Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Public Bodies Review Agency Bill 2016: Second Stage


10:30 am

Photo of Pádraig Ó CéidighPádraig Ó Céidigh (Independent)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Tá fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá sé an-deas é a fheiceáil. Is é seo an chéad uair dó ar ais sa tSeanad le píosa, de réir mar a thuigim.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the House to consider this Bill, which is of the utmost importance in supporting the integrity in how our State and semi-State bodies operate and achieve their relevant objectives in a coherent and focused manner. I also look forward to a positive and constructive debate and direction on the substance of this legislation whereby the contributions by colleagues both challenge and strengthen its primary objectives. I thank my colleagues, Senators Mullen and Craughwell, for co-sponsoring the Bill. I also acknowledge Senators Freeman and McDowell for seconding the Bill. We, as legislators, have been entrusted to ensure that the State functions effectively and is relevant to the maximum benefit of our people in an effective, transparent and informative manner.

The primary purpose of the Bill is to create the public bodies review agency, whose function will be to independently and professionally evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of State and semi-State bodies at least once every seven years by reference to international best practice. The agency will then report back to the relevant line Minister, as well as to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform with findings and recommendations. Both Ministers will then have 90 days to issue a joint response and put forward an action plan indicating how they will implement those recommendations. This report will be available to the public and could be of particular benefit to the workings of the relevant Oireachtas committees, as well as to both Houses of the Oireachtas.

If the legislation is enacted, the agency will be tasked with ensuring that public sector bodies are independently and regularly reviewed to ensure their statutory remit remains relevant and is adapted where necessary. The agency will also review how effectively the public sector body executes core objectives. With the exception of the statute law revision initiative, the State does not have a practice of systematically reviewing legislation. This means that when a new law is enacted, we rarely take time to look back on its effectiveness or its current relevance.

This is also true with regards to all the legislation under which public bodies have been established. A significant number of State and semi-State bodies have been created under legislation enacted well over 30 years ago. Irish society has changed significantly since, yet we do not have an effective independent means to ensure those statutory bodies and other organisations have a relevant and integrated mandate to provide real and meaningful benefit to the Ireland of today and tomorrow. There are more than 250 public bodies in existence across 16 Departments. A total of 62 agencies have been terminated since 2010. For the vast majority of those terminations, the functions previously carried out by the agency were transferred or merged into other organisations. A total of 25 new agencies have been created since 2010. Of these, 14 are primarily the result of mergers of older agencies or the transfer of all functions to a new agency, while 11 are new agencies. I am not generally in favour of the establishment of new statutory bodies. However, in this instance, the establishment of a new body is the most effective means of ensuring we have the infrastructure necessary to systematically review and provide objective proposals on the existing stock of public bodies. The body which would be established under this legislation will yield millions of euro in savings on an annual basis, thus ensuring that its cost will be far outweighed by the benefit it will bring.

In its review of the public service in 2008, the OECD found that the process of agency reform had coincided with ad hocexpansion of the organizational complexities of the State. As part of the Public Service Reform Plan 2011–2013, an agency rationalisation programme was announced and put in place, aimed at making a contribution to the overall reform objective of delivering a public service that is more efficient and integrated. The Institute of Public Administration Research Paper No. 18 of March 2016 provides an objective review of national non-commercial State agencies in Ireland between 2010 and 2015 and states: "There is no clear relationship in Ireland between an agencies legal mandate, size of function and the form of governance adopted".

Before setting out on the journey of preparing this legislation, I drew some comfort from a pledge in the programme for partnership Government:

we will empower frontline service providers to make more decisions, encourage more collaboration between public service bodies, and between the public and private sectors, and reward public service innovation and change. We will also reform the public sector, more generally, to ensure more accessible public services.

A number of other jurisdictions have introduced a law similar to what I am proposing, in particular, the US and Australia. Closer to home, the National Oversight and Audit Commission is a statutory body which was established under section 126B of the Local Government Act 2001 to oversee the local government sector. The local government efficiency review implementation group was established by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government in April 2011 to oversee the implementation a series of reforms. In its second progress report in 2013, the group reported that €561 million in savings was achieved between 2010 and 2012. Its key objective is to achieve an annual saving of more than €500 million. The Bill adopts much of the structure and strategy of that group and, therefore, the proposed agency is not unique or a one- off. The agency has broadly similar objectives but it is concentrated on State and semi-State bodies and has the potential to be the catalyst of similar, if not greater efficiencies. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's new code of practice for the governance of State bodies will have implications for such bodies, which will lead to positive change, but I believe more can and should be done. The objective of the Bill is wholly consistent with what the Government has pledged in terms of public sector innovation and change and with the Minister's passion and commitment to work on the reform of this area. I very much respect and appreciate that. We do not need to spend millions on third-party consultants in providing a stream of reports on the efficiencies, or lack thereof, of the various public bodies under our direction. We can achieve far better and more effective results ourselves and this Bill will go a long way in this regard. We owe it to the excellent people working in our State and semi-State bodies to support and encourage a world-class working environment. This is intended as much for them as it is for us and the general public.

