I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am happy to introduce to the Dáil the Houses of the Oireachtas (Appointments to Certain Offices) Bill 2014. Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas will be aware that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission came into being on 1 January 2004 under the terms of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act of 2003. The commission is the governing board which oversees the provision of services to the Houses of the Oireachtas and its Members by the parliamentary administration, the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.
The commission has a very extensive range of responsibilities. They include the payment of the salaries of Deputies and Senators, the salaries of Irish Members of the European Parliament and the salaries of the staff of the Oireachtas Service. The commission is also responsible for the payment of the salaries of the secretarial assistants working for non-officeholding Members, the travel allowances for which Members are eligible and the payment of pensions to former Members.
Since its establishment, the commission has overseen the smooth running of services to both Houses and introduced a number of significant improvements in the services provided for Members and the wider public, including arranging for the televising of proceedings of both Houses and committees. The commission is a statutory corporate body and independent in the performance of its functions. It is accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas and has responsibility for ensuring value for money is achieved. It considers and determines policy on the Oireachtas Service and oversees the implementation of that policy by the Secretary General of the service.
The commission is composed of 11 members under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle. The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is an ex officio member. There are also seven ordinary members, four from the Dáil and three from the Seanad who are appointed by the Members of each House, and one representative of the Minister, who would be a Member of one of the Houses. The final position on the commission is allocated to the person who, as stipulated in the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Act 2009, "for the time being holds the office of the Clerk of Dáil Éireann and (who) may also be referred to as the Secretary General of the (Oireachtas) Service". The Act states the Secretary General is to be the chief executive of the Oireachtas Commission and the officer accountable for the accounts of the commission for the purposes of the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts 1866 to 1998.
The Clerk of the Dáil post encompasses functions as set out in Dáil Standing Orders, as well as specified functions as set out under the electoral Acts and related legislation. The Clerk of the Dáil is the chief procedural adviser to the House and the Ceann Comhairle and the registrar of political parties. He or she is required to carry out specific functions related to the Dáil, Seanad, presidential and European election process and is ex officio a member of the Constituency Commission, the Referendum Commission and the Standards in Public Office Commission. Under section 15 of the commission Acts, the person who holds the position of Clerk of the Dáil is also Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. He or she has been specifically allocated a very extensive range of administrative duties under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission legislation. These duties include the following: managing and controlling the staff and administration of the Oireachtas Service; implementing and monitoring the policies of the Oireachtas Commission appropriate to that service and delivering outputs as determined by the commission; providing advice for the Oireachtas Commission and the Ceann Comhairle on the performance of their legislative functions under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts; providing advice for the commission on any matter connected with the responsibilities of the Oireachtas which would give rise to expenditure on the Oireachtas accounts; examining and developing means that will improve the provision by the Oireachtas Service of cost effective services; subject to the Civil Service Regulation Act 1956 and the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Act 2004, managing matters related to appointments, performance, discipline and dismissals of staff below the grade of principal officer, or the equivalent, in the Oireachtas Service; assigning responsibility for the performance of the functions for which the Secretary General is responsible to members of the staff of the Oireachtas Service of an appropriate grade or rank in order to ensure coherence of policy across the service; and ensuring appropriate arrangements are put in place to facilitate an effective response to matters pertaining to both the service and other branches of the public service.
Under the commission Acts, the Secretary General is the chief executive of the commission. Acting in all capacities represents a formidable series of procedural, electoral, administrative and governance tasks for the leading official of the Oireachtas Service. Certainly, the service and the Oireachtas as a whole were very fortunate to have been served by the outgoing Clerk of the Dáil, Mr. Kieran Coughlan. Kieran, with whom I worked very closely, was appointed Clerk of the Dáil in the early 1990s, having already served in the Oireachtas Service for some considerable period before that. He was able to provide a hugely valuable source of knowledge and experience during the years, especially during the bedding down of the commission following its establishment under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. His tenure came to an end in 2013 and it was necessary for detailed consideration to be given to how the resultant vacancy should be filled.
Under the current legislative arrangements, the Clerk of the Dáil is appointed by the Taoiseach on the recommendation of the Ceann Comhairle, following consultation with the Oireachtas Commission. Where the Ceann Comhairle, following such consultation, is satisfied that no member of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas is suitable for appointment, he or she may recommend for appointment a person who is not on the staff of the Houses. If the Ceann Comhairle, after consultation with the commission, fails to recommend a person for appointment, the Taoiseach has the power to nominate a person from within the staff of the Houses for appointment and, with the concurrence of the Dáil, appoint that person. Where the Taoiseach is satisfied that no member of the staff of the Houses is suitable, he or she may nominate a person who is not on the staff of the Houses. It can be seen from this arrangement that, in the first instance at least, eligibility for appointment as Clerk of the Dáil is confined to existing staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas and that other persons are excluded from the process, unless no member of the staff of the Houses is considered suitable.
The previous Government had indicated its desire to change this arrangement. On Second Stage of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill in 2009 the then Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who was piloting the Bill stated the following:
The distinct role of the Civil Service staff and senior management structures of the Oireachtas is specifically recognised in the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act, 1959. These structures have served both Houses extremely well and remained in place following the establishment of the commission in 2003. However, significant changes in Civil Service management systems have taken place in the 50 years since the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act, 1959 came into force and it is accepted that the configuration in that Act, particularly in terms of senior management structures, needs to be modernised. In that 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.
