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Government Accountability

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 13 July 2011

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Micheál Martin


1 Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he has satisfied himself with measures he has put in place to meet his stated intentions regarding the accountability of Government to the Oireachtas. [11801/11]

View answer

Gerry Adams


2 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the measures he has put in place to ensure the accountability of the Government to the Oireachtas. [16281/11]

View answer

Gerry Adams


3 Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he has taken any initiatives or consulted with other parties to ensure his better accountability to Dáil Éireann. [17261/11]

View answer

Joe Higgins


4 Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach the way he plans to make his Government more accountable to Dáil Éireann. [18579/11]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


5 Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the measures he is putting in place to ensure greater transparency and accountability in the workings of this Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18612/11]

View answer

Oral answers (91 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5 together.

The Government is accountable to the Dáil through many mechanisms, including Leaders' Questions and parliamentary questions, debates, scrutiny of legislation and the work of Oireachtas committees. The programme for Government sets out an ambitious programme to strengthen Government accountability further. Some of the programme's proposals will require legislative amendment, for example, those relating to fiscal accountability, and these are being progressed.

Other proposals in the programme relate to how the Dáil conducts its business and can be progressed by amending Standing Orders. Such proposals relate, for example, to committees, revamping the Adjournment debate format and making the procedures for raising urgent matters in the House more meaningful. We propose to improve the processes by which legislation is dealt with by the House and to enhance the role of the Dáil in regard to EU affairs.

I have already initiated discussions with the other Whips in regard to the reform of Dáil procedures and I intend to put forward proposals for consideration by the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges shortly.

Some proposals in the programme for Government have already been implemented. These include the introduction of a reduced number of Dáil committees, including an Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions, and a system whereby the Taoiseach briefs the Dáil prior to attending European Council meetings. The increase in the number of Dáil sitting days has also increased the accountability of the Government.

My question is not solely on parliamentary reform. Two weeks ago, my office told the Questions Office that we objected to this question being handled by the Chief Whip rather than the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach has stated he demands all his Ministers to respect their accountability to the Oireachtas. Has anything being done about this or is it still at the level of general commitment?

I find it objectionable that the Taoiseach has left the Chamber. Not only does he refuse to answer questions these days but he leaves the Chamber when questions to the Taoiseach are due to be answered. The Taoiseach is reducing his accountability to the Oireachtas by extending Cabinet confidentiality——

This is Question Time.

——to almost all of his Department's work. When I asked the Taoiseach about statements he made to the Gaelic Athletic Association he transferred it to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport stating it had nothing to do with his responsibilities to the House. The Minister of Transport, Tourism and Sport then told the House he could not answer the question because he was not present for the Taoiseach's speech. This happens every day in a widening variety of areas but we keep hearing claims of reform and accountability. This is a systematic attempt to reduce accountability——

A question please.

——to the Chamber.

I assure the Deputy that no effort is being made by the Government to reduce accountability to the House. Perhaps it is that Deputy Martin's predecessors droned on in replying to questions whereas we get to the point and answer questions. It is why we have run out of questions today.

No, you have disallowed or transferred them.

The question Deputy Martin asked was on the accountability of the Government to the Oireachtas and I have replied to that question. We have met Opposition Whips and come up with a number of reforms. I hope they will be introduced by the first sitting day in September. The package we will introduce will be meaningful for Members opposite as well as Members on this side of the House, as they will hold the Government to account and we will have more meaningful debate. Fianna Fáil failed on this, as during 14 years in Government it did not introduce one reform.

We have been here for only four months and we will introduce a package of reforms. Deputy Martin is totally wrong to state the Government is afraid to reply to questions in the House. He sat on the side of the House for 14 years and did not introduce one reform. To criticise the Government's reform package and accountability to the House is not meaningful.

A supplementary question.

Deputy Kehoe has given an overly partisan and ridiculous response to the points I made. Over a number of weeks, I have systematically pointed out the degree to which Cabinet confidentiality has been extended. The Cabinet council on economic management is a classic illustration of providing further cover to prevent any genuine questioning of what the Taoiseach is up to. The Government has talked a lot, overspun and underdelivered on all aspects——

A question please.

——of parliamentary reform. The Government's behaviour is increasingly contemptible of the House. I genuinely believe this.

Sorry Deputy——

I will now take leave of the House because I have not received a genuine response to the questions I tabled. I tabled them to the Taoiseach and not to the Minister of State so he could make facile partisan political points.

