Dáil Éireann - Volume 602 - 10 May, 2005

Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2004 [ Seanad ] : Report Stage.

  Mr. O’Shea: I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 27, after “Act” to insert the following:

“and the Freedom of Information Act 1997 shall apply to the Board as and from the establishment day”.

If so amended, section 2 would read “The Minister shall, by order, appoint a day to be the establishment day for the purposes of this Act and the Freedom of Information Act 1997 shall apply to the Board as and from the establishment day”. We discussed the reasons for this amendment on Committee Stage and the Minister indicated that it was always his intention that the Freedom of Information Act should apply to the board. He agreed to examine, between Committee and Report Stages, the most effective way to do this. He indicated that the usual practice is to add the particular board to a list of bodies to which the Freedom of Information Act 1997 applies, which is periodically updated. As I am uncertain of what the Minister’s reply will be at this stage, I will outline my position further.

As the Minister is aware, I am opposed to the change being introduced by this Bill. The moneys accruing to the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board are in the order of €200 million. Effectively, the power to disburse the money is being taken from the independent board and will now be a function of the Government. I have alleged — nothing I have heard has changed my view — that the Government became aware that a huge crock of gold had come on the scene which would be ideal as a slush fund to buy votes in elections. Indeed some of the terminology used such as “the extent of the fund”, supports this. Quite brazenly, the Government introduced this legislation.

As this is the case, freedom of information is all the more important. Unless this amendment is accepted or, alternatively, the Minister assures [54] the House that the Freedom of Information Act will apply from the day of establishment of the dormant accounts board, I have great difficulty with the legislation. Where there is such doubt as to the intentions of the Government in terms of the purpose of the legislation, the maximum amount of information should be made available from the earliest possible stage so that people are aware of what is happening and can make their concerns known through Opposition Deputies, to the media or to the Government. My concern is that whatever the Minister’s good intentions may be, the Freedom of Information Act may never apply to the Bill.

  Mr. McGinley: Aontaím leis an leasú atá molta ag an Teachta O’Shea. We discussed this amendment at length on Committee Stage and I do not think any of us is satisfied by the undertakings given to date by the Government. I do not think we ever received a proper or acceptable explanation as to why this Bill is necessary. It was only two or three years since the original Act setting up the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board was passed. Why must priority be given to this legislation after only two or three years when there are so many promised Bills that could be processed?

We are not sure of the philosophy behind the Bill. I agree with Deputy O’Shea’s point that there will considerable funds available to the Government when disbursements are being made. Various estimates put the figure at €100 million, €200 million or more than that. This is an enormous amount of money for a Minister to have at his or her disposal. Certainly, we will have more to say about that later. Freedom of information must apply to all aspects of the Bill. There will be an avalanche of applications to the board which will not all be successful. Very worthy applications will be submitted from every part of the country, deprived communities and Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas. I do not think any undertaking has been given in the Bill to provide a certain percentage of money for certain projects and groups, whereas it was promised that a certain percentage of national lottery money would be reserved for health, an Gaeilge etc. Níl a fhios agam an bhfuil siad ag cloí leis sin ach níl aon gheallúint tugtha anseo. It is therefore very important that the Freedom of Information Act applies to this Bill. We should all be able to find out who applies for funding, who is successful and, perhaps more importantly, who is unsuccessful. I support the amendment.

  Mr. Boyle: Deputy O’Shea’s amendment is laudable in that it seeks to have the principles of the Freedom of Information Act applied to the Bill from the date it is passed, even though the Act has been gutted by a Government which does not value the principle of making information available to all citizens in the same way as many of us.

[55] A more essential point is whether this Bill is amendable in any way, with all due respect to the amendments that have been tabled on Report Stage and the work that has already been done on Committee Stage. Much like the Disability Bill, this Bill has no support outside the Chamber because its purpose does not further the public good. The only reason for passing the Bill in its current form, even with amendments of this type, is to initiate a political slush fund. We have witnessed the creation of this type of slush fund with the original use of national lottery funds. None of us on this side of the House and, I believe many outside the House, wishes to see a return of those days.

It is also unfortunate that in terms of the legislative cycle and the life of the 29th Dáil, the Bill will come into practice as the electoral cycle reaches its zenith with the general election for the 30th Dáil. It must be placed on record that this Bill exists for no other purpose than to bolster the Government’s badly needed case for credibility with the electorate during this election. I also fear that the lack of controls we have witnessed in the past with discretionary funds, which could be politically used by a member of the Cabinet, has tended or sought to benefit the Government in the long term. There is also the danger that because the fund is so concentrated with one Minister, irrespective of the current incumbent as it will apply to all future holders of the office, there will be an imbalance in terms of how the funds are distributed between constituencies.

  A Deputy: Hear, hear.

  Mr. Boyle: Many of us feel Galway West or whatever constituency a future Minister with control over the fund represents will be the main beneficiary of money from the fund. This is not the way to allocate public money or to bring about the best standards in terms of benefitting the groups and individuals who are meant to benefit from the existence of such a fund.

While I support Deputy O’Shea’s amendment, it is slightly reminiscent of the approach of King Canute in terms of the overall intent of the Bill, which is to bring about a change in the allocation of the fund for political purposes and not for the benefit of the wider society. For this reason the Bill must be opposed.

  Mr. F. McGrath: I strongly support amendment No. 1 and commend Deputy O’Shea on moving it. The rest of the Deputies in the House have no alternative but to support this amendment even though we have major concerns about the Bill. The amendment is important and adds teeth to the legislation.

It is important to remind ourselves of the Freedom of Information Act 1997, the previous authority that Act had and how it was gutted. Many people, not just politicians but citizens, voluntary [56] groups and community groups, have serious concerns about the effects of this Bill. People believe it will be a slush fund. Some claim it will be a war chest for the next general election in 2007. It is unprofessional and unethical and there are serious questions to be answered. It is estimated that the fund could be in the region of €200 million, which is a serious amount of money which could be distributed in a professional and impartial way to a considerable number of groups.

It is important to recognise the role of many voluntary and community groups that are applying for the funding under this Bill. There should be transparency about who is directly involved. A recent example involved the Irish Learning Support Association, which is based in Drumcondra Education Centre. The association applied for funding but was turned down. This is an organisation which provides services and backup services for teachers with regard to children with disabilities. The refusal of the association’s application is unacceptable.

  Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív): The Deputy made a good point.

  Mr. F. McGrath: I do not think this practice is acceptable. It is important to ensure——

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Who made the decision?

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy McGrath to continue without interruption.

