Seanad debates

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

3:00 pm

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak about our national training and employment authority, FÁS. As well as talking about the recent publicly aired matters relating to the administration of FÁS, I will outline the important and valuable role it is playing in the context of the serious challenge facing the Irish labour market.

The downturn in the economy has had a significant impact on the labour market and is likely to continue to do so into the future. Forecasts for employment have been revised downwards for this year and 2009 by all commentators. The recent CSO quarterly national household survey puts the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for the third quarter of 2008 at 6.3%. The rise in unemployment is compounded by the international credit crisis and a general slowdown in employment in all sectors. Ireland is not alone in finding itself in this position. Many countries throughout Europe and elsewhere are experiencing similar difficulties in their labour markets. Recent statistics from EUROSTAT reflect this, with the unemployment rate in the 27 member states rising to 7.1% in October 2008.

The Government is putting in place measures to ensure that those who become unemployed are provided with effective employment services and training supports to help them return to employment. Increased budget allocations have been provided to FÁS to deal with the increase in unemployment. Specifically, an additional €5 million has been provided for training the unemployed and an additional €4 million to subsidise the employment of redundant apprentices in 2009.

FÁS is working closely with the Department of Social and Family Affairs to ensure a speedy response to the rising live register numbers. FÁS has, in conjunction with the local employment services provided by area-based partnerships, geared up its employment services further to provide greater capacity for the increased referrals from the live register. There is active engagement with the unemployed after three months on the live register to assist them in progressing towards employment, training or active labour market programmes. FÁS has also put in place a series of actions to facilitate redundant apprentices in completing their studies. These include allowing them to progress to their next off-the-job phase of training without having to do the next on-the-job phase. FÁS has also established a register of redundant apprentices by trade in order to identify these people at the earliest possible point in time and has prioritised the need to locate employers to sponsor the completion of apprentices' off-the-job training.

As regards training for those who become unemployed, FÁS will provide, in 2009, a range of certified, short, flexible and modular programmes in construction sector related activities, which are expected to remain buoyant despite the slowdown in construction. Several programmes are already in place and the frequency and range of these will be expanded in the coming months. FÁS has also established a training fund to enable a speedy response to identified re-training needs for low skilled and redundant craft workers. In 2009 FÁS will open evening classes without payment of a fee to people who are unemployed.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and FÁS will continue to work together to monitor trends and activities in the industry and will work with all relevant stakeholders to ensure timely and satisfactory responses to assist redundant construction workers and apprentices to secure alternative employment, whether in the construction sector or another area of the economy. FÁS has a specific policy in place to deal with redundancies and company closures. It offers a tailored approach as early as possible to the workers affected with a view to assisting them to access alternative employment. This applies to workers in all sectors, including construction. Each response is tailored on a case-by-case basis.

As part of the consultation process in the case of company closures and major redundancies, FÁS establishes the scale of the redundancies, the skills profile of the employees affected, the number of years' experience of the employees, level of education and any other information deemed relevant to the particular case in question. In addressing the issue of redundancies, FÁS liaises with other relevant agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, city and county enterprise boards and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It also works closely with the agencies to identify and support individuals who wish to start their own business.

FÁS has recently been at the forefront of national media coverage in the context of matters relating to expenditure. These matters are under examination by the Committee of Public Accounts. The origins of this case go back to October 2004 when my colleague, the current Minister for Health and Children, received an anonymous letter containing allegations of impropriety within FÁS. The letter was referred to FÁS and the then director general instructed the FÁS internal audit unit to conduct an investigation into the allegations. As is normal practice, the FÁS internal audit report was sent to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The Comptroller and Auditor General expressed concerns with matters arising in the report. On 9 May this year, the Comptroller and Auditor General published a report which dealt with a number of issues that arose in recent audits of non-commercial State bodies, including FÁS. In the case of FÁS it referred to the FÁS internal audit unit's investigation into allegations of impropriety in procurement activities undertaken by or on behalf of the corporate affairs division of FÁS. The Comptroller and Auditor General's findings were based on irregularities discovered by the FÁS internal audit unit.

On foot of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report the Tánaiste discussed the matter with the former director general of FÁS and expressed her concerns about the need to secure value for money in public expenditure. The Department also followed up on this matter directly with FÁS to seek formal written assurances that the practices referred to in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report had ceased and that adequate systems and controls were in place to prevent their recurrence. To further allay concerns highlighted by the Comptroller and Auditor General's report, in September 2008 the Tánaiste requested the Comptroller and Auditor General to report on the effectiveness of management and control systems across the FÁS organisation. The Comptroller and Auditor General acceded to this request and I understand he has said that he will determine the scope of his examination following the completion of the investigation by the Committee of Public Accounts.

In making this request of the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Tánaiste was keenly committed to ensuring that FÁS makes the best use of scarce public resources in the current challenging economic climate. The Tánaiste last week met the chairman and some board members of FÁS and reiterated her disquiet at the recent revelations concerning activities in the public affairs division of FÁS. However, the Tánaiste welcomed the board's assurance that action had now been taken to deal with these matters. The board stated that a full examination of past practices is required to ensure that the organisation can move forward with best practice corporate governance procedures in place.

The Tánaiste made it clear at that meeting that she wanted the FÁS organisation to remain focused on its core mission, given the employment and training challenges facing the country, and she expressed her support for the continuing work of the board in that regard. In particular, she acknowledged the ongoing commitment of the staff of FÁS to meeting these challenges. She placed particular emphasis on their work in addressing the situation affecting redundant apprentices, training for the unemployed, providing supports for people with disabilities, up-skilling the workforce and the continued operation of community employment schemes.

I also welcome the board's statement of 29 November that it intends to strengthen the internal audit function within FÁS. This will help accelerate the audit work already under way in the corporate affairs area and will also help the organisation interface with the Comptroller and Auditor General as soon as he begins his examination of the effectiveness of the management and control systems in FÁS. As Senators are aware, the former director general of FÁS resigned last week and I look forward to the board's proposals on how the position can be filled as quickly and as effectively as possible so FÁS can continue to deliver on its core mandate.

The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is also carrying out a review of the efficiency and effectiveness of labour market programmes delivered by FÁS and Skillnets. This review was initiated prior to the current controversy coming to light. The review will also draw conclusions about the adequacy and balance of resources in the context of current and future labour market policy challenges, including the national skills strategy. The steering group conducting the review is chaired by a senior official from the Department and includes members from the Departments of Finance, Social and Family Affairs, and Education and Science. FÁS and Skillnets are also represented on the group and it is supported by Forfás. The review, including its conclusions and recommendations for an effective future labour market strategy, is expected to be completed by the middle of next year.

The current controversies over certain administrative practices within the agency clearly represent an unwanted distraction from its real purpose of providing national support to this country's labour market.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to this timely discussion about the role and future direction of FÁS. The agency has been in and out of the headlines for a number of months, although it is only in the past couple of weeks that some very disturbing details have emerged about practices at the top management level in FÁS. The Minister addressed some of those issues in his remarks.

The second paragraph of the Minister's speech states that forecasts for both employment and unemployment have been revised downwards. I did not realise that unemployment forecasts had been revised downwards——

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I omitted that piece. I just said "revised".

4:00 pm

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I did not have a copy of the speech when the Minister was speaking.

I am also interested in the review of labour market programmes in which FÁS is involved. The Minister made the point that this review was initiated before the current controversy came to light. I believe it has been initiated far too late, even if it was before the current controversy. The country has been through approximately 15 years of unprecedented growth, but in that 15 year period I failed to see a commensurate change in the way FÁS operated. For much of that time it was operating with virtual full employment in the country. I am aware FÁS was involved in trying to attract foreign workers to this country but one cannot say the structures of the organisation have been reformed in any meaningful way during that period.

Other speakers who have commented on the recent controversies in FÁS have correctly suggested that many people connected to the FÁS organisation always point to the good work FÁS does and use that as a barrier to answering questions about the recent announcements. I acknowledge that FÁS does much valuable work. I have not been particularly involved in FÁS operations in my local community but I am aware that through the community employment scheme it does tremendous work in local communities throughout the country. However, I do not believe the community employment scheme should be lumped in with all the other activities in which FÁS is engaged. It is not suitable. There is a significant case for reform in how that service is provided in terms of whether it should be provided by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs or the local authorities. It does not fit in easily with other aspects of the work done by FÁS.

Speakers will refer, quite correctly, to the positive work by FÁS with regard to apprenticeships over the years. However, the realisation that our construction industry would not continue as it was forever does not appear to have dawned on people in FÁS in terms of the structure of the apprenticeships that were delivered. Nevertheless, the apprenticeship scheme has been, by and large, successful. Many young people have acquired a trade through FÁS and the schemes it operates in that regard are very worthy.

The two areas of community employment schemes and apprenticeships account for less than half the funding allocated to FÁS for the past 12 to 15 years. Where has the rest of the funding gone? There have been many stark revelations about wastage, particularly by top management in the organisation. I will not go into the nitty-gritty details of personal spending by individuals, but major questions have not yet been answered as to the relevant audit conditions in the agency and, in particular, about the role of the board of FÁS. It is a social partnership-style board and others, with whom I agree, have said that serious questions arise as to whether those people should remain in the positions they hold at present. At board level there has been a serious failure to spot several inefficiencies and the sheer waste of money, news of which has emerged in recent weeks. It is surely the function of the board of any company, especially a State company as the matter concerns taxpayers' money, to ensure a level of scrutiny is in place. Given what we have seen emanating from FÁS in the recent past, it is clear this was absent. The entire board should consider their positions. The Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, referred to the resignation of Mr. Molloy, but the board members have a duty to consider their positions also and to consider whether they lived up to the roles to which they were appointed.

