National Shared Services Office Bill 2016: Report and Final Stages

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 8, between lines 2 and 3, to insert the following:

“(5) For the avoidance of doubt the Office shall be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2014 as a public body.”.

The Minister of State is aware that we had some discussion about this amendment on Committee Stage. We were of a mind to resubmit this on Report Stage, which we did. The purpose of the amendment is to ensure there is no ambiguity at all in respect of the national shared services office, and that they be subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Those of us who had to deal with NAMA and other bodies over a long period, trying to get information from them under freedom of information, FOI, requests, will know that we must be absolutely certain that there is not too much, or considerable, leeway given to the Accounting Officers or those within those organisations regarding freedom of information. We want absolute clarity and absolute certainty and, notwithstanding what the Minister of State said to us on Committee Stage, for the avoidance of doubt the national shared services office shall be subject to the Freedom of Information Act as a public body.

Deputy Cullinane is right to seek to ensure that the office is subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

However, it already is. Section 6(1) of the Freedom of Information Act sets out the public bodies that are subject to the Act. Section 6(1)(b) states that an entity established by or under any enactment, other the Companies Acts, will be subject to the freedom of information, FOI, regime. The national shared services office is therefore automatically subjected to FOI legislation under the 2014 Act. I understand and appreciate where the Deputy is coming from, but it is a duplication of an existing provision as the Act already extends to the office.

The Minister of State's response was similar to that on Committee Stage but I still want to press the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 2, in the name of Deputy Cullinane, arises out of committee proceedings.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 11, between lines 24 and 25, to insert the following:

“(4) The Office shall, at the request in writing from the Committee of Public Accounts, make available to the Committee of Public Accounts information regarding any costs or fees incurred as a result of the engagement of consultants and advisors.”.

The Minister of State will be aware that I am a member of the Committee of Public Accounts. Far too often we have seen that many public bodies spend far too much money on consultancy fees and consultancy companies. Much of it is outside the purview of even the Committee of Public Accounts and not subject to public scrutiny, especially that of the Dáil. Sometimes we have to really go looking for the information before we actually get it.

I made the point on Committee Stage that Departments have a wealth of experience and talented people, so we are told, and I agree that they have people who are competent and can do various jobs. However, often we farm out and contract out a lot of work that can be done in-house, and it can be very costly. This amendment would insert on page 11 of the Bill, between lines 24 and 25, "The Office shall, at the request in writing from the Committee of Public Accounts, make available to the Committee of Public Accounts information regarding any costs or fees incurred as a result of the engagement of consultants and advisors".

The Minister of State will also be aware that the Committee of Public Accounts published a report on the third level sector in recent days. The use of consultants and consultancy firms was one of the issues raised. This comes up time and again. We are trying to ensure that we have as much democratic oversight of spend of money on consultancy firms. We have seen far too many scandals in the past. As the Minister of State knows, Irish Water is but one example. We want to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated. That is the purpose of the amendment.

I accept the intent of what Deputy Cullinane is proposing. We had a bit of a discussion on it on Committee Stage. One of the core functions of the Committee of Public Accounts, as set out under Standing Order 186, is to scrutinise the spending of taxpayers' money through examination and reporting to the Dáil on appropriation accounts. The duties of an Accounting Officer are set out in section 19 of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 and include giving evidence to the Committee of Public Accounts on the regularity of all transactions recorded in the appropriation accounts. This includes, among other things, those matters concerning consultancy and advisory spend which the Deputy has included. Again, I do not disagree with the sentiment he has expressed. Section 16(1) of the National Shared Services Office Bill states that the chief executive shall be the Accounting Officer for the purposes of the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts 1866 to 1998 with regard to the appropriation accounts of that office. In that way, section 19 of the Comptroller and Auditor General Act 1993 will apply. Therefore, based on the existing construct of the legislation and the construct of the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts, I do not propose to accept this amendment.

