Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2015: Second and Subsequent Stages

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission came into existence on 1 January 2004 under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. The founding commission legislation in 2003 led, in summary, to two consequences: the commission became the sanctioning authority for expenditure and for deciding on staff numbers, up to the grade of principal officer, and the provision of services and related matters to the Oireachtas, where this authority formerly rested with the Department of Finance; and the system for the allocation of budgets to the Oireachtas changed from the annual Civil Service Estimates and “Vote” procedure to a different process involving a three-year budget drawn from the Central Fund. The new budget is set every three years following negotiations with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, formerly the Department of Finance. The budget is approved at political level by the commission and the amending legislation then presented to both Houses.

Under the terms of the inaugural commission 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; in 2009, for the 2010 to 2012 period; and 2012, for the period up to the end of this year. Additionally, in 2013 legislation was enacted to give the commission responsibility for the translation into Irish of statutory instruments and the publication and periodic review of An Caighdeán Oifigiúil. Deputies will also recall the recently passed Houses of the Oireachtas (Appointments to Certain Offices) Act 2015, under which the method of appointing the Clerks and Clerk Assistants of the Dáil and Seanad was revised. They will also be aware of the recent announcement of an open competition for appointment to the post of Clerk of the Dáil, who will also be Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.

A new Oireachtas Commission Act is now required as the financing provided under the 2012 Act expires on 31 December.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is an independent body. It is, in effect, the governing board which oversees the provision of services to the Houses and their Members by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service in accordance with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts. The primary functions of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission are to provide for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas, to act as governing body of the service, to consider and determine policy in respect of the service and to oversee the implementation of that policy by the Secretary General. The commission is composed of 11 members under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle. The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is an ex-officio member, as is the Secretary General. There are also seven ordinary members, four of whom are appointed by the Dáil and three of whom are appointed by the Seanad, and one member appointed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister’s representative must also be a Member of either House.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has no role in regulating the business of the Houses, which is a matter for the Committee on Procedures and Privileges of each House. The commission is not responsible for the management and day-to-day operations of the Houses. The Secretary General has overall responsibility for these functions in accordance with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts. The commission does not set the level of remuneration payable to Members of the Houses. Salaries, pensions and allowances are determined by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The commission is accountable to the Parliament. It presents annual reports on its work to both Houses 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 legislation. They can be broadly summarised as the provision of professional advice and support services to the commission, the Houses and their committees and the Members of both Houses.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to make available the funding for the commission for the coming three-year period. The Bill proposes to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding €369 million to carry out its functions of the Oireachtas for the three-year period from 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2018. This sum has been agreed between the commission and me. It takes account of foreseeable expenditure over the next three-year horizon. The figure of €369 million over three years comprises €131 million in 2016, €120 million in 2017 and €118 million in 2018. The €131 million figure for 2015 represents an increase of €19 million over the expected outturn of €112 million this year. The bulk of the increase - €14 million – relates to the forthcoming general election. The increase covers payments in respect of termination allowances and pensions for former Members and secretarial assistants. Clearly, we cannot be exactly prescriptive about how many people will be voluntarily or involuntarily terminated, to adopt the unfortunate word that is used in these circumstances.

The remainder of the increase in funding for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission from this year to next year - just under €5 million - relates to an increase in staffing levels that is required to support enhanced security arrangements, as recommended by An Garda Síochána; the Oireachtas television channel, which is to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week; enhanced ICT services; Dáil reform measures such as longer sitting hours, increased budget scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny; the much-needed updating of the various forms of technological equipment in operation in both Houses of the Oireachtas, including upgrading of the electronic voting, sound, voting panel and broadcasting systems; and an increase in the provision of legal services arising from legal cases being taken against the Houses of the Oireachtas currently. In summary, the extra expenditure projected for 2016 over 2015 is either a direct consequence of the forthcoming general election or emanates from demands to meet security, technological and legal costs, which I am informed by the commission are unavoidable. The Estimates for 2017 and 2018 show a decrease from the 2016 levels, due primarily to what we hope will be the non-recurrence of next year's general election. We may have to keep an open mind on that one.

