These include the setting up of a web-based integrated transfer system called the central applications facility, or CAF, to allow people to apply for transfer to decentralised locations and to rank their preferences among those locations. Work proceeded very quickly to turn the plan into reality. The CAF was launched on 12 May 2004 by the Minister for Finance and will remain in operation until such time as all the locations are fully subscribed, but those who apply within a period of eight weeks after the system goes live will receive preference over those who apply after that period. The eight-week period will finish on 8 July 2004. The information gathered through the CAF in the period up to 8 July 2004 will be analysed and passed on to the implementation group, thus providing it with a very valuable input for its next report. The Government sees the CAF as one of the cornerstones of the overall implementation process and the next phase of implementation.
The group has also recommended that a second system similar to the CAF be developed at a later stage for people whose jobs are being decentralised but who wish to remain in Dublin. Several people have articulated this. It is a totally voluntary scheme and the people who choose not to move can rest assured they will have an opportunity of going onto a similar CAF immediately after the first one finishes. The implementation group also examined the training requirements for decentralisation and made recommendations in this area. One such recommendation is the provision of a series of workshops and seminars for decentralising organisations to provide a structured forum to build understanding of the training and development issues involved in the new programme. Last month CMOD organised and ran the first of these workshops for key representatives of decentralising organisations. The workshops were very well received by the attendees who represented 55 organisations. The group also considered that the Department of Finance should develop an overall decentralisation training plan. This would identify areas suitable for common responses, options for skills transfer and for mainstreaming the training across organisations.
At the same time, the group asked that each decentralising Department and agency prepare its own implementation plan for submission by the end of May 2004. The plans are to include a detailed listing of all issues to be addressed in terms of people, property and business, with appropriate indicative timelines, an outline of the processes already in place to be developed plus the products to be delivered under each heading. Each plan should take account of the organisation's review of business process and service delivery methods. The plans should incorporate specific risk assessment and mitigation strategies. They should avail of suitable project management tools and include appropriate monitoring provisions. These initial implementation plans will require further development as additional information emerges in regard to the people, property and business issues identified in the implementation group's report. In addition, key trainers should be put in place at an early stage in every organisation which is scheduled to decentralise. The information contained in these plans will, together with the material from the CAF and property information, form a major part of the group's next report.
In the area of equality, the group felt that the opportunity afforded by decentralisation should be used to re-emphasise the importance of equality issues. I confirm the Office of Public Works will, in line with its existing policy, ensure that best practice in regard to universal access to buildings is incorporated into the specifications for new buildings.
I assure the House, in keeping with the group's suggestions, that every opportunity will be taken to promote and widen the use of existing family-friendly and work-balance schemes in determining working arrangements in a decentralised service.
In budget 2001, the Minister for Finance allocated €12.7 million for the provision of Civil Service crèches. The allocation was part of a wider Government policy to increase the number of child care places. Five such crèches are currently in operation, two in Dublin and one each in Ennis, Athlone and Sligo. The implementation group felt the future direction of the Civil Service crèche initiative needed to be reviewed in light of the decentralisation programme. The availability of pre-school child care facilities in the decentralised locations, whether within the workplace or otherwise, needs to be addressed. The group considered that this review should take account of the scope for achieving the necessary critical mass in terms of demand and commercial viability by examining possible joint ventures with other public service employers in the relevant locations and private sector employers in those centres.
Based on the group's recommendations, an interdepartmental committee has been set up to examine and report on the provision of child care in decentralised locations. This committee is examining the scope for the provision of further Civil Service workplace crèches in some decentralised locations as part of the child care initiative and suitable pre-school child care in other locations.
In December 2003, at the request of the implementation group, the Office of Public Works invited proposals for the provision of office accommodation in the 53 locations announced on budget day. This was done through advertisements in national newspapers. By the closing date of 16 January 2004, approximately 700 submissions had been received. Since that date, officials from the OPW have been analysing these proposals on the basis of the criteria agreed by the decentralisation implementation group and using an agreed marking system. All negotiations with the vendors of properties are being handled by the OPW.
To date, a number of properties have been secured. I am sure Senator Bannon will be delighted to hear the site for the Prison Service headquarters has been acquired from the local authority. I congratulate the——
In Carlow, a superb site has been acquired from the local authority for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which has been universally approved by all local authority members.
