I gave my reasons for not accepting the amendment.
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill 2002: Report Stage (Resumed).
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to produce handbooks and information relevant to the business of the Houses of the Oireachtas for members of the Houses of the Oireachtas,”.
This amendment is similar to amendment No. 12 in that it seeks to give the commission a mandate to produce handbooks with information relevant to the business of the Houses of the Oireachtas for Members. The Minister of State will reply that this will be automatically done by the commission but the purpose of this amendment and others is to make sure the commission, when established, is given a direct mandate reflecting the discussions that took place over a long period in the House and in various committees of the House and establishes self-governance and self-management of the Houses in an appropriate way that is user-friendly for Members and staff and, in particular, enables Members to carry out their responsibilities to their electorate.
If the commission is driven largely by internal Civil Service management structures, it may have competence but it will fail in its essential mission, which is to communicate what goes on in the Dáil and Seanad. Understandably, in recent years the House has lost much of its public esteem and the development of the commission will provide the Houses with an opportunity to restore self-governance and to enhance the understanding of its operations, reputation and appreciation of what they do among the public.
The Minister of State should not be overwhelmed by civil servants laying down what is to happen. This legislation relates to the governance of the Houses of the Oireachtas by its Members. We are elected by the public, unlike civil servants, and it is up to us to lay down the terms of self-governance.
I support the amendment and I am delighted the future Secretary General of the commission is present. Even if the amendments are not acceptable to the Government, he will realise that many of them have merit and reflect the wishes of many Members. It might be appropriate, given that it will be a mistake not to make these amendments, that the concept behind them will be carried forward.
Deputy Burton's amendment is worthwhile and reasonable. Recently, a media unit was set up in the Houses, which does an excellent job. We have our own public relations officer. The material produced by the unit is worthwhile, particularly the leaflets explaining the various functions of the House. A video outlining the work of the House has been produced. However, I viewed it recently and I was surprised at how outdated it is. Many of the people featured in the video not only have ceased to be Members of the House, they have passed away to their eternal reward.
The commission should be mandated to produce up-to-date material relevant to what is happening in the Houses and a good public relations unit should be established. The Government has 75 spin doctors working away spinning the yarn, trying to put a good slant on the news, which they do successfully on many occasions. It helps when that many people are spinning the same yarn. Unfortunately, the staff in the Houses who try to portray the reality of the Houses of the Oireachtas are part of a small team which faces a difficult task. The Houses are slated by the public on most radio talk programmes every day beginning with "Morning Ireland". They face a difficult job redressing that imbalance. It is extremely important that the commission should be mandated to portray the Houses in the manner they should be portrayed. We live in a democracy and we, as Members, represent the public and have the support of thousands of people. We must be listened to and I regret the Minister of State will respond negatively to the amendment.
I also support Deputy Burton's amendment. It is not unreasonable to ask for clarification of the wording of the amendment. I presume "for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas" means for further dissemination by Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Producing handbooks and information relevant to the business does not have to be an additionality. The quarterly bulletin which is already provided and was received in the past week is a highly glossy document but because it confines itself to statistical information in relation to the number of Bills, sittings and so on, it is very cursory. It does not give the real picture of the workings of these Houses or of the amount of work in which the Members are engaged in their various capacities as spokespersons in the Chamber or in committees. There is a need to revisit the format of that bulletin and to enhance its potential as an information carrier. I support the amendment and commend it to the Minister of State.
I agree with my three colleagues. The Minister of State should accept this amendment. Deputy McGrath is right in that every morning on local and national radio we hear spin and misinformation with regard to this House and no one responds on behalf of the Members. How many times in the past did we hear that TDs were looking for a salary rise again? When Deputies' salaries are under review newspaper headlines show that TDs are to get a rise and when the rise is given large headlines declare that we got the rise. Everyone in the country received the benchmarking pay increase but last week the media were only interested in the politicians' pay rise. We are no different from anyone else. Teachers and everyone else received a rise, and rightly so because the increase was agreed by Government and trade unions, but the public and the media were interested only in politicians. The public does not expect us to do our job for nothing but we hear constant misinformation, and the House should respond to that misinformation. The PR staff in Leinster House do a good job but they could sometimes do a better one. Some misinformation which goes into the public arena is not contradicted and it should be.
This House has a small team of PR people and it should be added to. A former Member of the Oireachtas should be appointed on a three or five yearly basis, with the existing team, to represent Oireachtas Members. Such a person would have an understanding of Oireachtas Members' problems. He or she would be able to give the politicians' slant on matters. The PR people who represent the Government are very good.
There are 75.
They are well paid and are well able to spin stories. There is no one to spin on behalf of other Deputies. One hears people on radio programmes presented by Joe Duffy, Marian Finucane or Pat Kenny complaining about TDs. One never hears them complaining about Ministers. The complaints always refer to the poor TDs, who have no back-up except for one secretary.
The PR people in the House are excellent and I compliment them on the excellent brochure they have produced. They are very obliging when a TD invites a school to visit the House. They provide brochures very promptly and help in every possible way. I compliment the staff of the House but Oireachtas Members should have more back-up.
The Minister of State could not refuse the amendment after that.
I must disappoint my colleagues who assume I will respond in the negative. The power of argument and good sense might indicate otherwise. It must be very upsetting for Deputy McGrath to watch that video and see so many of his party colleagues who are no longer Members of the House. It is important to update such material. The last election brought in the biggest number of first-timers ever. I am a newcomer to the House and the information the House circulated was very important to us.
I agree with Deputy Burton that this aspect of the House's activity is useful and may need to be developed. The task is appropriate to the commission and, therefore, I am accepting the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 44 and 45 are related to amendment No. 15 and all may be discussed together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to develop and publish following wide consultation with members of the Houses of the Oireachtas a mission statement setting forth its values and aims,”.
The purpose of this amendment is to ask that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission be required to develop and publish, after wide consultation with the Members, a mission statement setting forth its values and aims.
In the Minister's long amendment the Civil Service head of the commission is asked to produce a strategic three year plan. There is a difference between a mission statement and a management plan for a three year period. A mission sets out what stakeholders wish to do. The stakeholders are all the Members of this House, collectively, leaving party and Government hats off. Governments change from time to time. Our mission statement would set out what we wish to do in terms of doing our job well and communicating to the public whom we serve. We need to get that sorted and to say it for ourselves rather than the Civil Service, however good, saying it for us.
In the strategic management initiative, which has filtered down to many public institutions, including schools, a mission statement is now requested to ask people to stand back and think what they are doing and what they want to do.
Deputy Ring made an important and significant point in his contribution the other day when he said the additional resources allocated under this Bill, which are relatively generous, should go to the Members of the House. That is a critical question. Those resources could be spent on pomp and circumstance, for example. This House does not have pomp and circumstance, and that is correct. We are a modern republican democracy. We do not go in for the tights and breeches of the House of Commons. We do not wear the signs and signals of office, other than the Ceann Comhairle's simple cloak and collar, and that is correct. However, unless the Members indicate what they want done we may be dictated to.
I am glad the Clerk is here. Time and again Members have said in the course of the many debates—
While I am aware of the nature of this debate I must make two important points. Reference should not be made to the present incumbents of the offices of Clerk, Ceann Comhairle or Cathaoirleach. The point can be made in general without referring to present incumbents.
The other point, on a comment made earlier in the House, is that the substance of this debate will be recorded and the relevant points will be brought to the attention of the commission. It does not depend on the Ceann Comhairle or the Clerk being here, or, when the Bill goes to the Seanad, on the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad being there. It is just for the sake of debate. It is a difficult debate in that the commission does name the officers, but the present incumbents should not be referred to.
We like to mention you, a Cheann Comhairle.
That is fair enough, a Cheann Comhairle. I was using the title of the office because, as we have said previously, Governments and office holders change – however slowly, as far as some of us are concerned – and we acknowledge that. I want to say at all times how much respect and esteem I have for the civil servants, but this is a question which relates to the Members of both Houses and therefore the Labour Party amendment suggests that the commission develop and publish a mission statement.
May I make one further remark? The Members have made an important point very clear, and Deputy Ring made it clear, that the resourcing should be to assist the Members of both Houses and not simply be allocated, without much discussion, to political parties.
The Members have made it clear that there are two areas in which they have a specific interest. First, the conditions of employment, and salaries and status, of the secretarial assistants who are the lifeline of every Member of the Opposition, and, second, the question of providing additional research resources to Members of the Opposition and to all backbenchers of whatever party. Those two priorities have been stressed time and again by Members of the House.
While the presentation of the strategic three-year plan will presumably identify some of those issues, the Minister of State said yesterday that if the commission so wished it can use the bulk of the money to employ 200 or so extra people. If something like that was to be done, there must be a mechanism where there is consultation and consideration given to that and to the fairness in sharing. I know that will be done by the members of the commission, who, I expect, will be eminent and senior Members of the House, but the legislation should provide for the development and publishing by the commission of a mission statement, as is now done by almost every institution.
In the health services there are two reports being published this week and another is in the pipeline. One of the reasons there is this plethora of reports in the case of so many institutions, is that we add on bits continuously to the institutions concerned, and then a year or two later we look back and say, "My God, this thing has grown so much."
In the Bill's case, we have a once-off chance to do the consultation at the beginning and set out a clear mission statement so that Members of the House will then know, and hopefully that will allow us to use those extra resources as effectively as possible for the House and for the people we serve. In the context of the current economic climate, the allocation of additional resources by the Minister for Finance is, quite honestly, generous enough.
I support the amendment. Perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, will be magnanimous in accepting this one. We hope he might be because the legislation is deficient. It is important that a commission, which will oversee the running of this House with quite a substantial budget and which will have an important function to fulfil in the sense of upholding democracy and seeing that democracy operates efficiently and effectively within this House on behalf of the people of Ireland, should be asked to produce a mission statement. It is a simple task but it should be incorporated in the legislation. Otherwise it may not happen. Perhaps it will, but it would be incumbent on us to include it in the legislation to ensure that this happens.
For instance, following recent education legislation which has been passed in this House, to which Deputy Burton made reference, schools now must produce a mission statement in their report stating what they are about and what are their aims. Is it not only right that the commission, which will oversee the running, efficiency and workings of this House, should be obliged to develop and publish a mission statement concisely stating what it is about?
