Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill, 2002: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

There was a growing sense that the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas had outgrown the financial and control structures with which it had been endowed at the foundation of the State. The former Chief Whip and present Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, was exploring with his counterparts what accelerated reforms would have consensus support and I am aware that other parties were teasing out the implications for their members of scenarios for possible change. Sufficient agreement existed on what should be done for members of the Public Accounts Committee sub-committee on certain revenue matters to sketch it out in its first report published in December 1999.

I and my Cabinet colleagues were also conscious of a widespread feeling among Members of these Houses that our Parliament was under-resourced in terms of facilities which Members thought were not merely desirable but essential in a modern Parliament exercising its constitutional function of supervising the Executive. I cannot help feeling that this is connected with a little-remarked change in the character of Dáil Éireann in the past decade or so. We now have a House where experience of Government office is more diffused among its parties and Members than was the case previously and there is, I believe, an anxiety to put that experience to work more effectively in the business of the Oireachtas. The cynical may see this as a case of poachers turning gamekeepers and, having resumed their old career, wanting to have any perk or facility the gamekeeper enjoyed. I do not and cannot see it that way.

We were also very much aware that a view was widespread here about the levels of staffing available to the Houses. These views were reinforced by increasing contact between Members of this House with other parliaments – be it the European Parliament; parliaments of other EU states or other countries with governments and systems similar to our own. Any Minister for Finance has a natural distrust of international comparisons because he finds them used by every pressure group, trade union, sectional interest, even his colleagues, to prove that in comparable countries whatever service they are involved with costs more, has much better paid staff, more sophisticated equipment or is manned by several times the number of staff deployed on it here. Often when these stories are checked the facts turn out to be very different. Nevertheless, I was persuaded of the desirability of having the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas commission an international benchmarking review to provide an international comparison which took account of differences of function and culture on resourcing and staffing levels required for the proper functioning of a modern parliament.

My hope was to have this study to hand earlier this year but it took longer than expected to agree the terms of reference andmodus operandi governing the study. These were not concluded before last summer's recess and, as a result, the study started late. The report from that exercise, which came in two parts, has just been finalised and will enable a realistic figure for staff and support costs, either arising from the Civil Service staff, or the staff made available directly to Members to be computed in a realistic manner on the basis of an objective study. The staffing levels recommended will be included in the sum incorporated in the Bill to meet the expenses of the commission going forward.

I mention the international benchmarking exercise for two reasons. First, it shows that significant work has been done on a new configuration of institutional support for Members in their vital tasks and, second, because it has an important bearing on the core of this Bill. The central figure of this Bill is just that – a figure, an amount of money which should appear very clearly in section 5 of the Bill. That figure was, and still is, to be agreed with the Ceann Comhairle and, once embedded in this Bill, it will when enacted and brought into force be available to the commission as a matter of right to meet the current expenditure costs associated with running the Office of the Houses of Oireachtas. It is the amount the commission can charge on the Central Fund over the period provided in the Bill, namely three years. Once embedded in an Act, neither I, the Government nor any Minister for Finance can reduce, increase or renew it without coming back to this House and having an Act passed. It is important to emphasise that these arrangements relate to current, not capital, expenditure.

As I said, that sum is intended to last the commission for three years following which there will have to be another Bill and another agreement, with a new amount and a new timeframe established. Some concerns have been expressed at the prospect of having to enact new legislation every three years and the ensuing media attention to which this would give rise. Where moneys are a charge on the Central Fund, I believe it is appropriate that the overall service be comprehensively reviewed periodically. We do not know what new expenditure requirements might arise or what levels of expenditure the commission might consider necessary on existing services. This Bill provides for an amount of money to run this institution and when that money runs out new legislation involving a fresh allocation negotiated for another period will be needed. If, because of recess or rigidities of Oireachtas business, this cannot be done, authority is provided to the commission to draw on, as a holding operation, one half of the amount provided for in the previous year. A comparable arrangement applies to the spending of voted moneys in advance of the Estimate being passed.

Initially, the general scheme envisaged the expenses incurred by the commission being a charge on the Central Fund for a period of three to five years. I believe that it is prudent to provide for a limited period of three years at the outset. This can be revisited when the legislation is being formulated for the next round of funding. There may be a view among parliamentarians that these arrangements could be simplified by allowing the amount to be updated from time to time by way of statutory order. There are two points regarding this matter. While I am confident that the arrangements set out in the Bill are eminently workable, we are moving into uncharted waters about which some people outside these Houses may be sceptical and experience of working the new system may throw up practical issues which require some fine tuning. Second, I believe it a healthy proposal that this House should have the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion about the funding of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas every three years or so.

I had hoped that, at this stage, we would have a definitive figure incorporated in section 5 but it is impossible to arrive at a realistic figure until the effects of implementing the international benchmarking recommendations are incorporated into the office's costings. That exercise started much later than intended and has only just been delivered. It is not permitted to have a section in a Bill with a blank area marked "to be inserted"; for this reason we have, as a holding operation, provided a notional figure for three years expenditure. This will be replaced by whatever sum is agreed between myself and the Ceann Comhairle before Committee Stage. The findings of the international benchmarking review will provide the primary basis for this figure.

I do not like to convey the impression that apart from the end of the three year period, or the money, the commission will be out of the public eye. Each year a member of the Oireachtas commission, or a Member of the House nominated by the commission, will under section 13 of the Bill present to this House a statement of the expenditure by the Houses showing how a portion of the overall sum provided by the Oireachtas in the legislation will be spent in the following year. Instead of being formally granted by a Vote, the Estimate will be taken note of by the Dáil. The purpose of this is twofold – it keeps the Houses of the Oireachtas informed and the statement of estimated expenditure for the following year's budget is then passed to the Minister for Finance to allow him to include the amount in the Estimates of Receipts and Expenditure. This will replace the current procedure whereby the annual Estimate is presented by the Minister for Finance.

The other major element in the Bill is the proposed commission which will take responsibility for the organisation and staffing of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It proposes that it will have 11 members, all but one being Members of the Oireachtas. These are: the Ceann Comhairle as chairman of the commission; the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad; the Secretary General of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas; a representative of the Minister for Finance, who will be a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas except during periods of dissolution; up to four representatives of this House to be nominated by this House or a committee established for this purpose; up to three Members of Seanad Éireann to be nominated by Seanad Éireann or a committee established for this purpose.

The philosophy underlying the Bill is that the governance of the Houses of the Oireachtas should rest with the Members of those Houses. What this effectively does is to provide the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas with a commission which will have the managerial role which Ministers have in their individual Departments. Indeed, it will have a wider role, in that the commission, unlike Ministers, will not require the Minister for Finance's authority for the expenditure incurred under the provisions of this Bill. With this in mind, the only non-parliamentarian to be a member of the commission will be the Secretary General of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Clerk of the Dáil, in his capacity as Secretary General of the office and, in effect, the commission's chief executive. The selection of the seven ordinary members is a matter for each House and there are a variety of ways in which this could be done but it is for each House to decide how they are to be chosen. The remaining parliamentarian is to represent the Minister for Finance. I want to emphasise that, having eliminated the Minister from his traditional control role in regard to the office, this is not a machiavellian plot to reintroduce him by the back door. The representative is there to represent the Minister because of his role in relation to the Central Fund, public service remuneration and Civil Service matters which impinge on the Office and Members; and his continuing role as the sponsor of legislation on Oireachtas matters.

The Bill proposes the Ceann Comhairle as the automatic chairman of the commission. It has been argued that the commission should appoint its own chair. However, having considered this question carefully I am particularly conscious that the Ceann Comhairle has traditionally been the public face of the Houses of the Oireachtas and is also accepted as being free of party ties in the discharge of his existing functions. These are desirable characteristics in a chairperson of the commission. I also believe that the separation of the Ceann Comhairle and commission chairing roles could give rise to difficulties centring on clarity of roles. These circumstances have convinced me that the Ceann Comhairle should beex officio chairperson of the commission and section 7 of the Bill provides accordingly.

The Bill also deals with the arrangements which affect Members during a dissolution period, as well as the removal and resignation of Members. In essence, when a Member ceases to be a Member of the House which appointed him or has ceased for specified reasons to have its confidence, he or she leaves the commission. The same applies to the Minister's representative. During a dissolution the Chairman of each House remains in place until a successor is appointed and a temporary Minister's representative who must be a Minister or Minister of State may be appointed.

I am aware that some Members have expressed concern about the proposal to provide for dismissal of ordinary members of the commission. While I can well understand concerns about ill-founded allegations having detrimental effects on persons in public life, I cannot visualise a situation where either House could not remove a commission member which it had appointed having formed the view that he or she was culpable of stated misbehaviour. Accordingly, the Bill provides that an ordinary member can be removed because of incapacity, stated misbehaviour and to facilitate the effective functioning of the com mission, but only on a resolution passed by the House which appointed him or her.

When this Bill was being prepared for publication, I was insistent that the explanatory memorandum accompanying it should set out in some detail what the provisions in each section did and also a brief summary of the underlying principles. I did this to ensure that from the launch of its text, Members of this House had a very clear idea of what it contained and to avoid the risk of the Bill being misunderstood. Having done so in that document, I am not inclined to repeat the exercise in section by section tutorials. However, there are a few matters which may require comment.

The Bill envisages the transfer of various functions from the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach and the Minister for Finance to the commission. In this way the commission shall determine the funding, staffing and organisation of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is proposed that the Minister for Finance will retain powers in relation to the rates of pay and allowances of Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and in relation to rates of pay, allowances and certain gradings of the officers and joint staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. These relate for the most part to Civil Service wide linked grades. Otherwise, the commission shall have responsibility for the funding and staffing.

Some changes have been made to the Bill since it was circulated at draft stage. The initial scheme provided for the commission coming into being by way of resolution of the Dáil and Seanad. Legal advice suggested that this procedure was not constitutionally essential as the functions of the commission were administrative in nature and did not impinge on the business of the Houses regulated under Article 15.10. The advice also suggested that the right which either House enjoyed to amend or rescind any resolution could at some stage bring about a situation where resolutions and the Act were in conflict and cause serious problems in the management of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. In these circumstances, section 3 proposes that the commission shall stand established when the Minister for Finance makes the necessary establishment order.

One of the functions ascribed to the commission is to provide for legal advice to be made available to Members and committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas in respect of the business of the Houses. Currently when legal proceedings are being taken on foot of actions by either House or by Oireachtas committees it is necessary to name individual Members of such committees in any legal proceedings. This provision makes this unnecessary and allows the commission to be a party to such proceedings where the authority to do so is provided by either or both Houses.