As I have said, the funding issue is the primary purpose of this Bill. However, this opportunity is also being used to make a number of amendments of a more technical nature. I would like to provide Deputies with details of some of the technical amendments I have included in the Bill. First, under section 8 of the Ethics in Public Office Act 1995, as amended, the initial assessment and transmission of complaints from the public against Members of the Houses can only be undertaken by the Clerk of the relevant House. This creates an impediment to the processing of such complaints when the relevant Clerk post is vacant. The proposed section 8 in the Bill before us allows the relevant Clerk Assistant explicitly to exercise those functions. Second, with regard to section 2 of the Bill before us which deals with copyright, Oireachtas copyright was vested by section 195 of the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000 in each House. This provision was enacted before the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission was established. The right of the commission to exercise such power on behalf of the relevant House, together with a power to delegate the exercise to the Secretary General, is being made explicit in the current Bill.

Third, with regard to paragraphs (b) and (c) of section 6, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has made a request to me in the interests of administrative convenience to include an enabling provision in the Bill to allow the secretarial assistants of Members who are elevated to posts at Minister or Minister of State level to continue to remain under the scheme for secretarial assistance, rather than being seconded to Government Departments as is currently the case. In addition, I have been asked to provide for these costs to be borne by the commission, rather than being spread over the Votes of the relevant Departments or offices as they are at present. Currently, the commission bears the cost of secretarial assistance for non–office holding Members under Schedule 1 to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. The change being proposed under this Bill would extend that arrangement to secretarial assistance for all Members. It is better for secretarial assistants to stay under the same system, rather than moving in and out of the system as they do at present.

Fourth, I draw the attention of Deputies to the amendments being provided for in sections 2, 5 and 6 (a) of the Bill in connection with the substitution of the term "grant" for "grant-in-aid" in section 4 of the 2003 Act and Schedule 1 to that Act. This follows a change in Government accounting procedures that was instigated by my Department, whereby arrangements under which bodies and funds, etc., were allowed through grants-in-aid to retain unspent moneys at the end of the year have been superseded by grants systems in the interests of expenditure control. The term "grant-in-aid" is no longer in use and references to it in individual sections of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Acts require, therefore, to be amended. Fifth, section 4 of the Bill corrects a typographical error in the 2003 Act and section 7 of the Bill is a cross-referencing update to Schedule 2 to the principal Act concerning the treatment of the commission's receipts in its accounts. Sixth, section 9 provides for the repeal of provisions in the 2003 Act which have been made redundant by the repeal of the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 and their replacement by the Freedom of Information Act 2014, the repeal of the Civil Service Commissioners Act 1956, and certain amendments effected by the Civil Service Regulation (Amendment) Act 2005. I commend the Bill to the House.

The next speaker is Deputy Sean Fleming.

He is earning his keep today.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2015. I accept and agree with everything the Minister has said in outlining the purpose of this legislation. I will not repeat much of what he has already put on the public record. Essentially, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has its own independent function but it needs a budget. It is being given a budget of €369 million for a three-year period. The Minister has explained why there are different figures for each year. I understand that an annual Estimate will come before the House each year as well. My main concern would be that we will have a debate on the annual Estimate and that is happening. It has been suggested that if we ever have fixed-term parliaments - I appreciate that this would require a constitutional amendment - we could establish a Houses of the Oireachtas Commission for the lifetime of each one. That is for another day. I do not think any Member here can oppose this legislation. I think everybody here is a democrat who supports the democratic institutions of the State. It is irrelevant who the individual Members of the Oireachtas are. It does not matter whether I am here, the Minister of State is here or anyone else is here. This Parliament is bigger than any one of its Members. For that reason, it is important that a proper Oireachtas system is in place.

I would like to make a few points. Having spoken to some senior staff during the week, I understand that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has lived well within its budget in recent times. I think the staff said during the week that there was an under-spend of €12 million, which is good. I am not sure if I picked it up correctly, so I will not tie myself to that figure. I thought I heard someone mention it. The cost of the banking inquiry is included in the cost of the budget for this year, so that is an achievement rather than these expensive trips down to tribunal land, which is a gravy train for barristers.