Another important part of this amendment is that it should be developed and published following wide consultation with Members of the House. There are a number of later amendments dealing with this wider consultation with Members of the House by the commission. We cannot over-emphasise the need for consultation with the Members. We must bring all Members with us. We are a wide and diverse House, when one looks at the 166 Members representing parties and non-parties. We have 14 Independents. We have a number of small parties and the long-standing existing parties.
It is a broad House with various backgrounds, various principles and various aspirations. If we are to move forward and give the right impression to a public cynical about what happens in here, we must set out clearly what we are about and where we are going. I hope the Minister of State might accept this amendment. If he cannot accept the amendment or the need for a mission statement included in the legislation, perhaps when the Bill goes to the Seanad he might come forward with a better form of words which might cover the same matter. I am not doubting Deputy Burton's prowess as a parliamentary draftsperson—
—but it might be appropriate that the Minister of State would do as I ask, and that consultation must also be included.
The proposal in the amendment is sensibly drafted. It does not contain a mission statement which the Deputy wants imposed on the text of the Bill as it proceeds. It is something that will take time, adequate consultation and the involvement of all elected opinion in both Houses. Therefore, it is something one will develop and even when one has, it might not be set in stone and could be revisited.
Nevertheless it is important as a guide to the members of the commission, and as a statement to the elected Members of both House and, furthermore, to all who serve on this campus incorporating the non-elected members of staff throughout the Houses of the Oireachtas at all levels. It is important that the mission statement reflects the reality of the working of this institution.
I remind the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, of the contribution of his colleague, Deputy Ned O'Keeffe on Committee Stage. I remind him that we would not want the Taoiseach writing the mission statement. If the Deputies remember, this was one of the urgings of Deputy Ned O'Keeffe. That is not what is intended.
The mission statement must not only have the input but have the ownership of all elected voices in these Houses and indeed an input, quite rightly, on the part of the representatives of those who are not elected voices in these Chambers. I commend the amendment to the Minister of State and I look forward to him responding positively.
I too hope that the Minister of State will accept this amendment. It is important that the commission would have a mission statement. The mission statement quite clearly defines the work of the commission. In the work of the commission, as I pointed out last night, I hope that all elected representatives in this House will be looked after and that they will have the same resources and the same backup.
At present the office holders are the ones who have the resources. They have the management and the back-up. I am speaking for all backbenchers. If there is one thing the commission will do, it will bring equality to this House. I do not want to see whatever resources are put in place being given to the political parties. If that is done, backbenchers will not be given the same resources as the officeholders. The parties will gobble up the money and the backbenchers will be no better off. We need equality for every elected Member in order that everyone will have the same resources and back-up and will receive the same support from the Civil Service. I am sometimes critical of civil servants. I would like to see a shared arrangement in regard to civil servants in order that we could have the benefit of their support on this side of the House, particularly when legislation is being discussed. They could advise us as they advise the Ministers. They do an excellent job for the State and the country. In my experience with civil servants, they give one the advice one seeks but no more than that. They assist people on legislation. I hope this amendment will be accepted on the basis that the mission statement will outline the need for equality for all Members.
The Bill provides for the publication of a three-year strategy statement setting out the commission's policy. It is now quite common for Departments to have a mission statement. The Office of Public Works, for which I have responsibility, put a lot of thought and effort into its mission statement. It is not feasible to include sweeping policy statements in the Bill. I can see the merits of the Deputy's proposal but it is something for the commission to consider when it is established. I do not wish to pre-empt what the commission might do because it will be a very esteemed group appointed by both Houses and we know the identity of some of the members already. I am sure the commission will follow existing norms on matters such as mission statements. I am inclined to leave it to the commission and for that reason I cannot accept the amendment.
I thank the Minister of State for being co-operative in tone if not in terms of accepting the amendment. The mission statement is a statement of values and many other parliaments have such a statement. Section 16(4)(a) states: “As soon as practicable after the establishment day . . . the Secretary General shall prepare and submit to the Commission, for approval with or without amendment by the Commission, a strategic plan for the following 3 year period.”. Subsection (4)(b) states: “the key objectives, outputs and related strategies, including the use of the resources of the Commission taking due account of relevant directions issued by the Government to Government Departments and Offices.”.
That three-year plan is perfectly acceptable as an instruction to the Secretary General of the commission. It accords absolutely with Civil Service practice and I accept that it is a good amendment. Can the Minister of State envisage a day when he or the Minister for Finance or any of us would arrive in office with a mission statement which would be the manifesto put to the electorate? Can he imagine the Secretary General saying "Hold on"– which is what Secretaries General say in one way or another –"You will have to have regard for this or that"? Nonetheless, we have a mandate from the electorate and if, as a Minister, one wants to implement change, one would say to the Secretary General: "I will listen to your advice and experience but this is what my Government and I have decided to do and we have a mandate from the people to do it." That is the missing link. I have no problem with the strategic plan set out on page 17 of the Bill. It is a standard instruction and a good instruction to give to an incoming head of a Civil Service Department, but it is not the same as the statement of values which this Parliament and its Members should produce under the guidance of the members of the commission who will, with one exception, be Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.
The production of the strategic plan does not cut across the mission statement in any way. I ask the Minister of State to give serious consideration to this amendment.
The independence of the commission will not be impinged on. Broad policy issues for Government are clearly one matter but the role of the commission will be the management of this House and the facilities it provides for Members. I do not envisage any area in which it would be compromised by overall Government policy.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to develop a modern and effective parliamentary system which aspires to best practice in the major parliamentary roles of, amongst others–
(i) passing timely and appropriate legislation,
(ii) scrutinising the expenditure of public money,
(iii) assessing the conduct of public policy,
(iv) developing an understanding of emerging economic and social issues and making recommendations for change,
(v) holding office holders accountable for their decisions,".
We are asking that a statement be included in the legislation which will say to the commission that it must look towards modernising, improving and making the House more efficient. Obviously, those issues will be a matter for Members themselves eventually to decide. The commission cannot impose changes in the running of the House without the agreement of the Members. The commission must be a place of research and development; it should examine other parliamentary systems and how they do business. It should introduce ideas and proposals that will modernise this House and make it more efficient.
Passing timely and appropriate legislation is a matter on which the commission should introduce proposals. The Minister of State heard the debate during the Order of Business this morning. The Government promised that it would introduce 19 pieces of legislation this term but there have been only five. If one got five out of 19 votes, it would be touch and go whether one would be elected. If Johnny arrived home with his school report showing five out of 19, he would be grounded and would have to improve a fair bit.
The Deputy is a lot more successful at stalling legislation than at getting votes.
I have managed to win a few votes here and there down through the years and maybe that is why I have been a Member of the House for 14 years. It has not been too bad and, hopefully, the light will not go out for another while yet. We will try to keep it burning effectively for another while.
Like the mission statement, aspirations should be included in the legislation to set the standard or the trend for this commission. It should not just be bogged down in the mundane matters described in the Bill. These include the commission having a function to oversee ongoing expenditure and to pay salaries and expenses. It is very important that secretarial services and legal advice are provided in addition to back-up facilities. We must be more adventurous than that. We must aspire to streamlining the system and bringing forward ideas that will make the House much more efficient and effective. The Bill should be reflective of the aspirations of the public, which wants us to do our business effectively and efficiently.
The amendment calls on the commission to develop a system which aspires to best practice in "scrutinising the expenditure of public money". It could be argued that this provision would infringe on the particular role of the Comptroller and Auditor General, which is outlined in legislation and in the Constitution. Although this might be so, I feel that the commission should examine how similar bodies in other countries conduct their affairs. Is there a better or more efficient way of operating? If the commission is to be pioneering and to look forward, it should look at other ideas. We do not have all the answers and we do not know how all these things should be done. We should examine other ways of doing business.
The amendment calls on the commission to develop a system which aspires to best practice in, "assessing the conduct of public policy", and, "developing an understanding of emerging economic and social issues and making recommendations for change". Perhaps one might claim that the commission will usurp the functions of Members in relation to such matters if this amendment is accepted, but I do not feel that is the case. The amendment suggests that the commission should examine these matters and bring forward ideas and suggestions. It is fine if the House wants to adopt these ideas, or if it does not. The commission's role is to be pioneering and forward-looking.
Finally, the amendment calls on the commission to develop a system which aspires to best practice in "holding office holders accountable for their decisions". This provision is probably the one that will lead to the Minister of State saying that he will not accept the amendment, as he will argue that the commission will not be holding office holders to account. Should the commission not be able to bring forward proposals in relation to accountability? Should it not be allowed to improve the mechanism by which office holders become accountable? How often do Members receive letters from the Ceann Comhairle informing them that their questions have been rejected because the Minister has no responsibility in the area? Is it not the duty of the commission to examine this matter and to bring forward proposals on how Ministers should be accountable? Ministers expend taxpayers' money and should be accountable to the House in that regard, regardless of whether the funds are distributed through the NRA or a similar body. Ministers should not be able to avoid answering such questions.
I have proposed this amendment as a possible addition to the Bill. I hope the Minister of State understands the context in which I am bringing it forward. I am trying to ensure that the commission will not just be a functional body looking after a few pounds and the secretaries, but that it will also be a developmental body. It should develop the Parliament and the concept of democracy and bring forward ideas and suggestions as to how we can do our business better. Members, who should be engaged in this process, do not have the time to do so, but the commission will have the resources to bring in outside expertise to assist it in bringing forward ideas. The House will then be charged with accepting or rejecting the ideas.
I support this amendment. It is in tune with my amendment No. 15 as it seeks to get the best possible outcome from the development of the commission in terms of Members governing the House. Amendment No. 16 makes a number of sensible points and clarifies the areas of parliamentary activity with which the commission should be involved. The issues mentioned in the amendment are perennial aspects of parliamentary business, regardless of the Government that happens to be in power. The question of how best these roles can be performed should be considered. This will be an important area for the commission to consider.
I have listened to Deputy Paul McGrath's contribution and I am comfortable with the arguments he has presented. I was a little concerned by the somewhat prescriptive nature of the amendment, which lists five areas which are not under the direct aegis of the commission but which relate to the work of this House. I acknowledge that the wording of the amendment provides for an understanding that the issues are related to the work of the House. I was interested to hear Deputy Burton's comments on this amendment, as I was not sure if she would consider it to be in line with the spirit of amendment No. 15, which she proposed earlier. Her amendment spoke of developing a mission statement setting forth the values and aims of the commission, following wide consultation. Deputy McGrath's amendment, however, seems to address the values and aims of this House.
