Reform of Structures of Government: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

concerned that the sudden and calamitous change in our economic fortunes, coupled with revelations of waste of public money and resources, has undermined public confidence not alone in the present Government but also in the structures of government;

recognising that fewer and fewer people feel any sense of ownership of their politics and that we need to bring about a more practical democracy, that empowers citizens and ends the sense of exclusion of so many of our people, and to ensure that individuals have a far greater involvement in the decisions that shape their lives;

acknowledging that a process of renewal must commence with the Oireachtas itself and with fundamental reforms of our national parliament and its procedures, so as to meet the needs of the Irish people in the 21st century;

believing that the principles and practices underpinning accountability in government and in public administration also need radical reform and that legislation and constitutional measures guaranteeing the primacy of the public interest must be put in place as a priority; and

affirming that the abuse of the whip by the parties in Government, as exemplified by the recent dismissal by the Government majority on the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of the Ombudsman's special report on the lost at sea scheme, is utterly destructive of attempts to secure the accountability of the Government to the Dáil as required by the Constitution;

calls for the introduction of a programme of reform that would include at a minimum the following elements:

legislation on the issue of cabinet confidentiality, to ensure that it cannot be used to cover up necessary investigations;

the restoration of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 to its original form and scope and the extension of its remit to the Garda Síochána and other public bodies;

the introduction of whistleblowers legislation;

spending limits for local and Presidential elections and the reduction in the ceilings for European and general elections;

reform of the system of appointments to State boards to ensure that the process is transparent and that those appointed have the requisite knowledge and skills;

legislation to further restrict contributions to political parties and candidates and to require greater disclosure of donations;

repeal of the Official Secrets Act 1963, retaining a criminal sanction only for breaches which involve a serious threat to public policy (the international relations of the State, the conduct of a fair trial, national security and the like);

a statutory register of lobbyists and rules concerning the practice of lobbying;

rules to ensure that senior public servants (including political appointees) cannot work in the private sector, in an area involving a potential conflict of interest with their former public employment, until at least two years have elapsed;

a 50 per cent increase in Dáil sitting days, with sittings four days a week, a shorter summer recess and significantly reduced breaks at Christmas and Easter;

a break-up of the Government monopoly on legislation and its stranglehold over the business of the Dáil;

a restriction on the use of guillotine motions and other procedural devices that prevent full debate on bills and other measures;

a petition system for the Dáil, similar to that operating in the European Parliament;

an independent Fiscal Advisory Council, separated from decision-makers in government, to undertake fiscal macro-economic projections and monitoring, independent of the Government and reporting to the Dáil and the public;

bring forward the annual Estimates cycle, so that it becomes more timely and relevant, with the Book of Estimates accompanied by a detailed performance report on what the previous year's spending had achieved;

Oireachtas Committees to be given powers to publish reports on the economy, efficiency and propriety of the Estimates and to give the Dáil an assessment and evaluation of the merits of individual expenditure proposals;

a role for the Ceann Comhairle in deciding whether a Minister has failed to provide reasonable information in response to a question;

a repeal of the ‘gag' clause that applies to the officers of public bodies and prevents them from expressing an opinion on the merits of Government policy;

a requirement that the Attorney General's advice to Government be published if it is publicly relied upon as justifying or requiring the passage, defeat or amendment of a bill or the development or amendment of a policy or programme, unless the advice is given in the course of litigation or in relation to pending or contemplated litigation;

the provision of adequate powers for parliamentary inquiries into matters of public interest and importance, if necessary by an amendment to the Constitution; and

a reformulated code of laws, replacing both the Ministers and Secretaries Acts 1924 to 2007 and the Public Service Management Act 1997, which would spell out the functions, powers and duties of Ministers in charge of each Department of State; the law that defines the relationship between Ministers and their Departments to enshrine three basic propositions:

if the Minister takes a decision personally, he or she should say so and account for it;

if the decision is taken by the Department, under a delegated power, then the relevant, named official should say so and account for it; and

the Minister would then have to account for the degree of supervision he or she exercised over the Department in relation to the exercise within it of delegated powers;

legislate for a system of delegation of specified Ministerial powers to specified officers who would, to the extent of the authority delegated to them, be accountable within the Department and directly to the Oireachtas for the exercise of those powers;

ensure that each Minister is responsible for the supervision and oversight of his or her Department to ensure that adequate standards are maintained; outputs are delivered as determined or agreed; and procedures are in place to enable the Minister to respond to problems of administration and to give an account to the Dáil and to the public generally;

the responsibilities of Secretaries General to be strengthened by assigning to them authority and accountability for ensuring that the Department and its officers perform their functions in a non-political and impartial manner, in accordance with law and with the highest ethical standards of conduct and integrity and in accordance with any prescribed code of conduct;

the Secretary General to be required to ensure that risk management and other internal controls are in place so that public funds are safeguarded; functions are performed effectively, efficiently and economically; laws, regulations and approved policies are complied with; and records and reports are adequate, reliable and accurate; and

the Secretary General to be given specific responsibility for ensuring that legal advice or opinion is brought to the personal attention of the Minister if it casts substantial doubt on the constitutionality or validity of a statute, statutory instrument or departmental scheme, practice or course of action.

I note Deputy Howlin is sharing his time with Deputies Burton and Ó Caoláin. Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am glad to share my time with my colleagues. I am also glad to move this motion on reform in my name and that of the Labour Party Deputies.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: "Government should be judged by how well it meets its legitimate objectives". "Good government" he wrote "is that which most effectively secures the rights of the people and the fruits of their labour, promotes their happiness and does their will." On those criteria, the Government we have that has presided over the debacle of our economic collapse is an abject failure. We will have other occasions to pick over those economic bones, but what we, as a House, must do now is pick up the pieces. We must set our minds and our focus on restoring the people's confidence in the way that we do the people's business.

The Labour Party has a proud record in this regard. The last time the Labour Party was in government, we insisted in the negotiations on the programmes for Government on ground-breaking reform legislation, namely, the Freedom of Information Act, the Ethics in Public Office Act and the Electoral Act — a trilogy of legislation that fundamentally changed the way the public could gain access to information on how they are governed and that introduced transparency into the political electoral systems by having declarations of Members, capping expenditure, disclosure of contributions to political parties and so on. That is the basis on which the Labour Party looks at the next phase of reform.

