The degree of co-operation between the Deputy and myself is slightly worrying.
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill 2002: Report Stage (Resumed).
From whose point of view?
This is an interesting amendment. It is identical to what my Department had initially suggested. However, it got the knock in the Parliamentary Counsel's office. The reason given is that the functions of the commission are set out with a broad brush in section 1 and we were, therefore, precluded from describing, in the same section, the various manifestations or details of these functions as functions. On this type of matter, I am completely in the hands of the legal people and I cannot accept Deputy Burton's amendment, much as I would like to.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
Amendments Nos. 10 and 11 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to take steps to ensure that an equitable balance is maintained between the rights of members of the Houses of the Oireachtas who are members of the Government parties and those who are in opposition,”.
These are two extremely important amendments because they cut to the heart of the purposes of the Bill, as agreed by Members and committees of this House over a number of years. This commission, when it is established, will allow the Houses of the Oireachtas to govern itself, as is proper. It is important, therefore, that an equitable balance be struck between members of Government parties and those in Opposition. I am concerned that the way the Bill is structured will give an excessive level of power to the Government of the day.
When this issue was discussed over the years it was agreed, as with other houses of parliament, that membership of this very important committee would consist of senior members from the parties in the House and that these people would work together for the good of all Members of the House and of parliamentary democracy. The way in which the Bill is structured excessively favours the current Government. The commission will comprise the Ceann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, a nominee of the Minister for Finance and a member of the Government party. There will be a clear majority in favour of the Government parties. Amendments Nos. 10 and 11, which mention the necessity to maintain an equitable balance in the context of the Bill, are appropriate. Amendment No. 11 would require the commission to consult broadly with "Members of the Houses who are members of Government parties and those who are in opposition" as to the performance of its functions.
The structure of this House has changed in recent years, particularly in the aftermath of the last general election. As a consequence, we now have a considerable number of parties in the House, some of which are relatively small, three of which are larger and one of which is very large. We also have a number of Independents. Many of the smaller parties and Independents have gro uped together in the Technical Group in order to secure representation, speaking rights and so on. Given that the diversity with which the electorate chooses to fill the Houses of the Oireachtas has been manifest for some time, it is important that the Bill should make a positive statement about equity, the balance of interest of all the parties in the House and consultation. I have every confidence that the eminent Members who will be appointed to this commission will seek to do that, but it would be far better if it were written into the legislation.
Today, when the Estimates for the Office of the Taoiseach are examined by the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service, we are particularly aware that the resources available to the offices of the Taoiseach and other Ministers are substantial. The Taoiseach was able to tell us today, for example, about the extent of the media monitoring unit and the numbers of people on the staff of the Taoiseach's office who are simply dealing with requests for information from the Sunday newspapers. Opposition spokespeople are in the category of one man and a dog when it comes to resources, back-up and research information. The average Minister and Minister of State has 4.5 people working on constituency matters and has access to a very large back-up of civil servants and very high calibre civil servants working as private secretaries and in the private office.
The Opposition is elected to hold the Government, whatever its composition, properly to account. That is our job and it is important for democracy that we do it. If this commission is to work properly, it is of the gravest importance that an equitable bond be struck and the principle of consultation mentioned and written into the Bill. On that basis, I commend both of these amendments to the House.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
Before I call the next speaker, it is incumbent on me, being in the Chair, to point out that the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach, whoever they are and whenever it is, are outside of party politics. I say this just in case anyone might get the impression from what has been said that it is otherwise.
On that point, I did say that I expect that all of the people who will be on the commission will be excellent.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
I am not debating the issue, I am just making the point.
I support the amendments put forward by my colleague, Deputy Burton. She has outlined a strong case for the acceptance of those amendments, and for their inclusion in the Bill as it goes through this House. When the commission is established, which we hope will happen fairly soon, it will take on the onerous task of running these Houses in an equitable way and ensuring that we get best value for taxpayers' money. Part of getting best value for taxpayers' money is ensuring that the Opposition is properly resourced so that it can examine, scrutinise, ask and check, find out how taxpayers' money is being spent and what is happening behind closed doors, and ensuring that it has the backup to be able to do that.
