Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage

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.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which I will be opposing for a variety of reasons. We are here on 20 December, and the Dáil is adjourning in a few hours and unless this Bill is passed, there will be no budget to spend on 1 January. That is a shambolic way to run any organisation. If this place caught fire today and we could not pass this Bill, the Oireachtas and its staff could not return on 1 January. There is now a Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform but we are still here on the last hour of the last sitting day of the year to address the situation where there is no budget for 1 January 2013. That is an indictment of that Minister.

The Minister of State acknowledged in his speech that there must be changes in the senior management structures of the Oireachtas and stated that this matter would be dealt with in 2013. This should have been done as part of this legislation on a properly planned basis over recent months, not on the last sitting day, when most Members are properly leaving the House, although I hope they have not all left because there will be a vote on this during the passage of the legislation.

This Government was elected on a mandate of Dáil reform. Is this the Government's definition of Dáil reform, coming in on the last sitting day, when the whole country's focus is moving away from events in the Oireachtas, to pass the budget to allow the building to open on 1 January? Unless this Bill is passed, it would not be possible to even pay the electricity bill. That is no way to run business. We are talking about a mammoth amount of money, after the Government inflicted a lot of pain on people in the budget through cuts to the respite care grant and child benefit. The decreases included in this Bill are not on that scale at all and although there have been budget savings in individual Members' own expenses, that level of reduction is not being mirrored across the entire Oireachtas.

I do not understand why this cannot be part of the normal Estimate process each year. A significant portion of total Government expenditure is not being voted upon in this Chamber. We get the departmental Estimates each year which are published on budget day but billions of euro in interest on the national debt, payments to the Central Fund, for the Houses of the Oireachtas and for pensions for retired judges and politicians are not voted on as part of the normal Estimates process. There is a mechanism for non-voted expenditure. All of that should be centralised because if this is the national Parliament and the Minister is serious about reform, approving expenditure in advance should be done in this House.

There should be provision to discuss the programme of work so that when a committee is discussing its estimated expenditure for the year, it has a line of activities that must be matched with those of the Department. There is none of that today. There is just a request for €324 million so we can go away for Christmas and resume again on 1 January. That is what this Bill is about and it is no way to do business.

If the Government parties had campaigned during the last election saying they would carry on without any change, I would understand this approach. The parties in government, however, were elected on the basis of change and we have seen the worst form of it here. Doing this on the last sitting day before the Christmas recess adds to public cynicism.

Apart from the financial side, I also oppose the legislation because it allows the Oireachtas to continue in the same old way. We were told there would be Dáil reform, that it was fundamental to both Fine Gael and the Labour Party before the election, and fundamental to the Government. The Government claims to have increased the number of sitting days and we have seen public relations and spin on Dáil reform but not substance. There are Friday sittings but they are not proper sitting days with an Order of Business; they are simply designated for Private Members' Bills. That is a sop to show the Dáil is sitting more hours. Fianna Fáil has put forward 42 Private Members' Bills in the past 18 months and two, at most, have been accepted.

Almost all get voted down or long-fingered. Very few of the Bills that have gone through, that have been published by the parties and dealt with on the Friday sittings, have been enacted. It is a bit of a sham the way it is operating.

One of the most important roles of Dáil committees is dealing with the Estimates process for the Departments. We all will be aware that the Estimates for the line Departments will probably appear at the committees in April or May next, or some time during the course of the year when half of the funding is already spent and most of the balance is already committed. It is becoming a pointless exercise. We need to have a meaningful debate in the Dáil and at Oireachtas committees on expenditure before it is spent, and we did not have that this year in the case of the Estimates of expenditure for the coming year. In fact, the Government acted in a retrograde manner. In the past few years we were moving to separate the expenditure in the Book of Estimates which would be published in advance of budget day and now we have them all on the one day where the estimates of expenditure get caught up in issues such as child benefit cuts and the family home tax, and those issues do not get properly dealt with.

The Government promised - it was one of the parties' proposals prior to the election - to reduce the number of guillotines. This legislation is being guillotined today. Second Stage, Committee Stage, and Report and Final Stages are being taken in one sitting on the eve of Christmas, and that is Dáil reform. The amount of guillotines that have been introduced here is not necessary. There is no reason this legislation could not have been taken at the select committee last week, the previous week or the week before that; it should not be coming in here at this stage.

