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

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This is a very important Bill. It is particularly important for the public, whose taxes are contributing to what we are discussing, and they want greater accountability. There was a need for this Bill to be accompanied by a Bill dealing with parliamentary reform, as we cannot talk about the funding of this organisation without taking a good look at how the organisation does its work. Progress is being made on reducing the budget but this should be accompanied by a reform aspect.

I will use the recent property tax Bill debate as an example, although I will not discuss the property tax. A number of amendments were tabled by Deputies and much work was done by the Deputies and their staff in putting those amendments together, with much work for the Oireachtas staff in achieving the final grouping of these amendments. I am sure that amounted to hours of work. When we came in here to debate the Bill on Tuesday, it quickly became obvious that we would not be discussing any amendments. I am thinking of all the work that went into those amendments, although this is just one example. The debate focused on section 1, with contributions amounting to a talking shop about everything to do with the Bill rather than being relevant to section 1. This occurred instead of a more progressive and efficient way of working through amendments.

This practice, which is replicated elsewhere, needs to be addressed, as it is not an efficient use of staff and resources.

Reference was made to the committees. Some committees are unwieldy because they have such a large number of members. It is ironic and fortunate that they do not attract full attendances as it would otherwise be difficult for them to get through their work.

The Order of Business and Leaders' Questions are characterised by examples of appallingly bad behaviour. It is not a surprise that members of the public lack confidence in the House and I am sure they wonder why they elect us. Much of the behaviour during the Order of Business and Leaders' Questions is intended to attract media attention rather than focusing attention on a particular issue.

The salaries of Deputies have generated considerable public debate. While I do not have a problem with the salary we receive, I have a difficulty with our expenses and allowances. As I have noted on previous occasions, I dislike the culture of claiming expenses. My background is in voluntary work where one would not hear the word "expenses" used. One of the most despicable aspects of the Celtic tiger was the emergence of an expenses culture. Among the first items on the agenda of many bodies is what expenses will be available to members attending a meeting, even if they are required to do little more than cross the road. In the current climate, expenses should be at least halved, not only in the Oireachtas but across the board in State and semi-State bodies, voluntary organisations and all other organisations in receipt of State funding or to which members of the public must pay membership fees. The outcry from members of the public about this abuse of their money is not loud enough.

Members receive good salaries and should not be able to claim expenses for various items. I acknowledge the work of the Standards in Public Office Commission, which has argued for greater transparency and a new approach to the general funding of parties and Independent Deputies. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service produced alarming statistics on the money spent by political parties on campaigns and noted that only one tenth of this expenditure is disclosed in donations. We are all aware of the unhealthy relationship between certain political parties and businesses. We saw the results of an unethical, immoral and illegal system under which political funding was provided in return for favours, although steps are being taken to eliminate this problem. It is all very well to agree to reduce the maximum amount of donations, provide a register of corporate donors or introduce a threshold above which donations by companies and trade unions must be declared but implementing these measures will be vital in ensuring political funding is properly reformed and we do not return to the days of stroke politics.

The leader's allowance was introduced to try to redress a previous imbalance whereby political parties received State funding and Independent Members were not provided with an allowance. I acknowledge the work and research done on this issue by Independent Deputies Stephen Donnelly and Catherine Murphy. Figures on State funding to the political parties show the Fine Gael Party received €5.5 million, the Labour Party received €3.5 million, the Fianna Fáil Party received €3.75 million, Sinn Féin received €2.2 million, the United Left Alliance received less than €500,000 and Independent Deputies received less than €1 million. I understand some of the figures may not be fully accurate. In terms of the relative strengths of the various groups, one finds that apart from the €41,000 received by each Independent Deputy, the Fine Gael Party received more than €67,000 per Deputy, the Fianna Fáil Party received €172,000 per Deputy, the Labour Party received €83,000 per Deputy, Sinn Féin received €147,000 per Deputy and the United Left Alliance received €86,000 per Deputy.

I reiterate my view that I would not have a difficulty with having the leader's allowance removed from me if funding for the political parties were also removed in such a way as to ensure it could not be clawed back through any loophole. This is an issue of fairness and equality. Independent Deputies are elected by citizens and have the same mandate as other Deputies but are not being treated equally. There must be a level playing field.

As Deputy Catherine Murphy noted, the current system is also unfair as it applies to staff. In monetary terms, Independent Deputies do not receive any funding for staff while the Fine Gael Party receives more than €700,000, the Labour Party receives €481,000, the Fianna Fáil Party receives €878,000, Sinn Féin receives €400,000 and the United Left Alliance receives €77,000 for staff purposes. While all Deputies are offered the option of hiring a secretary and parliamentary assistant, much more funding is available to parties. Independent Deputies do not have additional staff other than the person we employ using the leader's allowance. We all have an office, information technology facilities and a telephone while the parties have additional space and facilities for the additional staff they have. We must provide staff we hire with a computer and Deputy Catherine Murphy has made space in her office for the person whom she and I employ.

