I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I express my appreciation of the co-operation I have received from all parties for the speedy and timely way in which they have dealt with this measure. It was done on the basis that it had been outstanding for some time and that it was necessary to have it enacted before the end of the year. It has been stated in some quarters that it is being done with indecent haste, on the contrary it is being done with the speed necessary to ensure we deal with some of the measures which have been outstanding for almost a year.
I have been a Member of this House since 1977. I had the honour to be appointed to the Seanad by the late Brendan Corish in July 1976. I stood for election in June 1973 and have been an apprentice politician from 1968 or 1969. Against that background and that experience, I address my fellow parliamentarians in this respect, parliamentary democracy in Ireland is under attack.
It is under attack, not as it has been at various times and places throughout this century by enemies who openly admit their contempt for the ballot box, from authoritarian groups or military elites but from those who see themselves as its friends, and tragically some have travelling companions, members of which are in this House. The method of attack is not the sudden coup or the putsch, or the bomb or the bullet, it is the soundbite loaded with innuendo, the headline crafted with subliminal images. The impact is corrosive, not sudden but no less pernicious for that.
The message conveyed is that we in this House, who are elected by the people to represent them and legislate for them, are corrupt — on the take — and in it for the money. It is rarely put so crudely — we are talking about professional communicators — but the overall relentless impact of acres of print over a period conveys that impression. We now have one evening newspaper in the city. Deputies on all sides would be well advised to read it. The overall impression, over the acres of print, is not a healthy one. All of us accept that we are fallible, all of us appreciate that we, like others, may be tempted but, despite our political and ideological differences, we resent and are justified in resenting attempts to tarnish us with the sins, or alleged sins, of a few.
Our lives, public and private, are subject to a scrutiny which our predecessors neither expected nor would accept. The commentators who comment on our lives refuse to have their lives or their lifestyles subjected to the same scrutiny or exposure. All we ask is that comment on our actions, our putative transactions, be accurate and couched in a form to which we as individuals can respond rather than vague allegations directed at us as a group.
Let me be specific. The Sunday Tribune of 15 December 1996 featured two banner headlines: one reputedly referring to a member of what some describe as the third House of the Oireachtas. Precedent prevents me from commenting on its contents. That allegation was comprehensively rejected by a spokesperson on behalf of Aras an Uachtaráin on the Monday as reported in The Irish Times. As I said on “Questions and Answers” on Monday night, “What it says in the papers”—which has a listenership of about 800,000, approximately ten times the circulation of the Sunday Tribune— suggested that my party Leader and Tánaiste, friend and colleague, was an investor in a project which had received money from a particular benefactor, who has recently featured in news reports. What the story referred to was the reality that Deputy Spring with, I suspect, every other public representative in north Kerry had contributed to a community enterprise which, for reasons of corporate structure, was constituted as a limited liability company and, therefore, donations were described in the form of shares and investments. The assertion was that there was a beneficial interest in Deputy Dick Spring and Christy Spring's investment in a community facility. I presume every other public representative made a similar contribution. The newspaper headline and “What in says in the papers” at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Monday morning, implied to a much wider listening audience, than the readership of that newspaper would otherwise achieve, that there was a nasty relationship between a politician investing in a project, to which donations had been solicited by the same politician, and that, therefore, there was a less than honourable relationship. In effect that was the guts of the story. We all know in this House that that was a million miles from the truth. I offer that by way of the most current illustration to underpin the point I have just made.
It is not that we as politicians have failed in any significant way to advance our case. The problem is that we have for too long lacked the courage to take the message to the public that there is a price to pay for parliamentary democracy. We and our families pay — and pay willingly — that price in terms of time, toil, tedium and disruption.
However, it is the price the public asks us to pay and we are prepared to pay it. The Government is indicating in this Bill and in another measure sponsored by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, what that price, which we believe represents value for public money, will be.
