Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 18 Dec 1996

Vol. 473 No. 2

Private Members' Business. - Oireachtas (Miscellaneous Provisions) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Bill, 1996: Second and Subsequent Stages.

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.

Would a shocked conscience qualify?

The paymaster rather than the notional employer should shoulder the burden. The Bill will empower the Minister for Finance to indemnify a Deputy or party in such circumstances.

The other components of the Bill are mainly of a technical nature. At present Members are deterred from claiming overnight expenses unless a House or a committee concludes its formal business at a later hour. This penalises Members who carry out significant additional work in Leinster House after formal sittings are finished and as a result incur accommodation costs in the Dublin area on final sitting days. It may also result in tired Members undertaking long journeys at personal risk. The Bill will allow an overnight allowance to be paid in those circumstances and no doubt contribute to the safety of all concerned.

The second change to the arrangements governing the overnight allowance is primarily intended to deal with the attendance at parliamentary party meetings when the Houses or committees are not sitting by allowing overnight payments to be made for the night before such meetings. As non-party Deputies may have similar reasons to meet in connection with parliamentary business, the provision extends to all Members but is subject to a limit of five such meetings per year.

The Oireachtas (Allowance to Members) and Ministerial Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Act, 1992, made provision for a new constituency telephone facility for Oireachtas Members. Under the current arrangements, a contribution may be made towards the cost of telephone calls made by Members from their homes or constituency offices. In the case of TDs, the amount to be recouped is 75 per cent of the total cost of calls, subject to an upper limit of £2,000 per annum. The annual limit for Senators is £1,000. The limit for Oireachtas committee chairpersons and Dáil party whips is £1,000 higher.

I consider, in common with Members generally, that the current arrangements are cumbersome, difficult and expensive to administer. Accordingly, I propose that they be amended to provide for the payment of an annual unvouched allowance to Members based on the current upper limits. Payments will be made on a quarterly basis and I will deal with the detailed implementation of the new legislative provision by way of regulations. The revised arrangements will apply with effect from 1 January 1996. I want to tell the House, particularly those who might accuse me of frittering away the nation's finances that I have already made provision in this regard in the 1996 Estimates. I was under the impression our intention at that time was that this could be done under existing regulations. There is no additional expenditure in terms of what has been published and what was provided for.

On the 100 day rule, section 4 (4) of the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) Act, 1938 provides that Members' travelling claims in respect of journeys between their homes and Leinster House must be submitted to the Leinster House authorities within 100 days of the date on which such travel was undertaken. The Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) (Travel Facilities) (Amendment) Regulations, 1994 provided for the payment of a daily travel allowance to certain Members of the Oireachtas on any day in which they travel to Leinster House. Prior to the 1994 legislation coming into force the daily travel allowance was only payable for travel to Leinster House on sitting days. This rule cost a number of Deputies their entitlement to the new allowance because of the delay between the qualifying date and the signing of the required regulations. I decided that Members should be paid the allowance with effect from 10 July 1994 as an exceptional measure and subject to any necessary amending legislation being introduced at the next suitable opportunity. Accordingly, section 6 provides for this.

I commend the Bill to every Member of the House, irrespective of their political philosophical position or their party or non-party membership. The cost of running this House is a mere fraction of the democracy we fund daily and which on current account terms costs £13,000 million. I am an honoured Member of this House and I am here at the grace and favour of my electors. I and every democrat in this House must accept their verdict which is ultimate and final, but while I am here, for myself and every other Member I want the resources to do the job the electorate is entitled to expect and which we must do on its behalf. Democracy is not some kind of fixed rigid edifice that needs no maintenance or that is permanent and beyond the harsh climes of the ill-formed criticism or unctuous envy of those who fail to make it on to these benches but get to write the columns of certain newspapers. I hope the people in the press gallery got that. If some of them want to come down here, they can take their chances.

Democracy is a precious flower, one I love, but one which needs nurturing, nourishment and constant attention. I commend the Bill to the House.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Dermot Ahern.

I am sure that is agreed.

I congratulate the Minister for Finance for having the guts to make a very spirited defence of the plight of parliamentarians in this House and to speak authoritatively against the attack on the Irish democratic system. That is not new in 1996, but has been part of political life for more than a generation. Since the Minister and I came into this House on the same day in 1977 we have experienced ups and downs and have seen things change.

The night of the count when Deputy Currie was elected to Dáil Éireann I was with a wellknown Fine Gael activist in RTE helping with the figures. That man has gone on to bigger and better things and now sits on the Bench. At that time it was my job to comment on proportional representation. After the interviewer congratulated the newly elected Austin Currie in succeeding to move from one Parliament to another, the interviewer asked him what he found most significant about the Irish election. I remember his words at that time which reiterated what I had said some years previously. He said more or less what the Minister said in the early part of his contribution, that the most amazing aspect of the Irish election was the threat to democracy in this State. He had come from a part of Ireland where there was the threat of the bomb and the bullet and people could see and hear the threat to democracy from the people who preached that type of philosophy. He said the danger to politics and institutions in this part of the country was far greater than he could have realised because it was far more insidious. There was a lack of faith among the electorate that any of us make any difference. Unfortunately a number of people who comment on the activities of this House day in day out contribute to part of the alienation of the electorate. Most of them know the reality yet they make no attempt to highlight it. They think that is a good way to sell newspapers or other publications. This concentration among our people and by the media on the financial affairs of Oireachtas Éireann and the allowances given to Members is uniquely Irish, a unique form of begrudgery. I do not know of any other democracy in Europe where there has been such concentration on such an issue for as long a period. In the United Kingdom there are media reports on a wide variety of issues, but they tend to concentrate on the lifestyles of parliamentarians not on the moneys they receive and maybe we should be thankful that the Irish media do not concentrate on our lifestyles. We have made this form of begrudgery into a fine art and what it is doing to the body politic must be seen to be believed. It has also been contributed to by people of this House over a long period of time, maybe to curry favour with the electorate because presumably we all want to be re-elected. Some people think the best way to go about that is to denigrate themselves.

