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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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Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae She called a vote one night to remove me, a respectable member of the board who did nothing wrong. I only did my work. I condemn her in her absence.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Ó Fearghaíl Zoom on Seán Ó Fearghaíl The Deputy is taking advantage of my gentle nature.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae: Information on Michael Healy-Rae Zoom on Michael Healy-Rae I used no time.

Deputy Dara Calleary: Information on Dara Calleary Zoom on Dara Calleary The Minister is leaving the Chamber but I listened to his remarks carefully. My only diagnosis is that he does not get it. He does not get the nature of the MABS or the Citizens Information service, CIS. MABS started in The Lough in Cork, a small urban community. The CIS owes its roots to Muintir na Tíre in Tipperary, a rural community and Deputy Jackie Cahill's county. Both services provide invaluable trust-led services from staff whose interest in their cases is phenomenal and second to none. The views of those staff on this issue are being completely ignored. The board, which the Minister has spoken of, has completely disregarded the views of the staff who deliver the services and who have built that level of trust.

In my case, the staff are the sounding board for dealing with common clients, either of MABS or the Citizens Information service. We share a lot of clients, no matter what party we are from, because we trust each other. MABS is trusted to provide locally-based mortgage arrears figures and to provide budgeting advice depending on local circumstances. It is trusted to provide a locally-based response in the event of a major closure in a community. It can do that because it understands the locality.

This is a major change. It will take the local away from the boards. It will tell board members who have given service, mostly unpaid, that they can become members of an advisory board but that a regional board will take over, yet there will be no change in the ethos of the organisation. Surely, the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Seán Kyne, as a regional Deputy, gets it. As a person from Galway, he knows that somebody from Galway will not represent the views of a person from County Mayo.

It is not broken beyond repair. It can be fixed. Deputy Joan Collins spoke about the service issues to which the Minister referred. They can be synchronised, in consultation with the staff.

The Government needs to go back to basics, pull back from this step and stand up for people in rural Ireland for once. Members of the Government should cop on to themselves and listen to the views of the House once and for all.

Deputy Shane Cassells: Information on Shane Cassells Zoom on Shane Cassells I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. Three weeks ago, Angela Black and members of the Citizens Information Board, CIB, and MABS appeared before the Joint Committee on Public Petitions. Very few parliamentarians turned up that day, although Deputy Denise Mitchell was one of the few. The quality of the service we discussed was acknowledged by us all as second to none. That praise goes to the local people on the boards who spread the word of the availability of the services, how the sensitive nature of people's queries are handled and how the companies are managed in a professional manner tailored to the needs of local people. The passion of those who volunteer with the CIB goes to the very heart of the success of these boards. There are over 1,000 people in the CIS network who have the right to participate on local boards. In the proposed model, they will not be represented on the new regional boards. These regional boards will be remote and inaccessible.

The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said there should be no fear that the restructuring would quench the spirit of the CIB and there would be no reduction of services. That misses the point. The very spirit that the Minister praised is fuelled by those local board members in the first place. They are the diesel in the tank. The local connection of those who volunteer to ensure that these boards function is what makes them effective and successful companies in the first place. The work of local board members has been a lot more than "helpful", as the Minister described it. It has been critical.

In my home town of Navan, the CIB and MABS offices hold a dominant position at the top of the main street. The work of the board members makes them the successful service that they are. The key is not the shiny building but the knowledge of the locals who operate the boards. Like our political clinics and the services offered on the ground, it is the local board members who know the heartbeat of their towns best. When it comes to the decisions of what is best for Navan CIB or Navan MABS, I trust the people involved.

Deputy Eamon Scanlon: Information on Eamon Scanlon Zoom on Eamon Scanlon I am very concerned about the potential implications of restructuring the Money Advice and Budgeting Service and the Citizens Information service from local companies into a regional model. I am particularly concerned about the lack of dialogue and clarity surrounding the restructuring process.

  It reminds me of community welfare officers who were taken out of the local community where a service was being provided locally to people. Some of my constituents have to make a 50-mile round trip to meet a community welfare officer. These people are single parents, young mothers looking after young children. A taxi for their journey could cost €50. That is not what the community welfare officer is about. I see similarities with these proposals.

  There are 51 MABS companies and 42 Citizens Information services. They are managed at county level by voluntary boards of directors with strong links to the communities that they serve. People confide daily in the CIS and MABS and put their faith in the independence of the services throughout the country. They visit with queries about their rights as employees, as tenants, as social welfare recipients, as carers or as people with disabilities. These services provide a vital lifeline for many who find themselves unemployed, in mortgage arrears or overwhelmed by debt. There is not a Member of this House who has not met a constituent who had difficulties with debt and got a good service from MABS.

  The CIS and MABS are two of the few services where people are welcome to talk face to face with a representative. Other services and organisations are distancing themselves from the people they serve. An example of this is last week's announcement from Ulster Bank that it is to close 22 branches in this country. This is disenfranchising members of our community who are not Internet savvy and people with literacy problems where there is no one available to help with filling out forms.

Dismantling this county-by-county governance system to move services into eight regions would be wrong. It would be a retrograde step. Rural Ireland has already had many services taken into large urban centres. That is very wrong. The proposed model to regionalise services is not an appropriate one. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current structure, although improvements can always be achieved through open and honest dialogue. The restructuring process will change the service from a bottom-up service to a top-down one. It will lose the local nature of the service and the experience of the local boards. The most urgent need in services is staffing, not governance.   

  We call on the Minister for Social Protection to immediately issue a directive to abandon these proposals. These vital services must be maintained in the community. They must not become victims of regionalisation and an additional cost to the taxpayer.

Deputy Mary Butler: Information on Mary Butler Zoom on Mary Butler I am very happy to support the motion moved by my colleague, Deputy Willie O'Dea. I reiterate that significant and essential work that is carried out by MABS and the Citizens Information service.

Voluntarism is at the core of the services that MABS and the CIS provide. They are embedded at grassroots level within communities. The three citizens information centres in County Waterford play a major role in supporting people by offering advice on their statutory entitlements. There are currently 48 volunteers in the city and a further 15 in the Dungarvan area. These, together with six part-time staff, one manager and 16 new volunteers currently in recruitment, are the driving force behind this organisation. It is regrettable that the Minister has left the Chamber because I wanted to point out to him that in 2016 these 63 volunteers and six part-time staff dealt with 13,699 people to offer advice, information and advocacy. They dealt with 21,038 queries. This was made possible by those 63 voluntary staff.

I am troubled by the very real concerns that have been voiced by the staff and volunteers, many of whom I have spoken to in the past few weeks. They are worried about how the restructuring will affect their involvement. They do not want to become another statistic. There is a danger that what is proposed will fragment the whole organisation under a regional chairman appointed by the Minister. The current community-based model works. Why does the Minister need to change it?

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins I wish to acknowledge the valuable input of the MABS and the Citizens Information centre staff and volunteers in Limerick and Charleville who provide services in my constituency.

It is very important that we remind ourselves during a debate like this of the regrettable agenda that the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne's party in government has been pursuing for a number of years. It is hollowing out the core of communities, be they rural or urban.

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