Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Committee Stage and Remaining Stages.

SECTION 1.

Amendments Nos.a1 and b1 are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move amendment No.a1:

In page 3, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:

""Act of 2001" means Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Act 2001.".

This amendment is to deal with the issue which the Minister indicated he was sympathetic to examining, namely the status of the allowances paid to Independents. Under the present arrangements, while parties have to provide justification for their leaders' allowances in the form of vouched returns, etc., a similar restriction does not apply to Independents. The purpose of my amendment is to provide that the annual allowance enjoyed by Independents be backed up by a statement of expenditure from that allowance. There should be equity for all Members. While it is important that Independent Deputies have the same support as is provided to Deputies who are members of parties through the leader's allowance to help carry out research and engage in legitimate parliamentary activities, there should be a similar obligation to account for how the money is used. Otherwise there is simply a slush fund available to Independents that is not available to members of parties to compete in constituencies.

I support this amendment. Most members of the public would be quite surprised to learn that Independents receive an additional personal expense allowance of €41,000 that does not have to be vouched for in any way. In this regard, Independent Members of the Oireachtas have an enormous advantage over members of parties in their constituencies. If a Dáil lasts its full term, €41,000 per year adds up to a war chest of over €200,000 to put towards an election; members of political parties do not enjoy such a benefit. Has the Minister had occasion to examine this allowance?

A deal was struck with Independents some time ago, probably by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern. Much of what we are dealing with today, in terms of confusion and obfuscation relating to allowances, is a legacy of the former Taoiseach and the former Minister for Finance, Mr. Charlie McCreevy. Things were done quietly and extra money was put into the system. The problem is, when there is little discussion of or justification for such measures all politicians are brought into disrepute. Unfortunately, the money is not evenly shared and it is not justified. Like political party Members, Independents vary; some may spend a lot on constituency expenses and some may take a tighter approach. An additional €41,000 per year, untaxed and unvouched, is a lot of money. Deputy Bruton's proposed amendment, which would make this payment subject to vouching in the same way as the parliamentary allowance paid to leaders of political parties, is sensible.

When expenses are published emphasis tends to be placed on those who get the highest amounts and people assume that everyone gets such payments. Has the Minister reviewed these payments? Has an bord snip nua been working by candlelight on Independents' expenses? Was this in the terms of reference? The general public should understand that people who have the privilege of being elected as Independents get an extraordinary amount of money and it is up to them how they choose to spend it. Most Deputies, particularly those in political parties, spend money in a fairly predictable way; expenses are used to run constituency offices and communicate with constituents. However, the additional €41,000 per year that Independents receive may not be spent at all — it could be put in a piggy bank or in Anglo Irish Bank and saved for a rainy day.

That would be the safest deposit in the country.

I support the amendment and wish to raise a related matter, the allowance for a personal assistant to which each Member of the House is entitled. Can the Minister for Finance clarify how this allowance applies to Ministers and Ministers of State who already have an extraordinarily generous allocation of officials from their Departments to assist them in their constituency and ministerial duties? Parliamentary assistants are invaluable to all Members of the House but I understand that Ministers and Ministers of State receive this allowance directly. Can the Minister clarify whether this is the case?

The general perception is that we are all on the gravy train but, in the context of what is coming down the track in terms of public finances, this House should lead by example. In this respect, additional scrutiny should be applied to the ministerial salary cut made recently. Much spin was placed on that measure but I understand that, unlike the cutbacks relating to allowances that are being agreed for all Members of the House, the ministerial salary reduction will not impact on future pension entitlements. If cutbacks to allowances payable in increments to Members will be applied in future, why are ministerial salaries not seeing this reduction? Ministerial pension entitlements should decline accordingly.

