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Money Advice and Budgeting Service and Citizen Information Centres: Motion [Private Members] (Continued)

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 944 No. 2

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Willie O'Dea: Information on Willie O'Dea Zoom on Willie O'Dea] The group has gone through the costings line by line and has demonstrated that the new system will be more expensive than the current system. The group has expressed serious concerns about the fact that incorrect information and figures were presented to the Citizens Information Board when it made the decision in favour of a regional structure. That is a serious accusation indeed. If this is going to cost more, does it mean taxpayers are going to have to pay out more for a service that everyone at the coalface believes will be less effective? If taxpayers are not going to be called upon to pay more money, will the service be further diluted?

  As I have said, no one has explained how structural change by itself will improve delivery of services to the end user. However, the entire emphasis is on structure. I continue to ask myself why. I referred to the speech by Ms Black on 12 March. She said she had no interest nor did she imagine the Government had any interest in change for change's sake. I accept that. I do not expect that the Department of Social Protection or senior people appointed by the Department to positions such as that held by Ms Black are interested in change for change's sake. However, there is a rationale for the change. It has nothing to do with the value of the services to end users. As the character in "Hamlet" said, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in it." The method in this particular madness, the purpose of the change, is designed to make it far easier for management to control these services and effectively turn them into arms of the Department of Social Protection. It is a back-door method of seizing total control of both services. The Citizens Information Board will select the boards of the eight regional companies. It will also select the chairpersons. These companies will effectively become the shadow employers. Responsibility will transfer to the Government.

  The impression has been created that the people who are working in these services and the volunteers who support them are hide-bound conservative people who are unwilling to change. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Citizens Information centres have been in existence for more than 40 years. MABS offices have been in existence for more than 20 years. Let us consider the changes in society and all the challenges that have been thrown up in all that time. These organisations have responded well and enthusiastically, to the point that when they were independently tested in 2015, each organisation was given a gold star for performance.

  The motto of the King's Inns is "nolumus mutari" which means "we are unwilling to be changed". Certainly that does not apply to the Citizens Information centres or to MABS offices. Let us consider the work that MABS offices and the Citizens Information organisations are doing now. It is altogether different to what they were doing ten years ago, to the point that it is barely recognisable. They are willing to change, and change includes structural change. However, they want change that will deliver a better result for the end users, not some change amounting to bureaucratic blind man's bluff that will lead the services God knows where. That is what we are asking for and that is what I am asking the House to support.

  The Joint Committee on Social Protection has discussed this issue at length. Scant regard has been taken of our observations and views. I am asking the House to express its opinion on this proposed change. While I do not want to anticipate the outcome of the vote, I want people to think carefully about the value of these services to the community. I want people to think about what is proposed and about what the volunteers and end users think of how these changes are going to affect them.

  There is an old saying in my part of the country that one cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Unfortunately, the reverse seems to be the case. Apparently, one can make a sow's ear out of a silk purse and this is a classic example of it.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl The next speakers are Deputies Marc MacSharry, John Curran and Frank O'Rourke.

Deputy Marc MacSharry: Information on Marc MacSharry Zoom on Marc MacSharry I thank Deputy Willie O'Dea for sharing time with me. In the 2014 annual report of the Citizens Information Board, the chairperson, Ita Mangan, stated:

Without the close relationship each service has with its local community, we could not deliver on our remit – providing information, advice, advocacy and budgeting services, when and where they are needed. In turn, local services benefit from being part of a nationwide service with a national reputation that provides vital central supports.

One year later, in the 2015 annual report, it seems the entire narrative had changed when it came to the ownership of services. Companies are referred to as instruments of delivery and as means to an end. There is no longer any sense of a unique strength from a network of independent services deeply embedded in local communities.

  Deputy Willie O'Dea has outlined clearly why this is a ridiculous idea. We have not done a cost-benefit analysis. We have not done an impact analysis with regard to local communities. Frankly, it is part of an unannounced, unwritten but very much in-practice and in-train policy of centralisation that the Minister and his colleagues are trumpeting and practising on an ongoing basis. The removal of the local input and ownership of these organisations is simply ridiculous.

  At this point, we are centralising so much. We are bringing so much back to the centre. Economics seems to be driving everything. The cost of everything seems to be driving the focus of Government policy instead of the value to the citizen. This value is ultimately what Government policy should be about.

  The centralisation in my region of the Department of Social Protection is an example. Presumably, the reason is to boost the public relations aspect of the work of the Minister. One example relates to 31 positions from the Department of Social Protection in Sligo. This is probably the most successful of the decentralised offices dating back to the 1980s. Some 31 positions in the information section were moved back to Dublin. Last week, we learned that the PAYE section of Revenue, also based in that part of the country, is going to move east to Dundalk. A total of 19 new positions will be created there. We know there is a threat to the regional veterinary laboratories throughout the country. This represents more centralisation as they will be brought to County Kildare in the greater Dublin area. That is good news for these locations, but the moves are not in the interest of balanced regional development. Ulster Bank has done something similar, although I grant that we have no control of that. Moreover, a report is circulating suggesting the Minister will do the same with 200 post offices.

  The Minister, his colleagues and the Taoiseach are going around the country in a weekly parade of photo calls and empty announcements. In practice, what they are implementing is the shutting down of the cultural and societal fabric of the nation. The Minister is closing everything down. That is simply unacceptable.

  We are all consumed with worry and uncertainty over a hard border with Brexit. I put it to the Minister that the virtual border he has created outside Dublin in respect of rural and regional Ireland is exemplified in the stupidity of what the Minister is doing with MABS.

Deputy John Curran: Information on John Curran Zoom on John Curran I thank Deputy Marc MacSharry for giving me the opportunity to contribute.

Deputy Marc MacSharry: Information on Marc MacSharry Zoom on Marc MacSharry That was good.

Deputy John Curran: Information on John Curran Zoom on John Curran As the Minister is aware, this issue is before the Joint Committee on Social Protection. We have had an opportunity to meet representatives of the Citizens Information Board, the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, the National Development Managers Network of MABS and the National Association of Citizens Information Services. We have examined the analysis and the rationale for a restructuring programme and why it might be required. The Citizens Information Board clearly put forward issues relating to governance, cost effectiveness and so forth. We have listened to what those at the front line have brought to the table.

I do not believe the rationale for restructuring was adequately made. Moreover, the services that are to be restructured did not receive real and meaningful consultation. The people on the front line in the local organisations take the view that while there was a consultation process, it was not real or meaningful. Most of the organisations were excluded in real terms from that process.

Another major concern I have, apart from the views of the witnesses we met, relates to the considerable amount of correspondence sent to the committee. Whether the correspondence was from a MABS company or a local Citizens Information service organisation, it expressed concern about one strategic point, namely, the services were going to lose local volunteers.

The ethos and background to these companies derives from being local. They are locally run, organised and structured. That ethos is being removed. The functionality and future vibrancy will be challenged without these volunteers. I have no wish to delay the Minister, because others have to contribute. However, I call on the Minister to do one thing. He should suspend the restructuring until we go back to the drawing board. Anything else would only have negative outcome rather than the outcome everyone is trying to achieve.

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