Breda O’Brien: Mabs forum’s defunding is deeply disturbing

Government is continuing its silence over the damaging restructuring row engulfing the service

A Mabs office  in Dundrum, Co Dublin. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

A Mabs office in Dundrum, Co Dublin. File photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

In the latest move in a disturbing saga, the Citizens Information Board (CIB) has withdrawn the small amount of funding it provides to the Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) national management forum. Not only that, CIB has also instructed local Mabs companies to stop paying their modest affiliation fee to the forum.

CIB has decided it will no longer negotiate with the Mabs representative body. This leaves the individual Mabs companies with no means of collective bargaining. CIB will only deal directly with the 51 companies.

The irony is enormous, given that CIB claims that dealing with 51 organisations is unwieldy and touts it as a prime reason why Mabs should be restructured.

For CIB, the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, seems to translate as: “If it ain’t broke, fix it good and proper, and continue to do so in the face of opposition from the Dáil, the joint committee on social protection, and local protest to boot.”

The “fixing” consists of CIB, which has statutory responsibility for Mabs and the Citizens Information Service (CIS), continuing to pursue the replacement of independent, local nonprofit companies with 16 regional structures, eight each for Mabs and CIS. The 16 new regional managers will cost €1.25 million per annum.

One of the many mysteries is that Mabs was told by CIB just before Christmas that the €14,000 the CIB pays annually for the travel and subsistence of 16 voluntary members of the national management forum would continue to be paid.

After Christmas, the funding was withdrawn. Yet CIB continues to fund the representative body of the CIS.

Mabs companies hold highly sensitive financial and in some cases medical information on their 150,000 clients, and often on clients’ families, too

Can it be unconnected to the fact that the Mabs forum asked for a voluntary contribution from their 51 local companies to secure independent legal advice on the restructuring from Beauchamps, the commercial law experts?

Beauchamps has found significant issues in relation both to the role of directors and data protection if all the local companies are wound up.

Mabs companies hold highly sensitive financial and in some cases medical information on their 150,000 clients, and often on clients’ families, too.

Given that the General Data Protection Regulation will become law across all EU member states this May, Mabs were right to engage independent legal advice.

But CIB rewarded them for their due diligence and care for clients by defunding the Mabs national management forum and demanding that the local Mabs companies do the same.

CIB’s professed care for local, voluntary effort seems hollow. Meanwhile, Mabs and CIS’s expertise and professionalism continues to be recognised, including internationally.

The Society of St Vincent de Paul said the structural changes under discussion required “careful implementation through a sensitive process”.

For example, a recent EU Commission report praised the sterling work done by Abhaile, the free mortgage arrears service.

Mabs provide the initial point of contact for the service, and their dedicated mortgage arrears advisers have provided face-to-face support to more than 4,700 borrowers since July 2015.

The current companies have voluntary boards full of local knowledge and community spirit.

The Mabs boards often have representatives from local organisations like St Vincent De Paul, the credit union, An Garda Síochána and women’s development groups, along with community welfare officers and civil servants.

The CIS boards draw in a similar way on local expertise, and CIS also has 1,000 volunteers dealing directly with the public.

No-cost system

The current system works really well. Over decades, these boards have cost the State virtually nothing, and a report commissioned by CIB found that the monetary value of their voluntary work up until 2025 would add up to €4.92 million. (Priceless might be more like it, but let’s go with nearly €5 million.)

Despite sustained opposition to the move from local interests, these voluntary boards are to be dissolved at great expense in favour of unwieldy centralised structures.

For example, last November, Larry McCarthy, chair of Mabs in Dundalk, told the local newspaper, The Argus, that Dundalk is to be part of a regional committee with the midlands, Westmeath, Longford and Kildare.

There is alarm right across the political spectrum at the stubborn pursuit of a restructuring that is likely to irreparably damage the goodwill and voluntary spirit both Mabs and CIS enjoy

Sensibly, he considers that Dundalk would be better off in a committee with Monaghan and Fingal, because urban centres have different challenges from more rural counties.

Better yet, I suspect, would be to halt the restructuring process completely. Stop now, in order to listen to local wisdom as to how to restructure in a way that makes sense and serves people.

There is alarm right across the political spectrum at the stubborn pursuit of a restructuring that is likely to irreparably damage the goodwill and voluntary spirit both Mabs and CIS enjoy.

Last March, Willie O’Dea spearheaded a Fianna Fáil Dáil motion to halt it, which was passed by 90 votes to 51. Sinn Féin brought a private members’ Bill in December that proposes removing Mabs from CIB’s statutory control and making it directly accountable once more to the Department of Social Protection.

If the Sinn Féin Bill is passed, at least it will prevent Ministers for Employment Affairs and Social Protection protesting that they cannot interfere with CIB’s actions. That in itself would be better than the hands-off attitude taken to date by both Leo Varadkar and Regina Doherty in relation to this mess.

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