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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 9 Dec 2021

Vol. 281 No. 6

Houses of the Oireachtas (Amendment) Bill 2021: Committee and Remaining Stages

I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to the House.

Section 1 agreed to.

Recommendations Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

I move recommendation No. 1:

1. In page 3, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

“Report on engagement with the Commission

2. The Minister shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas outlining—

(a) engagement the Minister has had with the Commission with regard to remuneration for those employed under the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance,

(b) any recommendations from the Commission with regard to remuneration for those employed under the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance, and

(c) any actions the Minister proposes to take with regard to remuneration for those employed under the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance.”.

I will go backwards and speak to recommendations Nos. 2 and 3 first, which speak to the problem, and then to recommendation No. 1, where I hope the solution will lie.

The Minister has heard the passion in the other House on this issue. It is not only echoed but amplified in this House, where each Member is entitled to a secretarial assistant, SA, not a parliamentary assistant, PA. The secretarial assistants who work with us do extraordinary work. The detail of the work they do has been outlined in surveys carried out by the Oireachtas human resources, HR, section in the previous Oireachtas. It involves doing research, speech writing and producing newsletters and briefing material on legislation and for committees. It is important to add that half of the legislative work in the Houses of the Oireachtas take pace in this House.

Not only do our secretarial assistants support us in our work but if people phone about legislation or policy, they need to be able to answer the phone. They are not, as may have been thought in the past, sending out missives newsletters at a genteel pace. They are dealing with the cut and thrust of legislation to an extraordinary degree and the incredibly important work we do. The level of remuneration they receive for doing this is disgracefully low. It starts at €24,423 and it takes 18 years to move up the secretarial assistant scale to the top point. Very few will last that long. As a result, we lose their institutional knowledge, expertise, experience and insight and the relationships that are built up through secretarial assistants and their work.

Recommendation No. 3 relates to the recruitment and retention of staff. As somebody who values workers’ rights and is very passionate about them, I find it difficult to be placed in a position of being an employer who offers a contract of employment, as I am required to do, that does not fully reflect the work I am asking people do for me. The pay scale I mentioned does not allow for recognition of much experience or qualifications. If someone has extraordinarily relevant experience that strengthens my work in committees or a degree or postgraduate qualification, I cannot give recognition of that, nor can I recognise the first three years of any other work that person may have done. To take work experience as an example, I have had secretarial assistants who have worked at the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR. That is worth nothing.

I give these examples from the recruitment perspective because people are surprised. Members of our group have had extraordinarily excellent candidates who have been unable to take a role because it does not recognise their experience or encourage the development of skills within the role because acquiring extra qualifications and so on are not worth anything.

On staff retention, staff who are passionate and care about their Members' work have nowhere to go because there is no parliamentary assistant role in the Seanad. We are in a position where we cannot retain staff. That acquired knowledge and experience is then lost from the legislative process.

I have spoken from the perspective of why this is important for Senators and the legislative process. However, it is also important in regard to the standards we seek to promote and hold ourselves to in the Oireachtas. For example, we have spoken about having a family-friendly Oireachtas and the idea of having an equitable pipeline that encourages a diversity of people to come forward and engage in politics. For many, a secretarial assistant role will be the moment they first engage in politics. I had the experience of a previous secretarial assistant, Janet Horner, going on to become a councillor for a different party, and very good she is as well. That is a pipeline but it is not available for many people. We should not be in a situation where a secretarial assistant decides to move into another area or sector because he or she has the responsibility of a family and can no longer afford to do this work.

There has been a lengthy process on this issue. SIPTU, which represents the secretarial assistants, and the secretarial assistances themselves have done huge work on it. I commend in particular my secretarial assistant, Sárán Fogarty, who does extraordinary work for me and supports me in the four committees of which I am a member and my multiple areas of legislative interest. She has played a key role in that process.

Recommendation No. 2 is comparative in that it asks that we look at what is happening in other parliaments. I do not believe there is an equivalent system in many other parliaments where members of one of the two houses in a bicameral system would have only one secretarial assistant. This affects the quality of legislation. European directives land into different countries and go through different processes. We should have support and resources. I should mention that I was a member of the Seanad reform committee established in the previous Oireachtas. One of its recommendations was that this matter be addressed.

It was considered a key aspect of Seanad reform and ensuring the House performs properly.

I finish with what I hope might be the area of solution, as proposed in recommendation No. 1. This recommendation asks that the Minister report on his engagement with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I understand Senator Craughwell engaged with the Minister last week on this matter. The Minister spoke in this House and in the Dáil about the role of the commission in bringing proposals for his consideration and agreement. I would like him to spell out what that involves, because we have had some mixed messages about what the role of the commission is or is not, and likewise the roles of the human resources unit and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Is it the case, for example, that if a conciliation meeting goes ahead, as I understand is due to happen in late January or early February, and human resources personnel meet with union representatives at that meeting and have their discussions, the human resources department will then be able to report back to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and the latter will be in a position to make proposals to the Minister in respect of this matter and how it believes it should be resolved? The Minister stated in this House: "The commission makes a proposal to me, as Minister, on issues such as grading, salary rates and so on, and I then make a decision on that proposal". I want this point to be clear. Is it the case that members of the commission can make such a proposal to the Minister? There has been some ambiguity around whether it will be the human resources department reporting back and forth directly to the Department. As I understand it, that department reports to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Who will be making such proposals to the Minister?

The other question we are looking to relates to what actions the Minister might be planning to take. Of course, he has not yet received any proposals from the commission but I would like to know what actions he is inclined to take in respect of the very reasonable proposals that have been put forward by the secretarial assistants and SIPTU, should those proposals come to the Minister from the members of the commission. I ask him to be really clear on that process because it will be fundamental to our achieving a resolution in this matter, as everyone hopes to do, very early in the new year.

I thank the Minister for his engagement yesterday, which was very informative. I have spoken to a number of secretarial assistants today, to whom his written response was circulated and which they are considering. It is always important to get feedback from the people concerned. Following the Minister's contribution yesterday, I do not think anyone will doubt his commitment to finding a solution that is right and fair. It is important that we send a strong message that we stand in solidarity with the people who work in our offices. Coming in here and paying lip service to that but then doing nothing is not good enough.