I have no wish to negate the arguments that have been made, nor do I believe I could do so, but I want to point out the small contradiction that has struck me. The basis of amendment No. 16 is its setting out of, "major parliamentary roles, amongst others", and there are others. Perhaps this area needs to be examined over a period of time, but initially it will be the concentration of the commission in full consultation with the Members of both Houses.
I do not object to Deputy Paul McGrath's amendment and I wish to record my support for his arguments, which I fully endorse. I appreciate the points he has made. I have made my brief observation because it is important that we concentrate on the actual role of the commission. We should recognise that some of the matters mentioned in this amendment are properly included in the role of the Housesper se. My understanding of the commission's remit is that it will involve an overseeing and overarching position in relation to both Chambers, the associated committees and the wider workings of the House. It will include matters relating to the unelected people who work on this campus. Perhaps Deputy Paul McGrath will respond to my remarks. I am comfortable with the spirit of his proposal and, accordingly, I record my support.
I share the views which seem to underlie the remarks of Deputies Paul McGrath and Burton. I broadly accept that the topics mentioned in amendment No. 16 comprise a proper set of aspirations for the Houses and their Members. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct to say, however, that they are matters for the Dáil and the Seanad. The Dáil's scrutiny of expenditure, in the widest sense, is at the heart of our parliamentary responsibilities. The matters listed Deputy Paul McGrath's amendment are not automatically proper to the commission, which will be charged with controlling what might be called the administrative tail of the Houses. It will be possible for the Dáil or the Seanad to draw on the commission for studies or proposals. I am sure it will not be beyond the imagination of the Houses to ensure, through their representatives on the commission, that their wishes can be fulfilled. Deputy Paul McGrath mentioned the phrase "make the House", but it is not the role of the commission to "make the House" do anything. The House can do what it wishes.
The inclusion of the topics mentioned in this amendment in the functions of the commission as a matter of course would bring us perilously close to crossing the forbidden line in Article 15 of the Constitution. We have to be very conscious of that. It is worthwhile that we should be reminded of our actual business from time to time and Deputies Paul McGrath and Burton have certainly done so in their amendments. The amendments do not represent the proper means of mentioning these matters in legislation, however, and there is certainly no case for including them in this Bill. I am rejecting amendment No. 16 for that reason.
I am not surprised that the Minister of State is rejecting my amendment, but I am glad that he has accepted the concept that lies behind it. I am glad that he has put on the record that the concept is worthwhile. He also said that they would be able to commission studies in regard to efficiency and the working of the House in general. This could include comparisons with what happens in other parliaments. I withdraw the amendment on the basis of the points made by the Minister of State and in view of the fact that the commission will, we hope, have representatives from all sides of the House in order that they may be able to pursue those matters.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 5, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(a) to appoint the Secretary General,”.
This is a straightforward amendment which states that the commission should appoint the Secretary General. When one sets up a particular body it should be in a position to appoint its chief executive. In effect, the Secretary General will be the chief executive of the commission and the board should be able to appoint that person. I am aware that the Secretary General isex officio a member of the Commission but, nonetheless, the board should have to sanction the appointment of the Secretary General, and this should be stated in the legislation.
The Labour Party has tabled a number of amendments dealing with the role of the Clerk and the Secretary General to the commission. I accept the spirit of the amendment. While I do not want to use the word "control", it is the commission, on behalf of the Houses of the Oireachtas, which gives the Secretary General his mandate. In spite of this, the entire thrust of the legislation is that the Government is appointing the Secretary General to be the chief executive. While the Ceann Comhairle will be the chairman of the commission, it is the Secretary General who, as accounting officer, effectively calls the shots and commands the budget. The commission acts more in an advisory capacity.
While there may be technical problems with Deputy McGrath's amendment, I accept its spirit, which seeks – as we have all done on this side of the House – to keep to the original idea behind the development of the commission, which is that the Houses of the Oireachtas should be in command of their own governance via the commission.
This is akin to the position to which I referred earlier in regard to a Minister. Who is the boss in the Department – the Minister or the Secretary General? The Minister is the political boss and the Secretary General is the chief civil servant, which is similar to this situation. The Members of the Houses, however, do not elect the Secretary General, as the people, through the election of the Government, elect the Minister.
We have a problem with this matter and have tabled a number of amendments which reflect our approach to it.
Amendment No. 17 is not grouped with any other amendments. Section 15, as amended on Committee Stage, deals directly with the position of the Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The legislation prescribes that the Clerk of the Dáil will, in fact, also be the Secretary General.
As Deputy Burton said, the outworking of this amendment – if it were accepted – would have a consequential effect on a number of other elements within the Bill. As I am not aware of the grouping, I am not conscious of later amendments. That observation is quite valid.
This amendment will not, in itself, secure the necessary changes to accommodate the spirit of Deputy McGrath's argument. As with the last amendment, while I appreciate the spirit of what is being argued, I am not sure the methodology is the correct one at this juncture.
The commission should have more than a rubber-stamping role in the appointment of the Secretary General. The Minister's intent is clear and determined in the presentation of the legislation. On that basis, while I support Deputy McGrath, I must qualify my support, as I did in respect of the earlier amendment. I hope its spirit will, nevertheless, be understood and accepted. The methodology, however, may have to be revisited.
The Clerk of the Dáil is currently appointed by the Taoiseach once the Minister for Finance and the Ceann Comhairle agree on a nominee. Where they fail to agree, the Taoiseach makes the appointment with the concurrence of the Dáil. Currently the Clerk isex officio the chief executive of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. I understand it was Fine Gael's position some years ago that the Clerk of the Dáil would be automatically appointed as the chief operating officer.
The only modification made in this legislation is that the Minister for Finance is being ousted from the procedure. The chairman makes the recommendation, following consultation with the commission. As the legislation operates on the basis that the Secretary General of the Commission will also be the Clerk of the Dáil, a system where both are involved in the nomination seems ideal to me. I reject the amendment.
I wish to clarify an issue which arose in connection with amendment No. 12 which was accepted by the Minister of State. Deputy Burton's amendment suggested that the insertion would be made between lines 18 and 19. Perhaps, the Minister would consider whether that is the appropriate place.
That is fine by me.
It might not, necessarily, relate to the first statement in that particular section. Is the House agreeable that the Minister of State inserts Deputy Burton's amendment in the appropriate part of that particular section?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 18:
In page 5, line 28, after "facilities" to insert "to members of and political parties represented in each House of the Oireachtas".
This is a technical amendment. Its intention is to reflect the actual status of secretarial assistants, which has changed in recent years. The relevant section states "in respect of the provision of secretarial facilities as provided for in the following enactments". My amendment would modify that to read, "in respect of the provision of secretarial facilities to Members of and political parties represented in each House of the Oireachtas." The secretarial assistants work to the Members of the Houses and to the political parties in the Houses. That has long been the established system. This would simply reflect the current position.
The Minister of State may have had to seek legal advice on the status of some secretarial assistants who may be of long standing, but their appointments at the moment are to Members and to political parties, if Members are members of political parties. This may create a problem for the Minister of State from a technical point of view, but, as with the amendment which follows, they are designed to be helpful and to reflect the current position of secretarial assistants. I also have a concern, which I believe has been expressed by Members on all sides of the House, that the role of secretarial assistants should be recognised, acknowledged and, if possible, ultimately enhanced.
This is a technical amendment on which I support Deputy Burton's comments. I agree with her that we must not lose sight, and control, of developments affecting secretaries and the related issue of the facilities and back-up available to Members. Deputy Burton is seeking to have that aspect prescribed in the Bill and I believe that is very worthwhile. In the same section of the Bill, the Minister for Finance is to prescribe rates of pay for secretarial assistants. I ask the Minister of State to look at that also. As he may be aware, the rate of pay for secretarial assistants in provincial locations is reasonable and acceptable. One can find quality people in provincial areas who will work for the level of salary available to secretarial assistants. However, my colleagues in Dublin find it almost impossible to employ staff at the rates of pay on offer. People will obtain better paid and more worthwhile employment elsewhere.
We need quality people who are capable of doing the job we want them to do. Some of us are blessed in terms of the quality people we have – they are excellent. However, being located in a provincial area can be a considerable advantage. I ask the Minister of State to consider what it may be possible to do in that regard. Perhaps, before he brings the Bill to the Seanad, he may be in a position to review the overall umbrella which the Minister for Finance has put in place, whereby one cannot pay secretaries at a higher rate without his approval. That element of the Bill needs to be reviewed with a view to giving the commission the jurisdiction to handle the matter in its way.
I support Deputy Burton's amendment which seeks to reflect thede facto position and to put it on a de jure basis in terms of the wording of the Bill. I also fully support Deputy Paul McGrath's comments. Yesterday, on Committee Stage, this issue was raised directly with the Minister for Finance who gave an explanation of the difficulties associated with visiting what I regard as the derisory rates of pay for secretarial assistants within the Houses of the Oireachtas. He made a case and, no doubt, we could engage in the cut and thrust of that on another occasion.
I believe part of the difficulty relates to the designation of the positions. Most of those concerned are not properly described within the term "secretarial assistant"– they are much more than that. That needs to be recognised, both in terms of the job description and the level of remuneration those people receive, which I have already described as derisory. It is a great tribute to those in these positions, in all parties, who clearly share the same sense of public service as do their Deputies and Senators. Their role and input is not sufficiently acknowledged or reflected upon in the wider focus on the work of these Houses. I fully concur with Deputy McGrath's observation in that regard – it is a matter which I addressed yesterday to the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy. In his position as Minister of State at the Department of Finance, I hope Deputy Parlon will raise this matter with his senior ministerial colleague with a view to having it addressed and redressed, both in terms of the inadequacies of the terminology used and the level of payment offered. Again, I record my support for the amendment.
I hope the Minister of State will accept the amendment. It needs to be emphasised that the commission is for the benefit of Members. In relation to secretarial services, it is undoubtedly very difficult, as I found two years ago when my secretary took maternity leave, to find people of the required quality. In terms of salary, there are better opportunities available and one can only get people if one is prepared to pay them. I hope the commission will be allowed the authority and power to determine that issue. I understand from my colleagues that there is a particular problem in Dublin in that regard, in terms of alternative opportunities and better pay for secretarial personnel.
