Wednesday, 13 November 2013
District Veterinary Offices
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Hayes, who is a very practical man and I am confident that he will have very good news for me.
The matter I raise is the need for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to reverse the decision made by his Department to end front office administration of the district veterinary office on Sacred Heart Hospital Road, Roscommon. The town has had an excellent and long-standing relationship with the district veterinary office going back to the 1960s when tuberculosis was rampant. The office was initially located on Circular Road and then moved to the Convent of Mercy site. It is now based in a beautiful premises on Sacred Heart Hospital Road.
I was in the office on Monday with forms for my own farm. My wife, Mary, was also there recently to discuss grants paid out in 2012. It is very convenient to be able to go to it and receive such good support from the courteous staff who work in it. I commend the staff for the work they do. The office is in a great location in the town and it has parking and other facilities that are second to none.
It is a great disappointment to farmers in the area that it is proposed to close the front office and reduce staff numbers to 1.5 whole-time equivalents, which would not be sufficient to provide a comprehensive service for farmers in County Roscommon.
Farming is going through a progressive period at this point, as the Minister of State knows. Roscommon is playing an important role in the production of first-class cattle weanlings and sheep. The reduction of staff numbers from 14 clerical officers to 1.5 whole-time equivalents in the Roscommon office would be a detrimental step for the area. The existing staff are well-trained with a great knowledge of farmers in the region, serving the farming community well over the years. There are successful marts in Roscommon, Elfin and Castlerea, with many livestock exporters in the area providing valuable jobs. They require a fully staffed district veterinary office to provide them with necessary documentation.
A neighbour of mine, Mr. Charlie Clarke, a representative of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, has been very active in highlighting the closure of this office. On Monday night, there was a large meeting, comprising 400 farmers, at Roscommon town mart to discuss the closure. Farmers there could not understand how the Department could move experienced staff from this office to the Department of Social Protection. It defies logic that staff with experience in an export-oriented area would be moved to an administrative unit and one for which they have to be retrained.
There are many livestock exporters in the area such as Mr. Hubert Maxwell who exports to Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and the Russian Federation. He has expressed great concern about the future of his business if this office is closed. The whole of the farming community in County Roscommon is genuinely concerned about this closure. Farmers would prefer to see this long-standing service continue and do not see the reason it should be transferred to Cavan or Portlaoise. There is enough work in the area for the continuation of this service.
My Department has not closed down the public office of the district veterinary office in Roscommon town. In fact, it intends to maintain a public office in the town.
Following the successful reorganisation of my Department's local office structure in recent years, which resulted in the reduction of the local offices from 58 to 16, my Department conducted a review of the work carried out in the remaining local offices during 2012. The objective of the review was to identify any non-essential work and which, if any, of the essential functions should be organised differently. The review was also to make recommendations which would inform the Department's longer term vision and strategy for delivery of these services in light of reducing public service numbers. The review was in line with the Government’s policy which imposes an obligation on all Departments to conduct their business as efficiently as possible.
The review made several recommendations aimed at improving business processes both in the local offices and in the manner in which they implement various schemes, in particular the disease eradication schemes, with a view to reducing the administrative burden on farmers and the cost to the Department of administering these schemes. Two of the recommendations were that cattle passports should no longer be taken up from TB-restricted herds and that the practice of issuing movement permits for clear cattle in reactor herds should be discontinued. The review also concluded that, arising from the investment in technology and the substantial reduction in disease levels in recent years, there was already a surplus of administrative staff in the local offices. It concluded that the implementation of the recommendations contained in the report would result in a significant reduction in the administrative staffing requirements in these offices.
The recommendations relating to the TB eradication scheme have now been implemented and well received by the farming organisations. Implementation of these recommendations has significantly reduced the workloads of the administrative staff in the local offices and, in light of this, my Department further recommended that the administrative functions of the local offices could be more efficiently delivered through one or two centralised offices, thereby leading to a substantial reduction in the number of administrative staff required to deliver these functions.
I have accepted this recommendation and Cavan and Portlaoise have been designated as the two centres where the administrative functions will be centralised. These two centres have been selected because my Department already has a significant presence there and, following the introduction of centralised human services and payroll services across all Departments, additional staff will become available to service the administrative functions of the district veterinary offices in these two centres.
Implementation of the recommendations contained in the review group fits in both with my Department's objectives in driving efficiency and savings, as well as with the broad public service reform agenda. Centralising administrative procedures will enable my Department to reduce the number of administrative staff it requires to support veterinary office operations and, accordingly, the cost of providing its services. This is in line with the Government’s policy. In addition, the centralisation of administrative functions will facilitate the redeployment of staff from the local offices to other State agencies and, thereby, enable the Government to provide services through these agencies more efficiently.
The centralisation of administrative functions will not negatively impact upon local access and services for local customers. The Department vets, inspectors and technical officers will remain in place at these offices to service our clients across all of the schemes that are provided from our regional offices. In view of this, front-line services will be fully maintained and public access for all of the Departments stakeholders will continue to be available at the 16 regional offices.
In line with my decision to centralise administrative services, administrative functions have already been transferred out of several regional offices, notably, Ennis, Clonakilty, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford, without any negative implications for the provision of services to farmer clients. The transfer of the administrative functions out of other regional offices, such as Roscommon, will be considered in light of the availability of opportunities to redeploy the staff concerned to support other critical public services. In this context, my Department has been in contact with several State agencies, including the Department of Social Protection, on the establishment of redeployment opportunities with a view to progressing the centralisation process.
The volume of work administered by the administrative staff in the district veterinary offices has declined considerably in recent years due to computerisation, the significant drop in the incidence of disease, particularly TB and brucellosis, and the changes made to the TB eradication scheme last year. For instance, in Tipperary Town, the staff in the district veterinary office were the most hardworking and dedicated. They were transferred to the Garda vetting agency based in the town and retrained. They would tell the Senator the change was good for them and secured their employment in the town. I met some of the farmers at the recent meeting in Roscommon town. I explained how the change in my local district veterinary office had no impact on the service delivered to me. We need to be straight with people. If these offices were left open, it would be at considerable cost. Accordingly, the suckler cow premium which we introduced in the budget could not be implemented.
I accept the Minister of State’s response but the fact is the staff complement is going from 14 to 1.5 which is impractical for Roscommon. I do not know what the arrangement was in Tipperary Town.
The Minister should review that in light of the situation that will arise in Roscommon. It is a very busy office, probably busier than Tipperary. We have more sheep and suckler cows than Tipperary so maybe we have more demand than Tipperary. All I ask is that the Minister have an open mind on that to deploy as many staff as possible for the needs of the people in the area to ensure the service quality is retained.
The Tipperary office had a larger staff of 28 and it was reduced to four. The same service is there. People do things in a totally different way. Farming is changing. If one asked the farmers at the recent mart in Roscommon if they would leave out a suckler cow scheme or charge for it, one cannot do it. One must be far more efficient. I am a farmer and I know and use the service. More than 40 people work in the District Veterinary Office, DVO, in Tipperary town. The same situation will obtain in Roscommon town. However I take the Deputy's points and if there is any further clarification Department can give I will ask it to do so.