The Government is in full accord with that viewpoint. It agrees that the current arrangements for the appointment of the Clerk of the Dáil are out of kilter with the general arrangements for the system for senior appointments, notably the TLAC system. This system incorporates nomination by boards comprising a majority of members from the private sector with specific skills in management and human resources and provides opportunities for new blood to be introduced into public service organisations. This is the way the appointment of all Secretaries General and senior appointments are now made across the Civil Service. The Government is of the view that the Clerk of the Dáil should be appointed through a professionally organised and independent competitive selection mechanism, as that in place in the wider public service, to ensure the best possible person is selected from as broad as possible a pool of talent to lead the Oireachtas Service into the future. This stance is in complete accordance with the thrust of Government policy in recent years and, particularly, contents of the Civil Service renewal plan published by the Government last year. That plan referred to the need for continuous improvement and adaptation to change on the part of the State's administrative system. It indicated that public service organisations needed, in an era of increased demand for services and reduced staff numbers, to maximise performance levels, keep structures and processes up to date and be continually open to external ideas and trends.
In the context of the Oireachtas Service, the drive to attain such goals will be a major responsibility for the incoming Clerk of the Dáil. The new postholder will be expected to play a key role in providing procedural advice and expertise for the Ceann Comhairle and Members of the Dáil; overseeing the sittings of the Dáil, in particular the provision of critical support services for the Dáil; dealing with parliamentary reform and ongoing procedural developments; managing staff performance and underperformance; raising morale and productivity among staff; creating opportunities for staff to develop their talents; strengthening strategic planning capacity; assigning the appropriate staff to the right areas in order that they can encourage and develop excellence and drive the modernisation process in the Oireachtas Service and, overall, ensuring the Oireachtas Service has a strong culture of leadership, excellence and continuous development.
In that light, the Government decided that heads of a Bill should be prepared to provide for the appointment of the Clerk of the Dáil by the Oireachtas Commission on the recommendation of the Ceann Comhairle following an open competition organised by the Top Level Appointments Committee, TLAC, which will make recommendations for appointment to the Ceann Comhairle. At the same time, in the context of the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature, the Government was most anxious that due weight would be given to the views of the Oireachtas as a whole on what was being proposed. Accordingly, in the course of last year, I referred this proposal to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform for its consideration. In due course, the committee reverted to the Government, indicating that it did not wish to record conclusions or recommendations on the draft heads. On that basis, the Government has proceeded on the lines set out in the draft Bill. I would be very happy, of course, to hear, as I say, with a very open mind, the views of others of these matters which are within the purview of the Houses as opposed to the Government. I will take careful note of views expressed.
I will go through the Bill very quickly. The first section deals with amendments to the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act, 1959. The first subsection defines the 1959 Act. The second provides that the Clerk of the Dáil shall be appointed by the Oireachtas Commission on the recommendation of the Ceann Comhairle; this recommendation shall be made by the Ceann Comhairle from among the persons selected by the Top Level Appointments Committee; and the selection shall be based on an open competition, that is to say, one not confined to persons who are civil servants. The subsection also provides for a similar arrangement to be used in the event of the TLAC system being replaced at some time in the future by another system.
In addition to the Clerk of the Dáil post, the Government proposes that arrangements following the enactment of the Bill for the filling of three other posts in the Oireachtas Service - the Clerk of the Seanad, the Clerk Assistant of the Dáil and the Clerk Assistant of the Seanad - be altered. The rank of the officers concerned, not more than the equivalent of principal officer, is appreciably lower than that of the Clerk of the Dáil and the involvement of the TLAC, therefore, would not be appropriate. Rather, under the third subsection, the appointment will be made by the Oireachtas Commission on the recommendation of the Ceann Comhairle or the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, as the case may be. It is envisaged that the Clerk of the Dáil will have a crucial input into the deliberative process before the recommendation of either the Ceann Comhairle or the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is made. This is in norm in what happens in Departments, where there is normally an input from the Secretary General in appointments below him in the Department.
Section 1(4) provides for the imposition of a time limit on the tenure for persons appointed to the posts of Clerk of the Dáil, Clerk of the Seanad, Clerk Assistant of the Dáil and Clerk Assistant of the Seanad following the enactment of this legislation. Subsection (5) provides for the exemption of existing postholders from the arrangements which I have outlined. The posts of Clerk of the Seanad and the Clerk Assistants of both Houses are filled.
This constitutes the major part of what is a short Bill. There are a number of other items included in it which I wish to bring to the attention of the House.
Section 2 is a technical provision which amends section 13(3)(b) of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act, 2003 which provides that a statement of Estimates of the commission shall be furnished by the Secretary General to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform not later than 30 days before the presentation by the Minister to Dáil Éireann of the Estimates of the receipts and expenditure for that year. It is proposed that the 30 day provision be removed to allow time for the Oireachtas Service to submit Estimates much closer to the budget in the light of the reduced interval between the end of the summer recess and an earlier budget day which now must, in accordance with the European semester, be in mid-October. In 2013 and 2014 the changing of the date of the budget from early December to mid-October compelled the Oireachtas Service to finalise the next year's Estimate during the summer, in advance of the half-yearly figures becoming available. It made a strong case to me in that regard. The service will, therefore, benefit from the opportunity to finalise its figures in September-October, when current year expenditure trends are much clearer.
Section 3 provides for the performance by a designated official of the duties of the Secretary General of the Oireachtas Commission in his or her absence or when the post is vacant. This fills a lacuna in the existing legislation, where such statutory power is not provided.
Section 4 provides for the repeal of the provision in the Public Service Management (Recruitment and Appointments) Act, 2004 which excluded the TLAC as an element of the appointment process to appoint the Clerk of the Dáil. I advise the House that this section will be the subject of a technical amendment on Committee Stage.
Section 5 contains standard provisions dealing with the Short Title, construction and citations. I commend the Bill to the House.