It may come as a surprise to many people to learn that political parties are unknown legally in the Constitution. They existed before it was put to the people, they have existed since and hopefully they will flourish into the future. Throughout most of the history of this State — and even before that in the case of my party — they have been effective in articulating the aspirations of individuals or groups in our society. The silence of the Constitution notwithstanding, the reality is that political parties are essential to the functioning of parliamentary democracy. No parliamentary democracy in the world functions without some form of formalised political party structure. A parliament composed of 166 independent Deputies would be an interesting phenomenon. I am sure you, a Cheann Comhairle, would love to preside over such a parliament. How workable it would be I leave, Sir, to your more superior and mature imagination. I mean no disrespect to my absent colleagues whose perspectives and electability often serve to remind all parties of the consequences of failure in formulating or communicating policies. Without the tension or clash between divergent approaches to political, social and economic issues generated by the activities of political parties malign developments in our society could go unquestioned and unchallenged.
Developments on this island during the 19th century did much to imbed in the public consciousness the assumption that political parties and political activity should be funded by the donations of party supporters and the activities of volunteers. Students of modern history going back to the days of Daniel O'Connell, the creator, if not inventor, of mass participatory parliamentary democracy, could not but be aware of that phenomenon. The people who learned that lesson carried it with them to Australia, America, New Zealand and Canada. It is little wonder that Jim Bolger, whose grandparents came from Wexford, was recently re-elected, that Paul Keating, who addressed this House and visited Tynagh to see where his great-grandfather Matthew lived, was elected Prime Minister of Australia and that Brian Mulrooney and others were also elected. Irish emigrants took with them, in advance of any other such group, a knowledge of political democracy which they utilised in such a way that they left an extraordinary legacy of political acumen and history among Irish communities throughout the world. They did not learn this from the birds and the bees, the hawthorn bushes or hedge school masters, they learned it from people like Daniel O'Connell and others.
For much of the lifetime of this State political parties have been funded through the activities of party supporters and volunteers. However, this has started to wane. It is open to the nostalgic to argue that it would be preferable if what parties needed to sustain their involvement in the democratic process and to enable them to examine and develop policies suitable for the public was funded in the traditional way. However, dangers lurk in such a system. It was no accident that a popular programme on politics some years ago was called "The Hurler on the Ditch", for in politics as in sport people are more inclined to be spectators than participants.
The funding of parties exclusively by supporters involves a risk. A party with wealthy supporters may more easily garner resources than a party which strives to represent the weak or vulnerable in society. Some business people are prepared, because of family traditions or individual commitment to an ideology or outlook on the world, to make financial contributions to charitable, sporting or political organisations with a mission. There is nothing dishonourable in such persons deciding to make their contributions to a political party rather than to some other organisation, or being invited to do so. As our society has become more sophisticated, the perception of such contributions has changed. Given the current climate, it is understandable if contributors and political parties are compromised when such funding is maintained.
I do not wish to articulate the case for State funding of political parties per se, although my party has long believed that the case for so doing is very strong. The information we received from our sister parties in the European Socialist group stated that, with the exception of that paragon of progress, the United Kingdom, political parties in all European countries from Finland to Greece, Portugal and Denmark receive state funding. We have argued in favour of such a system for many years and I have written about the need for it on many occasions.
What I am concerned with here is the financing of one element of a political party, that is the parliamentary party which has to fight its corner in this House and in the Seanad throughout the lifetime of each House and which is, in a very real sense, the shop front for the values, ideas and policies which each party wishes to promote nationally. Discussions have taken place from time to time on increasing the resources available to these Houses by, for example, recruiting researchers to the joint staff. I am not averse to such a development but it is important for a parliamentary party, when it wishes to develop policies, undertake research or deal effectively with an issue before the House, to be able to draw on the resources and views of a wider pool of skill, talent, experience and imagination than it is likely to find among those who have chosen, with the best will in the world, to work in a small segment of the Civil Service.