It appears there is a golden circle in the House and it consists of Ministers and Ministers of State who enjoy a far more privileged position than ordinary Members. When Members' expenses are published Ministers and Ministers of State strut around and make much ado about the fact that they do not draw expenses. However, we hear nothing of how their parliamentary assistant allowance is paid. Their pension arrangements are more generous, and are safer in the current economic climate, than those of ordinary Members. Ministers and Ministers of State have credit card allowances, walking about allowances and a range of other benefits to which ordinary Members of this House are not entitled. Having said that, ordinary Members of this House are not looking for such benefits as they willingly acknowledge the difficult circumstances we are in and are prepared to lead by example. I see cynicism at the root of the attitudes of Ministers and Ministers of State to these proposals.

I strongly support Deputy Bruton's amendment; this is a question of accountability and levelling the playing field. If party leaders are required to prepare a statement of expenditure there is no reason Independents should not also do so, provided there is no clause, such as a Cinderella clause, that excuses them from doing so.

I have considerable sympathy with the amendment tabled by Deputy Bruton. The Standards is Public Office Commission has a statutory oversight role that relates to party leaders' allowances. The commission has made a recommendation on the statutory effect to be given to the guidelines on the allowance issued. I am considering the recommendations and will consider this proposal in that context. The proposal will be examined in a separate statutory context.

The expenditure control group asked me for leave to examine the Central Fund as well as the voted allocation. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is funded by a triennial grant that is a charge on the Central Fund. The examination was conducted and I know the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission met the expenditure control group. There are recommendations in the report that relate to the business of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and there are also recommendations relating to the National Treasury Management Agency, NTMA.

Did the Minister read that chapter first?

I have not yet had the opportunity to digest that matter but the chapter headings show that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is within the scope of the report.

Deputy Creed raised a number of issues. This has been a very constructive debate so far. In regard to ministerial pay, Ministers are the only people who have taken a voluntary pay cut as an absolute and general class in the House. I am not making a great virtue out of this, but that is the position, and that was done after the budget in October last year. Ministers, like Deputies, were subjected to the pension levy. Because it is a voluntary surrender, it does not affect pension entitlements. Government has established a commission on higher level remuneration that will look at all the higher level payments. We discussed that during the debate.

Regarding the options for secretarial assistance available to Ministers, the Oireachtas Commission treats all Members of the House equally. When the arrangement was put in place for Deputies to have a second secretary there were other options available to a Deputy. The Deputy had the option of having a secretarial assistant or of sharing a very high-powered adviser with another Deputy — I do not think anyone has ever availed of that option. There was also the option of vouching a sum, approximately equivalent to the value of a secretary, for definitive secretarial expenses. That option is also available to Ministers, as is the option of a much smaller sum, but with the special secretarial allowance. There are various options available to Ministers.

The last option is unvouched.

There is a vouched and an unvouched option available to Ministers and to Deputies. Deputy Creed pointed out the fact that a Minister gets some provision for constituency staff from the public service.

It is a very generous provision.

There is a point that must be borne in mind and it is that those officers are not allowed to engage in political activity.

That is a fine line.

It is not a fine line.

Does that include staffing clinics?

I will not go into the detailed application of the rules——

Are civil servants running Fianna Fáil TDs' clinics?

I am simply making the point that there is a line to be drawn here. Certainly they could not circulate literature, something at which Deputy Varadkar has always been a great expert. They certainly could not draft and circulate political propaganda. There is a distinction to which I draw attention. We have seen in recent elections that increasingly these distinctions are enforced and respected and have real consequences.

We are talking about seven or eight staff. What about credit cards and walk-about allowances?

The Deputy had better remind me what walk-about allowances are.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Amendment No.b1 not moved.
Section 1 agreed to.
Section 2 agreed to.
NEW SECTION.

Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are related to amendment No. 1 in the name of the Minister. Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 may be discussed together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 4, before section 3, to insert the following new section:

"3.—(1) Where a member of the Oireachtas is entitled to—

(a) payments for travelling facilities prescribed under section 5 (as amended by section 18 of the Act of 1998) of the Act of 1964 and granted under section 2 of the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) Act 1938,

(b) the overnight allowance under section 1 (inserted by section 2 of the Act of 1996 and as amended by section 15 of the Act of 1998) of the Act of 1962,

(c) a telephone allowance under section 2(2) (inserted by section 3 of the Act of 1996) of the Act of 1962, or

(d) an allowance for expenses under section 3 (as amended by section 19 of the Act of 1998 and section 37 of the Act of 2001) of the Act of 1992,

the Minister may decide that any payment due to the member in respect of all or any of them may be paid together as a single composite monthly payment ("parliamentary standard allowance") to the member, of the amount determined in regulations under this section, in lieu of each allowance or payment due to the member being paid separately to him or her.