This Bill involves, as I have made clear, handing over virtually all the functions of the Minister for Finance in regard to staffing the office to the commission. I will retain responsibility for pay and pension matters affecting both Members and staff. Under section 12 the commission is required to obtain the consent of the Minister for Finance if it wished to create posts at or above principal – higher – level. The main grade above this level in the Civil Service generally is assistant secretary general of which there is a relatively small number and it is important that no local arrangement should lead to any dilution of the quantity and quality of work normally attaching to those posts. It is my intention to operate this unusual arrangement by sanctioning such posts as I have ascertained to have the same level of ongoing work as the generality of such posts in the Civil Service.

It has been a fairly regular occurrence for Ministers for Finance to come before the House to sponsor legislation affecting Members or their Houses. Much of this has been concerned with the bread and butter issues of pay and pensions. Some provided Members with immunities they needed to discharge their public duty or imposed obligations on them in regard to ethics requirements and electoral financing. It was rare for my predecessors to deal with matters so fundamental as recasting the organisational framework within which the Houses of the Oireachtas function. I feel very privileged to be the Minister for Finance given the opportunity of introducing legislation which will transform the conditions under which we and our successors as Members of this House can work for the betterment of our nation. I commend this Bill to the House.

I congratulate the Minister on the work he has done in seeking to improve the operations of this House. No doubt he has taken the side of Members at times when it has been neither popular nor profitable.

This Bill will potentially improve the operation of the House. It is certainly welcome that we would have a self-governing commission and that you, a Cheann Comhairle, will be at the heart of that. It is important, as the Minister stated, that we would be seen to have independence from the Executive in the way in which we organise our business and it is very important that we set about being professional in what we do.

I was a little surprised that the functions set out for the commission are somewhat anodyne in their nature in that it just makes provision for services and facilities. I would certainly have liked to have seen some reference to best practice and improving standards against the benchmark of other European countries set out in the various reports which have come to hand. Perhaps that is quibbling about the nature of the Bill in that at the end of the day it is the commission which must define itself by the way it conducts its business.

I have only had an opportunity to read the second of these reports. I am not sure whether the first one is available. Perhaps it is, but I have not read it. However, the extent to which Deputies find that they are working in a very unprofessional environment is revealing. There is – I can speak from personal experience – very little support to spokespersons for the main political parties in seeking to prepare amendments and to prepare for debates, and by the nature of the way this Parliament works spokespersons carry a great deal of the burden of preparing for those debates. It was interesting that 88% of Deputies use the research facilities which are now available in the Library, but 45% of them rated them poor and 24% rated them fair. Therefore only a tiny proportion rated them as either good or excellent. That tells us much about the nature of the support to which we have become accustomed.

The benchmarking exercise was also interesting in that when it looked at the number of researchers available to the Houses, it showed that in Ireland there are three available to the 166 Members, whereas in Northern Ireland, which has a smaller Parliament, there are 28; in Scotland, 42; in Wales, 10; and in Finland, 15. In Germany, it appears there are hundreds because every member has a researcher as well as the houses having about 60. These figures speak for themselves.

It is significant that Deputies rate the research facilities as very poor in the general work of the Oireachtas but on the occasional instances when we have investigative inquiries, like in the case of the DIRT or mini-CTC inquiries, the rating of the resources available to the House has dramatically improved. In those cases, most of those who have participated regarded the support as either good or excellent in the case of legal and technical support, and perhaps not so high in some of their other areas – but certainly a very high rating. The opposite is the case in the ordinary committees, with very few rating the facilities.

All the other committees have to shut down during such periods.

Therefore there is a huge distance to travel in order to make up lost ground.

When we come to Committee Stage and the Minister has run the slide-rule on the assessment of what is best practice and how Ireland should square up to it, we will have an interesting debate about the type of budgetary envelop presented by the Minister and the basis on which that is to be developed. The Minister has stated in the explanatory memorandum that this research will form an input, but he did not give as much inkling in his Second Stage speech as to how precisely the envelop would be arrived at. I know there is already evidence that different Members have different views on both the location and scale of the research unit and the extent to which there should be constituency officers as against research support. There are many issues on which Members will want to hear a fairly open and transparent debate. Will the Minister bring forward some tentative proposals, perhaps well before Committee Stage, so Members will have the opportunity to note the direction of the thinking that underlies the budgetary framework for the three years going forward?

I am not familiar with the arrangement of three year block grants. However, it seems fair to the Houses of the Oireachtas that, if it transpires that the budget, although run efficiently and within the Minister's pay rates and conditions, runs ahead of what is expected, the Minister will make a reasonably generous provision to allow that continue and for a new Bill to be prepared without the Dáil running into difficulties doing its work.

On the wider issue of Dáil reform, there are 16 Members who are among the elite. The 149 others, excluding the Ceann Comhairle, are in thepeloton. We have to get up and cycle up and down the slopes for many hours every morning. The reward for our effort in terms of influencing public policy is extremely minimal. I am not referring to financial reward, but our capacity to influence the way in which this Dáil operates. If the Government does not develop a much newer and more radical role for Deputies over the coming 12 to 24 months at the same time as giving us financial independence, it could mean, ironically, that this Bill will add to public scepticism and the view that we are independent in terms of our conditions of employment, albeit not our pay and expenses, and that we are part of a cosy club.

People want to see real reform matching the new independence of the House. While I commend the Minister for giving the House independence in running its financial resources, if we do not also start on a very realistic and much more ambitious programme of Dáil reform than we have seen to date from the Government side, we will disappoint those who regard this Bill as a step forward.

It is disappointing that we have come back into this Dáil and still do not have a new approach to raising relevant issues in a meaningful way each day. It was expected that Deputies from all sides, whether Independents or members of parties, would have the opportunity to raise relevant issues each day, but that has not happened to date.

We have also seen in the past 12 months – Deputy Howlin will be much more familiar with this than I am – that the courts have stripped the Dáil of important powers of investigation. It can be argued that some of those investigations veered too far in the direction of drawing conclusions concerning what probably were offences. Equally, the court rulings swung dramatically in the other direction and have curbed our powers of investigation to a remarkable degree. It will be very difficult to frame serious investigations in the future that are confined, as the courts now seem to be saying, to pursuing legislative issues or holding the Executive to account. It seems to leave a very large grey area in respect of our powers to investigate the workings of semi-State bodies or to draw conclusions on foot of investigative work that we undertake.

It is a pity that the Government has been silent to date. I certainly have not heard any view from it that we need to reinstate the important power of investigation on behalf of the Dáil and the committees it establishes.

The Government won a vote this morning by 30 votes, but its majority, the largest in over 20 years, is extremely comfortable by historical standards. It is time for the Minister and his colleagues to be courageous in respect of Dáil reform.

I have been in this House for quite a long time and I cannot see why we cannot debate the budgetary framework now for next year, before the Minister gets into detailed negotiation with his Cabinet colleagues about their Estimates. The framing of the budget is our business. We are the elected Members of this Parliament. We have a right to know much more about the outlook for 2003, to participate and hold the Government to account in a meaningful way using full information. We have a ridiculous tradition that this information is not revealed until a day or two before the budget and we create an artificial high noon, of which I know the Minister is critical, but we still have not moved sufficiently far down the line.

Why should we not have the power to veer money from one Estimate to another or within an Estimate? It is not meaningful that we do not have the power to move money around and draw a conclusion. If we are to have stronger and more meaningful committees, we must be willing to give committees the power to say, "Perhaps the Minister has got the health priorities wrong for 2003. The Dáil would like to seen things done differently. We would like to see more money provided for people with disabilities and less money in certain areas of acute medicine." I do not see why the Dáil could not have that sort of opportunity to debate.

Why should Ministers not be able to present heads of legislation to the Oireachtas committees at the time they are agreed by Cabinet so that Oireachtas committees can conduct meaningful negotiations with lobby groups and interested parties who want to see legislation accommodating their needs? Why hold discussions in private with lobby groups completely outside the glare of public attention? Why have lobby groups pulled Ministers aside at social functions to present their cases? Why not allow such discussions to be transferred to an open, all-party committee which can debate these issues openly? This would allow the lobbyists to act in a serious and open way. That is the direction in which we should move.

The Dáil should have its own parliamentary office of investigation so that, far from being curbed in respect of investigative powers as has happened in the past 12 months, it could have new capability for investigation. Many would regard the tribunals of recent years as evidence of the incapability of the Dáil to get its act together and to conduct investigations in a timely way. As a result, we have had to engage in tribunals, which have been enormously expensive to the taxpayer.

Perhaps it is too simplistic to say that the DIRT inquiry showed how powerful Parliament can be because many of those involved came in with their hands up, which would not necessarily be the case in other investigations. However, we need to expand greatly the capacity of the Dáil to undertake serious investigative work which is what the Dáil does best. Politicians are best at scrutiny. They are better at this than, as happens in many cases, acting as the token councillor or parliamentarian on a board. It is preferable that parliamentarians hold those who have responsibility for spending money to account in a meaningful way. In many cases, that necessitates powers of investigation that go well beyond that envisaged by the courts at present.

I do not see why the recommendations of all-party committees should not be given far greater status by Government. Since the committee system started, I have been a rapporteur in several studies – on educational disadvantage, illiteracy, science in education and public transport in Dublin, to name but a few. In no case did the relevant Department say that the all-party committee recommendations were worthy of serious investigation and that it would deal with them and report back in a specific period, nor did it offer its views as to how many of them it would take on board.

Oireachtas committees are viewed with contempt by Departments and Ministers are happy to allow that system continue. It is a make-work opportunity for Dáil Deputies to have them as rapporteurs. There is no serious intent on the part of the Government to do anything because all the parties of the House are combining to say that something needs to be done about educational disadvantage. Some of those proposals were very radical, yet none has been adopted.

There is a belief in Departments that what the Oireachtas and the committees do is of no real relevance to them. Unless the Secretary General is called to account they pay no heed to what goes on. This must be changed and a practical way of doing this would be for the Government to say that the recommendations of an Oireachtas committee will become policy unless a motion to the contrary is submitted. That would not bind the Government – it always has a majority – but would give an opportunity for real debate about the committees' reports. If recommendations were offered it would be up to the Government not to accept them and to debate in the House its reasons for not doing so. That never happens.

In this day and age we should be escaping the notion that parties can freely put political hacks onto boards. We should tell the Oireachtas committees that they have the power to scrutinise ministerial appointments. In the interregnum between the last Government and this, even though it was the same Government, I saw people who in my view were unacceptable being put on boards. These people were party hacks with no experience relevant to the work they were being given. Even the great whistle-blower on the other side, the side from which one Member is here, did not say this was unacceptable. The Oireachtas committees are the ones who should blow the whistle. It is unacceptable to have people from the other side of the country, with no relevant experience in a task, being appointed to a board dealing exclusively with Dublin-related matters. The Minister of State knows the board to which I refer. It is ludicrous. The Oireachtas committees should be regarded as an important gatekeeper, keeping watch on the standard of appointments the Government makes. We are elected and we have that right.