What is before the House is a reform agenda, a major package of 29 individual proposals, each one profound and impactive in and of itself. It is part of an even larger programme of reform that will be published by the Labour Party shortly. The aim of the 29 separate proposals is to change the way we run our country and to ensure that every citizen feels a much greater sense of involvement in the decisions that shape their lives. That is a critical objective to achieve in the face of the disillusionment that has beset our people. Never has reform been more needed or more urgent.

The range and scope of the proposals before us are great and far-reaching. Some require legislation, some require new orders of this House, others require procedural changes in the way the Government handles its business and others require procedural changes in the way that Departments of State function.

I will take the House through some of the proposals. One of the proposals is on Cabinet confidentiality. It was established by a decision of the Supreme Court and it has been partly rolled back but we must ensure that the doctrine of Cabinet confidentiality is not used as a buffer to protect proper inquiry and investigations. It should be used to allow Government to function but only in so far as it is necessary in the public interest.

We propose the restoration of the Freedom of Information Act 1997, an Act brought in by a Government of which I was proud to be part. It has been the most impactive single Act to throw light on the functioning of Government and to allow people access to the minutiae of the decision-making process to ensure that it is done in a way that is truly democratic and open. Unfortunately, that legislation has been rowed back by the Fianna Fáil administrations and their guises since then. It is our aim to restore it and to extend it to other public bodies, including the Garda Síochána. There is no reason that should not be done.

We will enact whistleblowers legislation, which is essential. My colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, presented a whistleblowers Bill to this House on more than one occasion. The argument against enacting it was that we should not have an overarching Bill, that we should introduce it piecemeal in each operation of Government. It is a great irony that on one occasion when I tabled such an amendment it was defeated by the Government because it does not like the principle of whistleblowing. We must allow people who work and live in this State where wrongdoing is identified to be able, without fear for their well-being, livelihood or safety to blow the whistle on that wrongdoing. I mention a current case that of the Irish Red Cross, which was included in a report by Transparency International published in recent weeks. It is my information that today the whistleblower in that case has been fired. I understand that he has not even exhausted the internal appeals mechanisms but he was fired today. That cannot be right. Somebody who stands up and identifies wrongdoing and causes it to be investigated must have protection and must have the legitimate expectation of protection. I know a little bit about that from my efforts in the Morris tribunal and the lead up to the tribunal. I know how difficult it is for a citizen, even an elected Member of this House, when information is given to him or her about wrongdoing to have that fully ventilated and explored. It should be our objective, as a House, to ensure that is done as a matter of routine and as a matter of course.

One of the proposals we have in the package before the House is to extend spending limits for local and presidential elections in a meaningful way. Another is to set out not only a register of lobbyists but clear rules of lobbying so that those who peddle influence do it in a way that is understood and open. Those who are here to have the ears of Ministers or decision makers should be registered in a way that is normal in developed democracies. Why have we not got such a register? We talked about it for a long time. We should work on these issues to restore confidence in the way we do business that the people demand that we do.

We stated in the proposals we published that we want to make this Dáil more relevant and to give it the capacity to carry out its constitutional duty. To do that, we need to change the way we do business in here. We talked about that for a long time. On the face of it, we have a general consensus that the way we do our business is captured in a bygone age and needs to be fundamentally changed. We seem incapable of moving forward to bring about this change.

The Labour Party proposes a number of specific measures in the package set out in the motion. These form only one element of a series of measures the Government knows must be taken. We suggest the introduction of a petitions system, similar to that which operates in the European Parliament, to afford individual citizens or groups of citizens access to the legislative body to ensure their genuine concerns can be fully ventilated, examined and, where necessary, addressed. Given that the model works extremely well in the European Parliament, why not replicate it here?

We have discussed increasing the number of sitting days in the House. Let us take this step and allow each Member to be placed on an equal basis by turning the House into what it should be, namely, a real Legislature. Every Member knows that only the Government can generate legislation that has any prospect of ending up on the Statute Book. That has been my experience in the House with very few exceptions. It is wrong that the perception has grown that the people who make laws are the Government. This is not supposed to be the case. Under the separation of powers, the body charged with making laws is the Oireachtas, namely, the Dáil, Seanad and, ultimately, the President. However, the vast majority of Members are unable to have a meaningful input into the creation of legislation.

The Labour Party proposes that there would be a set day every week for Private Members' legislation. Such legislation would be encouraged by the Government because there is a myriad of issues for which the Government will never get around to legislating. Some are important for the nation, while others are important for sections of the community. They should be debated in the House and each individual Member should have the capacity to introduce such legislation. The House should be able to resource this activity through the Library and Research Service.

The Labour Party proposes to restrict the use of guillotine motions and fundamentally change the manner in which legislation passes through the House. The measures proposed in the motion have been discussed ad nauseam. They include publishing the heads of Bills in advance, inviting interested parties to the House to give evidence to committees, using the Chamber for this type of debate and having committee weeks where such debates could take place in open session.

The Labour Party proposes to give a new role to the Ceann Comhairle. How often do Deputies feel insulted by answers they receive to parliamentary questions?

Many are non-answers.

I have seen answers from the Department of Education and Skills, with which Deputy Quinn will be familiar, which advise the relevant Deputy to consult the Department's website.

I received two such replies today.

That is not a way to deal with elected Members of Parliament. If the Oireachtas is the constitutional body charged with holding the Government to account, as is our solemn constitutional duty, the Executive must respect this role. Why would it do so if we do not assert these rights? These matters are fundamental to having a functioning Parliament. The Labour Party proposes that where, in future, non-answers or insulting, inadequate or evasive answers are provided, the Ceann Comhairle will have a role in determining that the relevant Minister failed to provide reasonable information in reply to a question and require him or her to answer the question. I know from my role as Leas-Cheann Comhairle that Members are at the mercy of Ministers and, more especially, officials in the Departments. Decisions are frequently made by senior officials, without reference to a Minister, to disallow questions that are in order. They seek ways to disallow questions, debates and Adjournment matters. This should not occur if we are to have a functioning Parliament that holds the Executive to account as the Constitution requires.

