Wednesday, 7 March 2007
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, to the House. I have raised the issue of decentralisation and Newcastle West many times since the programme was first announced. I raise the matter in a different context today because the decentralisation project in Newcastle West appears scheduled for some time in 2008. Commitments were given to many staff based in the Office of the Revenue Commissioners in Limerick and being trained for work in the office in Newcastle West. The staff are now getting understandably impatient at being housed in temporary premises in the city.
To put this in context, in March 2005 Revenue's decentralisation implementation plan gave the indicative timescale for the move to Newcastle West as September 2006. In June 2005 the first round of letters was issued formally offering positions in the decentralised Newcastle West office to those who had applied through the central applications facility. These applicants were advised that the move was scheduled to take place in the fourth quarter of 2006 and were given five working days to respond. Those who decided to accept the offer did so on the basis that they would be working in Newcastle West by the end of 2006.
In the decentralisation update of March 2006 the date for the final move to Newcastle West was pushed out to early 2007. The subsequent decentralisation update in October 2006 stated that work was scheduled to commence early in 2007, with a projected completion date of the final quarter of 2008. It transpires that in December 2006 Limerick County Council raised queries on the planning application and these have further delayed commencement of construction of the building in Newcastle West. As of today, replies to these queries appear to be outstanding.
In July 2006, the Newcastle West bound staff were relocated for training purposes to temporary accommodation in Estuary House, Henry Street, Limerick, in advance of the final move which was scheduled to take place in early 2007. Training is now complete. Owing to the delay in the project, many requests have been made to the Revenue Commissioners to have temporary accommodation provided in Newcastle West. The staff in question are located in the west Limerick area and some have moved to west Limerick in the expectation that the move would have been completed by this stage. It is understandable that Revenue employees have formed an action committee as they are extremely irate with the long delay in the process.
Some time ago, the Minister of State had a hoarding erected on the old council building in Newcastle West and arranged a photo call with Progressive Democrats Party colleagues. None of those who featured in the resulting photograph is from west Limerick. Other parties were not informed but the event clearly amounted to good public relations from the Minister of State's point of view.
If the Revenue Commissioners have informed the Minister of State that they are unable to find a temporary premises in Newcastle West, I assure him I will find a premises suitable for Revenue staff. The delay in this project is grossly unjust and unfair. We want action.
I hope I will not be given the customary bland response describing the history of decentralisation because I am only interested in Newcastle West, the town in which I live. I hope the Minister of State's response will give me some positive news to give to the individuals who met last night to discuss the delay in the project. I fully appreciate and empathise with their impatience.
I thank Senator Finucane for raising this issue and hope my response will not be bland. While waiting outside the Chamber for Senators to arrive, I touched it up a little to ensure it did not appear bland. I am pleased to inform the House of the progress being made in the decentralisation programme about which the news is positive, particularly with regard to the 50 Revenue posts to Newcastle West.
In budget 2004 the Minister for Finance announced a decentralisation programme for 10,300 public servants to more than 50 locations nationwide. The programme which, as the Government has emphasised throughout, is voluntary, has received a tremendous response. To date, more than 10,000 civil servants have applied to decentralise and new applications continue to come forward. More than 2,400 staff have been assigned to decentralising posts and some 700 of these are already in place in 15 locations. The remainder are being trained in advance of decentralisation to new locations and at the end of 2007 it is anticipated that approximately 2,000 staff will have transferred to 33 decentralisation locations. The property programme is well advanced and the schedule of accommodation allows for the planned movement of up to 6,800 staff in the next three years in line with the timeframes set out in the June 2005 report of the decentralisation implementation group, DIG.
Included in the Government decision was a requirement for Revenue to decentralise 50 staff to Newcastle West, together with two similar sized moves in the mid-west to Listowel and Kilrush. Following consultation with the management advisory committee and Revenue's partnership committee, the board of the Revenue Commissioners decided that all debt management functions in Dublin would be decentralised, with the exception of a small number of staff who would be retained on insolvency work to the greater mid-west region, including Newcastle West.
In considering a property solution the Office of Public Works examined a range of options. After detailed evaluations a number of proposals were short-listed and the Limerick County Council site at Bishop Street, Newcastle West, was chosen as being the most suitable for Revenue's requirements. I understand that having examined available options a decision was taken by my office, the Office of Public Works, to procure the new accommodation in Newcastle West on the basis of a design-build solution. My office has identified a preferred tenderer and a planning application for the new offices was lodged with Limerick County Council in October 2006. The council requested further information in December 2006 covering such matters as site boundaries, front elevation and sewers. It also requested a comprehensive historical study and other information relating to certain buildings on the site at the time of purchase.