I do not want to be argumentative but I am somewhat disappointed that none of the Government Senators have co-signed any of these three recommendations. That is disappointing, but they speak for themselves and that is it. On the Opposition side of the House, there is clearly a lot of support for these staff. I am not doubting there is the same support from the other parties, whose Members can speak for themselves, but it has not been demonstrated by their signatures on these recommendations. That is disappointing.

It is worth pointing out again that for many of the secretarial assistants, their pay is their sole income. We need to be fair here, which is why I draw a comparison with what Oireachtas Members get in terms of salary and so on. We cannot advocate a policy for some that we do not live by ourselves. The Minister is very much aware of the pay scales for Oireachtas Members, the vouched and unvouched expenses that pertain and of all the financial supports available to us. Let us put that in one hand and consider it. Secretarial assistants and parliamentary assistants have a very personal role in that they deal directly with Members. There is little they do not know and it is a very close working relationship. They are, in effect, our personal assistants and our other arm. They support and organise us and most of us could not operate without them. Where secretarial and parliamentary assistants work successfully with Deputies and Senators, it is a professional partnership and it works well. They do an exceptionally good job. They also have the advantage that they know the system right across the Houses of the Oireachtas, and rightly so, in line with the requirement for openness and transparency. They are aware of what Members get and when they consider the conditions they themselves have to operate under, they can see it is very unfair. They are acutely aware of the injustices of the scheme and that is worth talking about.

Senator Higgins referred to the idea of a family-friendly Parliament and she is right in the points she made. Senator Gavan spoke yesterday about the living wage of €12.90 per hour. A living wage is one that is sufficient to maintain the normal standards of living. One of the secretarial assistants I talked to today, who travels in from the midlands, has three children. Hers is the only household income as her husband, through no fault of his own, has not worked for five years. He simply cannot get work. She is maintaining a home and mortgage and paying for her transport. There is no travel allowance, subsistence or fuel allowance for her. She is working in here and has to do all of that. She is proud and happy to do it but she is really struggling. We have to stand in solidarity with these people. We should remember that not everybody has two incomes coming into their home, directorships of a number of companies and other financial streams. That is not the norm for many people, which we in the Oireachtas sometimes forget. This is part of the case we need to make. I propose that we need a new title for the job of secretarial assistant. It is about more than just pay, which is linked to scales; it is also about the title and job description. We need to review the whole matter, with a new title, grade and pay scale for the job. That is an important point to make.

I have some figures to hand in regard to the annual occupational pension entitlements of secretarial assistants. For someone who has five years' service and whose pension is calculated at €6,827.30, his or her annual occupational pension will be €656.23, on top of the State pension. For ten years' service, some people can only expect an annual occupational pension of €1,312.46. Where they have 5 years' service and a pension calculation of €20,481.89, their annual occupational pension will be €1,968.69. Bearing in mind what politicians get for 20 years' service, secretarial assistants with a 20-year pensionable calculation of €27,309.19 can expect an annual occupational pension of €2,624.91. This is an absolute disgrace. I know we cannot look at issues out of context and there is more to the picture but this is the degree of the problem we have. As Senator Higgins said, most of this could be dealt with by accepting these recommendations, particularly recommendation No. 1.

I will finish now and not speak on this again. I have illustrated the point I needed to make. I want to stand in solidarity with these staff, as we all should. I hope everyone in the House will support these recommendations because they are reasonable and fair. I do not at all doubt the Minister's commitment in this matter, nor do I think these proposals will take in any way from what he is doing or the other processes that are running parallel to these discussions, which are also important. We should send a message on this issue. The Minister can take it from me that our secretarial assistants are listening to what we are saying in this Chamber today. They are expecting us to stand in solidarity with them and most of us are happy and comfortable to do so. I do not want to create a division in this House. I hope we all, across the House, can agree in principle on what is proposed in these recommendations. I do not want to divide the House over this. I want us to stick together and articulate the view that these people should be supported. I am happy to go along with the cost the Minister has set out.

I begin by placing on the record my appreciation to the Minister for coming personally to the House to deal with the Commencement matter relating to the pay of our secretarial assistants.

I would like to speak about the job that the Minister’s Department has done since the financial crisis. None of us likes the job that the Department does because it impacts everything we try to do, but it does the job for the public good and in order to keep this State going. It helped us get out of crisis. While I sometimes think the Department should loosen the reins a little bit now, I understand everything that was done in the past was done with a view to getting this country back on its feet. For that reason, I understand the position the Department takes.

In the past, the role of the Seanad was largely seen as a part-time role and secretarial assistants were provided as such. First and foremost, the idea was that the Seanad would not involve itself in local politics, but would act at the level of national politics. I want to take it from that perspective. My colleague Senator Higgins has outlined the work our secretarial assistants and personal assistants do for us. You could not quantify that work. Each assistant is everything from a PhD researcher, through to a secretary and anything in between. They have a great level of commitment. If this House sits until 8 p.m., our assistants are there to assist us the whole way through. It is part of the job they do and it is part of what they take on when they take the job.

I understand that one of the chief concerns in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is about the knock-on effects if we make a change to the terms and conditions of employment. The role of the Department is to see into the future and see if there will be knock-on effects. I suggest to the Minister that looking after the secretarial assistants will have no knock-on effects. I appreciate that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission must come to the Minister and not the other way around. When the commission comes with a proposal, I hope it will involve regrading all our people as personal assistants in the same salary category as those who work in the Dáil. The reason for that is quite clear: the work they do is not secretarial work; it is far more important than that. As my colleague Senator Higgins has said, 50% of the debate on legislation happens in this House and all legislation in this country passes through this House. Therefore, this House is of equal standing to the Dáil in national politics with respect to legislation. If somebody makes the argument to the Minister that if we do this, there will be demands from A,B,C and D, he must be assured that cannot be the case because the group we are talking about is unique to us.