I previously referred to the funding of FÁS. For six or seven years there was virtually full employment in the country, yet we invested €1.2 billion in the organisation, much of which was spent on very worthy schemes throughout the country. However, nearly the majority of it was spent on some very questionable initiatives. I refer especially to the initiative in Florida. The extent of the material benefits which accrued to the taxpayer, the Government and the citizens of the country because of the initiative undertaken in Florida are not plain to see. Rather, I have seen a scandalous waste of public money whereby it was used to ferry individual board members, management and Ministers, who were in a virtual relay for more than a year, to Florida to see the joint effort in which FÁS was involved.

On 9 May the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General into the internal audits of several State bodies was published. FÁS was one of the bodies in question. Arising from the report, Fine Gael noticed a particular anomaly in the advertising funding and a payment of €100,000 to a local newspaper on which we sought further information through the Freedom of Information Act. This opened a can of worms which was subsequently revealed in the media and the Oireachtas in recent weeks. There has been a particular focus on the activities of Mr. Greg Craig, director of corporate affairs, who is now on suspension with full pay from his position in FÁS. The report also contained several revelations about senior management, Ministers and bonuses paid to staff. It contained conflicting statements given to committees of the Oireachtas based on information circulating internally within FÁS.

We have all become familiar in the past two weeks with the level of opulence enjoyed by some of the senior management of the organisation in recent years, including luxury travel. There was a sense of entitlement felt by some, an example of which was the car crash interview given by the former chief executive on the national radio channel the day before he was virtually forced to resign. In that interview he expressed his belief that he was entitled to spend taxpayers' money willy-nilly and on overly elaborate forms of transport and hotel accommodation. I am glad he came to his senses the following day and realised he was wrong. Unfortunately, the money was already spent and it is difficult to see how it can be recouped.

The Comptroller and Auditor General's report also dealt with several specific issues related to advertising campaigns and private companies which had contracts with FÁS under several headings. It seems to have been standard practice across the board that the regular tendering processes for State agencies and Departments was cast aside in many cases, whether for advertising, companies involved in the FÁS opportunities scheme or the www.jobsireland.ie initiative.

It is also apparent that a cosy relationship existed between certain of the senior management in FÁS and several private institutions and businesses. An especially cosy arrangement existed between the firm OSK Accountants and Mr. Craig. It provided private advice to him related to his personal finances while also receiving contracts for business from FÁS. In one case the firm received a contract and advised FÁS about which other organisations should receive tender invitations, which is remarkable. We are also told that various advertising agencies were aware they would receive contracts before they were tendered. I am referring specifically to the FÁS opportunities programme in this regard.

Perhaps the most glaring and obvious abuse of taxpayers' money occurred with the www.jobsireland.ie initiative. First, this website did not work. It was only accessible for a short period and did not carry out the function for which it was created. The cost of the website was €1.7 million. It would be hilarious were we not discussing taxpayers' money spent by a State agency. It is reckoned this project cost €1 million more than necessary. We also learned of the strange situation whereby a private company, Ultimate Communications, was paid €3.55 million over 12 months by FÁS for handling the www.jobsireland.ie contract, even though the same company had been in existence for less than ten days when it was awarded the contract. This raises serious questions. There were activities involving other marketing companies, namely, AFA O'Mara and Kingram Studios Limited, which do not seem to have been subjected to what we would regard as the regular tendering processes applicable to all State agencies and bodies.

As matters stand, there are several investigations under way into the activities of FÁS. I realise the Committee of Public Accounts is meeting regularly to discuss the audit report of FÁS. I have expressed on the Order of Business my outrage that when the committee requested particular documents from FÁS, the company believed it could get away with blacking out information rather than making it available to the elected members of the Committee of Public Accounts. It has since recanted that position, but that was a shocking example of how these people thought they were above questioning by the relevant committee of the Oireachtas.

The Comptroller and Auditor General will begin his investigation after the Committee of Public Accounts finishes its deliberations. I understand two Garda investigations related to FÁS are under way. One involves a poster company which, it is alleged, defrauded FÁS and the other relates to FÁS personnel who, it is alleged, have defrauded the taxpayer. This is an opportune time to discuss FÁS and we must consider seriously the structures of the organisation and how to reconcile its different roles. I am concerned the Government might use this as an excuse to reduce radically funding for the important work of FÁS. There is no question the FÁS budget allocation of €1.2 billion needs to be examined seriously in light of the waste which has been revealed. At a time when so many apprentices are finding it difficult to finish their apprenticeships and so many people are losing their jobs in construction in particular, the role of FÁS is more important now than it has been for the past 15 years. We must ensure taxpayers' money is spent in a much more judicious manner in future but also that the important role of FÁS can be fulfilled.

Photo of John CartyJohn Carty (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for his speech. There is great disquiet at recent revelations in the media, primarily through the investigations of Senator Shane Ross, concerning activities in the corporate affairs division of FÁS, especially relating to foreign travel where a massive €643,000 was spent over a short number of years.

I welcome the board's assurances that action has now been taken to deal with these matters. FÁS has done tremendous work at local and community level for many years and it would be a shame to take away from that. It is important that FÁS as an organisation remains focused on its core mission, given the current employment situation and the training and retraining challenges facing the country.

While we can question the unorthodox events that occurred involving a small number of people in the organisation, it must not deflect from the important work FÁS has done in the past and needs to do now to help people who find themselves in trouble because of the global economic downturn. The proactive work being done by FÁS at this time includes the establishment of a training fund to enable a speedy response to retraining needs for low-skilled workers. FÁS has done a good job in the area of training and upskilling construction workers and tradesmen. This must be commended as such workers have been hardest hit by the recent economic downturn.

The Minister of State referred to the fact that FÁS and the Department of Social and Family Affairs are working together to respond quickly to the rising live register figures, which is to be welcomed. Money must be given as quickly as possible to those who find themselves out of work. I commend the Minister of State, the Department and FÁS for working together on this issue.

FÁS has initiated a programme to help young apprentices who have been let go mid-apprenticeship to progress to the next level of their training. Another example of the great work being carried out by FÁS is its science challenge research training programme for undergraduates at the prestigious Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, in the field of biomedicine. That programme illustrates how FÁS is looking to invest and promote careers in Ireland's knowledge economy. In recent years enormous investment has taken place, particularly in the west, in the biomedicine field.

FÁS has more than 2,000 staff and continues to be an integral part of Ireland's education and training sector. It has done much good work, a fact that has been recognised by Members on both sides of the House today. I look forward to the Comptroller and Auditor General beginning his examination of the effectiveness of management and control systems in FÁS, once the Committee of Public Accounts has completed its current hearings. I congratulate that committee on the work done to date. Had that committee received the information it requested from FÁS on day one, the current unwarranted publicity might not have fallen so hard on heads in FÁS. Had the organisation co-operated with the committee and produced the information requested at the beginning, it might not have featured so heavily in newspaper headlines in recent times. The media is now examining where every single euro and dollar was spent. Every day one sees new headlines and, indeed, today's Evening Herald headline refers to a missing car, if I am not mistaken. If FÁS had co-operated with the Committee of Public Accounts, the affair would have been dealt with in a much more positive fashion.

The Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted a number of issues of concern relating to FÁS, including the non-observance of formal internal procurement guidelines, instances of a failure to achieve value for money from advertising and contracts for major events, as well as the need for a clear strategic focus on significant expenditure for new organisational developments. I look forward to the investigation by the Comptroller and Auditor General being completed as quickly as possible to clear up this affair. As I have said already, FÁS has done excellent work over the years and it would be a shame to see its focus shifting from its primary function, especially in the current economic climate.

The Minister of State made many positive comments today and I know that both he the Tánaiste are very much on top of the situation. I am certain this whole affair will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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It has taken a long time to get a debate on FÁS in this House, although it is not for want of trying. It is an indication of an extraordinary reluctance to tackle this monster that those politicians and others who have sought to ask questions, probe, debate and challenge FÁS over a number of years have been frustrated by a lack of information and a lack of political interest or enthusiasm. One must ask why that was so and why we are now debating the issue when admittedly sensational revelations have come out and why it was left not to politicians to ask questions or to answer them, nor for FÁS to do so. It is an absolutely extraordinary situation that a State agency, with an extraordinarily high budget, has been sacrosanct, untouched, unchallenged and protected politically for many years.

It has not been possible to get answers from FÁS. Those in power in FÁS have always been people with close political connections and, therefore, disproportionate power. I do not say that lightly, but I know it from experience. It was the Freedom of Information Act which allowed, finally, the release of the information that started to put pressure on those in charge to answer questions they had previously refused to answer.

We must remember that FÁS, however it may think of itself at the top, is not a Fianna Fáil fiefdom or a political fiefdom of any sort. It is a State agency dealing with taxpayers' money which has refused to come clean on what has been happening to it or how it is being run. It has been obstructive in providing information and now has to reveal things which should probably never have happened. We had here a State agency which was completely and utterly out of control. We now know that.

I have listened to the points made by Senator Carty and the Minister of State. I accept the Government must use the defence of the great work that FÁS does and say that therefore we should not touch it. That is similar to saying "I have the baby in my arms, do not touch me." It did great work — it does great work — but it also has a budget that is impossible to explain and nobody knows what it does with it. It does much good work, but it also has €1 billion plus and nobody knows where it goes. There is no point in pretending we do because we do not. The most extraordinary thing about that budget, as mentioned by Senator John Paul Phelan, is that it was larger, not smaller, at a time of full employment. It was more than €1 billion in some of the years in which full employment existed in this country. Nobody has been able to tell me what was happening to that money except under big block headings.