The motion proposes empowering Oireachtas committees to deal effectively with matters of public expenditure, including value for money issues. The range of proposals in this area is complicated and I do not have time to discuss them in detail. We must do this, however, because it cannot be the role of the House to always look backwards to see what awful mistakes have been made. The House must dip into expenditure on a current basis to ascertain not only whether it has been spent in the manner voted by the House, but also that it is spent effectively and efficiently.

Another of our 29 proposals addresses the profound matter of the aftermath of the Abbeylara judgment. Since the judgment in the Abbeylara case — I confess that I was a member of the relevant sub-committee — the House has backed off taking any investigative role. The Committee of Public Accounts, the only committee of the House that has teeth, has also backed off making any overt criticism of any official because the spectre of Abbeylara hangs over the way in which the House does its business. This is wrong and the judgment must be rolled back.

The Oireachtas is the only Parliament in the world that I have studied — I have also asked the Library and Research Service to examine other parliaments — which does not have the power to investigate and find matters of fact. It is astounding that this level of impotence is tolerated in a functioning Parliament, yet we do so.

Addressing the Abbeylara judgment may ultimately require constitutional change. If that is the case, we must make the necessary change but let us first draft legislation to test the limits of the current constitutional position. I do not believe the very narrow interpretation the House has placed on the Abbeylara judgment to spancil its work was intended in the majority decision in the Abbeylara case. The matter must be put right.

Taken together, the proposals before us would change the way the Oireachtas works, make it more effective and give people confidence that we can hold the Executive and others to account and do business effectively.

On a wider government scale, the Labour Party proposes the complete reform of the annual Estimates process to make it more timely and relevant. It is proposed, for example, to accompany the Book of Estimates with a detailed performance report on what the previous year's expenditure has achieved. Currently, one is given a list of figures for the current year and a further list for the forthcoming year. One then compares the two lists to determine what changes have been made. Questions are not asked about what money was spent on, whether it achieved success, if the outcomes were those intended or whether the entire sum was expended on the purpose for which it was allocated.

Earlier, the Tánaiste answered questions on how much of the allocation for the capital programme of the Department of Education and Skills had not been spent and the House discussed ways in which the outstanding amount could be spent. This is a hopeless approach to dealing properly with public accounts.

The Labour Party proposes the establishment of an independent fiscal advisory council to perform a monitoring function and provide accurate projections. This would enable Members to rely on independent projections of the macroeconomic position to make important decisions.

We propose to appeal the gagging clause to enable senior officials to express their views on Government policy. Why should we not allow them to do so? Most important, we propose to replace the Ministers and Secretaries Acts and Public Service Management Act with clear legislation — this is extremely important — to set out the functions, powers and duties of Ministers and every official in order that there will be clear lines of accountability and no more talk of systemic failures. Nothing is a failure in this country; the system always fails but nobody makes a cock up or mistake. We need to have accountability for Ministers, Ministers of State and senior officials.

Taken together, this package of measures, which will be part of a much wider package the Labour Party will publish, will change the landscape of public administration in Ireland.

In the past, Oppositions always have sought change and Governments always wanted the status quo. The Labour Party commits itself to profound and meaningful change now, with a real prospect of Government into the future. At a time of crisis for his country and his presidency, Abraham Lincoln stated:

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.

One shall see tonight and tomorrow whether this House is ready for the challenge of change. However, reading the Government's pitiful amendment that promises more but delivers nothing gives me little faith.

I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Howlin, on putting together what is a highly ambitious but realistic programme of reform. Ireland faces a number of crises. Clearly, it has an appalling banking crisis in which the losses in the banks have been socialised whereas in the preceding years, all the profits in the banks were privatised. Ireland has a crisis with regard to employment and its economy, as well as in respect of its public administration of institutions such as the HSE. However, greater than all the other crises and, in a way, the talisman of the different crises from which it suffers, Ireland has a crisis of reputation. People, whether Irish-Americans or Europeans, who once openly admired Ireland now no longer believe much of what is said. This is because from the time the banking and economic crisis started to unfold three years ago, the Government, and the Taoiseach, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister, Brian Lenihan, in particular, repeatedly stated that we were turning a corner, that everything would be all right or that we were out of the difficulty. Ireland has shredded the confidence of international investors and of the bond markets, which are particularly tough with regard to reputational issues, because it is perceived to be a country without an adequate system of governance. When everything is going fine, people are prepared to accept a narrative to the effect that this is something to do with the Irish character or Irish style of life or that the Galway tent is funny, enjoyable and a bit of craic. However, when the economic position turns as it has done, people take a very hard-nosed attitude to our reputation, which is shredded. This ambitious programme of reform seeks the placing of a clear stamp by a new Government. Only a new Government can do this because of all the reputations that have been shredded, that of Fianna Fáil probably is more damaged than any other institution in the country. However, one can start again with a new Government with an ambitious programme of reform.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the election of Mary Robinson as the first female President of Ireland. One factor that marked her successful contest for the office of President was that in many ways, she spearheaded the hopes of a generation that things in Ireland could be different, that we could open out to the light, could end the climate of censorship and repression and could have much more public governance. As Deputy Howlin has stated, during its last period in government the Labour Party introduced a number of key legislative reforms on freedom of information, the regulation of elections and in respect of a restriction on fundraising and the amounts of money that could be contributed to politicians during an election, as well as with regard to a number of other offices. Essentially, a new Government will be obliged to readdress all these issues. Other than for personal requests, freedom of information was pretty much closed down for public requests by means of a much longer, more tedious and more expensive process by a carefree Charlie McCreevy. In a manner similar to his proposals on decentralisation, he regarded the gutting of the Freedom of Information Act as offering two fingers to those who were prissy and who only cared about standards. It was an case of "Here is one in the eye for you; when I have it I spend it". He was delighted to give two fingers to the Labour Party and to voices in civil society who recognised the value of freedom of information legislation.

