Before asking the Minister of State to move the Second Stage reading of the Bill I wish to convey a message from the Minister of State. The Minister of State has indicated his intention to ask the Chair to direct the Clerk to make a correction to the Bill under Standing Order 136. The correction is as follows: In page 10 of the Bill, line 27, to move the comma that appears after the word "by" where it secondly occurs and place it at the end of that line. This is an error and the change does not alter the meaning of the text.
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) Bill 2009 [Seanad]: Second Stage.
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission came into being on 1 January 2004. The commission is composed of 11 members under the chairmanship of the Ceann Comhairle. The Cathaoirleach of the Seanad is anex officio member, as is the Clerk of the Dáil, who also has the title of Secretary General of the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas. There are also seven ordinary members, four from the Dáil and three from the Seanad, who are appointed by the Members of each House, and one representative of the Minister for Finance.
The responsibilities of the commission include the payment of the salaries and allowances of Deputies and Senators, the payment of the salaries of staff, including Members' staff, the payment of certain pensions and the provision of other necessary facilities to enable the business of both Houses to be transacted.
Since its inception, the commission has overseen the smooth running of services in both Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, and has instituted a number of significant improvements in the services provided to Members. Among these was the creation of the new research service for Members which was a major development. This involved increasing the library staff of about 12 by a further 20 to create a research service modelled on international standards. I am told that this has been used by over 90% of Members in the current Dáil and all feedback indicates that it is highly regarded by Members.
The primary purpose of this Bill is to make available the funding for the commission over the coming three years. The current funding comes to an end on 31 December 2009. The Bill proposes in section 6 to make available to the commission a sum not exceeding €360 million to carry out its functions for the three year period from 1 January 2010 to 31 December 2012. This sum has been agreed with the commission and takes into account foreseen expenditure. While it is less than the €393 million provided for the past three years, it must be seen in the context of the current budgetary situation. The proposed funding carefully balances the needs of the commission with the availability of resources during the period.
Members will be well aware that the financial provision for public services will be under severe budgetary pressure in the coming years. With this in mind, the Government will expect there to be a reduced drawdown by the commission from central funds in 2010 onwards as a result of savings on pay arising from the public service pay reductions announced by the Minister for Finance in his budget speech of 9 December last.
In addition to the financial provisions, the Bill provides for renaming the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas as the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. The purpose of this is to strengthen the identity of the service. Members will be aware that the public, and indeed parts of the public service, often find it hard to appreciate the distinction between the elected Members of the Houses, the commission and the administrative staff of the commission, and their respective roles.
The distinct role of the Civil Service staff and senior management structures of the Oireachtas are specifically recognised in the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. These structures have served both Houses extremely well and remained in place following the establishment of the commission in 2003. However, significant changes in Civil Service management systems have taken place in the 50 years since the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959 came into force and it is accepted that the configuration in that Act, particularly in terms of senior management structures, needs to be modernised. In that regard, the Minister for Finance is committed to ensuring, in co-operation with the commission, that the administrative structures of the Oireachtas do not become out of step with Civil Service norms in terms of adapting flexibly to the needs and demands of modern management practices.
The renaming of the office comprising the staff of the Houses as an entity now to be known as the Houses of the Oireachtas Service does not affect the operations of the service or its relationship with the commission under the 2003 Act. The commission retains all the powers and functions conferred by that Act. However, the change in title may facilitate further development of the service and closer integration of the service with the commission as its governing body in future legislation.
Section 2 provides for this renaming while section 14 and the Schedule, Parts 1 and 2, update the references to the Office of the Houses of the Oireachtas in other Acts and statutory instruments.
The Bill includes some technical amendments to the existing legislation and I would like to take the opportunity to present them briefly to the House. Section 3 sets out the advice and support function of the newly named service, which is identical to that currently carried out by the office. Section 4 sets out, in greater detail than heretofore, the functions of the commission in providing for the running of the Houses and its policy-determining and oversight roles. It also includes new measures clarifying the commission's accountability to the Houses for the performance of its functions and its obligation to secure value for money in the use of resources. Finally, the section also clarifies that the charge to be levied by the commission under the existing legislation for the provision of certain services and facilities to outgoing Members following a dissolution of the Dáil is to be for the period of dissolution only.
Section 5 is a new provision for the drawing up of a code of conduct for commission members. While they are already covered by other codes, these are not specific to their role as members of the commission, and a uniform code is desirable in the interests of good governance. The purpose of section 7 is to bring the process for removal of a commission member more into line with that used for Oireachtas committees.
The 2003 Act specified that Oireachtas staff who were civil servants before the establishment day continued to be civil servants after that day but did not legislate specifically for those appointed subsequently. Section 8 amends the original section to include both categories in the civil servant classification. The objective of section 9 is to amend the original legislation to provide a statutory basis for the procedures to be followed by the commission if a Supplementary Estimate is required in any year. This is in line with current practice since the establishment of the commission. Section 10 is a new provision setting out the role, membership and functions of the audit committee. The commission's audit committee is currently established on a non-statutory basis and has been in place since 2004. The section reflects the current membership and practice with the exception that it proposes that the commission may appoint up to three external members where currently it has two.
I wish to draw attention to one amendment that was made in this section by the Seanad. This was to insert a new subsection (10)(b) to state, effectively, that, in addition to advising the Secretary General on financial matters, the audit committee shall also advise the commission on matters of corporate governance relating to its functions. The subsection in question provides that the audit committee reports to the commission on its activities at least once a year. The Minister for Finance was happy to propose this amendment and I believe Deputies will agree that it makes for an improved Bill in that the commission members will be fully advised by the audit committee on all corporate governance matters within its areas of responsibility. I should, at this stage, recognise the contribution of Senator Joe O’Toole in framing this particular amendment.
Section 11, which replaces section 15 of the 2003 Act, updates the provisions of that legislation by designating the Clerk of Dáil Éireann as Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service and chief executive of the commission. It also designates the Secretary General as the officer accountable for the commission's accounts. Section 12 expands on the Secretary General's functions as set out in the 2003 Act, including accountability to the commission for ensuring economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the use of commission resources and the preparation a statement of values for the service. The section also clarifies the Secretary General's rolevis-à-vis the commission in relation to various other statutory functions.