We were promised changes to the committee system. The reason I highlight these points is the public wants to know for what is this €324 million. They voted for the Government on the basic that there would be Dáil reform. The committee system has actually deteriorated. There are now some committees with 27 members. The Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, chaired the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, of which I am a member, before he was promoted to Minister of State. Having 27 members on one committee is a joke. The result of the joke of setting up what are, on the face of it, a smaller number of committees is having a plethora of sub-committees that are unwieldy and on which there is little focus. There are more committee meetings in this House than there ever were in any previous Administration. Some of them are being called sub-committees but they are actually committees. Taking the major committees and the sub-committees, there is much less focus in committee work.

This Government promised that the Dáil would hold a banking inquiry and two years into office, there is no sign of this happening. There is a possibility of legislation to allow some Oireachtas inquiries but that has yet to be agreed. I would safely say we will adjourn for the summer with no banking inquiry. That was a fundamental promise to the people of Ireland by the parties in government and it is not being delivered in terms of Dáil reform. If the Dáil was really meaningful, there would be a banking inquiry up and running by now but for some reason the Minister is holding back.

The main party in government, Fine Gael, promised that when in government it would cut the number of Deputies by 20. Because of the increase in population, in line with the Constitution, the number can be reduced only by eight, to 158, which is what will happen. It was known in advance that there was an increase in population. It was a false promise to the Irish people that it would cut the number of Deputies. The promise was made in the full knowledge of the main party in government that it was not remotely possible within current constitutional limits to keep it. As the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, stated on television, "isn't that what you tend to do during an election?" - nobody expects one to hold true to one's promises. That adds to the cynicism in public life.

The Taoiseach promised abolition of the Seanad. I do not see anything about this. If we are agreeing a budget for the next three years, there should be something in it about where we stand on the Seanad. It has been promised repeatedly. Promises were made and votes were won on the basis that they would cut the number of Deputies by 20 and abolish the Seanad. That is not reflected in this figure where the Minister of State is coming in here on the eve of Christmas looking for €324 million so that we can open up the building after Christmas. The Bill is being brought in here almost under the cover of Christmas week in the hope that the people will not see what is going on.

Finally, the Oireachtas has not fully engaged in proper explanations of the Government's approach to the various European summits. The Government has the stock answer that it cannot disclose its hand because others might see what it is looking for beforehand, but that happens in other parliaments. Apart from coming in to look for €324 million for the next three years when the Houses are breaking up for the Christmas period, the Government is guillotining this legislation, with all Stages to be taken here in one session. There has been no meaningful Dáil reform. One can trot out the PR about the extra sitting day, but I pointed out how meaningless that is. Those are not proper sitting days and by and large the Government has not adopted the Bills taken here on Fridays into legislation. Off the top of my head, I can think of two Bills out of 42 from my party, the main Opposition party. There has not been proper Dáil reform, in terms of the committee system or of the Estimates process. The Estimates should have been discussed calmly in committee in the cold light of day. We should be seeing the plan of services for Parliament over the next three years. This should be in the legislation, not a promise to review it next year. The review of the role and function of senior management structures of the Oireachtas, which is promised for next year, should have been done this year in advance of this budget being approved. On that basis, my party cannot support this slapdash approach by the Minister on the eve of Christmas.

I am disappointed that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, is not here for this debate. Whatever about my personal disappointment, it reflects the fact that the Government's approach is slapdash on the legislation and cavalier in respect of the sums of money involved. Essentially, we are being asked to put through a budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas for the next three years to the tune of €324 million, which works out at €108 million each year. I need not say, certainly, for anyone who might be watching this debate and who watched the budgetary debate over the past number of weeks, that €108 million per annum is substantial funding. At a minimum, Deputy Howlin should have been here. Meaning no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, the Minister should have been here to present the case and the argument on two fronts: first, to give an account as to why €324 million is required over the next three years and to substantively defend that sum; and second, to explain, as has been previously stated, why we are dealing with this matter at the 11th hour.

Why is it that this matter is put before us just as we are coming to the finishing line of this Dáil session? It strikes me as a sneaky move. It strikes me, rather than have all of the issues around what it costs to run the Oireachtas, including in respect of Deputies, Senators, advisers, upfront and centre in the mainstream debate on budgets and cuts, that the Government somehow wants to deal the heavy blows to the citizens in its cutback packages and increases in charges and then have a separate discussion to hive off the issue of the cost of the Oireachtas and legitimate public issues that arise around the pay of politicians, the allowances enjoyed by them and the issue of political advisers because it does not want those matters to enter into the broad discussion of the budgetary position. Of course, the problem for a Government so minded is that the people are not fools.