I have made many freedom of information requests in my time and note that such requests now are highly expensive, as one is charged large amounts of money by the Department of Finance and other Departments. One request I have made consistently in recent years has been to get access to the papers and documents surrounding the night of the fatal and fateful bank guarantee. Although I have had success with small amounts of information, three years into the greatest financial crisis this country has ever known, essentially we still are no wiser. I wish to make specific reference this evening to a number of remarkable articles that appeared in two leading newspapers last weekend. One, which appeared in Saturday's edition of the Irish Independent, was by Bruce Arnold, a highly respected journalist who has a long record of exposing matters of public interest in Ireland. The other article was by Senan Moloney and Jason O’Toole and appeared in the Irish Daily Mail. This is the reason a restoration of freedom of information legislation is required because essentially, the Irish Daily Mail article suggests that from late 2007, Seán FitzPatrick, the former chairman of Anglo Irish Bank, was a member of or was attached to what both articles described as a kitchen cabinet run by the then Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, in the run-up to his expected elevation as the leader of Fianna Fáil. The information is described as having been given by a former highly senior figure in Anglo Irish Bank who clearly was both a senior director and senior executive. Bruce Arnold stated “Cowen knew that the fiscal roof was falling in when, as Finance Minister... he involved himself in the Anglo Irish Bank crisis, setting up a kitchen cabinet”. The same remarks are made in the Irish Daily Mail. Moreover, the latter newspaper again reported on the famous dinner, about which all Members have heard and that features in a number of books, that took place in Heritage House in St. Stephen’s Green. I refer to a private dinner with the Taoiseach-elect in April 2008, who at that point was the heir to the leadership of Fianna Fáil.

Why must Members be obliged to rely on an unattributed source in two leading newspapers about the most expensive decision in the history of the Irish State or the connection of that decision to the investment or to the gambling in contracts for difference by Seán Quinn? I recall that when I mentioned Seán Quinn some years ago in this House, I was accused of not wearing the green jersey. Indeed, a former director of another institution has stated that the aforementioned green jersey agenda was the essential agenda pursued by the regulator, the Central Bank, the Department of Finance and others who must have and should have been aware that Anglo Irish Bank was a bust institution. Ireland now faces a financial crisis of unprecedented proportion. However, unlike almost any other democratic state or European Union member state, not a single banker has been made accountable before the courts of the land. Moreover, not a single banker has even appeared before a joint committee to do as did Fred the Shred, that is, Sir Fred Goodwin, in the United Kingdom, who at least had the grace to apologise to the country for what he had done while in charge of his bank. How does the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, expect the international bond markets to believe a word out of the mouths of Ministers when this information seems to be available around the world, and it now emerges that various brokerage houses in the United States and London knew all about the contracts for difference of Seán Quinn? It was for that reason that the share price of that bank collapsed on St. Patrick's Day 2007. The Taoiseach clearly knew then.

If we had a Freedom of Information Act we would have established this a long time ago. We have a Freedom of Information Act that drip-feeds information, as Fianna Fáil drip-fed bad news this year about the banks. The fact that we will not tell the people the truth is damaging, not just to the people of Ireland but incredibly financially damaging to Ireland.

With a new Government, the people deserve to learn the truth. The proposals put forward by the Labour Party will give the people the right to learn the truth about the calamity they are paying for.

I thank Deputies Howlin and Burton for the opportunity to contribute to the debate at this point.

The economic crisis has led to a widespread debate not only about the nature of the Irish economy but also about how we are governed. There is justifiable anger among the people at how successive Governments they elected have so misgoverned and mismanaged this State that they have brought us to the brink of bankruptcy. A true democracy and a true Republic would instil confidence in people that we can and will solve our problems and move forward, but this State and the political system, as shaped by the two dominant conservative parties, has undermined that confidence and created disillusionment and cynicism.

Without question, we need to fundamentally reform the way we govern ourselves. However, let us be under no illusion. Successive Governments have acted in the way they have because they have represented, not the majority of the people who elected them, but the privileged minority which controls wealth in this State.

One statistic tells the whole story. One per cent of people in this State control 20% of the wealth. That speaks of a distorted economy but it also speaks of a distorted democracy. The two cannot be separated.

We need fundamental economic reform as well as political reform. Real democracy is the key to both. The people must be sovereign and as the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil states:

The Nation's sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its material possessions, the Nation's soil and all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and ... we reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.

The Programme also states a principle that should underpin all efforts at democratic reform:

We declare that we desire our country to be ruled in accordance with the principles of Liberty, Equality and Justice for all, which alone can secure permanence of Government in the willing adhesion of the people.

The Sinn Féin Deputies endorse the programme of reform set out in the Labour Party motion. Many of the proposals echo those we have also advanced. The main focus of the reforms in the motion is the accountability of the Government to the Oireachtas and to the people. That accountability has been shredded in the past decade and a half.

The Government's regard for democratic accountability was shown in its refusal to hold the Donegal South West by-election until forced to do so by the High Court judgment in the case taken by Sinn Féin Senator Pearse Doherty. That refusal was for reasons of pure political expediency. It says much about the political malaise in this State that no Government had the integrity to introduce legislation to make by-elections mandatory after a set period had elapsed from the creation of the vacancy.

Sinn Féin would go much further than the proposals in this motion. We would see all of this in the context of the need to move towards Irish re-unification and to prepare the ground for an all-Ireland democracy. We would stress the need to increase the representation of women in politics. We would emphasise the need to respect the decisions of the people in referendums — a principle that was violated in both the second Nice treaty and Lisbon treaty referendums.

At the MacGill summer school this year Senator Pearse Doherty set out our views on the need for political reform. I wish to re-emphasise some of those points. The political culture we have is the one created by the political class who have held power since the foundation on the State. They are the architects of a system that protects their own interests and the interest of an elite at the top of Irish society. Laws that have their foundation in the outdated 1937 Constitution do not protect the rights of children nor the socio-economic rights of citizens. Our electoral system and the Oireachtas are not fit for a modern democracy. The electoral system has given us an Oireachtas that is largely male, middle class and hardly even middle-aged. It is not surprising that it is so unrepresentative. Many people have no engagement whatsoever with our electoral system. They are not on the electoral register and they do not vote. Those most estranged from our electoral system and from politics come from the most disadvantaged communities in the State.

