Thursday, 20 July 2017
National Shared Services Office Bill 2016: Committee and Remaining Stages
I thank the Minister for inserting this section. It will give him considerable powers. The buck stops with the Minister, as it does with respect to this section. I am delighted that certain powers are being given to the Minister under this section with respect to functions he can carry out and directions he can make and give. I am delighted this section has been included.
Will the chief executive officer's pay be in line with Government policy? Will the pay scale be in line with that of top level public servants and will it be at the higher or lower end of that pay scale or could it be in breach of it?
We have seen many cases in the public service where changes have been made, where some posts have been abolished and other people have retired, and the positions that they were in may be abolished or the grade might be increased, and they have problems with their pensions. I presume, with regard to this section, where there is continuance of pending legal proceedings, that that could well apply to staff. Where would all of those issues be ironed out? Is it going to be in the Labour Court? Will it be ironed out by the new entity that is set up? I am aware of issues related to the HSE and to Teagasc. There are problems and some people have been hard done by. I am sure this will lead to some other irregularities and differences in pay and promotions and the post has a responsibility in this regard. Will the Minister of State clarify that?
It is in keeping with the same proceedings in place for every other grade in the Civil Service. Recently, the avenue of the Pensions Ombudsman has been open to people if they have issues related to their pensions.
I thank the Minister of State and his staff for the work involved. I wish the office well. We had a good Second Stage debate on this Bill. It came to the committee as well. It makes sense for expertise to be centralised in one area. Hopefully that will be the case. We have plenty of staff here. It looks like the Fine Gael Members had more vocal concerns than the rest of us today, but I wish the office well and I look forward to seeing the annual published reports of the office, how it is doing, the efficiencies it is generating and the savings it will create on behalf of the State, and to scrutinising its work in the future. I wish it well. We had a good debate on it on Tuesday and we concluded it today. I am delighted it has been passed before the summer.
Sinn Féin is glad that the amendments of our colleague, Deputy Cullinane, managed to amend the Bill to allow for more scrutiny of the work of this office because a lot of power and control will be vested in it. In an age in which the issue of data is assuming ever more importance, such scrutiny is needed. The Government had initially excluded this new office from the scrutiny of the Committee of Public Accounts. As this was unacceptable to Sinn Féin, Deputy Cullinane tabled a number of amendments to address this issue. Some of these amendments were accepted and the National Shared Services Office, once established, will now be fully answerable to the Committee of Public Accounts. The matter does not end there, however. Sinn Féin will continue to monitor the office and to argue for increased scrutiny.
I congratulate the Minister of State on getting this Bill through the House and passed into law. It is very important legislation and the body that has been set up here is an important one that ultimately will employ nearly 1,000 staff. It has a huge task before it when it comes to bringing together most public service wage payments, some of which are paid at different rates. I presume there will be ongoing problems as to how people give notice of sick leave or holiday leave and how those messages are transferred from the relevant Departments to this new National Shared Services Office. There will be some teething problems. I wish the new office well, however, and I wish this new legislation well because it is a way forward. It will make for savings in and give a more efficient structure to all matters relating to pay, pensions and conditions in the public service.
I thank all Members of the Seanad who participated in Tuesday's debate. It was a very robust debate, and I refer here only to my Fine Gael colleague. I would expect nothing less from him. We are, after all, a party that prides itself on openness, accountability and transparency and it is my colleague's job to hold me to account in the Upper House. He acquitted himself very well, as of course did Senator Gavan.
I will repeat what I said on Tuesday night. I want it put on the record that the Government never had any intention other than to comply with the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts. I said in the Dáil, at the committee and in this House that the Government accepted amendments to the Bill that made no material difference to its original construct. I had assumed that I had made this position clear on Tuesday to those Senators present. I made it clear that the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts always trump all other legislation for a body such as this one that has been established by the Houses of the Oireachtas. While the Government accepted amendments, they made absolutely no material difference. Even had these amendments not been accepted, this office would still be subject to the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Accounting Officer would still be required to go before the Committee of Public Accounts. Under the Ministers and Secretaries Acts, along with the other legislation on accountability and transparency at various levels that have been around since the foundation of the State, there would also be a requirement to comply with a constitutional provision laid out under the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the position of the Committee of Public Accounts.
Speaking as a former member of that committee, and I am sure that the Senators who were present here on Tuesday would agree, the amendments the Government has accepted make no material difference to the Bill, which was always going to be subject to scrutiny anyway. I made this point in the Dáil, at committee and here in this House on Tuesday night. While some Members may be claiming to have won this great level of accountability, I can categorically state the Government must comply with existing legislation under the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts, as is completely appropriate. From the time this Bill was first mooted, the National Shared Services Office was always going to be required to comply.
In response to Senator Paddy Burke's comment about staff, it is important that this Bill went through so quickly and I thank the Senators for that. We wanted to give assurances to civil servants that their position is properly constructed on a legislative basis.That is now done. We also wanted to make sure the office, which, as Senator Burke has said, is quite wide in its remit, is allowed to get on with its job. As I said recently to my good friend, the de-quangoisation, as it were, of Ireland is something the Government wants to proceed with and this is an element of that process. This is a coming together of a number of entities that were operating in silos. It is also a blueprint for what we hope could be achieved in other areas. It is my hope that we, as the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, can now push other line Ministers and Departments to do the same to look at shared services case by case. There is no need, especially in the big three expenditure areas of health, education and social protection, not to look at this option.
I thank the Seanad, the staff in the Seanad for circulating the script to Senators, and everyone from the national shared services office. I thank those from my own office and the Department, those who submitted amendments, those who took time out to be here on Tuesday night and again today, and our colleagues in the Lower House. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and his colleague, the Cathaoirleach, for facilitating me with such courtesy during the passage of this Bill. I am delighted it has passed both Houses and I look forward to completing the implementation.
-----might not fit the criteria to be redefined as a quango under the Minister's direction either. I welcome the Minister of State and I congratulate him on his new appointment. He is getting on very well, from what I can see, in his new Department with his new senior Minister with whom I do not doubt he has a wonderful relationship. It is the last sitting of the Seanad in this Chamber before we come back to it, it is hoped within 18 months or whatever time it will be. It was mentioned on the Order of Business. We are finally leaving the Chamber and will not be back here for a while. I hope I will be back and I hope other Senators will be back. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and all the staff. The Minister of State will make history as the last of the Ministers to speak in this Chamber before we come back. It is to be hoped we will still be here during this Seanad and let the works proceed with great haste in order that we can be back as soon as possible.
-----and on behalf of my Department, because the Office of Public Works comes under the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, I wish those who will do the work here to work safely. As the Leas-Chathaoirleach and my good colleague, Senator Burke, know, I attempted to get a seat in the Seanad one time and I lost by one quarter of one vote.
I thank the staff, Martin, Bridget, the Seanad staff, the Cathaoirleach, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and all the Members of the House for their co-operation over the past while. I hope everyone will be back in this Chamber within the year and a half.