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Estimates for Public Services 2020 (Continued)

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 995 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall] Excluding a fall due to the office being established, the Department's programme expenditure increased by €1.1 million. My question relates to the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer. This is a new Vote which has been established. It is worth €21.7 million, which accounts for the 28% reduction in the Department's main Vote. What is the exact purpose of this office? Why was it established as a separate office? Could it not have operated as a unit in the Department? Are there additional expenses associated with establishing it as an office? What are the main projects that it will concentrate on?

The public service innovation fund is another new subhead. It receives €1 million, double the allocation of last year. There is a good argument for such a fund. The Civil Service is often criticised for not being sufficiently innovative and we need to bring new thinking and new approaches across the Civil Service. Last year the fund was very highly oversubscribed, to the tune of 136 projects requesting nearly €7 million across the public service, and we see the same has happened again this year. Does the Minister of State accept that the figure is an underestimation of the level of funding needed if we are serious about innovation across the service? It strikes me as tokenism. Was there any attempt to measure the demand for such a budget? Does the Minister of State accept that we should put our money where our mouth is to a far greater extent to encourage that fresh thinking and innovation?

The construction innovation support is a new subhead to encourage innovation and increase productivity in the construction sector. There seems to be a good argument for that. We should encourage innovation across the sectors. The fund's purpose is to foster digital leadership and culture change, to create digital standards, encourage digital education and training and introduce digital procurement. Why was only the construction sector selected for this? What was the basis for this decision?

I will stop there and ask if the Ministers of State can answer.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan I will try to answer as quickly as I can. Some of them are no longer within my brief, although they were until the transition.

The construction innovation fund is a concept that was developed during my time in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform around the area of building information modelling technology so that we could use best practice in the private sector to ensure that when the State goes out to the market or develops concepts internally, we can use the best available technology like building information modelling. That goes on to the next point on the innovation services and fund in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I drove this concept initially because I believe that across the Civil Service, we have a range of talents that might not necessarily be exploited, and to allow people from outside agencies and the outside world with skills that are not exploited to use those skills. The Deputy is correct that the fund was oversubscribed in the first year. It is being doubled. The first thing was to get the centre up and running and give it teeth. People were seconded from agencies or organisations, including the Defence Forces. It is innovative in that it brings people from all over, seconding them and allowing them to go back to use their energies and experience. Often Governments are criticised - I was a member of the Committee of Public Accounts - rightly or wrongly for the overuse of consultants. As a former Minister of State with responsibility for the area now covered by Deputy Ossian Smyth, I believed that this was a way to make progress.

The Deputy mentioned the Secretary General's role in relation to the Health Vote. I do not know the detail but I will bring this back and ask that the Deputy get a response on the €414 million. That topic might be specific to the Health Vote which the Minister for Health might take.

The additional Ministers of State at Cabinet will be debated in the Seanad today. Before the Government was formed, there was much concern about the possibility of Departments being reconfigured and different areas of society requiring different people to have higher levels of responsibility. The Government is responding to demands where the 15 Minsters sitting at Cabinet allowed for by Bunreacht na hÉireann may no longer be fit for purpose given the range of demands across Government. I am sure this will be debated in the Seanad over the next few days.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Mattie McGrath): Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath Tá an t-am caite.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Information on Róisín Shortall Zoom on Róisín Shortall That is not much use to us. I asked the Minister of State the rationale for the top-up payment for those.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan I think I answered it. People take responsibility based on the demands that society as a whole puts on us as a Government. If people have additional responsibilities and are expected to be able to relay those to the House, I think their salaries should reflect the responsibilities of everyone else sitting at the Cabinet table.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett That is really not good enough. I will tell the Minister of State who deserves pay rises for their level of responsibility. It is the nurses and the health workers who fought on the front line to protect our health, and the many workers in retail and other essential front-line services, often very low-paid workers, who worked throughout the pandemic. They deserve an increase. The people who do not deserve pay increases are politicians and Ministers. It is shocking and disgusting that Ministers of State on €124,000, about three times the average industrial wage, and about three times what the average nurse would get, are now to get an additional €16,000: Jack Chambers, Hildegarde Naughton and Pippa Hackett. It is extraordinary. Is €124,000 not enough for these people that they have to get an additional €16,000 and this is to be done at the very same time that the Government is planning to cut the pandemic unemployment payment from €350 to €300, and for others down to €250 or €200. Workers who have lost their jobs and incomes through no fault of their own as a result of a pandemic and Government-imposed necessary public health guidelines are to see their incomes slashed where it may be very difficult or impossible for them to return to work, but Ministers of State on €120,000 will receive an additional €16,000. Seriously, it is shocking. Does the Minister of State really think that is the right signal to send out? Does he really think that is just in the current climate when hundreds of thousands of workers in this country face serious hardship and uncertainty or are simply unable to go back to work because of the situation we are in? Will the Minister of State give us a better explanation or justification for that?

Acting Chairman (Deputy Mattie McGrath): Information on Mattie McGrath Zoom on Mattie McGrath I ask the Deputy to refer to people as Deputy rather than just using their names, please.

Deputy Patrick O'Donovan: Information on Patrick O'Donovan Zoom on Patrick O'Donovan As I already told Deputy Shortall, the rationale for increasing the number sitting at Cabinet was laid out by the three party leaders when the Government was formed. There are increasing demands on all of us.

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