In larger countries the driving force behind the development of the details of policy initiatives taken by parties, whether in Opposition or in Government, has frequently been the think-tanks they have established or the foundations associated with them. It can be argued that Government parties can draw for these tasks on the civil servants employed in their Departments. However, I question whether civil servants are the right people to ask to develop ideas for political parties and whether their basic rights are compromised in some way by asking them to engage in activities where the product of their labour is utilised for party political purposes. The Government and individual Ministers can draw on them for work related to their Departments. However, this is always within the constraints of the life cycle of a particular Government and in the knowledge that civil servants are non-political and able to distinguish between the legitimate demands of their Minister and work related in essence to the political outlook or longer term strategy of his or her party.
Section 5 has attracted a degree of controversy. It provides a new basis for funding parliamentary parties by providing a clear and fair mechanism of funding, by increasing the total amount of funds available to support their parliamentary activities and by introducing changes to a system which, as it grew through a thicket of legislative provisions, developed quirks and anomalies which hardened civil servants found difficult to explain and politicians found hard to justify. The kernel of our approach is to accept that parliamentary activity involves expenditure for party, no matter how small. Consequently, there are economies of scale for larger parties. Accordingly, we propose a tapered system of allowances which have an in-built bias towards smaller parties. The allowances will not be paid to individual party Deputies, but to the leader of that party in Dáil Éireann. We also recognise that such a system should always have, as our current system has, an element of advantage for the parties in Opposition. We propose to do this by imposing a discount of one-third on the allowances to which Government parties would individually be entitled. Finally, we are giving recognition for the first time to the role played by Independents by providing for the payment directly to each non-party Deputy of a sum of £10,000 for the same purpose. The Bill requires that such moneys are used only for parliamentary activities. This is based on the legal advice we received on foot of the McKenna judgment and must be viewed in the context of the comprehensive measures which I as Minister for Finance and the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Howlin, will introduce by way of an amendment to the electoral Bill.
The measures I propose to introduce here, subject to the agreement of both Houses, must be considered in the context of the integrated package of measures proposed in the Bill that will be amended by the Minister, Deputy Howlin. The first element of funding will be used to regulate the way elections take place, the second relates to the Bill under discussion and the third will cover moneys available on an ongoing basis for the activities of registered political parties which may or may not have elected Members in the House. The Minister for the Environment will give details of that to the House in due course. The funding provided for in this legislation can be used only for parliamentary activities. There is a specific and wide-ranging prohibition on their use for electoral expenditure. That covers the substantial enhancement of the leader's allowance to provide for an increase of approximately 150 per cent to parliamentary parties representing registered parties who have the good fortune of being represented in the House.
A scheme of secretarial assistance for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas has operated since 1971. Under its provision staff are employed by Members or parties in Leinster House or in constituencies. In addition, some move to Government offices as the parties or Deputies with whom they work take up ministerial office. For some time it has been suggested that the scheme under which this employment is provided might not be consistent with Article 15.15 of the Constitution, which allows for the provision by law of "facilities" for Members of the Oireachtas. The scheme under which we have operated for many years does not have a specific statutory base.
When this issue was last before the House many of the people in question resented being described as a "facility for members" but, in pure legal terms, the provision from Exchequer finance of secretarial staff and equipment constitutes a "facility" under the Constitution and it is necessary to deal with it accordingly.
I am simply providing a mechanism under which the scheme, or a scheme which replaces it, is made compatible with the Constitution and fire proofing against the termination, because of a legal technicality, of the employment of more than 200 people known to all of us, a prospect which arose early in the life of this Dáil. The simple legislative provision I propose to introduce in section 2 does not alter the terms and conditions under which people have been employed and does not set aside any agreement they have made with individual Deputies, Senators or parliamentary parties. Secretarial assistants are currently selected by the parties or individual Deputies who are thus technically their employers.
Although the major task of an employer, payment falls on the Exchequer. Section 4 is designed to deal with circumstances in which a secretarial assistant is injured in the course of work and initiates legal action. At present an action is directed against the Deputy or party and could involve them, individually or collectively, in substantial cost.