If the Deputy wants to leave the House I have no problem with it, it is up to the Deputy. However, he has a spokesperson for each portfolio and if spokespersons are unable to question and hold to account Ministers it is not something I can do for them. It is up to each spokesperson. The other parties and groups are well able to hold Ministers to account. I understand Fianna Fáil might be in trouble but it has a job of work to do. The Taoiseach has come to the House on numerous occasions to reply to questions and has given very frank replies.

The Deputy asked a question on holding the Government to account in the Oireachtas and that is exactly what I outlined. I outlined the reforms we will introduce. I have met Deputy Ó Fearghaíl on numerous occasions to discuss Dáil reforms and he is very interested in introducing reform and holding the Government to account. This side of the House is not afraid of the Government being held to account.

Caithfidh mé a rá go bhfuil mé an-mhíshásta nach bhfuil an Taoiseach anseo chun na ceisteanna seo, faoin slí ina bhfuil an Rialtas ag obair sa Dáil, a fhreagairt. Ba mhaith liom dhá cheist faoin ábhar seo a chur. Tá a lán athruithe sa chaoi ina oibríonn an áit seo de dhíth. Ní seisiún maith é seo fá choinne an cheist thábhachtach seo.

I am relatively new here. I know the Taoiseach has spoken for a long time about the need for reform. However, I see no evidence of it. My question is specific. I asked the Taoiseach whether he has taken any initiatives or consulted with other parties to ensure his better accountability to Dáil Éireann. I have asked scores of times how the Taoiseach can justify paying taxpayers' money to unguaranteed senior bondholders while taking money from special needs services and hospitals. I have not received an answer to this question. No matter how many times I ask I do not receive an answer. Will the Minister of State advise me on how to obtain that information so that the members of the public, whom we all serve, can be better informed?

I have no doubt the Deputy will be able to raise the issue of bondholders when he is debating the Private Members' motion on special needs services this evening. Deputy Adams is here on a daily basis asking direct questions to the Taoiseach. I assure him the Taoiseach has answered any question put to him by Deputy Adams directly and truthfully.

The Taoiseach is not afraid to come to the House to answer questions. It is interesting that Deputy Adams asked the Taoiseach about the measures he has put in place to ensure the accountability of the Government to the Oireachtas. This is what I outlined. In his supplementary question, Deputy Adams did not outline what we have proposed for Dáil reform. I understand the Deputy is new to the House but he has been here for four or five months and he should be well able to understand the workings of the House. In his supplementary question he criticised the Taoiseach. The Deputy's question is on Dáil reform and better working of the House. This is what I would like to introduce and we will introduce it, next week and when we return in September. The Government will be held more to account when we introduce a range of reforms.

I have also met the Sinn Féin Whip and he has outlined some of his proposals on Dáil reform. Some of them have been taken on board, as have proposals made by other parties and groups. We will introduce meaningful reform that will make a difference to the House. It will make the Government more accountable and the work of the Parliament more achievable.

The most important role of the House is to legislate. People give out that there is not enough time to debate legislation. However, on a daily basis people call for statements on reports. I have no problem with this but Members cannot have it both ways. Either we debate legislation or we speak about the cat running across the road.

I do not want to talk about any cat running across the road, I want to speak about more serious issues than this. With respect, the Minister of State missed the point I am making. I want to know how to get information if the Government makes a commitment not to put one red cent into toxic banks or not to pay unguaranteed bondholders who are not part of any deal. I want to know how to get information on whether I am being misled if the Minister for Health gives statistics to the House which are at least dubious and are challenged by a hospital action group. If a Minister states social welfare will not be cut or if the Taoiseach repeatedly states special needs assistants in schools will be protected, and we all know children with special needs do not have the assistance they require, how will we deal with this? It is a profound issue.

The mark of any republic must be equality for citizens. They are the people who send us here. If all citizens in the republic are to be treated equally how do we ensure this institution works in their interests as opposed to working for vested interests? That is my only concern. With respect, I am not concerned about discussing cats crossing roads. The Minister of State, Deputy Kehoe, sat on the Opposition benches for a long time. Is there some way for Opposition Deputies to get straight answers to straight questions?

I assure Deputy Adams that the Government is giving straight answers to straight questions. The Deputy referred to statistics in connection with the Minister for Health. While it is great for the Opposition to massage figures and statistics to suit its views, if the Deputies opposite want to listen to the truth, they should listen to what the Minister said.