I accept the sentiment of what the Deputy is saying but, having regard to the Comptroller and Auditor General Acts, it has already been built in to the legislation. I was a former member of the Committee of Public Accounts and I do not disregard anything that Deputy Cullinane has said. The intention is very clear. We accept the intention but, unfortunately, we cannot accept the amendment.

I accept the intention as well, which is why I tabled the amendment. I also accept the Minister of State's response, which we also got on Committee Stage. I want to acknowledge that the Minister of State did accept on Committee Stage related amendments with regard to the role and function of the Comptroller and Auditor General in respect of this office. I still believe that the amendment should be accepted. The Minister of State said that he is not minded to do so, but I will press the amendment.

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 3 is also in the name of Deputy Cullinane. We are getting good mileage here now. This amendment also arises out of committee proceedings.

I move amendment No. 3

In page 15, line 32, after “determine” to insert “subject to review by the Committee as defined under section 17 of this Act”.

I do like to make mileage, as the Chairman knows, and I am very pleased to be co-operating with him this evening.

This is a simple and straightforward amendment. The Minister of State will know that the purpose of the amendment is to ensure that all pay increases in excess of public sector rates are subject to review by the finance committee. Again, we had a lengthy discussion on this on Committee Stage. Far too often we have seen payments made in excess of what was agreed in terms of public sector rates, rates for those at the top of the public sector and special advisers. With this amendment we are advocating that this would not happen save for the acceptance or support of the finance committee. There would be some level of democratic oversight and scrutiny and it would not be that any Minister of the day could decide to breach the salary caps. There would have to be a report to the finance committee and it would have to sign off on it.

The Minister of State said that it could create a precedent for all sorts of pay issues in respect of the public purse and public pay. However, this is specific and unique. The Government has accepted that there needs to be salary caps at the top, but they are often breached. Afterwards we are told that there is nothing we can do about it, which is why we are trying to bring in some sort of accountability. That is the purpose of the amendment. We rehearsed this on Committee Stage and I am pre-empting that the Minister of State will not support this amendment as well. If he does not, we will press the amendment.

The Deputy pre-empted me well but, in fairness, I did accept a good number of his amendments already and I thank him for acknowledging it.

Government pay policy is the responsibility of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, who is best placed to establish remuneration rates for board members. This applies across all boards appointed by the Public Appointments Service. Section 21(1) of the National Shared Services Office Bill provides that "[a] member of the Board may be paid such remuneration (if any) and allowances for expenses (if any) incurred by him or her as the Minister may determine". Furthermore, section 17(8) provides, in respect of the chief executive reporting to the committee, that "[i]n the performance of his or her duties under this section, the chief executive shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such a policy".

Generally speaking, remuneration for board members forms part of the wider Government public service pay policy and is set in the context of the relative qualifications, duties and responsibilities of board members as they apply across the public service. The biggest concern is precedent, which the Deputy referred to and to which I referred on Committee Stage as well, and where it would stop in respect of other bodies and whether the remuneration of the board members of every public board and body would be established by the sectoral committees within the Houses of the Oireachtas. While accepting the principle of what the Deputy is suggesting and that the oversight is well-intentioned, I think it would grind the Oireachtas committee system to a halt. The committee would not be best placed to singularly consider and review, in isolation from wider Government policy and practice, the remuneration rates established by the Minister for a particular body, as proposed. It is on this basis that I cannot accept the amendment.

Is the amendment being pressed?

Amendment put and declared lost.

Amendment No. 4, in the name of Deputy Bríd Smith, is out of order because it does not arise out of committee proceedings.

Amendment No. 4 not moved.
Bill received for final consideration.

When is it proposed to take Fifth Stage?

Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."
Question put and declared carried.

It was close though.

Very close. So close I could not believe it.

It really is end-of-term stuff.

Is it agreed that the Bill now go to the Seanad? I hope the Deputy will not oppose that. It is agreed. A message shall be sent to the Seanad acquainting it accordingly.