I hope I have given the Minister a good sense of the rationale behind the Bill and an outline of some of its key provisions. I ask him to support it and recognise the potential it presents to streamline, in a structured and coherent way, the public sector and ensure that it continues to be fit for purpose.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Independent)
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I support the introduction of this legislation. At first blush, one might ask why we need a quango to supervise quangos. Senator Ó Céidigh is mindful of this potential criticism. However, I point out, in favour of what he said to the House, that we have a habit in this country of establishing bodies and allowing them to proceed. Some 15 or 20 years ago there was a root-and-branch re-evaluation of such bodies. There was Colm McCarthy's bord snip, which examined bodies from the ground up and asked whether we needed them any more and what useful functions they carried out. A series of agencies have cropped up from time to time, many of which, as Senator Ó Céidigh said, have in recent times been realigned, reconfigured, merged, de-merged and so on. In health, we have bodies such as Tusla, the HSE and a series of other agencies that have come into existence. At the same time, other bodies have gone out of existence, such as the health boards, etc. Senator Reilly, when he was a Minister, made it very clear that he wanted to get rid of the HSE completely. He did not quite achieve that. It is still there in ghost form. All kinds of other agencies may or may not be the subject of future amalgamation or the like. The crucial matter to which Senator Ó Céidigh is drawing the House's attention - I do not know whether he will get the support of a majority of Members on this occasion - is that of questioning, on a periodic and methodical basis, what State and semi-State agencies are doing, questioning and re-evaluating their roles and questioning whether they could do their work better. Even if the process he has described were carried out by someone in this State other than a new agency, the value of what he says is very clear. On one basis, the Minister's Department is such an agency if one considers in it that way. However, does it evaluate every other agency every seven years and ask the hard questions of each agency in such a methodical way? Does every agency of the State know that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will come after it and ask it why it still exists, what useful functions it carries out, whether other people could better carry out its functions or what transformations or reforms are necessary for it to carry out its functions more effectively?

Another way of considering the matter would be that these functions should be vested in the Oireachtas and that Oireachtas committees should challenge the very existence of the State bodies that come before them. I am a member of a committee which has had representations from the Environmental Protection Agency. Senator Ó Céidigh and I were discussing this earlier. Nobody is suggesting at this stage that we can do without the Environmental Protection Agency, but I wonder will the committee ever examine the effectiveness of that organisation and ask it to justify how it best makes use of its resources and so on. I do not think we have that mindset. Senator Ó Céidigh's Bill is designed, in the first instance, to focus our minds on the necessity of rethinking, on a consistent basis, the necessity for and the adequacy of the agencies we have established.

Agencies can be considered from another point of view. Let us examine the position of county councils. Do they share functions such as, for example, payroll and finance functions? Is it necessary for two county councils side by side to have people carrying out effectively the same function in two different organisational structures? Why should two county councils not share payroll functions? Why should they not share, for instance, recruitment and human resources, HR, activities? There are many ways in which we just go along with the old routine. I am sure the Minister's Department allocates much time trying to persuade agencies to ask themselves whether they could share these services and whether they do so adequately. On the Housing Finance Agency, I recall looking at a big building near the Luas station at Milltown in Dublin and wondering what went on in that building and why it was there. Perhaps it is still there. I do not know whether the agency sold those premises. It occurred to me that this was an agency established at a different time and pursuing different policies. Perhaps we still need a Housing Finance Agency. Maybe it still carries on useful functions. However, the sense in which every State agency had to go through a periodical evaluation of its utility, efficiency and overall function seems to me to be lacking. I would very much like to hear the Minister's response to these matters. Perhaps, reading the newspapers, I am unaware of wonderful things that are happening. Maybe the Minister's Department constantly evaluates every aspect of public expenditure to carry out these functions. However, I have a funny feeling that there are many backwaters in Irish public administration onto which the torch is not often shone and where people are left to their own devices.

I welcome Senator Ó Céidigh's bringing this matter to the floor of the House. I expect people will express contrary points of view. I would say the Senator also expects that. That said, the principle is important. Either the Parliament itself, the Department of State in charge of public sector reform or an agency such as that proposed by Senator Ó Céidigh on this occasion do this work and that it be somebody's job to ensure that we get value for money for all the agencies we have established. I am not against the public service or hostile to it. Neither, in any of his remarks, has Senator Ó Céidigh evinced any hostility to the public service or public service agencies as such. However, it is the case that we see in the private sector companies going out of existence. Shareholders ask what a particular subsidiary is doing and whether they need it any more. There should be a similar spirit regarding public sector agencies, not with a view to throwing people out of their jobs, but rather in the context of ensuring that we get value for money, that we achieve our strategic aims in respect of a decent and vibrant public sector and that this process goes on constantly. I am pleased in this context to second Senator Ó Céidigh's Bill.