  Mr. F. McGrath: The amendment seeks to apply the Freedom of Information Act 1997 to the board as and from the establishment date. We need openness, transparency and a commitment that the Minister will do something about it.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: It is amazing how if one gives a person enough rope, he or she will hang himself or herself. The reality is that it was an independent board that made the decision that is now being criticised by Deputy McGrath as being very bad. There is no way of redress if the board stands by its decision. It is possible to appeal it but the same people who made the decision will hear the appeal. We are all familiar with the syndrome of contradicting ourselves in what we want, although it still amazes me. The minute an independent board makes a decision, people ask the politicians how this could happen. We tell them that we cannot do anything because the board is independent but they ask why they elected us. They continue to contradict one another.

  Mr. F. McGrath: The Minister can disagree with the decision.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: The decision was made by so-called——

[57]   Mr. F. McGrath: There is nothing wrong with that.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Please allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: The Deputy can make a point but the decision was made by an independent board. I assure him that neither I nor anyone else brought influence to bear on it. I will make a general statement about the Bill. I believe we are elected to care for the affairs of the nation as an assembly, and the Government, which is elected by the Dáil and accountable to the Oireachtas, manages the day-to-day affairs. I am amazed that we as democrats——

  Mr. Morgan: Part of the nation.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: We are elected on behalf of all the nation.

  Mr. Morgan: Not everyone voted.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: We are elected on behalf of the nation.

  Mr. Morgan: Go on.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: That we have jurisdiction over only part of the nation at present is an interesting constitutional point. As Deputy Morgan might check with the Constitution, we are the Government of Ireland.

  Mr. Morgan: Many had no vote. The Government was not elected.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: We are the Government of Ireland.

  Mr. F. McGrath: Except for the Six Counties.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: No, we are the Government of Ireland.

  Mr. Morgan: Only in name. The people of counties Tyrone, Armagh and Antrim did not vote. We were not elected by the nation.

  Mr. F. McGrath: They cannot even vote for the President.

  Mr. Morgan: Go on. We will tackle the Minister on this issue later.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I am amazed at how partitionist some parties in this House have become.

  Mr. Morgan: I know it.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Some of them are sitting at the back of the Opposition side of the House now.

  Mr. Boyle: How many politicians did the Minister’s party get elected in Northern Ireland recently?

[58]   Éamon Ó Cuív: In my view, we have a fair balance. The day-to-day running of the fund will be subject to a plan prepared by an independent board. The Government will use the machinery of State to operate the dispersal on a day-to-day basis and will be accountable to the board, which will give its opinion on how the money was spent at the end of each year. That is the best of both worlds. There is democratic accountability because the Government is accountable to the House in everything it does and there is an independent board that proposes the plan, decides on which broad sections money is spent and will effectively audit performance.

I travel the country extensively and disagree with the Deputy that people do not wish to see change in how the fund is operated. I say this notwithstanding that no fault lies with the board and the mechanism it uses, rather with its lack of access to all the structures we have established. Nonetheless, I guarantee the Deputy that if he asks the implementation team in each RAPID area, its members would say they want the dispersals in their locality referenced to the plans they have drawn up rather than applications being accepted from every group that applies.

  Mr. Boyle: This is a failure of the Government, not the fund. The Government established the RAPID programme and created expectations.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Please allow the Minister speak without interruption.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Deputy Boyle is not listening very carefully. The teams feel that, since some of the fund’s targets mirror those in their plans, they should be part of the consultation process and involved in the dispersal of the funds the Government directs towards RAPID areas. I reject the allegation that money would be unfairly targeted towards any constituency, in particular Galway West. If one examines my ministerial record, one would find I normally undertake dispersals on an objective system, either by demand or by making allocations in proportion to population or the number of RAPID areas.

The last 24 hours have provided a good example. My Department, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, dispersed money to support community health facilities in RAPID areas. Our actions were simple in this case. We gave an allocation to each RAPID area and insisted the Health Service Executive, HSE, consult the area implementation teams and devise a list in which I had no say. As long as the lists presented to the Government conformed in terms of money and typography, such as the requirement for health or community health facilities eligible for funding in the normal way, and as long as a matching fund was provided by the Department of Health and Children, we allocated the money. Any allegation that the systems I use are in some way personal decisions is incorrect. What is my decision is the methodology used [59] and it is a fair and open one. We are elected as a Government to do this. The Deputy is correct——

  Mr. Boyle: I am sorry to interrupt but this is not legislation.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Boyle will allow the Minister to speak.

  Mr. Boyle: Can I not intervene?

  An Ceann Comhairle: If he wishes, the Deputy can use his two minutes now, as he appears to be doing. If he does, he will not be allowed to speak again.

  Mr. Boyle: I am asking whether the Minister should take a question.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Not on Report Stage. There are two minutes remaining.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I accept one fair allegation. If we do our job well and we take care of the finances and affairs of the State well as a Government, it will help us get re-elected. Such is the way of matters. I have not heard of a Government or any system of politics that did not expect the electorate to vote on performance and the proposed performance of the Opposition. I have no doubt that if we spend this money wisely, well, fairly and equitably and the dormant accounts board gives the Government a super report, it will reflect well on the Government. I have no shame in saying so. I also hope the money I have spent in the Gaeltacht, the RAPID areas, the islands, Leader companies and elsewhere reflects well on the Government and helps to re-elect us. As far as I am concerned, it is on this activity that we should be re-elected.

I disagree that the Government needs to be rescued. The most recent election in my area was for Údarás na Gaeltachta. Taking the Galway constituency as an example, not one of the Sinn Féin, Green Party and three Fine Gael candidates was elected. Another candidate was independent but he was really running for the Labour Party and I congratulate him on his election. Fianna Fáil had four candidates elected and the Progressive Democrats had one candidate elected. Five seats out of six is an incredible achievement in an election. When one analyses the figures, the Government is not suffering from voter rejection.

People should be given any information they seek. My objection regarding the decision to change the freedom of information legislation was about time being wasted by so-called “fishing expeditions”, whereby someone asks for every letter sent from one Minister to another in the past five years, hoping they will find a letter of interest to them. Many hours have been spent at the taxpayer’s expense doing this. People who requested such letters received a room full of material, examined it all and threw it aside when [60] they found nothing interesting. Such a waste of time in Departments and many agencies needed to be done away with because it was not serving the public good. However, as anyone who contacts it knows, my Department’s approach to freedom of information is to follow the formal route if necessary but to give the information more quickly if we are told what to look for. I believe in openness in what I do. It is Government policy that all appropriate statutory bodies operate within the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts. These Acts provide the framework for including State bodies within their scope. The Minister for Finance can, by regulation, as I explained previously on Committee Stage, prescribe organisations to be included within the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts. This is the appropriate device to bring bodies within the provisions of that legislation. Both the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Finance agree with that approach.