Section 13 restates the commission's responsibilities in relation to injury claims made by secretarial assistants employed by Oireachtas members or political parties. It also repeals the relevant sections of earlier Acts which it supersedes.
The usual definitions, Short Title, collective citation and commencement provisions are contained in sections 1 and 15. It is intended that the Bill will come into effect on 1 January next year.
Most of the proposed changes are minor or technical in nature. They are intended to give greater clarity and functionality to the legislation underpinning the service on which we all rely. Deputies will appreciate that the process of updating the legislation is an ongoing one. I have no doubt that in a few years time other, and possibly more significant, changes including, as I have signalled, to the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959, will be required to keep up to date with best practice and developments in the way our parliamentary business is done and wider developments in public service management. The three-yearly budgetary process is valuable not just in facilitating financial planning, but also in giving an opportunity to reflect on the adequacy of the structures underpinning the management of our institutions and their funding.
To conclude, the Bill is designed to enable the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to continue to provide the services which have facilitated both Houses in the carrying out of their work over the past six years and to facilitate the further development of those services. I believe Members will agree that these objectives are worth pursuing. It is important also to point out that the changes proposed in this Bill have been approved by the commission. Accordingly, I commend the Bill to the House.
This is one of the rare occasions when we get the opportunity to ask pretty fundamental questions about ourselves and whether politics in Ireland is fit for purpose. It is a very important question at the moment, because so much change needs to be made in this country that politics alone can lead. It is a unique situation whereby getting ourselves out of the economic and social problems we have is down to leadership from within the public rather than the private sector. This will indicate the extent to which we can successfully transform the way we manage public utilities and public services and measure the extent to which we can solve our problems.
We need to look very hard at ourselves as part of this debate. As the Minister of State knows, I have tabled an amendment in the name of the Fine Gael Party asking that we should provide just enough money for nine months, during which period there would be a review of the extent to which we are delivering value effectively for the money we spend. The Minister of State will know that over the past five years the staffing levels within the Houses have increased by 43%. There are the same number of politicians, but the budget has increased by 65%, equivalent to €54 million.
Some €33 million of that increase comes from the increased administration cost of running the Houses. We are running a big business here, which is using up substantially more resources than it has traditionally done. That is not necessarily good or bad, but the question is whether we are managing our affairs in a way that would square up to best practice in a modern, effective parliament. Sadly, people watching this debate would not give the Oireachtas top marks for being an effective parliament. They might even wonder if politics can ever provide the sort of leadership to get us out of the problems we face. That is sad, but true.
We face much scepticism and cynicism about our operations, but we have brought a lot of these problems on ourselves. We have allowed much of the real power that should reside in this House to slip away in various ways. Unfortunately, however, we have discovered that in many cases the power that slipped away from us was abused. We have been caught napping in respect of our responsibilities. I am not picking out the current Government, but the Executive has to bear a lot of the responsibility for this. The Executive has been quite content to use a strong Whips' system and guillotines. It has also been content to use consultants and the protection of freedom of information legislation on those consultancies in order to remove from public scrutiny much of what any parliament ought to be doing as a routine exercise.
In the last Dáil it went to a ridiculous extent whereby virtually every Government backbencher was on the Executive's payroll in one shape or form, as a chair, vice-chair or convenor. That has been part of the problem because the Executive preferred not to be subject to scrutiny and wanted a dumbed-down Parliament. The courts have also clipped our wings and this is arising again now with the suggestion that we should investigate what happened in the banking system. Parliament has been curtailed by the courts, which decided that if the Oireachtas is conducting an investigation, we cannot make any adverse finding against an individual. In my view, our power has been usurped, although I have the protection of the House. The worthy judges on the Supreme Court have made a decision and we have been constrained as a result of it.
Another way in which we have been damaged as a parliament, and offer less value for money, is by the Government's lazy habit of setting up an agency for every problem. That has blind-sided the Dáil in many cases. We saw the establishment of the HSE and FÁS, which are bodies that cannot be held to proper scrutiny in the House. They are not answerable to the Dáil in any sense. We have now discovered that many of the 250 additional quangos that were set up by the Government over the last decade have vague mandates and weak accountability. Parliamentary accountability has almost disappeared and been destroyed as a result of that trend.
Similarly, we have had the establishment of the social partnership network with ever more elaborate procedures to deal with legislation that ought to be dealt with here. In many cases, debates about the distribution of power and resources within our community have migrated away from the Oireachtas, which is elected by the people, into the social partnership arrangements. Those arrangements are currently in abeyance. The issue is not the value of social partnership, however, but the accountability of decision making that properly belongs to Parliament. We have been edged out in so many of these areas.
Happily, the Fourth Estate is not with us, but changing media coverage has obviously altered the way the Dáil works. It is theatrics which catch the media eye. We do not have to cast our minds back too far to see how one phrase dominated coverage of a particular debate, which imposed cuts worth hundreds of millions of euro on some of the most vulnerable sections of our community. Yet if an outsider watched what the Dáil was doing that day, they would think it was presiding over some sort of circus. I think that has damaged us.
The Oireachtas is demanding 65% more in resources than it did five years ago, but in every one of these areas we are witnessing less genuine product and less scrutiny. The Oireachtas is less able to hold power to account, which is the vital role. We need to look at value for money in a crude accountancy sense by asking how many people are doing different staff exercises, whether there is duplication and if people are employed to best effect. In addition, however, we must also question the purposes and extent to which the Dáil has let itself slip into lazy patterns, thus allowing power to move away from it.