Take a point that arose today, for instance, with the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, who is in the House. The Estimates for the Office of Public Works went through the Houses today, through the select committee, with the Minister of State present. When one considers what happened today, sometimes it is understandable that we look at ourselves and ask, "Are we for real?" First, we are discussing those Estimates for 2003 in June of the same year. I suppose half of the money is spent or, perhaps, the Minister has half of it left – depending on which way one looks at it. Half the money is spent at this stage.
At such committee meetings, there is the Opposition spokesperson, my colleague, Deputy Richard Bruton, who is expected to question the Minister of State on the Estimate. What back-up service has Deputy Bruton, or Deputy Ring, the Front Bench spokesperson on social welfare, which is an important area spending millions of euro? They have one secretary to help them out.
We know the position of Ministers and Ministers of State. They have a team of excellent civil servants who can see what is coming around the corner, anticipate the kind of queries and questions which will arise, anticipate probably what fellows like me will say, and prepare briefing notes for the Minister of State with all the background information which will be available from those people.
One would wonder how they think, but they do.
Unfortunately in our position, it is, as Deputy Burton said, one man and his dog, although I would not like my secretary to think I described her as a dog – it is one man with whatever help he can get.
What is happening, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle? You are longer in this House than anybody else, and you have been there and done that and you know the situation. What happens is that we, as Members of this House, are relying on friends to give us a hand-out with our brief. One gives friends a document and asks that they have a look at it to highlight what is important in it, and what they can do with it, and now and again we bring together groups to look at issues which arise and how we should address them.
Does the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, think that is fair? In his previous incarnation in the farming organisation he also had a plethora of back-up people, but I heard him say, I think at the famous meeting in Athlone, that the Minister can trot out the facts and figures because he has all the civil servants behind him, and he is able to produce all this stuff and swamp the farmers and the press with information. Now that Deputy Parlon is in that position, he is a Minister of State, what will he do?
The amendments before the Minister of State are simply putting into the Bill the onus on the commission to ask the following questions. How can we equalise the situation? How can we make it fairer? How can we give the Opposition a few teeth, trying to get it on a par? It will never be on a par as regards what is happening?
It is interesting that we are all suffering from the repercussions of a recent court case about elections, the publication of spending limits, etc. Some of us got caught, unknown to ourselves. The court decided that in elections one must try to achieve equality. The court made that decision and I respect it. However, how one can implement equality in the case of elections is somewhat impossible to say. If there is a Minister in a constituency and one is standing for election for the first time, the Minister remains in office for the duration of the election and can use whatever secretarial services he has as backup. They might take into account a notional cost for some of it but if, for instance, a Minister comes to a constituency to open a school, or perhaps a Garda station, which might be more appropriate, how much of it can one call electioneering and put down as costs associated with electioneering, and how much of it can one put down to the Minister doing his or her job? One cannot judge.
What about a Senator standing for election to the Dáil who remains a Senator for the duration of the election? What about his or her work? A Senator is entitled to use Oireachtas envelops, etc., and he or she does not have to include it as expenses. How does one balance that? The courts have said that one is supposed to have a level playing pitch which is an awful task to repose to anybody.
Taking that forward, I wonder what would happen if the courts were to look at the case of today's committee. When the committee approved Estimates running to millions of euro, would the court question how one could have equality, in terms of the level of information and backup available to the Minister of State and the level of facilities available to others? Unfortunately that does not happen.
On these amendments, I hope that the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon – noting what he did, how he behaved and how he worked in his previous incarnation, and the difficulties for the minnow as against the whale – will agree to include this notional concept in the Bill so that at least the commission will be charged with the responsibility of looking to level the playing field.
The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, has been lucky in politics. He never had the problem I encountered. I came into the House from a by-election in 1994 and I was lucky to win it against the odds. From 1995 to 1997, when Fine Gael was in Government, there were two Ministers in my constituency. I had to drive myself around the country and I was expected to be at every public meeting, while these guys had the resources of the State. They had programme managers, press managers and every kind of manager.