The Technical Group, Sinn Féin and the Fianna Fáil Party are of roughly equal size, yet the Fianna Fáil Party and Sinn Féin receive funding for 9.5 and seven additional staff, respectively, on the basis that they are political parties. The Technical Group is a grouping but as elected representatives, we are entitled to equality of treatment. This is an issue on which we have been too quiet. While members of the Technical Group do not oppose a system of vouched allowances, I would prefer them to be eliminated or much reduced across the broad. If the allowances available to the political parties were reduced to the level of the leader's allowance for Independent Deputies, it would generate savings of millions of euro.

More could have been done in the area of travel and accommodation. I concur with Deputy Catherine Murphy's comments on Deputies who live near Dublin, although I accept that the needs of those who live further away must be addressed. Again, however, they should provide receipts for expenses such as fuel and vouched expenditure limits should be much lower. I concur with the views expressed on additional moneys paid to chairpersons, vice-chairpersons, Whips and so forth. While I accept that a single body with sufficient funding must run the Houses of the Oireachtas, parity of treatment and fairness must prevail.

I wrote to the Committee of Public Accounts asking the reason it could not require multinational companies to come before it to account for tax issues, as is the case in Britain. I was informed that this function is not available to the committee. We are supposed to work efficiently and in a meaningful way that will make a difference. This is one area where we could make a difference, although, as others have noted, we are still waiting for the banking inquiry to commence.

I am pleased the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Alex White, is present. We have been informed that the cut in funding to the drugs task forces will be of the order of 3%. I understand the Health Service Executive is considering introducing a further 5% cut in funding for addiction services across Dublin city and county. Such a reduction would have a detrimental effect on projects such as SAOL, Ana Liffey, Soilse, the North West Inner City Training and Development Group, and Crinan, which are doing great work. The number of people seeking to access these services is increasing significantly and any additional cut would result in substantial reductions in service. While I accept that tough decisions must be made, they should be applied to those who can bear the burden, for example, Members of the Oireachtas, rather than vulnerable people who require the services being provided by the drugs task forces and others.

I am sharing time with Deputy John Paul Phelan. On this occasion, as in the past, an interdepartmental group consisting of departmental and Oireachtas officials, known as the parliamentary service reform group, has suggested a number of improvements such as re-jigging the presentation of accounts and retention of receipts. These recommendations are included in sections 3 and 4 of the Bill. The group's report was made to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I understand recommendations to modernise the senior management structure in the Oireachtas service and remove the outmoded model of the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959 are still before the commission and will be progressed in the new year. I welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce legislation on these matters early in 2013.

While I welcome the Minister of State's acknowledgement that modernisation has taken place, it must not be hindered or constrained by legislation introduced more than 50 years ago. Members and the Houses require a modern flexible management structure to ensure the services provided to the Houses and Members in fulfilling their constitutional role are fit for purpose in 2012 and beyond.

I note in section 2 that €324 million in funding to the Houses of the Oireachtas will be allocated for the next three years. As the Minister of State noted and in case it is overlooked, funding to the Houses has been reduced significantly and in a manner that fully reflects the downturn in the economy and pressure on the public finances. It is worth noting that the allocation provided for under the previous legislation establishing the commission was €295 million in 2004, €397 million in 2006 and €360 million in 2009.

More should be done to reduce this expenditure. I welcome any submission or suggestion to achieve this. As members of the commission and as Members of this House, we should try to lead the way in reducing the cost of running the Oireachtas. Given the constitutional role of the Houses in holding the Government to account, the allocated figure is a small fraction of the projected overall State expenditure of €56.2 billion for 2013. However, we should always try to reduce costs.

Members have seen significant cuts to their allowances and salaries. There is a misconception that since the commission's funding covers the payment of allowances and salaries to Members, it has a say over them. This is not the case. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is the legal regulatory authority for setting allowances even though the payment thereof is made and accounted for by the commission.

It is only correct that the commission cannot set Members' allowances but is it appropriate for the Minister to deal with allowances unilaterally at budget time? The commission has made suggestions as regards reducing costs. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended that an external body should do this work, allowing for a more transparent and measured approach to comparisons with Members of other parliaments. We must be up front in terms of how to reduce our costs.

The commission's stewardship of the finances allocated has been exemplary since its establishment. It is not well known that, due to the constitutional and statutory position of payments, only 6% of the money drawn down by the commission from the Central Fund is discretionary, with a very small "D". This figure will reduce to 4.7% thanks to the savings achieved this year to date by the commission.

The commission's annual report provides useful international comparisons in respect of the ratio of staff to Members. Ireland is ranked 12th out of a total of 21 parliaments studied and tenth out of 18 in terms of political staff. We should improve and strive to be in the top three in each case. The conclusion to be drawn is that Members are far from being at the top of the league when compared with the parliaments of other well developed democracies. Any review of allowances should be benchmarked against other parliaments to ensure that Members remain financially independent and above reproach in carrying out their constitutional duties.

Being on the commission gives me an insight into how the Houses are run by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. While there is always room for improvement, I have been impressed with the dedication and efficiency across the entire span of activity, such as the Library and Research Service, which every Deputy uses, in support of sittings and Members as we go about our business in challenging environments.

Since the commission came into operation in 2004, the service has needed to adapt to its new role in supporting an independent corporate body, effectively known as the commission, while managing the everyday activity of sittings of the Houses and supporting Members. The span of activity undertaken by the service covers far more than sittings and supporting Members, as important as these are, and reflects the demands of a public sector corporate body. The commission's financial and corporate governance has a primary role in ensuring that financial probity is guaranteed as far as possible in this high-profile area.