It is hypocritical for the Government to talk about wanting to see legislators taking their jobs more seriously. The Government perpetuates the system in which Deputies effectively have fewer powers than a county councillor. I have more powers on Dublin City Council than I do here. I can actually get things done there. I cannot get things done here although I can recommend things that are never done. The 150 Members who are not members of the Government, in the hope that we may one day be part of the charmed 16, have allowed our wings to be clipped. I hope that the appointment of an independent commission is not just about freeing financial control from the Minister for Finance but also about taking the fetters off Deputies and allowing them to act as an independent power that can do things to make this Dáil relevant. We are dependent upon the Members on the other side of the House. They have a substantial majority.

This is a second-rate Parliament. That is the reality and we are suffering the contempt that goes with it. Our colleagues in the media are crammed to the rafters to see what we have to say about the future of the Oireachtas commission.

As we can see.

That is not their fault. It is our fault. We need, as a group of 166 people, to get our act together and decide what will benchmark Dáil Éireann against best practice in any parliament in the world. We are unacceptably far off the pace. No trade unionist, lobbyist, IBEC or Small Firms Association member who wants to see Government policies change will turn up to Oireachtas committee meetings except out of courtesy. They come because they are asked. They do not come because they believe that this is the throbbing centre of power where public policy is being moulded and shaped. They do not believe that this is the place they should be in order to see policy becoming responsive to their needs. They simply do not see things that way and we have allowed that to happen. We have allowed social partnership to expand to fulfil roles that should be here in the Chamber and in the workings of the Dáil. I do not wish to criticise social partnership but to say that we have failed and that those people are filling vacuums that we created.

Even when we pass this Bill, we will not have arrived. We will only have made a very tentative start on a journey. If we want to see a strong, relevant Dáil we must ensure that we no longer see its influence eroded and that we start to reassert ourselves as the primary source of authority for the 16 members of Government and beyond. Ironically, it is the 16 members of Government who suffer because of the way in which we have allowed our powers in this House to be curbed. Once the centre of authority and decision-making shifts from inside the Chamber to the Departments and the partnership networks, the authority of the 16 men and women who sit around the Cabinet table is also eroded because their ultimate authority derives from the extent to which they have influence in this House.

I make an impassioned plea to the Minister of State and to the Government, which has a comfortable majority, to take its courage in its hands and start to do the things I outlined earlier. I have no doubt that other Deputies have many other ideas but we need to start the process of achieving not only financial independence but also the creation of a real parliament that is relevant and can demonstrate to people that it can make changes to make their lives better. Sadly, many of the electorate have lost their faith in us and we are seeing the consequences of that in the declining number of people who bother to turn out for elections.

I am privileged to be in the House not only for the introduction of this important legislation but also for the very thoughtful contribution we have just heard from Deputy Bruton. He made some extremely important points about the function of these Houses about which I have my own strong views. There are two Opposition Deputies in the House, nobody in the press gallery and a junior Minister on the Government benches – with all due respect, a junior Minister who is relatively new to the operation of these procedures and has yet to find his way in terms of the functioning of the Houses. I have lobbied for a long time for this debate and for a fundamental change in the way this House does its business and demands its place as the cornerstone of our democratic accountability. We have absolutely surrendered that to a variety of other institutions.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his appointment and I wish him every success during his term of office, but I dare say he will learn that he probably had more influence as the leader of a farmers' organisation in shaping national policy than he will have as a junior Minister in this House. That is a fact which we must address collectively and not pretend to deal with. The introduction of this legislation is a very considerable start. It is a milestone and I heartily welcome it, but it is nothing more than a building block in a process with which we must either engage or not. The Bill provides a statutory framework for restructuring the operation of the Oireachtas. How radical that restructuring will be depends on the performance and the membership of the commission. There is no doubt that the manner in which the Oireachtas currently operates is in need of radical overhaul. Deputy Bruton said little with which I could disagree.

Two key reports have been published in the past two years – the IPA report on the future operation and development of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas, which was published and available to Deputies, and the Deloitte & Touche report of March 2001. There was a two-year gap between the publication of those two reports. Both highlight the inadequate current funding and supports available to the operation of these Houses. I heartily agree, a Cheann Comhairle, with comments attributed to yourself when you stated in the final report of the Committee on Members' Interests produced by the Deloitte & Touche investigation that: "we have a seriously under-resourced parliamentary system". You are right and no one who tries to operate here would disagree with that.

We must decide for ourselves if we are collectively going to make democracy work in this society and bring it back into these Chambers. We are all guilty in this because, as Deputy Richard Bruton rightly said, for 30 years up to the previous general election, Governments changed at every general election and those of us in Opposition had expectations that we might be in office. The notion that the Executive was in every sense the Government and Parliament and wanted to be as unaccountable as possible was the rule of thumb. The more authority that was devolved to a questioning Parliament, the more bothersome Government became, and that was something to be resisted.

We had an interesting few years in the previous Dáil. The issue of investigations is one example. I do not know of any parliamentary system which does not allow for parliamentary investigations of public administration. Some do it with great effect, such as the American system where a Senate or Congressional investigation has enormous clout and the same authority as a High Court investigation to summon witnesses and papers, to take evidence under oath and to hold people in contempt for either false evidence or refusing to give evidence. Britain has a very effective parliamentary investigative system as well.

We have had experience of three committees of investigation in the previous Dáil. I was a member of one, namely, the sub-committee on Abbeylara. The High Court and Supreme Court judgments on that investigation bear interesting reading for us. There will always be a point of tension between the Oireachtas and the Judiciary in terms of the scope of powers. As I pointed out in an article inThe Irish Times yesterday on another matter, most actions of public administration are justiciable in this democracy and that is as it should be. It is up to us all to live within the law and to apply constitutional justice in dealing with any matter which falls to us, whether as parliamentarians, administrators or members of Government.

There is also a greater good, namely, that of society as a whole which appears to be being squeezed by the inexhaustible right of the individual. It is the shape of our times that the individual has so many rights that society in general is crushed into a smaller space and has lesser rights. Individuals in such circumstances, therefore, will always be in a position, especially if they have resources, to perhaps trample on the greater good. It is the fundamental role of a parliamentary democracy to represent the greater good. Getting that balance right is a challenge for us. I do not have any magic formula for it, but I know in terms of the investigative work done by the sub-committee on DIRT and attempted by the sub-committees on mini-CTC and Abbeylara that there is a space within which parliamentary scrutiny must be defined and allowed to operate.

I wish to comment briefly on the issue of resources for the Houses of the Oireachtas. For the past four years, I was justice spokesperson for the Labour Party. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the previous Dáil generated more legislative proposals than any other Department. There were 40 items of legislation across a range of diverse issues. We do not have resources in the Opposition to do the research and analysis.

There is also an enormous amount of secondary legislation, some of which was on the Order Paper today, under Article 3 of the Fourth Protocol of the Amsterdam Treaty which requires parliamentary scrutiny. This deals with justice matters which often have significant implications for the rights and privileges of citizens of the State. We do not have any input into those nor do we have any briefing in terms of their discussion and evolution within the European system and COREPER. They are largely handled by civil servants and, when they are agreed by Ministers, are presented to us for rubber-stamping. Even that is done with contempt.

I have had rows with various Departments over the years but especially recently with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform about secondary legislation, which has been debated and examined for months within bureaucracies, being held in the Department for months, presented for a short period in the Oireachtas Library and torpedoed into the House, often to be rubber-stamped without debate. We allow that to happen because we are overstretched and do not have any resources to get researchers to advise us. Often when one has five different items of secondary legislation as well as an Adjournment Matter and normal legislation to deal with, it is the line of least resistance to agree to the secondary legislation being taken without debate. One knows one does not have the physical energy and time to do the scrutiny one would wish for.

That is wrong and fundamentally undermines our democracy. We need to do something to address that and I hope this framework will allow that process to begin. I hope it will allow proper resourcing of research and support so that when Opposition Members discuss legislation, they know the background thought processes and where the international experience came from to allow them question in a meaningful way the proposals coming from the Executive.

Sometimes it does work and the experiment in the previous Dáil whereby committees allowed external submissions before legislation was taken on Committee Stage was a good model. One example with which I am familiar was the decision of Government, which is still current, to transpose the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law in a narrow and limited way. I resisted that. One way the committee got a broader view on it was to invite submissions and we received scores of them from external bodies who wanted to express points of view.

The one with the greatest impact was from the new Human Rights Commission and its president, the eminent jurist, former Justice Barrington, who put a compelling and devastating case against the Government's proposals. Those measures have not been proceeded with, although I understand they may well emerge in similar form again. That is a different battle. To have the facility for that external scrutiny and for people with expertise to analyse legislation in public is a tremendous broadening of the scope of Parliament and a very good development.

What Opposition spokespersons often have is submissions from vested interests. One often depends on such submissions and one has no way of investigating or evaluating them. One may use them if one wants or one may not. We need to be more professional if Parliament is to be meaningful. Otherwise the Executive will continue to keep the functioning of Parliament as restricted and limited as possible.

I wish to discuss briefly the contents of the Bill in specific terms before I make a few general and broader points. We will propose some minor amendments on Committee Stage. Apart from that, the Labour Party strongly supports the Bill because it provides a comprehensive, coherent and progressive framework for the development of the Oireachtas and gives the Houses an independence in their funding and organisation, one of our greatest deficiencies to date.

Members of this House fall into different categories. When one examines the record, there were Members of this House who did not see legislative involvement as being a critical part of their work. Indeed the general public do not regard legislative work as being particularly critical because, as Deputy Bruton will testify regarding his former front bench colleagues, some of the most hard-working Members, incisive thinkers and best debaters in the last Dáil lost their seats. Other people were elected, and it is invidious to even contemplate naming people, but they see their role, not as legislators to table an amendment or contribute a Second Stage speech to a Bill, but as agents of their constituents to deliver whatever is available from the national cake to them and address their concerns like some sort of ombudsman. They are often the Members who are most secure in each election and that has a salient message for us all. The reality for most Members is we must try to do both. At least those of us in the Labour Party must try to do both as there is an expectation that we will do the constituency work while the majority of us have front bench duties too. This is an extraordinary burden to carry and is something we cannot continue to do in a meaningful way without much greater support than that which is currently available.