As a Front Bench spokesperson, I am now speaking on behalf of the backbenchers. Deputy Paul McGrath is correct, and Deputy Burton knows what we mean. Yesterday I took on the social welfare Estimates. I got them at 2 p.m. and was expected to go in and question a Minister. I was expected to have all the questions and at the same time have all the answers. The Minister, Deputy Coughlan, brought five or six civil servants to the committee. She had another five or six in the Gallery, and I suppose 20 more above in the offices in case there were any mistakes. One sees these officials running in with answers if there are any problems if we have asked a question that the boys and the ladies have not thought about.
Like Deputy Paul McGrath, I must compliment these civil servants, in all fairness to them. I have never been a Minister, but I see the books and the reams of information given to Ministers, with the questions that may be asked, could be asked and should be asked, and they have them all. I must compliment them. They leave no stone unturned. If they are caught out, however, as quick as anything one will see the usher coming in with the answer in two seconds.
On the issue of resources and the commission, I want to make a point on behalf of the Front Bench spokesmen. This is about equality. While the Deputies present may not agree with me, I do not want to see the resources being given to the political parties because they are far worse than the Ministers.
The political parties are like the Ministers. When Deputies, who were once Ministers, are in Opposition they want everything, and the minute they go over to the other side of the House they forget about us. The political parties will just gobble up the resources, and we will have more staff within the offices and nobody to do the work we need to do. If resources are to be given out, they must be given out equally. I was on the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body and I sat beside my British counterparts. They were accompanied by people with briefcases and pages of material relating to the agenda, questions to be asked and questions not to be asked. One day I said to a colleague: "You have done a great lot of work on this" and he replied: "Deputy, I have not researched this, I have three or four people and this is their job, they come along and they do all the research, all I have to do is read the briefing document and I know what to do."
Deputy McGrath, Deputy Burton and myself have one secretary. My secretary has to answer the telephone, do the typing and collect the information for me. I come down to the Chamber and most times I do not have a speech typed out because I cannot ask my secretary to do so. I must do it myself because I do not have the resources. Modern parliaments require modern support services. The day is gone when TDs travelled up on the train from their constituencies on a Monday or Tuesday and they returned on the train on Friday. There was no local radio and there was no contact with them. Dublin was so far away it did not matter. They might be found on a Saturday or Sunday but they were gone again on a Monday. We are now in instant contact thanks to mobile phones and the Internet. We can be located immediately. I receive queries from the media from all over the world. An Irish person rang me from Scotland recently to ask for my help in obtaining a visa for America. A person from South Africa—
Such is the Deputy's fame.
I do not know about that but I was pleased that a guy from South Africa e-mailed me to ask for information about something that was happening in this country. We are expected to respond to those pressures. The Minister of State will learn this lesson on the next occasion. He got away with it on the last occasion because he was a fresh face, a new person with no baggage, because he was never before on the ballot paper.
He will be on this side the next time.
I have no doubt about that.
If he is lucky.
When the Minister of State goes to the doorstep somebody will say to him: "I wrote to you three years ago and I did not even get a reply". That is the sort of pressure he will be under and he may not even remember the letter. The Minister of State is lucky because he is an officeholder and has the resources of State to call upon. I remember running around the constituency of Mayo, and the constituents expect me to have the same back-up and support as my two colleagues. Even with all the resources of State at their disposal, I was lucky enough in 1997 to be ahead of them. That trump card is now being taken away from me – I was on that occasion a member of the local authority and I was in touch with issues on the ground. I listened to the people and I was able to do the work on the ground. That trump card is being taken away by the Government, but that is an issue for another day.
My two constituency colleagues had the benefit of programme managers and civil servants who came down at the weekends to do the constituency work. I was a great man to be able to beat them. It is not fair to backbenchers and to the backbenchers of Fianna Fáil. I believe that Ministers should have the resources. They need the back-up and they should have State cars, but I do not think Ministers should take away resources from backbenchers and take away from us the only thing that keeps us going, contact with the people. They are making a mistake in relation to the county councils.