We now face real challenges and must do three things as a result. First, we have to follow the money, which is something we have abysmally failed to do. Second, we must hold power to account, which we have also failed to do. Third, we must offer some leadership at this time. The old phrase "money talks" is correct. We have a bizarre situation whereby we decide our budgets not on the basis of whether agencies are delivering high performance, but on what they got last year. Agencies come in here with plus or minus 1% or 2%, which is their Estimate for next year. When we make decisions on what we will assign to different agencies, we are not presented with any information about the targets they are setting for themselves or their delivery in the past year. Agencies do not bid for money based on the value of their performance, but on the basis of what they did last year. That is totally unacceptable in a modern parliamentary system.
One may ask why the public service has not reformed itself, but I am asking why the Oireachtas has not changed the way it assigns money. If so, we could for once start to reward agencies and managers who deliver high performance. We could recognise that in the way we assign our money. The Government predominantly dictates the way in which we assess how money is spent in this House, but that Dickensian system must change.
I have been a Member of this House for a long time and I have seen things get worse, not better. I have seen taxation and expenditure measures being brought in on the same day, yet that was trumpeted as a new system of budgetary accountability. What a joke. It meant that both spending and tax were then veiled by the secrecy of the budget. Previously, we got at least two weeks when we saw the spending proposals before the budget debate. There was some semblance of a debate about what the choices were, albeit a truncated and inadequate one. It is ludicrous to vote money through the budget when it will be a further six months before Departments bestir themselves to tell us what targets they might have. We will complete our study of those half way through the year in which the money has already been spent.
On behalf of the Committee of Public Accounts, Deputy Rabbitte offered a model for changing that, but it was met by a stony silence on the Government side of the House. It is not good enough to give them bread and circuses, having the Oireachtas amply provided with resources, but not give it the tasks it needs to undertake. There has to be a change in the way we spend public money. Equally, there must be a change in the way the Oireachtas holds power to account. Powerful interests in this society have not been held up to probing scrutiny whatsoever. Instead they have been greeted with accepting faith by regulators, by and large.
Recently, I listened to the ESB regulator saying why costs were going up there — it was because the ESB said its costs were going up and therefore the regulator put the prices up. What sort of scrutiny or regulation is that? A regulator is obliged to look beneath those facts and challenge the costs to see if we are competitive and effective in doing what other agencies do. We know we are not. We have one of the most expensive electricity systems. The same is true with regard to the effectiveness of our banking system. We thought we had regulators who were regulating and riding shotgun on the banks, but the banks increased credit at breathtaking speed. Every red light of banking was on, but nothing was done about the situation.
The Oireachtas may criticise others — I agree they hold the primary responsibility — but we need to learn from what has happened. We must institute systems where the Oireachtas will genuinely hold people to account. It must hold the regulators to account. We should vet the appointment of people to these positions. We should vet the boards that represent the State in spending these moneys. These areas should be vetted. It is not some outrageous request from the Oireachtas or some attempt to set up a Star Chamber to expect that people would be willing to come before the representatives of taxpayers before they take up a post. They should have a mandate that is meaningful to the Oireachtas and be seen to be people with adequate skills to do the job. However, we are denied that.
We need to supervise the budgets these agencies get. We need to set performance standards for them and to be able to verify at the end of the year that they measured up to those standards. We need to force these agencies to compare themselves to international benchmarks of best practice. When the financial services legislation was being debated in the House, I remember saying to the then Minister, Charlie McCreevy, that he had just put a bulldog clip around the regulations we had in the past and presented them to a new agency and said that was best practice. The regulations were never examined to check whether they squared up to international best practice at the time. That task was not done because the public service has allowed itself to be dumbed down and hollowed out by all these agencies it has set up. Now it does not have the capacity to evaluate what they are doing. We must pull that power back into the public service and into a system that is accountable here in the House. We seriously need to pull ourselves up in this regard.
To return to the issue of the allocation of resources in the House, I agree we have doubled administration, but to what extent has that increased the forensic work of holding power to account, holding budgets to account and demanding standards of performance from those who work on our behalf? The answer is that it has only done so to a very limited extent. The Minister of State praised the resources in the Oireachtas Library, but the library is a long way from the cutting edge of parliamentary accountability. We need closer accountability with regard to resources and need genuine parliamentary accountability in the House. We have had too many years operating in a comfort zone and must strip that away now. We must recognise that governments are fallible and the role we have in holding governments to account is an important part of political accountability that we have allowed become derailed.
It requires Government to change this also. It is unacceptable that large agencies of the scale of the HSE and FÁS are not accountable to the House in a meaningful fashion and that we cannot demand access to information. Every Deputy will admit we do not get this accountability. We need to equip the House to do that important work. As we have learned in recent times, the failure to do that work adequately has had enormous consequences for us. For that reason, I feel strongly that we need to look beyond some sort of accountant coming in and conducting a slide rule exercise on what we do. That is not the sort of review I want. It is part of what we need, but a much bigger part is deciding on best practice for parliamentary scrutiny. We must ask how we get from where we are — the bottom of the fourth division in my view — to the top of the first division. In the Lemass-Whittaker era, politics changed events. Politics set a new vision, made new demands and drove a new way of doing things. We are in a similar situation now. If politicians do not step up to plate now and are not willing to do things differently, we will fail.
This Bill, slipped in as it is at the end of the session, unfortunately, prevents what I believe is a much more important debate. With the utmost respect to the Minister of State, it should not be handled by a junior Minister. This Bill deals with the core of governance. The question is whether the Oireachtas can square up to the challenge of governance. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, well and I think he would probably agree on the need to change many things. He would also agree we have seen a slow bicycle race on the issue of reform. For as long as I have been here, we have seen the issue of reform sidetracked. I do not blame any particular Administration for that. When one gets on the Government side of the House, one tends to wonder why the opportunity to scrutinise should be given to the Opposition when one did not have that opportunity oneself when in opposition. Perhaps this is the time, when the Fianna Fáil Administration is probably facing its dying period in government and faces, forcibly or otherwise, a period in opposition, to make changes that would provide a decent job to Members on both sides of the House. While I do not believe the Minister of State is empowered to provide the reform, I hope the wisdom of the former Ceann Comhairle, who intends to speak, will prevail upon others to see the need to change if we want to square up to these challenges.