We have brought the House to a low level. I have come to the conclusion that part of the reason for this is that there are too many TDs. People are so familiar with their public representatives that they call on them in the middle of the night, never mind in the middle of the day, including Christmas day. That happens because we are too available to the electorate and to the media. There must be too many of us. We would probably not have put a provision in the Constitution in 1996 that the average population per Deputy would be somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. Do Members think that any political party in this House will be successful in passing a Bill to reduce the number of Deputies in Dáil Éireann? That is not on. I am a pragmatist and realist as much as anything else. The best we can do is to keep the number of Deputies to 166 and increase the threshold.

There is a strange divergence in the minds of our people and among the media regarding our electoral system. We are constantly harried and told by our betters in the journalistic world that we should not do all the things we do, that we should not be so available to constituents and that a good deal of the work we do is not necessary. Perhaps they are right, but if Members do not do that work they will not be re-elected. Each time we try to change the electoral system, the people who lead the charge and get a debate going on the matter come from the same quarter. I have said before that while it was not a mistake for my party to propose a change in our electoral system in 1959 and 1968 it was a mistake not to have opted, on an all-party basis, for the first past the post system. The 1968 amendment, of which the Minister reminded me, probably would have had a greater chance of success.

This is a topic on which I have spoken since a debate in Cavan, I think in 1981, on our electoral system. I have consistently refrained from advocating what precise form any new system should take but I have advocated a type of cross-party approach to ascertain whether we can devise a better electoral system. That being said, the people have a great grá for the current system. When it suits them, our peers or betters in the media also appear to love our present electoral system.

During my 20 years as a Member of this House I noted that, whenever a Member spoke, regardless of the topic, his or her comments would be covered diligently by those who reported this House in the media. I remember correspondents such as the late Ned Murphy and others who operated a pool system so that, no matter what was said here, it was reported in the press. In those days, while it was not possible to go to the Editor of Debates as speedily to obtain the "blacks" of the Official Report, Members were reported assiduously in all of the national newspapers the following day. Now, unless one supplies a scripted speech or contributes to a major debate on a topical subject, one is unlikely to be reported in the press at all.

The expansion of our committee system in recent years was in theory regarded as being very good. Within my parliamentary party I and the late Deputy Brian Lenihan spoke against that proposal, both for the same reason, contending that within our electoral multi-seat constituency system the extension of the committee system would place an impossible task on Members. We also suggested that their deliberations would not be reported by the media given that proceedings in the Dáil were not being covered to any great extent, which is exactly what has happened.

Deputy Jim Mitchell is Chairman of the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs where there have been many fine debates within the past year. Submissions have been invited and made to us offering a wide range of public opinion regarding economic and monetary union. We succeeded in bringing before us people ranging from those who were very opposed to the idea to those who would be in the vanguard of the promoters of the concept. Yet the coverage we got in the national media was derisory. One newspaper made some effort to cover some comments and contributions of some invited commentators while another covered hardly any of our deliberations. That continued over quite a period. We are lectured by those same people that we public representatives are not doing our job, while many of us run from committee to committee. One can predict the time of year when a certain newspaper will run an article about TDs' long holidays, claiming that they work only so many hours in Dáil Éireann whereas Members of all parties and Independents, who must run a lot faster to keep apace, know that to be simply not true.

The Minister for Finance referred to an article in last weekend's Sunday Tribune and I agree with what he had to say. I laughed continuously from about 1 o'clock that day until the following morning. While I would have thought the culmination of our Presidency of the European Union should have been the highlight of the past six months, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs spoke on RTÉ radio explaining why, as a local representative in the town of Tralee, he had contributed £1,000 to a local leisure complex and trying to say that there was nothing really wrong or bad about that. What really made me laugh was that, for the remainder of the day, his comments hit the headlines of all later news bulletins. Given the events of some two years ago I have to admit it gave me some little, smug satisfaction; it would be very dishonest of me not to say that. While not all members of my party would be as friendly with him, I have remained a friend of his over that length of time, even playing the odd game of golf with him since our little contretemps in the months of November and December 1994 and I continue to do so.

That media coverage also gave me some food for thought as to what had brought that about, leading me to the conclusion that certain events over the preceding five or six years, or even those in the past decade or more, and the manner in which politics was conducted within this House contributed to this phenomenon. That conduct was perceived by some as the way to enhance their standing in the polls and was exploited by them. I suggest we have now reaped the disadvantages of that whirlwind. While it may have been good politics for those who engaged in that practice it was of short-term benefit for democracy.

Now that all parties in this House have been in power, practically all parties have been pilloried and excoriated to the same extent as mine, which appeared to have a monopoly when it came to excoriation by the press and media over such a long period. That will be a lesson to us all when planning our tactics for the next ten years. Rather than engage in the type of politics which I denounced over the previous decade, perhaps we will put something different in its place over the forthcoming decade to the mutual benefit of public representatives and our democratic system.

Despite the impression given in the print and broadcast media earlier today, this Bill does not represent Dick Turpin riding up with a shotgun on a Wednesday and returning on the following Friday morning to collect the loot. I was not aware until late yesterday that this Bill would contain a section relating to party leaders' allowances or funds. This money which goes to party leaders is expended directly on all the facilities and salaries paid by party members. From media comment one would think this money was going directly into the hands of members of all parties, which is not the case.

As the Minister for Finance has said, there is a price to be paid for democracy if we are serious about its preservation. I have not seen so many Members in the Chamber for some time. I am glad the Minister advanced such a sound defence of Members because for too long it has been left to a few to defend their colleagues. I am aware that Members on all sides are exasperated with the type of media excoriation to which they have been subjected. I am glad to note that Members are standing up for themselves.

During my membership of this House only two Members were applauded by their colleagues for speaking out and doing something to improve Members' working conditions and allowances. One was the former Taoiseach, Charles J. Haughey, who as Minister for Finance implemented a major improvement in that respect. The other was John Boland, who lost his seat for other reasons, who also stood up for Members' conditions and defended them. I am sorry he is no longer a Member because, even though he could be tetchy on occasion and was not necessarily a friend of all Members, he and I got on exceptionally well. He was not afraid to stand up for Members' rights. I am glad the Minister for Finance has followed in his footsteps.

I thank my colleague for sharing his time with me. The former Deputy, John Boland, is doing an awful lot better in his career as a barrister. Next February I will have been ten years in the House. Within days of coming into this House, my car insurance increased by 25 per cent and when I inquired of my insurance company why I was told it was because I was a Member of Dáil Éireann. I caused the insurance company grief for a long time after that. Ten years ago the facilities in this House were Dickensian. I shared an office with four other Deputies and three secretaries. As a result of a number of changes made by the people mentioned by Deputy McCreevy, the facilities are now much better.

