Tuesday, 17 November 2009
Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage
First, I will describe the context for this Bill. FÁS is the national training and employment authority and has the remit to provide a range of proactive job-related services, supports and programmes to assist individuals to remain in and return to the labour market. The agency also promotes workforce development by upgrading the competencies and qualifications of individuals and by providing and facilitating targeted training programmes and services to employees and especially to the unemployed.
There was a welcome fall in the live register in October. However, despite this decrease some 412,400 people remain on the live register. The Government is committed to continuing to provide these individuals with the necessary assistance during this difficult period such that they can return to work as quickly as possible.
Significant numbers of unemployed persons leave the live register on an ongoing basis. From November 2008 to October 2009 almost 155,000 people are recorded as leaving to employment. This is a positive trend that shows there are still jobs available and that the Government activation measures are assisting the unemployed to develop their skills and secure employment. In this context, I highlight some of the achievements of FÁS in 2008 to illustrate the scale of the work being carried out by the organisation and its staff.
Under training in employment measures, some 26,100 apprentices were trained to meet future craft skills needs and 32,400 employees were upskilled in priority skill areas, including information and communications technology and management skills. Under training for the unemployed, some 7,900 received specific skills training and 12,800 received training in foundation skills, including early school leavers and people with disabilities. Under employment programmes, some 24,400 people were on a community employment or a job initiative programme at the end of December 2008. Under employment services, FÁS employment services received notification of 96,000 job vacancies. Some 60,000 people were referred to FÁS in 2008 from the live register, of which 41,000 were interviewed and approximately 34,000 had left the live register by the end of the year.
I assure the Seanad that the Tánaiste is working closely with her colleagues the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy O'Keeffe, to ensure appropriate responses are developed and put in place to meet the upskilling needs of those who are losing their jobs or facing uncertain employment prospects.
I reiterate that the fact there were problems in one area in FÁS does not in any way reflect the work of the majority of the staff in FÁS, who are hardworking and committed to their role in supporting those who avail of the training or employment activities of the organisation. I acknowledge the excellent work carried out by them. Their commitment and professionalism are crucial in helping us to deal with the key labour market challenges currently facing this country. Effective governance in any organisation is fundamental to efficient and cost effective delivery of services. Effective governance flows from the board of an organisation and it is with this in mind that it is proposed to make a number of structural changes to streamline the board of FÁS. In future, the board of FÁS will be comprised of members who have the necessary expertise and competencies to lead FÁS proactively in the current economic environment.
It is against this background that I bring the Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009 before this House for its consideration. The Bill is part of a response to ensure FÁS is fit for purpose and operates under the highest standards of corporate governance. I propose to offer some general observations on the rationale and general principles informing the content of this amending legislation and then proceed to summarise the provisions of the Bill. I appreciate that Members will have greater opportunity to explore the provisions in more detail on Committee Stage, to which I look forward.
The Labour Services Act 1987 established FÁS more than 20 years ago. In the intervening period there has been a sea change in the worlds of corporate governance and public service ethics. One of the aims of this Bill is to introduce current best practice in these areas into legislation in order to improve and update the corporate governance structure in FÁS. The Bill also takes account of the recommendations contained in the Committee of Public Accounts Fourth Interim Report on Special Report 10 of the Comptroller and Auditor General and FÁS 2007 Accounts and the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General. I pay tribute to the work of Deputy Bernard Allen and the members of the Committee of Public Accounts for the amount of time and work on FÁS in the past number of months.
The board of FÁS as it is currently constituted is considered large and unwieldy. It is proposed to reduce the size of the board from 17 members to 11 members, including the chair. As part of this process, it is also intended to change the composition of the board. The board will be appointed on the basis of relevant experience and competencies in areas such as the functions of FÁS, finance, corporate governance and public administration. This will be a move away from the current system where a number of board members are nominated by bodies not accountable to the Oireachtas. The Bill provides for a system of rolling appointments and resignations of board members. Experience has shown that this system has the dual benefit of preserving corporate knowledge and at the same time bringing new ideas to a board. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment will appoint the members of the board in consultation with the Minster for Education and Science and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs. It is also proposed to include the director general of FÁS as an ex-officio member of the board as is standard practice in other agencies under the remit of the Department, such as IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland. The inclusion of the director general on the board of FÁS will improve the lines of communication between the executive and the board and will assist the board in its deliberations on often complex and varied matters.
There is considered to be a lack of clarity around the accountability of the director general of FÁS to the Oireachtas. In order to resolve this matter, provisions have been included in the Bill that set out quite clearly the accountability of the director general to the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees of the Oireachtas.
FÁS has a significant annual budget and it is important that its spending is directed in a way that is both transparent and provides value for money. External contractors provide a number of services to FÁS and it is in this context that provisions have been included in the Bill that will prohibit staff and board members from engaging in procurement matters where a conflict of interest exists. These provisions also provide for appropriate penalties where these rules are broken, including dismissal for members of staff and the removal from the board of board members. Wrongdoing can take place in large organisations in both the public and private sector even where proper internal financial control structures are put in place. Against this background, provisions have been included in the Bill to protect bona fide whistleblowers when reporting wrongdoing at any level within the organisation.
I propose to summarise the main provisions of the Bill. These will be examined in more detail on Committee Stage. Section 4 provides that the director general of FÁS shall be accountable to the Committee of Public Accounts. He shall, when required, give evidence to the committee on the regularity and propriety of transactions recorded in any accounts of FÁS subject to audit, the economy and efficiency of FÁS in the uses of its resources, the systems and procedures employed by FÁS for the purpose of evaluating the effectiveness of its operations and any matters affecting FÁS in a special report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. As is the norm in these provisions the director general shall not express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government.
Section 5 provides that the director general of FÁS shall be accountable to other committees of the Oireachtas. This section provides for the director general to attend any committee appointed by either or both Houses of Oireachtas and give an account in respect of matters of the general administration of FÁS that fall within the terms of reference of that committee. This section also provides that the director general is not required to attend to give an account to an Oireachtas committee of any matter that he is of the opinion is likely to be the subject of proceedings before a court or tribunal in the State unless, on foot of an application by that committee, the High Court determines otherwise.
Section 6 provides for a number of requirements for disclosure and conflicts of interests in respect of the members of the board and staff of FÁS. Under the provisions of this section, a board member must declare a material interest in any matter relating to a contract or arrangement that comes before the board. Following such a declaration the board member must absent himself or herself from the meeting, take no part in any deliberation on the matter and not vote on a decision relating to the matter. Similar provisions are included in this section with regard to staff members in FÁS. A staff member must disclose any material interest that he has in any potential agreement, contract or arrangement and must not take part in any negotiations or deliberations on this matter. In addition, he must not influence or seek to influence or make any recommendations on the matter. The legislation provides that in the event of a staff member contravening this section, FÁS may take appropriate action against that person including termination of the person's contract. The sanction against board members who contravene the provisions of this section is contained in section 9 of the Bill and provides for the removal of the board member by the Minister.
