Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage

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 first was that the commission became the sanctioning authority for expenditure, for deciding on staff numbers up to the grade of principal officer, and for the provision of services and related matters to the Oireachtas. The second was that 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. The budget is approved at political level by the commission and the amending legislation is passed by both Houses.

Under the terms of the inaugural commission Act, a three-year budget covering the period from 2004 to 2006 was provided for the commission. Further Acts were enacted in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015. A new Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act is now required as a matter of priority as the financing provided under the 2015 Act expires as of 31 December next.

As Members will be aware, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission oversees the provision of services to the Houses and their Members by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service - the parliamentary administration - in accordance with the commission Acts. The primary functions of the 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 relating to the service, and to oversee the implementation of that policy by the Secretary General. 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 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 and presents annual reports of 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 Members of the Houses.

The primary purpose of this Bill is to make available the funding for the commission over the coming three years. The Bill proposes to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding €422.27 million to carry out its functions for the three-year period from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2021. This sum has been agreed between the commission and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and takes into account foreseen expenditure over the three-year period. The figure of €422.27 million over three years comprises €149 million in 2019, €136 million in 2020 and €137 million in 2021 and represents a €53 million or 14% increase on the 2016 to 2018 allocation.

The major elements of the increase sought relate to a once-off general election allocation of some €9 million; supporting Dáil reform measures, which resulted in an increase in staffing and for the extension of the committee support; the provision for financial emergency measures in the public interest, FEMPI, pay restoration measures; and the delivery of a three-year Oireachtas digital transformation programme, which has been costed at €22 million. The Estimates for 2020 and 2021 show a decrease from the 2019 levels due primarily to a reduction in general election related costs.

While the funding issue is, as I have said, the primary purpose of the Bill, this opportunity is also being taken to have a number of amendments of a more technical nature made. I will now provide Deputies with details of the amendments involved. Section 1 defines the principal Act as referred to in the Bill. Section 2 amends the definitions of "Officer of the Houses of the Oireachtas" and "Oireachtas Committee" used in the principal Act.

Section 3 contains a number of amendments to section 4 of the principal Act. These include the clarification of the current position regarding amendments to the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) Act 1962, which enables the granting of secretarial facilities to Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and a provision to enable the commission to make fiscal and economic advice and information available to members of the Oireachtas and to Oireachtas committees. This is to provide a statutory underpinning for the work of the Parliamentary Budget Office, which provides this service as part of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service under the commission. Other amendments include a provision for a review of An Caighdeán Oifigiúil, which is the official standard of the Irish language to be used in legislation, to provide for a maximum review period of ten years, and a new provision that enables the commission to initiate, defend or seek to participate in legal proceedings without the prior authorisation from the Houses of the Oireachtas in specified circumstances.

Section 4 amends section 5 of the principal Act to provide funding for expenditure incurred by the commission during the period of three years from 1 January 2019. The amount of funding for that period is capped at €422,270,000.

Section 5 provides for the establishment within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service of an office to be known as the Parliamentary Budget Office.

Section 6 provides for the establishment within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service of an office to be known as the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers.

Section 7 amends Schedule 1 to the principal Act so as to include the single public service pension scheme for members of staff of the commission and Members of the Oireachtas.

Section 8 sets out the Short Title, collective citation and commencement date for the Bill which I commend to the House.

Fianna Fáil will be supporting the Bill. It is a technical Bill that needs to be passed, as it has been every three years, to meet expenditure incurred by the House of the Oireachtas Commission. Without it, the wages of staff would not be paid in 2019. The Bill permits money to be provided from the Central Fund. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is an independent body, but it needs a budget, as we recognise. The Bill will give the commission a budget of €422,270,000 from 1 January 2019 until 31 December 2021. It is also used to pay members of staff for working for the Oireachtas.

There are a number of technical provisions included in the Bill, most notably the amendments included in sections 5 and 6 which will place the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers on a statutory footing. The offices will be independent within the Houses of the Oireachtas.

The detail of the Bill is as laid out by the Minister of State. I reaffirm Fianna Fáil's commitment to support the contents of the Bill. We will support the Bill through all Stages and hope the rest of the Members of the Dáil will see fit to do likewise.