We also need to bear in mind that secretarial assistants are not appointed to the staff of the Oireachtas but, rather, to the offices of the individual Members who, in turn, are subject to a particular interview board. Unlike the Civil Service, where, once appointed, one remains there, Deputies have to go before the interview board of the electorate after a period of two, three or four years, as the case may be. On the last occasion, the interview board was certainly unimpressed by this side of the House and many people were rejected. That resulted in a situation where the finest of secretaries lost their positions and I saw some of them in tears because there were no jobs for them. They do an excellent job.
With regard to my staff arrangements as a Deputy, my wife runs my office at home, without pay, providing an excellent service, free of charge, to the State. I also compliment my secretarial assistant who does an excellent job. In my case, I do not need a second secretary – the State is getting excellent value.
Two for the price of one.
The commission should have the authority to decide on salary levels for secretarial assistants, having regard to urban-rural comparisons. It is not a matter which can be specified in legislation. The insecurity of employment of those concerned, to which I have referred, should be taken into account. If the Oireachtas Member goes out of office, the secretarial assistant loses her job.
I empathise and sympathise with some of the views expressed by Deputies with regard to the position of secretarial assistants, in terms of their employment being linked to the position of Deputies. All of us are conscious of the fact that the interview board to which Deputy Ring referred will sit in judgment on us at some future stage. The pay of secretarial assistants is linked to that of clerical officers in the Civil Service. The recent 8% benchmarking award will go some way to help and there will be no threat in that regard as to how the commission will review matters in future.
Two relevant Acts are specifically cited in the Bill. One provides for secretarial assistants to individual Members and the other provides similar facilities to registered parliamentary parties. Quite frankly, I fail to see what further benefit would accrue in either case from the proposed amendment. Indeed, there may also be problems in relation to the phrase "political parties represented in each House". That probably contradicts the provisions of one of the Acts cited in the section, which confines the provisions to parliamentary parties, that is, parties which are registered in the register of political parties and contested the previous election as such parties. Arguably, it might be used in relation to a Member who claims to represent a political party outside these Houses which has been refused recognition by the registrar of political parties, or a party which has never contested an election. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendment.
Amendment No. 32 is related to amendment No. 19 and they may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 5, between lines 44 and 45, to insert the following:
"or in any enactment amending or extending those enactments,".
These amendments are purely technical. I am informed by the legal advice available to the Labour Party that these amendments are appropriate, sensible and, if accepted, would make the legislation function better. On that basis I recommend them to the Minister.
The Deputy's requests are already included in the Bill in section 3(2). Therefore, I cannot accept this amendment.
We have advice to the contrary and our advice has often been correct in the long run. We have a pretty good legal adviser to the parliamentary Labour Party. I accept what the Minister of State said, but I believe he is wrong. I have checked the relevant section he mentioned. However, I believe my amendments make the position more explicit.
Amendment No. 20 has been ruled out of order.
Why is that the case? It seeks basically to change the relationship with the Minister in this context to one involving consultation as opposed to consent. This Bill is about the self-governance of the Houses.
The amendment has been ruled out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer. It seeks to remove the requirement for the commission to get the consent of the Minister for Finance when determining, in respect of persons engaged in the provision of secretarial facilities for each House of the Oireachtas, rates of pay, working conditions and pension rights. The removal of this constraint has the potential to increase expenditure and, consequently, it is deemed to be out of order.
Amendment No. 21 is in the names of the Minister and Deputy Burton.
I move amendment No. 21:
In page 6, line 7, to delete "subsections (3) and (4)” and substitute “subsections (5) and (6)”.
As the Minister is co-sponsoring this amendment, I have no option but to thank him and agree with it.
Amendment No. 23 is an alternative to amendment No. 22, amendment No. 26 is an alternative to amendment No. 25, amendment No. 31 is an alternative to 30, and amendment No. 38 is an alternative to amendment No. 37. Therefore, amendments Nos. 22 to 31, inclusive, and amendments Nos. 37 and 38 may be discussed together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 22:
In page 6, line 10, to delete "or of a Committee of Dáil Éireann".
These amendments are largely technical. We had a discussion with the Minister during the debate on the Bill in the Seanad about the use of appropriate titles in relation to the Houses. I would like to hear the Minister of State's response, given that he has largely taken on board the spirit of the comments we made in relation to descriptions in the Bill such as "in relation to", "appointed by", "a Committee of Seanad Éireann", and so on, and provided for the insertion of more appropriate parliamentary language. The Minister of State has sought to meet the tenor of the Labour Party amendments. I would like him to comment on these amendments and then we can sort out where we are in relation to them.
The Deputy referred to the good advice she received, but the wording used in this section is based on the advice provided by our parliamentary counsel. My officials have warned me that people who tinker with their wording could endure all the torments of the damned—
That is a nice phrase.
—and I am almost inclined to believe them. For that reason, I will stick to the parliamentary counsel's advice. I cannot accept this amendment.
Is amendment No. 28 in the Minister's name being discussed now?
It is not included in this group of amendments.
Amendment No. 28 is not included.
It most certainly is.
Apologies, it is.
I have a note that amendments Nos. 23, 26, 28, 31 and 37 are grouped together.
Yes. The Minister of State will press his amendments so the comments of the damned do not relate to those amendments.
Amendment No. 28 is in the name of the Minister.
I presume that the amendments in the Minister's name are an attempt by the parliamentary counsel to respond to the debate we had on Committee Stage. In that context, the Minister of State might inform us of the comments of the parliamentary counsel. I believe we can reach a conclusion on them. I am trying to be helpful to the Minister of State.
The purpose of these amendments is to ensure precision in legal language when describing parliamentary committees. The amendments I proposed elsewhere in this context and during the debates in the Seanad and on Committee Stage were of the same technical nature.
Are these amendments to that section in respect of which a quandary arose on Committee Stage? Does the Minister of State recall that a difficulty arose in that conflicting amendments had been adopted? That is my recollection of the position. Is the Minister of State nodding his head in affirmation?
This is not the case.
The Deputy misreads me again. If I recall correctly, he is referring to the debate in the Seanad on amendments Nos. 34 and 35 where there was a slight mix up as to particular amendments.
Fair enough, if that is the case. The Minister of State will address that matter in the next section. I made the mistake of reading the amendments as a group without recognising that they are sectioned into two lots. Deputy Burton will make the call on these amendments in terms of their appropriateness or otherwise. The Minister of State gave an indication of a willingness to find a formula that would meet the general thrust of Deputy Burton's arguments on Committee Stage.
Yes, that is why I thought the Minister's amendments would seek to address that point.
I am offering an opinion. I believe that he has done that and I will leave it at that, if that is of any help.
Perhaps the Minister could make an explanation available to the Members on this side of the House. As Deputy Ó Caoláin recalled, we were having a very productive discussion on a technical point and the Minister of State undertook, with the advice of his officials, to deal with it at a later stage. Reading his amendments, I assumed that was what they were seeking to do.
I have here a copy of the letter forwarded to the Deputy on 16 June, which clarified a number of the issues with which we were having some difficulty in the Seanad. The Deputy should be in possession of that letter.
The difficulties were on Committee Stage, not in the Seanad.
I will not press my amendments as I accept that the Minister has addressed these issues.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 6, line 10, to delete "of" where it secondly occurs and substitute "appointed by".
I move amendment No. 26:
In page 6, line 21, to delete "of" where it secondly occurs and substitute "appointed by".
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 6, lines 31 and 32, to delete "an Oireachtas Committee" and substitute "a Committee appointed by both Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann".
I move amendment No. 31:
In page 6, lines 42 and 43, to delete "or a Committee of Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann".
Amendment No. 33 has been ruled out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.
Amendment No. 34 arises from committee proceedings. If No. 34 is agreed, No. 35 cannot be moved as it is an alternative. Amendment No. 65 is related and these may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 34:
In page 7, line 37, to delete "to a general election".
Amendment No. 35 was referred to earlier by Deputy Ó Caoláin. This amendment slipped in on Committee Stage and now, in true Department of Finance fashion, I must refuse to accept it.
It is not being pursued now.
This is the point at which an amendment of the Minister's is followed by one from the Labour Party. Due to the technical nature of the amendments, it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify where we are in the Bill, as amended in committee, in terms of page number and line reference.
We are on page 7, lines 37 and 38. The proposal is to delete "to a general election for Seanad Éireann after the dissolution" and substitute "for Seanad Éireann".
Amendment No. 36 arises from committee proceedings and No. 40 is cognate. Amendments Nos. 36 and 40 may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 36:
In page 7, line 39, to delete "at" and substitute "in".
These are technical amendments arising from complex discussion on Committee Stage. If the Minister of State is confused, with all the fantastic expertise he has at his elbow, he should imagine how hard it is for us doing this on our own. I will listen to his comments, but if he can give an assurance that the issues raised on Committee Stage have been addressed in order that the Bill will operate properly, I am prepared to withdraw these amendments.
I appreciate that the amendments being proposed and discussed are very technical and that it can be difficult for all of us, regardless of the back-up we receive. I cannot accept these amendments as they would cause inconsistencies throughout the Bill. I am told that this referencing system is used throughout the Bill; for example, page 5, line 45, refers to "atsubparagraph (i)” and page 7, line 39 contains the reference “at subsection (2)(e)”.
Can the Minister confirm that the new paragraph inserted by Deputy Burton's amendment No. 14 is to be inserted as paragraph (h) of section 4(2)?
He has already confirmed that.
I appreciate that.
The paragraph in Deputy Burton's amendment is to be relocated as a new paragraph (h).
I move amendment No. 37:
In page 7, lines 40 and 41, to delete "of a Committee of Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann or an Oireachtas Committee" and substitute "or a Committee appointed by Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann, or a Committee appointed by both Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann".
I move amendment No. 39:
In page 7, line 43, to delete "parties" and substitute "party".
This is a technical amendment based on Committee Stage discussions. If the Minister will advise me and other Members on this side of his approach to this, I will listen with interest.
This is another technical amendment, which I propose to accept.
I move amendment No. 40:
In page 8, line 6, to delete "at" and substitute "in".
I cannot accept this amendment.
I move amendment No. 41:
In page 8, line 6, to delete "subparagraph (i)” and substitute “paragraph (a)(i),”.
Amendments Nos. 42, 64, 73 and 74 are cognate and will be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 42:
In page 8, line 7, to delete "committee" and substitute "Committee".
This proposes to give the word committee a capital "C" as opposed to a lower case "c". One of the Minister of State's comrades in arms, the Minister, Deputy McDowell, once said, "Be radical or redundant". The choice now is between a capital "C" and a lower case "c". The choice is up to the Minister.