Some people have alleged that this Bill is coming in the dark of the night. I give the Minister for Finance credit for introducing this Bill which has been in gestation for a number of months. Perhaps I am unfortunate in that I am Chief Whip of the largest party in this House and in Opposition, which does not have the facilities of the Government parties, and I am, therefore, responsible for approximately 90 Oireachtas Members and 95 secretarial staff. From the day I was appointed Chief Whip I made the point that I was not elected by the people of my constituency to be an employer.

Article 15.15 of the Constitution states that the Executive must provide us with the facilities we require to do our duty as Oireachtas Members. For the past two years I have fought a rearguard action on behalf of the Oireachtas Members I represent as Chief Whip and the secretarial staff. They and their union representatives may have thought I was turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to their predicament. However, I was not. The employment of secretarial staff in this House and in the constituencies is a minefield of bureaucracy. Many of the staff work more hours than they are required to do under their terms of employment, particularly at election time. I thank the Minister for putting this on a statutory footing which means that negotiations can be finalised with the unions on behalf of secretarial assistants, particularly those in the constituencies, who are in the union and those who are not.

I became aware of a ludicrous situation in the past two years since I became Chief Whip. We are supposed to be legislators who pass laws ensuring that all employers and those in responsible positions have employers' liability. Yet, for the past number of years the secretarial staff in this House and in the constituencies, who are working on our behalf, have not been insured. This defies belief. For the past two years I have made a nuisance of myself at Whips' meetings by constantly stating that this situation could not continue. The situation came to a dramatic head some time ago when a Deputy's secretary had a serious accident in this House. As a result, not only is the State being sued, but the Deputy and the party of which she is a member are also being sued. Such an accident could happen to any secretary either inside or outside this House. At present, constituents who visit a constituency office are insured in case they fall. However, the secretarial assistant who works there five days a week is not insured.

Last night I spent a half an hour trying to explain this situation to a number of our media friends.

All of whom are now in the Press Gallery.

However, not one word of what I said was printed. I was told today it was not newsworthy. How could the fact that 200 people are not insured not be newsworthy? That may be an indictment of this House, but it was not for want of trying on the part of the Oireachtas Members that it was not highlighted.

The State refused to acknowledge that it was the employer of these secretarial assistants. It said we were the employers but I denied this because we do not pay them. It was said that because we have control over the secretaries, we were their employers. Contracts and insurance for secretarial staff are linked because the State refused to indemnify Deputies and political parties for accidents because it was not prepared to say it was employing the staff. However, Article 15.15 of the Constitution states: "The Oireachtas may make provision by law for the payment of allowances to members of each House thereof in respect of their duties as public representatives and for the grant to them of free travelling [which we do not get] and other such facilities (if any) in connection with those duties as the Oireachtas may determine."

Yet, for many years we have been flying on a wing and a prayer as regards the indemnity of our staff.

The Minister should be complimented, not pilloried, for his decisive action. Strike notice was served on the political parties in relation to the secretarial staff who wanted this issue brought to a conclusion by the end of the session. The Whips asked the Minister to come to a number of Whips' meetings, which he did voluntarily, where he explained the difficulties. This Bill is the culmination of those proceedings.

The current issue relates to the party leaders' allowances, which is newsworthy, unlike the issue of insurance for the secretarial staff. The reason this Bill has been introduced was to correct the most ludicrous of situations so that people who work night and day on behalf of Oireachtas Members were insured. I compliment the Minister for doing that.

Thankfully, as a result of this Bill, the Deputy and political party in jeopardy as a result of a substantial High Court claim will be indemnified. They had nothing to do with the accident but were brought in on it. One of our committee chairmen is in an equally disastrous situation where, again, the State refuses to indemnify him in regard to a pending libel case against him. He had to employ his own solicitors to defend him in regard to an issue in which he became embroiled as a committee chairman. He was acting on the advice of the civil servants in charge of the committee when he replied to a newspaper. They dictated a letter to him, part of which, unfortunately, may be the cause of the action, and now he is being sued in a personal capacity. I have said to this person privately that there should be no more meetings of that committee until such time as indemnification or help is given to him. Otherwise we might as well close up shop. Why should Members become committee chairpersons if they will leave themselves open to court actions in regard to committee business? Anyone who takes on these responsibilities needs to watch out because they could be in serious jeopardy. That issue has yet to be addressed and it is most unfortunate.

It is vital we put these issues right. Other members of my party will deal with the parliamentary leaders' allowance. We have a number of points to make on the proportionality of the way in which it is divided. This issue was brought up in the recent past as a result of the adverse publicity in regard to the Price Waterhouse report. It is being dealt with in this Bill and we support that. People cannot have it both ways. There should be a proper system of State funding where people are given assistance. When Fianna Fáil was in opposition from 1982-7, many of the policies that were ultimately put in place upon entering Government in 1987 such as the International Financial Services Centre and Temple Bar were a result of research we did in Opposition. The Minister stated earlier that if one was to rely on civil servants, with no disrespect to them, perhaps those policies would not have come to the fore. That is why a political party as big as Fianna Fáil needs proper research facilities.

Despite the adverse publicity we have a front bench of 15 people who are supposed to shadow Ministers with huge Departments behind them on a daily basis. Between them they have one fax, one photocopier and two secretaries. In this day and age, why not give them the proper facilities? It should not cost anyone money to enter this House but unfortunately it has.

Every measure in this Bill is sensible, well designed, welcome and overdue and should be supported by every Member. The most important point, undoubtedly, in the Bill as far as the public is concerned, though perhaps not for the secretarial staff or individual Deputies, is the parliamentary leaders' allowance. It is important that the proposed amendment being brought about by section 5 is "in respect of expenses arising from the parliamentary activities, including research, of a qualifying party." It is about making us better parliamentarians. It is about "no money in my back pocket and no extra benefit to me." It is concerned with making this body a better Parliament. This Parliament is run on a shoestring in several respects, the most important of which is that it is always beholden to the Government for a few shillings for this, that or the other.