The annual report, which is largely forgotten in the overall scheme of Leinster House, gives a good account of the range of work being done. That work is not always as widely appreciated as it should be, given the challenging environment presented by the state of the public finances.

None of this could have happened without dedicated staff in the Oireachtas service being committed to change and modernisation. This must be encouraged by the commission. For this reason, I welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce legislation to amend the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. I also welcome the fact that the pressure for change is coming from the Civil Service itself.

I thank the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, for his work in the past 18 months. He worked closely with members of the public service to try to bring about change. An interdepartmental group comprising officials from the Minister's Department and the Oireachtas service is also involved. I look forward to the changes that the Minister will propose and I hope that this public service is reformed as quickly as possible.

I wish to make a few points on the Bill. Although Deputy Sean Fleming's colleague is present, I am sorry that he is not. I was struck by his contribution, during which he referred to today as being Christmas Eve no fewer than 12 times. I would hate it if he woke up tomorrow morning and there were no presents under the Christmas tree. He believed that today was Christmas Eve, but that is actually next Monday.

In the Minister of State's concluding remarks, he might clarify the reason for discussing this legislation so close to the deadline. I assume that the changes announced by the Minister in the budget must be reflected in the legislation on the budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.

I am also a bit miffed about Deputy Sean Fleming's comments on Dáil reform, his notion of which is the Dáil sitting an extra day per month. When the Deputy was the Chairman of an Oireachtas committee in a previous existence and under a different regime, we would have finished for Christmas in the first or second week of December and the Oireachtas might only have returned in the final two or three days of January. This was how the Oireachtas was run. The significant reduction in our recess periods reflects the fact that much more is being done in terms of legislation and discussion.

This is not to say that all of the necessary changes to how legislative debates are held in this House have been introduced. I am unhappy with the lack of discussion on some important Bills. However, it is important to point out that, when the Oireachtas dealt with one of a number of significant Bills last week, a couple of hours were lost due to the Opposition's usual messing. Reform must involve all sides of the House. We have a way to go in terms of reforming how the Oireachtas handles legislation. The Houses are sitting twice as often as used to be the case. This is my 11th year as a Member and I remember Christmas and other recesses being lengthier than is now the case. It is patently wrong to claim that the only change has been an extra day, or one Friday, per month.

I also wish to ask the Minister of State about the matter on which Deputy Sean Fleming showed mock indignation, that is, the lack of a banking inquiry. Last week, I may have heard the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform refer to the publication of new legislation on Oireachtas inquiries. In November 2011, the people decided in a referendum not to extend Oireachtas committees' powers of investigation. The Minister of State may be able to outline the status of the legislation on the changes required to allow committees to hold important inquiries.

I am intrigued by Deputy Sean Fleming's eagerness to have the Seanad abolished. I was of the belief that Fianna Fáil was opposed to abolition.

Indeed. The Minister of State might-----

The Deputy should not wind me up.

There was a time, Deputy Dooley, when we were all there. The Minister of State might refer to the position as regards putting the issue to the people in a referendum.

The last I heard was that a proposal in this regard will be forthcoming in 2013.

It is important to acknowledge the significant reductions that have been achieved in the cost of administering the Oireachtas. As finance spokesman for Fine Gael in the Seanad in 2006, I recall a discussion regarding the funding of the Oireachtas Commission, which in that particular legislation was set at just shy of €400 million. By contrast, the amount proposed for this purpose for the next three years is just over €320 million. This represents a substantial reduction which is certainly in line with, if not ahead of, the reductions in the cost of administering other Departments and agencies. In fact, the reduction in expenditure on the operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas is approaching 20% in the past four years.

In recent years we have seen a 10% reduction in staffing levels in Leinster House. Many of the visitors I bring to the Oireachtas are struck by the number of people who work in these buildings who are not politicians. The staff include secretarial assistants, parliamentary assistants, committee staff, staff of political parties, ushers, staff in the various ancillary facilities and so on. The newly extended library and research unit is a particularly positive initiative. For a long time the former head librarian of many years standing and who is retired several years - an elderly gentleman named Patrick whose surname I cannot bring to mind just now - and his colleague Seamus Haughey were the only staff in the library. In fact, it was effectively just a reading room. The service provided by the library and research unit, particularly its function in reviewing legislation and offering Members briefings on Bills coming before the House, is a huge advance on what was previously available.

I will conclude by referring to an issue that has been something of a bugbear of mine for some time, namely, the proposal for the provision of free iPads to all Members. Following concerns expressed in this regard by me and by others, it has now been proposed that Members should use their vouched expenses to cover the cost of a new iPad. This is certainly a more acceptable proposal than the appalling prospect that each Member would receive a free electronic device at a time when families throughout the State are suffering significant hardship. I would go further, however. I might be misinterpreting the information we have been given, but it seems to be saying that it will be optional for Members to claim for a new iPad under their vouched expenses. I urge the commission to specify that it will be mandatory for such purchases to be included under vouched expenses. Moreover, this facility should only be availed of by Members who do not already possess one of these devices. Even though I am not especially technically literate, I have had an iPad for several years and have no need of a second. I understand the Oireachtas information technology service is in a position to offer support to Members who already use an iPad, which would be most helpful.