With a capital "A", I accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 43:
In page 8, line 7, to delete "has been dissolved or".
This is a technical amendment on which I await the Minister of State's comments.
I accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 44:
In page 8, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
5.–(1) The Commission shall publish a three year strategic plan as soon as is practicable after its appointment which shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas in draft form for consultation, before being finally adopted by the Commission.
(2) The strategic plan shall be reviewed annually and a report of progress towards the objectives of the plan will be presented in the Commission's Annual Report.".
I propose that the commission should be responsible for publishing a three year strategic plan so that we will not just have the commission rolling along from one day to another and one year to another. It should look forward and create its goals, ambitions and prospects on a three year basis and there should be a roll-over on a regular basis. The strategic plan should be prepared following consultations with the Members and so on. It imposes an obligation on the commission to be forward looking. It should look at how the body operates and what it would hope to do over a period of time rather than being merely functional, paying wages and so on.
The proposal is aspirational. It is important that the commission should take on work like this. Unlike the previous amendments the Minister of State rejected on the basis that they would put an obligation on and dictate to the Houses what might happen, it is saying to the commission that it should bring forward the strategic plan and work towards such a plan which will help to streamline what is happening in the House. Therefore, I hope the Minister of State will accept my amendment.
I support the amendment. This is the natural outworking of an earlier amendment in relation to a statement of intent or a mission statement, which we have already discussed. A strategic plan that would have a three year life currency, with annual reporting and review, will be essential in focusing on the work of the commission and informing all of us, on whose behalf the commission will be engaged, of the progress or otherwise of its efforts. It is a sensible amendment which offers guidance and direction at a crucial time in terms of the Bill's passage. It should be included from the beginning and I hope the Minister of State will accept the amendment.
I support the amendment. I referred on Committee Stage to the Minister's amendment, which is now reflected in section 16 of the Bill. It deals with the strategic plan which the Minister is now asking the Secretary General to prepare. If one looks at the amendment tabled by Deputies McGrath and Bruton, one will see that what they are advocating would greatly enhance the strategic plan. The Minister of State may have been given the amendment and not thought about it in much detail because he included a Civil Service amendment. Deputy McGrath's amendment proposes that the strategic plan, as soon as is practicable after the appointment, shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas in draft form for consultation. The Civil Service alternative states that a copy will be laid before the House. We will get a copy, just as we get dozens and dozens of other reports. At that stage it will be done and dusted and the entire responsibility for the strategic plan will rest with the commission.
I have very high hopes for the membership of the commission. They will be senior and respected members of the Dáil and Seanad, including the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. However, it must be said that both of these esteemed people are officeholders. We want the needs of the Members of both Houses to be addressed, whether Government or Opposition Members. Deputies McGrath and Bruton's amendment is a significant improvement and adornment to the much more limited proposal put forward by the Civil Service.
I asked earlier on behalf of the Labour Party about a mission statement but for various reasons the Minister of State turned it down. He now has a second opportunity to at least provide for an essential consultation process with the Members of this House via the mechanism Deputies Bruton and McGrath have offered. I urge him to take it. The second paragraph is equally good because it says that the strategic plan shall be reviewed each year and a report of progress would be presented in the commission's annual report.
The whole country is in a state of crisis this week, and has been for a number of years, in relation to the debacle that now represents the health service. I am sure the Minister of State would admit that billions have been spent and not much to show for it. Professor Brennan's report refers to the lack of accountability and consultants' contracts. We are saying on this side of the House – one day we may well be on the other side of the House – that some thought should be given to this aspect and consultation with the Members should be allowed. Many problems in the health service were caused by adding bit by bit to this vast service, including community care and so on, which very few people understand. If we were to stand back and take a look at the issue from the beginning and review the plan on an annual basis, we could make a much better job of managing limited resources. The Minister of State was unable earlier to accept the Labour Party's amendment No. 15 on the mission statement. I strongly urge him to accept this amendment.
Essentially, the commission is responsible to the Oireachtas for its actions. Accordingly, this section requires the commission to cause an annual report on its activities to be prepared, published and presented to both Houses. It further requires the Secretary General, if requested by either of the Houses of the Oireachtas or a committee of either House of the Oireachtas authorised to make such a request, to furnish on behalf of the commission the requesting body with information on the policies, activities, accounts and any other matter relating to the commission. The essential point is that the strategic plan is not finalised until the commission agrees to it. It gives the full say to the commission.
It is worth consulting with the Members.
The representation is important.
The Minister of State is making a mistake that he will come to regret.
If it is left to the House, I am sure the Deputy will still say the backbenchers do not have sufficient say. Where the commission goes depends on the representation appointed by this House and by the Seanad.
Even though it has been discussed previously, I will allow Members to make any observations they want to now.
Although I do not want to usurp your function, Acting Chairman, technically each of us can have a two-minute input.
This amendment was discussed previously.
However, it was not debated.
I will give both Deputies an opportunity to debate it.
Thank you, Acting Chairman. You are a very generous man.
The Minister of State is missing the crucial elements contained here. The strategic plan should be forward looking over a three-year period and should be prepared and reviewed annually. There should also be consultation with the House before the plan is finally adopted. It is very well for the Minister of State to say that the members of the commission can debate and discuss this report. However, coming back to a point discussed many times today and also on Committee Stage, this House is made up of very diverse groups representing the people of Ireland. We have 166 Members, a number of parties and a number of Independents.
There is no mechanism for two Members of this House, probably from the Opposition, to discuss and debate what will be in that report with other Members of this House. If one Member from Fine Gael and one Member from the Labour Party were the two commission representatives from this House on the Opposition side, there is no mechanism for them to discuss a draft report with everybody else in this House. The only mechanism that exists is for the draft report to be laid before the House and we have a debate over a period of hours. Arising from that debate the report can be amended accordingly. The Minister of State is missing the point of how consultation should take place, perhaps because he is in Government and has good access to what is happening there.
The same issue will arise in the Seanad. Of the three representatives in the Seanad, probably only one of them will be from the Opposition, which is made up of the Fine Gael group, the Labour Party group and the five Independents. What mechanism will exist for the one Member who will be representing the Seanad Opposition on the commission to discuss a report and get views and ideas from other Members?
I ask the Minister of State to reconsider what he has said to us. There is a deficiency and it is not good enough for this report just to be laid before the House by the commission; there must be consultation. Unless we put a mechanism in the legislation to enable the commission to lay the report before the House and have discussion prior to adopting a final draft, it will not happen any other way. I ask the Minister of State to accept this amendment. Even if it may not be worded perfectly the Minister should give us a commitment that he will review it and come forward at a later date with a suitable amendment.
This amendment is rightly grouped with the Labour Party's amendment No. 15, which calls for a mission statement and consultation with Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. As I said earlier, many other houses of parliament have this.
I cite an example that I raised on Committee Stage. Many Members of this House, including me, are fed up with the disgraceful arrangements concerning the plinth. As finance spokesperson, from September until December, in the worst of the weather of the year, I will be out on the plinth looking like something blown in from the Aran Islands in gale force winds or hovering under umbrellas to protect myself from the rain beside Buswells Hotel. Is that an appropriate way for a modern parliament to present its message to the electorate? The journalists who work in this House do not work for this House, but for the media. Nonetheless they are important stakeholders in this House because presenting our message to the public is done to a significant extent through the media.
The Secretary General of this commission may have a different view of the relationship with the journalists who work in this House to that of the Members of this House, who have to have a guarded relationship with the media, but still have to work with them. Why can we not have appropriate arrangements whereby Members are treated with dignity and the members of the press are treated with dignity? In every other parliament in the world there is a place where members of the press can interview members indoors. In the American Senate it is a roped off area on the way into the hall.
On entering Leinster House 2000 there is a lovely portico well out of the wind and the rain. The Minister of State suggested putting up some kind of glass case or portacabin. It is absurd when trying to enforce the dignity of the House. This is a requirement on the part of all Members and parties in this House and if we do not have consultation about the strategic plan, we will not address simple issues like this, which do not cost money, but which relate to behaviour and how we treat the Members of the House and the people who work in the House, be they the civil servants or in this case the media.
The Secretary General to the commission may not consider this a priority and may take the traditional view that journalists are to be kept in a box and politicians who wish to speak to them had better pray for a fine day. If we cannot address issues like this and effectively as the Members call the shots for reasonable arrangements for our working and for the journalists working in this House, we might as well go home. These three amendments are about consultation so that we will be listened to and I recommend the amendment.
I am allowing some latitude on this.
I thank the Chair for giving me the opportunity to speak on this amendment. I described the strategic plan as the natural outworking of the earlier proposal on a mission statement, which unfortunately has not yet been accepted by the Minister of State. However, I hope the commission will recognise the importance of it and will set upon that course. The critical importance of the wording of the amendment tabled by Deputies Paul McGrath and Bruton needs to be re-emphasised. That is the consultation process.
The makeup of the commission will very likely mean that my colleagues and I will not be represented, which is sad and tragic and I am sure the Minister of State is upset for me. There are many other Deputies who will not have a direct line in terms of the makeup of the commission, and who have every right to secure the opportunity to peruse, to offer opinion and to make an input. That full consultative process is the only means by which that can be achieved. It is very important for members of smaller parties, such as that of the Minister for State, and my own. Both parties are small, but we all have ambition. The Minister of State will realise how very important it is that his position either in Government or in Opposition is protected by virtue of a commitment to consult. It is important, and I lay particular emphasis on it.
The points made by Deputy Burton were in relation to what might be addressed in terms of an initial strategic plan, dealing with deficiencies. We spent some time earlier addressing the deficiencies relating to backup and the resourcing of members. Deputy Burton has quite rightly reflected an area which we spent some time talking about on Committee Stage, namely the unacceptable arrangements in relation to Members offering interviews to members of the press. The plinth arrangements are inadequate, particularly given Irish weather conditions.
I reassert the points already made. It is imperative that that particular objective is provided for in the very first commitment of the commission in terms of address and redress of the current inadequacies of these Houses.
I thank the Minister of State and his officials present for the provision of information in relation to the upcoming arrangements for the provision of creche facilities in the Houses of the Oireachtas. I commend the initiative. It was already in train, and those facilities will be here on the resumption of the new term when we return after the summer recess. It is something to be welcomed. Good ideas are being worked on in the Minister of State's Department and elsewhere. This is an opportunity to bring together the collective weight of all of the good ideas that are shared within these Houses. I urge the Minister of State to support and accept the amendment as presented. Consultation is the key.