Any reform to our political system must have as one of its first objectives to increase the participation of citizens, particularly those who currently do not participate, in the political process at all levels from voting to holding office. Getting on the electoral register should be simple and straightforward. PPS numbers should be used to avoid fraud, rather than putting hurdles in the path of those seeking to get on the register, as is the case currently. The process needs simplification, with automatic renewals of registered voters for starters. An independent electoral commission should take on this task rather than leave it to each local authority as is the case at present. An electoral commission could take on the task of voter education on elections. The most critical task of such a commission should be to increase turnout and numbers contesting seats at all tiers of representation. All elections should be on weekends to increase participation, with two-day polling considered. Voting age should be reduced to 16 and consideration should be given to reducing the age at which a person can run for the Dáil from 21 to 18. We need to do this to get more young people engaged in politics.

Irish citizens living outside the jurisdiction should be given the right to vote, as is the norm in most modern democracies — 115 countries to be exact. We need a radical overhaul of the electoral process in order to ensure that there is both a more democratic expression on the part of the population, including on an all-Ireland basis, and that the actual elected institutions are made more representative of the popular will.

Proportional representation should be strengthened through the introduction of larger, multi-seat constituencies. This would mean that the minimum number of seats in any constituency would be increased to five. That would ensure a much more accurate representation of parties based on their percentage vote in contrast to the current system that favours the largest parties, especially in three and four seat constituencies. There should also be an examination of how the party list system operates in other countries with consideration given to using such a system to elect a proportion of the Dáil.

We need to strengthen the role of Parliament. The Dáil can be made more effective. Small changes could empower the Opposition to be more effective and to make the Dáil more relevant to the lives of ordinary people. The Dáil needs to play a stronger role in holding the Government to account.

We need the Dáil to be much more spontaneous than it is at present. There should be big changes in terms of how legislation is brought through the Oireachtas and how the committees work. Committee chairs should be allocated proportionately, based on party strength and should not have any additional financial reward attached to them; they should not be a reward for loyal backbenchers of whatever party is in Government. Committees should also be given investigative powers, and there should be an obligation on the Government to consider proposals put forward by a committee.

Taking the fixation with local issues out of parliamentary elections cannot happen if there is a not a parallel reform and empowerment of local government in Ireland. Addressing the warped political culture in this State will require a radical shift that seeks an end to cronyism and the privileged position enjoyed by an elite.

We may not have a body of established lobbyists in the State, but what we have is something more insidious. We have politicians who are, in many cases, too close to those whom they are meant to regulate. Rewarding those close to oneself with positions on State boards, moving Departments to one's constituency, and ensuring sports clubs in one's constituency get a disproportionate share of funding when one is Minister are all examples of cronyism at work. Over recent years, we have had Government politicians too close to the property developers, property developers too close to bankers, and bankers too close to the regulator. Is it any surprise we are in the mess we are in?

After the 2007 general election, we saw a person who had been a Minister of State move straight to the head of the Construction Industry Federation. We need rules that prevent people making moves straight from Government to the heart of bodies trying to wield influence over Government policies. I welcome the clause to this effect in the Labour Party motion.

There needs to be an end to the circumstances in which positions on State boards are doled out as rewards to supporters of whatever party happens to be in government. There needs to be a cull of quangos and unelected bodies to cut back on waste and improve transparency and efficiency in decision making. The Sinn Féin Members will support the motion enthusiastically when it is put to the House.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"—welcomes the commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government to increase transparency by putting as much information as possible on appropriate Government websites to inform the public of the workings of Government and State institutions, by expanding the Freedom of Information Acts to include specific administrative matters in An Garda Síochána, and by legislating to prevent employers in the public and private sectors from retaliating against employees who, in the public interest, disclose misconduct;

recognises that legislation already provides for spending limits for local, general, European and Presidential elections and welcomes the commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government to provide for further controls on political donations;

welcomes the commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government to provide for regulation of lobbyists and notes the need for appropriate advancement of this based on the studies undertaken and emerging international experience;

welcomes the commitment in the Renewed Programme for Government to introduce a more open and transparent system for appointments to public bodies;

welcomes the commitment in the Programme for Government to extend the provisions of the Code of Conduct for Civil Servants in relation to the acceptance of outside appointments and of consultancy engagements following resignation or retirement to all public servants in designated posts so as to ensure that they shall not within twelve months of resigning or retiring from the service:

accept an offer of appointment from an employer outside the Civil Service where it is deemed to create a conflict of interest; and

accept an engagement in a particular consultancy project, where the nature and terms of such appointment or engagement could lead to a conflict of interest, without first obtaining approval from the Outside Appointments Board;

welcomes the Government's tabling of a Dáil reform package aimed at improving the efficiency of the Dáil's procedures, the relevance of the Dáil in terms of addressing issues of topicality and concern to Members, and the family-friendly nature of Dáil sitting times, and acknowledges the effort by Government to achieve a consensus on this reform package;

highlights the comparative analysis carried out by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission in its 2009 Annual Report which shows that the Oireachtas "performs well when benchmarked against other national parliaments in terms of total sitting days and sitting hours";

notes that measures have already been put in place to improve the budget process, including the introduction of a unified Budget and the development of Annual Output Statements, and that a range of appropriate structural reform measures will be put in place in the context of the forthcoming Four Year Plan to improve performance budgeting and the Estimates processes; and

notes that there are already ample provisions in the Public Service Management Act 1997 to allow a Secretary General or Head of Office to:

manage the Department/Office, implement Government policies appropriate to the Department or Office, monitor Government policies that affect the Department/Office and deliver outputs as determined with the Minister of the Government having charge of the Department/Office;

provide progress reports to the Minister on the implementation of the Department's Strategy Statement annually or at such intervals as the Government may direct;

provide advice to the Minister on any matter affecting or connected with the responsibilities of the Department/Office;

ensure that the resources of the Department/Office are used in a manner that is in accordance with the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993; and

assign responsibility to other officers of the Department/Office."

I wish to share my time with Deputies Scanlon and Aylward.

The Labour Party motion covers a very wide range of areas, from transparency and Dáil reform to changes in the budgetary and Estimates processes and reform of the public service. I am pleased to inform the House that the Government has been active in many of these areas and that there are commitments in the renewed programme for Government dealing with many of the remainder, while in some cases action would not seem to be required. The salient points are set out in the Government's counter-motion which I have moved.

