A Cheann Comhairle, may I ask a question on a technical point please? Whereas I and my party have no difficulty in agreeing the amendments to this Bill today we are very anxious that it be cleared up and passed into law immediately. It is normal practice in this House that when amendments have been made to a Bill and are returned for discussion in the House, the Bill, as amended, is published. I am aware that this Bill was amended in the Seanad only yesterday and I am aware of the technical difficulties but the Bill, as amended, has not been published. I wonder if we can proceed to agree those amendments when the Bill, as amended, has not been published. I ask the Ceann Comhairle to clarify the technical status of what we are about to do. I do not want a difficulty to arise afterwards.
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill 2002: From the Seanad.
I, too, ask for your guidance, a Cheann Comhairle, on this issue. Just 20 minutes ago, we received copies of the Bill as passed by Dáil Éireann. We also have the list of amendments made by Seanad Éireann. The Labour Party is also very anxious that this Bill should proceed but we would appreciate the Ceann Comhairle's technical guidance as to the availability of the Bill as amended by the Seanad yesterday.
My question is similar to those asked by the other Members. I wish to see the Bill proceed unhindered here this morning. The technical point raised by my colleagues is one that merits immediate address in order to clarify if that is now an achievable position.
This Bill commenced in the Seanad and then came to this House. Under Article 20. 2. 2º of the Constitution, it was then recognised as a Bill initiated in the Dáil. It went to the Seanad and amendments were made in the Seanad. As it is a Dáil Bill, it is normal practice that it comes back to the Dáil in its original form and the amendments are added on. I presume Members received copies of the amendments. There is an order of the House this morning to deal with this.
Seanad amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 12 to 18, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
Seanad amendment No. 1:
Section 2: In page 3, subsection (1), lines 22 and 23 deleted.
In the course of the Committee Stage debate in the Dáil, all Opposition parties urged that the member of the commission selec ted to act as chairperson in the event of the commission chairman being absent or indisposed should be described as a deputy chairperson rather than as an acting chairperson. The term "acting" was used in the Bill because a substitute was unlikely to be required frequently and because the acting chairperson's functions were confined to presiding over meetings or calling them when the chairperson was unavailable or unable to do so. On Report Stage I reiterated the view that acting was a more accurate and honest description. However, in deference to the strength of the Opposition's feelings on the matter, I accepted an amendment which replaced "acting chairperson" with "deputy chairperson" in section 7. These technical amendments are consequential on the acceptance of this amendment on Report Stage in the Dáil which will change the title "acting chairperson" to "deputy chairperson". This occurs in a number of sections.
This amendment was tabled by the Labour Party. I thank the Minister of State for accepting it.
Seanad amendments Nos. 3 and 8 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.
Seanad amendment No. 3:
Section 4: In page 6, subsection (2), between lines 3 and 4, the following new paragraph inserted:
"(d) to exercise the functions of the Minister under section 4 of the Oireachtas (Miscellaneous Provisions) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act 1996,”.
Under provisions elsewhere in the Bill, the commission will be endowed with authority, subject to authorisation by one or both Houses, to defend proceedings taken against Members. The purpose of this amendment is the narrower one of giving the commission the powers now held by the Minister for Finance in one Act, namely, the Oireachtas (Miscellaneous Provisions) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act 1996, to deal with situations where proceedings are being taken against a Member or a parliamentary party by a secretarial assistant employed by that Member or party in respect of a personal injury sustained in the course of the assistant's employment. This measure was introduced in 1996 when a Deputy was sued in such circumstances and it was found that she would be personally liable unless there was a legal authority for the State to give financial support with legal costs and any damages awarded. Few such cases have arisen since. In essence, the commission will have the power to recoup in whole or in part to such Member or party any award or settlement, together with the costs incurred. This facility can only be provided in instances where the person sustained the injury in the course of employment as a secretarial assistant by a Member of either House of the Oireachtas or by a registered political party and where the person in question is paid by the Oireachtas commission.
This sounds like a sensible amendment by the Minister of State. It closes the loophole which existed. I welcome it.
Seanad amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are related to Seanad amendment No. 4. Seanad amendments Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, may be discussed together by agreement.
Seanad amendment No. 4:
Section 4: In page 6, subsection (2)(e)(i), lines 11 and 12, “arising from the performance by them of their functions” deleted and “arising solely from the performance by them of their parliamentary functions” substituted.