The budget introduced by the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform delivered cruel blows to many sectors across society. In a very mean-spirited way it took €26 million from the carers' respite grant. For the first time ever it taxes maternity benefit. Despite all the pre-election posturing it cut child benefit again. It set aside the PRSI income disallowance and placed an additional burden on low and middle income earners. That budget has been well-analysed by the public at this stage. Then it comes to us and people say, legitimately, that if Labour and Fine Gael are to preach the gospel of austerity and lecture carers, mothers, families and women on the need to cut their cloth according to their measure, if they are going to say to people who are struggling that they have no option but simply to take it on the chin and accept these cutbacks, what are they doing about themselves? That is a very reasonable question and one that is on the lips of the public.

When the Ministers took to their feet and announced the Fine Gael-Labour Government budget, one of the most striking public reactions as people tried to take on board all the different cuts and the increases in charges, was to ask what the politicians were doing about themselves. It was an obvious omission for the Taoiseach not to take a pay cut because he should not be earning €200,000. I doubt if anyone anywhere, including in this House and including the Taoiseach himself, would not concede that €200,000 is excessive. If we are going to have conversations about value for money or bang for one's buck, the public is quite entitled to ask whether they are getting €200,000 worth from this individual. The answer to that is "no". The broader answer is that whoever occupies that office should not be in receipt of a salary of that magnitude. He is not on his own because, equally, the Tánaiste, Ministers and Ministers of State are also overpaid.

A budget that could do so much damage to so many was accompanied by language of fairness on the one hand and, on the other hand, an assertion that the State is insolvent and in dire circumstances. Those were the two pillars of the narrative from Government - fairness and economic crisis. In a spirit of fairness the Government cannot stand over those salaries and in the context of economic crisis, they are obscene. Why were they not cut? We have not had an answer to that from anybody in Government. Ministers get a salary of €170,000 which is ludicrous and needs to be cut.

In that spirit, I submitted amendments to the legislation to do precisely that. The remuneration of the Taoiseach and Ministers should not exceed €100,000 in circumstances of emergency and hardship. A salary of €100,000 is a very fine salary for any individual. There are very many people in the public sector and private sector, which is often pointed to by Members of this House, who would be more than satisfied, indeed delighted, to receive a salary of €100,000. However, my amendment on that matter was set aside because I am told the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission does not set the rates of pay for officeholders, which is, of course, technically correct. That decision rests with Government and when this issue of obscenely high pay for politicians has been put to Government, it has simply given me and others the deaf ear. It is not open to that message. I am very frustrated and angry yet again that when an attempt is made to address this issue of pay, it is simply batted away and set aside.

On the issue of allowances, again my amendment was set aside. I was told the commission does not make those decisions, the Government does. However, the commission is, as the Minister of State, Deputy White, has said, almost the board of the Oireachtas, the administrator, the overseer. Therefore it has an involvement in these matters. My amendment proposed the withdrawal of a number of allowances we have. In a time of economic crisis, there is no justification for Members to get an allowance for a mobile phone. Other allowances proposed for withdrawal were those for the Ceann Comhairle, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle - with no offence to the personalities involved - Chairmen of committees, Vice Chairmen of committees, Leader of the Seanad, Whips and assistant Whips. All of these are additional baubles.

If we are serious about leading from the front, we cannot stand over these. I know I cannot and I believe the same is true for all Members of the House. I accept it has been custom and practice that these have existed in the past, but why can we not say that now in 2012 we will address these matters? They will not in themselves save a sufficient amount of money to set the economy to rights. I am not making that argument and I know that. However, they will give a very considerable and important message to the people we represent that we understand that even smaller sums of money are none the less significant sums of money, particularly from a Government that has let down carers, and vulnerable and struggling families. It is important that Government should not simply offer the rhetoric of fairness but demonstrate clearly that it understands the realities of life by making those types of decisions. I am outlining all this even though all my amendments were set aside.