Before dealing with the specifics of the Labour Party motion, it is proper for me to remind the House that there is already a substantial framework of legislation in place, much of it dating from recent years, that lays down rules about the standards that should apply in public office, management and accountability in the public service, transparency in the operation of public bodies and limits that apply in elections. I say this because, in dealing with specific ideas for change, we risk losing sight of the fact that there is a network of provisions in place that reflect the importance of underpinning high standards of behaviour, performance and accountability.

The Labour Party motion begins with the issue of Cabinet confidentiality. The purpose of Cabinet confidentiality is to ensure Ministers can have full and open discussions at the Government table, and it is an important aspect of the collective responsibility for Government decisions enshrined in the Constitution. I presume Deputies will be familiar with the constitutional provision on Cabinet confidentiality inserted by the people as recently as 1997. Article 28.4.3° of the Constitution provides that the confidentiality of discussions at meetings of the Government is to be respected in all circumstances except where the High Court determines that disclosure should be made in respect of a particular matter in the interest of the administration of justice by a Court or by virtue of an overriding public interest pursuant to an application by a tribunal appointed on Oireachtas authority to inquire into a matter of public importance. Cabinet confidentiality is not absolute. The High Court may decide that it should be lifted in the interest of the administration of justice by a court or by virtue of an overriding public interest identified by a tribunal. It is clear, therefore, that the Constitution provides that Cabinet confidentiality cannot be used to cover up investigations, as may be implied in Deputy Howlin's motion.

The Government does not support the Labour Party motion's proposal to overturn key provisions in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. These provisions were introduced to ensure the appropriate balance between facilitating public access to information and the proper functioning of Government. More than 500 bodies are covered by the Act. The Department of Finance keeps its coverage under regular review. A number of bodies have been identified as being suitable for freedom of information coverage and the Department of Finance is working on proposals for an extension of the Act to these bodies.

It should not be for the Department of Finance to decide on these matters.

The renewed programme for Government sets out that the application of the Freedom of Information Act will be expanded to include certain administrative matters in the Garda Síochána. The freedom of information central policy unit in the Department of Finance and the Department of Justice and Law Reform have set up a working group that is examining the various issues and challenges relating to extension of the Act to these specific administrative functions. The group will produce a report that will identify administrative functions for freedom of information coverage together with recommendations and an implementation plan for approval by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform and the Minister for Finance.

The motion also calls for the introduction of whistleblowing legislation. In the course of the preparation of Bills, Ministers are required to include whistleblowing provisions, as appropriate, having regard to the nature, purpose and scope of the legislation in question. Various Acts in recent years have contained such provisions, including the Health Act 2007, the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007, the Labour Services (Amendment) Act 2009, the Chemicals Act 2008, the National Asset Management Agency Act 2009, and the Charities Act 2009. Whistleblowing provisions have been included in various Bills before the Oireachtas, including the Employment Law Compliance Bill 2008, the Employment Agency Regulation Bill 2009, the Property Services (Regulation) Bill 2009, and the Local Government (Mayor and Regional Authority of Dublin) Bill 2010.

The Government remains of the view that the sectoral response to affording protection to employees through the inclusion of appropriate whistleblowing provisions is the appropriate policy. Where a horizontal approach has been appropriate, however, the Government has moved to apply it. The Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill 2008, which deals with the offences of bribery and corruption as set out in the Prevention of Corruption Acts 1889 to 2005, deals with whistleblowing in respect of bribery and corruption on a horizontal cross-sectoral basis. The Bill has been amended on Committee Stage in the Dáil specifically to include whistleblower protection in respect of bribery and corruption under the Prevention of Corruption Acts. These provisions apply to any person reporting an opinion that an offence under the Protection of Corruption Acts has been committed. The provisions apply to a possible report in respect of a very wide variety of persons and include any person employed by or acting on behalf of another, or any person employed by or acting on behalf of the public administration of the State. In effect this means a person employed in any sector, including the public sector, who suspects that an offence covered by the prevention of corruption legislation is being committed and reports that suspicion, will be protected in respect of that report from liability in damages arising from that communication, assuming it is made in good faith and is neither frivolous nor vexatious. The whistleblower provisions in the Bill have been drafted with the intention of ensuring protection for the whistleblower and of clarifying the rights of redress open to an individual who may be penalised, by an employer for example, as a result of having reported a suspicion.

The motion also calls for the introduction of a programme of reform that would include spending limits for local and presidential elections and a reduction in the ceilings for European and general elections. It should be noted that legislation to provide for spending limits at local elections was put in place by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in 2009. Election spending limits applied for the first time at the local elections held in that year. The spending limits range from €7,500 to €15,000, depending on the population within a local electoral area. The Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides for spending limits at general, European and presidential elections. The expenditure limits are known to Members of the House. Consideration is being given to approaches to effect changes to provide for further controls on political donations and political funding.

In reforming Ireland's system of political funding, there are a number of issues concerning the transparency of current funding arrangements that need to be considered. In particular, recommendations have been put forward by the Council of Europe Group of States Against Corruption in its report on party funding in Ireland, published in January 2010. Recommendations have also been made by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

Regarding the regulation of lobbyists, the renewed programme for Government states the Government will "introduce a Register of Lobbyists, including professional, corporate and NGO". It is accepted that lobbying is a legitimate activity. Concerns have been and will be raised, however, as they have been raised in this debate, as to whether undue influence is being brought to bear. Effective measures to enhance transparency and accountability and reinforce a healthy culture of integrity in lobbying, while avoiding undue compliance costs on the political and administrative systems and on lobbyists should be proceeded with.

Internationally, the issue of regulating lobbyists has increased in prominence.

The policy challenge for Ireland is to ensure the system of regulation is appropriate to national circumstances. A viable system of regulation must bring tangible benefits in transparency, must fit well with public expectations of access and with the specifics of our political system and must not present an unnecessary drain on public resources to administer, particularly in circumstances such as those which currently obtain. The appropriate regulation of lobbyists, including the question of the introduction of a register, is being considered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who intends to bring proposals to Government on the matter in due course.

In the context of State boards, the appointment of the board members of statutory agencies and public bodies has traditionally been a matter for the Minister under whose aegis the relevant body falls. However, the method of appointment is often set out in the legislation governing the body and ministerial freedom is not unfettered. Account must be taken of specific legislative requirements, such as that relating to the appointment of worker directors or representatives of nominating bodies and also of relevant Government policies, such as that which comprehends gender balance on State boards.