My point is that the Government made a commitment to keep open the services in question.

That is a matter for the Minister for Health. The issue of bondholders is one for the Minister for Finance. I cannot do anything if the Deputies opposite cannot hold the Ministers for Health or Finance to account when they are replying to questions in the Chamber.

The Minister of State is dodging my questions.

Perhaps Deputy Adams should have a chat with his party's spokespersons and give them some tips on how to hold Ministers to account.

The question is about how to hold the Government to account and introduce reforms. We will introduce a reform package in September to make Parliament a place for more meaningful debate and ensure legislation can be swiftly brought through the House. While I do not want to guillotine legislation, we must bear in mind the original purpose for establishing this Parliament, namely, to pass legislation, which is what the Government wants to do.

Is it not contemptuous, arrogant and insulting to the representatives of the people in this Chamber that the Taoiseach has decided to absent himself when questions about his accountability — my question is not only about accountability to the Oireachtas but to the people — are being discussed? Is it not the case that the reason he has decided to absent himself from questions about accountability is that his credibility on accountability is under serious question?

This is Question Time.

I am asking questions. Is it not the case that the Taoiseach has absented himself from the Chamber when questions about accountability are being discussed because he is not being accountable to the people who elected him in respect of the solemn promises he made to them about issues such as hospital services in County Roscommon and elsewhere? Is it not also insulting, contemptuous and arrogant that, in the gravest economic crisis the country has ever faced, when Deputies ask serious questions about the Economic Management Council in his Cabinet, which deals with the economic affairs of the country, we receive glib, smart alec answers from the Minister of State——

Sorry, Deputy——

——in which he informs us we should raise the matter with the Minister for Finance when he knows well that the Minister for Finance is only available——

Sorry, Deputy, will you ask a question?

——for questioning every four weeks? Is it not entirely legitimate for public representatives to ask about the Economic Management Council? Does Government accountability for its actions, the debates it is having and the issues that affect our country and people in a grave situation not require it to answer questions rather than running away from, slithering out of them or setting them aside by making the glib excuse that they should be asked here or——

Deputy, will you please——

Is the Deputy making a speech or asking a question?

My contribution consisted solely of questions.

They are not questions. The Deputy is making statements. The purpose of Question Time is to seek information.

The Deputy is in need of a psychotherapy.

Deputy Boyd Barrett used the word "insulting". Perhaps he will discuss the word with some of his colleagues in the Technical Group.

I am a member of the United Left Alliance, no member of which made insulting comments.

If he wants to discuss the Economic Management Council, he should have tabled a question about it.

I did and it was——

Deputy Boyd Barrett should speak through the Chair.

If he wants to hold the Taoiseach to account, he should have used the word "Taoiseach" rather then "Government" in his question. Perhaps the Taoiseach would then be in the Chamber replying to his questions. Holding the Government to account is about what happens in the Chamber, which falls to the Government and Opposition Whips. The Deputy will learn this when he spends more time here.

I assure the House that the Government is not afraid of being held to account on any occasion. The Deputy's questions did not mention matters reform of the Dáil or the new proposals on Dáil reform. This shows his contempt and level of interest in the issue. He wants to play by his rules in the House. Unfortunately, he cannot do so because he must abide by certain rules and regulations. We are trying to change the position to make and hold the Government to account and make Parliament more of a debating Chamber than it is at present. We listened to the views of members of the Technical Group and have taken their views on board.

On a point of order——

I have a supplementary question.

I call Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

I acknowledge that there has been active engagement among the Whips in dealing with the issue of accountability. I welcome the fact that the Committee on Procedure and Privileges will tomorrow address a report from the Government Whip. I hope a level of consensus will be achieved and the Government will not use its massive majority to ram it through the House. I welcome the involvement of the Ceann Comhairle and Committee on Procedure and Privileges in that process.

I refer to the two points of principle made by my party leader before he had to leave the Chamber under protest. Both issues go to the heart of the issue of accountability. The first related to the manner in which the Government is establishing Cabinet sub-committees and then hiding behind the cloak of Cabinet confidentiality. The second relates to the inordinate number of questions tabled to the Taoiseach which are being transferred. My party leader cited the example of a question put to the Taoiseach on a statement he made to the Gaelic Athletic Association which was subsequently transferred to a line Minister who was not present at the function in question, did not hear what was said and, therefore, could not respond. In such circumstances, how can the Taoiseach claim he is being accountable to the Dáil on the specific matter raised? Irrespective of for how long the Government Chief Whip replies to the question, it cannot be addressed without the Taoiseach being present.

