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Government by Quango.?

17 April 2007

If the Government keeps passing buck, then why do we need it?

By Fergus Finlay
WHO IS in charge around here? There was a time when it was the Government that employed the nurses, the teachers, the gardaí and all the other public servants we need.

When public servants were in dispute, they were in dispute with the Government. When someone had to be held to account for a breakdown in public service, it was the Government. When we needed to find out who was responsible for what, ultimately it was the Government.

All that seems to have changed. Day after day, the nurses’ dispute is reported in the newspapers as a dispute between them and the HSE.

Liam Doran, their representative, always refers to the "employer" as his enemy, and never the Government. In reality, of course, the nurses are in dispute with public pay policy and with the Government. With the best will in the world, there is nothing that Brendan Drumm or the HSE can do to solve this dispute without the approval of the Government. The Government, on the other hand, keeps insisting that it is a matter for the HSE, and not for it at all.

However, the Government does appear to be quite willing itself to go to battle with the medical consultants. The dispute over their contracts is reported every day as another test of the mettle of the Minister for Health, and she always seems willing to give an interview on the subject — while at the same time she can’t seem to think of anything useful to say about the nurses’ dispute.

How is that possible? Could it be that the Government is picking and choosing the battles it wants to be seen to be involved in, based on the degree of public support the opposition is likely to get?

Medical consultants are easy to portray as the big baddies of a dispute, while nurses are a difficult opponent for any minister to take on. It’s not hard to understand why a minister wanting to show toughness and firm resolve would much prefer to be seen to be squaring up to the consultants.

The current disputes, and the Government’s ability to pick and choose the ones it will get involved with, are only one example of a trend that is becoming increasingly disturbing, if not sinister.

I wrote here a couple of weeks ago about the Government’s victory in the High Court in claiming that it has no liability for the actions of teachers who abuse children under their authority because the teachers are hired under local school structures. Teachers are paid salaries determined exclusively by the Government, and work under conditions of employment dictated by the Government, but it accepts no liability for them. And, as I’ve also written here recently, the Government has successfully argued that it should not be obliged to accept any responsibility for the education of children with autism beyond what it considers reasonable.

Last week I heard the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey, being asked in a radio interview about the possibility of ESB blackouts because our electricity capacity has not kept pace with growing demand. Well, said the minister, the responsibility for ensuring a good balance between supply and demand lay with EirGrid, and he had been assured by the company and its experts that there probably wouldn’t be any problem.

This is an extraordinary state of affairs. It is legally true that since last July, EirGrid has taken over the operation of Ireland’s electricity transmission system. Since then it has been responsible for operating Ireland’s national electricity transmission system — otherwise known as the national grid.

According to the company’s own website, "this includes planning and developing the system, scheduling and dispatching generation, operating the electricity market and ensuring system security".

What this means is that in the event of any breakdown in supply in the future, EirGrid will be blamed, and the minister of the day will say he or she has no responsibility in the matter.

But the truth is, of course, that if we do suffer electricity blackouts any time in the next couple of years, it will almost certainly be because the Government, not a regulator or a transmission operator, turned a deaf ear to the warnings from the ESB and others that demand for electricity was beginning to get dangerously close to supply.

We should have been planning and building extra electricity generating capacity five years ago, but instead we created structures that enable our Government to evade responsibility altogether.

Exactly the same thing is true in relation to broadband. It was the Government that made all the wrong decisions when it came to privatising the networks necessary to expedite broadband, but now it’s all the regulator’s fault.

And also last week there was another interview in which the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche, appeared to be washing his hands of any responsibility for the Galway fiasco. I gave them the money, he said, what more can I do?

So suddenly, it seems, we have arrived at a point where the Government appears to carry no responsibility for the health services we need, the education we’re entitled to, the electricity that keeps us safe and warm, the broadband we must have if we’re to compete effectively, and even the water we drink.

THESE are pretty basic public utilities, aren’t they? Take away electricity, water, healthcare and education — or at least make sure that no-one is accountable for decent provision — and what do you think will happen over time to the quality of life of the country?

One of the very first things our Government did, at the start of its 10-year reign, was to weaken the Freedom of Information Act. That should have been a signal that this wasn’t a government that wanted to be accountable to the people. But all the quangos and regulatory structures that have been put in place ever since have surely confirmed that suspicion.

If you don’t believe me, try asking your local TD when the Dáil comes back — if it comes back — to put down a parliamentary question about any aspect of healthcare services in your area. It could be about cancer, A&E, community care services for the elderly or people with a disability, or the price of drugs.

Back will come the answer from the Government — this has nothing to do with us, your question has been referred to the HSE. Within the office of the CEO of the HSE, they’ve had to set up a parliamentary affairs division that deals with almost nothing else apart from the questions referred to it from the minister’s office.

Surely we used to elect a Government to make choices, to act in the public interest and to be accountable for the affairs of the State and the people.

If our Government has now contrived things in such a way that they have little or no direct accountability any more, even for such basic necessities as clean water and decent healthcare, the question arises: if they’re not in charge, and willing to account, why do we need them? What are they for?