This is something about which I feel strongly. Perhaps this runs in the family because when my brother was here, he also felt strongly about it. There is much undone business in the area of reform, for example, with regard to the spending of public money. In the 1980s, when we did not have two farthings to rub together, we introduced programme expenditure reporting, which ensured we could see how much was going to something such as the apprenticeship programme, what the output of that programme was, the cost per person trained, and the placement success of the programme. At a time when we did not have two pence to rub together, we were able to do that. That only lasted two years before some gremlins in the Department of Finance decided it was too expensive. Is it not some reflection on priorities that it was too expensive to give us information on what our money was achieving? The same people have allowed power to slip out to agencies without proper mandates or accountability, which has damaged the country. We must now rethink this. McCarthy has offered us an agenda. He proposed closing down 43 agencies, affecting some hundreds of bodies. That is only the start. We must genuinely reform the way we do our business.
I apologise for going on for longer than I should have, but it is important we take a hard look at the Houses over the nine month period our amendment suggests. I hope the Minister of State will accept our amendment and will return to his colleagues and say it is about more than just finding some consultant to go into the Oireachtas Commission with a slide rule to tell us we should trim this or that agency or replace somebody doing two jobs with one person. This is about examining what the Oireachtas is about, its task and how to deploy its resources to deliver that task effectively.
I will share time with Deputy Morgan, if he comes into the House.
The essential and main thrust of the Bill is about providing a triennial budget for the administration of the Houses of the Oireachtas, replenishing the budget and making an estimate in terms of the costs of administration of the Houses of the Oireachtas over the coming three years.
I am a serving member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The budget provides for something in the order of an 8.5% reduction over the forthcoming three years. I believe this will turn out to be more than an 8.5% reduction. The finances are being well husbanded at present and the projections in the report of an bord snip nua will be realised within the three-year term. The objective of reducing the number of staff by 42 will be easily met. There will be almost 30 fewer staff by the end of this year.
Since November 2008, the commission has been considering savings. As the outturn for the end of this calendar year shows, significant savings have been identified and have accrued. There will be fewer staff. The commission is currently engaged in the process of considering the McCarthy report line by line in so far as it relates to the cost of servicing the two Houses of Parliament. Further savings may be identified as a result of that exercise, which is being taken seriously.
The projections of the authors of the McCarthy report will be met easily but, as Deputy Bruton says, that is neither here nor there in one sense. It is important that there be value for money and efficiency in the administration of the services to the Houses. It is important that the Houses, more than anywhere else, take the McCarthy report seriously, even if the Ministers do not. That the Ministers do not is clear because six have gone public to disown it and eight more do not know about its existence. It is left to the Minister for Finance to thumb through it, which is all he has managed to do so far. This does not excuse the Houses from considering it seriously to determine what is in it of merit. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is in the process of doing so and has done considerable work in this regard.
One would think from public commentary that the only purpose of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is to look after the expenses and allowances of Members. This is a gross distortion of the work it is concerned with. Not too long ago, while listening to the radio while driving to work, I heard my friend and colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, telling Pat Kenny I was going through the expense items of the former chairman of the commission, approving his foreign trips and generally getting him to check in with me to approve his telephone bills and various other details. While I could not see the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan's face as he was on the radio, I believe he said this without batting an eyelid. It was no bother to him. He told the nation that whatever expenses had been incurred were due to my negligence and failure to monitor the laundry list of the previous chairman. That kind of commentary does not help paint a proper picture of the role of the commission.
The main items that have contributed to the increasing costs incurred by the commission are the enhancement of the Oireachtas Library and Research Service. Members have generally been very appreciative of the improvements. I do not know how much these services are used. Reading the Seanad debate, I did not find much evidence. Senators White and Bradford may have referred to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service but it was not referred to much. That said, it comprises a big improvement to the resources and services available to back up Members of the House.
The previous chairman of the commission launched a number of initiatives on raising awareness of the functions of the two Houses. There was an outreach programme with schools and public open days. Colleagues may have views on their efficacy. They were a good idea although there may be adjustments to make by tweaking here and there.
A not insignificant decision was made to restore Leinster Lawn. I never cease to be amazed by my friends in the Fourth Estate. I have not seen a sidebar anywhere on the restoration of the lawn. I read a great deal about it having become a carpark, but not a murmur about it being restored properly to its original pristine condition, as was required by the planning regulations. If we had exempted ourselves from the restoration, we would have heard a great deal about it.
I heard a very emotive interview between Deputy Alan Shatter and Pat Kenny — I listen a lot to Pat Kenny — in which Deputy Shatter was extremely concerned over the money we spent on the restoration. Reading between the lines, it occurred to me that the interview was really more about the election of Deputy George Lee than about the restoration of Leinster Lawn so I moved on. That was important.
Deputy Bruton properly drew attention to the increased moneys put at the disposal of the Oireachtas in recent years. He will note the big expense is associated with the committees. The Ceann Comhairle will know that the commission recommended on an all-party basis, notwithstanding the views of anybody who demurred, the reduction of the number of committees from 24 to 15. This was put to the Minister for Finance. He stated in his budget speech of the previous year that he noted the commission was going to cut the number of committees. As with the matter of Members' allowances and pay, the statutory authority is the Minister for Finance, not the commission. The statutory authority in respect of all these matters is the Minister for Finance and, in respect of the committees, it is the Taoiseach. Therefore, there is absolutely no point in pointing to the commission asking it to implement the cut.
There is no way a House with 166 Members can support 24 committees. It is absurd and ridiculous and the only reason for their existence is that the former Taoiseach wanted to give everybody who was not awarded a ministry of state a chairmanship and stipend to keep him happy. He started to distribute stipends for deputy chairmen and convenors.
I do not know why my friend the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, is on my mind so much. Some time ago I was taken aback completely when I met him running out of a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts patting his brow and perspiring furiously to welcome me and say he, as Whip of the committee, had no quorum. "Whip of the Committee of Public Accounts" is a contradiction in terms. An audit committee does not have a Whip. Everybody was on a stipend for the reasons we know.