The Oireachtas must be judicious in how it does its business and must be careful with regard to legal fees. We should not let the Bar Council run procedures in this House or allow the Oireachtas be overly prescribed. This is the national Parliament and most of us are reasonably responsible people. Individuals often fly their own kites but not everything we do should be led, said and dictated by expensive barristers who would enjoy trips to the Four Courts on behalf of the Oireachtas on occasion. We must be judicious in defence of cases to protect the integrity of the Houses but if there is something that is beyond defence, we should accept that and not force it through the courts.

I am a member of the Oireachtas audit committee, which consists of four or five Deputies, some outsiders and a former Secretary General. I am happy to be a member of that committee and would like to mention some observations from my experience of it. I would like to see further development of the Oireachtas website, because many people have difficulty finding information on it. Perhaps we need more training or the system needs updating. In regard to staff, perhaps the Secretary General of the Oireachtas or whomever is in charge will take notice of this comment. From the Civil Service viewpoint, there seems to be a division within the minds of those who run the Oireachtas between House staff and Members' staff. I estimate that Members employ up to approximately 400 staff because most Deputies and Senators have two staff available to them and there are approximately 600 people employed by the Houses. Therefore, we have up to 1,000 members of staff.

I have noticed that training in the areas of health and safety, IT and courses updating skills is concentrated on House staff rather than Members' staff, although the latter are often the people in contact with the public on behalf of the Oireachtas. Often the only contact the staff of some Members who operate away from the Oireachtas have is when they encounter a problem with IT or broadband or when a printer is not working and they have to make contact looking for a technician to visit the constituency office to fix the problem. The permanent structure in the Houses does not involve itself sufficiently with the 400 staff who work for Members and there is division in people's minds regarding them. One day I asked how many people had attended a particular training course and was told a high percentage had attended. However, when I asked how many were House staff and how many Members' staff, I discovered that very few Members' staff had attended. There seems to be a mindset whereby House staff from Members' staff are perceived as being separate and I call for improvement in that area.

I am not pointing this out by way of criticism. We all see things from different viewpoints. When the Minister, Deputy Howlin, started working in the Oireachtas he probably shared a room with five others and they shared a phone and the services of a single secretary. Things have moved on and changed since.

I was in a room with two future Presidents.

Good. The number of non-House staff has increased significantly in recent decades and that needs to be factored into the general approach of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.

My final suggestion may not be relevant to the commission but rather, perhaps, to Standing Orders. I would like to see the Ceann Comhairle elected by secret ballot rather than by an open vote. A secret ballot would increase confidence in a Ceann Comhairle elected in that manner. While that matter is not germane to this legislation, it is germane to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Perhaps the incoming commission will consider what changes are required to deal with that. I commend and support the Bill.

Deputy Sandra McLellan, I understand, is replacing Deputy Mary Lou McDonald. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I have a concern, one Sinn Féin has indicated previously in this Chamber, at the obvious lack of proper representation on the commission. This lack is particularly significant considering the commission's remit and responsibilities. The commission's primary function is to oversee the provision of services to the Houses and their Members by the Houses of the Oireachtas service, the parliamentary administration.

The work of the commission is more than just a box-ticking exercise. The commission has specific responsibilities. Among these are the oversight of the expenditure of the Houses and the payment of all salaries and expenses for Members and staff. The commission appoints the Clerk of the Dáil and the Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. It produces strategic plans, annual reports and estimates, provides translation services from one official language into the other and a lot more besides. These are important responsibilities. The decisions the commission makes have consequences for every Member of the Dáil and Seanad as well as for every member of staff employed here.

Logic would suggest that the commission should have the widest possible representation. However, the commission which currently consists of 11 members, is chaired by the Ceann Comhairle, has four Deputies appointed by the Dáil, three Senators appointed by the Seanad and one member appointed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the so-called Minister's representative'. The body is made up entirely of members of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil. Sinn Féin, the Technical Group, other Independents and Oireachtas Staff are excluded. Therefore, a significant portion of Deputies are not represented on the commission. The decisions the commission makes affect us all and without suggesting that it should become unwieldy, it makes sense that after ten years in existence, it should become more reflective of the make-up of the Oireachtas so that all of the parties in the Houses and the staff are included in its membership.