In this context, I welcome the change in thinking that seems to have taken place in regard to the provision of these important and necessary items. To clarify, I am not a Luddite. On the contrary, anything that will reduce the cost of providing documents to Members is very much to be welcomed. I use my own iPad extensively in my work as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. It means I do not have to print a small forest of documentation before attending committee meetings. Nevertheless, the original proposal that a free iPad be given to every Member is unacceptable in the current economic circumstances.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. While recognising that the Bill is limited in its function, it nevertheless affords us an opportunity to discuss the broader issue of reform within the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is an issue about which I have strong views. Like Deputy John Paul Phelan, I started out in the Seanad 11 years ago. As part of the work of that Seanad, we contributed to the compilation of a significant report on reform of the Upper House. Our enthusiasm, although noted and commended by our wiser, more experienced peers, was nevertheless tempered by their word of caution that this particular report, like others before it, would most likely be left on the shelf.

The Deputy's enthusiasm has not waned.

Thank you, Minister. Unfortunately, those warnings proved accurate and the report was indeed left on the shelf.

I do not wish to be partisan on the last day of business in the House, but I must point out that the only movement we have seen from the current Administration in the area of parliamentary reform was the effort before the election to garner votes on the basis of a commitment to abolish the Seanad. In fact, that became the tag-line for parliamentary reform for the Government, the be all and end all of its ambitions in this area. That was most disappointing at the time and I suspect that disappointment might well now be shared by many of my colleagues on the other side of the House. It was certainly an eye-catching slogan which attracted a great deal of media attention in the run-up to the election. I am convinced, however, that the abolition of the Seanad would not enhance democracy in this State. We should bear in mind that if a referendum were put to the people at this time to abolish the Dáil, it would probably succeed. We must be careful and considered in our approach to reform and any action in this area must be strategic. As others have said, we must consider best practice in other jurisdictions, while also heeding the positive aspects of our own culture and developed parliamentary practice. That tradition has served us reasonably well, notwithstanding some considerable failures along the way. In that context, I hope there will be a more broadly-based approach in respect of efforts to reform how we do business in these Houses.

The Oireachtas Commission has done important work since its inception, but a great deal remains to be done. Likewise, there is further work to be done by the parliamentary service reform group that was involved in bringing forward proposals for this particular Bill. The Minister of State has indicated that there will be further amending legislation relating to the modernisation of senior management. Everybody who works in Leinster House recognises the need for new structures suitable for the modern era. These Houses could very easily become bedded in the past rather than looking to the future. We must keep pace with technological developments, which requires having people with expertise in that area. There are fantastic individuals working in the Oireachtas who have sought external support in modernising the workings of the Houses. Whatever the Government is prepared to do in this regard will be most welcome.

We have a very dedicated staff in the Oireachtas who have worked tremendously well against very difficult deadlines. Many people do not appreciate that when parliamentary business runs late into the evening, certain staff are obliged to stay on to prepare amendments and so on. That is often lost in the commentary about the cost of operations of the Oireachtas, which can look high when consolidated over a three or five-year period. These are fundamental aspects of the running of a democracy. There is certainly scope for tightening up, perhaps through a greater emphasis on technology. That is something we all support. It is important, however, not to undermine or detract from the phenomenal work done by Oireachtas staff.

There is an onus on elected Members, both in government and opposition, to find better ways of doing our business. Observers of proceedings in the Oireachtas who are sometimes irked to see only three or four Members in the Chamber at a particular time may not understand how business is ordered on a daily basis.

That is why we must give a more extended period of time to Leaders' Questions and to the Order of Business, when parliamentarians get the opportunity to discuss current issues of national importance. That is ultimately what the news programmes carry and what people look at each day. It would be nice, perhaps, if they spent more time tracking the more mundane legislative proposals that might not apply to them for years to come, but they do not. They look to Parliament to hear about the current issues of the day. We have much work to do with regard to giving appropriate time to allow issues to be discussed and thrashed out a little more, even if that takes half a day for three days per week. We would achieve better engagement with the public. I accept that is not something the Government agrees to easily, regardless of who is in government, and it is easy from an opposition perspective to identify and highlight the advantages of such an approach. I am also mindful that business must be done and what might be considered more mundane tasks, such as debating, amending and processing legislation, is important work that must be scheduled as well.

I hope the Minister will fulfil his commitment in the new year to introduce legislation to deal with the modernisation of the senior management structure of the Oireachtas services, based on the work of the parliamentary service reform group. If that amending legislation is brought forward, we will have an opportunity to discuss in more detail the type of expertise and access to information that is required to ensure the Houses of the Oireachtas remain in step with the public and have access to the latest technology and the greatest capacity to communicate with the electorate. I welcome the progress made in broadcasting the proceedings on one of the television channels. Unfortunately, it is not freely and widely available. I urge the Government to enter into negotiations with the transmission providers, be it RTE or TV3. We were led to believe that the arrival of digital television would mean a far greater capacity to deliver a greater number of channels. The Ceann Comhairle has done a considerable amount of work on this and I hope the challenge will be met by TV3 or RTE or whatever broadcaster can provide that facility to the greatest number of people, as happens in other jurisdictions. There is, for example, C-SPAN in the United States, and I am sure there are similar facilitators in other jurisdictions. I will conclude on that point.