The Minister for Finance did not put an end to this. Many Members on this side of the House would point to the fact that we will not make too many commitments on this matter now because we have been kicked around for 12 years. Members on the Government side took 21 of the 24 or 25 positions. They did so without blanching. That was an abuse.
There are committees duplicating work done by other committees. The heavy lifting is done by the Opposition spokespersons. If one wants to have legislation prosecuted in this House, there is no point in looking to the new white hopes on the backbenches of the other side of the House. Most of them are strangers to legislation and will only attend if there is a high profile occasion. Will the Minister of State inform us when the commission's decision, now one year old, to reduce the number of committees to 15 will be implemented? Such a move would greatly help with costs of administering the Houses.
Deputy Bruton asked if politics is fit for purpose. Unfortunately, one has to say that a great many of our citizens have serious questions about it. The position of this Housevis-à-vis the Executive has been consistently eroded over recent years, a development which has huge implications. This morning on the Order of Business my colleague, Deputy Emmet Stagg, raised the manner in which the guillotining of Bills has become de rigueur for the Government. On any Stage of the processing of legislation, easy resort is had to the guillotine. It becomes a question of the Government proposes and the House is expected to dispose.
I read the debate on the Bill in the Seanad, where coincidentally the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, was dealing with it. On the conclusion of Second Stage, he thanked Senators for their "thoughtful, incisive and reflective contributions". He continued:
The Seanad provides an environment in which a more reflective debate can take place that can utilise the undoubted diverse experiences, abilities and expertise available to the Upper House in a way not readily available to the Lower House ...That is the reason the Seanad is able to make a contribution that one might not find in the Lower House.
I have always believed that. I also accepted important amendments tabled by Senator O'Toole which I recognised in my Second Stage concluding speech.
The Minister of State was overawed by the quality of the contributions in the Seanad. Like Deputy Bruton, I know the Minister of State, and all I will do is suggest to the House that he was somewhat less overawed than those quoted words would leave one to believe.
If we are serious about answering if politics is fit for purpose, we must admit the way our bicameral system operates is lamentably wanting. One cannot have a second House that replicates this one. Neither can one have another Chamber that is roughly based on the same electoral system that elects this House.
We have been talking about reforming the Seanad for as long as we have the draining of the River Shannon. I do not know what will come out of the debate. While I read the McCarthy report's recommendations, I have an open mind. If there were a manner of reconstructing the Upper House, then it should be examined.
A normal person reading the exchanges concerning the Bill's Second Stage debate would defy the Minister of State's claim he was overawed with stars in his eyes by the debate. If one examines in detail the Official Report of the Seanad, one will find the amount of time spent on reflective, quality and insightful scrutiny of legislation line by line is modest. There is more time spent citing lamas on the M50 and wondering what will be done about it than quality scrutiny of legislation.
I accepted more amendments in that House than I did in this.
We should not be kidding ourselves or the public.
Lama may in fact have something to do with the Local Authority Members Association.
I do not doubt that and it raises a question about the role of genuine local governmentvis-à-vis the Oireachtas.
The DIRT inquiry caused more lustre to be visited upon this House than anything that has happened in the past ten years. It is remarkable we have this elaborate committee structure, yet we cannot replicate a DIRT inquiry on the largest crisis that has ever affected this economy, namely, the collapse of the banking system. There was immediate hostility to the DIRT inquiry, first from Sir Humphrey — if time permitted I would explain my thesis on this — and second from the Law Library. As a result of the Abbeylara judgment, we do not know what kind of parliamentary inquiry would be feasible or debarred.
If we are seen not to introduce into this House a more effective note of accountabilityvis-à-vis the Executive, we will become to be seen as more impotent in tackling the problems that are now so acute affecting the people. Deputy Bruton set out three tests comprising being able to follow the money, hold power to account and offer leadership.
Serious damage has been done to the standing of this House by the Executive's gradual arrogation of all powers over the past decade, the setting up of quangos for large areas of activity taken out of Parliament's remit and the failure to incorporate any element of parliamentary inclusion in the social partnership process.
I wish to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Dick Roche.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
The establishment of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission was one of the greatest achievements in this House since I entered it. It gave responsibility to the Members for the administration of the business of the Houses, a development for which we should be grateful. However, it also brought its own responsibilities.
I chaired the first commission and I am satisfied about defending its work. While I share some of the concerns of Deputies Bruton and Rabbitte, they all fundamentally come down to the role of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges versus the role of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. Many of the issues raised would be more appropriately dealt with in the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
The Commission made every effort to seek better value for the money spent on the Oireachtas. One example of this was the streamlining of the use of printers. I believe the service is now more efficient and effective than it was when each party had its own printer.
An important point arising from the Minister of State's speech is the need to link parliamentary business with efficiencies adopted by the commission, always recognising the primacy of Parliament to regulate its business. Sweden is an example of where this has happened. The Minister of State also spoke about the role of the Civil Service and of the staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas under the 1959 Act and referred to the Minister for Finance's programme of reform, which is important in terms of this House. The key to modernisation and maximising efficiencies is flexibility, which is required in the public service generally and is important for the running of this House.
The change to the word "service" is, in my view, a welcome first step and highlights the importance of service to people outside and the service which we receive from the commission which assists us in better looking after the needs of the people we represent. The change to the word "service" is a positive step which reflects the drive to achieve a more Member-friendly service. Members who have served on the commission for the past six years have done a good job in terms of helping us to do better the job we are elected to do. Members of the House, the Clerk of the Dáil and officials who serve the commission have worked well, with everybody rowing the same way, to ensure we receive maximum benefit.
I congratulate our colleague, Deputy John Browne, on his appointment today by this House to the commission. I wish him a successful and pleasant term of office.