There is a heading for travel and subsistence with an expenditure of €5.7 million for last year, but there is no explanation of where that went. One never got an answer to a question if one asked it, and now we know why. One must ask what is behind all the other figures under these block headings. We have had examples of a million euro being spent on a computer that does not work. I came across a website about 18 months ago which was five years out of date. This agency was a complete shambles — doing good work on the ground but completely chaotic at the top. There may have been some good organisation when its members wanted to make their travel arrangements, but it does not appear it could organise anything else particularly well.

I take no comfort from the Minister of State's speech. I had hoped that when Mr. Molloy resigned, as he did last week, it would start a process which others would follow. I hoped the political establishment, which is Fianna Fáil, would come in and say it is time for action; the genie is out of the bottle and we are going to do what needs to be done. That is not happening. Let us remember the first reaction to Mr. Molloy's statement, which was very simple. The Taoiseach came in and tried to give him a leg up. That was bad judgment, and the Taoiseach came in the next day and dropped him in it.

However, the normal political reaction is taking over now. I can see it in the Minister of State's speech. When stating that the Tánaiste had met some members of the board of FÁS, he did not tell us which board members. Perhaps he will elaborate on which ones were there and why they were there. I suggest it is deliberately vague. He said that when the Tánaiste met these board members she "reiterated her disquiet at the recent revelations concerning activities in the public affairs division of FÁS." That statement is a meaningless piece of limp nonsense. What did she do? She whined a bit and said "We do not like what is going on; off you go." The Minister of State then stated that the Tánaiste "welcomed the board's assurance that action had now been taken to deal with these matters". That is a pathetic response. She has done nothing about it.

The Minister of State went on: "The board stated that a full examination of past practices is required." That is the usual trick. The board is distancing itself by saying "past practices" as though it has no responsibilities in this area. How long has that board been in existence? I am not sure, but it is several years. The speech continues: "to ensure that the organisation can move forward with best practice corporate governance procedures in place". There are no governance procedures in place as far as I can see. Every corporate governance procedure in the book has been broken and now they are saying they need to do something about it. The Tánaiste, at the meeting last week, made it clear that she wanted the FÁS organisation "to remain focused on its core mission". I have never in this House heard such clichéd nonsense. It means nothing. "She expressed her support for the continuing work of the board in that regard." That is exactly what the board has not been doing.

What the Minister ought to have done was to make the board accountable. There is only one question the board should have been asked. Did its members know about the complete chaos that existed in spending at the top of FÁS? These expenses are not the only thing. There is lots more. If they did know, they ought to resign on the spot because they should not have allowed it. It was completely unacceptable and out of control, and the checks and balances were chaotic. If they did not know about it, they ought to resign because they should have known.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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Instead of that the Minister has said "Good lads, I see you are not going to let it happen again; I am pretty pleased with what you are doing, so off you go." There are at least two members of that board — I do not want to be in any way vindictive — who are deeply compromised and have a lot of explaining to do about their travel. Did the Minister ask them about that or did she just say, as is the normal political reaction, that the Government should let them go, protect them and hope for the best?

These boards are fundamentally flawed. Their members, who are all politically appointed, have a particular agenda. If they do any work at all, they are well paid — salaries last year on the board of FÁS were €14,000 for each member and €25,000 for the chairman, and they probably gave themselves an increase this year. The board is dominated by four trade union representatives and four employers' representatives. I would have thought that people who have risen to the top of trade unions such as ICTU and IBEC, most of the latter of whom have not done a day's work in industry in their lives as they have always been involved with IBEC, would be capable of examining practices at the top, taking a forensic look at what was going on and asking the right questions. However, it is perfectly obvious they were not doing that. It is obvious that these guys were sitting at the top doing one piece of work a month and taking their salaries. They ought to have been dismissed. They ought to have been asked to fall on their swords because they are responsible for this extravagance. They are responsible for overseeing expenditure and they did not do so.

It should also be pointed out that the chairman of the board rotates. One session it is IBEC — I do not know how long it is for — and the next session it is ICTU. What is going on? Why in the name of God should the social partners be in charge of a State agency?

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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Why can we not have people who know about this area and have a forensic or career interest in it, or a mixture of people with different skills? These guys are members of one club, we all know that. They go up to Government Buildings every few years, cook up some pay deal and then sit back, organising social partnership boards left, right and centre. That is not the only board with the social partners on it. These directorships are gigs, they are jobs for the boys, they are their rewards. FÁS is not the only board — there are dozens of them — where they pick €10,000, €12,000 or €14,000 a year. If one is in the right place in ICTU and IBEC, one is given one of the gigs. It is a wonderful set-up but it does not make for good board membership and it does not make for accountability.

There are some very strange ironies and some very sad aspects to this story. That FÁS is a jobs creation agency and that it should be overspending money on luxuries is sad and ironic. That it intended to move to Birr, County Offaly, begs questions, not so much about the Taoiseach but the coincidence of it moving to Birr, County Offaly, and the chief executive coming from Birr, County Offaly, is something which deserves to be challenged and questioned.

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Shane RossShane Ross (Independent)
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What is going on with State agencies? This is obviously not the only one which is suffering from these sorts of abuses.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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I dtosach, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Tá an-áthas orm go bhfuil na ráitis seo ag tarlú. Bhí díospóireacht maidir le FÁS ag teastáil uainn le tamall fada, sar a thosaigh an chonspóid seo ar chor ar bith. Tuigimid an tábhacht a bhaineann le FÁS. Ní gá ach dul isteach in aon phobal áitiúil sa tír chun an obair ata déanta ag FÁS a fheiscint. Gan FÁS, níl aon amhras faoi ach nach mbeadh an seans céanna ag daoine áirithe sa saol — bheidís go mór i gcruachás.

I welcome the Minister of State. Senator Ross was not the only person who sought a debate in the House on FÁS. On many occasions, I requested that debate, as did Senator Ormonde and, I am sure, many other Members. Many of those requests preceded the present controversy. The reason for such a debate is the importance of FÁS to the employment environment in this country, or perhaps, one should say, to the unemployment environment in this country. We were also very much aware that a significant budget was provided for FÁS. I think the organisation would be disappointed if a debate did not take place in the Oireachtas on a fairly regular basis. Each morning on the Order of Business there are requests for as many as 20 debates on different issues and some materialise while others do not. We are here in this House precisely to call for debates.

The fact that the controversy has taken place and in many ways has taken over the whole issue of FÁS does not mean that in some way we should focus only on the controversy. I do not accept that to talk about the basics of FÁS in some way is an attempt to create a barrier in terms of debating the main issue of the controversy. I do not accept that the Minister of State was in any way out of line in asking that we would focus on the core mission of FÁS. If we do not focus on the core mission of FÁS and we are talking of €1 billion, what exactly are we aiming at in any debate that takes place?

For instance, if one were on board a ship and it sprung a leak, of course one would endeavour to do something about the leak, but one would also have to consider all the other people on board. One has a duty to give them confidence, to calm them, to direct them. That is precisely the reason that on several occasions on the Order of Business since this controversy started, I have focused on the role, the success and the mission of FÁS down through the years.

I do not intend to spend a lot of time speaking about the controversy because it has taken up miles and miles of column inches and has been predominant on much of the broadcasting services. The issues in question are being dealt with in a professional manner. This was one of my requests on the Order of Business, that any issues that come forward should be dealt with in an accountable and professional manner. The Committee of Public Accounts will deal with the matter, as will the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I am confident the Department and the Cabinet will also deal with it. In many ways we are prejudging the outcome of those examinations. It is very easy to say this or that happened and we have information as a result of the Freedom of Information Act, and so be it, but the issues are much more implanted than that and they have to be dealt with comprehensively.

The one danger I saw in all this was that if we did not focus on the mission, the role, the success and the potential of FÁS, we would do danger to the vehicle which we need at a time of rising unemployment, which is nearly 7%. We are all aware of the international credit crisis, the global crisis. We spent a whole night here in this Chamber discussing the guarantee to the banks and so far we have been proved right in the approach to that crisis, but that approach was not taken without a lot of thought and advice, much of it given very quietly but it was very focused.

The people who will suffer if FÁS suffers in the current debate will not be the people at the top, it will be the people in every local community in this country. Senator Ross has been praised for the good work he did but when I was discussing FÁS prior to the present controversy, I never saw Senator Ross standing up and focusing on the good work it did. He has been doing that in the media and he did it today and recently, but in the early discussions on FÁS, he was totally focused on a different issue.

I questioned who would speak about the vulnerable people on the ground. I hope that I would be one of those. Such young people needed help and FÁS provided it. Thousands and thousands of people were placed in jobs as a result of training by FÁS. Each time a local company or a local industry closed, the first call was always to FÁS to step in with fire brigade action and to show that something was being done. It provided training and opportunities for new employment. That was in the past and it is much more needed in the present. It has been suggested that because the Minister of State comes into the House today and tells us what is being done for redundant apprentices and tells us what will be done when companies close down and about evening classes and retraining, in some way this is not relevant, simply because we are discussing the controversy only. I am delighted the Minister of State came forward with practical information. My hope is that when the dust settles, the structure of FÁS will be still intact. There is not a region in this country where FÁS has not done outstanding work.

The question was asked as to the reason FÁS had a bigger budget in a time of full employment. The reason was that FÁS picked up all the work that had to be done at community level. If FÁS is taken away from all those schemes, whether it is sports fields, community centres or whatever else, and is not allowed to continue its work, I assure the House that volunteerism will be dealt a deadly blow. People who are not able to go into mainstream employment have been kept on through FÁS schemes. What would happen to them otherwise? They would be sent to the local labour exchange. How much does keeping them on with FÁS save the State? Up to €30 a week per person. The small people — I do not mean that in a derogatory sense — always get lost in this type of debate while the big people will be centre stage. Those thousands of small people must be remembered in these debates.