A subcommittee of the Select Committee of Finance and General Affairs was established to take a long, hard look at the proposed legislation on compellability and privilege of witnesses at Oireachtas committee meetings. We found ourselves in the position that we could not even hire advisers to tell us what was the situation. A barrister, a decent colleague of mine, said not to worry and that he would continue to advise us even though we did not have the money to pay him because he presumed in the last analysis we are all gentlemen and ladies and that the bill will be paid. The clerk and the committee chairman, Deputy Jim Mitchell, could not say that they will pay his bill straight up. Is it not a strange thing in a parliamentary democracy that it cannot say, with legal force, it will get advice on its relationship with the Executive and undertake to pay for it.

The system of parliamentary leaders' allowances has always been tipped massively in favour of the Opposition and within the Opposition for historical reasons in favour of a smaller party in Opposition so that the Progressive Democrats effectively got one third of the money available to Opposition parties. That was not a princely sum of money. In terms of engaging expertise, researchers, running a fax machine, dealing with press queries and day to day matters such as paying for a mobile phone for the person who has to liaise between you and the press or sending people on delegations to Sellafield, it was grossly inadequate.

A formula has been devised in such a way that it leaves us no worse off at the end of the day but not substantially better off. We were not looking for more, but I can well imagine that other people in this House thought if a party was entitled to this, surely other parties are entitled to more. I understand the proposition that the system in so far as it was skewed in some way was skewed in favour of the Progressive Democrats on a relative basis. However, in absolute terms, it gave us nothing to which we were not entitled. Like every other party, we are faced with the need for press relations officers and researchers and to send members on delegations to commission research. Like every other party, we undertake expenditure. It may be somewhat crude and doubtless other Members may argue on the detail of it, but in the last analysis the formula struck tends to give recognition to the proposition that every party has standing expenses, which are not doubled for bigger parties. One cannot have half a press officer, unless that person is a half wit, or half a telephone, half a fax machine or half a delegate at Sellafield and there are certain fixed overhead expenses that are recognised by this formula, which is reasonable.

This House should stand up for its rights vis-ávis the Executive. It is about time committees of this House said they are entitled, as of democratic right, to the resources they need to operate. They should not have to ask an assistant principal officer in the Department of Finance for permission to be advised properly on how they stand vis-à-vis that Department — I am not singling out the Department of Finance in particular. This House, as a democratic assembly, has democratic rights to give to itself sufficient resources to discharge its duties. Every Member should stand up for the right of the House to adequately fund not the remuneration of its Deputies but its activities.

Nobody can say we are adequately funded. An Opposition Deputy who goes to a meeting of an Oireachtas committee, attended by a Minister who has six or eight people behind him handing him notes, does not feel on equal terms with the Minister although he may be on equal terms in that he received as many votes as the Minister. An Opposition Deputy attending an Oireachtas committee or a Dáil debate on legislation or a motion is, as of right, entitled to as much assistance as any other Member. Perhaps that sounds startling because the tradition is that the Executive weights in on one side and the Opposition must flounder around looking for voluntary help from briefless barristers with ambition, somebody who will draft a Bill for them as an act of charity. That is not the way to run a democracy or to strike a balance between the rights of citizens. All Members received a quota of votes and everybody is equal. The House should stand against the Executive and say we require it to give us the resources to discharge our functions.

I take issue with some of the Minister's comments. He said parliamentary democracy in Ireland is under attack, but I do not agree. If he says the present controversies amount to an orchestrated media attack on the institution of parliamentary democracy, that is overstating the situation. In recent times media reports have tended to suggest there is something wrong with the behaviour of some public people, elected and non-elected, that their behaviour has been less than acceptable. There have been suggestions that they received moneys in circumstances——

Who are the non-elected?

We will find out later.

The Deputy is making an accusation.

I am talking about media reports, I am not standing over them. It is not an attack on this House for the media to report such matters. It is not an attack on parliamentary democracy for the media to demand explanations of that which has come to light, nor is it an attack on parliamentary democracy — I make this point very firmly — to demand the highest standards of parliamentarians or democrats. I fully accept that there has been a frenzy of innuendo and that people have built rumour upon rumour. I agree with the Minister that the Waterworld story represented a remarkable low in building something out of nothing. When I came out of RTÉ recently after a ceremonial joust with the Minister of State, Deputy Burton, in a tape-recorded interview——

That must have been some sight.

——I found the Tánaiste, Deputy Spring, sitting glowering in the reception outside the studio, ready to go on air, and from the cut of his countenance he was not in good humour. When I heard he was about to explain that story, which did not amount to a hill of beans——

People who read about that matter in the papers got the innuendo, not the substance.

I accept that may have happened. The Tánaiste's friend, Mr. Finlay, should remind him that when one is explaining, one is losing.

I thought of that too.

That was a story best ignored because most people who read the whole story would have said there was nothing in it. However, even the Tánaiste makes mistakes.

Deputy McCreevy said no other democracy concerns itself with the incomes or financial status of its representatives as much as we do, but that is not true. MPs in Westminster go through the same meat mincer every time they vote themselves an increase. There is an horrific hullabaloo if they get an extra penny. American Congressmen and Senators spend half their lives defending themselves from charges of impropriety or allegations about excessive expenditure on their part.

A few people in the media have taken advantage of recent rumours and controversies based on rumours to smear the whole political apparatus, but the best we can do in those circumstances is to shrug it off and say it is not correct. Attacking the media in bulk is wrong and saying we as representatives of parliamentary democracy are under attack is wrong.

Would the Deputy like to declare an interest?

Some media comment has been way over the top, but the great majority of people are only looking for explanations and are not making broad general judgments against parliamentarians. We have to be fair and to have a balanced view, and some things require explanation — we hope some things will be explained tomorrow and other things will be explained in a few weeks, but in the last analysis the media is there to keep us on our toes, not to hound or besmirch us.

They have a monopoly.

That is true, but so do we because this is the only Oireachtas.

We do not, because we are unable to print what happens.

I agree with Deputy Connolly in one respect — it is certainly the case that Members of this House put in long hours debating matters which receive no coverage. I laughed at a letter in The Irish Times today stating that TDs work only 90 days a year, which it is not true.

Even the quality of the readership of The Irish Times is going down.

They are in for a rude awakening.

I wholly support the intention of this Bill, which is to do justice to the parliamentary system. However — I hope I will not be seen as opportunistic in making this point, because it is my gut instinct — recent events provide no more reason for funding elections out of the public purse than if they had not happened.