If the board — to which Deputy O’Shea refers in his amendment — is to brought within the ambit of these Acts, the way to do that is as I outlined. However, I further add — this is key because the Deputy’s remarks and submissions in this regard all related to possible actions not by the board but by Departments and Ministers — that following the enactment of this legislation, the provisions of the Freedom of the Information Acts will apply in regard to the operation of Departments involved in the process of receiving and assessing applications. Access to freedom of information will automatically apply because of the change we are making in regard to actions by Departments in terms of application for assistance from the dormant accounts board. In addition, all correspondence, analysis and advice provided by the board to me, my Department or the Government will come within the scope of the Freedom of Information Acts. From the date of enactment of this legislation anything done in respect of it by the Government or Departments will come within the scope of the Freedom of Information Acts. Anything we get from the board will come within the scope of those Acts. That aspect is already covered and therefore there is no need to introduce legislation to cover it. That leaves the actions, not of a Department or Minister but, of the board not covered by the Act. If the board wanted to make a public criticism it could. I agree with the Deputies that it is not different from us in that independent groups are not any more sacrosanct than elected representatives. I have great respect for the elected status. Therefore, following the establishment of the new board, I intend to put arrangements in train with the Department of Finance for the board to be included within the scope of the Freedom of Information Acts for this reason.

I wish to clarify that with effect from the date of enactment of this legislation any actions by Departments or Ministers in this regard will be automatically covered by the provisions of the [61] Freedom of Information Acts. That was a concern of the Deputies but there is no concern regarding that aspect. However, there is an issue concerning the actions of the board, which will not be covered by the Freedom of Information Acts. The board will prepare a plan and publish a critique of what we do in this regard at the end of each year. It is my intention because it is good and equitable practice to bring the actions of the board within the remit of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts. I will approach the Department of Finance to make that happen.

I have no problem with the principle of this amendment but I have a difficulty with the way the Deputy proposes to do this. I am advised it is not the correct way. I will oppose the amendment but I accept the spirit of it. The independent board should be accountable by way of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts and I will make it accountable in that respect.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I call Deputy Morgan.

  Mr. O’Shea: A Leas-Cheann Comhairle——

  Mr. Morgan: Tá brón orm, Deputy O’Shea.

I wish to reply to a number of issues raised by the Minister. I did not raise any issue as this is the first time to speak on this amendment. I accept the Minister’s assurances that Galway West will not accept any beneficial treatment from this fund while he is the incumbent in his ministerial office. From what I am aware of his dealings in regard to CLÁR and a host of other programmes, including the RAPID programme, under his remit, I find no fault on his part in terms of integrity.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I thank the Deputy.

  Mr. Morgan: That was the love-in, so to speak. In terms of this legislation, the Minister referred to there being full accountability to this House. We cannot get a straightforward answer to a question on the Order of Business or to a parliamentary question, whether a priority or oral question, from a Minister at Question Time. Accountability is extremely limited. I do not see evidence of it. That is the reason I support Deputy O’Shea’s amendment.

This board will act supposedly in the interests of the public good. What would be wrong with its actions being subject to the provisions of the freedom of information legislation?

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I agree with the Deputy and will ensure that.

  Mr. Morgan: That is the subject of the amendment.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: The Deputies are going about doing this the wrong way. I will go about doing this the way that is approved by the Attorney General and the Department of Finance. That is [62] the correct way to do it. The Deputies have the right idea but have proposed the wrong method.

  Mr. Morgan: I find Deputy O’Shea’s way is a straightforward way to proceed and I support that approach. I hope the Minister will accept that view. I will deal with other substantive issues when we come to deal with a later amendment in the name of my party colleague.

  Mr. O’Shea: Deputy Boyle put his finger on the main issue when he said we would all like this Bill to be withdrawn. God marches on the side of the big battalions and the Government has the numbers in terms of voting power on this occasion. We are reduced to seeking to influence the Government to make the best job of what is bad legislation.

On the last occasion we debated this Bill the Minister made great play of the report that the agency will make at the end of each year to the Minister for Finance. I have read the areas on which it will report and note it will report on such other areas as the Minister might require. The types of issues about which we are concerned are why would, say, A be selected over B. What happens in Government is what we are most concerned about. In essence, the report the Minister advised us would hold the Government up to full scrutiny is a nonsense in this case.

I do not doubt that the Minister is sincere in what he said about approaching the Department of Finance and having this board included in the relevant schedules. However, that is his intention. There is no guarantee that will happen. That is what is at issue. The Minister has not satisfied me that the provisions of the freedom of information legislation will apply to this Bill when enacted and on establishment day. The Minister referred to what he does currently. However, we are passing legislation not only to cover this period but until the Government of the day chooses to revisit it. What the Minister does or does not do in terms of giving information sought from his office is irrelevant to what we are discussing here. There is no reference to the Government in this amendment. We seek to ensure that the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act apply to the board.

Regarding the specific issue covered in the amendment, the Minister has not satisfied me that the House will be guaranteed that by the establishment day — the critical day — the Dormant Accounts Board will be added to the relevant schedules.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I mentioned my attitude towards freedom of information to reassure the Deputies on the one issue that is of relevance here, namely, whether I will put the wheels in motion to bring this board under the scope of the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts. As a person who has an open mind on freedom of information, I will certainly do that, but I will do it in the way that is recommended, which [63] ensures consistency in the law. For those who refer to the law, it will mean that they will check the Freedom of Information Act to find the bodies covered by its provisions rather than it being covered in different Acts which would make it tedious and difficult for those trying to track such information. I give the Deputies my word of honour that I will pursue this issue in the way I proposed. That is the correct way to do this. There is a mechanism in place for doing this. I cannot give Deputies a better guarantee than that today. That is how I intend to proceed. That Freedom of Information Act provides for including bodies under the scope of its provisions. It is a routine operation, by which I am saying the board will be covered.

Section 31 refers to reviewing and assessing from time to time the extent to which the objectives specified in the plan have been achieved, the effectiveness of the strategy specified in the plan and the pattern and effect of disbursement under Part 6, including whether they have resulted in activities which but for those disbursements might not have been undertaken. If we were to do all what the Deputy wishes, the board would have the power to write a report that would damn us forever.

There are different amounts available in the fund because there is a reserve. We made a decision to spend the money at very modest rates of approximately €30 million per annum. The reason the previous board was given €60 million was it was effectively spent over a period of two years because it was slow in getting started. There will not be a huge bonanza. When one divides the sum of €30 million under three headings, there is approximately €10 million under the heading “disability”, €10 million under “social and economic” and €10 million under “education”. When these sums are divided between 26 counties, taking Dublin as four and Cork as two, there is approximately €300,000 per county. I wish we could win elections with that sum of money.