I had not intended speaking on this Bill. I listened with great interest to the contribution made by Deputy Richard Bruton as I listened on several previous occasions to his contributions on the connection between the manner in which we do our business and govern and the job of the Executive, the public administration of the State, and both Houses of the Oireachtas. I also listened to the contribution made by Deputy Pat Rabbitte. I believe there is an emerging consensus that we cannot, as stated by Deputy Bruton, continue to do the business of this nation in the 21st century in Dickensian form. I touched on this issue the other day when speaking on the legislation on public service pay. I made the point — this point has been also made by Deputies Bruton and Rabbitte down through the years — that it is 40 years since the public service organisation review group, PSORG, report was published, at the very heart of which was the development of one particular thesis that would have dealt with the Sir Humphreys, the paucity of challenge that exists within public administration, that would have released the talent that exists within the public service and would have given this House a far more meaningful role.
The myth of which I am speaking is the concept of ministerial responsibility, which is absolutely daft. If one reads what the PSORG had to say all of those years ago — taking up the point made by Deputy Bruton — it stated that the emergence of an ever growing number of non-commercial State-sponsored bodies was a way of simply avoiding the reforms needed in terms of public administration and politics. We now have a situation that is even worse. Again, as Deputy Bruton stated, how can we hold the Health Service Executive or any of the other quangos to account in this House? I agree with him on the issue of regulation. We are all the authors of our position in this matter. We must develop a political consensus in this State. Otherwise, we will have a public administration system which is sub-optimal, does not release the talent that exists and stultifies people with real talent. We all know from experience that there is real talent and vigour in public administration. However, the dead hand of this myth lies on public administration, stultifies it and prevents the evolution of our political system. I believe we are all to blame for this.
When one is in Government, this is a comfortable myth with which to live. One then has the creation of more and more quangos and can say particular matters are no longer the responsibility of the Minister. We have this bizarre idea in Ireland that this does not apply anywhere else, that in some mythical way the Minister of the day knows everything about every file and every fact. We see this day in and day out in this House in terms of the frustration, in particular of Deputies on the opposite benches, expressed in parliamentary questions, which should not be handled in the manner in which we must handle our business.
The myth was put in place without thinking when Queen Victoria was a little girl, and we are still applying it here in this country. We must break away from this myth which operates as an anchor on the spirit that exists within public administration. There were times when we actually allowed our public administration to show its capacity, namely, when people like T.K. Whitaker could produce his great paper, to which Deputy Bruton referred the other night, and could release the nation and challenge politics. That is where we are. I believe there is an extraordinary reality here. The evolution of quangos in the past ten or 15 years has cost us tens of millions of euro. I said privately the other night to Deputy Bruton that I had read his paper with great interest. I happen to believe we are close on this issue. Virtually every one of the quangos created did not need to be created. We must release central administration to do the job it does best, to administer and carry out the tasks of public administration, and we must focus the Minister and ministerial advisers on policy. We could then come into this House and challenge the Ministers of the day only on policy and not involve ourselves in who is or is not getting headage payments. This is not just stultifying in terms of administration — this was previously known as the culture of gombeenism or, as referred to by Deputy Michael D. Higgins, clientelism — it destroys politics too because it leads us all to focus on the lowest common denominator.
The myth is a carbuncle on the administrative system and, more important, is a cancer within the politic system. Irrespective of whether we like it, we are all involved in a conspiracy to sub-optimise the way we govern our country. The sooner we recognise and change this, the better. I do not wish to cover ground covered by other Members. I believe the evolution of the commission was an important step forward. I seriously believe that once some of the current passions are out of our way, we should examine how we bring or drag our administration to where John Boland wanted to bring it in 1974 but was prevented from doing so by the Sir Humphreys, the vested interests who did not want this. I believe had we changed this we would have avoided the ballooning of our public administration system, with which we are now trying to deal, and would have been able to evolve and pay the talent what it deserves to be paid. For example, we could have given principal officers executive responsibility for areas of public administration, thus releasing them from mythologies that now bind them. I believe, too, that we would have changed politics. Perhaps we have come to a point in our evolution where we have to realise those truths.
I wish to share time with Deputies Tom Hayes and David Stanton.
What the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, stated about the evolution of quangos was interesting. It is a great pity that proper reform of Government and quangos was not included in the budget. Ultimately, the party in power can determine that.
I will deal quickly with my experience of the House. The Order of Business is a crazy system under which Deputies raise issues that they really should not, but it is the only mechanism available to them. I take issue with taking Adjournment debates by candle light, almost at midnight, on issues which are often of considerable importance to the Deputies' constituents. We need to reform the way the Dáil functions.
I also take issue with the guillotining of debates. In many cases, the important amendments are at the end of the amendment listing and are never debated. That is not only about guillotining the debates, but also about the way we structure Committee Stage in terms of how we group amendments and the order in which we take them. Certainly, there were significant areas of the NAMA legislation that were never properly subject to debate or the scrutiny of the House.
What is required here is the amendment tabled by Deputy Bruton. It is all very well to put the audit committee on a statutory basis, but it is also about what one is auditing. If the plan and structures are not in place as to the way money is allocated and if what one is auditing is not correctly set up on day one, then the audit function does not serve its purpose. That is why Deputy Bruton outlined in the amendment that money would be provided for ten months. In summary, the opportunity is here to provide for proper reform. We need to ensure that this House represents the interests of the people properly.
I am very interested in the debate about how we do our business in this House. As a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, I see at first hand the way we run and do our business.
One matter on which I want to focus is the way we communicate our message, what we are doing and how we do it. Regardless of whether we like it, we are elected by the people for the people. We have a duty to those people to report back to them.
We saw the amount of time the media devoted to a scurrilous remark and how people were interested in that. However, that is the media's job. As public representatives and as the Oireachtas, we need to get back into the many media, such as local newspapers and local radio stations, where people learn about what we do. Some of the county and regional newspapers carry reports from here which would only go to some parts of the country. This is an area that should be expanded. It is a successful way of getting out the message of what we are doing.
The need for change has been addressed. As one who is here only seven years, I am at times very frustrated about even getting a proper answer, whether through parliamentary questions or raising matters on the Adjournment, where we do not get to the core of the issue.
