Address by the Tanaiste at the official opening of the newly decentralised Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, Portarlington, Co. Laois

Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank Commissioner Billy Hawkes and his team for making us welcome here today. It is good to be here today with my colleague Minister Tom Parlon to mark a very significant milestone in the Decentralisation programme of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. My Cabinet colleague Minister Brian Cowen was also hoping to be with us today but sends his apologies.

There has of course been a lot of media comment in relation to decentralisation and I think it is true to say there is probably only one area where there is consensus and that is the fact that the Decentralisation Programme is an ambitious one. In Government, we make no apology for that. In the Justice and Equality sector, the Secretary General and his staff have undertaken a major task to implement the transfer of around 900 posts from a total of twelve agencies to seven different locations around the country. It may come as a surprise to some commentators that there are currently over 800 applications for these posts and that my Department's Decentralisation Programme is firmly on target and even ahead of target on some projects.

The Private Security Authority and the Garda Central Vetting Unit are now operational in Tipperary town and Thurles and further advance moves from Garda Headquarters are planned for Thurles for the first half of 2007. The Land Registry has recently opened an office in Roscommon and 10 days ago we placed the contract for the fit out of the new Irish Prison Service which will be ready for occupation in Longford in the spring of 2007 bringing over 140 jobs to the town. We are also planning to open offices in Navan in the early part of 2007 to accommodate staff from the Garda Human Resources Unit, the Property Regulatory Authority and the Probation Service and also in Roscrea to cater for an advance move from the Equality Authority. Under this phase of the programme, the total number of Justice sector posts moving out of Dublin by mid-2007 will total almost 300. This translates into just over 30% of our overall total number of posts and we still have two years to run in the programme.

We are in Portarlington today to mark the opening of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. I am particularly pleased that we have been able to relocate the twenty three staff in Portarlington well in advance of the original target date of 2008. There are of course strong business and logistical reasons for moving ahead of the original timetable. In our experience, it has helped to build momentum within the Department in terms of the programme as a whole, while at the same time providing a presence in the town in advance of our other moves. It also assists in business continuity and, of course, it provides an early opportunity for the staff involved who are keen to reduce their commuting times or establish their homes here in Co. Laois.

The Data Protection Commissioner's office is one of a number of specialised agencies that comes under the aegis of my Department. Its task is to promote and defend a person's right to have a right to control the use of information about his or her self. This is part of a broader right to privacy that is protected by our own Constitution and by the European Convention on Human Rights. It is not an absolute right. It must be reconciled with the rights of others and the public interest.

The DPC has a broad mandate. It includes an important public education role. There is little point in people having rights if they do not know about them. Some of you will have seen the Office's public information material on the backs of buses and in train stations. I understand that the Office deals with over 10,000 enquiries every year and they will be hoping to expand those services here in Portarlington.

At the central level - and I want to welcome Finbarr Flood who chairs the Department of Finance's Decentralisation Implementation Group here today - and for the Government's part, we will continue to ensure the delivery of the Decentralisation Programme in tandem with the target dates for each of the moves. My Department has adopted the constructive approach that the programme provides many opportunities for the organisations as well as the individual employees. In terms of the challenge of maintaining a quality service delivery I have no doubt that projects such as the this move to Portarlington can provide the opportunity to implement well thought out change management initiatives and improvements in how they do their business.

Decentralisation has of course a vital human element. I have this morning met many of the staff who have opted to work here in Portarlington. They have a challenging time but also many opportunities ahead of them. Without exception, all the staff can now enjoy a better quality of life, not only in terms of living and working in a fine town but, in many cases, by eliminating the 4 hour commute to and from Dublin.

The Department was oversubscribed for many of these jobs in Portarlington. For those people who were disappointed on this occasion, we certainly hope that they can be accommodated in Portarlington in the not too distant future. Commissioner Billy Hawkes has completed a comprehensive training programme for all the new staff in advance of the opening of the unit. This is of course the most important part of the whole decentralisation process. What it effectively means is that when the doors opened, the business could be conducted with the same efficiency in which it was carried out in Abbey Street in Dublin. In that regard, Billy Hawkes and all his team are to be congratulated. In addition, I would like to commend all the former staff in the Dublin Office on the professionalism and dedication which they have shown during the changeover period.

I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Tom Parlon, Sean Benton, Chair of the OPW and the officials Marian O'Dwyer, Frank Reilly and the architect Stefan Matthews for all their work in securing and fitting out this excellent office accommodation in collaboration with the builder, Wesley Dempsey. .

Finally, considerable thanks is due to Noel Waters and Martin McDonald who head up the Decentralisation Unit in my Department for the enormous effort they have put into the programme. I do not underestimate the huge volume of work associated with successfully sourcing quality staff and dealing with all the human resource issues that arose and resolved over the past months. The Department's IT Unit also put in an enormous amount of hard work to ensure that today, all the IT systems, which are essential for an operation of this kind, are functioning effectively. I think it is fair to say that the Department's success on the decentralisation front is due in no small measure to the leadership shown by Sean Aylward in championing the programme and driving us all to overcome the obstacles and deliver the projects.

And now it is my great pleasure to declare the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner officially open in Portarlington.

 

11 December 2006