(2) Where the parliamentary standard allowance applies under this section to a member of the Oireachtas—

(a) the rate payable for travelling expenses determined in regulations under section 5(1A) (inserted by section 18 of the Act of 1998) of the Act of 1964,

(b) an overnight allowance of the amount sanctioned by the Minister for Finance under section 1(2) (inserted by section 15 of the Act of 1998) of the Act of 1962,

(c) a telephone allowance of the amount prescribed in regulations under section 2(2)(a) (inserted by section 3 of the Act of 1996) of the Act of 1962, and

(d) the rate payable of an allowance for expenses determined in regulations under section 3(4) of the Act of 1992,

do not apply to the member.

(3) The Minister may, in applying the parliamentary standard allowance to a member of the Oireachtas—

(a) by regulations revoke any regulations made under the provisions referred to in subsection (2), and

(b) determine in regulations made under subsection (4) the rates and amounts payable under those provisions in determining the amount of the parliamentary standard allowance payable to a member of the Oireachtas in regulations under that subsection.

(4) The Minister may, by regulations, in respect of the parliamentary standard allowance, determine—

(a) the date from which the allowance is payable,

(b) the amount of the allowance payable—

(i) to a member or members of Dáil Éireann, and

(ii) to a member or members of Seanad Éireann, and

(c) the manner in which, and the exceptions, restrictions and conditions (including attendance recording and deductions for non-attendance)subject to which, the allowance is to be provided and paid.

(5) Regulations under this section may, if so expressed, have retrospective effect.

(6) Every regulation made under this section shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas as soon as may be after it is made and, if a resolution annulling the regulation is passed by either House within the next 21 days on which the House has sat after the regulation has been laid before it, the regulation shall be annulled accordingly, but without prejudice to the validity of anything previously done thereunder.

(7) Section 836 of the Taxes Consolidation Act 1997 is amended—

(a) by inserting after subsection (1A) (inserted by section 21 of the Act of 1998) the following: —

"(1B) Parliamentary standard allowance payable undersection 3 of the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 2009 is exempt from income tax and shall not be reckoned in computing income for the purposes of the Income Tax Acts.”,

and

(b) in subsection (2), by inserting “or under section 3 of the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 2009 or any allowance or payment made in respect of any particular allowance or payment referred to in subsection (1) of that section” after “1992,”.

(8) In this section—

"Act of 1962" means Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) Act 1962;

"Act of 1964" means Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act 1964;

"Act of 1992" means Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act 1992;

"Act of 1996" means Oireachtas (Miscellaneous Provisions) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act 1996;

"Act of 1998" means Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial, Parliamentary, Judicial and Court Offices (Amendment) Act 1998;

"Act of 2001" means Ministerial, Parliamentary and Judicial Offices and Oireachtas Members (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2001;

"Minister" means Minister for Finance.".

The purpose of this is to facilitate the decision made by the Oireachtas Commission on a composite allowance for Members. The commission has made a submission to me. It is under consideration in my Department. We consulted the Attorney General on it and the advice is that the easiest way to do this is to have statutory authority to provide for such an allowance. The statutory authority is being provided for here. The new section will enable the Minister to pay a composite allowance in view of the separate allowance currently paid to Deputies and Senators and to make regulations determining the rate of the allowance, the date from which it will be payable, the conditions for payment and the manner of payment. In addition, it allows the Minister to make regulations regarding the recording of attendance and deductions for non-attendance. The composite allowances, to be known as parliamentary standard allowance, has been proposed by the Oireachtas Commission and will include all or elements of the existing expenses.

