Seanad debates

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

4:00 am

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State. He is on the home run now. I question the role of the Civil Service and ask who is running the country. Is it the Civil Service are the Government? I was a civil servant and I am mindful the majority of them are good people and do a very good job. However, I am also of the opinion that certain civil servants think they are more powerful than the Minister and Government and they dictate the pace. Since I came to the Seanad it has infuriated me that civil servants can knock on the head things I think are achievable. I suggested to the Department of Education and Skills that a particular national school needed extra classrooms because of the increase in roll numbers. They had obtained some but needed more. Departmental officials continually told the Minister it was wrong and that the numbers were decreasing. Six months later, when it was too late, the officials admitted they were wrong and that they had given the wrong information to the Minister. They were then not in a position to provide funding for the extra classrooms required.

The Department of Social Protection officials come to committee meetings, and every member of the Dáil and Seanad will probably say the same thing, and tell us how quickly they are dealing with new applications for carer's allowance and that appeals are being dealt with within the three and a half or four month timeframe but the reality is that it could be more than 12 months. We just accept this from the same civil servants.

I introduced a Bill on wind turbines in the House which successfully passed Second Stage but as soon as that happened officials from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government contacted me. They did not want the Bill to go through because they wanted business as usual. They wanted wind turbines to be sited wherever they wanted them to be to achieve certain goals, which they probably will achieve but at a major cost to the environment.

The worst example of all of civil servants or public servants in operation was after the closure of the accident and emergency department in Roscommon, which was another botch by HIQA getting involved with the Department of Health stating it was unsafe when it had never visited the hospital. However, setting this aside, after the closure a group of us got together to see how we could better the health service in Roscommon where there is a void. At the time I pointed out the need for an ambulance base in my town. I suggested to the county manager that we could use the fire station if it were to go ahead. I and others made proposals at a forum at which the HSE was present. My proposal was accepted and the HSE got involved. The Minister for Health wants this to happen as do the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, the chief ambulance officer for the entire western region, the acting chief fire officer in Roscommon, the station officer and the firemen. After three months of negotiations and wheeling and dealing between the HSE and the local authority, the HSE came up with a service level agreement which the chief fire officer accepted but one person in the local authority decided he did not want to go down this road and he has been able to put a stop to it. It does not make sense.

Colm McCarthy proposed to Government that we share services and it is Government policy, yet a civil servant can decide something is too much trouble for him. We have a serious issue here. This is all about accountability and who is accountable to whom. Are civil servants accountable to Ministers or are Ministers beholden to civil servants? This is the question. I accept we have many good civil servants but many people are employed in the public service and Civil Service who would frustrate one. They find ways to not achieve something instead of trying to find ways to achieve it. The project I outlined would cost approximately €15,000 a year if it went ahead as nothing extra is involved. The HSE is willing to pay the local authority €15,000 a year for utilities and there are no capital costs. It makes sense but people are frustrating the process. I would like to hear the comments of the Minister of State on this matter.

6:00 am

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Dublin South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for his very interesting remarks. The title of the motion was the need for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to clarify the role of civil servants and their interaction with Ministers and the Government. It is a big title. I have a very interesting script from the Department but I will not use it.

The issue we face is one of political accountability because ultimately we must have a system based on parliamentary democracy whereby people elected to jobs have the task of responding to both Houses on performance on these tasks. Where policy is enunciated by the Government one would have thought this policy is then implemented by those public servants whose responsibility is to put it into effect.

Senator Kelly cited four examples, which were very frustrating for him I suspect, where progress or action he wanted to see was being frustrated by a number of individuals. I have not heard their side of the story or the rationale for their view so it is difficult for me to comment. The Civil Service is entirely professional and independent and it gives its advice to the Government in a way that takes into account all competing policy interests. I understand the Senator's frustration, and one could argue his speech was like the last chapter in the book at the end of a very long political career, but on the contrary he is a new Senator who I suspect may be in the other House at some point. It is very important that he takes up these issues with the Minister of the day who has responsibility in these areas, whether agriculture, social protection or health, to see whether progress can be made. It should not be the case that civil servants stand in the way once a decision has been made and it is in the interest of the system.

Once that decision is made and once it is in the interest of the system we expect.

The great advantage of the public sector we have is that it can weigh up problems. However, ultimately it is a political call as to what the outcome has to be. In other systems, when one comes into government one can bring all the administration in with one. Those in senior positions from the previous administration leave. That may well be a view that the Senator is espousing and thinks is relevant and there may be merit in it. There is a necessity to have some bridge between the public service and the political system in terms of making sure that what Ministers want to happen actually occurs. That is crucial.

From the script given to me by the Department which I will forward to the Senator for a fascinating read, we are looking at all these issues. We are clarifying the role of the public sector in terms of advice, freedom of information, and what it is and is not accountable for. One of the key parts of the programme for Government is that where civil servants believe that a policy position such as decentralisation was contrary to a range of other objectives, they could speak publically about it and have their views recorded on the record. Perhaps that would be a more useful way of engaging in this.

I appreciate the Senator's frustration but untimately the answer is this is a political responsibility for that Minister of group of Ministers to make sure they believe in him and what he is attempting to do. That is the only way progress can be made.

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I am glad the Minister of State pointed out that we are talking about the same Civil Service. I am not talking about the Civil Service at large but senior advisers in the Civil Service who have been giving the same advice to the last three Governments. I am not suggesting we get rid of all of them but there has to be some kind of accountability which does not apply at present.

Deputy Hogan was in the House earlier. In fairness, under local government reform he stated the executive needs to be held to account. This is not happening. I thank the Minister of State and thank him for not reading out the script.