The section to which these amendments relate allows the commission, subject to authorisation by the Dáil, Seanad or both, to initiate, intervene or apply to be joined as a plaintiff on behalf of a Member. The Bill, as passed by the Dáil, specifies that such proceedings must arise from the Member's performance of functions as a Member of either House or committee. The amendments add two extra phrases, namely, that matters must arise "solely" from a Member's "parliamentary functions". This could be regarded as a lawyer's refinement and it is in line with the intent of the Bill as introduced in the Dáil.
While theoretical decisions on what are the parliamentary functions of a Member could keep lawyers busy for a while, the point to keep in mind is that the interpretation falls on the commission or the House, which is the best body to make the call. A Senator who canvasses for himself or herself or a party colleague in a Dáil election and gets into an altercation, would be outside its scope. Likewise, a Deputy who spilled boiling water over a fellow guest at a local function would probably not be able to expect to persuade the commission that the resulting case against him or her arose solely from parliamentary functions just because the invitation was addressed to him or her in his or her capacity as a Member of either House.
What about the chicken and chips?
The Bill, as passed by the Dáil, distinguished between the commission acting as a plaintiff – that is where the prior consent of the Member's House was required – and it assuming a defending role – that is where such consent was not required. Following correspondence from the Ceann Comhairle, it was decided to table an amendment which restored the requirement of prior consent from the Dáil, Seanad or both, as appropriate, where the commission was to act as a defendant. The amendment covers in separate subsections each of the groups which can be defended, as Members of the Dáil and its committees, Members of the Seanad and its committees and Members of joint committees. The amendment also stipulates where the commission may take on a defence. It sets out in clear and concise terms that the only instance where it may take on such a defence is regarding legal proceedings initiated solely from the performance by them of their parliamentary functions as Members.
What is the position in terms of indemnifying a Member in respect of legal costs, particularly if he or she loses the action? A Member raised that issue with me and I am not clear about it. I know the Minister of State may not have an answer today. Perhaps the incoming commission may seek clarification on that point. I do not know if the Minister of State has a brief on that.
Anyone can sue anyone he or she likes. In this case the commission could be a good target for someone to sue. If the Dáil or Seanad supported the commission in defending a position, it would be covered.
This is a technical amendment to correct a misprint. Such errors can be awkward in the future if they slip past and are included in an enacted Bill. I propose to insert in line 45 what should have been there from the beginning.
As regards line 45, the amendment states, "between lines 24 and 25". Could the Minister of State clarify that? It also refers to a representative of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It seems the Minister of State is providing for a representative of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas to sit on the commission. Is that the case?
The Deputy is not referring to the right amendment. We are talking about amendment No. 9.
The document I have states:
"In page 9, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following: (f) a representative of staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas”.
We received the list of amendments late. We only received it during the discussion on the last item.
I spoke on the last item and I have not seen any changed documentation. This is the only document I received. My reading of it is that the Minister has at long last capitulated to the arguments presented by Deputies to ensure worker representation on the commission.
The Deputy is working off the wrong document.
I assure the House that if it has been superseded by a document issued since, I have not seen it. I was here discussing the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (Charters Amendment) Bill. I am continuing as the Order of Business provided. I have no other documentation before me. When the Minister of State moved amendment No. 9, I interpreted it, with some incredulity, to mean that he intended to provide for worker representation on the commission, something we have long fought to achieve. Is he going to spoil the moment by telling me that this is not the case?
I am afraid so.
More people than I will be disappointed at that.
If someone is aggrieved by something a committee did or did not do and wants to take legal action, the decision of who will be targeted or named as defendant is taken by him or her, presumably with the advice of a lawyer. Normally, the practice has been to list all the members of the committee as a group, but committee members do not like this as it upsets them and their families. In every version of the Bill, we have tried to do something about this but we always ran up against one insuperable problem, that is, the fact that the plaintiff must decide who to name and the lawyers generally go for an overkill in case they ignore a possible defendant whose inclusion might be beneficial to them. The best we could do, therefore, was to provide an alternative target that would prove attractive to them.
We had spelled out in the version of the Bill before the House that it would not be necessary for a litigant to name all the committee's members and that it would suffice to name the chair of the committee. The lawyers now feel, however, that the explicit statement that it is not necessary to name all the committee members should be dropped and replaced by a statement that it will suffice to name the chair of the committee.
This amendment, despite its size, follows from the requirement that the commission cannot act in a defence role without the authorisation of a House or both Houses. The Bill now caters for the one situation in which that consent can be done without, namely, where the committee having proceedings taken against it no longer exists. This can be due to a dissolution of the Dáil, which automatically terminates its committees, or it might have been abolished earlier.