It is clear that Deputies Burton and Ó Caoláin have very strong views on how we deal with the media, and the facilities, or lack of them, on the plinth. The Deputies make a very strong case. It will certainly be a matter for the commission, which will have very substantial resources over the course of its three years.
Capital works will be the responsibility of the Office of Public Works. The commission will not have to provide infrastructure.
Not quite. The Deputies will be able to press their case in those areas. Regarding the strategy statement, it will be – as in a Government Department – the responsibility of the Secretary General to put the statement to the commission and achieve consensus at that stage. The amendment if passed would mean that there would then be a requirement for the commission to lay that draft before each House before finalisation, before each House. Perhaps that would work, but the commission will have to give its approval when the statement is put before it by the Secretary General. One cannot have even a small committee of ten people drafting. One person drafts and somebody agrees. If one were trying to draft a statement within this House, and 166 people insisted on having an input, that could take a very long time, and might not make a lot of sense.
Both approaches have a lot in common. The general thrust of this Bill is to put the commission in the same relationship with its Secretary General as that between Ministers and their Secretaries General. The interactive process is more likely to be productive where it involves a small group, such as the ten members of the commission, who have formal responsibility, rather than with a big committee of 166, for example. I take it as read that the annual report would cover progress with regard to objectives. That is normal with any report. Accordingly, I cannot take the amendment on board.
Is the amendment being pressed?
I move amendment No. 45:
In page 8, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
"5.–(1) The strategic plan shall considerinter alia, how the Oireachtas can improve its effectiveness in respect of–
(a) the conduct of investigations on matters of public interest,
(b) the most appropriate means for debating and assessing the budgetary framework and the expenditure proposals of Ministers before financial decisions are made on these matters,
(c) the most appropriate means for bringing knowledge and experience from outside the House to bear, on matters where the Oireachtas intends to introduce new legislative provisions,
(d) the most appropriate means for the supervision of State companies and executive agencies.
(2) In the context of this planning process, the Commission may make proposals for legislative change for consideration by the Government to improve the effectiveness of the Houses of the Oireachtas.".
It is necessary to recommit the Bill in respect of amendment No. 46 as it does not arise from committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 47 to 49, inclusive, may then be deemed to have arisen from committee proceedings on amendment No. 46. Amendments Nos. 46 to 49 are related and may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 46:
In page 8, line 20, after "publish" to insert ", not later than the 30th day of June in each year,".
This is a continuation of our earlier discussion. Our objective in relation to the commission is to get accountability and consultation with the members of all parties and no parties within this House. As the Minister of State is no doubt fully aware as a business person and a farmers' representative, unless one gets a report on a timely basis, reading it is political archaeology, rather than reading something current and up-to-date.
The purpose of the amendment is to insist that the report should be published at the latest date, not later than 30 June of each year. The Minister of State no doubt knows that most commercial organisations publish reports about four months after the year ends. It would be reasonable in the context of public service requirements being more onerous, to allow for a six-month period. It would mean that the reports would be timely and informative, and therefore much more meaningful to the Members of the House.
The accountability function is critical. It is like the debacle in the health services. If we could only have had regular reporting of what was going on, we might not be in the situation we are now in. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, might not be in the quagmire he has been in, spending more money to produce nothing. The purpose of our amendment is to assist the commission in providing up to date reports for the purposes of accountability and consultation. I commend the amendment to the House.
I have two questions. I would like Deputy Burton to address the issue of the date. Why is it 30 June? While I appreciate the principle of the arguments she has put forward, I am concerned about the date as the Dáil usually goes into recess for the summer the following week and it is a time of great panic and pandemonium on the Government benches in terms of rushing legislation through and harassing the Opposition in every way possible. I would like to hear the arguments for setting that date. The other matter is a technical point. It will create a problem if we do not drop the words " in each year" because they are already included in the text and it is not necessary to include them twice. The more critical point, before I finally support the actuality of the amendment, is why the date is 30 June. I support the argument in principle.
I support this amendment. It is necessary to put the onus on the commission to produce this report within a certain timeframe. Deputy Ó Caoláin raised a couple of queries. He asked what is the position on paragraph 2. Paragraph 2 will be deleted by way of a later amendment, thereby eliminating the difficulty to which he drew attention.
In regard to why 30 June is set as the deadline, it is half way through the year. It is six months after the end of the year and it is appropriate that a body be required to produce its report within six months of the year end. Given that many financial reports, particularly those of State companies, drift on for quite a long time, it is important to set some limit.
The point about the Dáil going into recess soon after that is well made. However, it is important to set some date. If we were to bring it forward to 30 May, there would be some other objection. It is reasonable to give the commission six months to produce and publish the report and have it laid before the House. If the commission is to take on board some of the sentiments expressed earlier in the debate on consultation, that six-month period would be necessary to enable consultation to take place and matters arising from that consultation to be written into the report. Therefore, I see 30 June as being particularly appropriate. The matter would come up for discussion later on in the House or before a committee of the House at an earlier date if desired. I support the amendment.
This section requires the commission to cause an annual report to be prepared, published and presented to both Houses on the activities of the commission. It further requires the Secretary General, if requested by either of the Houses of the Oireachtas, or a committee of either House of the Oireachtas authorised to make such a request, to furnish, on behalf of the commission, the requesting body with information on the policies, activities, accounts and other matters relating to the submission. As the commission is being set up on 1 January, the annual report will have to be published before 1 July of that year. It is standard procedure for bodies to publish an annual report and to publish it within six months. This practice is operated by the Courts Service, Ordnance Survey of Ireland and the family support agencies. I cannot accept this amendment.
The purpose of the amendment is to ensure that publication of the annual report within six months is a specific requirement. The wording in the Act is rather loose. If the Minister reads it, he will see what I mean. In response to Deputy Ó Caoláin's comment, 31 December is suggested because that is now the financial year end for all State bodies. For some purposes it used to be 5 April or 31 March, but there is now a uniform accounting year in all State and public bodies.
In the commercial sector, particularly for public companies, annual reports are normally published between two and four months after the year end. As Civil Service auditing and accounting requirements are in some instances more detailed and onerous, it is reasonable to allow Civil Service institutions a leeway of a couple of extra months. I suspect that Deputy Ó Caoláin believes that the time period is too long. I would hope that as Civil Service accounting improves, the period could be reduced but I believe a period of four months would be highly reasonable and I would imagine the internal accounts for the commission would probably be ready two and a half months after the year end with a further month allowed for auditing. That would make it possible for the report to be published within four months of the end of the year. To require that in the legislation right now might be excessively onerous, given the current state of Civil Service structures and reform of the Civil Service. I therefore agree with setting a timescale of six months after the year end. The purpose of the Labour Party amendment is to tie that down to 30 June in section 6(1) of the Bill.
My concern about the prescriptive nature of the date is that although the report might make the deadline if we are lucky, the Dáil would be in recess and the opportunity for proper debate would be lost because the report would have lost its impact by the time the Dáil would resume at the end of September or beginning of October. An earlier date would be more appropriate and would allow for a more focused debate on the report.
The Minister has not addressed the question of phraseology raised by Deputy McGrath. It is a small point but I would have thought the words "not later than 30 June" might be better inserted after the word "report" rather than after the word "publish". The words "in each year" would then be superfluous. However, the key focus of what I sought to raise has been addressed and it is acknowledged that an earlier date would be preferable. However, I support the amendment in principle, as I have others that challenged me somewhat.
It is stated in section 6(2) that the first annual report shall be in respect of the period beginning on the establishment day and ending on the following 31 December and shall be published not later than the following 30 June. That is within the six months. I understand that the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General is prepared by the end of March under the Comptroller and Auditor General Act. There is nothing to prevent the strategy statement by the commission having an earlier date.
The Minister makes the point for the Labour Party amendment. The section he read out refers to the first annual report. Our amendment would make that apply to every year. That is why I believe our amendment is a better form of wording. One of the things that may be said to the commission, and I take Deputy Ó Caoláin's point, is that the reporting date and publication date could be brought forward. I appreciate there may still be difficulties in terms of the secretaries Act and so on, but the date could be brought forward in the interests of accountability and the usefulness of such reports. If, when this commission has been in existence for a year and a half, we are still standing out in the rain on the plinth, we will want to know why, and we will want to know whether we will be waiting for another year. At the end of a year and a half of discussion on the commission, we are still standing out in the rain on the plinth. We want to know why and we do not know whether we will have to wait for another year.
Section 6(3) states, "Each subsequent annual report shall be published not later than six months after the end of the year to which it relates".
That does not specify year end. We could play chess all day on this.
I move amendment No. 50:
In page 8, line 42, to delete "an acting" and substitute "a deputy".
We discussed this amendment on Committee Stage. The Bill uses the term "acting chairperson" whereas the title "deputy chairperson" would be better, as that title is normally used.
We discussed this extensively on Committee Stage and I thought we had put it to bed. My only objection was the Deputy gave a misleading impression of the job. "Acting chairperson" is a more honest term in regard to overcoming the notion that the role only involves presiding over or calling the odd meeting. At the end of the day, we are referring to a small group who will work and interact with each other on a regular basis. A chairperson of an active body knows full well that it is required to keep it running smoothly and the body is highly unlikely to choose an acting chairperson that is not acceptable. However, I would like to circumscribe the chairperson's choice statutorily or replace him for this purpose by a group. There is no prohibition under this section on the chairperson consulting the commission members in advance of choosing and writing to the selected member. I do not support the amendment.
We can all learn from each other and, for example, the separation of powers adopted in Ireland has been applied in the British jurisdiction in recent days. The Lord Chancellor will no longer be a legislator, the head of the judiciary and a member of the executive at the same time. We could also learn from this. Yesterday the British Prime Minister appeared in the House of Commons at the request of the Speaker to address issues that were of concern to the members. It is not often that the Speaker calls the Prime Minister to the House of Commons but he had to appear when he was summoned. It is all very well to debate the title of the chairperson of the commission and his or her deputy, but the powers they are given is a much more important issue. I would like the Ceann Comhairle to be given power to ensure the independence of the House. Money can be found for the many expensive tribunals and inquiries but they would not be necessary if the Houses were resourced properly and the Ceann Comhairle was given the power to ensure whatever Government is in office is accountable to the Members. The setting up of the commission is a good step but I would like the Ceann Comhairle to have a new role in that regard.
