Does the Minister think FÁS expenses are acceptable?

The series of revelations in relation to FÁS has been commented on in the media over the past 10 days. Yesterday, the Seanad called the Minister for Labour Affairs, Billy Kelleher to attend a debate on the body. Below is my own contribution.

We are all aware we are in a serious economic crisis. On 15 October the House had statements on unemployment. When I rose to make my contribution then, I complained that the Minister of State’s speech did not seek to address the jobs crisis and the growing problem of unemployment. I invited my colleagues on the other side of the House, and the Minister of State, to show me anything that was new in that speech. It was tacitly accepted there was nothing new.

I was listening with heightened interest to learn if there would be anything new in this speech. I accept the Minister of State is dealing with the specific area of FÁS and the question of job creation and the Government’s economic policy extends further than FÁS. However, the Minister of State claimed “the Government is putting measures in place to ensure those who become unemployed are provided with effective employment service and training supports.” He also referred to the increased budget allocations provided to FÁS, an additional €5 million for training the unemployed and an additional €4 million to subsidise redundant apprentices in 2009. Whereas I am not suggesting these points were made in the debate in October, they seem not to include anything new in the past six weeks.

The Taoiseach has said Ireland is in a dire crisis. The people look to the Government to come forward with proposals as to how we can address this. There is no sign of the Minister of State or the Government doing this. From his speech today, there is no evidence, with all respect to the Minister of State, of anything new being presented to us regarding the deepening employment crisis, which all commentators agree will get worse in early 2009. I accept the Minister of State can criticise me for not resisting the opportunity to make a political point. The Government announced last week some initiative on research and development. When can we expect a plan from the Government? When can we expect direction and policies from the Government to address the unemployment crisis? Will it be next week or in January? Will it ever come?

It is not just the case that unemployment is rising but the type of unemployment. A few days ago David Begg of the ICTU pointed out that unemployment is biting at the new services industries, such as financial services, legal and architecture, that have located in Ireland in the past 12 years and account for much of the expansion in employment. There are large numbers of young people in their 20s and 30s, highly trained and educated, who are losing their jobs. I am not arguing that the Minister of State can employ them all but what I am looking for is some sense of initiative, urgency and concrete proposals from the Government.

The Minister of State said the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment is carrying out a review into the efficiency and effectiveness of labour market programmes delivered by FÁS and Skillnets from which a new labour market strategy will be completed by the middle of 2009. That is too far away - up to six months. It is not good enough. This issue does not appear to be treated with a sufficient level of urgency given the ferocity of the problem with unemployment.

I am sure there will be a measure of political co-operation across the board in the event of a serious economic crisis. However, we look to the Government in the first place to come forward with the proposals. It is not happening. I hope it will happen sooner rather than later.

The issue that has given rise to this debate being ordered by the Leader is the controversy over expenses.

The Minister of State said, “The Tánaiste last week met the chairman and some board members of FÁS and reiterated her disquiet at the recent revelations concerning activities in the public affairs division of FÁS.” I presume that means the expenses controversy. It would be nice if that had been said in the speech or if we could have clarity on what was meant by “activities in the public affairs division of FÁS”. Unless corrected, I will assume that means the expenses controversy. It would be great if we could call it as it is so that we know we are talking about the same issue.

The Minister of State also said: “However, the Tánaiste welcomed the board’s assurance that action had now been taken to deal with these matters.” We must not forget that the question of expenses is not at a remove from the Minister’s responsibility. It is absurd that the Minister would go through expense claims for a State agency but there is a clear responsibility under the Labour Services Act, which states that the remuneration and expenses of staff in FÁS must be approved by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Minister for Finance. This also applies to the board of FÁS, as made clear by section 7 of that Act and the Schedule to the Act. The Minister has a direct role, not an arm’s length role. There is some dancing around this issue, including in the speech of the Minister of State.

The figures published and the documentation Senator Ross so assiduously acquired through the freedom of information application demonstrate that more than €642,000 had been spent on flights to North America in the period since 2003. The details of this are well known so I will not relate them again. Does the Minister of State think this is unacceptable? It is a simple question. Aside from references to having meetings with the chairman, getting reassurances and examining matters, will the Minister of State tell the House whether that level of expenditure to Orlando and other places is unacceptable? There is a legal responsibility on the Minister of State to have a role. What is his belief, given that his role is to have a view?

Senator Ross rightly has been praised for his work. It is meant as no criticism of him but he unearthed these figures in his capacity as an experienced and expert journalist. It did not occur through these Houses. Last week, in The Irish Times, Dr. Brian Hunt referred to the limitations that exist in respect of scrutiny in these Houses. The Committee of Public Accounts can operate only when a report is brought forward by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The committee cannot initiate its own investigations of these matters. It is unfortunate that either we have the Comptroller and Auditor General publishing a report that the Committee of Public Accounts investigates or I, Senator Ross or someone else can complain about it on the Order of Business. There is nothing in between. We must examine this again but perhaps it is for another day. There is a need for these Houses to examine the means by which these issues can be dealt with, exposed, identified and debated. Otherwise we are not doing the job we were sent here to do.

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