At some time in the future we should give much more time to the type of ideas Deputy Bruton has come up with and the ideas others came up with in the past. It is all about managing our business in a better way and communicating it to the public.
It is easy to take a cheap shot at politicians and at the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission for the way it does its business. Since I have become a member of the commission, I have noted across the political divide that at all times we have endeavoured to cut back on spending where possible. We will continue to do that because that is what we are asked to do.
For example, when we proposed the changes to Members' expenses, how long did it take for the Department of Finance to sign off on them? Nothing has frustrated me more in the past six months than to listen to Members asking was the change coming about. A member of the audit committee resigned because he was not even sure who was holding it up. In fact, the commission had already at that time made proposals, but somebody resigned, giving out the message that it was because the commission had not made up its mind on the expenses regime. That is unfair and unjust on the commission. The way we do our business must be changed.
The buzzwords at present seem to be "value for money". The idea of changing the name to the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is a good one. The Houses of the Oireachtas, because of the commission's existence, is taking on an identity of its own and this will be communicated to the people through the communications strategy that has been put in place. The excellent education outreach programme, the excellent new website which has been put in place by the commission and the visitor brochures which were put in place last week are all important developments.
Given the modern communications that are available, such as youtube and twitter, anything stated in this House can be communicated across the country and across the globe within minutes. This was brought to my attention last week when that unfortunate incident occurred which involved an utterance by a Member on the other side. Within a short time, I received a communication from somebody in the United States asking what is happening in Dáil Éireann. It went across the world in minutes. That is why it is so important that we update our way of doing business in this House.
This morning, we spent almost two hours on the Order of Business, holding votes, etc. Like my colleague, Deputy Tom Hayes, and other Deputies, I am a little frustrated about trying to reform and modernise the procedures in the House to provide value for money.
We need to improve the level of debate in the House and we need to start listening to each other. For example, it is frustrating when Members on this side prepare Private Members' business and there is only one Minister or Minister of State on the other side listening. Nobody else bothers to come in to listen and that is insulting.
I draw attention to what happened during the recent strike when Deputies had to come in and were called on by the Chair because there was no list of speakers. Many Members were present and there was a proper interactive debate. Members had a few minutes to speak but they listened to each other, there was interaction and there was a certain amount of dynamism evident, and that is what needs to happen.
The quangos issue has been mentioned time out of number. I am told it will take a consolidated Bill to bring these quangos under scrutiny here so that we can ask questions. It is frustrating to contact one of these agencies and get no response or a response stating that it will write back at some time in the future, but it never does.
The points made by the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche, were very interesting. He spoke about the need to have a higher quality public administration, and I agree with him. If I write to an official in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, as I did recently on behalf of a constituent, and I get no response whatsoever, what answer would the Minister of State, Deputy Roche, give me? As an elected Member of this House, I am ignored. Could the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power, advise me on what I do then? When one puts down a parliamentary question to a Minister on some of these quangos that ignore us on this side of the House much of the time, the Minister concerned states that he or she is not responsible. Who is responsible? If this is a democracy and we are giving public money to these bodies, how can we hold them to account? They come in to the committees once a year for a cosy chat, but the parliamentary question system is the way to go. When Deputy O'Rourke was Minister for Public Enterprise, she ensured that the quangos under her remit answered questions to her and she made the information available here. Ministers can do this if they wish but they choose not to do so. That is an insult to and a danger for democracy. I could go on and, as my colleague suggested, the debate on this matter should be extended and continue on another date.
Deputies Dan Neville and Aengus Ó Snodaigh wish to speak and I must call the Minister of State at 4 p.m.
Tógfaidh mise cúig nóiméad agus tógfaidh an Teachta Neville cúig nóiméad eile ina dhiaidh sin. I will leave some of the points I intended to make until we deal with the amendments because they are related. I am interested in the debate on how we organise the business of the House. At some stage we must deal with the matter of the committees, including Choimisiún Thithe an Oireachtais, the Joint Administration Committee, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, the sub-committee on Dáil reform and the Whips committee.
Not long ago, I recall the staff of the House sought a decision on securing works to this building. It must have been very frustrating for them because it was about to fall down around us. Works had not been carried out for years and that was undermining the basis of this historic building. They had to make a presentation to four different committees to try to get agreement so that they could go ahead with the works, which were vital. Any health and safety officer could have come in and shut this place down without recourse to any of the four committees to which the presentations were made. That was when it struck me that some of the ways in which we run our business are ludicrous.
Much of the work of the commission or any of these committees is work for which one receives no thanks. There are no votes to be had from such work. As public representatives we must carry out such work and ensure that the business of the House is carried out in the most effective and efficient way. That is why the commission was set up. However, we have never addressed the overlap between various committees. In particular, a new committee was established after the last election, namely, the Joint Administration Committee, of which I am a member. I rarely attend but whenever I do so I try to remember which committee is supposed to be sitting, whether it is the Committee on Procedure and Privileges or the Joint Administration Committee. This is the extent of the duplication involved.
There are other committees in the House which could be amalgamated quickly and which have the same basic purpose, including the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, the Joint Committee on European Affairs and the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. These three separate committees basically deal with foreign affairs. There are other committee groupings to which there is no logic. The Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights deals with justice and defence matters. Another job of the commission is to ensure the effective running of the Houses and it has done so and I trust this work will continue in future.
We need to ensure that more time is given to such legislation. Since day one it has been rushed and the legislation ends up having to be tweaked. Seldom do we get to a Bill which addresses the points to which the Deputies who spoke before me referred. I will leave my contribution at that and my other points will be dealt with through the amendments I have proposed.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As a member of the commission, I share the same frustrations as those expressed by Deputies Tom Hayes and Pat Rabbitte on the absence of control over certain areas. There is an expectation that we should be able to make final decisions. In the spring, we produced our report on the reforms which, the commission believed, unanimously, were necessary on the remuneration of Deputies and Senators. However, we are about to enter a new year and nothing has taken place. I share that frustration. I have been in the Oireachtas for 20 years and in that time accountability has been diluted in our role as parliamentarians. We have not been able to achieve the level of accountability which should be restored to the Parliament.