I welcome the Deputy's comment that we have had meaningful discussions about Dáil reform. He also referred to holding the Government and Taoiseach to account. As the Ceann Comhairle outlined, if a Deputy has a problem with the manner in which questions are managed, he or she should raise it with the Ceann Comhairle who has overall responsibility for questions to the Taoiseach and decides which of them go to the Taoiseach and which to a line Minister.

Questions about the Gaelic Athletic Association should be directed to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport. If the Deputy were to table a parliamentary question to the Taoiseach, I am sure he will not have a problem replying to it. If he is so interested in a speech the Taoiseach gave at a GAA function that he wishes to discuss it, I have no doubt the Taoiseach will provide him with a copy.

As part of the first phase of Dáil reform, a number of proposals will go before the Dáil reform sub-committee of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges tomorrow. The Ceann Comhairle has been actively engaged in this area and has made a number of suggestions. All sides, including the Government, are interested in the reform of the House and we will, in due course, include everyone in the process. Having been elected only four months ago, the Government has already drawn up a package of proposals. We have stated that this is the first of a number of phases of reform of the workings of the House, including debates, Question Time and the possibility of Opposition Deputies raising topical issues for debate. If this means holding the Taoiseach or Government Ministers to account, we will be interested in it.

I assure Deputies that we are not interested in running away. We will continue to be held to account in the House. Opposition Deputies have been elected to the House to hold the Government to account. That is their job but if some of them are unable to carry out their duties to the best of their ability, there is very little I or any other Minister can do in that regard.

I will explain procedure to the House so as to be clear about disallowances and so forth. A question is put to a Minister and not to a Department. If the Minister seeks the disallowance of a question it goes through a procedure and I am the final arbiter. I only deal with disallowances and my decision is based on what is contained in Standing Orders. I do not have a role in transferring questions from one Minister to another. This is a matter of fact.

I am not going to get into a debate. I am simply putting it on the record that my role is not to transfer questions. It is to deal with whether questions should be allowed or disallowed. If a question is incorrectly tabled to a Minister when it should have been tabled to someone else, that question is transferred to the appropriate Minister. I am not here to answer questions. I simply want to put that on record in case there is any misunderstanding of my role.

Tá mé buíoch díot, a Cheann Comhairle, as an eolas sin a thabhairt. I thank you for that information. Would it not be appropriate, out of respect to the Dáil, that an explanation be given as to why the Taoiseach is absent today? Would that not be a courteous, cordial and fraternal thing to do?

A question tabled to the Taoiseach does not necessarily have to be answered by the Taoiseach——

——if the responsibility for the content of the question belongs to, for example, the Chief Whip or a Minister of State. Questions Nos. 6 and 7 are on matters relating to the census. The Central Statistics Office is the responsibility of the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach. He would answer those questions. There will be times when questions to the Minister for Justice and Equality will be answered by a Minister of State at that Department, because of the delegation of responsibility.

I ask the Minister of State to reply to the question.

I assure you, a Cheann Comhairle, that the Taoiseach is not afraid to be held to account. These questions fall under my remit and I came here to answer them. Deputy Adams's questions refer to holding the Government to account. Deputy Adams has not put forward a single suggestion this morning as to how better to hold the Government to account. It is a missed opportunity for Deputy Adams to table a question on this matter and not to put forward some suggestion as to how he would hold the Government to account.

I accept that the Taoiseach does not have to be here. He is entirely within his rights not to be here. Once again, Deputy Kehoe has ignored my question. He can take this as an example of holding the Government to account. I asked if, out of respect to the Dáil and a sense of fraternal good manners, it would be useful for the Dáil to be given an explanation as to why the Taoiseach is not here.

I repeat what I said. These questions fall under the Chief Whip's remit.

The Minister of State is missing the point, or ignoring the point.

The questions are my responsibility. That is why I am replying to them. They are my responsibility. I am responsible for Dáil reform and this falls under Dáil reform. There is very little I can do if Deputy Adams does not want to accept my explanation. That is the question the Deputy asked——

I have given the Deputy an explanation. He asked why the Taoiseach is not here. Am I right in saying that?