The Bill provides that organisational and operational freedom be given to the Oireachtas through what is the cornerstone of this legislation, the Oireachtas commission. The membership of that commission, proposed in section 8 of the Bill is: the Chairman of Dáil Éireann, the Chairman of Seanad Éireann, the Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas, a member appointed by the Minister – which explains why he wants that – and not more than seven ordinary members; four Members of the Dáil and three of the Seanad. The one non-parliamentarian proposed is the Secretary General of the Oireachtas to whom I spoke to and I hope he does not mind my saying so. My view is that the commission should be comprised exclusively of Members of the Oireachtas. There should be a working group to the commission which would implement its administrative decisions but no other person other than a parliamentarian should be a member. This matter should be considered between now and Committee Stage.

Section 4 of the Bill details the proposed functions of the commission. Deputy Bruton suggested that they were rather inane but I think they are broad enough to stand the test. Section 4(2)(d) states that “The commission will determine, subject to the consent of the Minister in respect of a person engaged in the provision of secretarial facilities, rates of pay, conditions of employment and pension rights”. There are other sections in a similar vein: section 12 deals with staff employed by the commission and, for example, gives the commission the right in section 12(3)(e), where it considers it appropriate to do so, to recommend to the Government the dismissal of an established civil servant employed in the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. These are new and onerous responsibilities to give to a group of parliamentarians and we need to be careful about how we select the people to do this work. I hope that at least one member would have industrial relations skills as that would be important.

One of the most important sections of this Bill is section 5, which deals with the critical issue of funding. There is no specific final figure included – the figure is a no-policy change issue. I have some experience of dealing with Estimates in two big-spending Departments and I understand what "no-policy change" means. It means that one starts on the current base. If we are to be radical in terms of resourcing parliament in a way most people would like and giving the resources and ability to do something more meaningful to Members, we must be realistic in the acknowledgement of the additional resources that are required.

I argued for some time that all the Votes that are discussed in the House, whether for the Department of Health and Children, Department of Defence or Department of Education and Science, should have a champion in a Minister at the Cabinet table who can argue for his or her Vote. The Oireachtas has never had that because the Minister for Finance carries that brief and he has other things to do. He was not a champion of the Oireachtas in arguing for the Vote so the role of the commission is in freeing that up and creating an independent champion to argue for what we need.

I understand that the Minister cannot be explicit in terms of what will be provided but I hope he will go further than he did in his Second Stage speech in addressing some of the important matters such as what shape he sees the staffing and supports that would ideally be available to Members of the Oireachtas taking? Where does he stand, for instance, on the Deloitte & Touche report? What specific supports would be available? Should there be different supports for front bench Members? How would we organise research and support? Should it be through an enhanced Library available to all Members or should they get research assistants? Should there be a significant increase in the supports available in constituencies? These matters should not disappear as debate material for the future. I would like the Minister to have formed a view that he can put on the table and with which we can engage on Committee Stage. If that cannot be done today, it should be done when we return to this Bill.

In Schedule 2 of the Bill, there is a comment in relation to the right of the newly established Oireachtas commission to the sales of televised proceedings of Dáil and Seanad Éireann which raises the issue of how the Irish people see our Parliament. There is an Oireachtas committee on broadcasting which Deputy Séamus Brennan chaired from 1997 to 2002 but I am not sure what has happened with that committee, what reports it has published and what it has achieved. We currently do ourselves an injustice in terms of the way we present what goes on in the Houses.

When we debated digital television, it was argued that we would have a dedicated channel for public service broadcasting to include excerpts from the Dáil, focus on certain issues and comment from parliamentarians to liven up the way these Houses are presented to the public. The era of terrestrial digital television is disappearing further and further away as is the option of having a dedicated television channel for the Oireachtas. With all due respect and absolute regard for the people who present "Oireachtas Report", they strike me as having all the resources that used to be available to the "Garda Patrol" programme. That is not the modern way. If one looks at the BBC programme presented by Andrew Neil on the operation of the British Parliament one can see someone engaging with the parliament rather than simply showing snippets of who said what. It is about bringing the issues of the day to life and having a studio debate. That requires resources but we have stopped taking control of these issues.

Many moons ago, I was involved in the debate on the televising of the Houses. At that stage we considered the position of C-SPAN in the United States, which is a channel dedicated to public and parliamentary broadcasting. However, all of that appears to have gone into abeyance. We need to consider how we present ourselves and how we can ensure that our deliberations are given a better time slot on national television. Deputy Rabbitte has previously stated that the only people who watch "Oireachtas Report" are drunks and insomniacs because it is on at such an ungodly hour. We must also consider how we construct our debates and how we can make the Parliament more meaningful. We should be given air time not only on television but on radio.

The Oireachtas should have its own staff who would be charged with the role of making this place more relevant to people, of making suggestions, of challenging us and making the type of programmes to which I refer. None of that appears to be a reality at present. The old adage that has always ruled the roost here is that the Executive wants strong Government and weak Parliament. The weaker the Parliament is, the stronger the Government can be.

I understand there are ongoing discussions between the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Department of Finance. The conclusion of those discussions will be essential in terms of whether this framework proposal will be perceived as being really not meaningful or whether it will come to be a critical milestone in changing the functioning of this House. I am advised that the key remaining concerns which exist between the staff and the Department is that the legislation should provide for the provision of funds for essential services for the Houses of the Oireachtas and that core parliamentary services – such as parliamentary questions, the Bills Office – should not be diminished by competing resources for other areas of parliamentary activity.

There is a suggestion that there should be a linked annual inflation rather than a rigid funding mechanism such as that provided in the Bill. We should set the base at an agreed level. I understand that it is envisaged that discussions on this matter will be confined to the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister for Finance. I hope, however, that this will not prove to be the case and that Members, in the broadest context, may have an input. Once we agree what is a reasonable base, we could then put in place an annual inflator in order that the type of exigencies that squeeze budgets could not squeeze the Parliament which, if we want it to be, is the bedrock of our democracy. Alternatively, we could allow what has happened incrementally in recent years to continue, namely, we can become less and less relevant. Some people, including certain members of the Executive and those in particular Government Departments, want it that way. They believe the real business is done outside, through social partnership and holding great summits around that nice white table in the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings with the television cameras rolling. They are of the opinion that we should make this House less relevant. One day, that will be the rock on which we perish.

Ministers more frequently make announcements outside the House than they do within it. There have been umpteen examples of Ministers – I cannot say the word "lie"– engaging in obfuscation when replying to parliamentary questions because they have made decisions they are going to announce a matter of days if not hours later at some grand functions in Dublin Castle or at some other external forum where they can present their message in whatever way they see fit. The respect that once existed for this House is diminished on every occasion we allow that to happen. The Ceann Comhairle has a real role and responsibility to set standards which ensure that parliamentary questions are rigidly answered and that where there is an obfuscation or inaccuracy or where decisions have been made and we are not informed about them because Ministers want to make announcements elsewhere, people are held accountable.

I have already stated that I am of the view that the Secretary General should not be a member of the commission. I understand that a suggestion has been made by the staff side that there be a board of management which would work to the commission. Such a board would provide a proper medium through which the Secretary General and others could play a role. I understand this principle works in other parliaments, the operations of which have been considered.

One could speak at great length about this important issue. I heartily welcome the Bill as a significant advance in providing a framework for making Parliament meaningful for all of us and attractive to those who will not stand for election because they can have more influence on public policy by not being Members of the Dáil. We have an obligation to ourselves, our citizens, our democracy and our founding fathers to make this place work to the optimum. I hope Government will engage in the Opposition in shaping a framework for this Dáil that will be a model of which we can all be proud.

I am almost embarrassed to ask Deputy Howlin to inform Deputy Rabbitte that I watch "Oireachtas Report" every week. I do not know what category that places me in and perhaps I should not be outing myself.

I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle – I have already done so privately – on his appointment. I wish him well and I thank him for the courtesy he has extended to me and to other new Members. It is deeply appreciated. I also congratulate Deputy Parlon on his deserved appointment. The Minister of State would not have addressed many IFA meetings in my constituency, which is in an urban area, but I will be beating a path to his door about the need for a new Garda station in Tallaght.

The Minister of State cannot really visit that constituency.

There is a contrast between Deputies Howlin, Richard Bruton and I because, being a brand new Member, I see things differently. As stated previously, people have asked me if I am sorry I was not here 20 years ago. In some ways I am, but it has happened the way it has happened and I am proud of the way I got here. I was elected 39 days ago and I have only been here three weeks so I probably have a different perspective on the House. I notice not everyone does it, but I have spent some time trying to balance my days by listening to the debates and the perspectives on offer. That is important and I am not ashamed to say so.

I have known and admired colleagues over a long period and it is important that we all understand each other. Whatever about the need for party politics – I accept that this will always exist – one of the things one learns in the House is that one gets the opportunity to work with people who, even across party lines, one admires. It is important that the public is aware of that. If, as Deputy Howlin stated, we are concerned with perceptions, the public must understand that there is a serious side to this House and that people have an opportunity to work with each other on behalf of the community. As far as constituencies are concerned, I work across party lines in South Dublin County Council and Dublin County Council and I am certainly going to try to do so in this House. If that is unheard of, I apologise for it. However, I believe that is what people in my constituency of Dublin South-West desire. They want to see co-operation between Deputies Rabbitte, Crowe, Conor Lenihan and myself. We must do the job with which we are charged, but people expect a certain degree of co-operation between us. I hope this can happen.

I hope he will not mind me repeating it, but Deputy Howlin, when he was Minister for Health, appointed me to the board of Tallaght Hospital. I know he was criticised by his party at the time, but it was a good decision. What I am saying is that there are those of us who have taken some time to come through the system. I know that not everybody in my party will accept what I am saying, but there is a certain amount of truth in it. The public would understand politics and what politicians are trying to achieve better if there was more co-operation. I hesitate to use the term, but people do not want to see the nasty side of politics. It is the side they see and hear and they do not like it. It is a pity they do not have an opportunity to spend more time in this House and that a process cannot be found to allow them to see what really happens here in terms of good decisions, good contributions from across the parties and attempts to make things better in all our communities, whether in Wexford, north Dublin, Tallaght or other parts of the country.

The Bill to establish the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to take over the day to day management of the House is to be warmly welcomed. As somebody who has only been here for a few weeks, it is important to point out that I have already experienced the professionalism and support of many of the staff who work to deliver an effective service to Members.

I hesitated about coming into the House. Members will remember my good friend, former Deputy Chris Flood, who I was lucky enough to replace, for the fine contribution he made. I recall he asked me at 10 a.m. on the Monday before the first sitting after the election if I had been in Leinster House. When I informed him I had not, he told me I should go to the House to get a sense of what had been achieved, meet colleagues, hear what was being said and meet staff. That first day was like being at school – in fact, it was like sneaking into school before it started. It has been important for new Members like me to get to know people and find out how helpful staff are at every level. Perhaps colleagues who have been here for many years tend to become more cynical, but I have enjoyed the welcome I have received.