In this instance, the Opposition has overplayed its hand. Perhaps it is worried I can account for what I have done. I stand on my record. I thank the Deputy from County Louth for what he said and his integrity in saying it. I have been fastidious in the way I have handled public money.

  Mr. Boyle: The Minister missed the point. I am pleased he has a personal rule of thumb and that his record is such that public money is being distributed throughout the country under his remit in an equitable way but what he is legislating for will open the door for those who follow him and for others who do not have that rule of thumb. The Bill allows for the ability of individual Ministers to act in a discretionary way. If the Minister was interested in applying his principles when public money is used, he would have them enshrined in legislation. That is what the Opposition is arguing about.

[64]   Éamon Ó Cuív: It is provided for in the Bill.

  Mr. Boyle: The reality is that we have experience of how other discretionary funds have been used. We see it happening on a regular basis with Cabinet colleagues in the way their spending programmes are miraculously, without the rule of thumb, weighted towards their constituencies as if the national interest was served by such programmes. The Minister should know that the ethos of the Irish political system is such that there is an expectation that Ministers will act in that way. I am not levelling it as a charge; I am saying the nature of political practice and the weight of public expectation mean this is how the issue of public expenditure is dealt with. If the Minister wanted to make things better, he would have brought forward a better Bill.

  Mr. McGinley: I agree with most of my colleagues. However, I would not cast aspersions on the Minister’s integrity. I know him long enough to know how he deals with these matters.

As someone said, we are legislating for the future. When I became a Member of this House more than 20 years ago, hundreds of thousands of pounds of national lottery funds were given to a constituency not far from Dublin. We found out that the moneys had been given to organisations which had not even submitted applications. The rule of thumb comes into play in that instance. The matter was widely publicised in the newspapers at the time. I am not saying the Minister would even consider doing such a thing. We are legislating for the future and the door is being left open. This is why legislation should be open, transparent and above board, not just for the present but for the future.

  Mr. O’Shea: The Minister has gone part of the way in delivering on what the amendment is seeking. The inclusion of the name of the board in the appropriate Schedules is not his decision but that of another Minister. I take without reservation his commitment that he will make the appropriate approach to the Minister for Finance or the Minister of State who deals with these matters. Will he give a commitment that he will seek a decision prior to establishment date of the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board in order that when it is being established, we will know the addition to the Schedule will happen within a reasonable timeframe, otherwise we will be left in a situation where the board, in the context of an issue that has become highly controversial in the political arena, may never come within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act 1997, despite the undoubted sincere and good intentions of the Minister? Cabinet reshuffles happen and there may be changes. One never knows what may happen. Those of us who are legislating could be left in a position where the Minister who gave undertakings in good faith could be removed from office. I am not suggesting that the Minister will be but there could be a situation [65] where the Taoiseach might wish to transfer the Minister to another Ministry. He is asking us to leave matters up in the air and not tie them down.

I still reject the argument the Minister made on Committee Stage in regard to the report of the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board to the Minister for Finance. The information that is most vital is not information directly available to the disbursement board in assessing the performance of the Government in the disbursement of funds, particularly in terms of fairness and impartiality. The report will be meaningless and ineffective unless the board has access to all relevant information.

Why projects A and B which are very similar to project C should be selected is the sort of question to which we need an answer. In other words, we are in a situation nach mbíonn aon cara sa chúirt ag Dáil Cheantar éigin. We could end up in a situation where Ministers, coming close to a general election and becoming highly windy about their seats, could act unscrupulously. They could act unscrupulously by choosing one project above another within their own Department or seeking to influence a colleague in the same way. To tell us the report will address this is not good enough because there is insufficient provision in the legislation. It could very well be the case that members of the Government, not necessarily acting in their capacity as Ministers, would communicate with the board, for whatever reason, on issues that should be made known to the public immediately as they arise. I am concerned about this. Everybody would be a great deal happier with the legislation if this issue was addressed. We owe it to the body politic. I will not outline the shadows cast on the body politic over a period. “Accountability and transparency” may be a cliché but nevertheless it is important and relevant to the matter under discussion.

The Minister has certainly not satisfied me that, when the board is established, the Freedom of Information Act 1997 will apply thereto. Lest there be any misunderstanding, I reiterate that I do not doubt the Minister’s good intentions in any way. However, I ask him to consider the problem from the point of view of Members on this side of the House. We still have no cast iron guarantee, or a guarantee of any description, that the Freedom of Information Act will ever apply to the board or, more importantly, that it will apply to it from establishment day.

I am prepared to withdraw the amendment if the Minister indicates that he will before establishment day of the board make application to the relevant Minister and seek a decision indicating when the board will be added to the list of organisations which come within the remit of the Freedom of Information Act. I believe the relevant Minister of State is the Minister of State at the Department of Finance who has responsibility for the OPW. This was the case under the last Government but I am not altogether certain who is responsible under the current Government.

[66] We have come a long way in this discussion and there is little enough between both sides. However, there is a huge chasm between us in the sense that everything the Opposition is being asked to accept relates to the Minister’s good will, which we do not doubt, and also to how long he will be in office, the life of the Government, etc.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Three years.

  Mr. O’Shea: That is a matter of opinion and the Minister cannot guarantee it, confident as he may be. I hope he realises we need more than good will. We need a guarantee to convince us that the Freedom of Information Act will apply to the board from the date of its establishment. If he cannot guarantee this, he should accept the amendment.

We all agree that what the Bill proposes is desirable but we must question how it is to be achieved. Having tabled this amendment and sought to have it accepted on Committee Stage and Report Stage, there is no guarantee, in spite of all the good will, that what I set out to achieve will happen. This is no reflection on the Minister but it would reflect badly on us all, as legislators, if we did not ensure we made watertight an aspect of the legislation that we all agree is highly desirable.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is Deputy O’Shea pressing his amendment?

  Mr. O’Shea: Can the Minister give me a guarantee at this stage?

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: He has replied.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I would if I could but I cannot.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There can be no further discussion.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: To explain——

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There is no provision in Standing Orders for further discussion.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Could I be allowed one minute?

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Chair has no way to change the rules.

  Mr. O’Shea: Can the House agree to allowing the Minister one minute?

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: It would have been possible to recommit at the start of the debate but that was not done. Is the Deputy pressing the amendment?

  Mr. O’Shea: Yes.

Amendment put and declared lost.

[67]   An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Amendment No. 2 is out of order.

Amendment No. 2 not moved.

  Mr. O’Shea: I move amendment No. 3:

In page 5, between lines 14 and 15, to insert the following:

“(a) to establish transparent criteria for the disbursement of funds under the Dormant Accounts Acts 2001 to 2005,”.