Section 7 provides protection from civil liability to employees of FÁS who make a bona fide report of offences being committed under any enactment or any serious wrongdoing being committed in respect of FÁS to the Garda Síochána or a member of the board. It also provides protection to employees who report contraventions to the Minister of directions given by the Minister. This section of the Bill introduces a prohibition on the penalisation of FÁS employees who report offences being committed, serious wrongdoing or contraventions of ministerial directions. Penalisation in the context of this section means suspension, layoff or dismissal or the threat of suspension, layoff or dismissal; demotion or loss of opportunity for promotion; transfer of duties, change of location of place of work, reduction in wages or changes in working hours; imposition of any discipline, reprimand or other penalty; and coercion or intimidation. This section also makes it an offence for staff members of FÁS to make reports in bad faith to the Garda Síochána, members of the board or the Minister.
Section 11 provides for redress for penalisation contrary to the provisions contained in section 7 of this Bill. This section sets out the structure by which an employee of FÁS may seek redress if they are of the view that they are being penalised for reporting wrongdoing in FÁS. Employees may make a complaint to a Rights Commissioner if they consider that they are being penalised by FÁS for reporting breaches of legislation or serious wrongdoing with regard to FÁS. Following investigation of the complaint the Rights Commissioner will make a decision on the matter. Either party may appeal the decision of the Rights Commissioner to the Labour Court. Where FÁS does not carry out the terms of the decision of the Rights Commissioner, the employee may bring a complaint before the Labour Court to seek a determination to have the terms of that decision effected. In the event that FÁS fails to carry out the terms of the Labour Court determination the employee may make a complaint to the Circuit Court for an order directing FÁS to carry out the determination in accordance with its terms.
Section 8 is an amendment to section 13 of the Labour Services Act 1987 to provide for the removal of the prohibition on the disclosure of information obtained by a member of the board in the course of his or her duties in certain circumstances. The current legislation prohibits the disclosure of information with limited exceptions. This amendment will permit the disclosure of information specifically to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and remove any doubt about there being a legal barrier to a member of the board reporting issues of concern to the Minister.
Section 9 provides for a restructuring of the board of FÁS in a number of ways. The board is considered large in comparison to many non-commercial semi-State boards and to streamline the board it is proposed to reduce its size from 17, made up of 16 ordinary members plus a chairman, to 11, made up of ten ordinary members, including the director general, and a chairman. The Bill will provide for a departure from the current model of 17 members where nominations can be made by other bodies — trade unions and employers nominate four members each and employees of FÁS elect two staff members to the board — to a model of 11 members where the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, in consultation with the Ministers for Social and Family Affairs and Education and Science, will select the chair and nine ordinary members based on their ability and experience. The other member will be the director general. Due to a reduction in the size of the board, the quorum for a meeting of the board will be reduced from nine to seven. Nominations to the board will be based on relevant experience and competencies in the functions of FÁS or finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration. Membership of the board will be limited to two terms of not more than five years each. In addition, to facilitate the development of fresh ideas and experience, the section also provides for a rolling system of appointments to the board.
The section also includes a provision to amend paragraph 12 of the First Schedule to the Labour Service Act, 1987. The purpose of the amendment is to update and strengthen the regulations surrounding the dismissal of a member of the board and is in keeping with current legislation in this area. The amendment provides that the Minister may remove a member of the board if the member is not adequately performing his or her functions, if there is a material conflict of interest in relation to the performance by the member of his or her functions, if it is necessary or expedient for the effective performance by FÁS of its functions, or if a member of the board has contravened the provisions in relation to disclosure of interest as provided for in section 6 of the Bill.
Section 10 provides for the repeal of Part II of the Schedule to the Labour Services Act 1987, as employees of FÁS will no longer be appointed to the board following election as described in the Schedule.
I reiterate that it is the Government's view that FÁS is a key agency in its plan to fight unemployment and ensure workers do not become distanced from the labour market. The introduction of the Bill sends a clear signal to the public on the Government's commitment to restore public confidence in the ability of FÁS to deliver on its training and employment mandate. On Thursday the Government will publish advertisements seeking expressions of interest in serving on the new board of FÁS. I commend the Bill to the House.
I was thinking of times past.
Fine Gael will support the Labour Services (Amendment) Bill on Second Stage but will have a number of amendments to table on Committee Stage. I agree with many of the Minister of State's opening comments on the role of FÁS. It is much maligned in the light of the difficulties that emerged at the top level of the organisation in the past 12 months, in particular. However, good work is done on the ground in training apprentices, retraining and upskilling people for the workforce and in local employment schemes. One of the first debates in which I participated in the Chamber seven years ago was on the importance of the community employment aspect of FÁS. Often that work goes unheralded and is not noted.
The Bill does not go far enough in terms of a root and branch review of FÁS and a full discussion of what we want our national training agency to do. A considerable body of opinion, with which I concur, holds that we ask too much of FÁS, that its fingers are in too many pies and that it should be broken up into a number of smaller and more manageable agencies which would be specifically targeted at delivering in the areas with which they would be concerned.
I was interested in the Minister of State's final comments on the Government's objective to keep FÁS at the centre of our fight to improve the position of the country's labour market. The public no longer has confidence in FÁS as an organisation. That is not due to any lack of effort on the part of employees and trainers; it is because of the actions of executives and board members over a sustained period of years. The Bill is a missed opportunity to reform the way we deliver training programmes.
I was also interested to hear the Minister of State insert the words "in future" when referring to the board of FÁS comprising members with the necessary expertise and competencies. In other words, like many of us, the Minister of State acknowledges that in the past perhaps many of the board members did not have the necessary expertise and competencies to be able to fulfil their roles correctly.
The Bill's chief component is a reduction in the number of board members. I welcome these provisions as the old board was an unwieldy body. I also welcome the protections included in the Bill for whistleblowers. I share the view that the Government needs to introduce general legislation on whistleblowing to ensure the positions of people throughout the public service would be secure if they were in a position to declare that something untoward was occurring. While this is what should happen, I welcome the protections contained in the Bill.
I welcome the provision on the accountability of the director general before the Committee of Public Accounts and other Oireachtas committees. The Bill correctly seeks to provide the Minister with the power to remove board members who underperform in their functions. However, it is worth remembering that most of what we saw uncovered in FÁS in the past 18 months concerned the actions of the top executives rather than those of board members, although no doubt they were somewhat responsible in their lack of oversight of what was happening beneath them in the structure of the organisation. The provision should be extended to put the Minister in a position where they can remove leading executives from their positions for underperformance.
I refer to the fact that many Members of both Houses, including Senator Ross and Deputy Varadkar, highlighted what had gone on in FÁS over a period of time. For ten years we had virtually full employment and spent €1 billion per annum on the State training agency. We now know that much of that money was misused. That is why it is essential to have a new training agency and we should remove some local employment scheme functions and place them in their natural home in local government. There is even an argument to be made that responsibility for some apprenticeship schemes should be removed and given to the Department of Education and Science or an agency under its aegis. The organisation is unwieldy and a strong case can be made for various agencies taking its powers and being specifically targeted to deliver results in the areas with which they are concerned.
Will the Minister of State comment on the media reports that followed the tabling of a parliamentary question by Deputy Lee on senior management remuneration and the increase in the number of senior managers in FÁS from 170 to 290 in an 11 year period?
The reply to the parliamentary question also revealed that the total pay bill for these managers increased by 77% and an average remuneration of €80,000. In 1997, FÁS employed 11 staff for every manager but that figure had decreased to seven by 2009.