The Government, in its wisdom, issued a statutory instrument in 2012 or 2013. It impacted me when I came here. I think I was the first Member of the Seanad who was prevented from carrying on my professional career when I came here. I had to choose between taking my seat in the Oireachtas, which involved taking a career break, or refusing the seat and going back to my teaching job. The Oireachtas told me that this was a full-time job. It told me that if it is a full-time job for me, it will certainly be a full-time job for my assistant. That is why I believe the argument we are putting forward, which is not against the Minister’s Bill, is one that the commission needs to listen to. The commission needs to come to the Minister with a proposal. Recommendation No. 1 is vitally important because it will ensure the Minister is in a position to come back to the Oireachtas and tell us within six months what has been done. I will explain one of the key reasons for that proposal. I was on the commission in the last Seanad. We brought this up in 2017, if I am not mistaken, but nothing has been done with it since then. That is simply not good enough.

The Minister made the position of his Department very clear when he spoke here the other day. I fully respect that he can do nothing until somebody comes to him with a proposal. It is up to the commission to come to him. In this Bill, he is making additional finances available to the Oireachtas to carry out the work it does. It is up to the commission to look at how that finance can be used to regrade our secretarial assistants as personal assistants and put them on the same salary scale as personal assistants in the Dáil. I think it is fair that we do not have two secretarial assistants. One is quite sufficient for us, but the one we have must be recognised as a personal assistant and not as a secretarial assistant.

I spent the last years of my working life prior to coming into the Oireachtas at the head of a trade union. I am fully aware of the arguments that will be made with respect to contagion, knock-on effects and all of that. In this case, I defy anybody to put an argument to me that says this will impact any other personnel involved in administration in this House. It is only those who work for Members of the Seanad we are talking about. I could spend all day talking about what my particular employee does. I do not like to think of her as an employee. I think of her as a partner. She is just a poorly paid partner. The work she does keeps me afloat, keeps me at the right meetings at the right time and makes sure that when legislation is coming down the tracks, I am aware of it and have had a chance to go through it, consider amendments, table my own amendments and seek cross-House participation or support in anything I try to do. In fairness, this House does that rather well. I will leave it at that. The argument we are putting forward today is to the commission, through the Minister, in the hope that the commission will come back to him and he will be able to fulfil recommendations Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive.

I thank the Minister for coming in today to directly hear about this. I understand that as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, he is extremely busy dealing with the substantial increase in spending across all Departments. I think he can hear where people are coming from and see that we are passionate advocates on behalf of our secretarial assistants.

I do not want to go over all the points that other Senators have made and spoken at length on. However, Senator Higgins importantly outlined why our secretarial assistants are essentially parliamentary assistants. I want to focus on giving the Minister and others a real idea of the salary that first-time secretarial assistants have. As my secretarial assistant is going on maternity leave, today I sent off the information on salaries to somebody who might be interested in coming in and taking over during that time. When you are outlining to somebody the pay grade they will be on and what they will be required to do, it is quite embarrassing to have to say that the salary is €468.06 per week. It is difficult to get sanction for people to come in directly on any scale above that. If you are looking for housing in Dublin, there are just three places available on that would be considered affordable for somebody on that salary. Given that an affordable rent for someone on that salary would be about €600 per month, there are just three places available. The lowest rent for one-bedroom rental property in Dublin on is €1,291. I am focusing on Dublin because most of the secretarial assistants are in Dublin, given that the Seanad sits in Dublin. I remind the House that some people are single and not everybody has a second income coming in. This week, we saw that the average deposit for a house is €52,000. If you are earning €468 a week, it will be very difficult for you to save much money when you are paying €1,800 in rent. If you are very careful and you put away €100 a month, it will take you 43 years to be able to save up for the average deposit on a house. There was a time when people were able to buy houses for 3.5 times their salary. Now, the average deposit is twice a salary. The deposit, which is 10% of the price of a house, is twice the salary a secretarial assistant gets.

Arguments have been made, which I do not understand, around the contagion effects that this would have on other lower-paid civil servants. These are the only public servants in this country who have not had a pay rise since 2000. Even though these public servants are extremely low paid, when you open up a newspaper you see reports suggesting that in the course of Covid-19, all of them were paid overtime when they were at home. I can tell the Minister that my secretarial assistant was working late last night at home for me. Therefore, yes, they were doing overtime.

Imagine getting such low wages and then having to open up the newspaper and see people giving out about you on Twitter because people were paid overtime over the course of the pandemic. Even last week, I saw that people wanted their names released. I thought about that and I am really glad about the decision the Houses of the Oireachtas Service made.

I thought about it and wondered what if somebody was a victim of domestic violence and was working for a Senator, and his or her name was published stating that he or she was working for X Deputy or X Senator or whoever? People have this idea that they are public property and that they have ownership over them for such low salary and low wages.

We all put ourselves on a ballot paper, be it a Seanad or Dáil ballot paper or whatever. We all put ourselves out there in the public and we are well paid and well remunerated. Our secretarial assistants do not have that privilege, however. I ask when the commission comes, if it comes, that the Minister will fight the side, because he also has a secretarial assistant, against officials who I would say have not properly had a look and sat down to ask what a person could buy for €468 per week. What could a person rent for €468 per week? How will a person plan his or her future on €468 per week?

It is nice to see the Minister again. I believe we had a good exchange yesterday. It was refreshing too the way the Minister handled the exchange yesterday. He was very direct in his speech. I thought that was very candid and decent of him. He made it clear that the buck stops with him on this issue. That is important in terms of clarity. He answered an important question for me and I appreciate that as well. I asked him within the envelope of funding for the next three years, is there scope to address this issue for secretarial assistants? He gave a very direct answer. He said "Yes". He said more than that. He actually outlined savings of €50 million over the past three years. That is really encouraging. The fact that he put it on the record here is very encouraging. I have no doubt my colleagues in SIPTU will have taken careful note of that in terms of the negotiation process going forward. I want to say that because to be frank, we do not often have positive exchanges. This was a very positive exchange and the fact the Minister was direct in his answers is welcome and meaningful. I want to be very fair to him in that regard.

My own experience is that I am now on my fifth secretarial assistant. Two of my secretarial assistants have been promoted and are now parliamentary assistants and doing really well. Two more had to leave because they just could not afford to stay in the job. They have moved on to better careers literally doubling their salary overnight. These two really bright young men are a huge loss to this organisation but they just could not afford to live in Dublin. They could not see any prospects. I believe the Minister mentioned the insecurity of the job yesterday as well, which is another massive issue.