The House will be aware that changes to the process have been piloted in a number of areas. Legislation brought forward by the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources provides that a proportion of appointments to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and RTE would be made by the Minister, having regard to the recommendations of the relevant Oireachtas joint committee. The legislation under which the new inland fisheries authority — Inland Fisheries Ireland — was established provides a similar role in respect of some of the board appointments. While it properly remains the prerogative of the responsible Minister under whose aegis a particular body falls to make appointments, there can be no doubt of this Government's commitment to the reforms that are under way.

Following the reform of FÁS's governing statute by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, the legislation now sets out in detail the skills mix required on the board of that organisation. In the case of NAMA, the relevant Minister sought expressions of interest from suitably qualified people for appointments to the board. The Minister for Transport invited expressions of interest for appointments to the Dublin Transportation Authority.

These processes have extended the pool of candidates from which appointments can be made. However, the experiences relating to the processes to which I refer have given rise to a number of resource issues and to some challenges relating to the expansion of those processes. It is becoming clear that the logistical requirements for implementing changes to the process of public appointments to State boards must be thought through, not least because of the time commitment involved and the demands of the selection process. Calling for expressions of interest certainly opens up the process. However, the time demands are greater and the manner in which all or some stages of selection might be conducted in public or otherwise requires careful examination, particularly in light of the risk of deterring suitable candidates who would demand a level of confidentiality concerning their candidature.

The Public Appointments Service is available to assist, where necessary, in such processes and there is a level of ongoing consultation in respect of the matter. In the interim, a perusal of the annual reports of State bodies — in which details relating to board members and their qualifications are set out — will bear testament to the high calibre of appointments that have been made.

As regards Dáil reform, proposals agreed by the Government last year were brought before the relevant forum of the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges, namely, the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform. These proposals included more sitting days, consolidating the time that the Taoiseach and Opposition leaders spend in the House, commencing Dáil proceedings earlier each day and dealing with the current position relating to promised legislation only once a week. I am of the view that these proposals would enable the Dáil to be more reactive to issues which are newsworthy on any given day. This would be additional to the opportunity in this regard which Leaders' Questions, in particular, affords Opposition leaders in the House.

Consensus has not so far proved possible on the Government's proposals. However, I understand the Chief Whip is continuing his engagement with the various party representatives on the sub-committee with a view to achieving the highest possible level of cross-party consensus in respect of them. We all share the view that there is a need to reach agreement on a set of procedural reforms and we look forward to this being achieved in the coming period.

With regard to outside appointments, rules to ensure that former senior civil servants and special advisers do not work in an area involving a potential conflict of interest are already in place in accordance with the code of standards and behaviour which was introduced in the Civil Service in September 2004. The code was drawn up and promulgated by the Minister for Finance under the Standards in Public Office Act 2001, and was published by the Standards in Public Office Commission and issued by the Department of Finance as a circular. The outside appointments board is an independent body established under the code in 2005. Its purpose is to provide independent scrutiny of employments which former civil servants propose to take up within one year of retiring or resigning from the Civil Service. The board is comprised of a non-Civil Service chairman, the Secretary General with responsibility for public service management and development in the Department of Finance, the Secretary General to the Government and two other non-Civil Service members.

In line with a commitment in the renewed programme for Government, the provisions of the code of conduct for civil servants in respect of the acceptance of outside appointments and of consultancy engagement following resignation or retirement will be extended to all public servants in designated posts. This will ensure that such individuals will not — within 12 months of resigning or retiring from the service — accept an offer of appointment from an outside employer, where it is deemed to create a conflict of interest, or accept an engagement in a particular consultancy project, where the nature and terms of such appointment or engagement could lead to a conflict of interest, without first obtaining approval from the outside appointments board.

The final part of the Labour Party's motion relates to the roles and responsibilities of Ministers and Secretaries General. It is important to maintain an appropriate balance between the two in respect of policy and administration. This issue was addressed in the Public Service Management Act 1997, which formed a key element of the drive under the strategic management initiative to improve performance and accountability.

Secretaries General have the twin tasks of delivering policy advice to Ministers and undertaking a range of management duties. It is the responsibility of Ministers to determine policy and the outputs required to deliver thereon. Under the Act, Secretaries General must manage their Departments, implement Government policies appropriate to their Departments, monitor Government policies which affect their Departments and deliver outputs as determined with the relevant Minister. Specifically, they must prepare and submit to Ministers strategy statements relating to their Departments and provide progress reports to Ministers on the implementation of those statements, either annually or at such intervals as the Government may direct. They must also provide advice to Ministers on any matter affecting or connected with the responsibilities of their Departments and ensure appropriate arrangements that will facilitate an effective response to matters that pertain to Departments and other parts of the public service are put in place.

Secretaries General must also ensure the resources of Departments are used in a manner that is in accordance with the requirements of the Comptroller and Auditor General (Amendment) Act 1993 and examine and develop means that will improve the provision by Departments of cost-effective public services. In addition, they must assign responsibility to other officers of their Departments. Officers to whom responsibility for the performance of functions has been assigned are to be accountable for the performance of those functions to the Secretaries General.

In the context of the reform of the Estimates and budgetary process, the Government put in place a special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes, chaired by Mr. Colm McCarthy, to examine every area of Government expenditure in a critical manner. The group's report, which proposes specific savings measures of €5.3 billion and a reduction in numbers of 17,300, was published in July 2009. The Government has moved to implement many of the measures recommended in the report and continues to have regard to its proposals, particularly in respect of structural reforms in the system of public administration generally.

The Government has progressively reformed the system relating to the Estimates cycle in recent years. In 2006, it instituted a new autumn pre-budget outlook. Since 2007, the Estimates of expenditure have been determined and presented alongside the annual tax decisions on budget day. This unified approach to the budget has facilitated the Government in making all of the necessary budget decisions in a coherent and integrated manner. Naturally, the established budgetary framework has also had to be adapted and applied in a flexible manner in the past two to three years as the Government has been obliged to move swiftly to deal with emerging economic and budgetary issues.