For the record, I will detail how much would have been saved had my amendments been accepted and voted through. An emergency pay cap for all staff - not politicians - of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service would have saved €198,790. The combined saving from capping pay for the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers at €100,000, capping salaries of Deputies at €75,000 and capping salaries of Senators at €60,000 would be €4.3 million. The withdrawal of the allowances I mentioned would represent a saving of €754,879. I also tabled an amendment on capping the salaries of special advisers to Ministers at the first point of the principal officer scale, which is €81,000. That would realise a saving of €494,481. Of course, the Government had given a commitment to cap the pay of its special advisers, a commitment honoured more in the breach than in the adherence.

Time and again, Ministers paid their special advisers huge salaries, including most ironically and shamefully, the special adviser to the Minister for Social Protection. This is the same Minister who brought forward many of these social welfare cuts that will hurt and damage people so badly.

I had an amendment dealing with the withdrawal of the allowance of €17,000 paid to Ministers of State who attend Cabinet meetings. There are two individuals in that bracket. It would represent a saving of €34,000. I had an overall amendment in respect of pension entitlements for pensions in excess of €60,000. If the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform was here, he would, no doubt, either nod or shake his head or make some gesture because I have had many long and fruitless debates with him on this issue. That would represent a saving of €10 million.

Those may not be earth-shattering sums of money for the Government but they are very significant because they come to almost €17 million. If the Government was minded to make those types of savings, it would allow it to reinstate 950,000 home help hours. The amendments and cuts I have set out are proportionate and moderate and are doable if the Government was so minded. They would not sort out the economic crisis and I do not make that claim but they could offset, for example, the cut to the home help hours. That would be a very worthy and worthwhile thing to do. By taking initiatives such as that, politics, politicians and the Oireachtas would genuinely demonstrate a capacity for and interest in leading from the front. However, this Government has no intention of doing that. My amendments were set aside and I was only informed of it at the very last minute. The Government hides behind the story that the commission does not decide the rates of allowances and pay.

We find ourselves in a pincer movement by Government. On one hand, the Ministers will not take the type of decisions I have described. They have stubbornly refused to cut their pay. The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers are grossly overpaid by international standards. This is a small State in a so-called bailout programme with almost 15% unemployment. It is a State that is haemorrhaging our best and brightest with emigration levels up where they were in the 1800s. This is the depth of the crisis. No State in those circumstances awards to its Taoiseach a salary of €200,000 per year. It is as simple as that but the Ministers either do not hear or do not want to hear that message so the Government in its Estimates will not take the decision to make the cuts that would be reasonable, proportionate and fair.

We then arrive at this pass where we have the legislation for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, or the board of management of the Oireachtas to use the Minister's expression, and are asked to nod through €324 million over three years by the same Government that will not take any of the reasonable decisions that citizens would expect them to take. This is deplorable. Perhaps the Minister of State will have more influence with his ministerial and Labour Party colleague, Deputy Howlin, and others to make them see sense.

A headline in one of today's newspapers stated that our budget for the Oireachtas was being sneaked through at the last minute. Not unreasonably, the article reflected on the fact the figures reflected a 2.5% cut to the budget for the three-year cycle. This does not tally well. I am a Deputy on the Opposition benches and one of the people who has argued strongly and sometimes trenchantly against the strategy of this Government and the endless austerity that is damaging the economy and society and for stimulus and investment. I have made and will continue to make that argument. I cannot understand or justify a system which continues to overpay politicians, particularly senior politicians and office holders.

Those on the far side of the House should understand that it is they who argue for cutbacks and savings. They are the people who tell cancer patients they are terribly sorry but the patients must pay €75 or possibly €80 for their outpatient appointments. They are in a Government that knows that in some instances, hospitals have taken on debt collectors to pursue these patients to get the money from them. It is a Government that tells older people it has tripled the prescription charge from 50 cent to €1.50, that they must take it on the chin and if they do not have the money, they will have to find it somewhere. It is a Government that tells families, many of them working families who rely on their child benefit to pay a bill, that it is tough luck as it is taking money from them as well. It is a Government that tells struggling families who will be trying to get children back to school next September that it is taking another €50 from their back to school clothing and footwear allowance. That is the Government's message to the public. If this was not bad and politically and economically stupid enough, the Government then tops it off by saying that it will not cut its own salaries. It will fiddle a bit on the edges on the issue of allowances but it will not do anything radical or anything that might cause any discomfort to the political class.