The secretarial assistant I have now is absolutely excellent; my fifth one. I could not base him in Dublin because he could not afford to live here. He was actually based in Limerick but the reality is that he had to give up his house in Limerick and has now moved back in with his parents at the age of 25 because the salary that is paid is a pittance. It is an embarrassment. It is a source of extreme embarrassment. This is a man in his mid-20s earning a salary on which he cannot even have any prospect of renting his own home never mind any possibility of saving or planning to buy in the future. I know I am not saying anything that everyone here does not know already. I am just trying to emphasise how appallingly badly these people have been treated for an awfully long time.

This process of trying to address the appalling rate of pay and terms and conditions has been ongoing for three and a half years. I am being very careful here, as it was not the Minister, but over those three and a half years his Department was the key block in terms of progress. We know this and I know this personally from conversations with my colleagues in my union. The Oireachtas commission had no means of negotiation. It was told very clearly that it was extremely limited in what it could offer. And we know what that offer was; it came earlier this year. It was 3%, which is miserable. It is derisory and appalling. Therefore, that has to change with the Minister's Department. I want to take his words in good faith because he gave very clear signals here and in the Dáil last week that it will change. I welcome that but I want to be absolutely sure that change is communicated incredibly effectively to the Minister's colleagues in the Department. I want to be frank. If they come in and double the offer, it is still rubbish. Let us be absolutely clear about that. Doubling the offer is not going to fix this because the offer is too derisory. The only thing that will fix this is regrading the secretarial assistant grade and getting rid of this appalling title. We have all agreed across the House that the title has no relevance. I can confirm it in a particular way because the colleague I have now was a parliamentary assistant for our party the last time and now he is a secretarial assistant, and he is telling me the work is no different. In fact, it is harder because there is only one of him. He is doing exactly the same work for half the salary. Therefore, let us be clear. Getting the Minister's Department officials to take that 3% and say they are going to make an exception and make it 6% is not going to fix this. What will fix this is regrading the position. All of us here across the Seanad know that is what needs to happen. It needs to reflect the actual jobs that they do. That is the step change we need. That is why this particular recommendation is important because it gives us some degree of oversight at the end of this process. We do not know what is going to happen at the end of January. We have really positive signals from the Minister and again, I recognise that and wish to put it on the record. We do not know what will happen in those negotiations, however. This recommendation will give us a means of seeing exactly what happened. We will see a report in terms of exactly what the Minister and his Department did. That is why it is important.

My final point is we must fix this. We cannot allow this to drag on any more. I cannot begin to describe the frustration of all of the secretarial assistants I have spoken to that they have been sitting for three and a half years being ignored and to be frank, and I am not referring to the Minister personally, being treated with contempt by the Department, which has given no mandate to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to actually negotiate the changes that we need. I am optimistic that will change but I urge the Minister to accept this recommendation because otherwise we just have to hope that we do not go back to the situation that has prevailed for the last three and a half years. I mean that with all goodwill. Let us try, therefore, to ensure the follow-through is there to ensure the change that we all want is delivered for these people.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I think we have all missed a trick in this debate and we should all be stepping back. We should actually have proposed collectively that there should be pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill. That is what we should have done if we are to be honest about it. The debate so far is like the debate we had in this House a couple of years ago when we unanimously supported the motion calling for pay and conditions to be improved.

There is a reason I say that we missed a trick. Senator Moynihan has made the most pertinent point so far in this debate today. I commend the decision by the freedom of information officer regarding the staff of Leinster House, which stated, "On consideration, I have deemed the information to be personal information and have decided that, on balance, the rights to privacy of the individuals outweigh the public interest in this case." That is absolutely correct, 100%. The reason we should have had pre-legislative scrutiny rests on a number of things. One is the debate we have been having yesterday and today and which the Minister had in the Dáil last week. To be fair to him and give him his credit, yesterday he was upfront and open and his remarks were very positive. He is only one cog in the wheel, however.

On 5 November, however, the HR department here issued an email to all of us members of the parliamentary community. I will make the point that we are a parliamentary community, irrespective of our political differences. We are here to serve and to work and today during the Order of Business, I commended Cáit Hayes, who started working in Leinster House 35 years ago and today is retiring. That is a lifetime of service. The men and women who work with us here in this House are working with us. It is a community. I say to Senators Gavan and Craughwell that there will be contagion no matter what happens but the contagion is up to us to challenge. Whether we support this recommendation today does not in any way dilute the support that the Government Members have for what is before us in this Bill in terms of our secretarial assistants.

If Members of Government parties vote against the recommendations, I would not like it to come out of today's debate that we are less than wholesome in our support. It is wrong to say we are not. It is unfair, because many of us have been proactive on this matter and we all share the common goal.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission recently approved what it calls an engagement plan for political staff. One of the laudable objectives is to help improve job satisfaction and promote well-being among staff. Pay and conditions must be contained in the well-being element, as well as it being family-friendly. I am old school in that I am here on Tuesday and Wednesday and I do not have any difficulty staying late, personally, but I fully understand how discommoding the unsocial hours can be for staff and Members. We must look at the context of the workplace support programme.

In his speech in the Dáil and here yesterday the Minister touched on a number of points we all support. I hope that arising from our debate today we will come back and look at certain issues. I do not agree with the recommendation for two reasons. First, we can engage with the Minister at any time. Senator Craughwell had a Commencement matter before the House. We can ask the Minister to come to the House to debate an issue. We can table motions and the Minister will come to the House.

I do not agree with what has been proposed in recommendation No. 2, which seeks to have a report laid before the Committee on Parliamentary Procedures and Oversight. It is an exclusive committee that excludes Members of the House from participation. Why not lay the report before the Houses of the Oireachtas rather than a parliamentary committee that has limited membership? The overarching aim we have in the context of our secretarial assistants is to ensure we have better support and that the process starts again on 28 January. It is important there is a positive outcome.