During the boom years, the Government took its eye off the ball in terms of overseeing FÁS. A number of high profile politicians, including the Tánaiste, have held the position of Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. It is a difficult job and much like the current Minister for Finance, many of the problems which the Tánaiste is trying to address are not of her making. However, during her term in that role, the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, doubled the number of directors from 15 to 30 and flew in the face of all that she has preached in her political career regarding reducing management staff in State bodies.
Perhaps the Minister of State will indicate whether an examination is being conducted of the Labour Services Act 1987 with a view to creating a new group of training agencies. FÁS is trying to do everything from social employment to fourth level education but that is an unsustainable model for the future.
The employment programmes and community employment schemes run by FÁS cost approximately €430 million per annum. While much of the work done through these programmes is valuable, their proper home is in local government. Despite the recommendations of the McCarthy report, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, continues to advocate an extension to the powers of local government and most Members of this House have served on local authorities. This is an area over which local authorities should be given control because most of the work done through these programmes is at the local level.
The budget for corporate services and regional directorates costs FÁS €150 million per annum. Particularly in the current economic environment, we must ask whether we are getting value for that money. In light of what we have learned over the past 18 months, I suggest that we are not getting value for our money. The corporate and regional directorate budget is 50% greater than the €100 million spent annually on apprenticeships, an area in which FÁS is internationally recognised as having excelled.
We need to examine closely the €1 billion we provide to FÁS annually. Given that more than 400,000 people are signing on the live register, it has never been more important that we find new employment and upskilling opportunities. The timing of the revelations about the agency are particularly disappointing for that reason. Arguably, we did not need to spend anything approaching €1 billion during the good times but that money is now needed to provide real opportunities to those who find themselves on the live register.
While I have reservations about the Bill's failure to go far enough in examining the role and multiple functions of FÁS, any legislation which would reform the board of the agency and the spending of public moneys must be welcomed. I will be supporting the Bill on Second Stage, therefore.
I wish my good friend and colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Dara Calleary, continued success and thank him, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and their officials for their work on the Labour Services (Amendment) Bill 2009.
The Bill amends the legislation governing FÁS, our national training and employment authority, by providing for stronger governance and accountability. It is clearly acknowledged that the Bill contains important elements which will lead to a realignment of the agency's programmes and supports for individuals remaining in or returning to the labour market. The public perception of the work done by the very committed individuals who work in FÁS has been clouded somewhat due to recent media coverage of certain isolated matters. I am sure we all accept that such media attention can be exaggerated and may not give a clear and informed picture. It certainly should not in any way reflect on the beneficial work carried out by the majority of the agency's employees. I acknowledge their commitment and professionalism, which are crucial in helping us deal with the challenges presented by the labour market.
FÁS was established more than 20 years ago and significant change has occurred in the intervening period, particularly in respect of corporate governance and public service ethics. Effective governance is fundamental to every organisation's efficiency and service delivery. For that reason, I wholeheartedly support the structural changes the Bill introduces to streamline the board of FÁS. The Minister of State noted the membership of the new board will reflect the agency's work and programmes and that members will have the requisite expertise and competencies to guide it through the current economic difficulties. I welcome the reduction in the size of the board, the proposed system of rolling appointments and the removal of the automatic right to nominate individuals not directly accountable to the taxpayer. Furthermore, the director general of FÁS will be accountable to the Oireachtas and directors and staff will be required to disclose conflicts of interest. Whistleblowers who report serious wrongdoing will be protected.
One would expect these provisions to feature in the Bill. I will not discuss in detail the various sections, as these matters are best left to the Minister, his officials and the Parliamentary Counsel. We trust them to incorporate and embroider in the legislation the changes required.
With hindsight, one can ask the reason certain measures were not introduced in the principal Act. One can ask the same question of any legislation before the House. I anticipate that this initial amendment will be followed by further changes.
All of us recognise that we face major challenges. Circumstances are changing at a rate we never expected and the impact of the current global economic and financial crisis is complicated by several factors unique to Ireland. Many of those in business or seeking to embark on careers or self-development are experiencing considerable difficulties, particularly in the area of apprenticeships, with which FÁS is closely associated. Many of the individuals and companies involved in or associated with the construction industry, including electricians, plumbers and bricklayers, are in survival mode and face major challenges. As we progress through this difficult, challenging and turbulent period, we should maximise the potential of all opportunities. In fairness to FÁS, some of the recent changes the organisation has announced tap into current market opportunities. As Senators will acknowledge, times of recession offer opportunities.
I am particularly pleased to note that consultation, dialogue and discussion will take place between the Ministers for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Social and Family Affairs and Education and Science on the membership of the new board of FÁS. To compare the new and old structures is to compare chalk and cheese.
I do not know what role, if any, IBEC will have in discussions on the FÁS board, its governance and corporate direction and the practicalities of developing the organisation's potential. The vast majority are prepared to work together to maximise whatever potential presents to ensure we secure the best outcomes. I note from the Minister of State's contribution that the purpose of the Bill is to achieve the best returns and outcome. That being the case, I presume the legislation will have an easy passage through the House.
I have little to add to the Minister of State's contribution. I welcome his comments on how he intends to achieve the objectives set out in the Bill. One question many Senators want answered is when this legislation will be put to bed and its benefits delivered.
I understand the Minister of State may be somewhat constrained in what he can say. Difficulties arose in one area of FÁS, specifically in matters connected with the board. I agree that corporate governance is necessary and that we must ensure that whatever emanates at board level comes downstream. The role, function and responsibility of certain members of the board may not have filtered down, which is good. It is also welcome that the new director general will have a different remit, including in terms of reporting to the various committees of the Houses. This is an important element of the Bill.
I hope the Minister of State and his Department will be open to others giving a view as to how we can maximise the potential of the significant opportunities presenting at this time. We need to tap into the experience of the people who have their finger on the pulse. I would like people with practical, hands on experience of the marketplace, its demands and changing structures to be involved in the board of FÁS.
Recently I learned of the case of a person in the construction sector who had the misfortune to be made redundant. He contacted FÁS and was able to avail of opportunities overseas under a FÁS programme. On his return to Ireland, he secured gainful employment owing to his overseas experience and the training he had obtained from FÁS. I could cite many similar cases. I congratulate the Minister of State and ask him to keep up the good work.
I welcome the Minister of State. This legislation was born out of the toughest of times and significant public interest in developments in FÁS. It is the Government's response to these developments. Notwithstanding this, I have major difficulties with regard to what is absent from the Bill and some regressive aspects of the legislation.
I take as given the points made about the good work done by FÁS. This work needs to be recognised and supported. Having spoken to many FÁS staff, it is clear morale in the organisation is low. It is vital, therefore, that Members acknowledge the good work the organisation does.
I will address specifically what the legislation does and does not do in responding to some of the issues which arose during recent deliberations at the Committee of Public Accounts. It is appropriate that the clerk to the committee is present in the House. I approve of the decision to reduce the size of the board as it was too large.
We are returning to the dark ages. However bad the previous problems were, at least somebody had to nominate persons from ICTU, IBEC and other quarters. The Bill proposes to return that power to the Minister's office. It is not the worst aspect of this proposal. The worst aspect is how one comes by the nominations. This is a major issue and I guarantee the Minister of State that of all the things which are happening the biggest issue for us is the lack of trust and confidence in the political system. There is a need to let air into it and recognise the impact of the things we, myself included, have been doing for years. I sat on the executive council of ICTU and we made nominations to FÁS. I take my share of responsibility for how things were done and how they should be done better in future.