It does all this at the very last minute on 20 December 2012 in the dying hours of this Dáil session. The Minister with responsibility for this matter does not bother to show up. Apparently, he has something better to do. Towards the end of the Minister of State's speech, he said, "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". It is followed by this classic line: "I am sure that Deputies will support this very worthwhile aim". This Deputy will not be supporting the Government's aim for the reasons I have set out. If the Government expected to come into the Dáil looking for clearance of a budget of €324 million for the next three years and passive agreement or acquiescence from this side of the House, it was very wrong. I was struck by the fact that when the Minister of State made his opening statement, he left out one line.

It is on the second page. The Minister of State was speaking about how the debate in the Seanad had gone and that concerns were raised about a lack of transparency in the commission's operation and in communicating the efforts it makes. In fairness to the Minister of State I know why he left it out. The sentence reads, "In other words, there is a good story to tell here and it should be told vigorously." I am sure the Minister of State can see it in his script.

I have an aversion to clichés, that is my problem. It had nothing to do with the content. Read the sentence before it.

Whatever the Minister of State's personal aversions may be, I well understand why he did not read out the sentence because there is no good news story. The story that €324 million will be required to run this place for the next three years will not be regarded as a good news story. I imagine the Government will not be too keen to tell this story too vigorously, to use the words from the script. The worst part of the story is that it proves definitively - game, set and match - that in the mind of the Government there are two standards in operation. There is the standard of austerity and hardship, and in some cases brutality, for people who are just getting by, who are the average five eighths, the average, regular Joe and Josephine citizens who rely on public services, do their best, are perhaps out of work or get out to work every morning and do their level best to provide for themselves and their families. The story for this set of people is that the Government will come and pick their pockets time and again. When it has picked their pockets it will smack a big tax on the family home. This is the general gist of it. The other story is for a protected class of persons, some of whom are very wealthy, referred to as high net worth individuals. Some of them are in the upper echelons of the public service and Civil Service; they are small in number but they are there. In this protected category in the mind of the Government are Members of the Oireachtas. This is a tale of two realities.

Sinn Féin will not support the Bill and we will never be party to a policy, Government, attitude or outlook which has such a gross sense of entitlement by senior officeholders stitched into its very fabric. We believe this is wrong and that the least the Government could and should do is to trim its own sails, cut its own cloth according to its measure and bear in mind it is the taxpayer who funds all of this. The officeholders are not worth the €200,000 paid to the Taoiseach or the salaries paid to the Tánaiste and Ministers. I have heard the L'Oreal defence used before, but they are not worth it and the general public knows this.

In opposing the legislation I wish to state it would be advisable for the Government to go back to the drawing board and look again at the €324 million. It might even take on board some of the amendments I tabled. The Government should go back through the expenditure line by line and item by item, and if it wants cross-party support for legislation on the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and for the spending and budget for these institutions which must be kept up and running it should do what needs to be done, and this means playing fair. The time for exempting senior officeholders and the Oireachtas from any of the budgetary pain must end.

The first thing that struck me about the legislation is that it amends the principal Act and is framed in such a way that this must be done every three years, the previous occasion being 2009. The very fact we are seeing this on the last day of this term suggests it has been timetabled so it will not be seen, as has been said by other speakers. This is one of the reasons the Bill should be opposed. Other reasons are found in the content and I will discuss what I believe should be excluded.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission was established in 2004. It seems to have been possible for the Houses to function without the commission and it costs money to service it. It does not meet all that frequently, if one looks at its website. One wonders whether one would miss it if it were abolished. From what we have heard, it is an impediment to change rather than a vehicle for it. I have serious questions about whether it should exist.

In the absence of this argument being accepted, I do not understand why it should not be obliged to produce amending legislation on an annual basis. Why is it done on a three year basis? We are in a very different time now. I remember that not so long ago we voted on a Thursday morning on Estimates for next year presented to us without debate. This is our opportunity to discuss these issues because matters are timetabled in such a way that we do not have time to debate figures whereby we can independently forensically examine them and take them apart. This is an incredible way to treat a very major cost. I accept that democracy does cost and must be funded, but at the same time it must match the circumstances outside of the Oireachtas and the circumstances for many people are dire.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission was established in 2004, which was a very different time. There was a huge increase in the number of quangos then and I question whether this is just another one. I reiterate my point on whether it is needed and whether it complicates people's understanding of how politics is funded and how our democracy is funded.