If Mr. Sam Smyth had not published his story, or if the "you know who" stories had never appeared, there would be neither a stronger nor weaker case for funding elections from the public purse. On the contrary, the vast majority of people do not want politics to be funded entirely in that way. If that is to be the case, the question which the Vincent Brownes of this world must address is whether innuendo and suggestion will always be attached to even the smallest private contribution to political parties or politicians? Is one supposed to be dramatically less interested in a person who gives £3,000 than in a person who gives £30,000? I do not know the answer, but no one who is serious about politics should suggest that we could ever fund the entire political process from the public purse. It follows that we cannot pretend that every private contribution to a political party is in some way tainted. I welcome the Minister's remarks to that effect because, going by some of the things one reads, one would be afraid to receive £5 towards party expenses as it carried a degree of luggage with it.

We should forget what we are told about political parties being funded in every country in Europe except the UK and Ireland. In every democracy in the world, it is lawful, proper and respectable for people to contribute privately to the political process. There is no democracy which decides that process is so important that no one may give money. It is an absurdity to suggest that it should be free from private contribution.

That is fine, provided the cheque appears on paper. What does one do then?

I will come to that.

The Bill is not concerned with that.

Deputy McCreevy is the great cynic and agnostic about the goddess OTA — openness, transparency and accountability — but let us be clear that it is the right of an Irish citizen to support the democratic process and political parties.

It is the right of the citizen, subject to some constraints, to which I will return, to do so with privacy. It is not the right of everyone to know that Deputy McCreevy gave me £100 or I gave his constituency party £200 at a given stage, because if it is made a matter of public record all contributions to political parties will be destroyed. If every contribution is made public, one will inevitably root out those who are willing to be generous to parties. Why should a businessman in a small midland town give £1,000 to Labour if he knows it will appear on a list and Deputy McCreevy, Deputy Connolly or I will call on him to ask if something is wrong? We cannot have a system like that, therefore we must have some degree of privacy.

We have had that system for years.

I accept that. People must be entitled to pay funds towards political causes if they wish. They are entitled to pay to charities, gaelic football or rugby clubs, and all manner of things. We should not put ourselves on a lower scale and decree that we should not receive private contributions because there is an assumption in the perverted minds of a few people that every contribution to the democratic process carries with it an unacceptable degree of luggage.

To qualify that, I am willing to live with limits. I do not know what sum will be fixed but £5,000 or £10,000 is enough for any individual to give to a party. Perhaps £180,000 to one party, even over two or three years, is too much for one individual to give without there being a sense in the public mind that the person must have bought considerable influence with it. There should not be an automatic assumption that any contribution to a political party is somehow tainted, and that people who give money to assist politicians in their democratic efforts and to parties they believe in are somehow suspect. No one suggests there is something wrong with giving £5,000 to the Anti-Apartheid Movement and that such a contribution must be declared. No one says that £5,000 given to SPUC or another pro-life group must be disclosed. We should be careful about this process, because it puts us on a spiral of lack of self-respect. It suggests that the political process is different from all others and private contributions to a political party are virtually always tainted.

I can say all these things because I know that, apart from the Greens, my party receives the least contributions of all the political parties in this House. We receive less in corporate sponsorship and contributions than the Labour Party. That may be fair because we had ten seats at the beginning of this Dáil and it had 33, but Labour should not kid itself in this respect. We certainly received nothing from the trade union movement, not that I begrudge Labour what it receives.

The Progressive Democrats did not offer anything to the trade union movement either.

We receive nothing from IBEC, ISME or corporate structures in the private sector. Every significant party operates on more or less the same basis of having to look for subscriptions from supporters and if one is looking for subscriptions one must ask people who have money rather than those who do not. The suggestion that one should ask for a substantial subscription from those who are struggling to keep bread on the table is a nonsense.

We need to maintain self-respect. I believe that this is a House of honest men and women and that, if some people disappoint us in that standard, they will turn out to be very few. I am willing to make the assumption that everyone in this House is honourable and committed to honourable democratic politics. I believe that, in the main, everyone who contributes to the democratic process by buying a £5 or £100 ticket for a lunch or by giving £1,000 at election time is only trying to assist this country by fortifying democracy. None of those people should feel condemned as someone trying to corrupt a pure political process which knows nothing about money.

A political process dependent upon the public purse in its entirety would be twice as corrupt as a political process that gets a little help from parliamentary activities and from other sectors. We will never get to the point of perfection where those who have power, influence and economic wealth will not use it in some way to achieve their economic goals. If the Minister sets up a situation on paper whereby nothing goes to political parties except through the public purse, he will play straight into the hands of those who will bend and break the rules and take the money in the back pocket to achieve political ends.

Politics and democracy is an imperfect system and it requires people for diverse motives to get together. Some are protecting class or business interests, others are protecting family traditions while some come out of pure, unalloyed idealism but those people have to co-operate in parties. They get together in parties as political movements and they have to live in a community and be resourced by it. I do not believe, however, that the only way to be resourced by the community is to be resourced centrally by it because the naive assumption underlying that proposition — and thankfully nobody here is suggesting that — is that it makes for better or purer politics. No political system worth its salt is operated on that basis.

Any political system that has any vibrancy, self-respect, dynamism and strength, any democracy that really believes in democratic values, would not portray itself as such a pure spirit that it cannot take money from ordinary people to fund its day to day activities. The whey-faced puritans with drips at the end of their noses who say they know better and that somehow the political system can be funded totally out of the Exchequer and that will make it honest, pure and incorrupt are the people we should really be afraid of because they are the Cromwells of democracy and we will all have our heads on the block when they come to exercise the kind of political power which such abstract theories could bring about.

The Minister's proposal is right but phase two, which he has flagged from Minister Howlin, is wrong. I will go along with some of what I have heard Minister Howlin's Bill will contain but I also say as a matter of deep personal conviction that we should not erect standards by which nobody can thrive and which in the last analysis mean we have to accuse ourselves in public of failing to live up to unrealistic standards.

We need to remind ourselves that we are one of only five democracies in Europe that have remained completely democratic in this century. It is true also that the standards of probity and integrity in public life in this country are as good if not better than in any other democracy in this or any other continent. High standards were set at the founding of the State by W.T. Cosgrave, followed through by the next Government under Eamon de Valera and have largely been followed since that time. I should have said that I wish to share my time with Deputies Nealon and McGinley.

