A Government-backed plan, to dissolve all Money, Advice and Budgeting Services (Mabs) and Citizens Information Services (CIS), and replace them with regional boards is a “power-grab” and an “attack on local democracy”, warn senior figures in each service.
The Citizens Information Board (CIB), operating under the auspices of the Department of Social Protection, is pressing ahead with a plan to "restructure" Mabs and CIS. This is despite a Dáil vote in March and a report from the Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection last month, both against the plan.
The CIB says it must dissolve the 93 limited companies around the State – 51 Mabs and 42 of them CIS – as they are too unwieldy. Each company has a board and returns annual accounts and assurances of compliance with regulations.
The board plans instead to establish eight regional boards for each service, with a national board each, answerable to CIB.
Senior volunteers say the structures are working “really well” and the plan will “irreversibly rupture the strong links between citizens and the services”.
They are seeking a meeting with Minister for Social Protection, Regina Doherty, calling on her to halt and review the plan.
Deirdre Casey, manager of the Dublin City Centre CIS, the busiest in the State, describes as "very important that the service is independent, impartial and non-judgemental".
Rights and entitlements
As well as providing people with information on their rights and entitlements, the CIS advocates too, often going “head-to-head” with State agencies.
Michael O Giollain, chairman of Mabs National Development Forum, fears plans will be "detrimental to the independence and effectiveness of this extremely valuable service". Mabs is the State's money advice service which guides people through dealing with problem debt.
“At the heart of this is a power-grab. We’re totally against bit. It’s being imposed on us. It’s about the department getting control over Mabs – the exact opposite of what Mabs was established to be.”
Both services emerged from local, voluntary initiatives. The CIS grew out of the community information services in the late 1960s. In 1974 the National Social Services Council, (later the NSS Board) was established to develop a national network of services. In 2000 Comhairle replaced the NSSB, which in 2007 was renamed the CIB.
Mabs began as local voluntary projects in the 1980s. Five of them got Department funding in 1992, and there are now 51.
CIB's chief executive Angela Black told The Irish Times the restructuring had been "on the agenda" since 2010, predating her appointment almost three years ago. Formerly she was principal officer at the Department of Finance.
“We have to do this. There are horrendous governance arrangements in place. There is no way I can ensure all 93 companies are complying with obligations under legislation. I have no interest in chasing after companies for their accounts. I’m much more interested in developing the services, extending the opening hours, making them more relevant to people.”
She says “nothing will change on the ground” and she “hopes” the voluntary aspect of the the organisation will “not go away”.
John Curran, TD, chair of the Oireachtas committee on Social Protection, in his foreword to the report described CIB's plan as "wrong" and says the fears of both CIS and Mabs are "justified".
“The regional proposal will distance the service from their local customers, volunteers, staff and board members; will irretrievably alter the actual essence of both organisations.” While “some reorganisation” is necessary, he says, “the proposed course of action is wrong”.
Mabs and CIS say Ms Doherty, under the 2007 Citizens Information Act, has the power to halt the plan. They call on her to do so.
A department spokeswoman said: “This a matter solely for the statutory Board of the Citizens Information Board.”
Further meetings with stakeholders, hosted by CIB, will happen in Thurles, Co Tipperary, and Dublin, in August.