28. Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection if his attention has been drawn to the report from the Joint Committee on Social Protection on the restructuring of the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and the Citizens Information Service; the actions he plans to take on foot of the report; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 26052/17 asked on 31 May 2017)
Deputy Willie O’Dea: In my initial comments, I forgot to mention that this may be the last time the Deputy opposite addresses the House as Minister for Social Protection. We wish him the very best in the future, in whatever onerous responsibilities he may be called upon to take.
We have discussed the issue raised in my question ad nauseam. We had a Private Members’ motion on it which was carried by a large majority, as the Minister will be aware. We have had detailed discussions on it in the Joint Committee on Social Protection. We came to a conclusion and issued a report, and we have forwarded the report to the Minister. On behalf of all of those who will be or may be affected by the proposed changes, I ask the Minister to outline whether he has seen the report and his views on it.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: While I understand that the committee has not yet published its report, I saw a draft copy of it and thank the committee for its engagement with this matter. At the outset I would like to highlight again how the Citizens Information Board, CIB, has repeatedly stated that the restructured governance arrangements will result in no job losses for those working in local services, no diminution of existing services, no closures of service delivery points and no disruption for those who use them.
Indeed, it is my understanding that the board of CIB is committed to supporting the long-term delivery of services at a local level and wishes to see all services extended on a consistent basis to existing locations and, perhaps, new ones over time. However, in doing so, the board is obliged to ensure that it and its service delivery partners comply with standards as set out in the code of practice for the governance of State bodies and meet Comptroller and Auditor General requirements. This is the context in which the board has made its decision to restructure the governance arrangements of local CIS and MABS companies. I accept the bona fides of the board in its decision.
The CIB undertook a series of regional consultations with stakeholders this month to discuss key aspects of implementing the new model. These were attended by 127 representatives of local company boards and 223 representatives of management, staff and volunteers of local services. Each session was chaired by an independent facilitator. Attendees had an opportunity to raise their concerns about service delivery under the new model. The board will host further sessions over the summer on key areas such as the role of volunteers, the delivery of consistent high quality services countrywide and the preservation of the fundamentally valuable local community focus and support ethos within the new regional model. The board has also established an implementation group with cross-sectoral representation to assist in the governance reorganisation and committed to carrying out a full cost-benefit analysis of the 16-company model. I am satisfied that the board is making efforts to allay the concerns of staff, boards and volunteers and genuinely seeking to preserve the strong community ethos of services and embed these important values as it transitions to its new governance model.
I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: The Minister will find that the commitments given by the Citizens Information Board, certainly in relation to the staff, only apply for the lifetime of the implementation process. They will cease when the implementation has actually been carried through. Why has the Department not responded to the committee which has submitted the report to the Minister? To the best of my knowledge, we have received a response from the board, but we have not had one from the Department. I hope I am not breaking any rule in putting the following to the Minister. All parties represented on the committee, including the Minister’s, have unanimously recommended that this process be stopped in its tracks. That is also the view of volunteers, front-line staff and users of the service. Is the Minister confirming to the House that the restructuring process is going ahead as planned, regardless of what the report states and regardless of the unanimous opposition of all parties in the House, including, as I understand it, one or two not represented on the committee but which voted in favour of the Private Members’ motion? Does all of this activity and opposition mean nothing in reality?
Deputy Leo Varadkar: I have on my desk a draft response to the committee’s report, but I have not yet signed off on it. I may not do so. I do not know what is going to happen in the next few weeks, but if I move on to a different office, somebody may want to look at it afresh. I have a particular view of Ministers signing off on things at particular points for reasons the Deputy will understand. However, I note that this is a decision of the board, not a ministerial one. I sought legal advice from the Attorney General who communicated to me her advice that no matter who the Minister was, he or she did not have the authority to reverse a decision of the Citizens Information Board. The Minister appoints the board and can give it policy directions, but he or she cannot call on it to reverse a decision on what is, in essence, an operational matter.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: The Minister let in a chink of light. He now seems to be suggesting that if he does not sign off on this matter and moves on from the Department, it will fall to his successor who might very well take a different view. I want to correct a few things. On his powers to overrule or not to overrule the board, as the case may be, the Minister will be aware that this proposal is not new. It was mooted when the Minister’s predecessor, the late Seamus Brennan, managed to stop it in its tracks, as all of the organisations acknowledge. The Minister mentioned the consultation process, but what the people being consulted wanted to be consulted about was whether the reorganisation was a good idea. What they were actually consulted about was how the reorganisation would take place. In other words, they were told the decision had been taken and that it did not matter what they said. They were to be consulted about marginal and minor matters of implementation. That is the only consultation which has taken place. Is that what was intended by the Minister when he arranged for this further consultation to take place?
Deputy Leo Varadkar: The position is that the board has taken its decision, as it was legally entitled to do. The consultation is about how best that decision might be implemented and how the transition can be organised. Having talked to people involved in the services, I note that there are mixed views. People on the various boards around the country do not agree with the changes. While some might agree to a county-based model, generally, they do not agree with it. The view among staff and managers is, however, more mixed. Some of them can see the benefit in reporting to a regionalised board rather than having a local board for every individual office. The Deputy mentioned something I have seen in dispatches, the commitment that there will be no loss of staff and no closure of offices pending the restructuring. In my meetings with the chairman and the CEO of the Citizens Information Board I have sought a commitment that there will be no office closures at all, not just in the transition period.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: Even after the restructuring takes place.
Deputy Leo Varadkar: Yes.