The ever changing role of the Dáil in serving the electorate requires the ability to be pro-active in responding to and managing these changes. This is best served when business decisions can be made quickly and in-house knowledge and experience is available to remove and pre-empt difficulties. With regard to the functions of the commission, I have no doubt I speak for all my colleagues in saying that its Secretary General will have an effective lobby group on his side when negotiating and agreeing the expenditure budgets with the Department of Finance.

Without wishing to upset anybody, it is a pity the traditional title of Clerk of Dáil Éireann appears to be a victim of the Bill.

That will also stay.

That is good and I hope it stays. With regard to the composition of the commission, the number of members, at 11, is adequate. I would have liked the membership period to be shorter than the lifetime of the Dáil. Appointing members for 18 months would allow more Members to contribute to the commission and understand the scale of activities covered in the day to day operation of the House.

Does the Deputy intend to share his time?

I would be happy to share time if a colleague has requested that I do.

According to the note received by the Chair, you are sharing time with Deputy Dan Boyle.

Deputy Boyle and I have soldiered together in the past. I seem to know everybody in the House and I apologise for it. Will you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, write to the few Green Party supporters in Tallaght to inform them that I have co-operated?

I welcome the commitment in the Bill to consult Members to ascertain the level of resources and staff necessary to meet the needs of the House. I request that this activity be done internally by administrative staff and that we do not engage, if it is planned, the services of an outside consultancy. An internally managed consultative process will be a useful opportunity for the commission to take a hands on approach, make decisions, stand over them and not use external reports as a way of side-stepping issues. I also ask that the partnership process is engaged in order that staff at all levels are made fully aware of the changes and are invited to make a significant input into the consultative process.

I have several observations on the issue of the facilities provided to Members. I was first elected to Dublin County Council, which was then located in the city centre, in 1992. Later, I was elected to South Dublin County Council after it moved to Tallaght in 1994 and have represented the people there since. Throughout that period I took the view that I needed to make myself available, not only in the normal manner, but through several weekly clinics and meeting the demands of the electorate by attending community activities and the main functions which take place in a major population centre.

I thank God I was elected to represent a Dublin constituency as I am not sure how I would cope as a Deputy for even Wexford, not to speak of Cork or Limerick. We have to take account of certain demands placed on us. I have experienced a massive increase in voter contact during the past month, both during and especially since the election. People thought I had been elected before the event, but since the election the increase has been huge and manifests itself in many different ways. I still receive calls from people asking if I have left Tallaght because I have not been seen for a day. Presumably, other Deputies have to deal with the same challenge.

The Deputy gets to go home every night.

I do and I thank God that is possible. I admire my colleagues from the country. Getting to Tallaght eight miles away can be just as difficult as getting to Wexford or Cork. There have been huge demands on my time and constituent contact has increased. Nevertheless, while I find the challenge different, I am delighted with it. As I go around Firhouse, Greenhills, Templeogue and Tallaght, I find I have to become more professional than ever. Providing a professional response will require the assistance of the new commission. I look forward to inputting suggestions on topics such as IT equipment and communications systems which, I hope, will allow me to manage an active constituency office in Dublin South West. I have no doubt many Members will be seeking similar assistance.

I find that following up requests, advising constituents, attending community events and, in due course, preparing for committees, together with reading Bills and researching for debates such as this, provides me, as a new Member, with the challenges that my experience in local politics will allow me to meet and overcome.

Without the facilities provided by the House, a professional and sustained constituent customer service and Dáil performance would not be possible. While my parliamentary career will, in time, be decided by my constituents in Firhouse, Templeogue, Greenhills and Tallaght, where I live, their response to my work starts here. I am delighted to support this legislation. I look forward both to listening to the remainder of the debate and to the progress of the Bill, which would be in the interests of all Members and the House.

I compliment the previous speaker on his address. He was very forthright and incisive about how he finds Leinster House. The procedures for new Members have changed somewhat since I entered the House in 1989 and probably a great deal since Deputy Howlin was elected, which must be decades ago at this stage.

I am glad there are initiation procedures for Members and instructions on how everything works. I hope this follows through to all the parties. On our side we are trying to help new Members to find their feet.

I welcome this Bill and I compliment Deputy McCreevy, on the work he has done as Minister for Finance and on the way he has helped Members to do a better job. New Members, including Deputy Parlon, would be astounded to know that when I became a Member of the Oireachtas in 1989 my office was in Merrion Street, outside the perimeter of Leinster House. Members occasionally missed divisions because the division bells did not always ring. We shared offices and even when we moved into better offices we had only one fax machine per floor. We had very few facilities. Various Ministers for Finance gave us concessions and Deputy McCreevy has been excellent. As a member of the Members' Interests Committee I record my appreciation of his response to Members' requests for better facilities.

Before the last Dáil went into recess a Member, who was not re-elected, remarked that, no matter who was in Government after the election, every Member of the House hoped that Deputy McCreevy continued to be Minister for Finance because he had looked after Members. Deputy McCreevy has been excellent and we should remember that.

The Deloitte & Touche report, which looked at international benchmarking procedures in relation to Members' services, has been very worthwhile. The report contains some worthwhile recommendations and others with which I do not agree. My major concern with the Bill concerns the commission's budget. I note that its budget is to be decided by the Ceann Comhairle and the Minister for Finance and will remain fixed for three years. The budget will cover the running of the House, but under what terms? Will the House be run as it is now, in terms recommended by the Deloitte & Touche report or in terms laid down following further discussion with Members from the various political parties.

The Deloitte & Touche report recommends an additional 20 researchers in the Oireachtas library. The library staff are very helpful and co-operative. They do an almost impossible job. I am sure they receive calls from every Member looking for material on various subjects. An additional 20 researchers would make life easier for them. However, this is not the way forward. Deloitte & Touche set out the ways in which the additional researchers should be deployed. The report recommends that research areas should be organised according to "specialisms" and suggests five "specialisms" covering areas such as economics, social issues, health, education and international affairs, with each "specialism" shadowing three committees or so. In the period before the presentation of the budget I might ask a library researcher for material on the budget. If, for example, the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, asks for material on the budget will he receive the same package as I do? If every Member is given the same material how do we put our own identity on it. Each Member should have his own researcher-manager.

Things have changed dramatically in the few years I have been a Member of this House. It was interesting to hear Deputy O'Connor saying that since he was elected there has been a huge increase in the number of calls he receives. What Deputy O'Connor has experienced in recent weeks is small compared to what he can expect in the future. He will receive an ever-increasing volume of material. The public have become more demanding and want a virtually instant response on all kinds of complex queries.

How do Deputies balance their local commitments to constituents with their duties and responsibilities within the House? Local issues were of huge importance in the last general election. Candidates who ran a good constituency office and responded to constituents were far more likely to be elected. Almost every Deputy wants to be re-elected. We therefore need more help at constituency level to answer our constituents' queries. Should we provide resources to Members in their constituencies or provide better resources in the House? Each Member should be provided with an additional researcher-manager. We must strike a balance between our commitments in the House and in our constituencies.

I am my party's deputy spokesperson on finance. When the Finance Bill is published later in the year we will spend a week in a committee room debating the Bill on Committee Stage. None of this will be reported in the media and our constituents will not be interested in what the committee is doing. Will more Members commit themselves to scrutinising legislation, which should be our primary function, or will we be more concerned with dealing with our constituents' problems with a view to being re-elected? In the general election a number of Deputies were defeated by candidates from their own parties. Deputy O'Connor spoke of his activities and hard work in his constituency. Is there someone already queuing up behind him?

I am sure there is.

Someone may be ready to take advantage of the fact that Deputy O'Connor will not be in Tallaght because he will be too busy in the Dáil. Deputy O'Connor says people in Tallaght are already asking him if he has left them. Is it right that someone can come in behind him and exploit the fact that he has responsibilities here?

We must look carefully at the structure of Leinster House and at our commitments in the Oireachtas. Perhaps we should examine the issue of the dual mandate, now that we have lost the influence of the great man from Kerry who had such an interest in those issues but who is not now so influential. Maybe this is something that should be revisited by the Government.

I am all for the dual mandate.

Within the set up budget, other issues need to be considered apart from what the Deloitte & Touche report says about services to Members. What about committees? How will these be serviced adequately? In the past, clerks of committees have tried to do their best with very limited resources. When Members look for back-up research on the Committee Stage of a Bill, the resources are not there. In preparing the set up budget we must decide if we are to properly resource the committees. Even the Deloitte & Touche recommendations state: "these specialisms should shadow three or so committees." At the last count there were 15 committees of the House. What will happen to the other ten? Are they irrelevant? What happens to them? We must decide if we are to provide proper resources when giving input to the set up budget.

I had the privilege of being chairperson of the Committee on the Family some time ago. We had an excellent clerk, Pat Timmins, and a limited back-up team. We worked for two and a half years, got submissions from the public, etc., and did a tremendous amount of work. We were absolutely hamstrung in relation to the amount of resources we had. As chairman of that committee, I was sickened that the then Government, which comprised my party and others, set up an outside committee to look at the family. Because that committee was departmentally based, it got unending resources from the Departments. However, a committee of the House composed of parliamentarians had damn all to spend on research, etc., which was not right.

I welcome the provision in the Bill that money will be available for legal advice. So often committees get bogged down over the legal advice and we cannot get it. We must discuss how we will go about that. Should we have budgets to bring in outside legal advice at appropriate times or should we have legal experts that are associated with the various committees? I am aware that within the staff of the House there are people with legal training. Perhaps we should beef up their contracts so that they will be able to provide that kind of legal advice.

To a great extent the Minister is giving a free hand to the commission to decide on most things it wants to do within the jurisdiction of the House. However, it cannot appoint a person above the level of principal officer. If we are to need people with particular expertise, maybe we will need to go higher than that to get the right person. It is an imposition within the legislation that perhaps should not be there. If the Minister is to hand over responsibility to the Houses of the Oireachtas for doing its own business he should not claw back responsibility for this and I ask him to reconsider it.

What about the proposals to restructure the Dáil and the way we do our business? Many people talk about the need for Dáil reform, but it is not clear what kind of Dáil reform is being proposed. We hear discussions are going on within various committees on proposed Dáil reform. What will be the impact on the financing of Leinster House if we have real reform? Many things need to be discussed and changed, some of them very radically, but there must be adequate discussion and negotiation with the staff, Members and the various political parties. What will be the cost implications for those? Are they to be included in the new set up budget costs?