Even though we must have proper governance and accountability in semi-State agencies, the Minister of State pointed out that before there was ever any controversy, the Government had already worked with FÁS to initiate an analysis of its role. This did not come lately. I hope there will be further debates on FÁS and this is not just a one-off. As well as examining the activities of a few, we must also praise the 98% of FÁS employees who have served this nation and State well. They are the people working in the community.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I want to put on the record of the House that in my capacity as a barrister I have acted on behalf of FÁS on five or six different occasions in the courts in recent years.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I am sure the Senator did an excellent job for it.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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Thank you, Acting Chairman. In the course of those cases I never came across anybody senior in the organisation or in corporate affairs. I am not familiar or have any knowledge in respect of any of those corporate matters that have been exercising us, and certainly Senator Shane Ross, in recent weeks.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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The Senator always exercised the utmost care and caution.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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Yes. I will refer to the expenses controversy later.

I am in considerable agreement with Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú on the general role of FÁS. Aside from that, I do not agree with him that the decision on the banks has proved to be successful but that is for another day's debate. The jury is very much out on this question and it has not been resolved as is evident with the grinding to a halt of any credit available for small businesses.

I listened with interest to the Minister of State's speech to learn about the real role of FÁS. We are all aware we are in a serious economic crisis. On 15 October the House had statements on unemployment. When I rose to make my contribution then, I complained that the Minister of State's speech did not seek to address the jobs crisis and the growing problem of unemployment. I invited my colleagues on the other side of the House, and the Minister of State, to show me anything that was new in that speech. It was tacitly accepted there was nothing new.

Today, I was listening with heightened interest to learn if there would be anything new in this speech. I accept the Minister of State is dealing with the specific area of FÁS and the question of job creation and the Government's economic policy extends further than FÁS. However, the Minister of State claimed "the Government is putting measures in place to ensure those who become unemployed are provided with effective employment service and training supports." He also referred to the increased budget allocations provided to FÁS, an additional €5 million for training the unemployed and an additional €4 million to subsidise redundant apprentices in 2009. Whereas I am not suggesting these points were made in the debate in October, they seem not to include anything new in the past six weeks.

The Taoiseach has said Ireland is in a dire crisis. The people look to the Government to come forward with proposals as to how we can address this. There is no sign of the Minister of State or the Government doing this. From his speech today, there is no evidence, with all respect to the Minister of State, of anything new being presented to us regarding the deepening employment crisis, which all commentators agree will get worse in early 2009. I accept the Minister of State can criticise me for not resisting the opportunity to make a political point. The Government announced last week some initiative on research and development. When can we expect a plan from the Government? When can we expect direction and policies from the Government to address the unemployment crisis? Will it be next week or in January? Will it ever come?

It is not just the case that unemployment is rising but the type of unemployment. A few days ago David Begg of the ICTU pointed out that unemployment is biting at the new services industries, such as financial services, legal and architecture, that have located in Ireland in the past 12 years and account for much of the expansion in employment. There are large numbers of young people in their 20s and 30s, highly trained and educated, who are losing their jobs. I am not arguing that the Minister of State can employ them all but what I am looking for is some sense of initiative, urgency and concrete proposals from the Government.

The Minister of State said the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is carrying out a review into the efficiency and effectiveness of labour market programmes delivered by FÁS and Skillnets from which a new labour market strategy will be completed by the middle of 2009. That is too far away — up to six months. It is not good enough. This issue does not appear to be treated with a sufficient level of urgency given the ferocity of the problem with unemployment.

I am sure there will be a measure of political co-operation across the board in the event of a serious economic crisis. However, we look to the Government in the first place to come forward with the proposals. It is not happening. I hope it will happen sooner rather than later.

The issue that has given rise to this debate being ordered by the Leader is the controversy over expenses. I agree with Senator Shane Ross in criticising the Minister of State and the lead Minister, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Minister of State said, "The Tánaiste last week met the chairman and some board members of FÁS and reiterated her disquiet at the recent revelations concerning activities in the public affairs division of FÁS." I presume that means the expenses controversy. It would be nice if that had been said in the speech or if we could have clarity on what was meant by "activities in the public affairs division of FÁS". Unless corrected, I will assume that means the expenses controversy. It would be great if we could call it as it is so that we know we are talking about the same issue.

The Minister of State also said: "However, the Tánaiste welcomed the board's assurance that action had now been taken to deal with these matters." We must not forget that the question of expenses is not at a remove from the Minister's responsibility. It is absurd that the Minister would go through expense claims for a State agency but there is a clear responsibility under the Labour Services Act, which states that the remuneration and expenses of staff in FÁS must be approved by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance. This also applies to the board of FÁS, as made clear by section 7 of that Act and the Schedule to the Act. The Minister has a direct role, not an arm's length role. There is some dancing around this issue, including in the speech of the Minister of State.

The figures published and the documentation Senator Ross so assiduously acquired through the freedom of information application demonstrate that more than €642,000 had been spent on flights to North America in the period since 2003. The details of this are well known so I will not relate them again. Does the Minister of State think this is unacceptable? It is a simple question. Aside from references to having meetings with the chairman, getting reassurances and examining matters, will the Minister of State tell the House whether that level of expenditure to Orlando and other places is unacceptable? There is a legal responsibility on the Minister of State to have a role. What is his belief, given that his role is to have a view?

Senator Ross rightly has been praised for his work. It is meant as no criticism of him but he unearthed these figures in his capacity as an experienced and expert journalist. It did not occur through these Houses. Last week, in The Irish Times, Dr. Brian Hunt referred to the limitations that exist in respect of scrutiny in these Houses. The Committee of Public Accounts can operate only when a report is brought forward by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The committee cannot initiate its own investigations of these matters. It is unfortunate that either we have the Comptroller and Auditor General publishing a report that the Committee of Public Accounts investigates or I, Senator Ross or someone else can complain about it on the Order of Business. There is nothing in between. We must examine this again but perhaps it is for another day. There is a need for these Houses to examine the means by which these issues can be dealt with, exposed, identified and debated. Otherwise we are not doing the job we were sent here to do.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State. I have sought many times for this opportunity to debate the role of FÁS, although we have had debates on the role of the agency previously. I compliment Senator Ross on bringing this to the forefront through his journalistic professionalism. There were unaccountable practices in the administration of FÁS that were a waste of taxpayers' money. It was deplorable that this should have happened and it has distracted from the real role and mission of FÁS.

I knew much about FÁS in another stage of my life when I was in the education world. Its role and vision was to identify employment blackspots. That was its core area. Then it was to match the blackspots with training and to seek opportunities for job creation. It was to identify skills to be used in other job areas. They were the core areas, as I understood. Fine work was done by many people at local level on those core areas. I compliment the 90% of the workforce of FÁS that knew what it had to do and did it.

I also believe that FÁS had not been involved in job creation in recent years, mainly because of the belief that there was full employment, and that the agency's role had changed to one of filling gaps. I say that with knowledge. It was holding courses and programmes that would not have been relevant at any time and were fillers to flesh out programmes. This was often of concern to me in recent years. Now that the construction industry has slowed down, I welcome the notion that FÁS would revisit its role and become involved with redundant apprentices, decide how to cope with them and lay on programmes for them. That could be done simply and I hope FÁS does so through its training and education programmes.

The Minister of State said:

In addressing the issue of redundancies, FÁS liaises with other relevant agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, city and county enterprise boards and the Department of Social and Family Affairs. It also works closely with the agencies to identify and support individuals who wish to start their own business.

I welcome that but it is extraordinary that in talking about a training agency, there is no mention of education. I do not understand why city and county vocational education committees are not in a position to help out at a time like this. Programmes should be co-ordinated. I accept that FÁS organises apprenticeships and I welcome the new approach to off-the-job continuation of programmes and training. This is desirable. However, many of these young people left school at 15 years of age because they did not want to go further. Perhaps that was five years ago and now that they are more mature, there may be opportunities for them to revisit the education world. They may wish to revisit other upskilling areas rather than the crafts in which they have been trained. We are here to discuss rethinking, restructuring and reforming FÁS because we want to see the vision for the future of the agency. It must change. We are into new information communications and other technologies and research and development. The job will change and the future of work will change. There will be more flexibility in the job scene. Has FÁS thought of these elements? The here and now is very important in terms of those who lost their jobs and those with low skills. We must upskill and reskill them and examine the opportunities.

The Minister of State referred to the consultation process, the scale of redundancies and the skills profile of employees. He also talked about the number of years they have worked and the level of education. He brought in the word "education." I would like to see the people who will do the consultation linking in with the guidance counsellors of the education system in the communities. Wherever there is a FÁS centre those involved should liaise with the local community schools or vocational schools. They will have a golden opportunity to link up programmes. One module of the programme could be done in the school and one in the FÁS area. Let us have more global thinking because that is where the future of work lies. It is not just a matter of retraining or upskilling; there must be more to it.

We have a golden opportunity. We have discovered what went wrong with FÁS. We acknowledge great work is being done on the ground there. We will get it right. The Minister acknowledges that. Let us return to the core and the mission of FÁS, retrain, liaise with the educational system, bring rounded people into work and not just fulfil separate education and training roles. We are talking about global thinking and a global concept. We should be able to do this, ensure continuity of the training programme and bring it into the steadfast way of how we deal with the future of the world at work.