The intent of this amendment is simple. It would require the board — not the Minister — to establish the criteria for the disbursement of funds. As the legislation stands, the functions of the board include the preparation and submission to the Minister, in accordance with section 42, of a plan for the disbursement of moneys under Part 6. When this is done, the Minister will then be in a position to proceed with it. It can be either accepted or rejected, with or without amendment. This is the kernel of many of the problems we face. If the function of establishing the criteria was left solely to the independent board, it would result in a much more transparent and, arguably, equally effective method of disbursing funds. If we allow a Government which does not like the plan of the board to change it, as allowed under the legislation, we will be permitting dangerous circumstances to obtain.

6 o’clock

I will not personalise the issue. We are passing legislation and dealing with the current Minister but this legislation will apply until such time that the issue is revisited by the Dáil. I do not understand what concerns the Government could have over criteria arrived at by an independent board. An independent board has already established criteria, made further progress and disbursed the funds in accordance with those criteria. Therefore, why is there a lack of confidence in its ability? I will not mention names because it would be improper but I must state the board comprises experienced, competent individuals who are people of integrity who would do an honest and conscientious job on behalf of the State, drawing on considerable expertise and experience that would enable them to analyse the sector and prioritise the areas requiring prioritisation. Why should the Government and the Minister finalise the criteria? This provision reinforces my argument that this is developing the war chest for the election the Minister assures us will happen in two years’ time. The time frame will maximise the value of the slush fund to buy votes.

If an independent group of highly qualified people appointed by the Government but outside the political arena devises criteria, why is it necessary to remove this function from them? Did these people ask for the function to be removed? Did they ask not to have the final say, on the grounds that they did not feel competent and that Big Brother, in the shape of the Minister, must finalise the criteria? It appears the Minister could [68] throw out their criteria and replace them with his own.

This amendment is reasonable. In terms of democracy and the transparency of the board’s functions it is necessary to adopt this course. If the Minister can persuade me this amendment is unnecessary or inappropriate I will listen to his arguments, assess them and consider them objectively. He has said nothing since the commencement of Committee Stage of this Bill to convince me this is anything more than a hijack of a crock of gold to ensure Fianna Fáil leads its third Government in a row.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: We will need a majority of 60.

  Mr. O’Shea: We will leave that to the people. I will not speculate on that question at this stage.

A Fianna Fáil led Government will lay hands on this sort of loot in the run-up to a general election and use it to buy votes. The Minister minimised this line in our argument on Committee Stage. If a Minister can provide funding for a community project in his area, prior to the election, he or she will ask that community to reciprocate with votes.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: That is a Labour Party tactic.

  Mr. O’Shea: Fianna Fáil invented the tactic. The Labour Party would know very little about it.

(Interruptions).

  Mr. O’Shea: The Minister seeks to portray Fianna Fáil as a virtuous party that does not try to swing every deal it can in the State sector in the run-up to general elections to ensure it is elected. If that image is true I have been living in the wrong country for many years because the Fianna Fáil I know is quite different from that virtuous, almost monastic party the Minister wishes to present to us.

This debate should be realistic. The Minister refers to his own virtue. No one is challenging him. If he wants to say he is virtuous I have no objection.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: That is not what I am saying. The Deputy can examine my record. He gets a chance every month to question my decisions. Everybody knows how we spend money on the RAPID and CLÁR programmes and how we decide the allocation for each area. It is based on

  Mr. O’Shea: That is another argument I will not take up. There is more than one side to it. None of us can dispute the success of the CLÁR programme but the RAPID programme is another kettle of fish.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Is it fair?

[69]   Mr. O’Shea: I do not wish to engage in this debate now. This is a changing situation. The Minister has offered spurious arguments about the virtuous Fianna Fáil Party and how Fianna Fáil Ministers will react to having €200 million to disburse in the run-up to a general election. He probably believes what he says but he would be in a small minority in holding the sincere view that Fianna Fáil will not do everything it can within the machinery of State to ensure a victory.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Of course, it will.

  Mr. O’Shea: A slush fund is one of the most effective weapons in the armoury of a Fianna Fáil led Government in the run-up to the next election. The Minister may say the Labour Party is expert in this but history will show who are the real experts. Nothing happening today convinces me that anything is changing in that regard.

The only changes effected were introduced by the Labour Party which proposed freedom of information legislation, which Fianna Fáil then emasculated. The Labour Party was also responsible for the ethics in public office legislation. The Minister should not tell me the Labour Party is expert in practices it has sought to eliminate.

Fianna Fáil is returning to the old ways, dismissing open Government and responsibility, and patronising those who talk about such principles. Meanwhile, it is getting on with what it is good at, namely, planning for a third term in a row in Government. I hope the Minister’s reply will explain why it is preferable that the criteria for the disbursement of the money are at the whim of the Minister, despite whatever criteria the independent board proposes. We need to discuss the ethics of this Bill and assess it in that light.

Last week we discussed the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill which was short and technical but the Minister treated us to an account of his republicanism. That may be of interest to him but we were dealing with a technical Bill, designed to cover up a possible loophole this House had not discussed in the original debate on the Bill. We do not want to hear the Minister’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays speech boasting that he is a great republican and man of integrity.

We are interested in how standards apply in public life. Will the Minister say that, rather than yield to pressure from his Cabinet colleagues to change the criteria proposed by the board, he would hand back his seal of office, declare himself a man of the utmost integrity and refuse to have anything to do with such practices? I suspect he would find it extraordinarily difficult. I am unconvinced it is the road he would follow. I cast no aspersions on his integrity. I am talking about the realities of Cabinet and Government.

  Mr. Morgan: My party colleague who deals with this portfolio, Deputy Seán Crowe, is unavailable. I am standing in for him. There have [70] not been so many republicans since Easter Week 1916 or perhaps 1918. It is great to see so many declaring themselves republicans now.

I support the amendment. I find it strange that many important Bills cannot be brought forward because there is such pressure on the legislative schedule, yet this Bill can be dealt with. I find that amazing, particularly when the current structures in place for dealing with funds are satisfactory. There is always room for improvement in the bodies concerned but nobody in the House has demanded change. In that context, I find it bizarre that the way was cleared to rush this legislation through.

Clearly, the Minister is taking more power into his hands. The final decision in the disbursement of funding will be at his discretion. According to the Bill, he will have to have regard for the plan for disbursement presented annually by the board. One has regard for all sorts of matters on a daily basis but that does not mean one must take heed of them. In this case, the Minister will not have to pay any attention to the plan presented by the board. That is not a personal criticism of him but a fact of life in respect of any Minister. At this stage some 90% of the Cabinet are Progressive Democrat Thatcherites. This is the type of person against whom we need to protect the public. We need to make sure there is transparency. The current body has more of that quality than what is proposed.

I have a major problem with the composition of the proposed board. There is no provision for the community and voluntary sector. Each member will be a ministerial appointee. Some Ministers may choose to appoint people——

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy is departing from the discussion of amendment No. 3.