The Government decided in April that the Oireachtas expenses allowance should be cut by 10% with the exception of the travel rates to this building which have been reduced already by 25%. The new parliamentary standard allowances will take account of the 25% reduction already made to the mileage payments for travel to Dublin and the 10% reductions for the rest of the allowances.

Is this new in the sense that the Minister is taking responsibility for something that has hitherto been a matter for the Oireachtas Commission? The Minister seems to be saying that the legal advice is that this would seem to be the simplest way. Undoubtedly it is simple but it certainly seems to be rowing back on the principle that the Oireachtas Commission is self-governing. Perhaps the Minister would clarify that.

Another aspect that struck me relates to subsection (5) which provides that regulations under this section may, if so expressed, have retrospective effect. Is that in accordance with good legal practice? Why is that provided for?

I understand that the reference to retrospective effect is a standard provision in enabling provisions of this type. On the issue of the point of substance raised, it has always been the position that the Minister draws up the regulations relating to expenses on the advice of the commission. That is the statutory template. There is, therefore, no question of interference with the autonomy or independence of the commission. When the original legislation was enacted setting up the commission, that was the balance of power between the Minister and the commission. There have been many occasions when I would have preferred if the entire function were vested in the commission but this is how matters stand. There are two main areas where the Minister has residual authority as against the commission. One is the whole question of establishments and staffing and the Minister sanctions staff complements and increases. The other is the area of expenses. The commission advises the Minister and I will have to have regard to what it says. I have had a very useful discussion already with the Ceann Comhairle and several members of the commission about these matters. We need to ensure that, in addition to the reduction taking place, expenses are verified, which is for the protection of all of us, and that they are objective in their basis.

The Minister should acknowledge that it was the commission which wrote to him on behalf of ordinary Members of the Oireachtas proposing that these matters should be addressed. In the public relations campaign and so on that was attendant on the last budget, the Minister managed to lose sight of the fact that it was the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission that had put forward a scheme for the reduction of the various expenses. It is good that the Minister should work with the Houses of the Oireachtas but I want to get back to the point that Deputy Creed made. It is important for our democracy that the expenses of Ministers and Ministers of State be as transparent as those of Deputies. I have the schedule of Ministers' salaries. They did not accept the last increase. I am aware that the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, when he returned to office, struggled with the issue of whether to accept the suggested increases for Ministers and I think he stayed at the current rate. That, for a Minister, is €214,000. Is that correct? That is what is in the schedule we received in the last report. The Taoiseach's salary is €271,000. Some Ministers add to that an active ministerial credit card. These expenses are never listed with Deputies expenses. When it comes to the publication of expenses, Deputies' expenses are properly listed and published, but because ministerial expenses are paid by individual Departments they are never listed, and it is made to look as if Ministers are not in receipt of expenses. This is the wrong impression because Ministers have significant and important expenses. If one is making general regulations the expenses of Ministers, whether paid by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission or by Departments, should be listed at the same time as the expenses of Deputies are listed. I do not know whether the Minister's amendment provides for this. It is very unfair to Deputies to give the impression that some of them earn more than Ministers because they do not, unless they have been Ministers and have been receiving ministerial pensions until now. That should be clarified.

Do people who have served as Attorneys General and go on to have other lucrative and highly-paid positions continue to collect a full ministerial pension? Some receive significant sums, to judge by the senior positions they hold in Ireland and internationally. That should be considered, perhaps by way of an abatement. It would be interesting to know whether multimillionaires, particularly those who lecture the rest of us, and ordinary people and old age pensioners about giving up their pensions, make the same kind of sacrifices that they often suggest the rest of us should make. The information about ministerial emoluments, entitlements and so on should be published at the same time as that relating to Deputies.

When the Minister received the report from an bord snip nua yesterday evening did he dip into it? It is human nature to want to do so.

We might see it in the newspapers over the weekend.

If the report addressed the total cost of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, did it also in any way address the total cost of Ministers and Ministers of State and other office holders? Would the Minister care to tell us whether he saw that when he scanned over the document?