5:00 pm

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister; we are glad he has taken the time to come here and have this debate. I congratulate Senator Ross on his tenacity in continuing to pursue this issue along with Fine Gael. Fine Gael consistently warned that the FÁS mismanagement and waste would lead to disaster. Deputy Bruton was tireless in his warnings, which were arrogantly ignored. It is more of the out-of-touch governance of the Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government. Despite the strength of the economy and the near to full employment, when there was very little need to upskill or train unemployed people, FÁS spent more than it is spending this year. It was ensuring there were enough plumbers and electricians to meet the needs of the construction industry and the developers.

Thousands of people are unemployed and, as Senator Ó Murchú said, unemployment has reached 7%, which is a very frightening figure. Most of the lost jobs are in the construction and manufacturing industries. Now more than ever it is vital that FÁS be on the ball and that the poor, unfortunate people who are losing their jobs will have the chance to upskill and get the training they need. I have raised a matter on the Adjournment debate about a study that shows exactly how unskilled our workforce is. There is a very serious, proven need for significant retraining and upskilling.

The reason for this debate is the controversy, but many of my colleagues on both sides of the House have been raising the issue of FÁS for months. What concerns me most is the deafening silence of the board members. Their silence must mean they are guilty, because there is not a word from them. Were they not on the ball? I, like the Cathaoirleach, have been a member of many voluntary boards. One receives financial statements annually, if not biannually. As the responsible, accountable public representative I hope I am, I would be aware of what was going on and how money was being spent. Like the other Senators, I question the make up of these boards and the political cronyism. It is sickening. The senior management and corporate affairs people of FÁS seem to have been hiving off the money and squandering it. In my local community I am aware of the less salubrious offices of my wonderful friends, of whom I have many, in FÁS. I am aware of how they work and fulfil their duties and they do not spend the amounts of money senior management has spent in the past.

It is extraordinary that, as Senator Feeney said, the agency's IT department was bypassed in the setting up of the jobs website, to the cost of €1.7 million. We all have websites and know how little it costs to set one up. The irony of it was that the website did not even work. Why does FÁS, or any Government or public body, need to have its conferences and meetings in places such as the K Club or other very salubrious organisations and hotels? Within a two week period FÁS spent €8,000 or €9,000 on a banquet. Who was invited to these banquets? What was the need? Last year 40,000 people went through FÁS retraining schemes. That seems a very small number of people.

The land for new decentralised headquarters in Birr cost €1.5 million, and since the budget, decentralisation has been stalled. FÁS has leased high-spec offices in a business centre in Birr as temporary headquarters, costing €15,000 per month. Fitting out of the offices cost €1 million and a board room table cost €11,000, yet the headquarters houses only one receptionist. What will happen to the proposed headquarters in Birr?

The Comptroller and Auditor General has been given a mandate to investigate what is going on and I hope that will happen. I am pleased Mr. Molloy has taken up the invitation of the Chairman, Deputy Allen, to attend the Committee of Public Accounts, however the Comptroller and Auditor General needs a new mandate to carry out its duty to ensure no further money is misspent. This begs the question about all the other public bodies that are chaired and managed by boards which are elected through political cronyism. I question how taxpayers' money is being spent in the other organisations.

I also question the Minister and Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan. The buck stops with her. She has been very quiet and has said very little on the matter. In his speech the Minister said he looks forward to the board's proposals on how Mr. Molloy's position can be filled. I have no faith in a board which has been so silent for so long and which has neglected its responsibility. It has a duty to the people it serves, the vulnerable and unemployed of this country. The Minister said he has faith in the board. He could not possibly have faith. I ask him to re-jig his conscience and think about how he can have faith in a board that has been silent about so much money that has been spent so badly and wasted. This is mismanagement, but not by the people on the ground. FÁS offers a fantastic hairdressing programme, open door and IT upskilling. FÁS is fantastic on the ground, and the staff work in less than salubrious surroundings. It is not fair that we label all those hard-working people with this. It is mismanagement and is down to political guidance. As a Member of the Oireachtas, I have to make sure that money is spent properly. I consider that is our responsibility and I hope that people will be held accountable. I welcome the fact that Mr. Molloy will come before the committee but there must be answers and heads must roll. People will have to be responsible and answer for this mismanagement.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and the opportunity to make statements on FÁS. To put my statement in context, FÁS is an extremely important agency in this State and, given the economic downturn, its role will be all the more important for this State. It is our national training and employment authority. It has had an overseas budget of €1 billion and an advertising budget of €9 million to date. It is charged with anticipating the needs of the 2 million strong labour force in Ireland. It operates training and employment programmes, a recruitment service to jobseekers and employers and an advisory service for industry, and it supports community-based enterprises. It is divided into eight regions.

As other speakers have done, I pay tribute to the very good work FÁS does on the ground. It runs some excellent courses and provides important services, both for jobseekers and employers, and it should be commended on that, but in view of the downturn, its role will become all the more important and critical, given some of the challenges we will face in the coming years, particularly in the area of retraining and upskilling unemployed workers.

I welcome the Minister's announcement of the additional €5 million allocated for the training of the unemployed and the additional €4 million that will subsidise the employment of redundant apprentices in 2009. I welcome also the fact that there is a clear policy in place to deal with redundancies and company closures.

I suggest that an emerging green economy could provide an excellent opportunity for FÁS in terms of the types of programmes and retraining opportunities it would provide for people who find themselves unemployed. For example, there will be a major emphasis on insulating buildings, energy efficiency and retrofitting old buildings. Many individuals could be trained to carry out that important work. There is a growing public demand for the installation of alternative energy heating systems and we need to train the required number of people to do that. There are major opportunities in that area.

In the area of recycling, we are aware that recycling markets are collapsing around the world and we find, as a country that has been used to exporting many of our materials for recycling, we are having to store that material here. We should examine the possibility of developing indigenous recycling industries where we can provide both training and employment opportunities in those emerging industries. These are areas on which FÁS should concentrate in the coming years.

I would not like to miss the opportunity, because the public expect it of us, of commenting on the recent controversy that has erupted regarding what one might call the expenses scandal in FÁS. It is disappointing and concerning to see the information that has come into the public domain about spending practices in FÁS. When we talk about spending practices we mean, as other speakers have pointed out, taxpayers' money that has been spent in a way that can only be judged as extravagant and unacceptable.

We hear of stories about first-class flights that on occasion were not cancelled when the Government jet was used instead. We hear about golf trips to Florida, beauty salon treatments, fine dining and chauffeur driven cars. That is a world away from the world of FÁS trainees and apprentices and it appears to suggest, particularly at the top level of FÁS, that there was a loss of focus on the management of FÁS. There is a sense that people imagined they were working somewhere else and had these expense accounts that they could run up without any real thought about the implications for taxpayers of having their money spent in this way, rather than on what was supposed to be the organisation's core responsibilities.

The details of that lavish spending have caused outrage among the public. Senator Shane Ross must be congratulated on the investigative work he did to uncover the evidence of that inappropriate and extravagant spending. It was pointed out that €5.7 million of public money was spent in 2007 alone. When that figure is broken down, that is the equivalent of more than €2,500 on travel and subsistence claims for each of FÁS's 2,200 staff. A total of €643,000 was spent on transatlantic travel in the past four years. Questions must be asked about that. The FÁS science Florida programme has attracted about 60 students a year since 2003. Many of those programmes lasted for ten days, yet when we examine much of the transatlantic travel, we see it was to Florida. We must question the value for money that was provided for the taxpayers of the country.

Last week, the chief executive of FÁS resigned. It is the view of the Green Party that that was right and proper action for the chief executive. He had to take responsibility for the disclosures that were coming out on spending within the organisation. I welcome the fact that Mr. Molloy will appear before the Committee of Public Accounts. That is right and proper. However, it is the view of the Green Party that the FÁS board should consider its position at this point. Governance and oversight of the organisation has been very unsatisfactory and for that reason the board members should consider their positions.

It is realistic to expect that the media and public focus will now move to other public bodies and there will be similar scrutiny of the spending practices in many semi-State agencies and bodies. I hope those agencies and bodies will be willing to have their expense and spending practices subject to an open audit. That will be necessary to bolster public confidence and I hope all information will be provided. It should not be left to people to make expensive freedom of information requests to access that information.

Our conduct as public representatives will also be under scrutiny in terms of our expenditure and expenses. We need to be as fully transparent as possible and show that we are using taxpayers' money in a responsible way, particularly in these difficult times when we are calling on the public generally to tighten their belts, be much more frugal and accept the cutbacks that will be inevitable in the coming years.

We should consider a major efficiencies and cost saving drive across the Houses of the Oireachtas. If we do that in a time when we are calling on the public to live with the cutbacks and the much tighter fiscal position in which we find ourselves, we will have much greater credibility. All of us should be seen to tighten our belts and live up to the same standards we are asking of other people.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator Norris who has eight minutes.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Thank you, a Chathaoirligh. I may not need all that time, but then I frequently say that and find I have not quite finished within the time.

This is an important debate. My colleague and friend, Senator Ross, has called for this debate over a considerable period of years. In some instances I have agreed with him, in particular some years ago when he proposed, and I seconded, a motion to examine the vexed question of political nominees to State boards. That was an important element and it is one of the matters highlighted in this debate. We also felt, when the Trinity Bill was being debated in the House, there was sometimes a danger in overloading important boards with State nominees. However, on a previous occasion a number of years ago when Senator Ross raised the matter of FÁS I took a slightly different view because I felt it was important to frontload the important work the organisation was doing. I did so at the time because I was living in a position of considerable privilege in the north inner city and I was aware the unemployment level in the area was 85%, which is staggering. When I presented this statistic to members of the European Commission in Brussels during a visit sponsored by Mr. Brendan Halligan, they refused to believe it and they sent officials to discover whether this could be true. Areas of Dublin some years ago had levels of unemployment higher than Naples. I was involved in the work FÁS did through the James Joyce Centre, which could not have continued to operate without the organisation's assistance. Every single penny was accounted for at that level and that casts into some relief the squandering of money but that needs to be nuanced as well.

