While generally welcomed by all Members this Bill raises important questions about our overall electoral system and its attendant difficulties for all politicians. It is now well recognised that, to a large extent, our electoral system generates enormous pessures on individual politicians, creates confrontational type politics, necessitating an extraordinary expenditure of energy within a competitive arena that yields little and does not contribute anything to Members' primary legislative function. These must be reflected on within the context of this Bill.
In the past all sides of the House have been slow to protect the institution of politics. On many occasions, Members have abused, insulted and demeaned one another in the public eye, tending to get away with it, on the basis that it is politics and expected of them.
For some considerable time in excess of one million of our population have been in full-time education but we must acknowledge that the public does not respect us for what we have done to the institution of politics by exploiting a bad system. After all, politics should be, and I believe is, a noble profession. Generally I believe Members want to make a valuable contribution which many do in difficult personal circumstances. They are subjected to extraordinary pressures, costs, obligations and duties, engaging in a role that intrudes enormously on their time outside the House which means they may get little recognition for their efforts, an essential component of political life.
While the perception of politicians worldwide is poor, I hope it is somewhat better here. Nonetheless, media concentration on politics within a society as confined as ours is very obvious. For example, on radio, at 8 a.m. beginning with the early morning news, we are introduced to the first political debate of the day, proceeding to light entertainment programmes in which politics can take a small, medium or large part, followed by the news at 1 o'clock, incorporating political debates of one kind or another. Again at 5 o'clock in the evening, politics often make the headlines and, on television later on, there is further political debate. Therefore, it is vital that there is a political institution in place which protects its members who give valuable service, make a real contribution, thus ensuring their profession is not diminished. I know of no other profession that would tolerate so many false, untrue and inaccurate perceptions being created in the public mind.
I met a second level female student recently who, among other things, was engaged in studying the representation of politics and politicians, people inclined to be perceived as wrongdoers, somewhat shady or dodgy types. It is indeed tragic that our second-level student population should be exposed to a curriculum that would misrepresent and create a general impression of politics that would diminish in the public eye politicians and the institution of politics.
While the Bill makes a valuable contribution, it raises a series of questions about issues which must be addressed if we are to protect this institution. At the commencement of the summer recess we hear media comments that politicians have gone on long holidays. A check list is presented on who has gone where and the next question asked is who has gone with them. The fact that committees of the Houses meet until the end of July and reconvene in early September or that political constituency work continues appears to be ignored. Our political system requires Deputies to continue to do political work not as legislators but as public representatives in their constituencies.
We all recognise that we do not have any of the great powers often attributed to us. Ministers have significant and special constitutional powers, more particularly in the context of their Government or Cabinet function. As individuals, they are governed strictly by legislation and established practices. Dáil Deputies have a collective legislative role to play and while numbers are the basis on which legislation proceeds through the House, the power of backbenchers or members of Opposition parties is no more than the important one of highlighting issues and making the opposing case to impress upon the Minister the need to make changes.
Many people outside the House have important legislative functions and jobs. They are not compelled by ethics legislation to behave in a particular way or refrain from engaging in certain activities. On many occasions I made complaints in that regard. For example, local authority engineering staff should not engage in outside work which could conflict with their duties if they were dealing directly with the processing of planning applications. Others who have responsibility for enforcing legislation should be required to maintain an ethical distance from private enterprises in which they might have an interest in the performance of their work on behalf of the State or the public service. Those matters must be dealt with.
Professionals, such as solicitors, doctors, teachers and so on, on election to the House must end their involvement in their private employment to the detriment of their business due to the pressure of political work. We have seen repeatedly that after one, two or three years such Members are turfed out and in many instances do not have a successful business to which to return. The business may have failed or suffered some loss. In that regard, small businesses are at serious risk and the absence of the person in charge may have serious consequences. Allowances, protections or fail safe mechanisms are not provided for such Members.
This Bill must be considered in the context of what we want to achieve. It should not be introduced as a legislative formula to prevent corrupt practices as if they were an every day occurrence in the political system. We know that is not the case and that is a hallmark of the quality of those who are elected to the Houses of the Oireachtas and an acknowledgement of the quality of our electorate who elect them.
Some aspects of the Bill will create serious difficulties in the future. We must acknowledge that it is necessary and proper to introduce some controls, limits and require accountability for contributions made to political parties. Small political parties or individuals whose personal financial positions may prohibit them entering politics should not suffer as a result of changes that may be introduced. It is increasingly the case that unless one is well-heeled one will encounter great difficulty in getting elected and participating in this House on a full time basis, now a requirement for all Dáil Deputies.
There are no professional back-up services, research facilities and so on. Dáil Deputies' salaries are despicably low. Apart from the provision of a secretary and some technology in Members' offices, little or no allowances or facilities are provided. With the exception of a small allowance of approximately £2,000 per annum, Deputies must pay the costs of their telephone calls. That does not make a real contribution to the cost of providing a constituency service. Those who are aware of telecommunication costs in private businesses will recognise the cost that must be borne by Dáil Deputies to service their constituents. That will remain the position until we change our electoral system to one that will allow us be legislators in the real sense rather than play our other role, often described as that of a messenger boy.
The imposition of limits on contributions give rise to considerations about the setting of limits and their effects. I do not believe that such limitations will create serious problems, but I am concerned about how such a system will be monitored. How can we ensure the necessary requirements are met to provide for accountability in law? Such a system will require the recruitment of a new inspectorate to deal with the resulting correspondence, invoices and necessary accounting processes. It will not be possible or realistic to administer such a system in a constituency in which there may be nine, ten or 14 candidates whose agents will be required to submit various receipts. We are exposing that system. Those who may not like a Deputy will be in a position to make accusations and, in the case of politicians, they do not always have to be proved. To point the finger is sufficient on occasions to create the wrong perception and we will run into this type of difficulty. Frivolous or false charges may be made against individual politicians.
It has been acknowledged that traditional fund raising takes up much of a politician's time and most funds are expended at election time. Usually these have come from the people who support the party by attending party run functions. We will now have to account for all of those functions and show the source of all funding if it exceeds certain limitations. This is ridiculous and it is impossible to comply with.
If Deputies engage in professional lobbying, which is a feature of politics in Europe and throughout the world, and become involved on a fee basis or as a business, will they have to make disclosures and account for what they are doing? As a business I presume they would make their returns to the Revenue Commissioners in the normal course of events. There can easily be conflicts here. Persons may engage in a function that may not necessarily be taken into account in this legislation. That should be examined on Committee Stage.
The independent commission has to be looked at in the context of what it will achieve. As our spokesman, Deputy Noel Dempsey, pointed out, that the commission is not described as "independent", as provided for in the Ethics in Public Office Act, is significant. To ensure that an improper meaning is not read into this, it should be described as "independent". Also there should be a time limit on the introduction of legislation dealing with any report produced.
There must be a better way of ensuring that the integration of a county or a region is not destroyed by the redrawing of constituency boundaries. It is terrible that a Dáil Deputy who has worked diligently and made a real contribution can lose his or her seat at the stroke of a pen in the boundary commission but I do not know how it can be avoided. Health boards, tourism boards, regional IDA authorities and all the regionally based semi-State agencies should be recognised and constituencies within the regions should not be damaged.
A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, we have done well in Longford-Roscommon in that both of us have been returned as Dáil Deputies. I avail of the opportunity to say there is little doubt but that you will be returned the next time, whatever about myself. I will have to rely on your surplus.