It is proposed that the members of the board should be appointed after consultation with the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs from among persons who, in the opinion of the Minster, have experience and expertise in matters connected with finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration. The wording is deliberately loose and was included deliberately by the parliamentary draftsmen to give the Minister protection to make nominations. I cannot think of any aspect of life which is not connected to the functions of FÁS. It does not help us.
We should examine some of the things which we could do. In terms of NAMA, a public advertisement was issued and the Government received expressions of interest. The same should be done for this board. I ask the Minister of State to confirm there will be an approved structure and how it will be done. An advertisement only elicits and attracts expressions of interest, but one must then decide what to do with the list. At least two of the bodies included in NAMA were, for many years, in the habit of advertising for expressions of interest in the directorship of their institutions. Another great example of advertising is that done by the Courts Service for the appointment of members of the Judiciary. Publishing advertisements inviting expressions of interest is a great idea but what happens next is shrouded in secrecy.
We then need to look at the functions of the board and look for expertise and experience in finance, trade, commerce, corporate governance or public administration. Someone then has to look at giving weightings to those areas and decide which are the most important. This is something which should be done before any names are revealed so nobody can say a person who has expertise in finance also lived in a Minister's constituency or make other comments. I am not impugning any negative intentions on the Minster. Rather, I am referring to how the media, public and commentators read issues such as this. The positions should be advertised and a weighting should be given to all the requirements outlined in the Bill. People should then be selected for interview and following the interviews the names should be sent to the Minister. There is no problem with the Minister being on or having his people on the board. He does not have to be required to accept all the proposals which come to him.
I will give the Minister of State an example of how this happened in recent times. The recent Broadcasting Act gave, for the first time in the history of the State, power to the Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to select four people for nomination by the Minister, who could then reject them. I have no objection to such a provision because Governments are elected to govern and cannot be undermined. However, the Minister would have to give a good reason for his or her decision.
The reason I refer to the example regarding the board which will be the successor to the RTE authority is that the Minister nominates five people and the committee nominates four, which the Minister can reject but will not do so. There are 13 requirements governing in what areas the members should have experience and expertise. One has to find people with experience in more than one area or all the posts will not be filled. The Minister, as required by the Act, sent five names to the Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources which considered them — they were good and honest citizens — and asked which of the 12 boxes each one ticked. There was a mixed group comprising people from the Government side and all other parties, and the committee could not decide which boxes they ticked. It had to ask the Minister for assistance to determine which five boxes were ticked so it did not have to examine them again but could look at the others.
The committee decided the posts would be advertised, which has been done, that there will be a short-list which will be done on the basis of weightings it approves and an interview will then take place, all of which will be done like a normal appointments process. At the end of the process, the people selected will come before a public session of the committee, not to be grilled and embarrassed as one might see in Washington, but to say they are happy to be nominated and outline what they bring to the party. I would love if such a process could be included in this Bill. Every appointment process should include a requirement that people come before a committee where they would not be embarrassed but would be properly treated as those who are doing the State some service. This is an issue about which I feel strongly. People who want to serve on a board should be happy to let the world see why they are there.
As an Independent I wish to raise another issue which is often not addressed. The Government has a policy position on many issues and I see nothing wrong with it having people on a board who are there because they pushed forward the policy statement or position of the Government party or the programme for Government. This is something about which we all have to be very level headed and pragmatic. It is not about being completely pure, rather, it is about getting the best people in to do exactly what we were elected to do and what the law requires. I ask the Minister of State to again examine that issue. I am glad to see he nodded in agreement with me and I would like to see how that process could be completed ethically. Senator Moylan and I were attending an ethics committee when the Minister of State was speaking so I ask him to forgive me for not hearing everything he said.
Another deficiency in the Bill is the board structure, which is left wide open. I raised a point regarding the board of NAMA during the debate last week on which the Government conceded because it needed my vote and about which I felt very strongly. I feel equally strongly about this issue. During the discussions of the Committee of Public Accounts evidence of all sorts of bad governance practices arose and I am delighted one issue included in the Bill is that of corporate governance. We discovered the audit committee reported to the executive which undermined the whole process of corporate governance.
A provision should be included in the Bill that an audit committee, a finance committee and a risk management committee be established. I ask the Minister of State to do this because if one does not put a provision such as this into the board structure I guarantee it will not be done by the board members. If there is no finance committee the financial arrangements such as deciding on budgets, cash flow meeting budgets and arrangements for debtors and creditors will be done by the executive. Such matters will be flashed by the board which will be dealing with top-level strategic decisions and will not go into the detail required. That is how bad habits start. A sub-committee of the board which will bring a report to the board and nobody else on the finances, the budget for the next year, the sinking funds, insurance and cash flow required and the benchmarked budget for the current year is required. Such a report should be examined by three or four members of the board. The board cannot chose what it puts in front of itself but should have to examine the figures from top to bottom with the financial controller of FÁS.
It is important the board and the audit committee consider the risk element and ensure external auditors come in three or four times a year to stress test the functions in place to see if it is collecting its debts and dealing with data properly and how it would deal with any risks which would arise and could threaten the whole operation. This would deal with issues such as credit cards. The expenses of the chief executive also came up. How are such matters dealt with? If the Minister of State wants them to be dealt with in a managed way, he has to consider the structure of the board. I could talk for three hours on this issue. There is no suggestion the many problems associated with the governance structure of semi-State bodies are developing because people do not mean well.
The outgoing chairman of FÁS who is a friend of mine has obviously been devastated by much of what has happened in the last year. He accepts that as chairman, he has to take responsibility for what happened during his time in that position. As he said at a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts, he regrets that things were not done differently. I am saying this in the most honest way possible. He was not aware that the audit committee should have been reporting to the board rather than to the chief executive. I mention that as an example. It was not that the board made a decision to that effect — it was a legacy issue. It has been the case for the last 12 years. If one wants a board to perform a certain task, one should structure it in a manner that ensures it will do so.
I have spoken about related issues such as finance, audits and risk management. Such issues cannot be dealt with by a board which meets for two or three hours once a month but does nothing else. The chairman of the organisation's finance committee, whoever he or she may be, should be asked to report to its board. That report should state whether he or she has gone through the year's figures with the financial officer. It might state, for example, that they are happy with some matters, concerned about others and would like certain steps to be taken. All the papers available to the finance committee should be made available on the FÁS members' website. Any member who wants to look at them should be encouraged to do so. If everybody has access, everybody will know what is going on and nobody will be embarrassed. If all the questions are asked in the right place, it does not become an embarrassment. If a person's expenses are out of line, they will emerge through that process.
I ask the Minister of State to examine this issue carefully. I reiterate that the structure of the board is as important as its membership. While I appreciate that this legislation has been considered by the other House, I suggest the other House does not tend to deal with certain matters that are more important. I ask the Minister of State to keep an open mind on this issue of importance to make the legislation more effective. I have no doubt that there is no difference between what the Minister of State and I, or anyone else in this Chamber, are seeking to do. If one wants certain things to happen, one has to legislate for them. They will not happen if they are not put on a statutory basis. That, in a sense, is how we should set about making FÁS work. If the structures I have recommended are put in place, the issues that caused problems in the last six months will be dealt with. In the last six months there was no discussion about training, job creation or the other positive work of FÁS. There was no scrutiny of the positive objectives or purposes of FÁS because people were too busy looking at other things. We need to dispose of them now. I have suggested a good way of removing them from of the equation.