We fell into the same trap today in relation to the proposals for health. The media stated that the elected representatives were the reason for the chaos in the health services. I guarantee that in ten years' time the health service will be no better than it is now and the people running it will be blamed like the politicians. The politicians are elected by the people and at least we are accountable to the people.
That is right.
We go before the interview board every five years. When a consultant doctor or some former civil servant is appointed to the new commission, they are not answerable to anybody and the powers of this House are being eroded. It is becoming more meaningless. Last Friday, the Dáil adjourned because there was not a quorum. County councils should legislate. I have been on the county council for over 25 years and I never saw the business of the county council collapse. People were always in attendance because they were interested. This House must be treated with respect. If we do not treat it with respect, how can we expect the public to do so? We are running it on a day to day basis because the media determine what we discuss. That is not the fault of the media but rather our fault.
On today's report in relation to health, the first people to see it were the media, who had it three weeks ago, but this House did not get it until today. That is not democracy, it is dictatorship. It is a dangerous road to take because the ball often hops the wrong way.
I support the taking together of Deputy Burton's amendments Nos. 10 and 11. If amendment No. 10 is passed, amendment No. 11 will have to be changed. I hope that will be the outcome.
No moment over the recent past exemplified the reality of the Opposition Member as against the Government spokesperson, that is, Ministers and Ministers of State, more than the pre-Private Members' Business episode this evening. The Minister of State must acknowledge that for a very short time, though he never experienced it, he had the opportunity to taste the reality of the Opposition Deputy when he was all at sea. He did not have his back-up and support. Colm agus na cailíní had not arrived in time to save the day and the business of the House had to be suspended.
The business of the House would not be suspended if any of the Opposition Deputies had not the back-up and the resources. We do not have them. We must formulate our contributions based on whatever time, energy and gifts we have been blessed with in terms of going through rafts of legislation. Some of us have multiple portfolio responsibilities and it is a very difficult task. I have no doubt that from that little experience this evening the Minister of State will accept the validity of the arguments of Opposition Deputies when we seek equality in this House, when we seek the back-up resources that would allow us the time to properly prepare. It does not serve the wider electorate well that the Government and Government spokespersons can proceed through craft, and perhaps craft alone on some occasions. There is an onus for the balance of scrutiny and the responsibility that comes with that position in ensuring that legislation is geared and designed to serve the interests of the community in a fair and equitable way.
Back-up research support is absolutely critical. I believe that these amendments will facilitate an important change in the arrangements for the future of Parliament as we are and I hope we will be in the future.
Other inequities also need to be addressed. I have highlighted the inequity of office accommodation many times. The party that I lead and represent in this House has the lowest square metre per capita of any of the political parties in this House. We had to fight to even get what we have. A year after the general election one of my colleagues is still sharing a single telephone line with his PA. A second line has still not been installed. Missive after missive, begging after begging, that is the reality we must face. It is no small wonder sometimes that we can be very edged in our comments at Whips' meetings in regard to opportunities in this House. These are things we should not have to agitate about. We should not have to repeatedly raise and refer to these matters. They are distractions from our work. The system in this House is failing the elected voices of the people by not providing the essential resources for people to carry out their work and the function that has been entrusted to them.
I also want to refer to printing facilities, one of a range of areas in which equity is absent. Sinn Féin has no access to printing facilities, a matter that is being discussed continually but about which no conclusion has been reached. I had no access to printing facilities during the five years I spent in this House as the sole representative of my party. Others are enjoying the use of such facilities on a continuous basis. The failure to provide printing machinery and people to operate it is an outrage.
Similarly, there are difficulties regarding access to Ministers, who are representatives of the Government and not of their parties. We often lecture the First Minister in the North of Ireland, David Trimble, by pointing out that he is not the First Minister of the Unionist community who elected him, but the First Minister of all the people in the North of Ireland. He has failed to perform that function, but the Minister of State's colleagues are also failing to perform their functions. Opposition Deputies do not have the same access to Ministers as their colleagues on the Government benches. Information is continually released to party colleagues from different constituencies in advance of specific announcements. Government backbenchers can have an advantage of at least 24 and sometimes 48 hours over Opposition Deputies who will not have received a signal to indicate that a train was coming down the tracks. Such release of information is not what Ministers are appointed to do. As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle has demonstrated, one's role as a Minister should be distinct from one's role as a Deputy for one's constituency. Ministers should operate a fair and equitable system of access and release of information to ensure there is a level playing field.