That is satisfactory and agreed.

There are two major pillars in any democracy — a free and thriving media and a free parliament. It is right and necessary that there should be tension between both, that is unavoidable, but it is not right that there should be conflict between them which has the effect of eroding democracy. Those are the circumstances in which we are now.

Nobody can complain about criticism on a factual basis in the media, that is one of its roles, but I do complain about the persistent misrepresentation of politics and politicians and attributing the wrongdoing of one politician to all politicians. If a doctor is struck off the register by the Medical Council for misbehaviour, we do not hear those in RTÉ talking about "the doctors", but if a politician is suspected of wrongdoing all we hear from Pat Kenny, Gay Byrne, "Morning Ireland", the "News At One" and other programmes is "the politicians". We are all brought down by this deliberate misrepresentation.

We need journalism and investigative journalism but during my time here I have seen the coverage of the affairs of this House deteriorate both in quality and quantity. What passes for investigative journalism was highlighted by an article last week in the Sunday World. Somebody sneaked into the Members' bar, took photographs and then wrote about the plush surroundings in which TDs consume subsidised drink. I do not know if the Chair knows the price of a pint in the Members' bar but I can go to pubs in Terenure where the price of a pint is cheaper. That article was a deliberate distortion of the facts because it implied we were all living it up on subsidised drink. Such misrepresentation takes place on a daily basis.

Lest anyone think these type of articles are confined to the Sunday World, I was asked to serve on a sub-committee of Members to examine facilities, etc. We sought a report from consultants on the overall facilities and they reported back to us that TDs' pay had fallen £10,300 below that of principal officers in the Civil Service in the past ten years. The Irish Times, the paper of record, turned that fact into the headline, “Greedy TDs Looking for an Increase of £10,300”.

In an article in the past week the same reporter accused the Taoiseach of wrongdoing. In the article the Taoiseach admitted that Fine Gael had received three donations totalling £180,000 from Ben Dunne, but two paragraphs later the reporter referred to the Taoiseach admitting this wrongdoing. That was insidious reporting which misrepresented the facts. The Taoiseach did not admit any wrongdoing and was not guilty of any wrongdoing.

The Irish Times used to be the paper of record but it rarely reports the business of the Select Committee on Finance and General Affairs. On the occasions it reports on the committee, it does not mention any of the significant contributions made by Members, whereas the Irish Independent reports fairly on those contributions. In articles by some of its leader columnists The Irish Times has criticised the lack of work on the part of the committee.

This problem must be addressed without conflict between politicians and the news media. Perhaps we should hold a conference with representatives of political parties and the media to sort it out because it is undermining and eroding democracy. The cynicism which now abounds about politicians is incredible. None of my friends would consider going into politics because they know that every party in this House is experiencing major difficulty in attracting candidates of any quality to run for the Dáil. One person summed it up for me when they said it is low pay and low esteem.

If one reads the media one would think we are all on huge pay. However, many Members, including myself, receive less pay here than we would in our original employments. The public, because of what they read in the media, would not believe that we are prepared to make financial sacrifices for the honour of public service.

However, people are not prepared to sacrifice their reputation, which is why it is becoming increasingly difficult to get quality candidates to run for any party, even where a seat is assured. That is true of my party and I have heard it said by the Leaders of Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. We cannot get good candidates to stand for election, even where seats are going a begging, because of the corrosive and continuous misrepresentation of the profession of politics, which should be one of the most honourable professions. Perhaps there should be a conference between the political parties and the media to see if we can set new standards.

How can we as politicians, seeing this misrepresentation on a daily basis, agree to an easing of the libel laws for the newspapers which defame us and others? How can we agree to that even though in a responsible democracy less onerous libel laws could be a good thing? I welcome this Bill in its entirety but it does not go far enough.

However, I have one criticism to make. Much of what is represented in the media is wrong but some of it is our own fault. How often are there only two or three Members in the Chamber? That is the image which is depicted on television every day. People get the impression that because we are not present in the Chamber we are skiving and not working, whereas we are in our offices or at committee meetings. We must stop this nonsense of sitting for long hours to address empty seats. We must reform ourselves.

Deputy Ahern mentioned the poor facilities for Opposition spokespersons. I have written papers on this matter and argued that the Opposition should be given a pro rata allowance per spokesperson so that they are at least as well funded as the chairman of a committee. We cannot have a situation where the chairman of a committee is treated better than an Opposition spokesperson who has to shadow a whole Department. That matter should be addressed in this Bill.

Additional secretarial and research assistance should be available to chairpersons of committees and Opposition spokespersons. The committees themselves should have more staffing and funding because the present level of staffing is ridiculous. I agree completely with Deputy Michael McDowell about an earmarked Vote for the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government, which is supposed to be accountable to us, controls our finances. It can stop us investigating it by cutting off our finance, which should not be the case. There should be an earmarked Vote.

We should insist that Ministers are answerable to this House. I have criticised Ministers — yesterday I criticised the Minister, Deputy Howlin, who is an extremely attentive Minister, for leaving the Chamber during the two hour debate on one of his Bills. When I came into the Chamber to make my contribution the Minister was not here. I am sick of addressing issues when the Minister is not present to hear my contribution. That shows disregard for the House. We are wasting our time making contributions because Ministers do not feel they are accountable to the House.

The Constitution states that the Executive shall be answerable to Parliament. The Government, through the Whip system and its control of finances, controls Parliament and treats it in a cavalier fashion. That is true not just of this Government but of all Governments. We must also reform that issue. We have a great deal to do to get our house in order, which we can only do by funding committees and Opposition spokespersons and having an earmarked Vote for this House so that we are not under the control of the Government. I have much more to say but I must share my time with my colleagues.

Much of the comment about the media has been confined to the print media, which is not fair because one needs to take valium to listen to RTE these days. I listened to Pat Kenny's programme this morning and was depressed by the time I got to the Dáil. There were four whinging, whining items in a row. There was no good news — one would not think we had a booming economy with the best housing in the world. RTE is a whine-in from morning until night. That is what people are listening to every day. I listen to Radio 1 and I do not know if other stations are any better. Is it any wonder that people are disillusioned about politics when all they listen to is this whining? Pat Kenny had people on his programme advocating the legalisation of the sale of cannabis. If I listen to any more of Pat Kenny and other programmes I might end up using cannabis to calm my nerves. RTE is not beyond criticism. I am not surprised Radio 1 is losing its audience because I turn it off much more often than I used to.