  Mr. Morgan: It is unfortunate Ministers will not be held accountable in that regard.

I commend Deputy O’Shea on the precise wording of the amendment. The Minister is defending the position by saying better administration of funds is needed, to which nobody objects. There is the prospect of the Government treating this fund as a bag of goodies, with Ministers prancing around the State doling out money, particularly at election time. That is what we are facing and it is most unfortunate. The fact that the Bill is before us at this time makes me sit up and take note of what is happening. This is the money of the people. It should be used in a planned, fair, accountable and effective way but we all know Ministers are not accountable to this House. I have dealt with that issue and will not labour the point.

This new approach is open to favouritism. The legislation should be withdrawn as there is no need for it. Rreference was made to a bad decision but that can happen. The likelihood of [71] political favouritism is less remote. If a Minister has the final say, as this legislation provides, there will be a field day. The only reason for introducing this legislation is to facilitate Ministers in exercising favouritism without regard for those in greatest need, or for projects most deserving of funding.

  Mr. McGinley: I support this sensible amendment to establish transparent criteria for the disbursement of funds in dormant accounts. When the Bill is enacted, power will be transferred from an independent board to Departments. The independent board has operated successfully so far. The amendment seeks to establish a framework within which decisions will be made. The legislation is too elastic. Almost any decision could be justified. When one is applying for a grant of any kind, there are definite conditions of application. In this case, the same should apply. This is not how it should be done and the amendment would tighten the position.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I remember one night when Deputy Durkan was sitting where Deputy McGinley is now. He raised a question and spoke from his heart. When I replied that the issue related to an independent board and that the Minister could do nothing, he made a long speech. He spoke on how this House had derogated power to others and how this removed accountability from public representatives. I remember noting his contribution and thinking I would hold him to that point one day.

On another day Deputy O’Shea asked if the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board would make reference to the plans of the area implementation teams. I had to answer that there was no mechanism in the arrangements to deal with this. There is a fundamental difference in this case. We stand before the electorate and see things we would like to improve. Most Members are motivated by the highest ideals when they enter the House.

When we became Members, we were shocked to find we had so little power to bring about change, make decisions and ensure accountability because at every turn we were told there was an independent group which had been given the relevant power. We have all asked at various times what madness gripped us because our electors want us to take responsibility for decisions.

I assure Deputy O’Shea that the Labour Party is not behind the door. I remember at one stage I received a letter which I have kept and might frame some day. I thought it was funny. When I was an elected public representative but not in government, I applied to a certain Department for a grant. The Labour Party was in government at the time and I did not go to anybody about the matter. I was perfectly entitled to the money but was amused to received a letter from the Labour [72] Party Minister informing me he had awarded me the grant. I have the letter filed away. It is a grand souvenir to have of the game. He did not and will get my vote.

  Mr. McGinley: Deontas tí.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I did not hold it against the Minister concerned. I am probably wrong and should have learned to take a leaf out of the book of the Labour Party.

Let us be honest, when announcements are made by the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursements Board, Members telephone me but I have no say in the matter. They all want to tell their constituents the news. There is not a politician in the House who does not interact with his or her constituents and various groups and go through the motions on their behalf. I am very tolerant of this and get great personal satisfaction when I see statements from Opposition Deputies in the newspapers welcoming all the announcements I have made on various schemes. That is a compliment and I am delighted with it. There is a colleague of the Deputy in County Mayo who always welcomes my decisions. He tells his constituents how good he is to announce what I do.

While that happens, it will not take away from the fundamental issue which is whether we act fairly. Do we act in the public interest? Do we act honestly? Are their proper criteria? I would be the first to accept there was a tightening in the past ten or 20 years which was badly needed. I do not want us to reach a stage where we tie ourselves in so many knots that we cannot do what is sensible. That is where the equation becomes tricky.

When I introduced Scéim mBóithre Áise, allegations were made about it. When I reinstituted the scheme in 1997 I decided to introduce more clear-cut criteria, similar to the local improvement scheme criteria. I was complimenting myself on being clear that there had to be a house and another landowner on a road, other than public utilities, piers, burial grounds and so on. I was reasonably happy that the criteria were fair, open and transparent until one day at my constituency clinic a person inquired about having a road provided. I said to the person concerned that he was not eligible as the road would run between two family houses. He then said his brother was in a wheelchair and the reason for having the 300 yards of road tarred was to enable him to travel over and back on his own. They could not afford to have work done as both families were on the dole. I went away and thought about the matter long and hard and said I could not make an exception in an individual case.

Rules that prevent us from doing what is sensible such as providing a disabled person with access are wrong. We wrote and changed the rules as Deputy McGinley will be well aware. I do not know about Deputy O’Shea or if any case [73] has arisen in Waterford but I brought forward a rule that if a social worker, doctor or whoever made a case, what we call costarnocht, we could give the grant outside the normal rules. There have been cases that have been assessed by the local scrúdaitheoir and passed. That was a case of good ministerial interference. If it had come from the Members opposite, I would have dealt with it in the same way because it is right that cases should be treated in a humane way. Therefore, I believe in the political process and political decisions and a political input into decisions as some practices have changed for the better. However, I do not believe in doing something for friends and neighbours on a nod and a wink basis. Any politician who thinks that will work is making a big mistake.

I amended section 31 included in section 7 and sections 43 and 44 included in section 8 of the Bill in the Seanad because there were concerns. Members will agree the Bill is tight. In addition, there is an ombudsman who, in the event of maladministration, can bring someone to book. Under section 31, the functions of the board are to review and assess from time to time the effectiveness of the strategies. When all those checks and balances are taken into account, one will find that what one is worried about will not and could not happen, whether we or the Members opposite are in government.

Section 43(b) reads, “the criteria to be applied in assessing applications made in response to the invitation . . .”. Therefore, the criteria will have to be set out. Section 44(2) reads:

The results of the assessments under subsection (1) must include—

(a) a list of

(i) the assessed measures forming part of a programme, and

(ii) where appropriate, the assessed projects,

(b) a recommendation as to whether or not each of those measures and projects should be recommended under subsection (3) for a disbursement from the account,

(c) the reasons for the recommendation, and

(d) if a disbursement is recommended, the amount recommended.

There is recourse to the ombudsman where there is maladministration. Therefore, if we start to jiggle, the rules will have to be followed. I have independent persons who assess cases. People come to me who are convinced of the merits of their case but I have had to say to them that if they did not believe me, they should go to the ombudsman who will get to the bottom of the case. I have recommended that people do this where I cannot persuade them something is not unfair. Most people trust the ombudsman to [74] ensure fairness in decision-making. When all the rules are taken together, one will find the Bill is much tighter and much less discretionary in its individual decisions than one might have thought. It gives reasonable scope to Ministers to lay out good schemes and amend them within the plan to ensure effective, fair and good distribution of funds.