I will not go back over old ground but, as has been stated, the role has changed and the title of the job is no longer relevant. You were here in 1989, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, and you have seen the change in the supports to us as Members. I make the point repeatedly that it costs money to fund Parliament. Senator Higgins referred to her role in committees and the role we play in legislation. Look at the value we get from the Library and Research Service in terms of the policy papers and research papers and their availability to us. Senator Moynihan alluded to something that happened this week. A freedom of information request was made about overtime for members of staff as opposed to the value they bring to Parliament.

We have completely missed a trick. Our role has changed. As Senator Craughwell said, it is no longer part time. Even in the old days, a secretary worked for more than one Member. My secretary, Ruth Lawlor, worked for three or four Members. There was one telephone and the secretaries had to queue up to get a typewriter. We evolved and changed, but not everything has evolved and changed. What I say is not sexy or popular and it will be ridiculed by the Twitterati and the media, but as parliamentarians, we should have the staff to do the work that is required in terms of research, speech writing and probing.

Senator Higgins is 100% correct. The quality of the people working in Parliament is extraordinary. That applies to everybody in the Houses of the Oireachtas. When you start at the front gate and you go to the back gate and you take all people in between in the parliamentary community, the level of quality is extraordinary. I thank the men and women who work in the Oireachtas for the service they give and the work they provide. At another time, we need a debate about the role and the supports for Members of the Oireachtas. Our job and role have changed completely. If we go back to what we said yesterday and look at the people who work with us, they deal with people in their most vulnerable state, who are predominantly anxious and want the State to help them in their hour of need.

Today, in passing this Bill, we will not change the world, but we are sending a signal to the Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that we want to see change. We have one member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission with us this afternoon, who is a very good member, Senator Kyne. He has been very strong on many issues relating to supports for the parliamentary community. We must have a real debate about the funding of democracy in Parliament and that we are not afraid and would not be looking over our shoulder at what people might think or say.

I thank the Minister, Deputy McGrath, for being here again today, for his work yesterday and for his positivity both in the Dáil and in this House. It is refreshing and good we have a Minister who is going to be part of the vanguard for change. I accept he may perhaps not be able to, but I believe he is sincere.

There is a job for all of us arising from this debate. Perhaps you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, and the Cathaoirleach could look at that as part of the sectoral debates in the Houses of the Oireachtas or perhaps even the Seanad Public Consultation Committee could take a look at how we could develop and evolve different schemes around supports in Parliament.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht teacht isteach inniu. Is dócha go bhfuil sé gnóthach mar Aire.

I want to use the opportunity to praise the secretarial assistants. I am only a Senator for a year and a half, and I am completely blown away by the role of a Senator. Until I became one, I had no idea of what was involved, even though I have been engaged in politics for my entire life. Not only is my role insane, but the role of my poor secretary is a lot more insane. As a Senator, not only are we part of the Upper House of the Legislature, but we are also seen by the masses as a public representative on a local and national level. Unfortunately, as a result, our secretarial assistants have to be the backbone of the support for us in dealing with all of that on every level, from an individual looking for a medical card to foreign trade agreements. The range is vast. Secretarial assistants have to be our researcher, personal assistant and secretarial assistant. It is so stressful on them. In some ways I feel bad about the stress we put them under, which is not reflected at all in the pay they are on. We need to upgrade their position.

This came to light within a few weeks of me becoming a Senator and we formed a group within our parliamentary party. My colleagues, Deputy Duffy, Deputy Costello and I set up a working group on SA pay. We have worked with the Minister on this. I hope this Bill will be satisfactory for secretarial assistants because they have earned it. Many Members have spoken in the debate. The entire Upper House would support the Minister on this, because we all appreciate our secretarial assistants, but their pay is embarrassing for what they are expected to do. They are far from being secretarial assistants.

Senator Craughwell spoke earlier but he wants to make a minor intervention. There will be an opportunity to speak after the Minister has spoken if Members disagree with him.

I just want to say that I agree with Senator Buttimer. I do not believe we should divide the House on this. I do not believe that anyone on the Government benches in any way disagrees with the arguments that are being put forward. It would be wrong to force a vote on it. The message is being driven home loud and clear.

That is an extremely noble sentiment, and it is the way to do business on this issue.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. My contribution will be brief. Yesterday, I spoke about the value of our secretarial assistants. I will not go through all of that again. I acknowledge and admire Senator Craughwell for his intervention. The Leas-Chathaoirleach also referred to the matter. I fully understand, acknowledge and agree with almost everything that has been said by Senators across the House. On this issue in particular, it would be a mistake to cause a division. I want to put something on the record, and I do not want to politicise this. I assure the Minister that, from Fianna Fáil's perspective, because we were referred to, we have discussed this at length at meetings of our parliamentary party. Our Senators' group has discussed this constantly. We have discussed it with our assistants. The Minister knows this. I want to put on the record that we are fully behind upgrading these positions. It has commenced. I do not know how long it will take. I hope it will be a short process. I want to put it on the record that Fianna Fáil is fully behind supporting what is going on and we will work to bring this change about.

I welcome the Minister. I spoke about this on Second Stage. When I took the Order of Business for the Leader some weeks ago, a number of Senators raised their concerns, views and sentiments, which have been repeated here, regarding the value of secretarial assistants. I fully support what our Members here have said about their role and how it has evolved as has the work they do. Forms of media have evolved. It is important this is recognised. As Senator Buttimer said, I have been a member of the commission for more than a year. This has always been on the agenda, with regard of the status of the case in the Workplace Relations Commission and how it was progressing. We should not reopen the entire debate if there is political consensus that the position be regraded, which is what this is about. It is not about a salary increase. It is about regrading the salaries of secretarial assistants of Members of both Houses. The political system is always afraid to do anything that might be seen to benefit politicians. This is not the case here. We are speaking about the people who work with and support politicians. It reminds me of the issue of councillors' pay. The Government was paralysed by fear of doing anything that might be commented on. When the worthy pay increase happened for councillors there was not much talk about it. This is important. We are speaking about very valuable public servants who do a job. They should be recognised with a newly defined role on the basis of the work they do.