I wish the legislation well and hope to examine certain issues in more detail. I will listen closely and carefully to the Minister of State's response.
This legislation was originally drafted on foot of the findings of the Committee of Public Accounts following its examination of whether certain activities had been supportive of the public good. In the committee's report the use of public money was deemed to be less than perfect. As the Bill was being drafted, we learned that the original findings of the Committee of Public Accounts represented no more than the tip of the iceberg. The Bill was discussed in the Dáil in advance of its consideration in this House and it seems we are dealing with a problem of massive proportions.
For many of its purposes, FÁS is a fine organisation. Many of its staff are doing good work on behalf of the State. When I worked as a community employment supervisor, I spent some of my time trying to justify a wage funded through FÁS. I welcome the aspects of the Bill that seek to bring about the corporate governance changes that are badly needed in FÁS. Some of the measures such as the change in the size of the board are practical. Others relate to the means of appointing the board. FÁS is unusual by comparison with most public bodies because a large part of its membership comes from the social partnership process. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment does not have a great deal of control over FÁS, other than in whether to approve those proposed by the various social partners as members of its board. It would be better to move away from a system that has not been seen to work well for the organisation to an approach, whereby people will be selected on the basis of their skills, abilities and experience. I would prefer a method of more open involvement such as that advocated by Senator O'Toole, whereby the public could submit nominations for posts and Oireachtas committees could be involved in the vetting of nominees. The legislation agreed in the reviewed programme for Government would allow such changes to happen.
In addition to changing the size of the board and the means of appointing board members, the legislation seeks to change the culture within which FÁS, as an organisation, has been managed in recent years. However, it may be difficult to do this. It is obvious, in terms of corporate governance, that the director general has to be an ex officio member of the board. Some activities engaged in in the name of the organisation in recent years do not reflect well on the office. The manner in which recent directors general have left office has not been acceptable to the public. I hope this will not happen again in the future as we reform FÁS. A dramatic change in the organisation's corporate governance culture is needed to allow this to happen.
We need to think even further about these matters. This is an enabling Bill in the sense that it gives the Minister the power to control how the future shape of the organisation will look. We may need to examine how the organisation is constituted. What areas of training should it be involved in? How should it interact with other State agencies? How should it identify future economic needs of the country? To inspire public confidence which has been badly dented by the recent revelations and findings of the Committee of Public Accounts, we should consider whether the name of the organisation needs to be changed. As we wait for FÁS to be properly constituted, to have new board members, a new culture of governance and a proper focus and to become fit for purpose, the renaming of the organisation could be needed.
I welcome some of the other measures included in the Bill such as the introduction of a rolling system of appointment of members and the implementation of many of the recommendations of the Committee of Public Accounts. I especially welcome the whistleblower provision. While it is just one element of what we need to do in the Bill, it is important because public confidence in FÁS is in great need of repair. The legislation is a small step in making sure that happens.
We need to consider how FÁS can be an instrument for fostering economic change and development, as it should be. As I said, it has done valuable work in trying to identify training needs and meet the skills gap. The new and improved FÁS, regardless of what it is called, should be part of the general debate in both Houses of the Oireachtas on stated Government policy on matters such as the smart economy document and the training programmes that need to be provided. We need to meet traditional needs in construction and subsets of construction such as carpentry, electrics and plumbing. There should be greater emphasis on new technologies and green approaches to the economy, which is where our future economic direction will lead us.
In the absence of a radical restructuring and an infusion of new thinking, ideas and people into the organisation, the fecund cultural leap needed cannot be made. The challenge for the Minister and the Department is to make sure FÁS, as an organisation, deals properly with its corporate governance and is structured properly. We should question its reason for existence and means of delivering services in order that it uses the public resources it receives in the best possible way. The period from which FÁS is recovering results from having a huge budget at a time of full employment. There is a need to use public resources properly at a time when such resources are at a low ebb and when we especially need to retrain, reskill and re-employ large parts of our workforce.
This measure is just the tip of the iceberg, not unlike the allegations that were made and the findings of the Committee of Public Accounts which have helped bring it about. It needs to be followed through not only with concerted departmental action, but also with a series of questioning within social partnership itself and as part of the ongoing political process to ensure we have a State training agency that is meeting our economy's needs and in which the public have full confidence.
I welcome the Minister of State. I welcome the introduction of the Bill which attempts to deal with the fallout from the FÁS debacle. It would be unfair not to acknowledge that FÁS has had significant successes down through the years as the Minister of State recognised in his speech. The majority of people working in FÁS were not engaged in the high flying junketeering we read about so shockingly in recent times. In the main they are decent, honourable people who, I find, are always willing to help. They were far removed from all of this and most of them are shocked and ashamed by it all.
We in the Labour Party want to see FÁS being strictly fit for purpose and in terms of governance the Bill goes a long way towards delivering the improvements that are required. However, FÁS needs to be more concerned with its essential core work of upskilling people's competences and qualifications, and matching people's skills with available job opportunities. It needs to provide specific and well-resourced training programmes, giving an opportunity for people who may have illnesses or disabilities to participate positively by developing their individual skills. In this context the CE schemes are vital. Where these can be shown to be of use from the perspective of rehabilitation, we must allow people to make their contribution so they feel they are part of the workforce. A flexible approach to participation on these schemes must be tolerated. The cost comes out of the public purse whether it is the dole or a CE scheme.
FÁS should not be pursuing far-fetched notions about courses, such as that inspired by NASA in Florida. Where was that all going? Where could it have gone? It seems like there was so much money available that FÁS did not know what to do with it. The budget had to be spent. This was the mentality and it needs to be changed. All expenditure should be put into value-for-money projects and spent at home where at all possible. FÁS must get back to basics and do the essential things well in an efficient and effective way.
As the numbers on the live register are approaching 500,000 — thankfully the most recent figures have shown them pulling back — there is an urgent need for a properly functioning employment and training agency. It should be one that meets the needs of those who require training, upholds high standards, has a clear focus and is involved in providing support services throughout the regions. It should also ensure that people are sufficiently skilled and trained to avail of employment opportunities as they arise.
Those requirements must always be uppermost in our minds when it comes to dealing with this legislation and in discussing the role of FÁS. The difficulty, however, is that in its current shape FÁS is not fit for purpose. It is dogged by scandal, corruption, low standards and ineptitude, as well as a lack of corporate governance and accountability. All those elements make FÁS a dysfunctional organisation and in my view a function of Fianna Fáil cronyism in the past. The scandalously generous financial package agreed with the former director general, Rody Molloy, following his resignation from his position, which was not consistent with Government guidelines, is an indicator of how Fianna Fáil looks after its friends.
If we are honest in terms of how we should go about tackling these problems and putting in place the kind of root and branch reform required, there needs to be an acceptance of the nature of the problems that beset FÁS. Hopefully some lessons have been learned. There has been a great deal of media comment regarding the social partners who are members of the board of FÁS and their apparent failure to take the necessary action following the revelations that emerged. However, it must be remembered it was the board that established the internal audit that revealed all of the unacceptable practices that were prevalent in FÁS. In addition, the board made it known that it was not informed about certain matters by members of the senior management of the organisation. Many members of the board were genuinely shocked and horrified by the material that has emerged.