I have a legitimate concern about the open application process. What I mean by the open application process is where somebody places an advertisement in the newspaper seeking applications under broad headings. Two problems arise from such methodology, the first of which is that many more applications are made than one has money for and people who expend time and effort are inevitably disappointed. The second which is more serious is that it becomes a presentation exercise, not a real needs exercise. That is not good.

It is not the way one fills in the form but the merit of one’s case that should count. Otherwise those with the most resources, experience and advice and probably the least disadvantaged will have an inherent advantage in making applications. All politicians have seen a small group with an incredible plan and a track record but unable to write the fancy essays that score highly in the assessment processes. I would like to change the methodologies and use, for example, in the RAPID programme areas the area implementation teams. The area implementation teams in the RAPID programme areas are working on the ground and have drawn up plans for their areas. They know the issues not covered by existing Government programmes and are able to identify in a non-bureaucratic way the programmes which will genuinely deliver.

Some of the islands have communities of five, ten or 20 people. I cannot expect them to compete with the big organisations dealing with the issue of disadvantage on a professional level. The AGM of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann was held at the weekend. It has been given access without overweening bureaucracy to take action. I would like to develop the systems by which this money will be disbursed to ensure it will get into the nooks and crevices of greatest disadvantage, not that I would personally pick them. RAPID programme communities are the most obvious when considering educational and social and economic disadvantage. I would like to focus the effort through the RAPID programmes plans as the Deputy suggested.

I do not think I can say anything to allay the Deputy’s suspicions. I predict in two years time he will be surprised on two counts: that we will not have spent all of the funds because it is not our intention to do so in that period of time and that we will have operated the fund because there is no other legal option. We will be required to operate to the highest standards because the mechanisms in law will require us to do so, even [75] if we are not of a mind to do so. The Deputy queried what would happen. Anybody who tried to act in the way the Deputy suggested would find they would be stopped quickly by the provisions of the Bill. They would be required to answer to various watchdog organs of the State not in existence 20 years ago.

I have another reason I cannot accept the amendment. The board proposes a plan, the Department operates it and the board reviews it. If the board was to lay down the criteria, it would be reviewing itself. If it was involved in establishing the criteria for the disbursement fund and then adjudicating, it would be a jury in its own trial which would not be desirable from a procedural point of view and should be avoided.

It is very important to keep the procedures clear. My problem with freedom of information provisions was discussed. I undertake to work with my colleague, the Minister for Finance, to ensure once the entity is in place, the Act will be implemented. For legal reasons, it cannot be done the other way round. I concur with the Deputy. It would be my intention long before I leave office — allowing for the fact that nothing unforeseen happens — that the Freedom of Information Act would be extended to cover the board. I do not understand why it did not cover the previous board but I was not the Minister who brought it through the House.

  Mr. O’Shea: The Minister covered a lot of ground in his reply. He might be surprised to learn that I agree with him on much of what he said.

One issue on which I always need to be convinced is whether the national pay agreements have added to the democratic process. They were introduced at a particular time when financial rectitude and discipline were very necessary. What is agreed between the Government and parties outside this House in areas such as taxation, social welfare and other areas of social policy is brought back for rubber-stamping. Effectively, the House does not make the final decisions. As a democrat, I am never truly comfortable with that situation.

I refer to the issue of amending schemes and will disguise the story somewhat. During my time in the Department of Agriculture and Food, because of EU regulations it was no longer possible to issue a permit to a certain person to continue commercial operations. The local representatives of the Department affirmed the quality of the product. People came from miles around to avail of it. The person concerned went out of business, to the best of my knowledge. It made a lasting impression on me. If we are too prescriptive in what we do, we limit our ability to do what is desirable.

A group under the auspices of the Department of Finance is examining the conditions for dis[76] abled drivers and passengers. Every Deputy will know from their contacts with disabled constituents of the great need for improvement.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is the Deputy using his two minutes to reply? If he is replying, no other speaker may enter the discussion.

  Mr. O’Shea: I am not replying. I will allow other Deputies to speak.

  Mr. McGinley: Transparency and criteria are the order of the day. The Bill is changing the philosophy of the dormant accounts. Power is being taken from the existing board and given to the Minister and the Government. This is at the heart of the Bill. I do not understand the philosophy underlying it. Slush funds and the buying of elections have been referred to by other speakers. It is very difficult not to be suspicious.

The Minister more or less said that he intended to extend the Freedom of Information Act to the incoming board. If that is his intention, it is a step in the right direction and a sign of progress.

  Mr. Neville: I have listened carefully to the debate and I am upset by the changes made in the Bill. It is obvious the initial approach was to provide for significant intervention in areas of need and deprivation. In January 2003 I was asked for advice by members of the board who were anxious to involve it and use the moneys in reducing the incidence of suicide. They had decided that this was an area that needed to be tackled. The Irish Association of Suicidology, of which I am a director, suggested that there should be a national suicide prevention programme. The board——

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy is making a Second Stage speech. He should address his remarks to the amendment.

  Mr. Neville: I am making the point that change, which the amendment seeks to reverse, prevents us doing what we want to do.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: It does not.

  Mr. Neville: It does. I have been told it does.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Can the current board do it?

  Mr. Neville: No, it cannot.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We are not on Committee Stage but Report Stage.

  Mr. Neville: It cannot do it because of the changes.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We are on Report Stage.

[77]   Mr. Neville: I just wanted to make a contribution on this matter because it is important to me

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Deputy may make a contribution on the amendment.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: What reasons was the Deputy given for not being able to do this?

  Mr. Neville: I was advised that the Government had changed its approach, that while the Bill was not in force, the approach of the Government had changed and that the board would have to re-examine the situation in the light of developments that had taken place.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: Was the application lodged in time last year?

  Mr. Neville: The application was lodged in February 2003 and has been refused by letter. This was a national programme which was costed for a two year period. There is considerable criticism over the lack of helplines today and which were included in the proposed programme. I have the full proposal with me. The amendment tabled by Deputy McGinley would address this.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: It would have no effect on it.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: We are discussing Deputy O’Shea’s amendment.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: The Bill has not been rushed. It was published last June and, if memory serves me right, was taken in the Seanad in July on the last day of term. Senator Ryan asked me to recommit the Bill in the autumn and I agreed. We went back and gave it as much time in the Seanad as the Senators wanted. Nobody could accuse me of hurrying it through the Dáil. It has taken 11 months to go through the two Houses of the Oireachtas. This is not rushed legislation.