I will be equally as brief as Deputy Cowen who said the Bill will put the Parliamentary Budget Office and the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers on a statutory footing. We have seen the benefits of the Parliamentary Budget Office, in particular, in some of the material it has published for the Committee on Budgetary Oversight throughout the past 12 months. Sinn Féin will not hold up the passage of the Bill, but I note that there is a once-off allocation of €9 million for one general election to be held between now and the end of 2021. That perhaps might be a little optimistic. We might be back to a situation similar to that in the early 1980s.

We might make a saving.

We will settle for one general election and the quicker it is held the better.

I also welcome this short but important Bill which amends the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. A key element is continuing funding for the commission until the end of 2021. I note that in the next three years funding is to be increased by 14% and capped at a sum of €422,270,000.

Another key function of the Bill is to place on a statutory basis the excellent Parliamentary Budget Office. I am a member of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight and was a member of the preceding Select Committee on Arrangements for Budgetary Scrutiny which strongly recommended the establishment of the Parliamentary Budget Office. I asked the excellent Oireachtas Library and Research Service to produce a briefing paper on the parliamentary budget office in other countries. I noticed recently that the House of Commons was in touch with the Committee on Budgetary Oversight in looking at the possibility of establishing a budgetary oversight committee. The Parliamentary Budget Office was established in 2017 and is led by its director Ms Annette Connolly. The creation of the select committee and the Parliamentary Budget Office will be remembered as being among the best achievements of the Thirty-second Dáil.

The important responsibilities of the Parliamentary Budget Office which will be statutory based included in subsection (4) of the new section 14B include providing the Oireachtas and the Committee on Budgetary Oversight with key, up-to-date information on current macroeconomic conditions, the management and development of the public finances and the financial impacts of public policy proposals. Visitors to Dáil Éireann and the Oireachtas Library will have been struck by the number of important briefing papers produced by Ms Connolly and the Parliamentary Budget Office. We have recently been reading briefing paper No. 16 on the 2018 Supplementary Estimates which were included in the Appropriation Bill 2018 which the House has just examined. The Parliamentary Budget Office also prepares important notes for Deputies on aspects of State expenditure and fiscal management. One key piece of work which it undertook recently was on the health budget in which it looked at the differences between forecasted and actual expenditure.

One of my concerns has been the lack of transparency and accountability in tax expenditures. When I questioned the Taoiseach about the matter a month or so ago, I was able to rely greatly on the work done by the Parliamentary Budget Office. It is really helpful and good to see the office being placed on a statutory basis.

I equally welcome in section 6 the establishment on a statutory basis of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers under the new section 14C. The office will have similar status to the Parliamentary Budget Office. The section lays out its role in providing advice for the commission, the Ceann Comhairle, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann, the Members of the Dáil and the Seanad and Oireachtas committees. Its most important role will be to help us in drafting Bills. Like many other Deputies, I have used its services and recently received very important assistance in drafting a short Bill to amend Bunreacht na hÉireann to give everybody in Ireland the right to housing and a permanent home. Unfortunately, the Bill was ruled out of order by the Ceann Comhairle. It was deemed to be too similar to a Bill that had been on the clár since 2016. Perhaps we need a mechanism to facilitate the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers whereby Bills on which a lot of work has been done cannot subsequently be ruled out of order. Most Deputies and Senators will be celebrating and marking another 100th year anniversary just after Christmas. For most that time Members had to rely on their own or their party's legal advisers.

I want to mention the Oireachtas Library and Research Service which has been extremely helpful during the years. The placing on a statutory basis of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers and the Parliamentary Budget Office adds a new and significant new resource in our work. The Minister of State and other Deputies referred to key provisions in the Bill that provide for the operational independence of the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers and the Parliamentary Budget Office, which is important. I note in section 5 that the new section 14B(8) states that, "subject to the Act, the director and members of staff assigned to the Parliamentary Budget Office shall be independent in functions designated by the Secretary General under subsection (4)". A similar provision is made for the chief parliamentary legal adviser and commission staff assigned to the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisers.

I warmly welcome the Bill and the placing on a statutory basis of these two important offices in order that commission staff can help us to do the job we were elected to do.

Question put and agreed to.