I will not oppose the Minister's amendments because, like the pension issue, they go some way to improving matters but they do not go far enough. There is a requirement that expenses will be verified I would have preferred the word "vouched". The issue of expenses is part of the view of politics as a contaminated profession. We all know that does not concern only expenses, but includes tribunals, golden circles and five or six civil servants working in a Minister's office. There is some minor improvement here in the regime.

The amendment states, in subsection (1)(d): “an allowance for expenses under section 3 (as amended by section 19 of the Act of 1998 and section 37 of the Act of 2001) of the Act of 1992,”. What are they? In subsection (2)(d) the amendment states: “the rate payable of an allowance for expenses determined in regulations under section 3(4) of the Act of 1992,”. This is not specified. Will the Minister indicate what it is?

I see no mention of the Oireachtas Commission and the expense of running the Houses in the amendment or of how it interacts with the Chairman. Is it based on a recommendation from the Oireachtas Commission on expenses? What is the Minister's legal status when it comes to determining the expenses for the commission?

On which sections did Deputy O'Donnell require clarification?

It is amendment No. 1. In subsection (1)(d), below where it states: “Where a Member of the Oireachtas is entitled to—”.

The section relates to the existing legislative provisions. There are already sections in legislation providing for all of these matters such as the payment for travelling facilities, overnight allowances, telephones, miscellaneous expenses, constituency office and constituency travel. Each of those has a distinct statutory existence. The first sub-section enables me to make a regulation if I so wish to provide for a composite allowance instead of the existing provisions. That is what it means.

That clarifies the matter.

The requirement that it follows the advice of the Oireachtas Commission is contained in the primary Oireachtas Commission legislation, which binds me. I hope that clarifies the point.

Deputy Burton ranged far beyond some of the issues raised in the amendment. I agree with her point that the presentation of the expenses is often very unfair because a Deputy who lives a long way from the House is highlighted as the typical expense collector, and while the general Deputy expenses are published, the ministerial ones are not. As the Deputy spoke I was reminded of a former Member of this House, Seán MacBride, who once presided over a commission whose purpose was to ensure that there would be fair and balanced information about Third World countries in First World newspapers. We do not control how the press acquires or disseminates information but that is an issue and it is important that all expenses are accounted for.

While Deputy Morgan is happy that we are going some in addressing matters he seems to want us to go a bit further but I am not clear how.

The location of a constituency office presents a difficulty because it involves the payment of rent. A constituency office in the centre of a city costs far more than one elsewhere. There seems to be no distinction made. If one has a constituency office for one's staff it is not necessary to provide space in this House. There is a saving for the State if people are outside rather than in the Houses. In other words if we closed down constituency offices and moved them in to the Houses we would have to find additional accommodation for them. It is logical to recognise this fact.

The Commission has raised this issue. There is a wide variety of arrangements for constituency offices. It would be impossible in my constituency to have a main street office whereas in many provincial constituencies it is possible to rent property on a main street. In my constituency only a back office arrangement is possible because a front office would be too expensive. One would need to be a very wealthy individual to have a front office. The point is correct and is something I will consider in examining the proposals from the Commission.

Amendment agreed to.
Sections 3 to 5, inclusive, agreed to.
SECTION 6.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 8, subsection (2), line 17, to delete "section 2" and substitute "sections 2 and 3".

Amendment agreed to.
Section 6, as amended, agreed to.
TITLE.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 3, line 11, after "SALARIES" to insert "AND ALLOWANCES".

Amendment agreed to.
Title, as amended, agreed to.

As it is now 2 o'clock I am now required to put the following question in accordance with an Order of the Dáil of this day: "That the amendments set down by the Minister for Finance for Committee Stage and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill; in respect of each of the sections not disposed of that the section or, as appropriate, the section as amended is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Title as amended is hereby agreed to in Committee; the Bill, as amended is accordingly reported to the House; Fourth Stage is hereby completed; and the Bill is hereby passed."

Question put and agreed to.