34. Deputy Willie O’Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the efforts she has made to halt the restructuring of MABS and CIS until such a time as the concerns of the many staff and volunteers have been comprehensively addressed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. (Question 39439/17 asked on 20 Sep 2017)
Deputy Willie O’Dea: The Minister will be aware that not only myself but colleagues on all sides of the House have had representations throughout the summer from MABS and the community information centres to the effect that the proposed reorganisation is going full tilt ahead despite the views of this House and the Joint Committee on Social Protection. I made representations to the Minister about this during the summer and she agreed to consider it. Has she concluded her consideration, is she still considering it or do the noises from the Department reflect her having made up her mind to go ahead with the reorganisation?
Deputy Regina Doherty: As the Deputy is aware, the Citizens Information Board, CIB, which has statutory responsibility for the Citizens Information Services, CIS, and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, decided on 15 February 2017 to restructure its governance arrangements to a regional model, comprising eight CIS and eight MABS companies.
As a statutory body, the board has the sole right to make decisions on its day-to-day operations as it sees fit. The Deputy made representations to me as did a very small number of others, and arising from that as well as being new to the portfolio, I sought advice from the Attorney General. He advised me that it would not be lawful or appropriate for me, as Minister, to seek to intervene in such a decision taken by the board and so I did not.
I made gentle inquiries and was told that the CIB has not taken this operational decision lightly. It follows years of analysis of options and detailed consultation with all its stakeholders on the need for a more streamlined governance model. The CIS will tell the Deputy that their former governance model did not live up to scrutiny and was compelled to restructure by its accounting officer, which is what it did. What CIS has done and the decision it has made, which was its decision to make alone, was done in what it sees is the best interest of running CIS and MABS into the future.
In May of this year, 300 representatives of staff, management and volunteers, as well as chairpersons and representatives of local CIS and MABS services, attended regional consultations organised by CIB. It was not that they were not engaged with or involved in discussions. Over the summer months, 238 volunteers attended eight focus groups at which service delivery strategy, board structures, linkages and staff roles under the new company model were discussed and agreed. I understand that CIB plans to hold a further discussions with volunteers in October.
Therefore, CIB is seeking to implement its board’s decision in a consultative way and is making genuine efforts to allay concerns of staff and boards of local services - which are small in number given the size of the two organisations and the levels of funding involved - and we are trying to make sure that they do this productively.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: The Minister refers to the bodies’ present unsatisfactory structure. She is as aware as I am that the organisations are not wedded to that particular structure on which they are prepared to compromise. She is aware of that and there is no point in us focusing on the two organisations sticking to present arrangements which is an argument that does not exist.
When she mentions extensive consultations over a five-year period, which she mentioned to me in a letter dated 15 August, the Minister must also be aware that the first people in both organisations heard of alleged problems was when the consultants produced their report. If this extensive consultation took place over a five-year period, why was it that when we forced a debate on the matter in the House, another consultation process was organised, as if there had been no consultation in the first place?
Why, until we raised it in the Dáil, was no cost benefit analysis done? The Minister must be aware that the volunteers, the staff and the people who depend on the service, as well as this Dáil by a two to one majority, along with all members of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, including members of the Minister’s own party, are all against this proposal. There is a precedent for this sort of thing. One of the Minister’s predecessors, the late Séamus Brennan, when a Fianna Fáil Minister, stopped this in its tracks. Nothing has changed and if Séamus Brennan could do it, the Minister can. I do not care how few representations the Minister received, she must be aware of the number of her own backbenchers who have approached me to say they hope to God that I can get this thing stopped because they have to vote with the Government.
Deputy Regina Doherty: A couple of swallows do not make a summer. I have acknowledged that a few representations have been made to me but that does not mean that there has been a swell of opinion on this. I will reiterate what I said on my appointment as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I followed up the small number of concerns which were raised with me. As I told the Deputy, I asked the advice of the Attorney General on the basis of what had happened, which was not a consultation over five years. The consultation was started internally at board level in February this year and then consulted extensively with members in May. I do not know where the Deputy got his period of five years but it started in May of this year, arising from internal deliberations. I am led to believe that the reasons they are changing the structures is because their old structures did not live up to the good level of governance that we expect from our statutory bodies. I am being told that what we now have is a response to having a new, improved and efficient level of governance as required under the statutory law for these bodies’ accounting officers to report at the end of the year.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: I can tell the Minister where I got the period of five years from. It was in a letter from herself dated 15 August in which she says that this decision was taken after “five years of analysis, consideration of options and extensive consultations with all stakeholders”. Five years of that. There was no consultation and there is still no meaningful consultation with stakeholders.
The Minister referred to the handful of representations she received. The Dáil voted 2:1 to stop that process. The all-party committee, which, as far as I know, contains a majority from the Government side, voted unanimously, and expressed the view unanimously and publicly that it should be stopped. What we seem to have here is a small group of bureaucrats overriding the will of the Dáil, the will of the all-party committee, the opinion of the volunteers, the opinion of the people at the coalface of the service and, most importantly, the will of the people using the service, who know well that what will happen will leave them with something quite useless and ineffective.
Deputy Regina Doherty: The consultation process that started in May of this year resulted in 238 people attending eight focus groups over the summer, where service delivery, strategy, board structures, linkages and staff roles under the new company model were discussed and agreed. I do not know whether the Deputy likes that or not, but it is a fact that is what happened. The Deputy is also very well aware the body is governed by statute, and no motion of the House or any committee can overturn the responsibilities given to a body under statute. The only way to do this is to change the law.
Deputy Willie O’Dea: Does the Minister have any regard or respect for the will of the House?
Deputy Regina Doherty: I am sorry, but it is a statutory body authorised under law to provide the services. If the Deputy does not like what it is doing the only way it can be changed is to change the law. Having a motion here does not instruct it what to do. It tells the body the Deputy is not happy about it-----
Deputy Willie O’Dea: Seamus Brennan stopped it. A previous Minister stopped it.
Deputy Regina Doherty: I am sorry, but I am not a previous Minister. I am taking the advice of the Attorney General, who tells me I do not have the scope, and it certainly would not be appropriate for me, to interfere in the operations and day to day running of MABS, no more than if I went into my local MABS office and told it to rearrange the furniture. I would be told to hump off.