I have been listening to the debate in my office. I did not jog here, because I am in a brace, but I did walk very swiftly. I did not get to contribute yesterday. We are all speaking about our own secretarial assistants and people who we have worked with. I have to speak about Ellen Murphy who works with me. She does the Lord's work and goes above and beyond. We are a team. She keeps the office going. Everyone has said this. She has kept things flowing smoothly over the past year, particularly when my father was sick and subsequently died. Every day she goes above and beyond not only for me and my office but for many staff in Leinster House. She is a shop steward. She is also a damned good egg who helps many secretarial assistants and Leinster House staff. I often see her giving counsel and guidance to people. Sometimes we forget that our staff do not just work for us. They work in the Oireachtas. They work in Leinster house. They make this building a better place. They make the work we do better. Therefore, hopefully, they make the governance and leadership we do better. I had to come here to reference the work she is doing. She is very heavily involved in this particular issue and I am giving her every last bit of support I can on it.

We speak about remuneration a lot. Much of the conversation focuses on pay at the very beginning of the pay scale, what remuneration people get when they come in and the fact it is so much lower in comparison with personal assistants and other such pay scales. Something we do not talk a huge amount about is the pensions at the other side of it. A staff member who has 20 years service will have a pension of approximately €8,000 a year. Senators will get this after a couple of years working here. Someone with 20 years of service is coming out with a minuscule amount in comparison with some of us who may be here for a very short time. I hope it is a good time but perhaps it will be a very short time. There is also the other end when people are leaving here and the pension and years of service they have given are not reflected. I want to put this on the record.

We have spoken a great deal about secretarial assistants working on housing assistance payment and family payment applications and helping out on all of these things. They spend their days on the phone helping members of the public. In the Seanad, there are varying opinions on whether people should be referred to as constituents. Sometimes they have to go home and do these very same applications for themselves because they simply cannot afford to live on the wages they have. A secretarial assistant in my office is filling out an application for a housing form for herself. This is not acceptable. It is very frustrating to read over it and make suggestions. It is not right or acceptable. We need to stand for a living, fair and decent wage. Without these secretarial assistants and people doing this work and helping members of the public we would be lost. I know all of this has been said. We have supports and we need supports but it is not acceptable that we are standing over our own staff not being able to afford to live or look after their families and being faced with the idea that they simply cannot afford to rent near Leinster House and so cannot accept the job. They are brilliant intelligent people. They help us make a change but some of them cannot even afford to come to work for us. This is not acceptable. It is not just about the beginning of the pay scale, it is also about when people are leaving Leinster House. It is not okay that we have secretarial assistants who require the housing assistance payment, the working family payment and other such things in order that they can help us do our jobs.

The next speaker is Senator Keogan, who happens to be a cousin of the excellent woman who works in my office in Cavan. I have to allow total latitude.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. Mary is a very good secretary I am sure. I thank the Minister for looking after the local authority members in this country and giving them at living wage for the first time ever. When I was elected here I had very little knowledge of what the role would entail. I will have been here two years in March. I have been navigating my way through what is expected of a Senator with regard to legislation and it has been very difficult. I split the secretarial assistant role into two positions, which is even worse. People say, "Oh my God, she split the role between two people". The amount of money these people, our assistants, get paid is pitiful. I am here to lend my voice to this. The money for secretarial assistants must be doubled at least. They are secretarial assistants and they deal with all of our emails. We can get 200 emails a day. That is an unbelievable number of emails to have to deal with. These could be local emails from people in my area or from throughout the country who require assistance, which I do. I also have someone who looks after the legislation and the amendments that need to be made on the various Stages. We have waited long enough for this. Whatever the Minister can do he should do it quickly.

Several points have been raised and prior to the Minister replying I want to add to them. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service has been mentioned. This service is fine for planning a Bill in the long term but if we get an agenda on Thursday that will mean speaking on seven different policy areas on Tuesday, and then we receive phone calls all day Monday about it, they will be dealt with by the secretarial assistants of Senators who clearly are parliamentary assistants.

I know there are strong feelings about this across the House because we passed a motion collectively in 2019 supporting the claim and the call of the secretarial assistants. In being true to that motion, we cannot take any backward step. We need to be clear that we are pushing forward and want more. On the question of whether we vote on this recommendation, it depends on the answer of the Minister; we cannot simply say we know everybody means the best, because it has been too long. We need to be getting a clear message on what we are asking for. It will not be enough to have a doubling of some percentage or knocking one or two things together. There are very clear requests on changes to the scale for secretarial assistants, the compression of scale and the addition of scale. I am aware that the Minister cannot tell us he is going to achieve all these things now but we need to be clear that, when he says he is engaging and interested in engaging, he is not just talking about changes to the scale but also about the regrading point, which is fundamental to every Senator in this House.

The other area where we need to have a clear understanding from the Minister concerns what exactly the engagement with the commission will look like. The Minister should accept recommendation No. 1 because it is harmless. It simply asks that he come back in six months. I hope he is enthusiastic about accepting it because he plans to come back in six months with a very good story for us on the resolution of this issue. Perhaps he might indicate that to us.

One of the only reasons for not pressing the other recommendations will be a commitment to resolve this matter earlier than indicated in the timelines in the amendments. This is important. We cannot afford to let this become a long-term process. This started in the last Oireachtas. I was a Member of the last Oireachtas when we passed a motion after the Seanad reform committee made the recommendation. Of four secretarial assistants who led the campaign in the last Oireachtas and were actively involved in our group, one lost their job because their Member was not re-elected, another lost their job because their Member did not stand again, and two left because the wages were completely unsustainable, even though they were incredibly committed to our work. We cannot afford to have this kicked to touch for six or eight months or year and a half, at which time we will have a new crop of secretarial assistants. However, now that everybody in the country knows it is such a terribly paid job, who will go for it?

Can we try to resolve this in the next three months? Committing to this would be a really good argument for our not pressing these recommendations, with their timelines of six and eight months. That is what I hope to hear from the Minister in his responses to us.

I was listening to the contributions in my office while I was working. I acknowledge the presence of the Minister and thank him for being here.