Section 7 states there should be an acting chairperson of the commission who will be appointed by the chair of the commission in writing and he or she will take on various functions and so on. The title is inelegant in terms of the everyday usage. "Acting chairperson" is not a term used by public bodies in Ireland. "Deputy" is the word that is used. We have deputy leaders of political parties, deputy chairs of commissions and so on. "Acting" implies a chairperson is temporarily absent whereas the appointment will be made in writing by the Ceann Comhairle. Why not call a spade a spade? It is not as if the Ceann Comhairle will slip out for two minutes while chairing the commission and someone else will act in his place. The reason for the appointment is if the Ceann Comhairle is away or busy with other business, he or she will have a deputy. Ordinary people and many Members would understand the term "deputy chairperson" more easily. Why not accept the amendment? It provides a much better use of language and it accords with everyday use of language in Ireland.
We could play chess with this amendment for quite a while. It is not a major issue and I do not have a difficulty substituting "deputy" for "acting".
Amendment No. 52 is related to amendment No. 51 and both may be taken together.
I move amendment No. 51:
In page 9, lines 1 and 2, to delete "chairperson" and substitute "Commission".
The Government wants to nominate both the deputy chairperson and the chairperson. This is not acceptable because the commission, together with the chairperson, should appoint the deputy chairperson. If the commission is doing its job and working for the Members of the House, by and large, there will not be votes. The Secretary General will bring forward proposals, following which there will be discussion and consultation with Members back at the ranch and, hopefully, there will be agreement on most issues. Why not apply the same procedure to the appointment of the deputy chairperson rather than have the Government, through the chairperson, make the appointment? The commission comprises esteemed members, including the Ceann Comhairle and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, the Secretary General of the commission and senior Members of both the Dáil and the Seanad. They are big enough to be trusted to elect a deputy chairperson.
Following acceptance of Deputy Burton's previous amendment, the Minister of State needs to introduce amendments to the wording in page 9, line 3 and page 9, line 10. He will have to change the word "acting" later in the Bill to "deputy" consequential on the previous amendment being made. I do not know what mechanism we have for doing that at this stage. Will the word "acting chairperson" automatically change to "deputy chairperson" or must an amendment be moved in each case? Perhaps the Acting Chairman could clarify the matter.
The amendments proposed by Deputy Burton and me amount to the same thing. The Bill, as initiated states: "As soon as may be after the establishment day, the chairperson shall appoint in writing a member of the Commission, other than the Secretary General, to be the acting chairperson."
Deputy Burton is saying that the commission, rather than the chairperson, shall appoint the deputy chairperson. My amendment proposes that the chairperson shall appoint a deputy chairperson following consultation with the commission. This amounts to the same thing. I believe my wording is slightly better because while it would be difficult for the commission to make an appointment in writing, it would be possible for the chairperson to do so.
The commission must consult within its membership and with Members of the House. In this case, the commission should consult within itself. We do not want a chain of command whereby the Minister appoints the chairperson of the commission and the chairperson appoints the deputy chairperson. We do not want a line of command starting in the Taoiseach's office and coming down the line. There must be consultation with the commission. These are reasonable amendments. We are asking for a small bit of consultation, not for the sun, moon and stars.
When we see what is happening in Northern Ireland and hear talk about devolved government and shared powers, it is ironic to read in this Bill that the Government of the day will dominate what will happen within this commission. These amendments will ensure, in a small way, that there will be consultation. They will not guarantee a sharing of power but there will, at least, be consultation.
I hope the Minister of State will continue to be magnanimous and recognise that the Bill contains a small element of dictatorship, with the chairperson appointing in writing a deputy. The section should say that the chairperson shall, after consultation, appoint in writing a deputy. That provision must be built into the Bill.
I wish to support Deputy Burton's amendment. I respect Deputy McGrath but I do not accept his point that the amendments are one and the same. The critical difference is members of the commission having a say, not just the opportunity to offer an opinion. There is a substantial difference.
The practice Deputies Burton and McGrath are seeking to address – I acknowledge they are both trying to address it although I prefer Deputy Burton's amendment – is already happening in this Chamber. The Ceann Comhairle has the opportunity to appoint those, other than the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, who will occupy the Chair in the absence of both the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I understand that the practice heretofore has been that the respective parties are asked to nominate. The power to appoint is in the hands of the Ceann Comhairle. I have no doubt that the current occupant of the Chair, Deputy McGinley, has the imprimatur of his party and I presume Deputy Sherlock, who occupied the Chair earlier, has the imprimatur of his. However, with the development of new political representation in this House following last year's general election, the same opportunity was not granted to the Technical Group. A member of the technical group, Deputy Cowley, for whom I have the highest regard and respect, sometimes chairs proceedings in the Chamber. He was appointed by the Ceann Comhairle without any consultation with the members of the Technical Group. The Ceann Comhairle did not consult the Independent Deputies or the Green Party Deputies and he certainly did not consult the Sinn Féin Members. This is the very thing that Deputies Burton and McGrath seek to address and they are absolutely right to do so.
It is important that the constituent elements in the House recognised to be in Opposition, that is Fine Gael, Labour and the Technical Group, should have their respective positions respected and that the commission itself retain the power and authority to appoint a deputy chairperson. It is unfortunate that the two-tier approach has been adopted regarding the occupants of the Chair in the absence of the Ceann Comhairle and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle I respect everyone who takes up that position and I would not covet it for a moment, nor perhaps would any of my colleagues. However, there is a principle involved. No consultation took place and a selection was made by the Ceann Comhairle alone. I do not want to see that practice, with which I disagree, replicated in the commission, whereby the chairperson or cathaoirleach of the commission would appoint someone of his or her choice to be the new deputy chairperson. The decision should rest with the commission and with all its members. They, collectively and democratically, should select the deputy chair.
There is an important principle here and I have given an example of how it can happen and is already the case in this Dáil. Members do not have the consultation Deputy McGrath argues for and they certainly do not have the right to be part of the decision making process, as Deputy Burton's amendment proposes.
I fully support amendment No. 51. I respect and accept the spirit of amendment No. 52 but the former amendment firms up matters more strongly for the reasons I have outlined. Many Members, probably all of the Members now present, are unaware of the power of appointment to occupy the position where Deputy McGinley currently sits. If Fine Gael and the Labour Party have engaged in consultation and had the power of collective appointment by their respective leaders and parliamentary groupings, the same facilitation should have been offered to the Technical Group, which is no less a recognised entity in this Chamber.
I hope there is not a split in the Technical Group. We are used to that in Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour over the years. I listened with interest regarding the appointment and I will make no further comment. It could be a question of the old boys' or old girls' club.
On the chairmanship, my personal view is that the Ceann Comhairle should not be chairman of this commission on the basis that he or she is too busy in this House. This will be a very serious appointment. The chairperson of the commission will have to give it nearly full-time attention, considering he or she will be dealing with pressures on a day-to-day basis. Issues will be raised every day. The commission may need to meet on many occasions, perhaps two or three times a week or even six of seven times a week because there may be many problems to be dealt with. The chairmanship should be a full-time job and it should be the only job that he or she has. If we are serious about this commission and its workings, we should appoint a chairperson for the three years but, with no disrespect to the Ceann Comhairle, whoever he or she may be, it should not be the Ceann Comhairle because he or she is too busy.
On the appointment of the chairperson, we do not want this to be another job for the boys or girls, another chairmanship for the Government party of the day. We do not want that to happen. I want this commission to work. This is an opportunity for the House and for the Members to make sure that once and for all we have representation on this commission, that there is fairness on the commission and that this will not fall down on political grounds or on any decision taken on party political lines. We want this commission to be fair to every Oireachtas Member and to make sure that there is equality. I hope we do not go down that road of political appointments because it is not the way to go.
On any suggestion that the Ceann Comhairle is a member of the Government, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Pattison, was strong yesterday evening in pointing out, to both Deputy Burton and Deputy McGrath, the total independence of the Ceann Comhairle's position. We are talking here about a small group which would be working and interacting with each other on a regular basis. The deputy chairperson will be appointed in advance, but it is wrong that Deputy McGrath mentioned dictating etc. It is wrong that we, in the House, or that the Bill would dictate to the chairperson as to who he should consult. As with any chairperson I have ever known, whether of a big or small group, being chairperson is about consulting and getting consensus.
In terms of appointing the chairperson, it is not up to the Bill to insist or dictate with whom the chairperson consults. I assume that in appointing an acting chairperson who will carry on the business in the absence of the chairperson and keep the business flowing freely, it is sufficient that the chairperson and the commission should have discretion. The amendment will not help the situation.
On the suggestion that it will be a political appointment or that the chairperson, who will be the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, will be biased in terms of who he consults with or who he appoints, I do not see the benefit of dictating that he should consult. It would be normal practice that he would consult on whatever appointment would be made because clearly there is no point in appointing somebody who is not interested in, or does not want to take up, the job. For that reason I would assume that those consultations would take place as part of a sensible decision.
The Minister of State stated that we should not dictate to the chairman how he or she does business. This Bill is about dictating. We are laying down the criteria by which this commission will work and telling the Secretary General, the chairman and everybody how they should do their business. We want to ensure that, in appointing an acting chairperson, there is consultation.
The second point the Minister of State raised, that he expects there will be consultation, is important. As the sponsoring Minister of this Bill, he has now given a commitment to this House that he expects the chairman to consult with the members of the commission before he appoints the acting chairperson. That is an important commitment. While the Minister has stated he will not accept the amendment, the chairperson, who will have read the Official Report and how we dealt with this matter, will have to take into account the Minister's statement that he should consult the members of the commission before making the appointment. I will wait with bated breath to see to what extent the Minister of State's commitment, given today, will be followed through. It is a good commitment and I thank him for it. It is the best he could do, given that he could not accept the amendment. I welcome the sentiments he expressed and I know that the chairperson will follow through on them.
I am very concerned about some of the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon's, responses. I think he wants to be helpful and I acknowledge that, although he has been captured to a degree by the Civil Service. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy Pattison, spoke yesterday of the independence of the Cathaoirleach and the Leas-Chathaoirleach in carrying out their function and role, just as the Acting Chairman, Deputy McGinley, although he is a member of a political party, will be scrupulously fair in carrying out the functions of the Chair. However, that is not the point I wish to make on this section.