I am sharing time with Deputy Harris.

I welcome the opportunity to comment on this Bill and on political reform generally, which has been mentioned by some Members. It has been already mentioned that if the last Administration were in power, the Dáil would have risen last week and would not sit again until probably the first week in February. It would rise again for another fortnight shortly afterwards. One tangible change since the current Government took office is that the recesses are shorter. That gives rise to other issues. We all have constituencies and there is an expectation in those constituencies that we should be there too. However, we must step up and be counted because ultimately we have an obligation to be here in the Chamber.

What was remarkable for me in the past three weeks was the absence of most Members of the Opposition on the Mondays and Fridays when the House sat. It is regrettable. The very people who are crowing from the rooftops that the Dáil is not sitting for meaningful discussions were notable for their absence when those meaningful discussions were taking place. That happens a lot with many Members of the Opposition. As a new Deputy, I have often spoken in the Dáil on various issues when the opposition benches were empty. It happens on many occasions. Ultimately, the Opposition has as much of an obligation as the Government to ensure the Chamber functions. In fairness, many government backbenchers make very constructive contributions, sometimes saying what the Opposition would agree with. However, it is very difficult for a government backbencher to look across the floor and see more than 80 empty seats, without even a front bench spokesperson or even deputy spokesperson from either Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin or the Technical Group present.

Today is an exception, probably because we are talking about money in the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill. It has sparked a great deal of interest in many different groups. Suddenly, receipts are being requested. It is disappointing that so many Members chirp a great deal about how effective are the Government, Oireachtas and Dáil, yet they nearly take the doors off their hinges to get out of here on a Monday or Friday. It is up to them to organise their business and ensure their benches are manned.

As Deputy Feighan said, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has made savings in the time since he became a Member. However, I am not aware of any other parliament in the world that has a political party that is represented in two sovereign parliaments and takes a totally different approach in the two parliaments under the same flag of convenience. Sinn Féin Members talk about so-and-so getting this and so-and-so getting that and declare it is absolutely desperate. They complain about the cost of Ministers, chairmen and this and that. However, at least in this Parliament the party's Members turn up to work, whereas in the other sovereign parliament in which Sinn Féin has representation its members do not turn up at all. The cost of their non-participation in that parliament in 2011 was €697,000.

The Deputy is wandering from the content of the Bill.

I am referring to remarks made earlier that were unchallenged. I believe I have a right of reply.

I do not know of any other country in the world, with the possible exception of North Korea, where people turn up when they feel like it and draw money from it, yet do not participate in any meaningful way. To be honest, it smacks of hypocrisy to talk here about the cost of governance, the cost of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and of everything else while at the same time there are five Members of the Westminster Parliament in receipt of €697,000 from Her Majesty's treasury and there is not a gig from them. By the same token, if Members of the House consider themselves overpaid, there is nothing preventing them from going to the Paymaster General and asking for their pay to be reduced. However, I have not heard any Member from Sinn Féin or any other Member offering to do that.

Earlier contributors to the debate referred to the cost of running political parties as opposed to the cost of being an Independent. The electorate expects political parties to run the country. It does not expect it to be possible to cobble together a government from a group of Independents because it probably would not last very long. By virtue of the fact that there is a Standards in Public Office Commission, regulations regarding fund-raising and maximum limits for donations, the cost of running political parties is quite high. It is expensive because of the demands made of all of us as politicians. As a result, the leader's allowance for political parties is different from the leader's allowance for Independents.

As I said in the House on several occasions before the budget, it is immoral that there are Members of this House in receipt of a leader's allowance without producing a single receipt. It is essentially an extra payment of €43,000 into the Member's pocket. I am glad the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has made an effort to try to address that, but more must be done. It is an oxymoron. One cannot be a leader of oneself. One is either an Independent or a member of a political party. If the Technical Group is going to vote, speak, kick out members, hold parliamentary party meetings and elect leaders as a party, that means it is a political party. It is a farce at present. On the one hand, people are pretending they are Independents, but on the other, they are behaving as a political party by kicking out people and bringing them in as they see fit, setting rules, holding meetings and appointing whips. It flies in the face of what it means to be an Independent.

Shame on you. That is outrageous.

True Independents are those who have absented themselves from that farce that we call a Technical Group because one is either an Independent or in a party but there is a group of Members in the House who want their cake and eat it. When someone stands up to speak the truth, it hurts. I do not know any other Parliament where a group of people with nothing in common from the extreme right to the extreme left and everything in between----

It is a bit like the Government.

-----and they take a big ball of money to call themselves a Technical Group. They speak, vote and are whipped as one.

That is not the case. The Deputy does not have a clue.

In most people's estimation, that is a political party. They should do the decent thing and call themselves a party. I am glad the Chief Whip is present. The Standing Orders should reflect what people look for. If people are elected as Independents, they should be forced into behaving as Independents and they should not be paid as a party.