That said, however, the FÁS scandal could and should be used as a case study for use in public policy education in how things can go wrong if proper controls and governance are not put in place. I welcome this new legislation as it attempts to address the various governance issues. I support the reduction in numbers of members of the board but I still have difficulties with the manner of their appointment, which will still leave it open to appointment of friends of the Minister of the day. There is a case to be made for worker directors, a matter we can tease out further on Committee Stage.
The provisions in the Bill relating to disclosure and conflicts of interest are positive. I agree with Senator O'Toole's recommendations on the board structure. It makes infinite sense to me and I look forward to some proposals in that regard. The section dealing with protection of whistleblowers is also to be welcomed as is the accountability of the director general to the Committee of Public Accounts and other committees of the Oireachtas.
As I said previously, FÁS, and indeed AnCO before it, have had a successful past and a very good record of achievement. We must try to get the organisation functioning well again. In respect of what has happened recently, there will be a day of judgment and hopefully the matters will get a fair hearing. However, we must ensure the new FÁS under new direction has the capability to pick up, as a second chance, those young people that our systems have failed. Most unemployed people look to FÁS as the main public employment service and FÁS needs to be as creative as it can be at that role.
We need to consider what is positive in FÁS and how we can improve it and not concentrate only on the controversies and scandals that have occurred. We need to examine whether the functions of FÁS are fit for our current needs and to correct any shortcomings. Correcting the problems that the Bill endeavours to will not solve all the problems of FÁS. Today's Irish Independent reported that pay for FÁS managers has grown twice as fast as that for non-managerial grades in the past ten years. Apparently, this was due to a significant degree to an increase in numbers at management level, at a time when most leading-edge companies are stripping out layers of management and supervisory staff. We need to look to leading-edge companies to give us the example and model for what needs to be done in public bodies and Departments.
In addition to the governance issues addressed in this legislation, FÁS needs good business leadership with a focus on value for money, performance measurement, accountability, elimination of waste, continuous improvement and, importantly, speed of decision making if it is to be transformed to the organisation needed to address today's training and unemployment challenges. We must not underestimate that challenge but we cannot afford to shirk it.
As we are all aware, FÁS as the national training and employment authority has a duty to provide supports and programmes to assist people to remain in and return to the workforce. FÁS is a key agency in the Government's plan to reduce unemployment. On 31 December 2008 under employment programmes, 24,500 people were on community employment schemes or a jobs initiative programme. We all know the invaluable work being done under those schemes. In every parish considerable work under community schemes has been done, is being done and I am hopeful will continue to be done. It has given a great social aspect to people's lives as they are doing something productive in the community rather than sitting at home twiddling their thumbs.
I ask the Minister of State to help young people whose training was nearly complete but because their sponsoring company had gone out of business before they completed it could not get that final piece of paper. I know a few young people who had been in training. I appeal to the Minister of State to offer support to people in that situation, either by securing them a place in another company for the required timeframe or by making some other arrangement. I welcome the co-operation between the Minister of State and the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Hanafin, and the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in getting these types of schemes off the ground and supporting them once they are in place.
It is fitting the Minister of State acknowledged in his presentation the great work done by the majority of FÁS staff who take pride in their work of helping young people and the unemployed to secure employment. I welcome the amendments that were made to the Bill in the course of its progress through the other House. FÁS was established in 1987 and the legislation associated with it was in need of updating. The agency was established in a time of recession, after which the good times arrived. There is no doubt that management of the agency became lax and that certain unsatisfactory practices became the norm. It is time to tighten up the legislative provisions relating to FÁS, which is what this Bill proposes to do.
The Minister of State has outlined the main provisions of the legislation in detail. I acknowledge the indication by Fine Gael colleagues that they intend to support it. The Bill amends the legislation governing FÁS to provide for a stronger governance and accountability structure at the State employment and training agency. Specifically, it provides for a reduction in the size of the board from 17 to 11, the introduction of a rolling system of appointments to the board and the removal of the automatic right to nominate individuals for appointment to the board from bodies not directly accountable to the taxpayer. The legislation makes the director general of the agency accountable to the Oireachtas. This is a welcome provision which, if it were already in place, might have precluded some of the unacceptable activities of which we were made aware in recent months. The Bill obliges directors and staff of FÁS to disclose any conflicts of interest and prohibits directors and staff from any involvement in matters where such a conflict of interest arises. The whistleblower provisions offer protection to members of staff who report serious wrongdoings in the organisation. This is a welcome recognition of the fact that whistleblowers were sometimes cast aside after they blew the whistle on certain people. The Bill takes account of the recommendations of the fourth interim report of the Committee of Public Accounts in regard to the special report of the Comptroller and Auditor General regarding FÁS's 2007 accounts.
I welcome the Bill and look forward to its implementation without delay. I hope these proposals will help FÁS to grow in the coming years, at a time when we are in great need of the expertise and experience of its staff in helping people to face the challenges of unemployment.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary. Although we propose to introduce amendments on Committee Stage, Fine Gael supports the Bill. I agree with Senator Carty that a significant challenge for FÁS is the situation of apprentices who are unable to continue their training. Even if we do nothing else, that issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
In his speech, the Minister of State referred to the 412,400 people who are unemployed and welcomed the fall in the live register in October. The reality, however, is that the Government has no coherent plan to tackle the unemployment crisis. It is imperative that there be a focus on effective strategies for moving people from welfare to work. There was an interesting article in The Irish Times last Thursday which analysed the potential situation of a married couple with two children according to whether they were PAYE workers, unemployed or self-employed. Surely we are all agreed that a system which allows a person on social welfare to have more income than a working person, either PAYE or self-employed, is unacceptable.
We now find ourselves in the unfortunate position that the vast amount of good work being done in training centres throughout the State, such as the one in Rossa Avenue in Cork, and via community employment schemes in every parish, sporting club and community organisation, is tarnished by the activities of a minority. This important Bill is about restoring confidence in the structures of FÁS and in how it does its business. The Government could have gone further in the provisions regarding the appointment of the board. I agree with Senator Boyle that it is time to change FÁS's name, corporate image, logo and branding. That image is ruined beyond repair. I say that as somebody who is involved in the community employment scheme in my local GAA club and who has visited the training centre in Cork on numerous occasions. The pride of the workers and instructors there is second to none but the reality is that the reputation of the agency is tarnished beyond repair.
The blame for this must rest at one level with the political masters who were aloof and distant. Nothing was done when the pay bill for FÁS management rose twice as fast, at 77%, as that for non-managers and when the number of managers increased by 71%. What would the Taoiseach say to the Minister of State if it were the latter who oversaw such developments? He would send the Minister of State to the backbenches and would promote Deputy Flynn or somebody else from Mayo. A situation where the number of managers rose 18 times faster than the number of operational staff was clearly unsustainable. I am not being political in saying that is farcical stuff. If the Minister of State were on this side of the House he would say exactly the same.