A Senator referred to the fact that an alternative site had been suggested to the Curragh as the location for the Defence Forces headquarters. I am happy to inform the House that the State owns the land in the Curragh where the Defence Forces headquarters will be situated. Likewise, the Department of Education and Science site in Athlone is State-owned. The OPW expects to have in excess of 20 properties under negotiation by the end of July 2004, with the remainder to quickly follow. The implementation group recommended a public private partnership approach to the procurement of office accommodation be adopted and that design, build, maintain and finance be the preferred procurement mechanism.
Since the first announcement of the programme, there has been ongoing engagement between Civil Service management and trade unions within the framework of the Civil Service conciliation and arbitration scheme. Discussions have also been ongoing, under the auspices of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and with unions representing staff in the various State agencies.
Management has put forward a number of proposals and progress is being made. The ICTU trade unions representing public servants in decentralising agencies are meeting with the official side this afternoon. It is also recognised that many issues require ongoing discussions and much of this will have to take place locally between management and staff in the individual agencies concerned.
Six months have elapsed since the Minister for Finance's announcement on budget day. Any reasonable observer would conclude that significant progress has been made during that time in the implementation phase of decentralisation. Public servants who wish to decentralise are in the process of making their applications. Most of the organisations participating in the programme have drawn up implementation plans and submitted them to the Flynn group. The OPW is continuing to seek and identify suitable locations for the decentralised offices. However, a significant task remains to be achieved. This programme is proceeding satisfactorily and Senators can rest assured it will be achieved.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon. I thank the Progressive Democrats for tabling this motion, which is an important one. I am always delighted to speak on decentralisation. Since I first became a public representative as a member of the then Waterford Corporation in 1985, it is a subject I have addressed on many occasions. It has always been close to my heart because I am aware of its importance and have spoken about it whenever I got the opportunity in the various fora that were available throughout the years. I am delighted to put forward my views on decentralisation and support the motion before the House.
The Fine Gael Party is very much in danger of becoming the anti-civil servant party. It is against decentralisation and it was against benchmarking. I do not know what it has against civil servants.
——state they support decentralisation and then they complained about the 10,000 civil servants we want to displace around the country.
I remind Fine Gael that Fianna Fáil was the first party to promote decentralisation towards the end of the 1970s. Decentralisation was then held up for a number of years. After the three elections in 1981 and 1982, we had a Fine Gael and Labour coalition from 1982 to 1987——
When decentralisation was first mooted, a decision was taken regarding the then Department of Posts and Telegraphs. The telegraphs part of it was to come to Waterford and the post end of it was to go to Dundalk. That never happened. Both sections were hived off to become An Post and Telecom Éireann. It was a matter of great frustration to me at the time.
We went around in circles trying to get Telecom Éireann to come to Waterford. In 1992, when I was Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Transport and Communications, I looked at the file on it and discovered that we would never get Telecom Éireann to decentralise because it did not want to go and, as matters stood, we could not make it do so. We then went after the Land Registry and it is now located in Waterford where a few hundred people are working successfully. There are many people in that office who did not come from Waterford city or county or the south-east but who chose to move to that particular location and are now happy with their lot. That is not only true of Waterford, it is also true of Carlow, Galway, Limerick, Cork or any town or city throughout the country to which people were decentralised in the first tranche out of Dublin. From talking to their friends and colleagues who decentralised, those in Dublin know that these people have a far better quality of life in the places in which they now live.
During the period to which I refer we could not get people to move out of Dublin because they felt they were going into the unknown. Now, however, people are aware of what is available in other locations and it is much easier to encourage them to decentralise. That is why I have no concerns about encouraging 10,000 people to move out of Dublin.
I accept there will be difficulties. Nobody suggested that problems would not arise. It is a huge undertaking and no one thought it would be straightforward. It will not be straightforward and more problems and difficulties that we have not yet even envisaged will arise.
However, we are determined to proceed.
A great deal of misinformation has been put about. A Department carried out a trawl of its employees and inquired as to how many people wanted to decentralise to the location to which it proposes to move. It was stated that decentralisation would not work because so few people wanted to move to that location. However, when the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources posed the question, the answer was completely different. There are enough people and they are anxious to move. I accept that in many cases this will entail moving to different Departments. What of it? This is happening in any event. People are constantly moving from one Department to another, whether it be in terms of gaining promotion, transferring or whatever. Moving Departments will not create any difficulty.