On a point of order, is this relevant to what we are discussing?

As I have pointed out to the Chief Whip previously, Government backbenchers get the same amount of speaking time in the Chamber as Technical Group members. Fine Gael and the Labour Party have 70 backbenchers and we are treated the same in the context of speaking time as a group that have cobbled together an arrangement and called themselves a Technical Group.

The Constitution does not recognise political parties. The Constitution recognises our mandate.

No one interrupted the Deputy. This is unfair. After Christmas, as part of the move for political reform, the Oireachtas should reflect its representation in its speaking rights.

We should call it a dictatorship.

It should be more representative of the people in terms of the make up of the House and the representation within the House. It is unfair that Government backbenchers are entitled to the same speaking time as a group that has been cobbled together. That is not right and I ask the Chief Whip to take it on board.

With regard to the Bill, I compliment the staff of the Houses. The previous speaker made good points about the work that is done, the school tours and so on but much more could be done to take the message of the Oireachtas to the people and to encourage them to visit.

I welcome the Bill. Every now and then, it is no harm to inject a little truth into debate in this Chamber. When some people hear the truth, they get a little rattled and they start roaring and shouting. That is their entitlement but, at the end of the day, when we discuss the cost of running this House and the cost of politics, we need to be fair to everybody - political parties, those outside them and those that are a political group but pretend they are not one.

Even in the trenches during the world wars, peace broke out over Christmas and, therefore, I will attempt to leave my colleague's comments to one side. I would like to comment on political reform and while the Bill is focused on the cost of running a Parliament, there is a cost associated with democracy and with having democratic institutions. My constituents, and I presume those of other Members, want to know how effective we are and what they are getting in return. I am pleased the Government Chief Whip is present and I hope he will take note of a number of my suggestions about the running of the Oireachtas.

Both Houses are sitting more frequently, which is welcome. An additional sitting is a metric of the work, debate and legislation being dealt with. The Friday sittings, which provide backbench Government Members who never previously had a mechanism to table legislation, put it up to us to be legislators. During the next election campaign, which I hope is far away, we can knock on the doors of constituents and be measured on what we did in bringing forward legislative proposals. We have an opportunity to draft a Bill to, for example, change a law and we can answer the question about what we did. That is an important change. We also have an opportunity to preview legislation with the heads of Bills sent to committee before the legislation is fleshed out, which is positive. However, I am a member of both the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and the Committee of Public Accounts, as is Deputy McDonald. Earlier both committees, which were dealing with important topics, were sitting at the same time. We can learn from other parliaments where a period of time, be it days or weeks, is assigned to committee business. In my brief time in the House, I have learned that most of the effective work is done by committees, where there is less partisanship and greater scrutiny of proposals. We must examine how committees are timetabled.

Another issue that needs to be considered is the empowerment of committees in the context of their work programmes. I am not a great believer in the ideology of everybody having a free vote on every issue but when committees are not dealing with legislative proposals, members should not have to divide along party lines and it has been disappointing when that has happened on a number of occasions in this Dáil.

Deputy Dooley referred to topical debates and Topical Issue Matters has been a great addition to the House. They have helped Members but the House is still a little too rehearsed and staid at times. We need to look at the House of Commons, if Members do not mind me referring to it following the previous contribution, where every MP has the opportunity to raise issues with the Prime Minister of the day on a regular basis. That needs to be considered as well. We do not just need Punch and Judy politics, which some Members criticise but then engage in themselves, where our constituents when they look at their television screens wonder whether this is what goes on in the Dáil.

As we approach another recess, we need to examine how we timetable recesses. The European Parliament provides for a constituency week. One of the great challenges I face is finding the thinking and reading time needed to do my job effectively, particularly in the context of committee work. We can run around Leinster House being busy and go from morning to night but the opportunity to have time and space to plan and to, for example, work on parliamentary questions and be good legislators and contribute well is limited. The European Parliament model, albeit it is in place for a slightly different reason, of having designated time to scrutinise and think when members are not on holidays needs to be considered. The parliament's procedure whereby votes are held at a certain time of the day or week is also good. Sometimes members have to get up in the middle of a committee meeting and witnesses are left sitting in the room waiting for ages and this is an ineffective use of time. We need to have votes and it is the right of members to call them. It is an important part of our work but we should examine grouping them if we are honest about spending our time effectively in the House. Deputy Dooley also referred to the cost overruns when votes run late into the night and so on.

Great work has been done by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission led by the Ceann Comhairle on the broadcasting of proceedings. The House is becoming much more accessible through the new television channel and the Internet and even through the displaying of Members' expenses on a monthly basis on the website. It is unfortunate that www.kildarestreet.com, a website that has done great work on transparency and tracking the performance of Members, including the number of parliamentary questions constituency rivals, for example, have tabled, is having difficulty due to changes in how the Oireachtas processes its information. Will the Chief Whip and the commission examined how we can facilitate that website to continue its work?