In the interests of moving forward the project my office assisted the preferred tenderer in providing the additional information which, contrary to the Senator's statement, has been submitted to the council. A decision on the planning application is due by the end of March 2007, although this will be open for appeal to An Bord Pleanála in the normal course.
On receipt of a satisfactory planning permission, my office and the preferred tenderer will endeavour to move quickly to a position where the building work will commence at the earliest possible date. The tender documentation provides for a construction period of 14 months from the date of placing a contract. On completion of construction, the building will be handed over for occupation by staff of the Revenue Commissioners.
Pending the availability of accommodation in Newcastle West, it was decided that the operation to be relocated to the town would be established on a temporary basis in Limerick. The decision to proceed with a temporary solution in Limerick was taken on the basis that this would be the optimum approach to ensuring the Newcastle West team and replacement staff in the debt management division in Limerick could be provided with appropriate training, while minimising disruption to the ongoing business of the division. The decision also had regard to the fact that the majority of staff who had elected to transfer to Newcastle West were currently serving in Limerick and, therefore, could be brought together in that location without significant disturbance. This approach was approved by the decentralisation implementation group and my Department.
I am assured by the Revenue Commissioners that as soon as the new accommodation becomes available in Newcastle West, Revenue will be in a position to commence operations in the office with immediate effect. Forty-seven officers, equating to slightly more than 43 full-time equivalents, of the 50 officers due to decentralise to Newcastle West are working in this temporary accommodation. Intensive training is being given to staff with a view to having a well trained, fully operational team moving to the Newcastle West location. Revenue does not anticipate any difficulty in fully staffing the office.
The current temporary accommodation is leased to the Commissioners of Public Works under a short-term agreement. If a further temporary accommodation were to be considered, the OPW would first have to identify what suitable building might be available. This would involve a formal approach in accordance with public tender requirements. In the event of suitable accommodation being found, the OPW would have to take on another short-term lease, thereby duplicating costs. The fitting out of the accommodation would also require considerable time and involve significant cost duplication, particularly as regards information technology requirements. This entire process would take many months at best.
Given the indicative timeframe of early 2008 for provision of permanent accommodation and for logistical and business risk reasons, Revenue considers it completely impractical to move staff at this stage to temporary accommodation in Newcastle West. In particular, Revenue would be concerned that such an approach would carry with it unnecessary risks of a negative impact on core elements of its work programme encompassed by the proposed Newcastle West operations. This work involves maximising timely tax compliance and ensuring timely and accurate processing of pay, tax and PRSI details for more than 2.2 million employees whose details are being returned by employers.
Revenue's decentralisation plans for all its locations have been the subject of formal discussion and agreement with the decentralisation central policy unit of the Department of Finance, the Office of Public Works and the decentralisation implementation group, most recently in January 2007 when the Revenue Chairman met the DIG. Preparations have been made in accordance with these plans.
Revenue has been successful in decentralising functions which are critical not only for the organisation but also for the Exchequer. It has succeeded by carefully balancing business risk with decentralisation progress. In this context, the Revenue Commissioners and my office remain firmly focused on having the permanent accommodation completed and the staff moved to Newcastle West in the earliest possible timeframe.
I am disappointed with the Minister of State's response, which confirms my expectations in this matter. Notwithstanding the professional advice offered by the Revenue, I do not agree that staff could not be relocated temporarily before transferring to the permanent location in Newcastle West. I am confident premises would be found in the town. The Revenue Commissioners have pursued a cluster concept throughout the mid-west region and further afield by establishing a number of offices operating as separate entities. The action committee, which is pushing for this move, will be bitterly disappointed by the Minister of State's response. I am aware the OPW has applied for planning permission and is awaiting the county council's response. I understand there is some concern that the building may contain asbestos and that this may lead to further delays. In the interim, the staff would be extremely pleased if accommodation could be found in Newcastle West. They will be bitterly disappointed at this confirmation of further significant delay.
I recently met with representatives of the staff and community in Newcastle West and with the Collector General to discuss this issue. Their view of the situation is reasonable. I find it strange that Senator Finucane is so concerned and upset. It is the planning process that is causing the delay. The OPW bought the site in question from Limerick County Council following consultation in regard to its suitability.
I am confident, having supplied the necessary further information, that the project is ready to go. There is an indicative timeframe of 14 months for completion and I do not expect it will take that long. I understand the Senator is suggesting we should seek new accommodation, move people into that temporary accommodation for 14 months and fit it out at substantial cost. I do not agree with that and nor do the Revenue Commissioners and the OPW. Provided there are no further difficulties with planning, which I do not foresee, I am confident everything will be up and running within 12 months.
I live in Newcastle West and am part of the community. I was not involved in the discussions on this move but I assure the Minister of State that the staff who attended last night's emergency meeting are certainly not in agreement with what he said. They are absolutely disgusted and disappointed with the Revenue on this issue.