36. Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the future of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and the Citizens Information service in view of a motion in Dáil Éireann requesting the restructuring of these services be halted to allow for meaningful engagement on this issue from all relevant stakeholders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 18239/17 asked on 11 Apr 2017)
Deputy Willie O’Dea: As the Minister will be aware, we debated a motion in the Dáil recently on the question of citizens information centres and MABS. I just want to ascertain what the position is now.
Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Leo Varadkar): I am assured by the Citizens Information Board that its decision to restructure the governance arrangements of its delivery partners will not impact negatively on the front-line services they provide. The changes will be at board level only and no closures or changes will occur at local delivery points. In fact, the ultimate aim of the board is to improve and expand the local delivery of services. The restructuring will allow the board to improve the effectiveness, efficiency and responsiveness of its partnered services and to redirect valuable resources away from back-end administrative processes to front-line service delivery for customers.
The board fully acknowledge the tremendous contributions that members of local boards have made to the development of Citizens Information service and MABS companies over the years and appreciates that some of these individuals are keen to continue playing an active role. In recognition of this, and to continue to encourage this ethos, the Citizens Information Board plans to set up local advisory groups. In addition, current local board members will be able to go forward for selection as members of the new regional boards.
The board has not taken this operational decision lightly. It comes after almost five years of extensive analysis of options and a detailed consultation process. I am satisfied that the board would not support changes that would be detrimental to the services provided locally or to the staff and volunteers working in those services. In any event, I am advised by the Attorney General that it would not be lawful or appropriate for me, as Minister, to direct the Citizens Information Board to halt the implementation of this operational decision. Furthermore, I am assured by the board that further meaningful consultation with all stakeholders will form part of the restructuring implementation process. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: I thank the Minister for his response. His reply bore an uncanny resemblance to the reply to the Private Members’ motion we submitted a few weeks ago. We have had the debate. People on all sides of the House expressed their opinions. The vast majority in the House believed the restructuring should not go ahead or at least should be halted pending further consultation and input from the people who will be affected most directly, namely, staff, volunteers and the people running the community information centres and MABS on the ground.
I take the Minister’s point about the Attorney General’s advice. I do not agree with it. My opinion is that it is entirely wrong but, nevertheless, one has to respect it when one gets it. Will the Minister elaborate on his remark indicating there will be further consultation with and input from the people involved on the ground? I am a little unclear about that.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: Absolutely. I would like to allay the concerns of staff and volunteers in my discussions with the chairman of the board and the CEO. I have been assured on a number of occasions that all the local services and local offices will be protected, as will the positions of staff. I do not subscribe to the view that there has to be an independent company with its own board in every local area in order to have volunteers. The Deputy will be very familiar with Special Olympics Ireland, for example. It has considerable numbers of volunteers in many local areas but it is a single corporate entity with one company and one corporate board for the country.
The next step in the consultation and implementation of what the board is planning is to establish what is being called a restructuring implementation group. That will carry out the cost-benefit analysis which we spoke about previously and will also set about implementing the new 16-board model.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: I agree with the Minister. We do not need a board in every parish in the country. We do not need 93 separate boards. Both organisations have told me that. They have stated that publicly. We are all on the one page in that regard.
The Minister states he is establishing a restructuring implementation committee. On the decision on 15 February last to go ahead with this restructuring, do I take it that it is full steam ahead despite what the volunteers tell us, despite what the users of the services who we all are supposed to be here to serve tell us and despite what those at the front line tell us? Can the Minister tell me who will be represented on the restructuring implementation committee? Will it include representatives of the two organisations presently operating the schemes, that is, Citizens Information and MABS?
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I do not know what the composition of the board will be. It would certainly make sense to have representatives of those organisations on it and I can certainly convey that to the chairman.
I should say this is a decision of the Citizens Information Board, not a Government decision. There is a reason we have State boards, that is, so that some decisions can be made at arm’s length. While I am happy to take responsibility for any decisions that fall into my statutory remit, where something is left to a board established by the Oireachtas to make a decision, I will stand by that board. If I were to countermand their decision or in some way order them to reverse it even if I had the legal authority to do so, that would be tantamount to expressing a lack of confidence in the board members and I do not. I have full confidence in them. I am sure they have considered this fully and have made this decision for the right reasons.
I have had discussions with the Chairman of the committee, Deputy Curran, and I understand the Oireachtas committee has held hearings and may put forward a set of alternative proposals. If those are reasonable and workable and perhaps present a way forward, I certainly will take a look at them and ask the board to consider them as well.