We must have a new training authority. The Committee of Public Accounts, under the chairmanship of Deputy Allen, did the State a great service in its investigations in this area. There was something rotten in FÁS. Any right thinking and fair minded person will acknowledge it was rotten beyond contempt. I agree fundamentally with Senator Carty that we must have a training authority that has as its sole motivation and objective the upskilling and retraining of people for the purpose of helping them to enter the world of work. That is what a State training and employment agency must be about. I say that as a person who spent eight years as a director of adult education in a local school. We speak about trust and confidence but the reality is that people are laughing at FÁS.
One of the greatest challenges facing the agency is the reluctance of people on social welfare to go into the world of work. That is not to say that I do not accept people are unable to find work in some cases. Through this legislation we must allow FÁS to manage its services in such a way that people will buy into the idea that the FÁS training regime is an effective provider of re-education and upskilling of the highest quality.
The Minister of State referred to effective governance, which we all want, but will that result from the reform of the agency under this legislation? Will the Fianna Fáil Party make FÁS fit for purpose? It has been known for a long time that the agency carried on like a Fianna Fáil cumann, whether the Minister of State likes it or not. He can dismiss that but that is the reality and it has been proven by what has happened. There was no accountability from the top down. If a training manager comes in late on a Monday morning or does not do his job properly, he is hauled in but nothing happens to the board and its executives. That is why FÁS needs to be reformed.
The composition of the board needs to be examined, as Senator O'Toole eloquently pointed out. I agree with the American way of doing business. There should be an open competition for appointments to the board with either the Public Appointments Service or the Committee of Public Accounts interviewing candidates. Let us end once and for all political patronage in this country. I can point to individuals appointed by Ministers to boards who should not have been but were because they were friends of the Minister involved or whoever. That must stop. Appointments to the board should not be in the Minister's gift. The Bill provides for appointees of the Ministers for Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Social and Family Affairs. Let us broaden this process. We are living in a new Ireland where people are tired of the old ways.
I canvassed 52 houses on a middle class estate in Cork last night and the board of FÁS was raised by six householders who had no interest in or connection with the agency. If the Minister of State wishes to restore its credibility, make it fit for purpose and change its governance structure, filling appointments to the board must not be in the Minister's gift. She should provide for an open competition and, as Senator O'Toole said, the open and vague language in the Bill which gives the Minister wriggle room should be deleted. Public interest directors should be appointed similar to those appointed to the boards of banks.
Taxpayers' money is at the heart of this. If we want to send a person to the moon, that is fine but one only has to examine what FÁS did with the taxpayer's money over recent years. Will that change under this Bill? I am concerned because the fundamental aim of the agency is to prepare people for work through training and upskilling. The legislation is a lost opportunity. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and her predecessors, Deputies Harney and Martin, ignored Fine Gael for years about FÁS. The director general of the agency must be made more accountable. For example, he or she could be asked to appear in the Seanad for a debate to make the agency relevant to this House.
That might happen but it is up to the people. The people will decide, not a cosy cartel of Fianna Fáil hacks. We must allow people to have confidence in FÁS. That is not the case currently and that has belittled the great work being done, which is a sad shame. I hope the Bill will provide for this and I wish the Minister of State well.
I welcome the Minister of State and I wish him well with this important Bill. FÁS has been the subject of significant debate over the past 12 months or so. The Minister of State said the agency, as the national training and employment authority:
[H]as the remit to provide a range of proactive job-related services, supports and programmes to assist individuals to remain in and return to the labour market. The agency also promotes workforce development by upgrading the competencies and qualifications of individuals and by providing and facilitating targeted training programmes and services to employees and especially to the unemployed.
That is a positive statement. Currently, more than 400,000 people are out of work and this presents a golden opportunity to FÁS to liaise with the many skilled people who are out of work. Thousands of carpenters, electricians, blocklayers and builders are unemployed and marvellous programmes could be put together by the agency to utilise their skills. For instance, significant work could be on local authority projects. Poor quality local authority housing could be renovated through a FÁS scheme with the skilled people available while parks could be upgraded and roads widened. These skilled tradesmen could be organised by the agency to do great work and I hope the Minister of State will ensure this happens.
Senator O'Toole is probably correct that the new board should have three sub-committees, including audit and finance sub-committees. Over recent years there was a lack of control in the agency from the top down and, therefore, control must be restored. I hope the Bill will provide mechanisms to address this issue but while the composition of the board is important, the mechanisms, checks and balances put in place are more important. FÁS had too much money over the past ten years and staff did not know what do. There was abuse left, right and centre. Investigations should be carried out in certain areas. For example, a number of schemes have been highlighted. Pass rates on a scheme in Dundalk were falsified and works were carried out on the private house of a sponsor in Waterford while in my home town, Castlebar, grants were drawn by a group for a meals and wheels scheme but another group said they were not used for this purpose. There was argument and counterargument and nobody seems to know what happened. The Committee of Public Accounts has investigated a number of these issues and the Comptroller and Auditor General will report on them.
FÁS should have checks and balances in place. Consultants were hired to carry out checks and we need to evaluate whether these people, who were paid by the State to carry them out, did so. If they did not, there should be consequences. The kernel of the wastage problem lies in the lack of checks and balances. Consultants who made external evaluations did not do them properly or in accordance with the remit given to them by the board of FÁS or the Minister. They should be brought to task. We must have real control in this area. If consultants had carried out checks in Dundalk, Waterford, Castlebar and elsewhere and reported that work was or was not being done properly, we would not be in this position.
Great work has been done by FÁS. We are inclined to think everything in it is bad. Senator Carty who is in the House knows Mayo Abbey well. I do not know whether the Minister of State has visited it but every Minister should visit the abbey to see what has been done there.
I know that. Opposition spokespersons have also visited it. Deputy Phil Hogan was there a number of weeks ago and was amazed to see the work being done there. There are houses, crèches, a resource centre and gardens. Vulnerable people in the parish are looked after. Management knows the people who are isolated and vulnerable. There was a time when only the priests of a parish knew who the old and vulnerable were. Under the directorship of Ger Maguire, vulnerable people are brought together every Friday and given a meal, including vegetables from the abbey garden. The team at the abbey must be congratulated. This is part of the amazing work being carried out by FÁS. I have no doubt there are other such projects throughout the country. It is unfortunate that projects such as this can be marred by vested interests and people who are out for their own gain.
When the Bill is enacted, I hope we will see a better system of checks and balances from top to bottom in FÁS. If consultants or outside agencies are given responsibility for evaluating FÁS projects, they must do their work and be seen to do so in accordance with the mandate given. If they do not, they should pay a price for their failure. We should look back at some of those who made evaluations to see if they fulfilled their mandate satisfactorily. This should be done in conjunction with the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The two should be put together and a full assessment of the evaluations carried out.
Fine Gael supports the Bill. The sooner it is enacted the better, as there are more than 400,000 people out of work. There is much work to be done, for which the Bill can be a catalyst.
I am disappointed at the level of comment from and cheap sniping by some Senators on the other side of the House. I do not include Senator Burke in that observation. However, Senators Buttimer and Ryan referred to FÁS as an expanded Fianna Fáil cumann. Their comments lowered the tone of the House and brought the debate down to the level of nonsense.
I welcome the Bill. There have been major problems in FÁS. However, every Member of the House knows someone who is working on a FÁS scheme, been a FÁS supervisor or had an interaction with FÁS. We all know the impact of these interventions on individuals and our communities. At a time when many spheres of life are receiving bad press, justifiably or not, it is important that we commend the work being done in FÁS.
