I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I have the honour of deputising for my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, in addressing the House on the subject of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill. The Bill was passed by the Seanad last week, on 13 December 2012. The Bill is designated a No. 2 Bill because an Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill, which concerns the Oireachtas translation service and is being dealt with by the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is already before the Oireachtas, having commenced its legislative passage through Parliament earlier this year.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission was first established as of 1 January 2004 on foot of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003 and since then the legislation has been further amended in the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts 2006 and 2009. The commission is the independent body which, in effect, is the governing board of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. The primary functions of the commission are to provide for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas, to act as governing body of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, to consider and determine policy in relation to the service and to oversee the implementation of that policy by the Secretary General. The Commission is chaired by the Ceann Comhairle and consists of 11 members, including the Secretary General. The commission is financed from the Central Fund for a three year period and has control over current expenditure and, to a considerable degree, over its staffing. The commission has no role in regulating the business of the Houses. The commission is accountable to the Parliament and presents annual reports of its work together with estimates and accounts of its expenditure.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Service is the public service body that administers the Houses of the Oireachtas on behalf of the commission as the governing authority. The functions of the service are set out in the Act of 2009. They are to provide advice and support services to the commission, the Houses and their committees and Members of the Houses.
Since 2004, the current expenditure of the Houses of the Oireachtas has been financed from the Central Fund rather than, as has been the case up to then, being included in the Estimates voted annually by the Dáil. This change was effected by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. Under the terms of that Act a three year budget, covering the period 2004 to 2006, was provided for the commission. Further Acts were enacted in 2006, covering the 2007 to 2009 period, and 2009, for the 2010 to 2012 period. A new Act is now required, as the financing provided under the 2009 Act expires as of 31 December next.
The primary purpose of the Bill is, accordingly, to make available the funding for the commission over the coming three years. The Bill proposes to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding €324 million to carry out its functions for the three year period from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2015. This sum has been agreed between my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and the commission and takes into account foreseen expenditure.
I draw the attention of Members to the fact that this sum is considerably less than the €360 million provided for the past three years and, to an even greater extent, the €393 million provided for in the previous three year period. In looking at these figures, a pattern of reducing expenditure by the commission is clear. In this regard, I readily acknowledge that the commission has shown itself commendably aware of the need for it, as a public body, to continually strive for maximum efficiencies in the administration of the Houses.
The proposed funding continues this trend, reflecting the current very constrained budgetary situation while taking into account the needs of the commission over the coming three year period. To keep its spending within this reduced figure of €324 million, the commission is committed to ensuring funds are only designated to essential expenditure. I must also add that this reduced three year figure takes account of the decrease in Members' allowances announced by the Minister in his budget speech of 5 December last.
In regard to the curtailment of expenditure, I draw Members' attention to the fact that, under the terms of the Oireachtas commission legislation, the commission determines its own staffing requirements, with the exception that for senior appointments, the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is required. However, since 2009, the commission, while not obliged to implement the staffing moratorium which has been in place in the Civil Service, has in fact mirrored it, and authorised staffing levels for public servants in the Oireachtas have been reduced by 10% in the period. This fact, and the efforts of the commission over the years to economise, may not always be widely known to the public. Indeed, in the course of last week's proceedings in the Seanad on this Bill, reference was made to the advisability of the commission's communicating the efforts made to curb expenditure in its sphere of operations to a greater extent than it has done to date. In other words, there is a good story to tell here and it should be told vigorously.
Looking ahead, I am quite sure Deputies will agree that the €324 million target is a challenging one and will require substantial economising by the commission over a three year period. However, it will be no more difficult than the regime to which Department and offices will be compelled to adhere and the Oireachtas must show the public it is ready, able and willing to participate in the general reduction of administrative costs, as it has done to good effect to date.
In addition to the financial provision, the Bill provides for a revised format to the manner in which the Commission's accounts are presented. The existing format does not take account of changes to the structure of the service since the establishment of the Commission, that is, the establishment of the library and research unit and the communications unit. Alterations are also being proposed in the lay-out of the accounts, including the deletion of references to receipts no longer received.
The third and final provision contained in this Bill refers to the retention of receipts by the commission. These receipts will be offset against the Exchequer allocation and will be accounted for in both the annual Estimate which the commission presents to the Dáil and the appropriation account, which is audited annually by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The commission has requested this initiative on the grounds that, up to now, receipts generated went straight into the central fund. This gave no incentive for efficiencies in the provision of services. Under the new proposed arrangements, there will be heightened awareness of the need to maximise the extent of receipts.
I also wish to advise Members that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform intends to bring forward legislation early in 2013 to ensure the modernisation of the senior management structures of the Oireachtas service. These are specifically recognised in the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. It is accepted that the configuration in that Act, particularly in terms of senior management structures, needs to be modernised. Indeed, this was flagged in 2009 by the then Minister for Finance when moving the Second Stage of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill in the Dáil. While it is recognised that significant modernisation has taken place, the statutory framework in the 1959 Act does not reflect this and needs to be modernised. In this regard, the Minister is committed to ensuring, in co-operation with the Commission, that the administrative structures of the Oireachtas do not become out of step with Civil Service norms in terms of adapting flexibly to the needs and demands of modern management practices.
In summary, the Bill is designed to allow funds be made available to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to continue to provide the services that facilitate both Houses in the carrying out of their work. I am sure that Deputies will support this very worthwhile aim.