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. I also welcome the opportunity to discuss the way in which we monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of public bodies as they carry out their work so that we can be assured that they do not operate in splendid isolation.It is good to have this debate as it affords the Minister an opportunity to clarify the matter. Accountability and transparency are the basis of democracy, a state we strive for all of the time. Without a doubt we have some of the brightest and most talented people in the country working in the public service and Civil Service. It is the responsibility of Parliament and Government to ensure that the framework in which public and civil servants operate is as efficient and effective as possible. We must also bear in mind the objectives of legislation pursuant to which the services were set up, which is generally to serve the public interest.

It is worth highlighting that a lot of steps have been taken towards the objective that Senator Ó Céidigh seeks to achieve. In 2011, the Government undertook an agency rationalisation programme and as a result, we have approximately 176 fewer public bodies. The initiative has resulted in savings to the Exchequer and reviewed the manner in which many of these bodies operated. There are plans to consider other amalgamations or mergers such as the Valuation Office, the Property Registration Authority and Ordnance Survey Ireland to form Tailte Éireann. Similarly, the Office of the Pensions Ombudsman is due to be absorbed into the Financial Services Ombudsman. A review takes times but one does not want to throw the baby out with the bath water.

It is worth highlighting another aspect of these agencies. While there has been a programme of reduction, mergers and rationalisation - and the Minister can correct me if I am wrong - notwithstanding that the agencies have been merged, the functions for which they were set up continue and are still deemed relevant. It is just that agencies that have been merged with another agency must pursue economies of scale where they can, as pointed out by Senator McDowell, avail of common services such as human resources, IT, etc. These agencies may no longer exist on their own but they are still necessary. It is not a case that the reason for their establishment has become obsolete. If there is an exception then the Minister can clarify the matter for me.

This Bill has not necessarily been accepted by the Government. A revised code of practice for State bodies was launched in August 2016. The code complements standard reporting and performance requirements. It also confers responsibility on Ministers and Department to ensure bodies carry out their functions effectively. We have also witnessed increased activity by Oireachtas committees. That means there has been greater scrutiny of the public bodies under their remit which is welcome. The tenet and spirit of what is sought to be achieved by the Bill is agreeable but the approach is not necessarily acceptable as there are measures in place. I presume everyone would like to see how those measures pan out. We hope that they will give us effective scrutiny.

The code of practice is aimed at securing improvements in accountability and effectiveness while analysing the case for consolidation through a broader examination of changes in the external environment. Importantly, the code also includes a requirement that bodies are subject to a review on a five-year basis. These periodical critical reviews already reflect the essence of the public bodies review agency proposed by the Bill before Members. It requires Departments to review State bodies under their aegis every five years to ensure there is an ongoing business case for their existence and that bodies perform effectively. As I have said previously, this is a prudent approach, as opposed to rushing to set up another quango.

I am aware that politicians are fallible but accountability lies with and the buck stops with Ministers. That is why I think that the work of Oireachtas committees and the responsibility of Ministers should not be unduly outsourced to public bodies or agencies. That is important and I want direct-line democracy. My general disposition is not towards setting up new public bodies but trying to improve the existing system of democratic accountability. I understand it is envisioned that it would be met through the Departments and the Minister.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's response and the contributions of other Senators.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. As I said to the Tánaiste previously, it is nice to have former Senators back here and to see them doing so well.

I welcome Senator Ó Céidigh's Bill. I admire him for much of what he has done over his career. Unfortunately, I am unable to support his Bill on this occasion. I welcome the fact that he has brought it forward for discussion. Senator McDowell's contribution was quite reasoned and thoughtful in terms of pointing out the pros and cons of why someone might be contemplating such legislation. Unfortunately, from Senator Ó Céidigh's perspective, Fianna Fáil will not support the Public Bodies Review Agency Bill 2016. We believe that any body or agency that is no longer needed can be disbanded and a new super quango is not required to do so. If Ministers have the political will and the justification for disbanding an agency they can already do so. In 2011 Fine Gael campaigned to get rid of quangos but all it has done since is add to the list. Irish Water is probably the most memorable of the more recent State bodes that have been set up. It would be on the list to be controlled or regulated were this Bill to be enacted.

The purpose of the agency is to review, at seven-yearly intervals, the effectiveness of the public bodies within a view to ensuring that their statutory remit remains of relevance and that each public body continues to discharge its functions in the most effective way possible. The idea behind the Bill is that companies in the private sector must constantly adapt and change in order to survive but the same pressure does not exist in public bodies. It is intended that the review agency would provide some of this pressure, thus making the operation of public bodies more relevant. The agency will have the responsibility to review 140 different bodies at least once every seven years. The list is extensive and includes the Child and Family Agency, Bord Bia, the Arts Council, IDA Ireland, the Central Statistics Office, NAMA and the NTMA. I shall not list them all. If the Minister does not implement a recommendation then he or she will have to compile a report on why not within 90 days. However, this would lead to a massive overhaul of all legislation pertaining to State bodies, which would cost a significant amount of money.