Resourcing of spokespersons is another major issue. The Minister of State, Deputy Browne, who is in the House, can call on all the resources of his Department to help him prepare a speech to give in the Dáil. Opposition spokespersons of all parties operate to a great extent on their own. I was a spokesperson at one stage and the amount of back up I got from party resources was virtually nil. As a result we depend on the goodwill of friends and advisers, whom we ask to help in reviewing legislation and other topics. It is not good enough that opposition spokespersons have to rely on such help if they are to scrutinise legislation properly. We must consider how opposition spokespersons are resourced. That must be separate from their membership of the Dáil. If an ordinary Member is allowed an additional researcher-manager to help him or her, then the spokespersons need somebody in addition to that. I am always wary of giving additional staff to parties because often they get absorbed around the party leader and very little benefit accrues to ordinary Members within the party. This needs to be discussed and agreed at an early stage.

The commission will have full responsibility and resources to pay the salaries and expenses of the Members of the House. That is worthwhile and I hope it works well. This will highlight a further anomaly that exists already, which will not be rectified. From time to time, under the Freedom of Information Act, various newspapers seek to get the expense accounts relating to the Members of this House. There is one new Member here this evening who has probably read these in the newspapers in the past. There are 166 Members of this House, but when the expense accounts are released they relate to only about 125 Members because Ministers and Ministers of State have expense accounts based in their Departments. Thus it may appear that a Deputy McGrath from County Westmeath is getting a certain amount in expenses. A Minister, on the same list, who might be based in that constituency, is shown to be getting a fraction of the expense that I am getting. On reading this, the public wants to know how the Minister can do so much around the county when all the other Deputy does is to draw expenses. It is unfair and needs to be changed. If expenses for Members of this House are to be published, all 166 Members should be treated equally. The 32 people on the Government side should not be in the privileged position that only some of their expenses are published.

It does not make for a level playing pitch. While I see my good friend and colleague Deputy Browne smiling, perhaps he was not too happy when he saw the discrepancies occurring when there were Ministers in his constituency during the last regime.

I did not realise that Ministers got so few expenses.

I have not seen many of them offering to give up their posts. Now that the Deputy is in a position of power, he may well work towards balancing the books and making it fair and equal for everybody.

The compliments that have been paid to the Minister for Finance for looking after Member's interests are probably well warranted. Not having been a Member of the House previously I cannot assess that properly but I would have some experience having been a researcher for my party. I have seen the evolution of services to Green Party Members over the last couple of Dála. There has been an undoubted improvement in the standard of services available to Members. Congratulations need to be offered on those grounds.

This Bill is sincere in attempting to improve those facilities further and to bring about a better organisation of how the Houses of the Oireachtas are run. However, it is unfortunate that it seems to be a managerial approach to how the system of running the Houses can be looked at. I would like to have seen a wider philosophical attempt at increasing the effectiveness of how the Houses might be run. Maybe this is something that could be looked at on Committee Stage, the Bill might be better for it.

In the past it was not unusual for my now party leader to share an open plan office with a secretarial assistant, a researcher – which the party would have provided from its own resources – and latterly a press agent. It was not an ideal working arrangement but things have evolved. Members now have individual offices, secretarial assistants are in adjoining offices where available and that improvement is to be welcomed. New Members have experienced some teething problems and we are still trying to sort those out with the authorities in the House, particularly the Whips office. I am sure these problems can be resolved. I am grateful for the ongoing assistance that has been offered by the Houses of the Oireachtas staff in making sure that new Members are aware of what is available. In that regard I do not think there is a lot that needs to be changed in the working of the House and we should be looking at better ways of rewarding those who bring about the smooth operation of the House.

I would like to see a deep examination of some of the more mysterious aspects of how the Houses of the Oireachtas have evolved. I would like to see why there might be resistance to adopting necessary changes that reflect a modern 21st century Parliament. It strikes me that some of the rituals, habits and paraphernalia are very much rooted in the 1930s. While the Dáil in the 1930s played a very important role in evolving democracy in this country, it is not necessarily the best system going forward. There is a reluctance to use technology to a greater extent to improve our stature and the way we do our work. The electronic voting is an undoubted step forward and I look forward to the time when we can use it – I hope it will be soon. Other parliaments have gone even further. The idea of using information technology by having desk monitors in parliaments is useful for instant information retrieval in debates. Other speakers have spoken about the resources available to Opposition spokespersons compared to those of the Government. If we were to use information technology in an imaginative way, many of those problems could be overcome.

The Minister makes specific reference to how the management system of the commission should be structured. I can sense this Bill was largely drafted before the election. We must acknowledge that not only are we living in a new Ireland following that election, we are living with a new reality in this House where the political structures have undergone a massive upheaval. I do not believe the number of Members' representatives proposed for the commission – who will have the largest interest in the smooth running of this House – is reflective of how this House is now constituted. There are a number of political groupings and I would like to see the Bill amended on Committee Stage to properly reflect that. It is no secret to any Member that there is an ongoing dispute over the Standing Orders and how they should be changed. I can sense there is a degree of impatience from the more established political systems with a longer history of membership in this House. As much as we feel comfortable with how things have been and how things are, we must be prepared to embrace change to bring about a more efficient and better working relationship. This Bill is only about adjusting the paraphernalia of the business of the House rather than deeply examining what the House is and how it can operate better.

I hope to see the Government addressing the idea of having a more interactive Parliament, but I do not have too much confidence in that. I would like to see legislation, especially that which is not of a financial nature, coming from all sectors of the House. I would like to see a greater use of Private Members' legislation and the use of the Law Reform Commission to overcome backlogs in the legislative process by producing finished Bills that can immediately be inputted into the workings of the House. That would lead to an ongoing legislative programme to which all Members could relate.

We must also address the way we structure our business. This Parliament meets less than probably any other in Europe and that is not satisfactory. It is very much hamstrung by British parliamentary procedures of the last century and is very male oriented and anti-family in how it structures its business and its timing. As a result, we suffer in the composition of the membership and the number of people who can confidently put themselves forward for election to this House because of what are seen as archaic barriers to being a proper Parliament of the people which would involve people in the decision making of this House. I hope attention is paid to the Second Stage debate and that appropriate amendments are tabled on Committee Stage. If the Minister does not do that, the Green Party will do it. I hope we can vote on a Bill which improves the workings of the House.

I welcome the Bill. I am sorry the Minister for Finance is not here because I want to compliment him. It is not often that a Minister is complimented by the Opposition, but he sees the issue from all sides. He spent a long time on the Opposition benches. There was a time when he thought he would be appointed a Minister, but the plug was pulled on him. He did not forget the Members the day he was elected. I congratulate the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne, on his appointment and I wish him well. He has always been a kind and courteous person in the House. I hope he does not forget the Members on the opposite side of the House, like other Ministers did when they got into office and received the support of staff in the Civil Service. The Minister, Deputy McCreevy, did not do that. He dealt with the grievances, problems and salary structures of Deputies. I compliment him on that because credit must be given where credit is due.

My party did not have a good general election and, as a result, a high price was paid. We lost some of our colleagues and our secretaries both inside and outside the House. We often forget about the secretaries and the loyal service they gave to the Deputies every day for seven days a week. Once a Deputy loses his or her seat, some of the secretaries lose their jobs because they are on contract. I want the Department to respond to this issue. I call on the Minister for Finance, who has come into the Chamber, to ensure that the loyal service given by secretaries to Deputies is taken into consideration when applying for jobs in the health boards or county councils. They have the qualifications for such jobs because they know how the system works and they have dealt with problems which have arisen. I ask the Department to recognise the service and time they have given to the House if clerical positions arise in Mayo County Council, Cavan County Council or Donegal County Council. I ask the Minister to comment on that in his reply to the debate.

Many secretaries feel let down by the system. They were busy during the election as they worked hard for the Deputies. Some of them have families, mortgages and commitments. Something should be done to help them. Packages are provided for Deputies who lose their seats and for secretaries, but some of them have more to give to the system. They have a great understanding of the system. I hope something can be done for them because they have been forgotten.

I agree with what Deputy Howlin said earlier. We had wonderful people in this House in recent years who gave great service to the committees and who spoke on many Bills. They did a lot of work with limited resources. Many of them neglected their own work and subsequently paid a heavy price for it. I am glad Deputy Ó Caoláin is in the Chamber. It amazes me that I have to compete with Sinn Féin in my constituency. It has an office which is staffed on a full-time basis. However, I have one secretary who is overworked and is not paid properly for the job she does. I would not be in Dáil Éireann if it was not for the support of my wife and family. I see other people at meetings who have the best research facilities and people to do everything for them. However, I must depend on my brain. I try to help my secretary, who has too much work to do, but I do not have enough time in the day to deal with it all.

The media are always critical of politicians and they will not leave us alone. However, they would not be able to survive without us. They will not have enough stories during the summer recess, so they will make them up and hope the parties respond. They give out about the House but they would not have a job if it was not for the House and the county councils. They would not have anything to write about to fill their newspapers every Sunday. Newspapers sold best when nasty things were happening in the House. They do not seem to cover the positive things which happen here. One could make a great speech about something, but it would not appear in the newspapers the following day. However, if I made a serious allegation about the Minister this evening, I guarantee it would be on the front page of the newspapers tomorrow. Perhaps the media should look at the hard work being done by Deputies, many of whom were not rewarded at the last election.

There are not any votes in the House, only in the constituencies. One must be in the constituency all the time. I told a political meeting one night that I would be a wonderful Deputy if I did not have to attend Dáil Éireann. I could visit every place in the constituency, but the problem is I must be here from Monday to Thursday. If I want to do my job properly, this is where I must be.

I hope the Minister and the commission have discussions with the Members of the House about the budget and that we do not leave ourselves short of finance. We do not want the media to zone in on the fact that we have resources from the Department of Finance, but we do not have enough money in the budget. That is important. Members and former Members, who have gone through the system and who either lost their seats or retired at the last election, have a part to play in that regard. They should be brought on board because they have seen the changes in recent years.

Every household now has a computer. We get more e-mails than letters every morning. We have telephones and mobile telephones. I have had one secretary since I came into the House eight years ago. We get an allowance for someone to help us out, but it would not pay for one day's work. The people want us to operate in a modern Parliament and to give a modern service. Almost one third of Members lost their seats in the general election because the people have high expec tations. They expect us to be able to give a complete service.

I will give the House a simple example. I spent a half day on Monday on the telephone to the Passport Office because a constituent had problems with a passport which was sent by Swift Post. I compliment the Passport Office which did everything in its power to help. The person concerned was supposed to leave the country tomorrow. He spent €2,000 on tickets because he had got a job in America. He would have lost the job and the money only for the work done by the Passport Office and by me. People will say I should not have done that. If I told that constituent on Monday morning that I could not speak to him because I was a legislator who should be in the House of Parliament dealing with Bills, I would spend a short time here. I would be elected for only one term. I listen to the media and the critics who say we should not do council work or listen to people's problems. However, if we do not do that, we will not be Members of the House for long.