I listened attentively to the remarks of the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche. He made some very good points. Public administration should be a partner of the Oireachtas in serving our people. However, the evolution of quangos and the removal of certain controls or the apparent removal of such controls from Ministers has almost created a conflict between public administration and the Oireachtas. Partnership with public administration should be restored to the Oireachtas. The quangos are interfering with the accountability of the Government to Parliament and it is also interfering with progress on the very many good views and contributions that Members make. Any progress initiated here is being frustrated by the current system.
The discussion on the reform of the Dáil was both very necessary and interesting. I envisage our role in three ways. We should develop national policy in the interests of the people, introduce regulatory statutes to regulate certain matters and represent our constituencies. I do not believe we are developing national policy at the appropriate level. We are introducing some regulatory statutes and we may criticise the way in which this takes place, but we have a role.
The way in which we represent our constituencies is also being frustrated by the operation of the House. Previously, this matter was referred to by speakers. Some people cast a slur on the fact that we come from constituencies and represent issues of concern to our people. I have no hesitation in saying I believe such work is as important as the other two areas of our work to which I referred. Sometimes I will table a question during the Adjournment debate on an issue of importance to my constituency. This is as important a part of our role as any other because the people who sent me here expect me to carry out such work and it is important to respond to the needs of those by whom one is employed. Much of the work we do in the constituency area involves responding to the expressed needs of those who sent us here and I make no excuses for so doing.
Deputy Stanton referred to this as an era of communications. The Oireachtas has improved in this area but we must continue this improvement and continue to communicate with the people more effectively and efficiently. As has been stated already, the means of communication has changed completely since I first entered the House and we are beginning to respond in a small way to these demands. We have a considerable distance to go and we must continue our work effectively and efficiently with due cognisance of cost savings, but we must not ignore these matters. At stake in the long term is the survival of democracy. If we do not communicate what takes place here or if the people begin to turn against their elected representatives or the system something else will replace it, as we have seen in decades past.
I refer to the nuts and bolts of the legislation. Rarely do I contribute on the Order of Business. It is a pointless exercise to ask questions on the Order of Business unless one is concerned about the progress of a Bill related to an area of personal interest. Regarding Standing Order 32, we have begun to laugh at the procedure. Regarding the Adjournment debate, occasionally I raise issues of national concern. However, a Minister of State comes to the House with four scripts and does not know what I intend to say or the points I intend to put. The question is already answered by a civil servant. It is daft.
What is worse, they could not care less.
With the exception of the last comment, I agree with much of what Deputy Connaughton says.
We have had a very good debate. The introduction of this Bill gives Members of the House an opportunity to discuss the way in which this House and our wider democracy work. We were fortunate to have very constructive comments by members of the committee, from Deputies Pat Rabbitte, Dan Neville and David Stanton and, not least, from the Ceann Comhairle, the chairman of the commission. With all respect, I hope the debate will inform the Ceann Comhairle's role as he takes up his tenure in office.
This debate illustrates the need for a forum with a wider remit, rather than a formal forum. The contributions in the House were made with passion by people who care deeply about this House and its effectiveness. They came from both Government and Opposition sides. I think particularly of the contribution by the Minister of State, Deputy Dick Roche.
Before answering specific questions, I will make a general point. We do ourselves a disservice in this House. To some degree we have a lack of self-confidence. The country is in crisis at present and the people are looking for leadership, from the Executive and this Parliament. If one turns on television any night of the week, the first, second and third items will be the proceedings in this House. The citizens of this country are looking in, seeking leadership, guidance and vision. What do they see? Often they see grown men and women shouting at each other like babies in a crèche. We do ourselves a disservice by acting in that way.
There are real choices to be made in the way we manage this crisis. There is great experience and expertise on both sides of this House and we can collaborate collectively to guide our nation out of the difficulties we face. However, the image we present to the people who elect us, our constituents, does no service to the ability, dedication and hard work of the Members of this House. We bring ourselves into disrepute. Often, one's contribution depends on how loud one can shout or the smartest comment a Deputy can make at any given time. That does no service to anybody in this House.
I make those points at the outset because Deputies Richard Bruton and Pat Rabbitte, in particular, have made very constructive commentary. Deputy Bruton asked about the substantial increase in the expenditure of the House. Much of that related to the increase in the salaries of new staff in the House. We have had to cut this in recent weeks but very substantial increases were made. We spent €11 million on improving information technology in the past three years, to the benefit of all Members of the House. We spent €14 million on severance packages for Members who lost their seats in the last election. No doubt that sum will be down at the next election, but there was a substantial commitment in that area.
Deputy Bruton made the point that each year an agency, whether this agency or this House, comes to Government with the same budget. The question is how we can increase the budget year on year. The budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is down by €30 million from the previous occasion and the commission must operate within that framework. I accept the general point the Deputy makes. He also said that reform runs in the family. I would like to think it runs in the wider family.
Regardless of whether we like it, the committee structures have served this House effectively in many instances. The finest hour of this House in recent years was the DIRT inquiry. We must engineer a situation where we can get back to fora such as that, ensure that this House is accountable to the people and show them the House really works. Deputy Rabbitte served on that committee. It raises the question whether, under the auspices of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, the Members of this House should set up a forum or some other way by which we can express our views outside the pressure-cooker atmosphere of this House, and beyond the limited time available for this debate. People have real contributions to make.
Many other contributions were made that I would like to address but I shall finish on one, namely, references made by Deputy Rabbitte to the Fourth Estate and its contribution on the proceedings of this House. I genuinely believe the commission should respond in its own right to some of the very unjust attacks made on this House and on individual Members by members of the media. Some recent broadcast media and radio programmes basically tried to dumb down the contributions of Members of this House. The commission ought to and may take a more proactive role in defending the honour and integrity of Members of this House.
I would make other points but time does not permit me.
I declare the Bill read a Second Time in accordance with Standing Order 111(2)(i).