All questions should be put through the Chair. We are getting nowhere on this topic.

I am wondering if there has been a coup within Fine Gael. I asked a straight question. Can the Chief Whip give us an explanation for why the Taoiseach is not here? Is he doing something more important?

That is not a supplementary question.

There was a coup in Sinn Féin when they got rid of poor Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and put him to the side benches. I can assure Deputy Adams there has been no coup. The Taoiseach is not afraid to answer any question.

Deputy Adams may be able to understand what I am saying if I say it slowly. The question tabled by Deputy Adams falls under the remit of the Chief Whip. It refers to Government accountability and Dáil reform. If he had asked about the accountability of the Taoiseach then the Taoiseach might be here replying to that question. The Deputy asked about holding the Government to account. That relates to Dáil reform proposals, which is exactly what we are talking about this morning. It is unfortunate that we have been here for the past 35 or 40 minutes and Deputy Adams has not put forward a single practical suggestion as to how to reform the Dáil or hold the Government to account. It is unfortunate that Deputy Adams is missing out on a debate we could have because he is more interested in talking about the Taoiseach not being here and about this, that and the other. I would rather have a proper debate on Dáil reform.

I have been misquoted, a Cheann Comhairle, and I beg your indulgence for a moment.

I have been misquoted too.

Has the Taoiseach taken any initiative or consulted with other parties to ensure his, meaning the Taoiseach's, better accountability?

We cannot spend more time on this matter. I am moving on to the next questions. There appears to be some misunderstanding regarding the questions being asked. The Chief Whip and Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach is responsible for Dáil reform and deals with matters related to it. With regard to other issues, the Deputy will have to table a further question.

I call Deputy Boyd Barrett to ask a very short supplementary question. We have spent almost half an hour on this question.

Everyone else has been allowed to ask three or four supplementary questions. I have had only one chance to speak.

Ask your supplementary question, please.

No member of the United Left Alliance made any comment——

That is not a supplementary question.

An allegation was made on the floor of the House.

It is not a supplementary question.

Is the Minister of State allowed to make an allegation but I am not allowed to respond to it?

This is Question Time.

I will ask a question. I simply want to speak one sentence to clarify a false allegation made by the Minister of State.

This is Question Time. You are supposed to ask a supplementary question. If you do not have a supplementary question please resume your seat.

I have a supplementary question.

Then ask the supplementary question.

There is one rule for me and one for everyone else.

The same rule applies to everyone here.

My question was about the accountability of the Government. That is not just about Dáil reform. It is about the accountability of Government. The Minister of State might agree that we are not allowed to make suggestions because we are only allowed to ask questions. Our question to the Minister of State is: What measures is he taking to ensure the accountability of the Government? If the Minister of State wishes I will say what I mean slowly, so that I can get a clear answer from him. What measures is he putting in place to ensure that when, for example, solemn promises made to the electorate before an election in order to get their votes are then broken, the public have some recourse to hold the Government accountable on those broken promises? Will he, for example, introduce a measure whereby people can get half a million signatures for a petition to call a referendum on an issue where such a controversy arises? Will he introduce such a measure so that the people of Roscommon, Loughlinstown and elsewhere, who had promises made to them about their hospitals, can hold the Government to account for what it said before the election?

We are bringing a number of reform proposals forward. The Whip of the Technical Group, of which Deputy Boyd Barrett is part, was instrumental in making some of those proposals and bringing them forward. Tomorrow, those proposals will go to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I hope they will be on the Order Paper next week and that we can introduce the changes in the first week of September.

I assure the Deputy there will be plenty of opportunities to debate the issues in this Chamber and to hold Ministers to account, whether it is to do with bondholders, Roscommon hospital or any other issue. He will be given every opportunity to hold the Government to account. We are not afraid of giving Members opposite the opportunity to do that and that is why I will introduce those changes.

Fianna Fáil was in Government for 14 years and no changes were made to Standing Orders regarding Dáil reform.

We all agree with that.

We are in office for four months and I ask the Deputy to give us a chance to put the reform proposals together and to bring them forward. If the changes do not work, the Technical Group is represented by a Whip. I aimed my comments at this group rather than the Deputy's party when I earlier addressed the word "insulting". If the Whip is not happy when the proposals are debated in the House in September, she will be entitled to say something is not working at the Whips meeting and that she has a better idea and to outline the changes she would like to make. I have no doubt the Deputy and his colleagues will instruct her to do that.