We must get the necessary resources for this legislation. As regards the funding which will be put in place, I do not want it to be given to political parties. I will oppose it if it is given to my party, to Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party or Sinn Féin. The resources must be given to the individual Members. Deputy McGrath referred to a recent report which indicated that an additional 20 researchers would be provided. Even if an additional 40 researchers were provided in the library, more work would be found for them and the Members would continue to suffer from a lack of resources. It is time the Members' requirements were considered.

With regard to the Freedom of Information Act, while I have nothing to hide, I believe we in this House have sold ourselves short in relation to expenses and our own private business. Within the next few months, the many new Members of the House will have to sign up and declare what property and businesses they have. The media will be only too ready to publish that information to let the public know what each Member has. Why should it matter what I own? As a Member of this House, I declare what I own and that information rests with the Clerk of the Dáil. If I speak or act on an issue in which I have a business interest, that should be dealt with promptly by the House, but why should what a Deputy has be any concern of Joe Soap? How does that serve the public interest? Why should that have to be put on display?

If I was in power, I would deal with the freedom of information issue in relation to our expenses. I have no problem with people knowing our salary. My objection is to the media exaggeration of our expenses. Do people in the media not realise that, because I live in the west, 165 miles from this House, my expenses are obviously and necessarily greater than those of a Deputy who may live 20 miles from the House? Do they not know that I have to pay for overnight accommodation while I am in Dublin from Tuesday to Friday – or do they expect me to stay on the streets? Why should my allowance for the use of a telephone be an issue? Are we expected to do without modern methods of communication? There is gross exaggeration of what Deputies are portrayed as "extracting from the system". I do not object to publication of what I get for travel and subsistence costs – that is what I personally draw. However, it is wrong to add in the costs of maintaining my office, which I do not personally draw. That issue should be dealt with without delay. We should look at the practice which applies in the British Parliament, where the expenses of MPs are not trotted out on the public media. It is time we took a stand on this. I emphasise again that I have no problem with publication of my salary and personal expenses but the day to day running of the office should not be for public consumption, resulting in the ridiculous accusation that Deputies are getting £100,000 – or the euro equivalent – out of the system.

If we want a modern Parliament whose Members have up to date services and facilities, we cannot be expected to accept third class, inadequate resources and staff to assist us. In preparation for this debate, I had to read the Bill and prepare my own notes. My secretary is fully occupied dealing with day to day constituency work. Later this evening, I have to follow up on three pages of phone messages. I cannot just tell my constituents that I am a legislator – I have to listen to their problems and deal with them. We need the resources and staff to enable us to do our job properly. A recent report showed that we are the most under-staffed Parliament in Europe. That must change as we cannot continue under present conditions and expect to compete with the rest of the world. Ten years ago we did not have the pressure of having to respond immediately to e-mail messages and local radio stations. While we had a week or two to respond to letters, modern communications demand an instant response to queries from constituents which have to be followed up with Departments and other agencies. For example, at my constituency clinic last Monday, the wide range of queries included some from refugees seeking information on their rights. I also have to deal with inquiries from companies in relation to work permits and so on. I cannot be expected to have all the required information at my fingertips – I have to research it, put it together and convey it to the people concerned.

Each Deputy has one secretary, who is allowed 21 days holidays each year and four privilege days, to which they are perfectly entitled. However, that means I have to do without a secretary for 25 days of the year. That would not be tolerated in any business or in any Department. There is no question of closing down the office or business because a secretary is on holidays – a replacement has to be provided. It is equally impossible for politicians to close down their offices for 25 days of the year. There was a time when one could count on a relatively quiet period during the summer months, when there were less inquiries and problems being raised. That no longer applies and we are subject to calls every day of the year, regardless of the season. It is time we had adequate back-up, including additional secretarial service and some form of programme manager to assist us with the necessary research and information to do our job effectively. We cannot do that job under present conditions and that is one of the reasons there is such a turnover of people in this House. One has to make a choice, as new Members will soon realise, between being a legislator or doing constituency work. If one concentrates on constituency work, one has some chance of being re-elected but if one chooses to be a legislator, one has no such chance. Those who choose to be legislators will simply not be returned to the House at the next election.

We must show some imagination and not be afraid to take the correct decisions. We are not looking for anything unreasonable. We are simply asking for adequate back-up and proper facilities. We are a modern Parliament and our Members need modern equipment and adequate staff. The Minister is not afraid to make political decisions. I compliment him on the political decisions he has made in the past and I hope he will do likewise in future. I hope an adequate budget will be put in place for a three year period. We should allocate sufficient resources now, rather than having to come back for more in two years time, with a further round of media criticism at that stage. We should have the courage to equip ourselves as a modern Parliament, without being afraid of what media people may say. We are not magicians, we are politicians. If we were magicians, we could deceive the people and avoid working for them. As parliamentarians, we have to do our job well. Civil servants and others do not have to go before the interview board which we politicians have to face every few years and which is becoming more difficult to satisfy, as Deputies on this side of the House have learned in the recent election. The normal practice has been for the electorate to take out the Government, but on this occasion they took out the Opposition instead. We may have had a bad day but there are better days ahead. There is a Mayo man at the helm of my party and I have no doubt he will be on the other side of the House after the next general election.

I do not know if Deputy Ring was referring to me in his last remarks but I fully support his sentiments.

If the Deputy were to lead his party, I would apply them to him also.

In recent years there has been a gradual erosion of the position of Parliamentvis-á-vis the Executive. There has also been a growing imbalance in the resources between the Opposition and the Executive of the day. While Dáil reform appears to greatly agitate the members of the Opposition, when they get into Government it falls down the list of priorities on the political agenda.

The erosion of the position of Parliament is bad for our parliamentary system of democracy. For example, among many of the findings of the DIRT inquiry was the generic one that what happened in terms of the extent of tax evasion was the consequence of the failure of parliamentary accountability. As of yesterday, €446 million has been recouped for the Exchequer as a result of the inquiry. What happened could not have occurred were it not for a breakdown in the kind of parliamentary accountability and scrutiny that should normally apply.

However, this accountability and scrutiny cannot happen when all the resources available are allocated to the Government side of the House and when, on this side, even frontbenchers are expected to operate with the assistance of a very badly paid secretary. I am not sure if I can make sense of the requirement by the Department of Finance that those leaving the service must make their decision by Friday. Should they leave, they cannot change their minds and stay on for a year, thus enabling them to qualify for the few cent of severance pay to which they would be entitled. They must decide now or contract for the lifetime of the Parliament. Despite this, Members would be unable to recruit from outside the kind of people who can do the job that is expected of those predominantly female staff who work for us. As Members we have failed over the years to make that point to the Department.

It is a serious injustice to attempt to equate those working for Members, not to mention frontbenchers, to the grade of clerical officer in the Civil Service. The Civil Service unions are partly to blame for this due to their dog in the manger attitude. They do not accept these workers into their union because they are not regarded as civil servants, which is strictly the case, yet, they are damned if they will get anything that does not have knock-on effects throughout the service. I cannot see the merit in this situation. It highlights that we have never asserted ourselves as Members of Parliament and that decisions are made by others. That is not in the interests of our parliamentary system of democracy, nor of the relevance of this Parliament in the minds of citizens, nor, ultimately, of the Civil Service.

The germ of hope I see in this Bill is that it will allow for a devolution to the elected Members of this House of the governance of the institutions of Parliament, the Seanad and the Dáil. There are great possibilities here. This is not to denigrate the excellent service we get from the officials of the State who work for the Houses of the Oireachtas. The civil servants who have served this Parliament have generally been of a high quality. They have constantly been prepared to work above and beyond the call of duty, including ridiculous hours, and under serious pressure at peak times in Parliament in terms of legislation, including when several Bills are due for consideration at the same time, as happens under the current plethora of Dáil committees.

We, the elected Members, should decide whether we are seriously interested in Dáil reform. I ask the Minister and, through him, his officials to consider how often this Parliament has seriously engaged in such reform. The answer is hardly at all since the foundation of the State. If we are to seriously address the question we should do so in a radical way that brings this Parliament into the 21st century.

I am not concerned with issues such as the press releases that the former Chief Whip and now Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, used to issue at the beginning of the Dáil or a new parliamentary year. I fully admired his skills in being able to declare great progress in Dáil reform, evidenced by the number of committees he established and changes he introduced. That only tinkered at the edges. The parliamentary committee system is as much dictated by the necessity to create Chairs for disappointed backbenchers in the Government parties than it is for legislative scrutiny. There are so many disappointed sore heads in the backbenchers on the other side of the House that there is a need to exceed in number the 21 committees which existed during the lifetime of the last Dáil. That is usually the dictating factor, not whether it is in the interest of our system of democracy.

This House cannot service 21 committees and it is transparent that the staff cannot do so. The membership of the Dáil, at 166, compares with a membership of over 600 in the House of Commons. Given the size of the House of Commons and the fact that some of its membership does not aspire to office while others specialise in foreign affairs, public accounts or whatever, it would be possible to have such a committee system there. However, if one allows for the 15 Ministers and all the Ministers of State and their Opposition counterparts, it is clear that this House is too small to service such a system. While it is a mechanism to provide a chocolate sweet to those Members with a sore head because they did not join the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, in the ministerial ranks, it is not Dáil reform.

If we are serious about Dáil reform and concerned with making an historic breakthrough we should do it in a fashion that brings this Parliament into the 21st century. This involves making major decisions. I am not sure how this can be done in the context of section 5 of the Bill, which appears to stipulate the budget that will be made available. I do not know how it is calculated nor whether, on the basis of multi-annual budgeting, it is a three year multiple of the anticipated outturn for 2002 at today's rate. I understand the Minister is to introduce an amendment on Committee Stage that will vary the figure provided for but that the figure agreed will be the fixed amount unless he comes back to the House for legislative authority.

We need to know what this figure takes account of, especially given the huge imbalance in the allocation of resources. One of the joys which the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Callely, whom I am delighted to see in that office, has perhaps not yet savoured is that he will now have a constituency office of faithful civil servants looking after the drudgery in which he has been so proficient in Dublin North-Central up to now. He will have four or five people to staff the office. I do not know if Deputy Michael D. Higgins would be prepared to put down a question, as Deputy Callely used to do in the past, to find out how many civil servants are working in the offices of Ministers. If we had the staff, we could do a research project on the kind of questions Deputy Callely used to put down.

I am a mere Minister of State, not a super Minister.