The membership of the commission should be expanded to get a broader and more comprehensive input into the decision-making process and to ensure wider considerations are given to the day to day running of the Houses. It makes sense that a more inclusive representation on the commission would ensure that the Houses of the Oireachtas provide the best possible services and the most up to date and relevant modern facilities to complement and enhance a modern day democratic institution.

The argument may be made that expanding the membership of the commission may incur an additional cost. Currently, the Ceann Comhairle, who chairs the commission, and the Cathoirleach of the Seanad do not receive an allowance. Deputies who are members of the commission receive an allowance of €8,740 per annum, while Senators get one of €5,989. The Minister's representative is entitled to an allowance but the current representative does not draw it down. We suggest it is possible that allowances could be reduced to accommodate additional members or that, by voluntary agreement, allowances would not be drawn down at all. Whatever the case, the additional costs are minimal. To put these costs in perspective, consider the enormous sums paid out in pensions to, for example, former Taoiseach John Bruton who is on a pension of €126,000. Brian Cowen has a pension of €134,000 and Charlie McCreevy a pension of €108,000. Former Fianna Fáil Minister of State and fraudster Ivor Callely is struggling by on a pension of €62,000, while former Fianna Fáil Minister for Communications and ex-con Ray Burke has an eye watering pension of over €95,000.

The Deputy should not refer to people outside of the House.

Not in derogatory terms.

I take that on board. Contrast these bonanza, lottery-style pensions to the minimal costs of putting additional members on the commission, which would make the latter more relevant and, perhaps, more efficient because it would be taking a wider spectrum of opinion and experience into account in its deliberations.

I have spoken on the equivalents of this Bill on a number of previous occasions and will probably make the same points again now. I support the point made by Deputy McLellan regarding representation on the commission. It is totally inadequate that the only Opposition Deputy included on the commission is a Fianna Fáil Deputy. The commission is an important body and it requires a different balance to provide the kind of oversight required.

I met the Minister on numerous occasions over the years on one of the criticisms I have and I thought a change was going to be made but, unfortunately, there was not. I speak in the context of the Technical Group, which is a recognised group from the point of view of Standing Orders. The privileges that come with that are very important in terms of speaking rights, being able to ask questions on Leaders’ Questions, to have representation on committees and other aspects of the work of the Oireachtas. However, even if such a group is made up almost entirely of the Opposition, no secretarial support is provided to run the group, which is in marked contrast to the political parties in this Dáil that were elected in the previous general election. We have done an analysis, which I have given to the Minister on a number of occasions. There are approximately 20 secretarial assistants. Parties decide to break down the figures in various ways. Fianna Fáil has 15.2 secretarial assistants and Sinn Féin has the equivalent of 11.2 staff entitlements for a parliamentary group. I do not say the Technical Group is equivalent to a political party in terms of the work but its work cannot be done on fresh air. When a group is resourced to do at least the minimum, that aids the smooth running of the Oireachtas. The arrangement the 31st Dáil put in place for the Technical Group was that we each paid for two members of staff on a job-share basis. That means, for example, that I had to become an employer and that means having to deal with Revenue for taxation purposes. The staff members do not have the same rights and entitlements as their co-workers in Leinster House, including when the Dáil concludes, which leaves people in a fairly precarious position. To be honest, that particular aspect alone is very unfair. The work cannot be done properly without staff. It is a big regret that not even the minimum was done in this regard.

I have some questions about the terminology used in the legislation. For example, is there any significance in the change from "grant" to "grant-in-aid"? The Minister might well have explained that in his opening speech but perhaps he could repeat it when he wraps up.

I wish to understand the implications of the change.

The fund of €369 million is a lot of money but this is the national Parliament and it does cover every aspect of its work. People tend to think of the expenditure being exclusively for the salary of politicians but it covers everything included in the running of the Houses from heating to the upkeep of the building.