The agency will likely require experts. Reference has been made to a board of ten members and a chief executive. I do not have an idea of how big or small the body would be in terms of staff. It will likely require external expertise and that means the appointment of experts, auditors and consultants. The measure is again likely to cost a significant amount of money for potentially not a great level of return. It is unlikely that the expertise would be available inhouse to review public bodies as diverse as the Pensions Authority, the Sports Council and the National Transport Authority. A new agency would simply add to the bureaucracy of running a public body. The review of public bodies already takes place and the platform already exists. Ministers, spokespeople, the Committee of Public Accounts and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform are all capable of performing such reviews. Unfortunately, it is for those reasons that my party is not in a position to support the Bill.

Every one of these agencies has a board. They also have nominations that I presume are ministerial in nature or need ministerial approval. We know that some people have found it difficult to fill their boards because they do not have enough information on how to fill a board. People can look at the website stateboards.ieto learn how to apply for a position on a State board. I was a member of one of the bodies listed in the legislation. I was appointed to the Dental Council, which had no fees nor expenses. The Dental Council is located on Merrion Square and I can almost see it out of the window if I look hard enough. The Dental Council is self-funding. It maintains the register and is the regulator of dentists and is funded by fees paid by dentists. In terms of the legislation, an element of review takes place anyway. Most members of State boards will try to make sure that their board is as effective, efficient and relevant as what it is supposed to be. Recently we were briefed by Teagasc and heard about all of its great work. Teagasc has been listed in the legislation, along with one of its companies, Moorepark Technology Limited.

As Senator Mulherin and other Senators have referenced, we got rid of 80 town councils and merged councils in Waterford, Limerick and Tipperary. We merged the city and county councils in the case of Waterford and Limerick and the Tipperary north and south county councils were merged. The Local Government Management Agency absorbed the Local Government Computer Services Board. That shows this work can be done.It is not Senator Ó Céidigh's fault or the fault of anyone who is proposing it but it could be looked at as a kind of "Yes, Minister" scenario. The character in that fictional mockumentary was Minister for Administrative Affairs. Effectively, we would be setting up a huge body to re-examine bodies that are already there and which should be examined. I support the concept and thrust of looking at public bodies to make sure they are relevant but I am not sure this is the best mechanism. To conclude, I will not be able to support the Bill.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I will begin by welcoming the opportunity to discuss the Bill in the Chamber. It is clear there has been a substantial amount of work put into this legislation by the Senator and I fully accept that it is well-intentioned. We recognise that the proposal for further scrutiny and oversight of our public bodies has merit, however we have concerns over this particular method of regulation. Our primary concern is in regard to the establishment of just one single agency that would regulate all public bodies. We have particular concerns about the proposed new agency's democratic accountability. Will this new agency effectively push public representatives further away from the process of scrutinising public bodies and therefore ensure that political scrutiny of public agencies is reduced? We should also recognise that such a new agency could potentially become a Trojan horse with the intention of curtailing the remit of public bodies and could also be used by those in power for purposes not in keeping with the public interest. The best place to scrutinise and regulate public bodies is in the sectoral committees of the Oireachtas. The health and finance committees, for example, should be meeting regularly to ensure the public bodies within their remit are performing. The responsibility for scrutinising public bodies should not be left to one agency every seven years because every seven years will not cut it. We need to be much more effective in establishing the democratic accountability of those bodies. If individuals are not satisfied that sectoral committees are doing an adequate job of reviewing public bodies, perhaps we should reform the committees rather than creating a new quango. There is no little irony in the proposal to establish a new quango in order to cut down on their overall number.

We are concerned that there is potential for this agency to become a political football. While this Bill may be well-intentioned, there is the possibility of it becoming a balancing act between the agency doing what it feels is the correct thing and being hijacked by legislators and lobbyists. We saw this previously with the Combat Poverty Agency, which was silenced by the Government in 2008 during a hostile takeover of a watchdog that was very focal and critical of Government budgets. What happened to that agency? The Government said the agency would be axed and incorporated into a much larger body. All too conveniently for the Fianna Fáil Government of the time, the Combat Poverty Agency was taken off the pitch. We do not want to see the same thing to happen to other public bodies in the future, especially when it is at the behest of this proposed public bodies review agency, which lacks the democratic accountability of Dáil and Seanad committees.

I have taken a look at some other similar models in other countries and I am a bit concerned by one model in particular which is cited in the explanatory memorandum as a possible solution. That model is the Sunset Advisory Commission in Texas. It does what this Bill would ask the proposed new agency to do. It should go without saying that Texas is not exactly a byword for progressive politics. We discovered that the Sunset Advisory Commission has been strongly criticised for being driven by unelected bodies and doing what powerful people want it to do. It has also been criticised for not accepting any proposals beside ones which had the blessing of the oil and gas industry, all of which points to an agency controlled by anyone but elected officials. The Sunset Advisory Commission also prides itself on how many agencies it has abolished and how much money it saves, which is concerning when one considers the story of the Combat Poverty Agency mentioned just a moment ago. In light of this, we really have to consider the ideology behind the body which prides itself on the number of agencies it has abolished. Is this simply a way for the Government to shrink regulation and the public sector, which would lead to more outsourcing?