Under this Bill it is proposed to give the Houses of the Oireachtas independence but then we spancel it by ensuring that the Government is in complete control in dominating the nominations to the commission, because the Ceann Comhairle and Cathaoirleach of the Seanad are usually members of the Government parties – occasionally they are members of other parties for particular reasons. What we want to ensure, in the operation of the commission, is that all the Members of this House, the backbenchers and members of the Opposition, have a fair and honest chance to have an input.
I raised already the drastic situation of people on the plinth, in the wind and rain. Let us talk about another practical example, the opening arrangements of this House, where one cannot get into the House before 8 o'clock in the morning. What would be wrong with us being able to hold meetings from 8 o'clock in the morning, particularly people who live in Dublin and people who stay overnight. We could then go home much earlier in the day.
All these items are minor reforms that Members in this House have been talking about for years, but to no avail. Now that we have governance of our own affairs, whether we are backbenchers, Front Bench Deputies, Opposition spokespersons or Government backbenchers, if we cannot consult and have an input into this commission, we will basically be replacing a very rigid system for another potentially equally rigid system.
The problem for the Government is that it cannot trust the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. This is control at its worst and we see it all the time in this Government. If it wants to do something, it gets a consultant to tell it what it is thinking, and that costs a fortune.
The ten people who will comprise this commission will be very eminent people. It will not include people like me – I am too new in this House – or the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, regardless of what side of the House he is on after the next election.
He would not take the cut in salary.
We will be far too junior. Deputy Ó Caoláin will be far too junior. It will be eminent people like Deputy McGrath who is here for years and probably Deputy Ring. Eminent people from my party and from the Technical Group.
I never get any job with money.
Can it not be left to the judgment of those who are called "the elders" in Africa? They will make up the membership of the commission. Surely they can be trusted to appoint a deputy chairperson. Why does the Ceann Comhairle have to perhaps receive a telephone call from the Taoiseach of the day or the Minister for Finance of the day directing him or her to appoint this or that person? Why not allow the ten or 11 eminent members of the commission decide? If the chairperson of the commission is from the Government side, even though he or she is acting independently, will the Minister of State not agree that the deputy chairperson should be from the Opposition? That would increase the collegiality of the commission and help it to work for everybody in the House, which is what we all desire.
Without revisiting all the detail of my earlier contribution, I believe there is a very important principle here. I have given the example of the situation in relation to the position of Cathaoirleach or Ceann Comhairle of the Chamber. It is an absolute requirement not only that consultation take place. I have given an example of where consultation has not taken place in relation to one of those appointments. There is the need to empower the new commission so that its members understand that they have functions, responsibilities and the power to make decisions. One of the very basic decisions that they could take, given that there is already the appointment of the Secretary General as the appointment of the chair of the commission, these are not things that they will be able to determine, these are already enshrined in the legislation. At least, in Heaven's name, let us show some intent to empower them by allowing them to make the democratic selection of the deputy chairperson. I do not think it is a lot to ask. It is not a case of consultation only, they should have that democratic power among their number and get on with the business. For the life of me, I cannot understand the Minister of State's hesitancy on this matter.
Stand by the Republic.
We know the Minister of State will respond like a true democrat, a progressive democrat.
He will say "yes".
There is a limit to my largesse on this issue. I do not wish to upset the Deputy but he is becoming a little paranoid about the sectionalisation of the commission and how important it would be for the deputy chairman to be a member of the Opposition.
The Minister of State should tell us that in six year's time.
I accept that the "elders"– they may not all be elders but they will be very eminent people who will be appointed – will take their responsibilities seriously and will leave some of their old party allegiances behind them in terms of their responsibilities to carry out their duties in the best interests of the House. It has already been decided that the Ceann Comhairle will be the chairman. The Ceann Comhairle will be obliged to nominate a deputy or an acting chairman at the outset from among the commission members. The Deputy's amendment would impose a provision that he or she should appoint a member of the Opposition.
No, that was a suggestion of mine. It is not contained in the amendment. It is something he might wisely consider.
He may well wisely decide that, having ascertained whether that Member would be interested in taking on the job because that would be an issue. We are talking in circles. I expect that common sense will prevail and that the chairman of the committee, having ascertained the situation, will select somebody who will carry out the important duty of the smooth running of the committee in his or her absence. I appreciate the good notion behind the proposals but I do not accept they will improve the Bill. I do not accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 52:
In page 9, line 2, after "shall" to insert "following consultation with other members of the Commission".
Amendments Nos. 53 and 56 may be taken together by agreement.
I move amendment No. 53:
In page 9, to delete line 21 and substitute the following:
"(c) a member of the staff of the Commission elected by such staff;”.
This is in many ways a critical amendment to the Bill. There are hundreds of staff working at different levels in the Houses of the Oireachtas. This Bill is to do with the governance of the Houses of the Oireachtas by the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. In all State and semi-State institutions, there has been an acknowledgement for decades, particularly in relation to semi-State companies, that staff members should be represented in the governance of those companies. The Labour Party wishes to extend this principle to the commission by an election by the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. The staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas provide a service at many levels, from the senior civil servants who run the Dáil, to the people who work as highly-valued secretarial assistants, to the people from the Office of Public Works who look after the building, the people who come in early and late to clean the building, all the people who work in the Dáil and who take considerable pride in the appearance of the building, who show visitors around the building, who provide security and services.
It seems extremely old-fashioned that we should agree on self-governance and decide not to include members of staff in the governance of the commission. It must be borne in mind that the Secretary General, who is the boss of the civil servants in the Dáil precincts, is an integral member and chief executive of the commission. The proposal is to have a staff member chosen from a relatively small group running the affairs of the commission. We propose that the Secretary General would not be a member of the commission but rather would be the chief executive, entitled to attend the commission. As in the Civil Service, he or she would carry out the function of the chief executive. The Secretary General's place would be taken by an elected member of the staff. We feel this is an appropriate arrangement. It would also be in order from a legal point of view because it would not impose any extra cost on the Minister for Finance. I find it difficult to believe that the Government, particularly Fianna Fáil, has decided that the staff of the Oireachtas, who are integral to the proper functioning of the Houses, will not be represented on the new commission. It is particularly strange when one considers that the Taoiseach has based his political career on promoting social partnership.
I do not want to revisit the entire Committee Stage discussion on this matter. Members of the committee spoke about the services rendered to them by various well-conducted and courteous members of staff. The officials serve Members, of all political parties and of none, with efficiency and courtesy. They tend to spend far more of their working lives in this building than many public representatives do. They have a job for life, potentially, after an interview with the Office of the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissioners, but we are interviewed far more frequently, as Deputy Ring said earlier.
That is right.
Our interview is with an interview board that is much more fickle and demanding than the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissioners. As many members of staff have been in the service of the Oireachtas for up to 40 years, they are exceptionally well-versed and knowledgeable regarding the different features of the running of the Houses. The first of my many working experiences was in the GPO as a very junior clerk.
Was the Deputy there in 1916?
No, I was not there in 1916, but it feels as if I was because it is so long ago. As an accountant who worked in many public bodies and Government Departments when I was in private practice, I have always felt that the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas has a highly hierarchical management structure. The way in which the Oireachtas conducts its internal business has a very hierarchical air to it. A decision to allow a member of staff, elected by the staff, to be appointed to the commission would bring the operations of the Oireachtas, as well as the atmosphere of the Houses, into the 21st century. It would allow staff to be represented, to have a voice and to offer insights and wisdom on the operation of the Oireachtas.
I see that we have been joined by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Brennan, who knows that his predecessor as Minister valued the input of worker directors and their insight into the running of various transport companies owned by the State. Two weeks ago, the Minister met the board of Aer Rianta, which includes staff representatives, to discuss the future of the company. I am asking that the several hundred civil servants who work in the Houses of the Oireachtas be represented on the commission. It is a question of modern employment rights and of bringing the style, structure and governance of this House into the 21st century.
A number of specific issues are very important to the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. These include the questions of staff facilities, such as a crèche, and access to conditions of employment which are enjoyed in other parts of the Civil Service. The terms and conditions of employment are negotiated by staff, particularly by trade union representatives. Participation in the working of the commission would allow staff members to be advised by other staff and trade union representatives in order that they could take part in the development of the Houses of the Oireachtas. We want the House to be open for longer hours, so that we can start business at 8 a.m., and we want to encourage the public to visit the House. A representative of the staff on the commission would give a valuable insight into these matters. We mentioned earlier that the commission should be accountable and consultative. It is essential that it should have staff representation.
The two amendments we are debating, which involve much the same thing other than the numbers suggested therein, are at the core of this Bill. Deputy Burton is proposing that the commission should include one representative of the staff, whereas the amendment in my name and that of Deputy Richard Bruton suggests that there should be "2 members representative of the non-elective staff of the Houses".
The Acting Chairman, Deputy McGinley, has been a Member of this House for longer than me. I have been impressed, in the 14 years I have spent in this House, by the courtesy, efficiency and dedication to work of all the staff of the House. The ushers smile and wave when one arrives at the gate to begin one's business. One is greeted by more ushers when one comes through the door. The officials in the general office could not be more helpful. I mentioned last night that if one is looking for a parliamentary question one submitted two or three years previously, the officials in the office will find it and produce it, even if one is not sure of the exact date. If one is looking for a document about which one has vague details, the staff of the Oireachtas Library will ensure that it is in one's pigeon hole within half an hour.
The members of staff of this House, including ushers, civil servants, the lads who perform a courier service by carrying our boxes, ministerial staff and those who gather leaves on the lawns and keep the House looking well, are tremendous. They are part of this House and have a definite role in it. Staff and Members collectively enable the democratic wheels to roll. The House could not function without its staff. It would be a very different House without the courtesy shown by the staff, above and beyond the call of duty. It is unfortunate and to the shame of the Minister and the Government that this Bill is turning its back on the staff. There are 226 elected representatives in the Oireachtas, but there are probably 800 or 900 members of staff working here, if one includes those who provide secretarial assistance, etc. We are turning our back on the staff and saying that they do not count at the commission table where the operation and decorum of this House over the next number of years will be decided. Is that the way to do business in a modern society? Is it the way we should treat those who are an integral part of the House?
Let us look at what happened in State companies when we involved worker-directors and so on. It helped to make them work more efficiently. Yet, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill 2003 does not provide for staff representation on the commission.