I am a member, along with Deputy O'Sullivan, of a cross-party group concerned with mental health. This group has representatives of every political grouping in the House and it does solid work. While we know we are coming at the issue from different perspectives and there will be debates in which we will take different sides as political needs must, we have come together to park the party politics and move the issue forward in a broad sense. Other parliaments have a great tradition of cross-party groups. Outside the formal Oireachtas structures, we are not great in this regard but it should be considered. I do not know whether Members need to get on and do this ourselves or whether we need to examine this through formal Oireachtas processes but it would be useful to have cross-party groups to examine different sectoral or societal interests. They do not need to be formal legislative committees.

The final issue I would like to raise, on which I have corresponded with the Ceann Comhairle previously, relates to the opening up of Parliament.

Members of the public can queue outside the Westminster Parliament and gain access to the building. It is regrettable that if my constituents want to access this building at short notice, they need me or another Member to sign them in, or to go through a booking process. I have corresponded with the Ceann Comhairle and with officials of the House on this matter and I got a comprehensive answer. I understand about staffing, security and all that sort of stuff. This is something that needs to be looked at. I have often seen people come up to the reception area in Kildare Street and ask how they can come in. That is a bad physical barrier to have but it is not something we will rectify today or tomorrow.

The tours of the House are superb. Any group I have brought in have gone away massively impressed with the depth of knowledge of the staff of the House and the courtesy they extend to visitors. That is something I value, as a Member of the House. It is, however, regrettable that, because of the economic situation, there is no longer the possibility of evening tours. A significant catchment of our constituents would like to see the House and watch it in action but cannot do so during the day.

I place these as my general thoughts on the issue. We are discussing issues of cost. We all need to be cost conscious and make savings in the cost of our institutions. We do that in the Bill and we did so in the budget. We also need to ask what we are getting for the money. We must not simply debate the number of euro spent but also whether we are getting value for money and a "bang for our buck". These are my suggestions, for what they are worth.

This has been an interesting discussion. As colleagues acknowledged, the Bill is of a technical nature and, although important, is limited in scope. Many of the issues raised in the course of the debate are, of course, worthy of public debate and elaboration and Members, in their normal ingenious way, have taken the opportunity afforded them by this relatively limited Bill to engage in that broader debate. It is appropriate that we have a constant engagement on the question of reform of the manner in which the Houses do their business and on the broader reform agenda which the Government is pursuing in an impressive manner, from constitutional reform through the convention to matters such as reform of freedom of information legislation, the lobbying regime, election funding and so forth. Other instruments are being considered in various legislation. Considerable reform is proceeding all the time.

The Bill, however, is limited. I do not criticise any of my colleagues, far be it from me to do that, when I say I am struck by how little reference was made in the course of the debate to the contents of the Bill itself. The Bill, if passed, will ensure that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission can continue with its work and will have funding to do so.

Deputy John Paul Phelan dealt quite well with Deputy Sean Fleming's opening remarks. Deputy Fleming reminded us that this is the eve of Christmas and said there was a sense in which things were being rushed through. Deputy McDonald used the expression "sneaking through", if I am not mistaken. One or two other people said the same. This is a working day in the Houses of the Oireachtas. We are working today, doing the people's business until eight o'clock tonight. There is nothing sneaky about any of the business we do, today or any other day. This is just as important a day of work as any other. The notion that the Bill's being debated on the last day of the session constitutes sneaky behaviour on the part of the Government or anyone else is nonsensical. The media and everyone else have the same gaze and visibility on what we do in the Houses until business closes this evening. I reject out of hand any suggestion that because the Bill is being taken on the last day of the session it is being pushed through in a manner that is sneaky or seeks to avoid the public gaze or scrutiny. That is not the case.

The amounts of money to be dedicated to the Houses of the Oireachtas, and contained in the Bill, have been known since last October. The Estimate was presented in October of this year following detailed consideration by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. There is no lack of clarity or transparency in the process or the sums of money involved. I reject any suggestion otherwise.

Deputy Phelan also made the point that the decisions made in the budget are of relevance. The alterations and adjustments made in the Budget Statement are of relevance to this and they came only two weeks ago. There is pressure of legislative business. The Personal Insolvency Bill, for example, was passed by the Houses last night. A great deal of legislation is going through the Houses. Members will recognise that. Much of the legislation is troika related and must be dealt with. It is being dealt with, if I may say so in the presence of the Chief Whip, in an expeditious and efficient fashion by all concerned, including the staff of the Houses and of Departments, who have a huge amount of work to do on legislation across the board.

I said many of the issues raised are not strictly relevant to the Bill and if I were consistent I would remember that and not respond to them. I think I can, however, have some indulgence for a couple of minutes and refer briefly to a couple of the points made. There is a reform agenda and the Government is pursuing it vigorously. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and others raised the importance of committees and difficulties regarding the passage of business and the efficiency of committees. We should constantly address our minds to this. I was chair of a committee prior to my current appointment and I believe strongly in the committee system. It can work, has been seen to work and can be made work. This involves the co-operation and support, not only of the Government but of all members so that committees work in the methodical efficient way they are designed to do. We have seen progress in that regard. When people work together in a committee type environment we can make huge progress in dealing with legislation and with other issues.