Amid all this talk of regulation, we must remember that it was not the public sector that caused the financial crash eight years ago; it was the private sector. It was reckless lending, borrowing and investments within the banking and housing sector. It is the private sector in which a significant amount of additional oversight and scrutiny needs to be applied. Coming back to this public sector review agency, it is our position that the oversight of public bodies is best done by public representatives rather than having those public representatives pushed back to arm's length.

In the interest of public oversight and accountability all replies, including deferred or delayed replies from the HSE, should be published on the Dáil record with a link to the original parliamentary question. The Government needs to end the practice of Minister's not answering for their semi-State and arm's length bodies. For that reason, Sinn Féin would prefer to see bodies such as the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts extended rather than creating a new quango that outsources these responsibilities to unelected officials who are not held to account. For these reasons, Sinn Féin will not be supporting the Bill. We recognise that a great deal of work has gone into the legislation and we welcome further discussion on public and private sector regulation.

Photo of Colette KelleherColette Kelleher (Independent)
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I am speaking on the Bill proposed by Senator Ó Céidigh to establish a public bodies review agency. I commend the good work of public bodies, of which there are some 257 according to the Institute of Public Administration's report in March 2016. There is the Citizens Information Board, Gaisce, Teagasc and the much-needed Charities Regulatory Authority for which we had all been calling and which needs to be up and running and as active as possible. I would also add HIQA, which has done much in a short period of time to set standards for safer and better care in Ireland and to expose shortfalls that affect some of the most vulnerable in our society, including older people and people with disabilities. The objects of the proposed new agency, as set out in Part 2 of the Bill, are to review the "effectiveness of public bodies so as to ensure that they continue to be fit for purpose, that they adopt and retain a culture of continuous improvement and contribute to society in a positive, meaningful and measurable way." They are good objects and would be valuable for examining the use or purpose of any organisation in the country, whether public, private or voluntary, and including this House. They are good principles. This practice of reviewing public bodies was common in the UK where I worked for 17 years. A process known as quinquennial review was undertaken every five years and was required for all public bodies. These were undertaken by the lead Department of the funding agency and did not require the establishment of an agency as proposed in this Bill. Last month, the UK's Cabinet Office produced guidance for Departments on how to undertake a review such as is being proposed by the Senator. Departments will conduct public body reviews without the requirement of establishing a separate agency as this Bill proposes. The report published by the Institute of Public Administration in March 2016 concluded that, based on lessons learnt from European and UK practice:

What is needed is a formal, transparent and consistent framework for informing decisions on abolishing, amalgamating, setting up, resourcing and monitoring agencies. This would help create the climate for a more reasoned debate on state agencies.

It rightly says that we should not be talking about a numbers game. It is not about how many or how few agencies there are but about whether they serve purposes any more. That is very important. From reading the IPA's report, I understand that while proposing a framework, it does not necessarily propose the establishment of a separate agency as is proposed in this Bill. I am interested in the Senator's rationale for establishing yet another agency to conduct the worthy public body reviews proposed. Could the same outcome or framework proposed by the IPA be achieved without the expense of establishing a separate agency?

I will put forward some other questions for consideration by the Senator and the Minister. Could public body reviews be triggered through public petitions or whistleblowers or individuals who have experienced failures at the hands of agencies? Will there be some oversight by committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas? Could the agency review the governance of the public bodies because that was not in the list? It is an important place to look in terms of reviewing effectiveness. Could section 38 agencies such as the Central Remedial Clinic or St Vincent's University Hospital be subject to similar reviews and scrutiny?

I will turn to Part 3 and the provisions for the composition and appointment of the board of the proposed new agency. I am not in favour of a new agency but the functions described in the Act could be undertaken by Departments. The provisions of the Bill fall short and are a missed opportunity. My concern is that the arrangements set out for the appointment and selection of board members for public bodies in general and this proposed new agency in particular are not transparent.While I understand that all appointments to State boards must be advertised openly on the State boards portal which is operated by the Public Appointments Service and that one can put one's name forward, the selection process is not clear. According to the IPA, in making any direct ministerial board appointment, the Minister is not necessarily confined to those who make the expression of interest. The Minister may also decide, from time to time, not to fill existing vacancies. With a more openly advertised and transparent selection process, there is an opportunity to open boards up beyond the great and the good to a wider cross-section of civil society and to create diversity on boards. For instance, how many people with disabilities sit on boards? How many people from poorer parts of society sit on boards? How many people from a Traveller background sit on boards? How many women sit on boards? According to the IPA, there is a third. There could be a determination in our review of these public bodies, for example, to adopt a 50:50 principle for gender balance to apply to all public boards by a given date.

I thank the Senator for bringing forward the Bill and raising awareness of the issues that inform it and I look forward to hearing the Minister's and the Senator's response. It is an important consideration for us.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and welcome the opportunity to have this debate. I commend Senator Ó Céidigh on bringing forward this Bill and on enabling us to discuss the important issue of governance and accountability of public bodies.