According to the Houses of the Oireachtas website, the commission has a responsibility to produce three yearly strategic plans, annual reports, annual Estimates and other information. There is no point in producing these if we will not have the capacity to debate them in detail and go through normal Committee Stage at a meeting of a committee for which, ironically, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission provides funding.

It is no accident that all Stages of the Bill have been tabled in the week prior to Christmas when things are winding down. This is done so little attention will be paid to this €324 million. The way things have been timetabled recently has been an affront to democracy.

Not only are major pieces of legislation heavily guillotined - such as the Social Welfare Bill, the Finance Bill and the property tax legislation - but also they are timetabled in such a way that, for example, Committee and Report Stages, where some amendments will be debated in detail, happen late at night so that there will be the least amount of scrutiny. Democracy itself is being circumvented by the way in which this is happening and it is no accident.

The budget is clearly set to cover such items as salaries, wages and allowances in respect of staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, IT services, televising proceedings, library and research services, which are all very necessary. I have no difficulty with that.

Section 3 provides for salaries of Members, including officeholders and chairpersons of committees. I do not believe that, at this time, payment should be made for chairing Oireachtas committees or indeed for Whips' allowances or those sitting on the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The committees are overloaded with work. The intention was to try to reduce the number of committees, not because that was a better way for them to function but because it would reduce the need to pay a person to chair them. That seems to me to be making a decision for all the wrong reasons.

Many of us would argue that the committees on which we sit are not dealing with the breadth of work they could because one is trying to push a couple of Departments together. Decisions are being made for the wrong reasons but that would change if we stopped paying chairpersons. It would provide for decisions to be made for the right reasons. These are hard decisions because they will be made by the people they affect. We should be making these kind of decisions, however, because it shows leadership.

When we knocked on doors in 2011, there was an expectation of change. People also expected that many of these matters would not be a feature of this Government, yet vulnerable people are being exposed to major economic impacts due to the decisions that are being made.

There were some changes in the recent budget, including a reduction in the travel and accommodation allowance element with a 25% reduction for people in the Dublin category or those living within 16 miles of the Dáil and a 10% reduction for bands outside that. The reduction should have gone much further. I have no difficulty with costs being paid to cover the legitimate overnight expenses of people who must spend nights here on Dáil business, or costs for those travelling long distances. Such allowances should all be vouched. In addition, the number of bands should be reduced to maybe three or four, whereas there are currently a dozen. The system should be entirely transparent, which is why it should be vouched.

I would question why there is a payment for those who live within commuting distance of the Dáil. I live in what is know as the commuter belt where it is not unusual for people to travel 30 or 40 miles to work every day. Yet the banding system allows for those people who live as close as 17 miles from this House to claim an overnight allowance. The difference between the Dublin band - which was €12,000 but has now gone to €8,000 - and the next band, between 16 and 25 miles, is €16,000. It is shocking. No one who lives that kind of distance from the city would expect to spend an overnight here on legitimate work.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has been tasked with considering further reforms, but it is a closed shop. It includes Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil, while Sinn Féin and the Technical Group are excluded from any kind of deliberations. Any review should be independent and we should be benchmarked against other parliaments of similar size if we are going to have any credibility.

How we fund politics also sustains the kind of political system we have. These allowances started in 1938 under a de Valera Government and they have been added to and evolved with major changes over the past two decades. It is difficult to track the various ways in which politics is funded because there is such a disparate range of means of providing for it. We have to question our entire approach to political funding in Ireland, which means reforming both private and public funding. There should be an even playing field for all those who participate in politics, or those who may wish to do so. For example, if a new political entity emerged now it could not find any means of funding until a general election was held. It is an impediment to new political entities.

We need to challenge the debate on political reform. The public expected that waste and excesses would be taken out. In addition to funding provided by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, further funding is provided under the Electoral Act 1997. According to the Bills Digest, this funding is a contribution to parties' annual running costs under the Act. Each of the qualified parties receives a basic sum of €126,000 plus a proportionate share of the fund of €4.9 million - that was in 2010. That is not related to the number of seats won.