I will be very brief as I am sharing this time with Deputy McGinley and Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. Since 1954, when I first came to the House as a junior reporter for the Irish Press, I have observed the workings of Leinster House at close quarters in one capacity or another. This is the first time I have seen a member of the Government or Opposition defend the work and practices of Deputies as they should be defended and as the Minister for Finance did tonight, for which I praise and applaud him. We have fought on many occasions in this House for the interests of all sorts of people but we have been a total and miserable failure at defending our own interests, looking over our shoulders and seeing what effect it might have on the electorate and what fall out there might be. However, the Minister stood up to it tonight and, in so doing, did a service for democracy.

Sixty years ago Deputies were part-timers and amateurs, although very good and dedicated people. Since then enormous changes have taken place, particularly the huge increase in the workload. However, the services are still archaic, arcane and virtually the same. In regard to the question of secretarial assistance, we are now thought to be in good shape because we have a secretary each. However, if that secretary is working in a Deputy's constituency, his or her office is vacant while the Deputy is going about his or her duty in the House. If a Deputy's secretary is here the Deputy's spouse or family has to do the work in the constituency. That is not a proper secretarial service. Research assistance is non existent. I have been a Member of this House for 16 years and only once have I done proper research by going to the National Library and the local library to look up all the necessary sources, which is a reflection on the back-up system provided.

There is a great deal wrong with our electoral system. While we have a single transferable vote in multi-seat constituencies we will have problems, but that is a matter for another day. The public likes the proportional representation system and will not change it. However, if all parties got together we could arrive at a halfway house of, perhaps, half the Deputies coming from the constituencies and the other half coming from a list system which would allow them to devote all their time to legislation. However, if we are honest, we will admit that we who are elected as legislators to analyse, examine and pass laws spend 90 to 95 per cent of our time on our constituency work because otherwise we will not be re-elected. It is of no use to be a great legislator or Minister if one is not re-elected to the House.

We should also pay ourselves a decent amount. Every pay increase we get is ridiculed while everyone knows the reality that it is very difficult to get by as a Deputy without an outside income. It is time we stopped moaning about our lack of facilities and provided them for ourselves, as we have the opportunity to do. People will respect us more for doing that than for moaning about it and saying we are not able to deliver because we lack facilities. The end result will be a better Dáil and Legislature. In turn we will be able to provide a better service for the people who elect us. The Minister has taken a courageous stand. Recent times have been bad for politicians. The stand taken by the Minister and by the Opposition speakers will be good for democracy.

I wish to give a minute or so of my time to Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.

I support previous speakers and congratulate the Minister on the courageous way he introduced this Bill in the Dáil this evening. He has given a lead to everyone. I will be 15 years a Member of the Dáil next February and I have never commented on the working conditions and remuneration of Deputies. Fifteen years ago I shared a room with five other colleagues on the third floor of this House with one secretary between us. The conditions have improved a great deal since then. Most of us have an office of our own, and most of us have a secretary. However, there is much yet to be done if we are to give the best service possible to the constituents we have the honour to represent in the Dáil.

Because of headlines that appear in the papers, many people believe Deputies get in excess of £100,000 a year. However, out of that we have to pay for secretarial assistance, telephone calls, even the envelopes we use to communicate with our constituents which cost £250 a month. I spend £500 on telephone calls every two months, and all this is calculated as income for the Deputy. I was principal of a fairly large Gaeltacht school before coming here and the difference between my salary as principal of that school today and what I get as a TD is but a few hundred pounds. No one comes here to become wealthy. They come here to serve their constituents to the best of their ability. I believe in a free press, but it should be a responsible press and tell the facts as they are.

Democracies are very hard to establish. Sometimes we fool ourselves by believing that our democracy is finished. Of course it is not. It is an unfinished democracy and there are many tasks still to be done before we can be absolutely sure we have a true democracy. We have an unfinished democracy as far as women in this House and on our committees are concerned. We have very low numbers of women in our Parliament, and we have low numbers of young people. That is the most obvious example.

In many ways the debate tonight is a watershed, a market about being more open about the work of politicians and the supports we political parties need if we are to do the job properly. It is important for us to recognise that there is great disillusionment with politics, and great cynicism. Many political parties throughout Europe are in turmoil and in conflict, and the public have serious questions about how they operate. The other side of the debate tonight, the other discussion which we also have to have is about how we can continue to reform this Parliament to make it more relevant, bring our procedures up to date so that we can take emergency motions and respond quickly to issues of public concern, and continue to reform how our political parties operate. We must face the fact that political parties here, just as elsewhere, are moving from a culture of secrecy where power was wielded and used secretly, where patronage was heavily used, to much more open decision making and less secretive financial transactions. We still have a long way to go. For example, we are having a new debate on the lottery, which I welcome, but we have to be more open about where money goes, where it comes from, how financial decisions are taken within political parties and within Government.

I congratulate the Minister on bringing in this legislation. The other side of it is the need for ongoing reform both within this House and within our own political parties.

Is it the intention to have ten or 15 minutes for Committee Stage?

On a point of order, I suggest that we conclude Second Stage at 10.45 p.m. I will be very brief in concluding to allow 15 minutes for Committee Stage.

Is it agreed that Second Stage will conclude at 10.45 p.m. and that we will proceed to Committee Stage until 10.55 p.m. when the Minister will reply? Agreed.

With the Minister facilitating us in this way I will try not to take up my full allotment of time. I would like to share time with Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the principles outlined in this Bill, particularly those dealing with the indemnity, the secretarial assistants and the party leader's allowance. Much has been said by the media about the public anger at the presentation of this Bill. I do not know whether we should blame ourselves or the media. Perhaps the fact that we have spent so much time reacting to what the media have said only encourages them to blow the whole thing up again and again. Perhaps if we paid less attention to them it would be better for us all round. Any member of the media who knows anything about the lifestyle of Members of this House would not write the kind of articles we have seen over a period of time. Unfortunately, many of the articles are written by people who visit this House infrequently and think they know everything.