When this Bill was first aired I was not a Member of the House. It has not received a massive amount of public attention outside the House. The Bill is concerned with how this House will be run in the future and the say that Deputies and Senators will have in its running. It is certainly a positive Bill and I hope it will bring about the improvements we have discussed and to which we aspire.
A number of concerns were raised about representation of different groups and some suggested that one House might have more say than the other, but I do not expect the forum to be blighted by skirmishes. Good sense will prevail and everything will be worked out in a fair manner. I have been anxious all along to allow as much independence to the new commission as possible, rather than tying its hands in the Bill. We have been quite successful in doing that.
I thank the Deputies for their positive amendments, some of which we accepted, their support and their raising of critical issues. I also thank my officials, who have given tremendous support throughout the passage of this highly technical Bill.
Despite the fact that the Bill will probably go through the House today without a word in the media, it is a very important occasion. We are changing the whole way in which the Houses of the Oireachtas are run, which will eventually have an effect on how democracy operates in this country. I see very positive possibilities for the way we do our jobs here in terms of ensuring that democracy is implemented.
The Houses will now, to a certain extent, be independent of the Department of Finance. Some people, including possibly some of those present today, might not like that, but it is a good thing that the Houses are to become financially independent. People can now make their own decisions and there will only be a battle every three years when the commission must negotiate the amount of money it will receive for the following three years.
It is time that we had control over our business and this is a momentous day from that point of view. It is important that this commission is far-sighted and can take initiatives. It must consider what is happening in other democracies, pick the best developments and bring them to the House so that we can streamline our activities and make ourselves and the Dáil more accountable to the public. In this way, we can improve the image of the Houses in terms of the way we do our business, spend our money and represent the people that sent us here. From that point, of view this is a good day.
I am glad that the Bill has been finalised before the summer recess and despite the fact that the commission will not officially take up its position until 1 January, I hope it will be able to sit between now and then on an interim basis and prepare for the job it will be doing. I hope that the Ceann Comhairle will take the initiative in assembling the body to get the preliminary work under way. The commission is important for all of us and for democracy. We have done a good day's work.
I am glad that this Bill has now passed. The Labour Party welcomes its passage and the establishment of the commission to run the Houses of the Oireachtas. I compliment the Minister and thank, in particular, Mr. Gallagher and his staff, who have worked extremely hard on this Bill.
Based on the financial figures issued yesterday, the deteriorating state of tax revenues and demands in areas such as disability and hospital services and education, the upcoming Estimates campaign will be savage. Despite this, the Houses of the Oireachtas have been given a relatively generous allocation by the Minister for Finance. The Bill provides for a sum of €295,000 over a three-year period, which is an increase on the previous amount. We know that large portions of that are related to benchmarking increases in pay and so on, but, nevertheless, there will be extra funding available. I hope that as much as possible of that funding will be made available to Members and to the parties for the purpose of research so that we may do our jobs as parliamentarians as well as possible. Everybody is used to Ministers having teams of advisers and numerous civil servants to do their work, while Opposition spokespersons have little in the way of resources.
There will be an opportunity to use some of the extra funding, not only to benefit the work of the Members but to benefit the services we provide to the public. I hope the commission will take the opportunity to do that. The Labour Party offered fair and reasonable criticism of the Bill in a number of respects. I reiterate my concern that, in many ways, the commission is excessively dominated by the Government. That could be addressed by the Government's representatives on the commission being independent, experienced and strong-minded people. We know there are such Deputies in both Government parties so I hope the Government will chose to appoint that type of Deputy to the commission. Things can change in the House. It may seem to the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon, that the Government will stay in office forever but let me assure him that it will not.
I regret that the Labour Party's amendment seeking to appoint a staff member to the commission was not accepted. That was a mistake and is not in line with modern European practice. It could have been done and would have benefited the future work of the commission. That being said, I wish the commission well and I congratu late the Minister of State on the passage of the Bill.
I regret that time does not allow me to address any of the substantive issues concerning the Bill. I wish to be associated with the thanks that have been paid to the Minister of State, as well as to the departmental staff. I wish the new commission a fair wind in its efforts to address the many reforms highlighted by those participating in the debate on the Bill. There is much to be done and I hope the Minister of State will have noted many of the matters that were raised. I look forward to a more productive session in the Houses of the Oireachtas when it resumes in the autumn.
Seanad amendments reported.
A message will be sent to the Seanad acquainting it accordingly.