We will not reciprocate, but if we did we would find that an entire infrastructure is available to a Minister including civil servants of the Department and four or five people to do his constituency work. The day will come when one is no longer a Minister, when the rug is pulled from under one's feet and one is an Opposition Front Bench spokesperson with, as Deputy Ring said, only a secretary to back one up. That is an indication of the stark imbalance in resources that exists between this side of the House and the Government side.

The Department of Finance has a role in terms of monitoring public expenditure, although one would not know that from the past 18 months, but generally that is its role. It is beyond me how it can be posited that that imbalance in resources is in the interests of our system of parliamentary democracy. Given the complexity of issues that regularly come before this House, one cannot expect any kind of informed contribution from the Opposition on a sustained basis without backup being available.

I do not know what commitment is envisaged in terms of that backup. I will be told we made the decision ourselves. If there is a problem with something in the Civil Service the solution is to bring in consultants as a first step. Someone brought in consultants here – maybe we did – but I would rather see half a dozen Members being asked to do the job. We know more about it than consultants. Nevertheless, we have the report on the international benchmarking review on Members' services prepared by Deloitte & Touche. I do not know what status these recommendations have. Does this document go to the commission? Is it taken as an interesting submission or is it a template for the way forward?

One recommendation is for a dedicated research service of 20 researchers associated with the Library. That is a good idea as our Library has traditionally been badly resourced. However, it does not resolve the problem that as a member of the Labour Party I do not want to go along to a central research unit to be told how I should look at the latest piece of intellectual property before the House. I would like to be able to consult my own researcher who reflects Labour Party thinking in preparing my contribution on an issue. A central unit will not solve the problem.

Another recommendation contained in the report is that each Deputy be provided with one additional member of staff. What status does that have, if any? Colleagues have spoken to me about constituency managers. Front Bench colleagues in a number of parties have spoken of their preferences for a researcher. I do not know why we have to make this choice if we are serious about parliamentary reform. If I had to make this decision I would choose to have a competent, qualified researcher, but I do not think we ought to have to make that choice. The report assumes an average cost for a researcher of €39,000 per annum, including salary, employer's PRSI, pension contributions and so on. One is not going to get a researcher worth tuppence for that salary as the net income is less than €30,000. That is insufficient to attract a competent person with some degree of experience. I do not know if this is what is being proposed, and I presume the Minister in his reply will say if he is to introduce an amendment that will fix a figure based on something that is acceptable to the Members of the House in terms of additional staff.

I am greatly amused to hear the Taoiseach and Tánaiste regularly say we are going to build a world class stadium. We do not know whether we are going to build it on the site of the old Irish Glass Bottle Company in Deputy McDowell's constituency or in Abbotstown, but it is going to be world class. We are at the cutting edge of information technology. We have brought in electronic voting because we have to send out the message to the world that this is the intelligent island. I do not know what was wrong with the system of voting we had, but we have to have electronic voting because we have to convey how modern we are. If we are going to do all those things why can we not apply it to the Houses of the Oireachtas? If we are to have a world class stadium, why can we not have a world class Parliament?

Hear, hear.

That is the issue. I did not hear a solid commitment on that from the Minister. I do not know if the Deloitte & Touche report has been accepted. Is it a matter for the commission? The Ceann Comhairle, it appears, will lead the proposed commission that will make decisions about the governance of Parliament. Let me make it clear that I do not want anything I am saying to be taken as reflecting on the current eminent office holder, Deputy O'Hanlon.

The imbalance in this House is on the Opposition side. In recent years we have abandoned the convention of this House that the Ceann Comhairle is taken from the Opposition side, which is a great pity. I do not know how it came about that yet another chocolate sweet had to be given out to the Government supporters allowing them to elect their own Ceann Comhairle. The tradition was that he was drawn from the other side of the House regardless of who was in Government. The role of the Ceann Comhairle is critical. The entire commission will fall if we end up doing what the Government or the official side want us to do, or if we employ more legal advisers to tell us what we cannot do. We want to know how we can do things, and therefore the balance on the commission will be critical. Obviously we have to tailor our cloth to fit the measure in terms of times of stringency or whatever, but this is the national Parliament and our citizens depend on the quality of legislation enacted to a considerable extent, which is sufficient reason for us to resource it accordingly.

I wish to refer to an exchange that took place between Deputy Conor Lenihan and Mr. Kieran Coughlan, the Clerk of the Dáil, at the Public Accounts Committee on 22 February 2001 as follows:

Deputy C. Lenihan: Is it still the case that we are the worst resourced Parliament in Europe?

Mr. Coughlan: That is right.

Deputy C. Lenihan: I know you compared it to Belgium.

Mr. Coughlan: Our resources were less than 50% of those in the EU in terms of resources per Member and in terms of staff.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Less than 50%?

Mr. Coughlan: Yes, 50% less than the EU Parliaments in terms of budget per Member and staff per Member.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Where do we stand on a general European comparison as opposed to the Belgian comparison? Are we bottom of the league again?

Mr. Coughlan: We are.

Deputy C. Lenihan: Of all the EU?

Mr. Coughlan: Yes.

That is our comparative position. If we are not permitted to take that as the base line and to engage in serious Dáil reform on this landmark occasion, we will never do it. We are running out of time. This House is becoming less and less relevant in the eyes of very many citizens and if we are going to make it relevant again, this will be an essential component.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Joe Higgins.

I welcome the opportunity this Bill affords us to discuss the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is timely because it is being introduced at the start of a new, and what is clearly a very different, Dáil. The Dáil is now more representative than ever before of the political diversity in this State. The smaller parties have come back in greater strength and among the Independents there is a broader political spectrum than before.

I must put on record at the outset my disappointment that the Government has to date refused to agree the necessary changes to Standing Order 114 of this Dáil in order to give proper recognition to my party, Sinn Féin, and to the other smaller parties and Independent Deputies. This is directly relevant to the legislation before us because proper recognition for political parties is essential to the general running of these Houses as well as the running of Dáil business. Cross-party co-operation is vital and for this to happen the integrity of all mandates, including party mandates, must be given due recognition.

This arises directly under section 8 of the Bill which sets out the composition of the Houses of the Oireachtas commission. It is proposed that four members will be from the Dáil and three from the Seanad. The problem rears its head immediately as to how smaller parties and Independents can achieve proper representation.

For decades this Dáil was totally dominated by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party. The way of doing business here has been moulded by that by-gone reality and the three-way split is still the dominant approach. My party is denied access to our own Priority Questions, leaders' questions and Private Members' Business. We cannot fully participate in the Business of this House in all its aspects. We live, quite literally, on borrowed time, just as in the case of this debate. Once again, I urge the Minister and the Government to end the democratic deficit in this House and put the matter right before the Dáil adjourns for the summer recess.

These difficulties can be resolved easily if there is goodwill and common sense on all sides. It suits none of us for the business of the Dáil to be delayed or disrupted. I must emphasise that we are not looking for special privileges. Proper recognition of all mandates will ensure the smooth running of Oireachtas business, but I want to reiterate – I have no doubt but that I have the support of my colleagues in the Green Party and the Independents – that if the rights of all Members and all parties are not vindicated, then we will continue to oppose the daily ordering of Business on the basis of Standing Orders which do not reflect the reality of how the people voted in the general election. I hope and believe we can resolve this issue and avoid that scenario.

I fully acknowledge that there have been significant improvements in facilities in these Houses in recent years, but they are still far from satisfactory. Ministers and Deputies supporting the Government have the use of legions of civil servants to cater to their every need. Opposition Deputies must cope with inadequate staffing levels and other minimal resources, especially in terms of research. This places us all at a huge disadvantage.

One of the major problems in these Houses is the lack of proper press facilities – I hope our friends in the press will take note. We have no rooms for press conferences or press interviews. Buswells Hotel is effectively the press centre of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Interviews must be conducted on the plinth and cleared beforehand with the Superintendent or the Captain, which is often a major inconvenience for Deputies and for the media, given the need for rapid responses to issues as they arise. The Superintendent and the Captain should not be burdened with this type of work and the new commission must address as a priority the whole area of media facilities.

Even after the addition of Leinster House 2000 there is still inadequate use of space in the Houses of the Oireachtas. My party requires, as a matter of urgency, more office space in addition to that currently allocated. At present, two of our Deputies are sharing an office designed for one person and two are in single rooms with little space for their secretaries. We have no designated party meeting room. While I realise the limitations, I urge a thorough review of the use of office space in this complex. This should be one of the first undertakings of the new commission.

It has been mooted in the past – I want to pay particular attention to this issue and ask that it be noted – that the Oireachtas would seek to remove its neighbour, the National Museum, from its fine building here in Kildare Street in order to take over that space. I would be strongly opposed to such a move. The National Museum, an Leabharlann Náisiúnta, the newly extended National Gallery and the Natural History Museum are all vital parts of a fine cultural complex at the heart of our capital city. They attract tens of thousands of visitors every year and should not only remain but be further enhanced and developed.

Many of the established working methods in Leinster House, both in terms of the actual business of the Dáil and Seanad and the management of the Oireachtas as a working environment, have come down to us from a bygone age. They were inherited from our former colonial governors at Westminster, where parliament is run in the manner of a gentlemen's club. We are not quite that bad, but much remains to be done to make this a more efficient and accessible Parliament. To take just one example, it is incredible that in 2002 we still do not have a crèche available for the many hundreds of people who work in this complex. This is disgraceful in an institution which should be an example to all other employers.

I entered this House five years ago as the sole representative of my party. It was a strange and solitary experience. There were some friendly faces to greet me but I have to say that many more were not so friendly. Sadly it was not my fellow Deputies who were of most assistance to myself and my parliamentary assistant at that time, but the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Ushers, administrative staff in the various offices, library staff, the IT unit and restaurant and bar workers treated me and my assistant with courtesy and friendliness and have always done so. I want to place on record my appreciation for the work that the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas do in all the many and diverse aspects of life here in this complex.

Deputies and Senators account for only a fraction of the number of people who work in the Houses of the Oireachtas. For that reason I strongly contend that the make-up of the commission as proposed is totally insufficient. There are to be seven Oireachtas Members on the commission, but where is the representation for the hundreds of staff members of all grades? It might be argued that the Secretary General will represent them but this is totally unsatisfactory. There should be worker representation. In a democratic institution such as this, there ought to be the fullest representation and participation possible. The workers' representatives could be directly elected or nominated by the relevant trades unions or by a joint trades union committee of the trades unions representing workers in these Houses. However it is done, it should happen and I want to signal my intention to table amendments in that regard. I urge the Government and the other Opposition parties to accept the principle of full and proper representation for all who work here.

It is now 7 p.m. I ask the Deputy to conclude.

On the resumption of the debate, my colleague Deputy Joe Higgins will be in possession.

Debate adjourned.