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.