I heard a debate on radio this morning about local authorities and their powers. Reference was made to the decision-making process and the fact that many of their powers have been taken away and centralised back to Dublin. I do not want to discuss the rights and wrongs of what has happened to elected councils. However, I am of the view that elected representatives in local authorities should have more power. As regards the decision-making process, decentralisation of eight Departments will move this process out of Dublin to other locations. Those on radio this morning were decrying the fact that the decision-making process is being removed from rural areas. Now, however, it is being returned to various rural areas. I cannot understand why people oppose that.
My final point relates to new agencies that are being established. Some of the legislation with which I have been dealing contains proposals to start various new agencies. As a matter of policy, all of these agencies should be located outside Dublin. They are all quite small at present but some of them could become the large semi-State organisations of the future. If we move them out of Dublin now, we will not have to face the difficulty of doing so in 20 or 30 years time. I suggest that they should be moved elsewhere at this stage.
I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome the Minister of State and I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
From reading the motion, it is clear that there is doubt in the proposers' minds as to the feasibility of the project or the timescale within which it will be implemented. The Minister of State's contribution clearly indicates the absence of factual information regarding what is actually happening. In discussing decentralisation in this instance, we are talking about nothing more than relocation. That is the bald fact underlying this rushed scheme. Every public representative in the country welcomes decentralisation and the idea behind it. However, with the concept of decentralisation must come power.
If I could offer one example of a Department and Minister that have gone contrary to the beliefs I have outlined, it would be the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and its Minister. Let us consider the Minister's record. I am sure there are other Ministers to whom I could refer but I will concentrate on the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government because I was a member of a local authority. The Minister has clawed back power to his Department at every opportunity. He has removed power from local authority members with responsibility for waste management. He has also taken back power in the area of planning with the issuing of his recent guidelines, which were completely irrelevant and had no impact as regards solving the problem some Fianna Fáil Ministers and Ministers of State stated they had resolved in recent times. My party has a concept of decentralisation, in this instance, as meaning nothing more than the relocation of civil servants out of Dublin while retaining power here. We cannot accept that the Government's concept of decentralisation is real or genuine.
Another parallel exists in terms of the spatial strategy. What has happened in this regard? There is no relationship or link to the policy the Government has espoused in the past couple of years in respect of the spatial strategy. Under the strategy, we were supposed to develop hubs and gateways throughout the country and everybody embraced the concept. What has happened? The strategy has been scrapped. Will the Minister of State indicate whether anything positive, other than a coincidental allocation of some semi-State office or service to one of the proposed hubs or gateways, has happened in respect of the spatial strategy? I would go so far as to say that such allocations were even accidental.
I was merely informing the Minister of State as to the source of the cynicism. If he has not yet realised what it is, I have helped him to achieve closure in that regard.
People have been affected by the decision on decentralisation, particularly in terms of the way it was handled. There were no negotiations or discussions. The Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, launched decentralisation because of the absence of any other real initiative or policy from the Government. The Administration decided to proceed with decentralisation in the hope that all other matters would be swept aside and that people would talk about nothing else. People have talked about it but for the wrong reasons.
It is unfair to tell a young couple living in Dublin, one or other of whom works for a Department or State agency, who have purchased a home and whose children are in school or child care that the particular Department or agency is being encouraged to decentralise to a particular location. What will that mean for them? The motion refers to the need to restrict housing cost increases in Dublin and how people will benefit. Of what were its proposers thinking when they put forward that suggestion?
There are proposals for decentralisation to the towns of Ballinasloe and Loughrea and I welcome them. Nobody in Fianna Fáil or the Progressive Democrats should attempt to suggest that anyone opposes decentralisation.
It is merely a ploy, particularly during an election campaign, to say that people are opposed to decentralisation. However, that is fine because the Government parties have nothing else to say. The Government parties know well the real issues are coming up on the doorsteps and this is the side issue it uses to save some of its embarrassment over its failures and broken promises.
Before decentralisation was so hastily announced last December, negotiations were going on with the Government with regard to St. Bridget's Hospital, Ballinasloe. That institution is being vacated quickly and rapidly as a result of a change in policy of the health board and the Department of Health and Children which aims to bring patients into the community rather than institutionalise them. However, nothing has happened concerning the building. There was a rumour, which I discussed earlier with another Minister, that it would become a prison. Almost every town which did not get an offer was to be a location for a prison. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, however, has decided to get rid of Mountjoy Prison and to build a new jail and this has meant that the proposals for prisons in other locations have died an untimely death.