The release of the health reports today was a good example of this problem. I am Sinn Féin's spokesman on health and children, as well as finance, and I am also a member of a health board. The chief executive officers of the health boards were given a full briefing on the reports yesterday evening. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was briefed on the reports this morning at 9.30 a.m. and I presume a similar provision was made for the Progressive Democrats, by whatever means.
It took place two weeks ago.
I heard it on "Morning Ireland".
Opposition Deputies received no information in the weeks that preceded the publication of the reports other than as a result of leaks. We did not receive information at the same time as the media, as much of the content of the reports was released to journalists in advance. The publication of the information was delayed and delayed again.
That is right.
I had to leave today's meeting of the Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service many times to check if the reports had been made available. I had to absent myself from the meeting briefly to fine-tune my reaction to the release of the documents. Members may think it is sharp practice and shrewd politics to put Opposition spokespersons on a particular portfolio on the back of their heels. Perhaps the Government thinks that giving spokespersons inadequate time and notice and a lack of full information will make them less effective, but it damns the Government and not the Opposition. The political interests I aspire to develop in this House are not damaged, but a great disservice is being done to those who are not being served – those who elected me and the wider electorate. The quality of the work of the Opposition and the Government in this House is diminished and we are all affected as a consequence.
I will conclude by saying that I could give many more examples of problems in the running of this House. The issue about which I am speaking does not relate simply to the lack of back-up resources to assist one's preparation for one's contributions on legislation, such as this Bill. Many examples can be given to demonstrate that there is an uneven playing field and to show that the inequities which are almost endemic in this House are being perpetuated by this Government. It is time for people who aspire to fair play and equity across the board to take this issue by the scruff of the neck and to ensure that real and substantive changes are made. The Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, has the first chance to facilitate such change, by accepting amendments Nos. 10 and 11 in the name of Deputy Burton. I await the Minister of State's response. I hope he will show himself to be the man I hope he is, and grab the opportunity to put down a marker for real change, by adopting these amendments.
I regret to say that I will probably disappoint Deputy Ó Caoláin again.
The Minister of State is not the man.
Deputies Ring and Paul McGrath seem to have a persecution complex. They seem to feel that one cannot win an election if one does not have a ministerial car and the backup provided by scriptwriters. I did not have a party machine.
What about the IFA? Does it not count as a party machine? It is far better than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in that respect.
There were many Ministers in my constituency, but I said, "To hell with it", and decided to give it my best shot. Deputy Ring has bemoaned the fact that he does not have a scriptwriter, but his eloquence on his feet would be destroyed by a scriptwriter.
I thank the Minister of State for the compliment.
He would not be half the man he is if he had a scriptwriter. He is sometimes able to entertain the House at great length without saying anything at all.
Even the Scots know about that.
I developed my speaking skills by attending public meetings with the Minister of State, some of which were in County Mayo.
The Deputy has the personal touch. I have the height of respect for the backup I receive from the Civil Service. As Deputy Ó Caoláin said, we were surprised this evening when the discussion of this Bill was brought forward. I would have brought my notes with me if I had known it was going to happen, but we had to seek a suspension as we were not ready. Deputy Burton was also delayed and was unable to move some of her amendments. The personal touch is important. We all know that a politician who depends entirely on advisers or civil servants is doomed.
I wish to discuss these amendments in serious terms. The Department of Finance has had a clear policy in its dealings with Members or political parties over the years. Ministers and officials have been obliged to operate without favour to any Member or party in its operations, modification of schemes and dealings. Such an approach has been reinforced by legal advice in the last two decades. There are obligations to be impartial when dealing with individual cases or wider schemes. Ministers and officials have been made aware through court judgments of the implications of overlooking such obligations, even inadvertently. The same standards are adhered to by the officials with whom Members deal in this House each day and are upheld by their political heads. I do not envisage that the new commission will be unaware of these obligations. It is certain that its members will be warned about the obligations if they show they are unaware of them.