Senator Buttimer spoke about changing the name of the organisation and starting from scratch. It is too simple to say we should not start from where we are but from somewhere we would like to be. The Bill aims to reform the hierarchy of FÁS, how it is set up and how it functions. However, many aspects of FÁS are working well. I do not accept, therefore, that starting from scratch would add much to this reform.
In my constituency unemployment has always been very high. There is an element of cross-Border working which sometimes masks the real figures. Some may not like me saying this but it is the reality. The Border has presented opportunities, as well as many challenges. I commend the Government for the development of the €27 million consolidated centre which is about to open in Buncrana. It will house a decentralised social welfare office, a Garda station and a car testing centre. Unfortunately, we need the new social welfare office, as the staff of the three or four social welfare offices in Buncrana have been working under very difficult circumstances. They will now be consolidated in one centre. People who lose their jobs and must have that first interaction with State services will do so in a wonderful public service centre which will open on 27 November, a very important day in my life because it is the date on which I was born. While we must do as much as we can for people who lose their jobs, I hope we can maintain as many as possible in jobs. I commend the initiative to give State support to companies which are exporting. I believe the Tánaiste intends to expand the scheme to bring more people into it. However, our first goal should be to keep people in employment. This often means providing training in the workplace, rather than waiting until people are unemployed before they can avail of it.
The Minister for Education and Science recently announced a major investment in information technology. The Government will invest €150 million in the provision of lap-tops in schools. One still hears people condemning investment in IT. If we do not invest in this area, where will today's young people be tomorrow? We must train teachers to use IT equipment because students are often ahead of the teacher in this regard. FÁS may have a role in providing such training within schools. I note that it worked with Mr. Paul Rellis of Microsoft on such a project. Could business interact with schools to ensure the skills being taught in schools are relevant to the workplace? This must be done at primary school level. Early intervention is important; the earlier we intervene the more likely we are to ensure pupils will be employable when they leave school.
I commend the fact live register figures are going down. In Letterkenny, the waiting time for the jobseeker's allowance is approximately two weeks. It is two weeks in Killybegs and seven and a half weeks in Buncrana. I have been told it is approximately 22 weeks in Castlepollard. I recognise the waiting times in Donegal are not the worst but I would like to think we could get money in people's pockets and do whatever we can to shorten the waiting times.
There are new roles which FÁS can play and we should work with business to help identify them. Often there is flexibility in FÁS which is not to be found elsewhere. I know some of that flexibility might have been abused and perhaps that is part of the problem. However, if we get rid of that flexibility, we could get into trouble.
When I became a Member of the other House, the first thing people asked me was whether I could get them off a community employment scheme because they were happily unemployed and wanted to be left alone. However, fairly soon people asked me if I could stop them from being taken off a scheme because they wanted to stay on it. When people had done three years on a community employment scheme, there was a battle to extend it. There were also battles in regard to people over 55 and over 60.
FÁS plays a very important role. We spoke about what it is doing in the community. Projects would not be possible without it. FÁS provides psychological help and support to people by providing training to enable them get back to work and by enabling them to participate in community employment schemes and so on. People have something to do when they get up in the morning and a social outlet to meet people in similar circumstances. The new unemployed are better trained and skilled. We must be able to tie what we have in terms of training and skills with what we need.
There are opportunities in this Bill and I wish the Minister of State well with it. I heard Members of the Opposition state they will table amendments to it. I hope the standard of the amendments tabled will be a little higher than some of the debate which has taken place. Cheap shots were taken which are not becoming of this House.
I thank Senators for their contributions and look forward to continuing the debate on Committee Stage. I wish to make a number of points on the appointment of the board. On Committee Stage in the other House, I made a commitment that we would take into account nominations from the Select Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, as well as the joint committee, to the board of FÁS. I intend to see that commitment through.
As I said in my interaction with Senator O'Toole, we will place advertisements in the national newspapers on Thursday seeking expressions of interest from people who may wish to join the board of FÁS and who fulfil the criteria. I assure the House that it is not window dressing. We are serious about opening it up as widely as possible. We have already had more than 200 expressions of interest since it was known that a new board would be appointed.
There is a debate to be had on whether one brings in people before they are appointed or whether one questions how they are doing their job after they are appointed. I do not agree with Senator Buttimer on many issues but especially in regard to this idea of people appearing before an American Senate-style committee. It is a part-time job because remuneration would not be enough to make it a full-time job. We are asking people to come forward because they have specific strengths and talents and to put them before an American Senate-style committee would be asking too much. Senator O'Toole spoke about those appointed perhaps meeting the committee. I will reflect on that as well as on his points about the board's sub-committees.
I agree with Senators Carty and Buttimer on the apprentice situation. We face a challenge in that regard. We have done much work with the apprentices. The institutes of technology training programme for redundant appreciates is providing 700 places. When combined with the existing initiative for redundant apprentices, including the ESB programme, approximately 3,800 apprentices are progressing their apprenticeships or are receiving training. We have more to do in that regard.
Senator Burke mentioned the capacity to deliver to those unemployed tradespeople and their capacity to get involved in community activities. I drove around Mayo yesterday on flooded roads. The roads were flooded for the want of few leaves being taken out of gutters and drainage tables being opened. That is an area in which we could use people. I am open to suggestions on activation policies, especially programmes which train people to move into the workplace. I do not want training programmes in FÁS to become permanent as that is not what they are designed for. I ask Senators to come forward with ideas in that regard.
A proper rebranding exercise for an organisation the size of FÁS and everything that would go with it would cost a fortune. It could justifiably be regarded as a waste of money at a time when there are 420,000 people unemployed. Every cent we spend on FÁS should be spent on getting people out of the situation in which they find themselves. I accept damage has been done to the brand but throwing the baby out with the bathwater is too much. At a time when every cent must be examined, rebranding is a luxury too far.
The new director general, Paul O'Toole, has already made strenuous efforts to talk to FÁS staff and clients and to show he is a new kid on the block and that he has a new style of management. That coupled with a new style of board will assist in the rebranding that is necessary.
A number of investigations are ongoing through the Committee of Public Accounts and the Comptroller and Auditor General. Reports will follow that process. I believe the Committee of Public Accounts will meet on Thursday week at which some issues will be considered. I refer to the point Senator Burke made about courses and the assessment of courses. An assessment is being done on all private trainers and the courses they provide to FÁS and that will be made public in due course.
A number of Senators raised the cost of FÁS management. I would like to give the actual story as opposed to the imagined one. By the end of 2009, management grades in FÁS will have reduced, compared with 2003, by more than 10% and by 20% in the senior management grades. FÁS will look at further reductions in staff in 2010. During the ten-year period referred to in reports this morning, 75% of the increase in management grades occurred owing to a one step increase from a senior staff grade to assistant manager as part of the major restructuring the organisation. FÁS management grades currently make up 12.8% of total staff and the associated costs must be seen in the context of the very wide responsibilities of the organisations.
Again, I thank Senators who spoke for their interest. I assure Senator Burke that I have been to Mayo Abbey at Senator Carty's invitation and it is a superb centre, as are so many FÁS projects. Tonight many community organisations throughout this country will get together to provide services in health and so on and all sorts of commercial ventures on the back of FÁS and FÁS employees. We are putting this board in place for those communities and those workers who have done us proud and that is why I look forward to a robust Committee Stage debate.