In the current climate, it is comparatively easy for radio programmes and popular newspapers to stir up partially justified outrage but moderation and accuracy are also needed. For example, Fine Gael has made a meal out of this. I often agree with the party but I was not terribly impressed by the performance of Deputy Varadkar on radio, except for his theatrical propensity, which I admire. He got Deputy Harney's name wrong and he called for the resignation of Deputy Mary Hanafin several times. That was not corrected but perhaps everybody knew who he was talking of, although that does not suggest the remorseless attention to detail he requires of other people. The Sunday Independent got the year wrong, which was corrected subsequently. A radio reporter accused the Green Party, so ably represented in the House by Senators Boyle and de Búrca, of putting out a statement of support, which apparently did not happen. These are three instances of inaccuracy, which one would not expect of people who had long prepared an attack on certain levels of FÁS.

I mentioned the matter of representation on the FÁS board. The chairman is Peter McLoone, former president of the ICTU. Perhaps I should not name these people, even though this has been done widely. The board also comprises representatives of the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Education and Science, Finance and Social and Family Affairs, the trade union sector and employers, including a representative of one of the largest and most successful builders in the country. Is that appropriate? Certain people have objected to the involvement of the social partners but the same people, mostly on this side of the House, object to the whole idea of social partnership. I do not but I understand their reserve. It is a highly principled position to take because they refer to the short-circuiting of the parliamentary process. However, they have a wide representative capacity and they have what Gerry Adams used to call their mandate and it would ill behove Members who were elected with a small number of votes on the basis of delegated universal suffrage to——

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Senator included.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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No, I beg the Senator's pardon. He is showing his novelty in this House.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Senator has the most elite constituency in the country.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator Norris, without interruption.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am elected by the votes of a constituency that has 55,000 wonderfully qualified degree holding Irish citizens unlike the Senator who fishes around in a measly little pond of 1,000 votes with the others.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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That is unfair.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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We are discussing FÁS.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Expand TCD.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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It is accurate, not unfair, and I will not waste more time on this.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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If it is not accurate, the Senator should not say it.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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What I say is accurate.

As a result of a series of investigations, the Committee of Public Accounts is examining the issues. The newspaper controversy has in a valuable way highlighted the inadequacies of the committee system, for example, the lack of compellability. Unless there is a serious constitutional problem, the committee should have the power to compel witnesses. It is absurd that a courageous journalist must spend such an amount on the information that could not be obtained by the PAC. The previous Government through Mr. McCreevy introduced swingeing costs under the Freedom of Information Act 1997 and a five-year moratorium on certain Government information. This was criticised last weekend by the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, who stated in the Sunday Independent, "Before the fees, a journalist could simply rattle a request off from his [I am surprised she did not say 'or her'] desk, whereas now the additional red tape of getting the fee puts many of them off, as is proven in the drop-off in requests,". The newspaper was charged €2,500 for the requests.

The net effect of the series of investigations was that Mr. Molloy was forced to resign. That will cost the taxpayer €500,000 in severance payments, €35,000 a year and God knows how much else, including the cost of replacing him. I have consistently spoken passionately about the destruction of the Combat Poverty Agency and the humiliation and neutering of the Irish Human Rights Commission but another damaging blow has been struck against FÁS during a period when unemployment is on the increase. This also raises questions about the decentralisation programme.

There has not been a great saving. Senator Ross has done the State some service. He is courageous because he has trodden on a considerable number of important toes, which is a dangerous exercise. He has become a whistleblower. I am not bothered by the bill for hair, which is rubbish. People should read the letter written by the senior Irish diplomat, Mr. Michael Lillis, who indicated the significance of what was achieved in Florida and he also put on the record his considerable admiration for Mr. Molloy. In the context of balance and fairness, during recent high level negotiations when Ireland had the Presidency of the European Union, Mr. Molloy engaged in a great deal of high-flown entertaining on behalf of the country, for which he paid out of his own pocket. In fairness to this man, about whom I know very little, he committed suicide on radio by saying he was entitled to flights and by making two contradictory statements, which were that he needed to fly first class in order to arrive fresh and to be downgraded to bring his wife with him.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. How he takes this issue forward will be critical for the nation in the context of the message he sends to the public. Not one of us would be present if we did not serve a public. I am disgusted by the recent revelations concerning FÁS because, like everyone else, I am familiar with the work the organisation does in our communities, which I have admired, through CE schemes and so on. What this has shown me is the sickness in the system, a sickness over which the Government is presiding. Senator Ross has done the State a huge service, as has Fine Gael for standing on principled positions until this was outed. I cannot justify €640,000 being spent on travel junkets in the past four years and the Committee of Public Accounts must investigate whether this spending was valid. I read in last weekend's The Sunday Tribune that €240 was spent by a senior executive in FÁS to travel from Terenure to Kildare Street. My God. Who is this person, what does he do and who does he think he is? It is an outrage to spend €240 for what is probably a €20 taxi ride.

With regard to the exorbitant spending on the trips to Florida, since when did we get into space travel? I have not heard of the outputs in terms of missions or astronauts. Do they exist? If so, the Minister of State should tell us about them and what we got out of this. Is it more than we put into it in terms of all this expensive travel, wining and dining at the K Club and all this rubbish that is not needed but is going on?

The public outrage was only right and proper when Mr. Molloy went on "The Pat Kenny Show". Was there any apology by Mr. Molloy? I have not heard it. Does his resignation make everything right? In my view, it does not.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Well said.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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I am glad he is coming before the Committee of Public Accounts. I remember him saying that he broke no rules. This is the worry. If he broke no rules, the rules need to be changed. It reminds me of the interview by the former Commissioner, Mr. Pádraig Flynn, on "The Late, Late Show", when he spoke about how difficult it was for him to manage X number of houses and housekeepers. It shows how out of touch these people are. He went on to say he was right because he was not breaking the rules.

This spending is morally wrong but it is part of a system — it is systemic. What does it tell us about the system? It tells us this is a culture that exists at senior management level in the public service. How does this make good public servants, who this State badly needs, feel? It is all wrong. This behaviour needs to be cleaned up and, if necessary, cleaned out. Nothing is more likely to grow cynicism among the public than the abuse of money intended for the training of those who are currently unemployed, who in many respects are those most at risk due to their skillset.

I think of the drug rehabilitation project Senator Buttimer and I, with a number of other Senators, visited in the Liberties. The people involved, who were unemployable anywhere else, were learning to recycle clothes and going back to school in this work-based learning project supported by FÁS. It was really good work at ground level but it has been demeaned by this behaviour at the top. I learned in history that there were plebs and patricians — that was the caste system. It looks like we have a caste system in Ireland, of which we must get rid. We in Fine Gael will stick with this until we get rid of it.

I have some personal admiration for the Minister of State, particularly because he stays in the House for the entire debate. I expect to see him stand over this until the matter is finished for the good of the nation. If we do not act to change this culture, we further grow dishonesty and the view that this sick culture is the only way to get things done. It is a very poor example for young people. I have young people in my family and know this makes it very difficult for families to rear young people with any sense of morality and civic contribution. I just brought a tour of young people into the Dáil bar for soft drinks. One of those 15-year olds said to me, "Is the taxpayer paying for all this?" I was paying but this is the message they are getting, which sickens me. Why do young people go out and do wrong? It is because this is the example that is being passed on.

The other difficulty is that these actions are tarring everyone with the one brush, which is not fair. Actions like this do a disservice to good public servants, who are so needed. Such actions demean the valuable work done at ground level by FÁS in the community employment schemes. We are at the point where this brings into question the very existence of FÁS itself, and begs the question of whether this work should be done by other agencies such as regional institutes of technology, a suggestion which has also been put to me by the public.

Where do we go from here? It is clear things need to change. This type of behaviour would strongly suggest that State boards are flawed and have to be cleaned up and cleaned out. It is clear the way appointments are made is questionable and needs to change.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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Appointments should be made only on a merit basis and not as a result of political favours or cronyism.

Photo of John CartyJohn Carty (Fianna Fail)
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You were masters at it.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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We learned it from you.

Photo of John CartyJohn Carty (Fianna Fail)
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No, we learned it from you.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Senators, please.

Photo of Fidelma Healy EamesFidelma Healy Eames (Fine Gael)
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The only questions that should be asked when a person is being appointed are what can each member of a board contribute to the organisation and will they add value. Does the Minister of State realise people are willing to be voluntary appointees of boards without any allowance or expenses? I was a director of the Galway Airport board, where I was glad to contribute. There are many more like me. If they do not want to do it without an allowance or expenses, perhaps they are not needed.

On a broader note, no public service senior management role should be automatically rewarded with annual bonuses. All bonuses should be earned and only paid retrospectively based on outputs and outcomes achieved. It is for that reason I want to know what the taxpayer has got in return for all the money expended on the space expedition. It is true there are many in the public service who are enterprising but sometimes the permanent, pensionable job acts as a de-motivator for them. I have no difficulty with them getting a bonus as long as their work is serving the nation and of value to it. The Minister of State needs to act. What he must do is not rocket science.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Healy Eames for a fine contribution. This debate is necessary and welcome. It is not about personalities, hair cuts and washes, foreign travel or the appointees of Government to State boards; it is about leadership. In this case, it is about lack of leadership, bad management and lack of accountability and transparency.

