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.