Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second and Subsequent Stages

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present 2018 to the House. It passed all Stages in the Dáil yesterday.

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: (1) that the commission became the sanctioning authority for expenditure, staff numbers, up to the grade of principal officer, and the provision of services and related matters to the Oireachtas; and (2) 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 2004-2006, was provided for the commission. Further Acts were enacted in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015. A new 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 Senators will be aware, 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 in respect of 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. Neither does the commission 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 which 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 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 my Department 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 2016-18 allocation. The major elements of this increase relate to a once-off general election allocation of €9 million, supporting Dáil reform measures, which has resulted in an increase in staffing and for the extension of the committee support, the provision for 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 the primary purpose of the Bill, the opportunity is also being taken to make a number of technical amendments. I would like to provide Senators with details of the amendments.

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, namely, 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; 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. Section 3 also provides for a provision to review of An Caighdeán Oififgiúll, 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 three period from 1 January 2019. The amount for that period is capped at €422.27 million.

Section 5 provides for the establishment within the Houses of the Oireachtas Service of an office to be known as the Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO. 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 of the Principal Act to include the single public service pension scheme for members of staff of the commission and Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Section 8 sets out the short Title, collective citation and commencement date for the Act.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Fianna Fáil supports this Bill, which is technical legislation that must be passed every three years to provide for expenditure incurred by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Without it, staff salaries would not be paid in 2019. This Bill permits money to be provided by the Central Fund. The commission is an independent body but it needs a budget. This Bill will give the commission a budget of €422.27 million from 1 January 2019 to 31 December 2021. This money will be used to run the Dáil, Seanad and committees and to pay staff working for the Houses of the Oireachtas. There are a number of other technical provisions in the Bill. Most notably, sections 5 and 6 will place the PBO and the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers on an independent statutory footing.

These offices will be independent bodies within the commission. I am pleased to be a member of the commission. It is a body which works exceptionally well under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle, who gives it 100% of his time and attention. We have the privilege of being served by some leading members of staff, including our acting Clerk of the Seanad, who is present. I am also able to access advice and information at the highest level. There will naturally always be a certain amount of tension between the commission and the permanent government in the Department. Without going into any details, that kind of tension can be healthy. However, it is important to remember that the commission was set up to independently run these Houses, and it is important that we preserve and protect it at all times.

I am also a member of the commission, and I also welcome this Bill. It provides for important aspects of the running of the House. I particularly welcome the addition of the PBO, which will provide independent budgetary information to Members, and the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers. I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister of State for bringing it to the House. I will support it.

This is a technical Bill. It is necessary; we recognise that. We support the Bill.

I welcome the Bill. I am a former member of the commission. I do not believe the Bill goes far enough. There is an awful lot more we can do as an Oireachtas. I was on the recent trip to Australia, and was amazed at how the parliament there deals with national school and secondary school children and the educational programmes in place for them. They are brought in at Christmas time to sing in the parliament. It is unbelievable. We are not doing anything like that, and we could do an awful lot more.

I also want to mention Seanad reform. While everyone wants to be involved in extending the franchise to the public, there is no talk about real reform of this House and how it works, and the additional staffing requirements reform would entail. I ask the Minister of State to have a look at this. There is no point in changing the electoral position and how people are elected to this House. There has never been such a diverse House in the history of the Seanad. That is the type of Seanad the people want. They have it, but we are not getting what we want to go with it. The finances should be put in place to enable that. The budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas should be increased.

I welcome the support of the Senators. It is important to remember that the commission is a separate entity from the Executive, as is right and proper. Senator Ned O'Sullivan said that the role of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is to make sure that money becomes available. As a Member, I avail of the services provided by the commission, and it is in my interest, as much as everyone else's, that the best service is available. I believe we have a good service.

Two elements of this Bill - budgetary oversight and legal services - have been expanded. Provision for choir stalls is perhaps something that the commission could look at; providing opportunities for singing is certainly something that is beyond the scope of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

I agree with Senator Paddy Burke on the issue of Seanad reform. Some madcap ideas are being thrown around, and I do not know how workable they are. It has been suggested that people opt for a particular panel and then seek to become an elector of that panel. I do not know if that is workable or how it could be done. I do not know how many registers of electors we would have or how one could identify almost 2.5 million potential voters in particular panels. Perhaps I am naive and this can be done on a wing and a prayer, but I agree with the Senator that we have to have an honest conversation about the Seanad. I brought a Bill through the Seanad after robust discussion with a group of Senators who had read it. I took it to the Dáil last night and it became something of a farce. There is scope within Departments to initiate more legislation in this Chamber. Having commenced several Bills here now, either on my own behalf or on behalf of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, it is clear that there is a better level of debate here. It is obvious in many cases that the Members contributing to the debate have read the Bill, whereas Members stood up in the Dáil last night who did not know what they were talking about and who obviously had not read the Bill and were trying to undo an awful lot of the good work that had commenced in the Seanad. There are two commissioners present. It would not be appropriate for the Executive to dictate terms to the commission. If it is the case that schools from Castlebar, Ballina and Belmullet want to come up and regale the Seanad with "Jingle Bells", I am sure Senator Ned O'Sullivan can facilitate it.

The Minister of State is always welcome in this House, and, in the unlikely event that he seeks membership of this House, he would be welcome as well.

I will put the acting Chair down for a song.

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