I would like to clarify the issue raised by Deputy Neville. Everything done by the dormant accounts board has been done under the current legislation which the Deputy is trying to maintain. The board has been absolutely independent in its decision-making. However, I have powers to give general directions. For any expenditure of more than €350,000, the board must get the consent of the Minister, which I have given. However, at one stage I raised a legitimate concern which should be addressed by the new arrangements. If much of the money is spent on projects that need current funding, it is pointless starting something lasting two years without having a reasonable expectation that when the dormant accounts money runs out, someone else will pick up the tab and continue the programme. The board had €60 million. If it decided to expend €40 million on programmes that would continue, it was important to draw attention to the need to ensure [78] sustainability in such projects. I am sure the Deputy will agree with me on the problem of pilot projects starting for two years. When a programme needs to be sustained over the long term, we must avoid establishing it with short-term funding and leaving it to chance as to how it will be funded in the long term. We should only start to fund such projects if they have a reasonable expectation of receiving long-term funding. While I am guessing, I imagine this might have been the basis for the decision in the case of the project mentioned by the Deputy.

  Mr. Neville: In the submission this issue was recognised. It specified a fundraising programme, including the appointment of a professional fundraiser to continue——

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: This has nothing to do with the amendment.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: The answer is——

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister cannot intervene again. This is Report Stage.

  Éamon Ó Cuív: I am only trying to be helpful. I will speak to Deputy Neville later on.

  Mr. O’Shea: I do not want to go back over the same ground repeatedly. As my family got bigger and older, I converted what was a three bedroom house into a five bedroom house to cater for events as they unfolded. As it was designed as a three bedroom house, I ended up with four doors into my kitchen and two rooms with only one door into them. When something is designed to fulfil a specific purpose, it is virtually impossible to adapt it in a way that gives rise to substantial change. The Bill suffers from this syndrome. While it is difficult, I agree with the Minister that we should not become hidebound in what we do and leave no room for manoeuvre. A sensible balance needs to be struck.

Even in the time when I was a Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, I can remember how committed Deputy Neville was to addressing the problem of suicide which, if anything, appears to be worsening. The need to do something substantial as the Deputy has striven to do has never been greater. On Committee Stage I mentioned the rural social fund, the innovation introduced in the budget before last. I strongly support that scheme which should be adopted further. However, I was upset that at the time of the Budget Statement of the then Minister for Finance, Mr. McCreevy, the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, had not made contact with the Dormant Accounts Fund Disbursement Board to discuss obtaining the €10 million required for the scheme. The Minister made my argument for me in saying the money that would accrue from the fund should not be regarded as being available on an ongoing basis. If there was a worthwhile [79] project dealing with suicide, as Deputy Neville said, and the Minister of the day was convinced of the case — even given the Minister’s actions regarding the rural social fund — he or she could write to the board and ask it to consider a substantial, one-off contribution to get services up and running. That obviously would be welcome. An experienced councillor, Senator or Deputy — any public representative — knows all too well that there are limitations on schemes that are not desirable and prevent important cases from being addressed.

The area the Minister emphasised was disability. Some aspects must be reviewed and have new conditions applied. I agree with all those arguments in a certain context. However, this is a simple amendment to make drafting of the criteria for the disbursement of substantial funds the sole responsibility of the new board that the Minister is to establish in order that he may not be able to throw them out in theory — although I am not suggesting that any Minister would — and take a different direction. What is the point of having a dog and barking oneself? What is the point of having a board appointed by the Government — I am sure the next will also be appointed by it if the two year scenario to which the Minister keeps returning is correct — to make recommendations and work on a plan if that plan is to be changed substantially?

I am open to the argument that some general tweaking might be considered to cater for a segment of society as distinct from any group or constituency. However, the Minister has not convinced me that there is merit in what is proposed in the Bill or that the proposal in my amendment is not superior. We are obviously not going to agree and I am left to having to pursue my amendment. While I agree that the legislation has not been rushed, I will return to my analogy of extending the house. Ultimately, when one seeks to alter substantially something designed for a different function, there will be faults. I cannot enunciate all of them but have no doubt that in the fullness of time other problems will emerge. However, that speculation is the work of another day.

There will be no meeting of minds on this amendment; that much is clear.

Amendment put and declared lost.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Amendments Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, are out of order.

Amendments Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, not moved.

  Mr. McGinley: I move amendment No. 8:

In page 5, to delete lines 40 to 45 and substitute the following:

“32.—(1) The Board shall consist of a chairperson and 10 ordinary members [80] appointed by the Minister and shall include—

(a) an officer of the Minister not below the rank of principal officer,

(b) a person who, in the Minister’s opinion, represents the interests of the financial services industry,

(c) 4 persons who—

(i) in the Minister’s opinion, have knowledge of, or experience in relation to, the purposes for which disbursements may be made, and

(ii) are appointed by the Minister after consultation with the organisations that the Minister considers to be representative of the purposes so specified,

and

(d) 4 persons who, in the Minister’s opinion, have knowledge of, or experience relating to any other matters that appear to the Minister to be relevant to the Board’s functions.”.

This amendment concerns the membership of the board. As a result of this Bill, we are to replace an existing and effective board which has been operating successfully and to most people’s satisfaction for years with one of the Minister’s choosing. In other words, it will be completely and utterly subservient to the wishes of the Minister and the Government. We are addressing the core of the Bill, since we are to remove from the current board its role in sanctioning and directing the disbursement of funds and politicise it, giving it to the Minister, his and other Departments and the Government.

7 o’clock

I listened to the Minister’s response to previous amendments. Deputy Durkan said he was surprised that the House should give powers to others outside it. Of course, that is nothing new. We have done this on numerous occasions. I remember a matter with which the Minister and every public representative will be very familiar, namely, the granting of planning permission. One would apply to the relevant county council, be it Donegal, Waterford, Limerick or Galway, for planning permission. If one did not get it, one had recourse, not to a board but to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Minister of the day had full power to grant or refuse planning permission. Very often Ministers overruled the county councils; it was a political decision. There are monuments in every county, in respect of which people wonder how permission was granted. In every case, some Minister or other gave permission.

Several years ago some sensible Members of this House — I do not know which Government did it or what side of the House — did not think it right or proper that a Minister, a politician, [81] should have such powers. They established An Bord Pleanála which is, as far as we know, independent. We all have recourse to it on behalf of our constituents and eventually it makes its decisions which, in most cases, are accepted. Occasionally, however, they are not, and one must go to the High Court. That was an advance and everyone agrees it was the right thing to do. I do not think the Minister or any of his colleagues would wish to take that power, emasculate An Bord Pleanála and say he should have the last word and that it should give him back the powers his predecessor granted it 20 years ago.

Debate adjourned.

Message from Seanad.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Seanad Éireann has passed the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2005 without amendment.