We now have a system of pre-legislative scrutiny. Before a Bill is published there can be pre-legislative discussion in a committee. I was privileged to be involved in some of that work in the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform on credit union legislation, whistleblower legislation and so on. This is happening at present. I understand the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform has been examining the proposals by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for legislation on committee inquiries. The preparation of legislation to allow for the holding of inquiries by committees has been already approved by Government. These will be general inquiries and will not be confined to banking. The committee is having an opportunity to deal with that prior to the legislation even being finalised by the Minister. That is an important advance. There is a feeling that once legislation is published there is a sense of finality about it and a reluctance to change it. Here is an opportunity for genuine engagement by parliamentarians before legislation even reaches the publication stage. That is important and progressive.

Deputy Phelan pointed out that Deputy Fleming was very enthusiastic for there to be an announcement on the referendum to abolish the Seanad. I was taken aback at how enthusiastic he was for that. The Taoiseach has indicated the matter will be addressed in the latter part of 2013. It should, however, be emphasised that the people own the Constitution and own the Houses of the Oireachtas and it is a matter for them to decide if the Seanad is abolished, not for the Government, the Dáil or the Seanad. It is a matter for the people and that is as it should be.

Deputy Dooley made the rhetorical point that if there was a referendum next week to abolish the Dáil, it would succeed. We can laugh at that prospect but there is a serious issue at its heart. This is a parliamentary democracy, a country that is free to determine who its representatives are. People can vote us in and vote us out. Sometimes we must remind ourselves how important it is to defend that. We should defend the integrity of this Parliament. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan pointed out in her contribution that it costs money to run a parliamentary democracy; it cannot be done without funding. There can be legitimate queries about how much politicians should be paid or what there expenses should be, and if they should be vouched, as I always thought they should. All of those issues have been raised by Deputies but we must not lose track of the fundamental point that we live in a parliamentary democracy and should have the confidence as Members of the Oireachtas to defend that and defend the necessity to fund it.

The issue of specifics of allowances and expenses are not germane to the issues in this debate but I have no objection to Members being critical of this or that allowance. Sometimes, however, that debate can degenerate, as it was in danger of doing in the course of this debate, to the hacking away at the allowances and salary issues that risks encouraging resentment and cynicism about the whole process of politics and parliamentary democracy. By all means, Deputies can raise specific issues and it makes for excellent copy to hack away at the issue but I ask colleagues to have regard to the importance of defending the integrity of the work we do here, the people's business, and the fact it costs money, not just to pay our salaries but those of the people who work for us and who work in this building. They do a very important job for the State.

I have already said there was detailed discussion of the specifics of the budget between the commission and the Minister. I will, however, put the envisaged expenditure for 2012 on the record. The major elements of the €116 million are €24 million for the salary costs for the Houses of the Oireachtas service; €21 million for salary costs for Members of both Houses and MEPs; €11 million for travel expenses and allowances for Members; €21 million in respect of salaries of secretarial assistants for Members; and €15 million for pensions for former Members of the Houses, a total of €92 million. The remaining annual allocation of €24 million consists mainly of general administration expenses of €17 million for travel, subsistence, postal and telecommunications, office machinery, premises and expenses, payments in respect of the bar and catering staff amounting to €2 million and €3 million for the televising of Oireachtas proceedings, an important item of expenditure in the context of the imperative that the work in these Houses is communicated properly and fully to the public, whose business we are doing here.

There is one issue that I would like to address on the efficiency of individual Members. This is a personal bugbear of mine that has arisen in the context of the controversy about iPads. I have been a Member of both Houses and I am struck by the sheer volume of paper we carry around with us, Bills and so on. When discussing an amending Bill, like this one, how many Members would have the principal Act available to them? I had to ask the officials to get a look at it. Normally the amending Bill is issued to a Member, and that outlines what is being amended. Very often, it would be good to see the principal Act to see where it fits in. Some people are very assiduous and get that from the Oireachtas Library but most of us do not have the time to do that. How much better would it be if people had an iPad and could use it to quickly find legislation, including the principal Act that is the background to the Bill being debated, and could even access commentary on some aspects of the legislation being debated? Sometimes we lose sight of what we can achieve through efficiencies, doing our jobs better. That is then cloaked by the notion of Deputies being given a free iPad, as if it was something they would find under the Christmas tree for their delectation and enjoyment. We never deal with this issue seriously because it makes great copy to talk about these things as if they are being thrown around for free. There are very few people who would come in here thinking they would get freebies in the way this has been characterised. That is a small matter but it is of importance. We should take our business in here more seriously as politicians on all sides.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. This is important legislation and it deserves the support of the House.

Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 83; Níl, 42.

  • Bannon, James.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Bruton, Richard.
  • Burton, Joan.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Deenihan, Jimmy.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Doherty, Regina.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Flanagan, Charles.
  • Flanagan, Terence.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Hogan, Phil.
  • Howlin, Brendan.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kelly, Alan.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lynch, Kathleen.
  • Lyons, John.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • McNamara, Michael.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • Penrose, Willie.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Quinn, Ruairí.
  • Reilly, James.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Shatter, Alan.
  • Sherlock, Sean.
  • Spring, Arthur.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
  • Fleming, Sean.
  • Halligan, John.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Murphy, Catherine.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • O'Dea, Willie.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Shortall, Róisín.
  • Smith, Brendan.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Wallace, Mick.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe; Níl, Deputies Catherine Murphy and Mary Lou McDonald.
Question declared carried.