As Senator Healy Eames asked, have we heard an apology to the Irish people for the abuse of taxpayers' money and the lack of accountability? Have we drawn a line in the proverbial sand because Mr. Molloy has resigned and, as Senator Healy Eames said, it is over? It is not over. It is not just about Mr. Molloy and should not be.

Senator Norris in his remarks spoke about inaccuracies. I will defend the Fine Gael party's right to question and advocate on behalf of the Irish taxpayer. I will defend the right of Fine Gael to look for value for money and accountability. All we have seen thus far is obfuscation and evasion. The Senator speaks about inaccuracies. Let us put it on the record. We have seen lavish expenditure and bad use of resources, and we see a glaring need for accountability and reform of the way in which appointments to State boards and agencies are made. I do not accept the view that all those on State boards and agencies are in the wrong. Some of them do a good job and more of them are there because they are political appointees, filling the vacuum and fulfilling the need of a Fianna Fáil Minister in particular to put cronies on the board. These are the facts. Let us be real about it.

I have good regard for the Minister of State. I mean this honestly. However, his speech today lacked punch and direction. Fundamental questions remain regarding FÁS and its composition in this sorry saga. Perhaps it is because FÁS is seen as an extended Fianna Fáil cumann in many parts of Ireland that it has been tarred by this brush. The Minister of State may laugh but it is the truth. FÁS has become a juggernaut that is out of control. That is the fundamental point and I take no comfort or solace in stating that.

FÁS must be cleansed by itself and its political masters, the Government. There is a fundamental need for accountability and transparency. Where have we heard that before? However, it still has not happened. Now, in an economic downturn and recession, FÁS is needed more than ever and this must be at its core. Its need has never been greater than in this new Ireland where a generation of young people have never encountered hardship, had to make sacrifices, been on a training programme or on a dole queue, been forced to make a decision on travelling abroad to work or had to walk into a labour exchange and queue to sign on the register.

Let us have a restoration of trust and faith in FÁS. I want to differentiate clearly between the board of FÁS and in some cases the management and the excellent work done in the training centres by dedicated staff who lecture, provide training and do a decent, honourable day's work but have their resources cut and must borrow and beg management for resources which they do not receive.

People and supervisors on community employment schemes do wonderful work in building Ireland and communities, which the Government has not done. They are filling the vacuum created by the Government's neglect. Let us not put everybody in the one category. Let us differentiate between the board and management of FÁS and community employment schemes and the good work done by FÁS workers. Events have clouded the judgment of ordinary people. The ordinary people working in FÁS, such as lecturers, clerical officers and apprentices have been maligned by inference by this sorry debacle.

As Deputy Enda Kenny stated in June, long before this happened, we need a zero tolerance approach to waste by the Government and its agencies. We have not seen this and we have no hint of it. Unemployment has increased and, as the State training and employment agency, FÁS has a duty and obligation to step forward. This fundamental point is as pertinent today as it was when Manpower and AnCO existed. The years of mismanagement which came to light in the past month must be put on the political compass, as must the fact that the duty of FÁS is to train, retrain and upskill. We can discuss waste of taxpayers' money but I will not go into a litany of what happened in FÁS. However, I will repeat my core and fundamental point, made as a former director of adult education, that retraining, upskilling and training are what we should be about.

Linked to this is the wider debate about public services and public sector reform. The Government's greatest banner of public sector reform was decentralisation. It made a botched job of it and in the budget this year we saw it was cancelled, postponed and put on ice. It is more money gone wrong. The public servants of Ireland are honourable, decent professional people who do an excellent job and who require dynamic Government leadership to motivate, reform and bring in efficiencies. However, that has not happened.

I feel strongly that public sector employees are maligned and lampooned by commentators and some in politics but they have received no leadership from Government. We need better public services for our citizens. We need a smaller Government which takes on board the new Ireland of this economic downturn. Our public servants do a good job, be they teachers, nurses, gardaí, firemen or people working in the Oireachtas, county councils or the health services. However, they need leadership and they are not getting it. Similarly with FÁS, we do not have it.

Lavish spending must end and the restructuring of agencies must be put on the front burner of politics. In his thoughtful contribution, Senator Ó Murchú spoke about the role of FÁS and I agree with what he said. However, he missed out on the fundamental point that it is the job of this House, the Dáil and the Committee of Public Accounts to hold FÁS accountable for the expenditure of money on behalf of the Irish taxpayer. That is what leadership is about. It is not about coming here, passing it off and stating that we are misaligning ourselves on the issue of community employment schemes. It is about competency to govern and manage and that is what has been missing in this entire sorry saga.

I wish the Minister of State well with fixing FÁS. Its fundamentals need restoration and urgent attention. The board of FÁS should do the honourable thing and consider its position. The Minister of State and his colleagues in government would be best served by telling the Irish people that they have made a mess of it, calling an election and letting the people decide who best to govern and provide leadership for our country. The Government's 11 years in power are epitomised by the arrogance of the past two weeks. It is not good enough. Ordinary Irish citizens, as the Minister of State knows from his constituency and his responsibility for labour affairs, are in the unemployment line queuing for benefits. We are discussing people, not commodities, figures or statistics. People are affected by this and shame on those who brought it upon them.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him well in his role. Any Minister or Minister of State whose portfolio includes FÁS is in a difficult berth. I look forward to hearing his response to the debate — I heard his opening statement.

I welcome many of the wonderful initiatives which FÁS introduced and I pay due credit to it for everything it has done with regard to community employment schemes. Over the years I have championed them in this House. I tabled motions to have them extended and expanded and age limits altered. All of us are at one with regard to this. We have seen wonderful work throughout the country and in our communities.

We are concerned about the bigger picture in FÁS and, as a number of Senators stated, for a period of time calls were made in this House for a debate on FÁS. The Minister of State will agree that the board of FÁS has serious questions to answer. Under law and corporate governance procedures it is answerable. It is where the buck stops. I look forward to hearing the views of the Minister of State on this without rehashing everything stated already about the board. It is a serious matter to have two Garda fraud squad investigations under way in a State agency of its former standing and with the workload it is expected to carry. This was already touched on by numerous speakers and I will not go into it.

It is never satisfactory to have a cosy relationship as exists between FÁS and its auditors or accountants — another speaker referred to that point. This firm of accountants and business consultants has done a considerable amount of work for FÁS, mostly with regard to corporate affairs, over a number of years. OSK was consistently successful, as we now know, in applying for work at FÁS, and the corporate affairs section mainly dealt with a single contact within OSK. This is something that should not be allowed within any agency. I am not aware of the competitive tendering arrangements in place at FÁS for that type of work, but it is something that should come up for review as a matter of course, preferably on a biannual basis. As I said in this House before, it is outrageous that in answering to the most senior public watchdog for the expenditure of taxpayers' funds throughout Departments and agencies, members of FÁS management had the audacity to provide documentation with large chunks blacked out. Who the blazes do they think they are? It is an absolute scandal.

I await the Minister of State's response on the question of there being no comprehensive explanation for the expenditure of FÁS's budget of more than €1 billion. Senator Ross and others expressed serious concern in this regard. There have been numerous examples of financial waste within FÁS for which we still have no satisfactory explanation. The advertising contract of €100,000 given to a local publication when all other advertising was national is one such unexplained item of expenditure.

Alarm bells should have rung in 2003 when a reputable individual, Mr. Anthony Spollen, conducted an inquiry into FÁS's construction skills and safe pass schemes. He identified 30 serious problems in the agency's training and assessment procedures for the construction sector. We now know this was merely the tip of the iceberg. What was done after this report was received and presumably examined? It is incredible to consider that it might have been brushed aside. I look forward to the Minister of State's explanation in this regard.

The members of the board of FÁS have questions to answer in the first instance. They must accept their accountability in these matters. Ultimately, the buck stops with them. The Minister has a duty of oversight, to be fulfilled on a regular basis, but it is the board which has questions to answer in the first instance on what actions it will take to address this situation. After that, it is for the Minister to take action if it fails to do so. I contend that the position of the board is untenable. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their contributions on this important matter. As many Members pointed out, there is great public disquiet at recent revelations regarding funding and procurement procedures at FÁS. Several investigations into these issues are ongoing and it is important that we place these matters in context.

On Thursday, 20 November 2008, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coughlan, was asked in a parliamentary question when she expected to receive the report commissioned from the Comptroller and Auditor General into the effectiveness of FÁS's financial management and control systems and whether, pending the receipt of that report, she would take action arising from allegations of financial irregularities. The Minister responded thus in the Dáil:

The Comptroller and Auditor General in his report on non-commercial semi-State bodies, published in May 2008, reviewed the issues raised in one specific FÁS internal audit report. I discussed this matter with the director general of FÁS and have expressed my concerns about the issues raised by both the Comptroller and Auditor General and the internal audit report, and in particular, the need to secure value for money in public expenditure. On my instruction, the Secretary General of my Department wrote to FÁS on 30 June 2008 seeking the formal assurance of the director general that the practices outlined in the audit reports of FÁS and the Comptroller and Auditor General had ceased and that adequate systems and controls were in place to prevent any recurrence and requesting details of the remedial actions taken by FÁS in respect of the issues raised by the audit reports, with quarterly progress reports on the implementation of the audit reports' recommendations. The director general replied on 1 July confirming that the unacceptable practices referred to in the audit reports had ceased. A further response was received at the end of October, which set out the progress being made on the issue of controls on procurement and the observance of the procurement policy of FÁS.