Independents are excluded from this funding stream because we are not a qualifying political party under the terms of the legislation. However, 17% of people decided that they did not want to vote for the political parties on offer. There was no discount of that fund, however, and the money was not returned to the Exchequer. It was shared among the political parties that did qualify. That is something like €4 million over the lifetime of the Government. That is plainly wrong and it is an offence to the people who decided that they were not going to elect people from the political parties on offer.

There is another aspect that needs to be examined and the Bills Digest went into it. A key problem with the current political finance regime in Ireland is that it has been relatively easy for parties to raise funds from private sources without disclosing them, thereby defeating the purpose of the regime in the first place. According to a 2008 report, despite parties declaring more than €10 million in campaign expenditure for the 2007 general election, just €1 million was disclosed in donations. None of the three main parties disclosed any donations in 2009 or 2010 despite the fact that there were local elections in 2009.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission provides salaries for support staff for each Deputy. However, what is not appreciated is that the political parties also receive additional resources which constitute a secretariat to run the business of the Oireachtas. An additional allocation of 0.8 per Member in secretarial grade staffing is provided to parliamentary parties. That does not mean, however, that a group like the Technical Group is accommodated in that regard. I do not dispute that there is a need for such group staffing, but I do question the extent of the allocations. I also question how the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, in its standing orders, allows for the formation of a Technical Group, but excludes such a group from receiving a staffing allocation.

For example, our group has 16 Members, yet we get no resources whatsoever to co-ordinate our activities. If one looks at the numbers, Fianna Fáil gets 23 people, while Fine Gael gets 26, which is discounted because it is in Government. There are 78 staff members.

Bhíos ag smaoineamh ar chéad lá na Dála seo agus an difríocht idir an lá sin agus an bhliain go leith a bhíos sa Dáil roimhe sin. I was thinking about the difference between the first day of the present Dáil on 11 March 2011 and my experience of the previous Dáil, which had a jaded air about it and a sense that it was running out of steam, energy and vision. I listened to the new Taoiseach that morning and there was no doubt but that there was an expectation that this would be a new era. The energy and enthusiasm in that speech was obvious and the saying that sprang to mind certainly was that this was a person who was up for it. There was a sense that things would be different, the new broom would sweep things clean and what had marked the previous years - namely, the overspending, extravagance, greed, self-interest and recklessness - all would be over. Moreover, there was a sense that there would be an end to those institutions, quangos and practices that had contributed to all that waste, that there would be an end to inappropriate spending and overlapping and that all of these issues would be tackled head-on. Perhaps I was naive but I thought that was what would happen. One year and nine months later, one might ask what progress had been made in making the Oireachtas efficient or making it really engaged with the important issues that concern Irish society. One also might ask what has been done to make the Irish citizen proud of this institution in order that Irish citizens now are more confident the men and women they elected are doing the work for which they were elected. In addition, one could ask whether the question of the abuse and misuse of power is being addressed. Finally, one could ask whether the best use is being made of the available resources. As life undoubtedly is much more challenging at present on foot of the downturn and the recession, it is of even greater importance that Members get their priorities right and that they eliminate waste and unnecessary spending.

Turning to the subject being debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill, this sum of €324 million, to be used over the next three years in the performance of the functions of the Oireachtas, is a highly significant amount. Consequently, it is vital that it be spent in a fair way that ensures efficient use of that resource. Part of this allocation is for the staff in the Oireachtas and while not everyone is covered in this particular provision, I wish to acknowledge the hard work, commitment and unfailing courtesy from all the staff within these Houses, including the staff engaged in catering, the Library and Research Service, the stationary office, cleaning, maintenance, printing, communications, gardening, the Bills Office and the ushers. Members probably do not recognise them enough but I will take this moment to acknowledge it. Moreover, I believe salaries must be appropriate to that work and to people's hours of work. I always have a difficulty when people are obliged to work overtime to make their salary livable on and perhaps basic rates need to be considered in that regard.

I acknowledge the amount under debate is less than the €360 million provided for the previous three years and less than the €393 million provided in the three-year period before that. Obviously, we are heading in the right direction. When the Minister of State introduced the Bill to the Seanad, he stated "funds are only designated to essential expenditure" because "the Oireachtas must show the public that it is ready, able and willing to participate in the general reduction of administrative costs". Part of this legislation is progressive - namely, the manner in which the accounts will be presented and the receipts to be retained by the Commission and offset against Exchequer allocation. Consequently, it will be accounted for and it is hoped this will lead to greater efficiencies in providing the services.