I was particularly interested to hear of Senator Kelleher's experience in the UK and her comments that reviews there tend to be undertaken by relevant line departments in accordance with a framework of assessment produced by the UK Cabinet office. It seems an interesting example of how this can be carried out.

I agree with her in terms of gender balance on boards and in appointments. In the previous Seanad I put forward an amendment on the gender composition of boards of the education and training boards which was accepted and we had a good dialogue on gender balance on those boards. It is an important consideration.

I had the opportunity of discussing with Senator Ó Céidigh the ideas behind the Bill and the principles in it. He is persuasive on it. He puts forward good points about the need to ensure there is accountability of public bodies. His point, which he made earlier, is that the idea behind this is not to duplicate existing agencies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General but to bring in a new body that would oversee other forms of governance and effectiveness beyond the financial auditing that the Comptroller and Auditor General does. His point is that it would remove the need to bring in big management consultancy firms from outside, as is frequently done, and pay them large consultancy fees to conduct reviews of functions of public bodies. I see the purpose and I think we all would agree with the need to ensure there is a better mechanism for reviewing the functions of public bodies.

Where I disagree with the model in this Bill or would have concerns about it, and these have been expressed by others, is that it is hard to see how one body could carry out the functions that would be ascribed to this new agency provided for in the Bill. I share the concerns of others that one would still see some duplication of existing bodies and that this Bill would set up an agency that would take functions that should be those of line Departments, in particular the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and of other existing institutions.

My particular concern is that looking carefully at the 140 bodies listed in the Schedule, ranging from the Adoption Authority to the Workplace Relations Commission, it is difficult to see how one overarching agency could effectively monitor the functions of so many bodies. Senator Ó Céidigh points out there is an existing model with the National Oversight and Audit Commission which oversees local government, but overseeing local government is overseeing a range of local authorities, all of which have the same functions. My concern is that this new entity would be looking at such a diverse range of bodies, ranging from Science Foundation Ireland, to the Parole Board to Fáilte Ireland to Irish Water, which as we know is a task in itself and in which Senator Ó Céidigh has a role, to the Irish Film Board, the Charities Regulator and An Garda Síochána. We already have the Garda Inspectorate. Coming from my criminal justice background, I would say the Garda Inspectorate has a mammoth task in itself in overseeing the Garda Síochána. Another agency is not required to step in there as we already have sufficient mechanisms. I would be concerned that there is such a range of different functions.

Looking carefully at what the Bill proposes this agency would do, section 9 states that the agency's object is to review the role and effectiveness of public bodies to ensure they continue to be fit for purpose. That seems to be very broad. In looking at the composition of the board in section 16, I am not clear what sort of expertise board members would need to have to decide, for example, that the Adoption Authority is fit for purpose as compared with the Workplace Relations Commission. It seems the model of line Departments taking that role may be a better one. Senator Ó Céidigh has looked into comparative models that are trying to do this sort of overarching governance, but it would require careful thought to see how a body could carry out its functions effectively given such a broad definition of these functions. I note section 42 provides for the Minister to set out relevant standards and the line Minister is to be involved, but why not have the line Department carry out the review in that case?

The final issue that jumped out at me, as it were, and for which Senator Ó Céidigh may have an answer is the sanctions or comeback. This agency is to make recommendations for reform where it feels bodies are not fit for purpose, but what happens if a public body does not comply with these recommendations? Where does this report go? Does this overstep the function that should be placed squarely with the relevant Minister or with other bodies where they are in place, such as the Garda Inspectorate?

These are some of the concerns I would raise but I commend the Senator on bringing the Bill forward, putting so much work into it and giving us the opportunity to debate these important issues around governance, accountability and mechanisms to ensure public bodies operate effectively in such a diverse range of fields. It has given us the opportunity at least to review how many public bodies there are and, as others have done, to commend the great work that so many do. In my field of criminal justice, for example, I am aware of the significant cutbacks the Courts Service has seen. Bodies such as the Parole Board struggle with limited resources while doing very important work to the benefit of all our communities. That also deserves to be said. It is not often we get the opportunity to say it on the floor of the House and I am grateful to the Senator for giving us this opportunity.

Photo of Paschal DonohoePaschal Donohoe (Dublin Central, Fine Gael)
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I will begin by acknowledging and thanking Senator Ó Céidigh for all the tremendous work he has done in drafting this Bill and presenting it to the House and the rationale he has offered for the legislation. I had an opportunity to discuss this with the Senator earlier in the week. I agree with much of the work in the Bill but, as the Senator will be aware, I am not in a position to accept it, and I will outline the reasons for that in a moment. I also thank Senators Horkan, Gavan, Kelleher, McDowell, Bacik and Mulherin for the perspectives they have offered on the Bill. I hope I included all those who contributed.