When I hear the Minister of State say that we will have reviews and studies of locations and that we must have child care facilities in all the proposed areas, this is a sure sign of indecision and postponement and of avoidance of putting practical plans in place. The Minister of State has no plans, if it is he who is responsible for the move. The Minister for Finance has allocated no funding, other than small piecemeal amounts.
Carlow and Longford were mentioned as two examples of where accommodation was available.
For what percentage of the 10,300 personnel has the Minister of State received concrete evidence of available accommodation? The reply will demonstrate that he is only tinkering at the edges of a policy that was badly thought out and in ten years' time we will probably not have got to its final episode.
I thank all the Senators who participated in this debate. I also thank the Minister of State for doing as requested by the motion and bringing us up to date on the decentralisation process. It is an achievement to have identified four locations and to have a further 20 under negotiation within a six-month period. This indicates the timeframe, which I regarded as ambitious when the announcement was made in the budget, is achievable.
I am somewhat confused, not for the first time, by the attitude of Fine Gael. We started with the reasonable face of Senator Finucane. This was followed by the anti-everything face of Senator Bannon and now we have the schizophrenic face of Senator Ulick Burke.
Senator Finucane said he was delighted that decentralisation will happen. This seems to be in marked contrast to what other members of his party had to say and to what has been said on the Order of Business in recent weeks where one would get the impression that this is the worst proposal ever. I am pleased to hear that Fine Gael has nailed its colours to the mast and that it is in favour of decentralisation, notwithstanding the individual solo runs within the party.
I welcome the announcement made by the Minister of State with regard to the Curragh and Defence Forces headquarters. It is my contention since I entered public life that Defence Forces headquarters should be in the Curragh. It did not make sense to me that many people travelled from Kildare to Defence Forces headquarters in Dublin when most of the activity was in the Curragh. It makes sense also to locate the Department of Defence close to the Curragh. I am pleased it is coming to Newbridge. Kildare would also have been suitable and I noted what was said regarding the barracks and the land there.
Senator Maurice Hayes made a good point regarding critical mass. The location of the Department of Defence, the Defence Forces headquarters, etc, within a reasonably close geographical area creates this critical mass. The same could apply in other situations.
With regard to the selection of towns, one of the reasons Athy was selected was to do with the quality of its application and the presentation made by the Athy development and investment forum. It is pleasing — the same has happened around the country — that politicians from all political parties united in their support for the Athy proposal. This included those from other towns that had made applications. The situation has not been particularly politicised.
For political reasons much scaremongering has taken place in Dublin to try to scare public servants into thinking a scenario of doom faces them. I repeat the point that only 10,300 out of 300,000 public servants are being asked to move. This is a small number of people and I am confident there are enough people who want to get out of the rat race which is Dublin and move to more pleasant places around the country in which to live, rear their families and participate in community. Many of these people came from those places. It is because we faced high unemployment levels at the time that they had no choice but to move to Dublin. Now, however, people have a choice.
I was impressed by what Senator Mansergh said on the subject of infrastructure and the spatial strategy. This was supported by Senator O'Meara. Exceptions can always be found but the plan has coherence and is working well. Major policy decisions of national importance must be made by senior civil servants in consultation with their political masters. This is probably best done in Dublin or in some central area. This does not mean that the administration of a Department cannot be devolved to other areas. Within all Departments many activities could be done as well in New York as in Kiltimagh, Ballinasloe, Longford or wherever.
With modern communications all this is possible. In my town a large company, Oral B, which is part of the Gillette company, interacts daily with its people in America through video link which works perfectly well. The technology is there. We have moved immeasurably from where we were ten years ago in terms of having systems that work effectively for both oral communication and the transfer of documents.
Senator Hayes made a good point with regard to demagnetising Dublin. This is the key to decentralisation. There are huge benefits to be gained for the Civil Service, the capital and for regional development. Senator Minihan said that decentralisation could be the motor for regional development. It would bring benefits to the country as a whole. I am pleased the decentralisation programme is rolling out and I wish the Minister of State well in his future efforts. The programme is in safe hands as long as he has responsibility for the Office of Public Works.