I could not let this go without making a contribution on the role of secretarial assistants. I have been a Senator for a year and a half, like many others, and have seen at first hand the quality of staff in this Chamber and staff who work for people in this Chamber. Like everyone has said, the work secretarial assistants do is the exact same as that of parliamentary assistants. They are in the same offices and doing the same work. It is not so much that it needs to be respected but that it needs to be acknowledged that the work they do is no different from that of a parliamentary assistant. Secretarial assistants may be getting married or trying to get a mortgage. They face the same challenges as everybody else, but the salary is pitiful. It is extremely low. To reach a level that somehow reflects the work they do takes a hell of a long time. I believe it takes something like 18 years or more to get to the very top. That is an extremely long period. Lisa, who works for me, goes above and beyond the duty expected of her.

In fairness to the Minister, he was here last week and acknowledged, in responding to a Commencement matter, that he will look into this. Proposals need to be put to him. He said he will examine these and make a decision based on them, but this is not a case of 1% here and 2% there. The figures today indicate that the rate of inflation has risen by 5%. For someone on the salary of a secretarial assistant, that is crazy. Something needs to be done. Secretarial assistants go above and beyond the call of duty. The Minister knows from politics that things happen outside the period from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. More often than not, the secretarial assistants are always prepared to put everything down to support us. I would appreciate it if the work of all secretarial assistants associated with Members on all sides of the House was quickly accepted and if they were given a salary that reflected the work they do.

It is not normal for the Chair to intervene, and I will not do so beyond saying that I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed here today. They reflect my experience of the wonderful, professional staff who work with me here in Leinster House and in Cavan. They work across a range of areas at a range of hours of the day, and it would be unreasonable if this did not receive concrete acknowledgement. I am doing an exceptional thing in making this remark from the Chair, because it is not normal, but it is in order to the extent that the subject is not one that is dividing the House. I acknowledge that the Minister’s presence indicates how seriously he is taking the matter.

I thank the Chair for those remarks and for welcoming me back to the House today. I am delighted this issue has been ventilated in the way it has over the past week or so. In this regard, I took the Commencement matter and took this Bill through the Dáil last week. This issue was discussed at length yesterday on Second Stage in this House and was discussed again today. That is positive and can only be good. I can certainly say I have learned a lot about this issue in the past short while and look forward to progress in the period ahead.

I want to put in context for the record what my role is and what that of the commission is. As Members know, under the legislation that governs all this, the scheme for secretarial assistance is the mechanism under which secretarial assistants and others are engaged. Under the scheme, the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has the power to regulate the provision of secretarial facilities to Members and qualifying parties. As Members know, secretarial assistants are employed by Members and by qualifying parties but are paid by the commission. The commission also regulates the number of staff employed under the scheme and has oversight of the operation of the scheme. Under the 2003 Act, the commission must obtain the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform before reaching an agreement with any person on rates of pay, conditions of employment or superannuation rights.

This relates to the point of Senator Higgins on the exact role of secretarial assistants. Section 4 of the 2003 Act is very explicit as to the functions the commission shall perform in relation to the provision of secretarial facilities. It makes it clear that it is a function of the commission to obtain the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform before reaching an agreement.

The essential purpose of the Bill is to provide the budget for the next three years for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas, which budget amounts to €462.5 million. As I stated yesterday in my remarks on Second Stage, there is adequate provision within that budget for further improvements in the service the commission provides to all of us as Members. I acknowledge that service has improved quite a lot, certainly in the time I have been in the House. There is capacity to resolve this issue. Of that, I am certain.

I want to put on the record again my appreciation for the work of our secretarial assistants.

Obviously, in the case of Senators, there is the particular issue that they have only one member of staff and the grading there is secretarial assistant. In my case, I have both an SA and a PA, but the work they do is extraordinary and highly valued.

Many specific points had been made about regrading and about the level of remuneration change that is warranted. Senators will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to get into the detail of what might be appropriate because my role will be to consider a proposal that the commission makes to me, ultimately. It is a matter for the commission now, having regard to the HR strategy that it wishes to pursue, its workforce planning requirements and the cost of running the Oireachtas over the next number of years. If it is open to the commission to conduct a job evaluation, for example, that is a matter for the commission. The commission needs to consider all of these issues now and to come to me with a proposal over the period ahead.

The important point is that there is a process under way. New life has now been injected into that process, and that is undoubtedly the case. We now have a date for an engagement at the WRC, which has written to both SIPTU and the commission, and it has invited both parties to come before it on 28 January. I look forward to that taking place and then, hopefully, to proposals being put to me at an early date for my consideration.

I want to be clear that this issue has certainly not been on my desk in my tenure as Minister, which is just under a year and a half at this point in time. The role of the Department will be, ultimately, to advise me when a proposal is put. Of course, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will always have views on issues relating to pay but we are not talking here directly about public servants. I hear the points that have been made about relativities and knock-on consequences and so on. What I have asked my officials to do now, as I said yesterday, is to engage positively with a view to bringing about a resolution to this issue. I have asked that I would be kept informed step-by-step so that, whatever contact there is between the commission and my Department, I will be kept abreast of that and, obviously, will have an opportunity to feed in my own personal views and to make an input in regard to that issue as well.

I also want to acknowledge that the Members of this House who are members of the Government parties have been raising this issue consistently as well. They have raised it directly with me through my own party and the other parties in government, and they feel equally strongly in regard to the issue.

I am not in position to accept the recommendations that have been put forward because I believe we have to recognise there is a process under way and we have to let the process take its course. It would be inappropriate of me to accept recommendations, for example, that speak to a particular proposal around regrading and so on. That is me, as Minister, getting into the detail of the issue, which I do not think is appropriate or warranted. I have confidence in the process and I have confidence that there will be a resolution to this issue over the period ahead. The reassurance I want to give to Senator Higgins and all of the Senators is that I am not going anywhere. I am at their disposal at any time to come in and to give an update to this House on my role and how I am I discharging my own responsibilities in regard to this issue.

My role is very clear under section 4 of the Act. My officials are now very well aware of the views of the Members of this House and the views of the Members of Dáil Éireann, and they know I am taking a particularly keen personal interest in this issue. Again, I want to restate what I think is an important political signal, which I am happy to send again, and that is that I want this issue resolved. I recognise that the nature of the work that our secretarial assistants have been performing has changed very significantly in the time that I have been a Member of Dáil Éireann. The complexity has changed, the volume has changed and the nature of the job and the demands have intensified. There is no question about that. As Senator Gavan acknowledged, I made the point about a lack of job security. There is undoubtedly a lack of job security for the members of our staff who rely on our tenure for the continuation of their work.