As I listened to everybody speak, I was lamenting the fact I cannot speak Latin because if I could, the insight I would be looking to offer is who watches the watchmen. That cuts to the core of the issue the Senator is raising in this Bill. That question and the answering of it is covered in sections 10 and 13 that cut to the core of the work the Senator is asking this agency to do. Section 10 lays out the primary functions of this agency while section 13 lays out the powers the Senator believes the agency will need for the functions of the Bill to be discharged. That cuts to the core of the issue for me. If one looks at the functions of the agency the Senator prescribes, I respectfully contend to him that the body best placed to do that work is Government itself and the Departments of Government.Let us look at the powers the agency needs in order to allow the information-gathering and the need to appoint authorised persons to happen. If those needs are so great for this agency to fulfil that role, the organisation that is best placed to do this work in the first place may actually be the relevant Department. I will set out the two reasons for my belief it would not be right for the Seanad to pass this Bill, despite my agreement with many of the objectives Senator Ó Céidigh has outlined.

The first is that if one State agency had the role of overseeing the work of another State agency, there would be the very challenge of breadth that Senator Bacik outlined, as well as a question of legitimacy. If a Department and the Oireachtas have decided that a particular agency is needed, the capacity to review the operation of that agency surely should sit with the parental Department that is creating that agency, rather than with another agency created to do it. In my own experience, and I have articulated this view to Senator Ó Céidigh, if we want to get beyond a review and to actually act on its recommendations, the only body that can ever do that is a Department. If we decide that a review raises issues that need to be acted upon and made happen, that power is too important to be relegated to another body that is not the Department that sponsors that agency.

The second reason, which has been touched on in the contributions of other Senators, relates to the accountability of the agency, were it to make a recommendation about another agency that became a cause for public debate, disquiet or approval. The reason I think we, by and large, have a good structure already in place is that when, as was raised by another Senator, there is disquiet or a debate over the work of an agency, it is aired, settled and ultimately decided on within the Oireachtas through the Estimates, decisions and policy debates. Somebody has to be accountable for that. I strongly argue that we are in a better place when there is a single line of accountability through a Minister, as opposed to another agency doing the work.

As a background to that, I will conclude on three broad areas. The first area is the progress that has been made to date. The second area is the progress that has been made within the particular sectors. Not everybody will agree that it is progress. That is why it needs to be embedded in a democratic approach. The third area is the articulation of two other ways by which I believe an objective like this can be achieved, as I cannot accept this Bill for the reasons outlined. To begin with the progress made, as has been acknowledged by Senators, there have been changes in this area. A total of 143 State bodies have either been disbanded or merged into other bodies and 62 bodies have been combined into 27 new bodies. Senator McDowell asked why different organisations are in charge of their own payroll and why was the process not centralised. It has already happened. It is already in place through a centralised payroll section in my own Department, PeoplePoint, which is a single agency that handles payments for wages, pensions and other items of public expenditure centrally. I hope that we will have the statutory authority to make that happen in 2017 in order that it will be a body with its own legal basis to carry out its work. That is already in place and already happens.

Let us look at the sectoral effects of what that rationalisation has meant. An example of housing was raised. The Affordable Housing Partnership, the National Building Agency and the Centre for Housing Research are now merged into the Housing Agency. In transport, the Rail Procurement Agency and the National Roads Authority have been merged into a single body. Locally, county enterprise boards have been integrated into local authorities. In industrial relations, the Workplace Relations Commission now does the work of the Labour Relations Commission, the National Employment Rights Authority, the Equality Tribunal and the Employment Appeals Tribunal. We are seeing examples of work coming together into single bodies. I must say that when this merging was taking place, it was opposed. The reason it was opposed was because people felt that areas of impartiality might be compromised and areas of expertise might not be discharged if it all came under one agency. Much of this rationalisation is already occurring. A further review of rationalisation will take place in the future. That work is too important and too sensitive. It affects some policy areas and people who work for the State. That work is most appropriately and most effectively done through Departments and particularly through my own Department, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

I will conclude on how we might be able to carry out this work better in the future, beyond the adoption of this Bill. There are two areas and I have talked to Senator Ó Céidigh about this. On budget day, I announced that the Government will be carrying out a comprehensive spending review for the first time in many years. We will not be doing it on budget day or as part of an external aid programme. We will be doing it because many of the issues that have been raised by the Senator need to be re-examined in a careful way and at a time when we are not in a phase of acute crisis. These kinds of overviews have been a part of how we have governed ourselves in the past. They are a part of how other countries govern themselves now. It should be a regular part of the work we do. I hope that many of the issues the Senator has raised could be dealt with through this process of a comprehensive spending review, which we are hoping to conclude next summer.

With regard to the work of broader commercial bodies, I published a new code on the governance of State bodies over the summer. I launched it in August in the Institute of Public Administration. I want to have the code in place by next summer. We are putting in place a 12-month period to allow that work to be done. I expect that we would be best placed to deal with many of the issues the Senator has raised about oversight and governance within semi-State bodies through the full implementation of that code of practice. While I agree with many of the objectives the Senator has outlined, I am not in a position to support this Bill but I do believe that through the proper implementation of a comprehensive spending review and the conclusion of the roll-out of a uniform code of governance amongst our semi-State sector next summer, we might find different and more effective ways to deliver the objectives to which the Senator has referred. I thank him for all of the work that has gone into the development of this Bill. These are important issues that I believe we will be able to deliver in a different way.