There may be an inclination to remove all powers from the new commission, which will be representative of both sides of the House.
In what proportion?
We are inclined to tie everything up.
Three out of ten.
It seems to me that Deputy Burton's amendments represent an act of distrust, as they imply that the commission's membership will need to be reminded, in legislation, of the obligations that apply to them in this regard, irrespective of whether such obligations are included in the Act. Everybody knows their obli gations and those who will represent this House on the commission will be well aware of them in advance. For that reason, I cannot accept this amendment.
I regret the Minister of State's reply. I want to remind him of the arithmetic involved in the commission. As things stand, it will be dominated by the Government. The Chairpersons of the Dáil and the Seanad will be members of the committee, as will the Secretary General – the Clerk of the Dáil – who will be both a member of the committee and its chief executive. The Minister for Finance will be entitled to a personal representative on the committee. We understand that the overall arithmetic of the committee will be split so that the Government will have seven members and the Opposition parties will have three.
Plus the Secretary General.
Yes. We need to re-examine the composition of the commission. The chairperson will be an exalted person, the Ceann Comhairle. It is important that the membership of the commission reflects, in particular, the needs of back-bench Deputies – not the needs of Government, but those of backbench Deputies from all parties. All Members are aware that the key requirement of this House is resources regarding staffing. We need improved conditions for the wonderful people who carry out the secretarial duties for Members of the Oireachtas. They do so, particularly if they are recent recruits, at very low rates of pay, which are certainly not particularly competitive rates in respect of the Dublin area.
We also need research facilities.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
The Deputy's two minutes are up.
I fully agree with Deputy Ring. It is the Members who need the research support. People are concerned that the Dáil and Parliament in general is losing public esteem, which is partly due to the failure to resource Members adequately.
I am disappointed that the Minister of State has not seen his way to accept Deputy Burton's amendment.
The Minister of State referred to there being so many Opposition Members on the commission. That is to get bogged down in something which we hoped would not happen. If it happens as he indicated, there will be seven people representing the Government side and only three representing the Opposition, plus the Secretary General. This will make it difficult to find a way to move forward proposals in the best possible manner.
Commission members should leave their politi cal hats outside. It should be neutral in that respect. I hope that with this in mind the Minister for Finance may well decide that his nominee should possibly come from the Opposition benches.
That will not happen.
It might be a way to help redress the balance. When it comes to negotiating the four Members of this House, perhaps the Whip could be magnanimous and tip the balance towards the Opposition. Likewise, the three Seanad Members could be balanced in favour of the Opposition.
How the commission works will be most important for this House and for democracy and its future in this country. It has to not only work well, but be seen to work well and the manner in which we formulate the legislation to make this happen is crucial.
I am disappointed that the provisions of this amendment will not be included in the legislation. There is a later amendment in my name and that of Deputy Richard Bruton which is somewhat similar and perhaps the Minister will be so-minded to accept it in order to redress the balance he is now going against.
There is little I wish to add, apart from to express my disappointment that the Minister of State is not prepared to adopt the amendment proposed by Deputy Burton. If this moment is to be lost, I encourage the Minister of State to take on board the points made by Members and at some future time, perhaps he would like to be a party to correcting the inequalities with which we must contend.
I am disappointed in the Minister of State. The commission is not about politics. Its purpose is to run the business of the House on behalf of its Members. It is a bit like the Ceann Comhairle's job; to run the business and to control the way business is conducted. The commission is set up on the same basis. This is not about Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin or any other party, it is about a commission being set up to run the business of the House and it will have legal responsibilities in that regard. It is not about who has the most members. The Government is sending out the wrong message if it feels it has to have total control of it. Ultimately, the interests of the backbenchers in Fine Gael and the Labour Party are the same as the backbenchers in the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil.
At the end of the day we will all be speaking the one language. Its aim is to get more resources and better services for Members of the Oireachtas. It is about equality. The fact that the Government wants to have a majority is sending out the wrong message.