That is as much as I wish to say at this point. It is a matter for the Members if they wish to call votes on the particular recommendations. I am happy to clarify any other point or any other aspect of it. There is a process under way and we now have a firm date. I am happy to commit to coming back to this House again at a future date to give an update on my own role, but it is now a matter for the commission to consider this issue alongside all of the other issues that it has to consider. There will always be points of detail that it has to consider. I see the role of my Department as being there to support the work of the commission in bringing this matter to a resolution. My officials will keep me informed every step along the way and then, as soon as proposals are put to me, I will discharge my responsibility in an efficient manner under the Act.

I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response. I ask Members to bear in mind that we finish shortly. We have had brilliant speeches so there is no need for a repetition of them. I call Senator Higgins, who proposed the recommendations.

I want to ask the Minister for clarification on two key points. The Minister has given us, to some degree, his interpretation of the Act but there have been ambiguous interpretations of that Act, including within the process that SIPTU has been engaging with. There has been some sense that the human resources department has to go and talk to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform directly, and it will say it is waiting for authorisation from the Department and is not in a position to negotiate.

On the point I put to the Minister on the very first question, we need to make that explicitly clear. There are differences of opinion among officials as to exactly how the flow of decision-making would work. The Minister said the role of his Department is to advise him and that the commission brings the proposals to him. I want to be very clear. Is it the Minister's understanding that the human resources department which is, of course, ultimately under the remit of the commission, goes back to the members of the commission? The commission, as I understand it, and as I think the Minister understands it, is the members of the commission - that is what the commission is. Therefore, it is human resources going back to the members of the commission, and then the members of the commission, or the commission as a whole, bringing a proposal to the Minister, at which point his officials may advise him. I hope he will also advise them of the importance and urgency of the matters at hand but being explicitly clear about who is reporting to who when, and who is checking with who when, is going to be crucial. There have been long meetings and years of meetings, but if we want this meeting in January to be different, it needs to be very clear exactly what happens next in a staged process.

I welcome, and it makes it easier not to press the recommendation, that the Minister has indicated he will come back to this House. Will he confirm he is happy to come back to this House within six months to discuss his role in this engagement? That will make it very much easier again for us in that regard.

I am happy to give the commitment that, if I am invited, I will come back within six months to update the House on my role in this matter. I would earnestly hope this issue will be dealt with within that timeframe, and that is certainly what I want to see happen. There is no need for endless negotiations or months of talks from 28 January.

In regard to the other question on the role of the commission and then, within that, the role of the HR department vis-à-vis the members of the commission, I look at the Act and that is what I take my direction from. The commission makes a proposal. How the commission arrives at that internally with regard to its own processes, the HR department and the members of the commission is really a matter for itself. I have no doubt there is a level of contact with the officials in my Department. What I have asked my own officials to do is to be positive and helpful with a view to bringing about a resolution to this issue, and to keep me informed of that contact, even in advance of 28 January. It is important that I am not just presented with a proposal while not understanding the background to it or how it came about.

Ultimately, as the Senator well knows, in the case of any industrial relations issue that is going before the WRC, both parties have to spell out their position. SIPTU will have to spell out exactly what the proposal is in writing in respect of SAs in the Seanad and the Dáil, and how it will deal with the detail and the consequences of the implementation of what it is proposing. It will have to spell that out and the commission will also have to outline its proposals.

The commission will also have to outline its proposals and then, hopefully, an agreement can be reached. My officials are there in the background to support that process, not to block it. I want to be very clear on that point. I have given them that feedback and given that signal publicly on the floor of the House today. Ultimately, I expect that a proposal will be made. That will come to me, and I am happy to commit that I will be back here within six months, if invited.

Apologies, and just to belabour the point, the Minister's understanding of the legislation is that the members of the commission are empowered to develop a proposal and to bring that to him. Is that correct?

The commission is empowered. It is a matter for the commission to decide how it arrives at its position and how that proposal is formed in respect of the input of the members of the commission and the officials who serve it and support its work. Exactly how that proposal will be formed is a matter for the internal workings of the commission.

The commission will bring the proposal to the Minister, rather than-----

The commission will make a proposal. In reality, that will follow a negotiation. We must let that negotiation take place. The manner in which this issue has been debated and highlighted in the past week or so will prove to be very helpful.

Is Senator Higgins pressing recommendation No. 1?

Given the Minister's commitment to come back here within the next six months, I do not think we need to press the recommendation at this time.

Recommendation, by leave, withdrawn.

I move recommendation No. 2:

In page 3, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

“Report on the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance

2. The Minister shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before both Houses of the Oireachtas outlining—

(a) the work responsibilities of those employed under the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance in Seanad Éireann and Dáil Éireann, following consultation with members of Oireachtas and the Commission, and

(b) a comparison of the work responsibilities, role description and levels of remuneration, with due regard to the cost of living, of those employed under the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance with similar roles in national parliaments in other countries.”.

Recommendation, by leave, withdrawn.

I move recommendation No. 3:

In page 3, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

“Report on the operation of the Scheme for Secretarial Assistance

2. The Minister shall, within 6 months of the passing of this Act, lay a report before the Committee on Parliamentary Procedures and Oversight outlining a cost benefit analysis in respect of the introduction of the parliamentary assistant pay scale to Seanad Éireann,with due regard to—

(a) the recruitment and retention of staff,

(b) the recognition and development of skills,

(c) the value of acquired knowledge and experience within the legislative process and the wider work of Oireachtas members,

(d) the achievement of stated commitments to the well-being of staff and a family-friendly Oireachtas, and

(e) the importance of equitable access to the pipeline of political engagement in supporting more diverse and equal political decision making and representation.”.

Recommendation, by leave, withdrawn.
Section 2 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without recommendation.

When is it proposed to take Report Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Bill received for final consideration.

When is it proposed to take Fifth Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Question, "That the Bill be returned to the Dáil", put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 4.53 p.m. and resumed at 5.30 p.m.