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.