Following discussions with the chairman and director general, I decided that there should be an external investigation into the effectiveness of the financial management and control systems generally in place in FÁS, rather than be limited to aspects raised in the internal audit report that gave rise to the special report. The Comptroller and Auditor General has acceded to my request to consider doing such a review. My intention in requesting this review is to ensure that appropriate public procurement procedures exist to prevent or detect irregularities or wrongdoing and to examine and report on the activities of the FÁS corporate affairs area since 2000 to achieve reasonable assurance as to whether there were any occasions of potential fraud or irregularity in that area other than those already brought to light by the FÁS internal audit unit.

It is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General to determine the scope of his investigation. He has indicated that, in doing so, he will take into account the deliberations at the Committee of Public Accounts hearings on the FÁS element of his special report.

It is important to reiterate the points made by the Minister in view of the general perception that no action was taken. The Comptroller and Auditor General, who occupies a constitutionally independent position, acceded to the Minister's request to conduct an investigation. In the meantime, the Committee of Public Accounts had also initiated an investigation into these matters, and out of respect for the work of that important committee, the Comptroller and Auditor General undertook to finalise his terms of reference on foot of its investigation. That investigation is ongoing, with members of FÁS management appearing before meetings of the committee and co-operating with its work. Certain issues were raised by the committee in regard to correspondence and they have been clarified in the context of data protection and so on.

I urge all staff involved in all agencies to ensure that they receive value for money and that proper procurement procedures are in place. On foot of recent report findings, the Government has asked that all agencies ensure they receive value for money in the context of travel and other procurement procedures. These issues are being addressed.

Several Members raised concerns about aspects of my opening speech. My statement was presented to the Seanad on foot of issues raised not only by media reports but also, and just as importantly, by Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and by the Committee of Public Accounts. I tried to respond as best I could to those issues. However, it would be irresponsible of me to comment on specific details of matters being investigated by the Garda Síochána and the Committee of Public Accounts. I will await the findings of the committee, after which the Comptroller and Auditor General will specify terms of reference for his investigation of all relevant issues.

The core mission of FÁS was raised. It is important I emphasise its core mission. It is to provide training for people who are unemployed and for people who are employed at lower skill levels. The national skills strategy is clear that we wish to ensure everyone is brought up one rung in the ladder in the context of skills and training. In fairness, FÁS has been delivering in that regard. It is of fundamental importance, given the challenges in the labour market and the rise in unemployment, that we do not make the mistakes that were made in the 1980s when there was a drift into long-term unemployment. FÁS has been proactive in ensuring courses are put in place. For example, it provides short modular courses for construction workers to train in energy conservation, insulation and installing energy conservation units in houses. FÁS is trying to provide more such programmes.

The agency responded to the problem of redundant apprentices quite quickly in allowing apprentices to proceed to their next off-the-job training programme. We must continue to ensure the construction industry assists in placing apprentices in on-the-job training. Without the co-operation of those who can provide training in the apprenticeship scheme, it will be difficult for apprentices to complete their courses.

FÁS was established under the Labour Services Act. That statute clearly lays out the membership of the board. This was voted on by the Oireachtas so it is established in law who should be appointed to the board. The statute clearly provides that there should be union and employer representatives. I support social partnership. It works at all levels of society and our economy. There were suggestions that there is something untoward in how this board is appointed. It is appointed under a statute passed by the Houses of the Oireachtas. This is not about cronyism but about complying with legislation that clearly states the composition of the board.

The science challenge programme was referred to. This programme is not just about space shuttles and rockets, as one Senator mentioned. It is primarily about providing high quality courses. It was pointed out in the skills strategy and in the review of the labour market that there would be a shortage of high-end fourth level graduates in the years ahead. The science challenge programme is about bio-medicine, biotechnology and nanotechnology. Approximately 90% of participants in the science challenge programme have gone on to complete doctorates, masters and other high degree courses. We should not dismiss this programme without knowing what it involves.

The FÁS accounts are published every year. There are also Estimates and Revised Estimates. There are 22,500 participants in community employment schemes run by FÁS. It also funds the job initiative programme. The schemes do remarkable work. I doubt there is a Senator or Deputy, be they on the Government or Opposition side of the Houses, who has not made representations to FÁS. Despite casual remarks made in the debate, I am definite that most representatives, regardless of their political party, are treated with the utmost respect and courtesy by FÁS personnel when representations are made. We all make representations. People approach me quite often, given my responsibilities, to make representations to FÁS on their behalf. When we make our representations, FÁS adjudicates on them and a decision is made. My experience of dealing with FÁS, especially in recent times, is that it provides wonderful training and courses across all sectors.

The community employment schemes are vital. Until quite recently, due to the low unemployment rate of 4.3%, there probably was not great movement of people through the schemes, but that will change as unemployment rises. Now the schemes are even more important in providing a buffer for people who find themselves drifting into long-term unemployment. They can participate in these schemes and make a valuable contribution to society. I visited St. Joseph's Foundation in Charleville recently where FÁS, working with the foundation and the vocational education committee, has set up a course for rehabilitative training for the workplace. It is a pilot project but it is a wonderful scheme. The people who work in FÁS are dedicated to ensuring people with disabilities can find a path into the workplace.

I know it is not intentional on the part of Senators but there appears to be a view that we should throw the lot out because of concerns raised about public procurement and travelling expenses. Fundamentally, FÁS is an effective organisation and it is needed now more than ever. As a Minister of State with responsibility for FÁS, training and so forth, I am aware of the concerns expressed by Senators, the Committee of Public Accounts and the public that there should be proper procedures and mechanisms in place to ensure we get value for money. With a tightening Exchequer, value for money is an essential prerequisite for spending. It is a fact, however, that this Government acted promptly when the issues in FÁS were brought to its attention. The answer to the parliamentary question on 20 November, to which I referred previously, clearly shows that, as did my opening speech.

I always listen to the views of Senators but we should not malign the work being done locally because of concerns raised in another area of FÁS. It is not intentional but there appears to be an attitude that we should get rid of the agency and move the people out because they are not doing good work. They are doing wonderful work across all parts of the labour market. We are carrying out a review of the programmes which will report in mid-2009. It is timely to carry out such a review to ensure the proper programmes are in place to deal with a changed labour market. There is little point in carrying out reviews, publishing them and implementing them when the unemployment rate is falling. We must carry out the review knowing where we stand in the context of unemployment to ensure we have the proper courses, training mechanisms and support services for people who find themselves unemployed.

I will convey the Senators' remarks to the Minister. The Committee of Public Accounts will continue its investigation over the next few weeks and report, while the Comptroller and Auditor General will also go into the matter with his defined terms of reference. When they report, we will do whatever is necessary to ensure there are procedures in place, not only in FÁS but across all State agencies, to yield value for money. No one on the Government side of the House could condone waste of taxpayers' money, but we must deal with the matter through the investigation initiated by the Minister earlier this year.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I wish to clarify that no one on this side of the House has maligned the work of FÁS staff or the work of community employment schemes. It is disingenuous of the Minister of State to suggest we have. He is trying to divert attention from the fact that the Government has not exercised oversight.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Has the Senator a question for the Minister?

6:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I have. We need answers to our questions so I hope this debate will not be jettisoned for the sake of time and brevity. This is important; we are talking about taxpayers' money. The Minister of State referred to the board of FÁS. What mechanism has it put in place for reporting to the Government? What action is the Government taking about the role of FÁS and its reporting mechanism? What assurances did the Minister of State or the Minister receive from the board of FÁS, as the Minister of State mentioned in his speech? This issue involves people spending taxpayers' money.

The Minister of State also referred to the review of the efficiency and effectiveness of labour market programmes. When will that report be ready? Why are we only getting this now? Why is it only now that we are getting to the bottom of this? The Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, spoke of the action being taken by the Minister. What has been happening for the past ten years? Why is it only happening now? Where has the oversight been for the past ten years? The problems at FÁS did not happen in the space of one week or one night. Where were the reporting mechanisms and procedures? Where was the accountability? There was none. The Minister of State should not blame the Opposition. We did not create this problem.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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I will try to be as helpful as possible. I did not single out a particular Senator when I spoke of maligning those in FÁS.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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No, but the Minister of State said——

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State without interruption, please.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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That is what the general commentary portrays. I have met many FÁS staff in recent times. I have attended functions at which I have been invited to speak. I have presented certificates and met staff. There is genuine hurt among many people working in FÁS because the whole organisation has been maligned. I want to put that on record.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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It is the responsibility of the Government and the role of management in FÁS. The Minister of State should not blame the Opposition. We have not done this. We have not created the problem.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Senator Buttimer cannot ignore the Chair.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I am not ignoring the Chair. I am defending the people of FÁS and my party's right to advocate on their behalf.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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The Senator must allow the Minister of State to answer the question.

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister met the chairman and some board members of FÁS and reiterated her disquiet at the recent revelations concerning activities in the public affairs division of FÁS. However, she welcomed the board's assurances that action was taken to deal with these matters. This matter is ongoing. The Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General will report on the matter. The board must take into account the findings and recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. As matters stand, the board has provided assurances that action has been taken.

I refer to the broader issue of the labour market review. It will report in June or July 2009. I may have missed one or two questions because of the interruptions. However, I will answer them if the Senator reminds me of them.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I have a question regarding the Minister of State's speech. What assurances did the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment receive from the board that there would be no repeat of what happened? What is the reporting mechanism of the board of FÁS to the Government? What has changed since these revelations?

Photo of Billy KelleherBilly Kelleher (Minister of State with special responsibility for Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Cork North Central, Fianna Fail)
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The board stated a full examination of best practice would be required to ensure the organisation can proceed with best practice corporate governance procedures in place. That is what the board stated.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for attending the debate and for answering the questions put.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of John CartyJohn Carty (Fianna Fail)
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Ag 10.30 a.m. amárach.