I will conclude on the tone of the debate. It is great to hear Senators acknowledge in the House the good work that is already happening. I would like us to get to a point at which the phrase "quango" is no longer pejorative. Good work does happen in State agencies. If we get to a place in which the tone for such debates is automatically a pejorative one, we do not serve well the important work that goes on.More to the point, we do not serve the important job of trying to review and rationalise the work of those agencies where necessary. The Senator has not done that, which is why I commend the approach taken. If we move into the space of not acknowledging good work that has already taken place, we will weaken our ability to take difficult decisions in the future when such decisions are required.

I thank the Senator Ó Céidigh for the work he has done and all the Senators for their contributions to the debate. As I explained, I am unable to stay for the remainder of the debate. I hope I have outlined the reasons we cannot accept the Bill and the alternative ways in which this work can be continued.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and I thank Senator Ó Céidigh for introducing this Bill. It has generated a good debate on the important issue of the governance of semi-State and State bodies and boards or, as the Minister stated, quangos. The Minister comprehensively outlined how the governance of these bodies will be pursued from now on and why there is no great need for the Bill. I agree with majority of what he said. I agree that a single line of accountability in Departments is best, whereby these boards would be answerable to the line Minister. However, I must point out that over the years I have found that many State and semi-State bodies have appeared to be answerable to nobody at times. On numerous occasions when Members of this House and the Dáil have tried to get answers to questions on some issues, the relevant line Minister took no responsibility and stated that the particular matter fell outside his or her remit or that of the Houses and that the State board or body was not answerable to him or her. The Minister should examine that aspect of governance.

The Minister said that from 2016 these bodies will report every five years. I welcome that and I appreciate what the Government has done in this regard. I hope that when these reports are produced, the line Ministers will review those relating to the State boards or bodies under their remit. The reports should be laid before the Houses or brought before the Seanad. The Seanad is an ideal forum in which to review them. There is sufficient expertise and experience in this House to review any Bill or report. Members represent political parties as well as sectors such as education, labour and commerce. Those Senators from the various panels or parties that put them forward are capable of asking the questions that are relevant to the various bodies in their areas.

Again, I thank Senator Ó Céidigh. Governance in the State boards and bodies is particularly important. The previous Government had to bring many of the State boards into line and make them bring their wages and management into line with the rules of the various Departments. I welcome everything that has been done, as well as the five-year reviews that will take place. This is an ideal forum to debate those reports as part of the governance. It will ensure there is accountability for the reports that are brought forward, that the buck will stop somewhere and that somebody can ask a question. The Seanad is the ideal forum for that.

Photo of Pádraig Ó CéidighPádraig Ó Céidigh (Independent)
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I thank the Minister and Senators for their contributions. The Minister has a very important meeting to attend so I will not delay him. We had a conversation earlier this week which helped to clarify many things for me, and I appreciate that. In particular, I appreciate the way in which he addressed the thinking behind the objectives and purpose of Bill. What I appreciate most, quite frankly, is the integrity with which he approached it and his genuine deep concern, which is shared by me and other Senators.

I have huge respect for the Seanad and all of its Members. In my short time in the House I have learned that all Members, across all political parties, are here for the right reasons. They are putting the people of Ireland first. The Minister is also very much in that space. I deeply appreciate the work, time and effort that various Senators and the Minister put into analysing, reviewing and assessing this Bill. I am delighted I brought it forward, although I will withdraw it at this point. It initiated a discussion and shone a light on an area that all of us consider to be very important. We believe in State and semi-State bodies. I was on the boards of three semi-State bodies. They are fantastic organisations with great people. If a number of companies operated with the professionalism with which those State bodies operate, we probably would have a far better industry structure in the commercial private sector in Ireland. I have seen incredible commitment from civil servants, leaders and teams involved in tourism and other areas.

I take huge exception to the term "quangos". They are not quangos. They are good State agencies with good people. However, as with everything else in life, we and the Minister agree that we must continually review our current position, where we are going and what we are doing. There must be an independent assessment of that. I accept that establishing another public body to do it is not the best option. That has been the uniform opinion of everybody here and I appreciate and respect that. I will withdraw the Bill. However, I have a suggestion for the Minister. If possible, perhaps the relevant line Minister could come to the House every six months to tell us the current position relating to the policy and strategy in their Department. It would be very helpful for the Members. I have come from the outside and seen a little of how the Seanad works. There is incredible talent and great passion here. The Seanad has a key and important role to play in Irish life, and long may it continue to do that. However, we must have the opportunity to engage as much as possible with the Minister and his colleagues, so they should come to the House twice a year to share their strategy with us. I appreciate a review of public bodies being carried out every five years. The Seanad should be engaged in that as much as possible in a supporting role.

I deeply appreciate the contributions of the Minister and all Members of the House. I withdraw the Bill.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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Procedurally, I must put the question because I cannot let the Senator withdraw the Bill at this point.

Question put and declared lost.

Photo of Gerry HorkanGerry Horkan (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 December 2016.