Section 6 deals with the change in the presentation of the commission’s accounts to allow for payment for secretarial assistance to all Members rather than restricting it to non-officeholders. That seems to imply that Ministers and Ministers of State will be the new people included in that staff allocation. Perhaps the Minister could confirm that and what the cost is, as it appears to be a new cost, or perhaps I have misunderstood the way it is presented.

The key point is the oversight. I think it will be down to the make-up of the next Dáil and it depends on which side of the House one is positioned. The kind of checks and balances that should be built in are not included because if the Government gets a very large Dáil majority, that is disproportionate and one does not have the oversight one would normally have in a more balanced arrangement. None of us knows what the result of the next election will be, but there is a strong possibility that there will be another Technical Group based on current opinion polls. It is difficult to say whether I will end up being part of that if I get elected or if I end up with an entity that has more than seven seats. That is all irrelevant from that point of view. What is relevant is that there is a fair approach to the running of the Oireachtas because having been the Whip for the Technical Group for almost the past five years, it is pretty difficult to do the kind of co-ordination that is required, in particular when an event such as the so-called prom night occurs, for example, when one has no staff and one is trying to gather people together late at night to organise speaking arrangements and other such matters. It is a very unfair approach. It treats in a very unfair way a mandate that is as valid as any other. There is a big gap and it should have been addressed.

The Minister sent a letter to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission that was quite supportive of some level of supports but, unfortunately, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission did not see it that way and we got nowhere with it, which is very regrettable.

I thank the three Deputies for their contributions to this debate. Some of the matters raised will be the subject of discussion in the next Parliament because we are in the final phase of this particular Oireachtas.

There are a number of points to which I wish to refer briefly. On legal fees, I very strongly underscore the point made by Deputy Fleming. We must be very careful that we have control in the Houses of the Oireachtas in terms of legal fees and that perhaps we would tender on a competitive basis for it.

Deputy Fleming also made a very valid point about staff integration. It is an issue I had not considered. There is no aim in terms of training and upskilling and there should be a more integrated system. That is something we can put on the agenda for whoever happens to be here the next time. None of us can be certain of that.

The election of the Ceann Comhairle is an issue that was raised previously. I am no lawyer although the place is full of lawyers, but since the Constitution provides that all sittings of Dáil Éireann shall be in public, I am not sure it is possible to have a secret vote, because we are talking about the sitting of Dáil Éireann and I do not know whether it would be constitutional to do that, as it is the first action under the Constitution. I would need legal guidance on that.

I am very sympathetic in terms of the commission membership, a point made by Deputy McLellan and Deputy Catherine Murphy. We need to have a mechanism that allows the new commission to be as representative as possible of the Houses because there are real powers devolved to the commission and that again is something that will be raised in the next Dáil.

In terms of staffing for Independent Members, I am sympathetic to the point of a co-ordination of such Members, but a point all of my colleagues on the Government side of the House make, and in fact colleagues in parties on the opposite side of the House make as well, is that each Independent Deputy gets a significant sum of money that individual Members of parties do not get and they could devote that to structuring whatever supports they need. That is a valid point because-----

It is paid in respect of every Member.

In truth, it goes to a political party, and from that the political parties organise their supports. The Deputy is saying the money we get for that is individuals' money but there is then collective money that needed to be done on top of that. We need a balance between them. I am supportive of co-ordination in general terms and I understand the point about being a hirer but no individual Member, be they from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour or Fine Gael, sees a cent of that money. It is all well spent within the organisation to provide parliamentary supports. If all the money that went to Independents was simply put into a fund as opposed to given to individual Members, they could have similar supports, but that is something that might be addressed in the next Dáil. I provided a copy of my speech to explain the grant-in-aid issue and I think it is clear about that.

The final point made by the Deputy concerns secretarial assistance. This is just at a request of the House itself. When I became a Minister, my secretarial assistant, who spent many years here on the payroll of the Houses of the Oireachtas, was taken off that payroll and put on the payroll of my Department. For continuity and simplicity, it is better that all secretarial assistants are treated the same way rather than hopping in and out of it. That is what is intended by that.

Question put and agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.