I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Supplementary Estimates, 1979. - Appropriation Bill, 1979: Second Stage.
Deputy Bruton on Second Stage, and we would need to finish this Stage about 7.55 p.m. to get the remaining Stages through.
We, in the Opposition, have insisted that there be a debate however brief, on the Appropriation Bill—which is something which has not occurred in the past—because we believe it is an important Bill. In fact this Bill gives the legal statutory authority for the expenditure of £2,700 million. We are proposing here to agree to the expenditure of this huge sum of money in the course of a mere 20 minutes. This is very inadequate. However, the argument may be made that many of the matters contained in this Appropriation Bill have been discussed when the Estimates which are enshrined in the Bill were discussed in the House during the year. In this case, that is not so. In fact the vast bulk of the money—I would say approximately—£2,000 million—of the £2,700 million being approved here—was passed in the form of Estimates on Tuesday, 17 July last, Estimates which were themselves not debated either. They were passed at that stage because they had to be passed before two-thirds of the year had elapsed. Had they not been passed in July, they could not have waited until the Dáil resumed after the summer recess. As a result, on 17 July last, these Estimates, amounting to £2,000 million, or the vast bulk of the £2,700 million we are now approving, were also passed without discussion. The result of this is that approximately two-thirds of the entire Government expenditure is approved by this House without any discussion whatsoever, either on the Appropriation Bill or in the form of a discussion on the Estimates themselves. This is a scandalous procedure and one that does this House little credit. As Members of this House we are legally responsible for the expenditure of this money, and the fact that we should exercise that responsibility in such a cursory fashion is very unfortunate.
The position is that the House has established an inquiry, through the agency of its Committee on Procedure and Privileges, into the method whereby Estimates are considered. That committee was asked originally to present a report on the subject within six months. On Wednesday 17 July 1979 they came back to this House and got a further extension of six months for the preparation of their report. They have not got any further extension on this occasion. Therefore, I presume that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will have a report for the House on or before 18 January 1980. If they do not do so they will not be complying with the mandate they were given by the House to prepare a report on Estimates within six months, which was subsequently extended by a further six months expiring in January next.
I believe it is vitally important to the proper control of Government spending, which is increasing at a far more rapid rate than the amounts being produced in the country generally, that we have revised procedures in relation to Estimates. I have chosen this opportunity as the most appropriate one to raise the matter and to draw it to the attention of the new Minister for Finance who I hope will be able to use his offices to do something about it.
We associate with the earnest plea of Deputy Bruton that there should be a more effective way of conducting and handling the business of the State in terms of its financial management. We are approving current expenditure of £2,700 million. God only knows what that expenditure will be next year; it could be anything up to £3,400 million by the end of 1980. There will be a situation in which midway through 1980 most likely we will still not have had even the most cursory examination of the massive volume of public expenditure in this House.
I would point out that the House will resume on 20 February next. There will then be a very short period of four months of Dáil sitting days. A great deal of that time will be taken up with the Finance Bill. In the period of 15 or 16 weeks up to the middle of 1980 the likelihood of this House indulging in any serious, in depth examination of the Estimates, sector by sector, will be somewhat remote.
I would point out also that it is envisaged that in March 1980 we shall have an additional plethora of Ministers of State. I want to ally that to the Appropriation Bill. I suggest that in anticipation, the Dáil should give those Ministers of State some work to do. Let us have Estimates Committees of this House. Let us give one Estimate to each of the 15 Ministers of State. I would even concede to the Government, if they want, to let each Minister of State take one Estimate, when each would have £300 million or £400 million in terms of care and custody——
——when those Ministers of State, under the auspices of the Estimates Committees of this House, can meet their own backbenchers and Opposition backbenchers, when they can sit down and debate the Estimates. At present a farcical situation obtains—for example to expect, as we did today, the Minister for Finance to come in here, and deal in a very attenuated time with a vat of general current expenditure, admittedly spent already for the most part, in 1979. There is no reason at all that the new Ministers of State should not have that function devolved on them—namely, the scrutiny, the examination in great detail, of public expenditure.
Unless we do this there will be a public expenditure backlash in this country, one with social and economic consequences, because it is popular to oppose public expenditure, to cut it, slash it, and it can be done in a panic political reaction on an indiscriminate basis, which would be a tragedy for the work of this House. I commend Deputy Bruton for his diligence in this regard. I can assure him that as a member of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges we will try to present an early report before the House resumes on 20 February next.
I sympathise with the Minister for Finance in his difficulty at this stage, in having to get the money through in this fashion. Even for a Minister for Finance long established, it would be a most difficult experience; for a new Minister it must be a rather impossible position to be in. For that reason the suggestions of a new role for the Minister of State could take a lot of that back-breaking work off individual senior Ministers and give the House a new lease of life.
Both Deputies Desmond and Bruton have been consistent in regard to the points they have made because they made the same points on the corresponding Bill last year. They will be aware of the replies given by my predecessor on that occasion. For the record I should like to state again that this is not the Bill which gives the statutory authority for the spending of the money. I think Deputy Bruton implied that it has that function. He will be aware that this statutory authority for the spending of the money comes from the Central Fund (Permanent Provisions) Act, 1965. What we are doing here is appropriating, as indicated in the schedule, funds to the services therein indicated.
Having said that, one sympathises with the points made by both Deputies. As a consequence of their having made the same points last year and as a result also of a private members motion in the name of Deputy Bruton, the matter was referred to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges who are due to report to the House by 13 February in relation to the precedent for debating Estimates. Undoubtedly, they will take account of the matters that have been mentioned here as well as those points made during their deliberations. It is open to the Deputies or to their representatives on the committee to make the appropriate recommendations. While there is scope for improvement, what is happening now and which is in line with the consistent pattern down the years, is that the time being made available for Estimates is at least as much this year as has been the case in most other years. It is understandable that Deputies would wish for the opportunity of a full debate but, as has been pointed out before, if the date for the publication of the Estimates were to be brought back, as suggested by Deputy Bruton in his motion in this regard, the Estimates would be prepared at least six months in advance of the following financial year. Obviously, with a time lag of that nature there would not be nearly as much precision as would be expected in relation to the presentation of Estimates. However, these are matters that the committee are considering. Traditionally, this Bill has been put through the House without debate but is debated at great length in the Seanad in order to enable Senators to express their views on a wide range of matters. When we hear from the committee, we shall be able to take account of the various points.