Friday 24 November 2017

Quango mergers are delayed as more State bodies resist cuts

Raft of excuses found by vested interests which oppose culls

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin
Michael Brennan

Michael Brennan

THE Government has failed to deliver its promise to scrap bloated State bodies after a fierce rearguard action by the quangos and their supporters, a Sunday Independent investigation reveals.

Plans to cut or dramatically scale back on quangos have been overturned or delayed by warnings about the costs of moving offices, the risk to drink-driving prosecutions, and even by bringing up the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has found that some of the strongest resistance has come from other government departments who are standing up for the quangos under their remit. He was told that Justice Minister Alan Shatter's department would not tolerate the prospect of the Garda Forensic Science Laboratory in Dublin being taken out of its control and merged with the State Laboratory in Kildare.

The Cabinet had set a target two years ago of rationalising 48 State bodies by the end of last year. But due to resistance and delays in passing the necessary legislation, only 44 bodies have been merged or abolished so far to save €20m.

And over half of these were set in motion by the previous Fianna Fail government in 2009, such as the reduction of 33 Vocational Education Committees down to 16.

The Coalition's attempts to engage in a wider cull prompted many quangos and their supporters to go into battle for their survival. The Department of the Environment brought up the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan to prevent the Radiologocial Protection Institute of Ireland from being merged with the Environmental Protection Agency. It argued that "in times of heightened public awareness, such as the Fukushima incident", there was a reputational risk to the country if the body responsible for radiation protection and nuclear safety was downgraded. It also said there would only be a modest financial benefit of €80,000 per year from the merger.

Mr Howlin decided that the merger was going ahead – but it is now going to be completed next year rather than at the end of this year as planned.

There was a successful resistance campaign to Mr Howlin's plan to merge the Garda Forensic Science Laboratory and the Medical Bureau of Road Safety with the State Laboratory in Kildare, which had spare capacity.

The Medical Bureau of Road Safety said it needed to stay in UCD in Dublin so that it could successfully defend legal challenges to its work of drink-driving samples.

It said this was the "most contested legislation in this country". And the Department of Justice warned that it would not tolerate moving the Garda Forensic Science Laboratory from Garda Headquarters in the Phoenix Park. It said that the move would produce no savings and would also interfere with its plans to locate the highly sensitive DNA database in the laboratory.

"Under no circumstances can this department permit a highly sensitive security and intelligence asset to sit outside the framework of the criminal justice system under the authority of the Minister for Justice," it said.

Mr Howlin's department had to concede defeat and called off the merger.

The plan to merge the Road Safety Authority (RSA) with the Railway Safety Commission was abandoned after the cost of relocating staff was pointed out. The Department of Transport said it would not make operational sense to move railway safety staff from their offices in Blackrock in Dublin to the offices of the RSA in Ballina in Co Mayo.

Fianna Fail public expenditure spokesman Sean Fleming said the Government had abolished or merged very few quangos which had not already been signalled by the previous Government. "They seem to have taken very few new initiatives themselves and some of the ones that were in train, they have just walked away from them," he said.

Despite the missed targets, there are still some significant measures in the pipeline for 63 more bodies next year. This includes the 35 city and county enterprise boards, which are being merged into local authorities.

Jobs Minister Richard Bruton is merging five employment disputes bodies into one. The school truancy quango and the Family Support Agency are being merged into a newly created quango spun off from the HSE – the Child and Family Agency.

The costs of quangos in the arts world have been brought down, with fee payments scrapped for the board of the Irish Film Board and several others.

A spokeswoman for Mr Howlin insisted that significant progress has been made in relation to the rationalisation of quangos.

"To date, rationalisation and amalgamation measures involving 44 bodies have been fully implemented. Measures involving a further 63 bodies are at advanced legislative or administrative stages," she said.

Sunday Independent

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