In advance of the passing of the Bill, perhaps the Minister of State and the Minister will look at it again with their officials and come back to us to say that it is not about having control, it is about equality.
Deputy McGrath has offered a way around this issue. The Government is well enough represented so when the commission members are being selected they should come from the Opposition. It is not about somebody having control because this is supposed to be in the best interests of every Member in this House, not about any political party. If we go down the party political road, the commission is doomed to fail. It is in all our interests that it works and that it is seen to work fairly. It is in all our interests that there is equality in the commission. Perhaps the Minister of State will come back to us and say that we are right and that instead of having a majority for the Government there will be equality across the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The Opposition is painting a worst-case scenario. A most defeatist attitude is evident in its seven to three alignment. Coming from that position there is little chance of equalising. Currently both Chairmen are part of the Government but that has not always been the case. It depends on the arithmetic.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
I am not part of the Government.
From the Government parties then.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
It is important for me to put on the record that they are completely outside of party politics once they take those positions. It is not true to say that they are part of the Government.
It is totally out of order then to suggest a seven to three alignment. It would go down to five to three.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
That is the case. Essentially, it would be untrue to imply that the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach are members of the Government, or side with it.
That brings us back to five to three, which is a dangerous score. After one goal it is a drawn match. I suggest that it is all to play for.
We can always have a replay.
Deputy Parlon was never good at counting.
It is very much an issue for this House as to who will represent it. I come from a small party and do not know if my party will ultimately have a say. Personally, I am not overly concerned because, as Deputy Ring said, it is not about politics it is about working together. It will be a small group of ten people. It would be wrong to start dictating as to whom either House should nominate.
In the Seanad, I referred to the extra resources that will be made available to the commission. Over the three-year life span it will be the equivalent of an extra 200 staff. If the commission so chooses, it can direct all of the resources towards extra staff in terms of the backup that backbenchers and the Opposition claim is currently so deficient. That is one possibility.
It is wrong at this stage to start dictating what the commission should do or how it will be constituted. I have the utmost faith that there will be both balance and equity in the commission, including the two Chairs. It is very much for it to decide how to run its business. It will be a positive progression for the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Minister for Finance and the Government will have very little say in how it is run. The Minister for Finance will not have any say at all. He is anxious to divorce himself from this aspect of it.
He is a nominee to it.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
Deputy Burton is entitled to a further reply, as she moved the amendment.
I hope I can take comfort from the Minister of State's confident assertion that the representation which will emerge will be balanced. He suggested that it may be reflective of the mix of parties in the Houses of the Oireachtas. He expressed the view that everyone should work together on the commission. That was what was sought in the various debates on this subject down the years in committees of the House. While I accept his positive statement, I do not see why it should not be written into the legislation. Ultimately those who are now in Opposition may one day end up in Government.
I am reminded of the biblical phrase, "The first shall be last . . . " or, perhaps, "Beidh lá eile ag an bPaorach"– our day will also come. In that sense, we are simply saying that the work of the commission should involve senior people from the House, in terms of enhancing the work of the Dáil and delivering results to the people who elect us. While I welcome the Minister of State's assurance that he does not see it as being overly party political, I would still prefer if he accepted my amendment.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
Is the Deputy pressing the amendment?
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to consult broadly with members of the Houses of the Oireachtas who are members of Government parties and those who are in opposition in the performance of its functions,".
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle:
Is the amendment being pressed?
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to report the proceedings of the Houses of the Oireachtas and Oireachtas committees and to make such reports available by way of publications and on the Internet,".
This amendment is self-evident. It proposes to include a provision in the Bill to commend to the commission that reports of the proceedings of the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Oireachtas committees be made available by way of publication and on the Internet. In an Estimates debate today, there was reference to e-government, e-learning and e-initiative. This is our contribution to the Government's initiative in relation to making material available through electronic means.