I am a full-time politician; quite a high percentage of the Members of this House are full-time politicians. It would be almost impossible to do the job conscientiously without a full-time commitment to it. I and other Members on all sides are committed to the political process and to democracy. I make no apology to the media, to anybody in this House, in Government or in the Civil Service for that. Neither do I apologise for fighting for the facilities to do that job. As far as I am concerned, I am answerable to my electorate. I let them judge me at the end of each term of office. We should not respond as we do to the media because it just feeds the frenzy.

Much has been said in the media over the years about our facilities, etc. With the exception of one or two items, the equipment in my constituency office has been provided by me out of my pocket. In the middle of September a letter from the Houses of the Oireachtas advised me that my 75 per cent allowance on telephone calls had been used up, at a time when I had already spent £2,500. While I do not whinge about this, I will not allow anybody to suggest that I get £2,500 to spend whatever way I like. Nor do I make £2,500 to £4,000 worth of telephone calls to my friends; practically all such expenditure is on behalf of my constituents and I make no apology for that.

The day is fast approaching when Members should take charge of our affairs by means of an all party committee. It should draw up a budget for what we consider necessary to provide the kind of service our constituents seek. Civil servants should not decide that if we have a telephone allowance we should only be covered in respect of 75 per cent of our telephone calls, nor should they decide that we should only get equipment that is nearly out of date by the time it is installed in our offices. We should make such decisions.

The electorate, not civil servants, Ministers, the media or anybody else, will ultimately decided if we have abused our position. Unlike all others who criticise us, we must face it. I have no reason to doubt the Minister's sincerity. Perhaps he would take the next step and agree to the establishment of such a committee. I ask him to consult the Whips, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and Members on this matter.

With regard to the leaders' allowance scheme, we all recognise the need to allow a tapering system to the advantage of smaller parties. I accept Deputy Michael McDowell's argument that smaller parties have set-up costs and other expenses. However, the system outlined here is very unfair to the larger parties and I ask the Minister to reconsider it. I know my idea does not find favour, but the allowance set out in section 5 of £10,000 per year for ten to 50 Members should be increased to 70 or 75 Members. We are being disadvantaged as a party. The Front Bench has only two secretaries and very poor equipment. Will the Minister consider this aspect on Committee Stage? I support the Bill and will support any move in this House by any Minister and from any side of the House to improve the facilities for Members, not for themselves, but to allow them to do the job for which they are elected.

I have great admiration for Deputy Quinn, but today I applaud him as Minister for having the courage and commitment to introduce this legislation. Section 4 originated in response to my experience as a Member. I had to employ a firm of solicitors, a junior counsel and a senior counsel to defend me against something for which I was not responsible. My party had to employ a solicitor, a junior counsel and a senior counsel for the same purpose. What happened to us could happen to any Member and to any political party in the House.

Like my colleagues, I was shocked to discover that none of the approximately 250 secretarial assistants in the House, and employed by the political parties in a technical way, was covered by public liability or employers' liability insurance. We now have an indemnification system in place. It took a long time to establish and I thank the Minister for taking a personal interest in it. Without his insistence, no principal officer or civil servant at any other level in his Department would have been prepared to introduce it.

Speaking on behalf of rural Deputies who do not have constituency secretaries in this House and as somebody on my party's Front Bench who has been involved in much work and technical detail over the past two years in preparing for various discussions, debates and Bills, I echo what the Minister for the Environment said on many occasions when he sat on this side of the House. He always made the point to Government — Fianna Fáil was mostly in Government then — that Opposition Front Bench spokespersons do not have facilities available to them from a research or equipment point of view to be able to deal in as comprehensive a way as he or she would like with legislation before the House.

We all realise that we do not have the back-up. We have one facsimile machine and one photocopier. I share a researcher with five of my colleagues, which is an unacceptable situation for any Front Bench spokesperson. The Minister should look at this because it affects many Members, regardless of who is in Government.

The Government Telecommunications Network, the GTN, is a tremendous facility for Members when they are in the House. By dialling an extension we can contact directly the relevant official in any Department in any part of the country. Unfortunately, those of us whose secretarial assistants are based in the constituency do not have that facility. I live in Galway city. There are two Departments in Galway, one in the city and one in Connemara. Both have the GTN facility, yet when my constituency office needs to contact them my secretary must make a trunk telephone call. There is a huge difference between the cost of a telephone call from Dublin to a Department and from my or any other Member's constituency office to Dublin.

We recently obtained the wonderful facility of Lotus Notes. It means that Members can obtain debates in the House, parliamentary questions and other such facilities. I invested in E-mail for my constituency office long before it was provided to Members by the Minister's Department and I have a local service provider. Every time I use my E-mail facility in my constituency office I can do so at the price of a local call. However, when I want to use Lotus Notes it costs me the price of a trunk call. This places me and other rural Deputies at an enormous disadvantage. While the Minister appreciates that, principal officers or other officials in his Department do not. All a principal officer in the Department of Finance knows about my constituency is that it is beautiful, has lovely mountains, beautiful beaches and a great place to go on holidays——

And has five good TDs.

——but damn all about the cost involved, including telephone costs, to a TD based in that or any rural constituency. There is a £2,000 limit on telephone calls. My bill last year for the telephone, mobile telephone and fax machine amounted to £6,000. What good is £2,000 to a rural Deputy and to others who incur even greater costs? Where is the justice and the equality for rural Deputies as opposed to city Deputies? What civil servant in the Department of Finance would be prepared to move, on behalf of the Department, to Galway city and face the huge costs incurred by rural Deputies? Lotus Notes should be on one's local service provider and the GTN service should be provided in the constituency office of every Deputy.

I am extremely appreciative that my secretarial assistant of 11 years who had a serious injury in this House and will never work again, because she is paralysed from her left shoulder to her finger tips, and who previously had given years of service to the party, will now be able to take a case and that I and my party and the Houses of the Oireachtas will be indemnified against it. I thank the Minister for making that possible.

The House will bear with me if I do not take up the time by replying, other than to say that I and others who have tried to bring this legislation to this stage accept that this is a collective effort by the Whips of the various parties. We would make progress if we accept Second Stage and move on to Committee Stage. I am disposed to respond to a suggestion made by Deputy Dempsey under section 5.

Question put and agreed to.