Many young people access information through the Internet on a continuous, random and casual basis. If this information is made available through the Internet, it will undoubtedly increase awareness of the Dáil, particularly among young people, by making it accessible and, I hope, interesting. My concern is that if it has to go as a positive item to be included in a three or five year plan once the commission is appointed, it may take years of debate, as in the case of the televising of debates in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
People are familiar with the Internet and, of course, information on Oireachtas proceedings is already in the public domain. We are simply asking that it be made more accessible. The Oireachtas staff already has an excellent system in operation, whereby initial reports of proceedings are available very quickly and final reports are available relatively quickly. This should be provided for in the Bill so that the members of the commission will receive it as a mission from the Dáil, without having to re-invent the wheel, as it were, by reopening the issue.
I support Deputy Burton's amendment. Perhaps it should not be necessary to include such an amendment in the Bill – I hope the Minister of State, in his response, will copperfasten the fact that this will actually appear by way of a direction which the commission will follow. It is very important to present our material through the new electronic means. In my experience, the staff of the Oireachtas provide an excellent service. People in the general office are absolute wizards at finding material, even in relation to difficult parliamentary questions – the system is excellent. However, we need to have material more accessible to our individual offices, without having to burden the general office with our difficulties. The system should bring the debates and other relevant material on to the Internet in a relatively short period of time. The "blacks" are already accessible throughout the Houses fairly quickly after debates, but we need a further system to make the information more widely accessible.
I know the response may be that there are difficulties in terms of editing and so on and I agree that is a difficulty. Perhaps it will require more staff – it is a very skilful job. Sometimes, no doubt, it can be very difficult to make sense of some of the ramblings of fellows like me. However, it is important to get Oireachtas material on to the electronic system as early as possible. I hope the Minister of State will endorse both the concept enshrined in this amendment and the move by Oireachtas staff to bring the relevant material on to the Internet. On that basis, even if he does not accept the amendment, at least the commission will know it was the sentiment of this House that progress should continue in this regard.
I also support amendment No. 12 in the name of Deputy Burton. The Minister of State will recall our discussion on this matter on Committee Stage. I believe the request to ensure speedy publication of the business of this House and all its committees is a worthy one, which I hope the Minister of State will be eager and anxious to endorse. The Internet facility is increasingly accessible, allowing people the opportunity to check in speedily on the proceedings of this House, in all its various guises. I believe we should take this route, recognising, as I mentioned on Committee Stage, that there may be a 24 to 48 hour delay in terms of finalising material through the editing process of the "blacks". The arguments in support of this amendment are self-sustaining. Undoubtedly, there is great interest in information access among the wider public and the Internet facility is now being used by an increasing number of people. For this House to absent itself from that forum would be a major mistake.
Other proposed means of publication are not actually specified. I am not sure as to what other formats would meet the information needs of the wider public, but I would certainly support any reasonable proposal to allow for release of the record of the House, in hard copy format, on request. I believe it should be as speedily available through the Government Publications Office as it is to Members of the Houses. I will conclude on that point. As the time is fast approaching ten bells, perhaps the Minister of State may wish to conclude this debate on the Bill on a positive note by accepting an amendment from an Opposition Member.
I am greatly impressed by Deputy Ó Caoláin's brevity. We already discussed the matter at an earlier stage. I understand much of Deputy Burton's request, but it is currently in place. For example, the full texts of the Official Report of parliamentary debates of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann are published on the Internet on the same day if the debate finishes before 7 p.m. Otherwise, the material is published on the Oireachtas website by 1 p.m. on the following day. I believe that is recognised by all sides of the House as a very positive and speedy service.
Parliamentary debates of the Dáil and Seanad have been published on a next day basis on the Internet since June 1997. The full text of the debates of parliamentary committees, joint and select, are all published on the website. The "blacks" are available by the Monday following a meeting and published shortly thereafter. Priority is given to select committees, the Public Accounts Committee and then joint committees. The entire text of parliamentary debates, since 1919 in the case of the Dáil and 1922 in the case of the Seanad, is also available on the website. The question of extension or improvement of this facility will be a management decision by the new commission, which it is not for me to pre-empt.
Deputy Paul McGrath is inclined to dictate what the new commission should do. For the reasons I stated I cannot accept the amendment.