It is no secret that like all other member states, Ireland's budgetary timetable will have to be reviewed to take account of recent agreements among all EU leaders in respect of the new European semester that will come into effect in 2011. Under this new arrangement, and having regard to the overall macroeconomic view set out early in the year by the EU Commission, all Governments will be required to publish a stability programme update by the end of April, well in advance of the subsequent budget. Each member state's draft proposals for the following year's budget will then be considered and the views of the Commission and the EU Council will be made known. The implications of this arrangement for existing Irish budgetary processes will have to be considered carefully. As a general principle, however, the Government is in favour of a restructured approach to budget formation that will allow greater space for the informed views of the Oireachtas and of our EU colleagues to be taken into account.

The performance dimension is critical to delivering improvements to public service delivery and efficiency. This is an area in respect of which good progress has been made in recent years. Annual output statements were introduced in 2007. These provide an opportunity for the relevant Dáil select committees to scrutinise the voted expenditure allocations for each Department and to query the public service outputs and outcomes to be delivered with public moneys. In its 2008 review of the Irish public service, the OECD was complimentary with regard to output statements. At the same time, it spelled out some ways in which this performance aspect of budgeting could be improved and integrated more fully into the resource allocation process.

On the subject of the role of Oireachtas committees in scrutinising the economy and efficiency of individual spending programmes, this again is an area where the Government has been at pains to make all relevant information available to the Oireachtas. As part of the enhanced value for money framework announced over recent years, expenditure in each area of Government is subject to periodic value for money and policy reviews. These detailed expenditure appraisals are conducted by the relevant Department with input from the Department of Finance, and when completed they are laid before the relevant select committee of the Oireachtas for scrutiny.

On the question of an independent fiscal advisory council separate from Government mechanisms, the first point to make is that there is no shortage of commentary, independent or otherwise, on the budgetary and economic plans and projections put forward by the Government at budget time each year. This commentary has arisen in recent years but what is important is that the Government has acted at all times on the best informed budgetary forecasting advice on the basis of the latest possible information available at any one point in time.

That having been said, it is the practice in several countries for the policy-making institutions of the state to have access to separate, independent mechanisms for providing economic analysis and advice, to complement the official mechanisms within the Government. The Government is now considering a wide range of structural reforms in the context of preparing our four year plan and budget 2011 and we will be taking full account of international best practice in this area. It is with pleasure that I commend the Government's counter-motion to the House in light of the changes we have introduced in recent years.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and I thank the Minister of State for sharing his time. The motion we have heard this evening from the Labour Party covers an extremely broad range of areas. The Labour Party motion proposes a wide variety of measures, including in regard to matters of Cabinet confidentiality, the Freedom of Information Act, whistleblowers' legislation, spending limits for elections, contributions to political parties, registration of lobbyists, Dáil reform, the establishment of an independent fiscal advisory council, bringing forward the Estimates cycle, publication of the Attorney General's advice in specified circumstances, increased powers for Oireachtas committees and amendments to the Ministers and Secretaries Acts and the Public Service Management Act.

As the Minister of State, Deputy Dara Calleary, has already told the House, the Government has already been and continues to be active in progressing these areas, many of which are already outlined in the renewed programme for Government. The motion calls for the restoration of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 to its original form and scope and the extension of its remit to the Garda Síochána and other public bodies.

From my perspective as an elected representative, I believe that freedom of information legislation has been an important development in our modern democratic system and has helped to improve the engagement between the citizen and the Administration. The Government does not support the Labour Party motion's proposal to overturn key provisions in the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003. These provisions were introduced to ensure the appropriate balance between facilitating public access to information and the proper functioning of government.

As Deputies are aware, the Department of Finance keeps the number of bodies covered by the Act under regular review. There are over 500 bodies at the current time. I understand that a number of bodies have been identified as possibly being suitable for freedom of information coverage and the Department of Finance is currently examining how the Act might apply to these bodies. In particular, it should be noted that the renewed programme for Government states the Freedom of Information Acts will be expanded to include certain administrative matters in the Garda Síochána.

The Departments of Finance and Justice and Law Reform are currently examining the various issues and challenges relating to the extension of the Act to specific administrative functions within the Garda Síochána. The group will identify administrative functions for freedom of information coverage, together with recommendations and an implementation plan for approval by the Ministers for Justice and Law Reform and Finance.

The motion also calls for the introduction of a programme of reform that would include spending limits for local and presidential elections and a reduction in the ceilings for European and general elections. The Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides for spending limits at general, European and presidential elections. The following expenditure limits applied to candidates at the most recent relevant elections: €230,000 for the European Parliament in 2009; in the 2007 Dáil election €45,200 for a five-seat constituency, €37,650 for a four-seat constituency and €30,150 for a three-seat constituency; and €1.3 million for the presidential election in 2004. In the current economic climate, there will be no difficulty keeping under those figures and I would not object if they were reduced.

I understand legislation providing for spending limits at local elections was put in place in 2009 by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. These limits range from €7,500 to €15,000, depending on the population within a local electoral area and the specific type of election. As Deputies know, these limits applied for the first time at the local elections held in that year. The Government is also currently giving consideration to approaches to effect changes to provide for further controls on political donations and political funding.

Turning to lobbying, it is right that the regulation of lobbyists, including the introduction of a register, is being considered by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who will bring proposals to Government. That needs to be done.

As regards Dáil reform, I understand that proposals were brought before the relevant forum, namely, the sub-committee of the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges specifically concerned with Dáil reform. The proposals included many useful ideas such as increased sitting days, consolidating the amount of time that the Taoiseach and Opposition leaders would spend in the House, starting the Dáil earlier each day and dealing with the current position about promised legislation only once a week. I welcome these proposals and believe that they would enable the Dáil to be more reactive to issues which become newsworthy on any given day. These proposals are in addition to the opportunity that Leaders' Questions in particular affords Opposition leaders in the House.

As somebody who spent five years in the Seanad, I fully concur with the view that it is important that whether one is in Government, the backbenches or an Independent Deputy, there are issues of the day which affect one's local constituency. It is important that Deputies of all parties should have an opportunity to raise relevant issues on a particular day.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate and thank the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, for sharing his time.

The motion we have heard from the Labour Party covers an extremely broad range of areas including Dáil reform, freedom of information, whistleblowers' information and contributions to political parties. The Government has already been and continues to be active in progressing these areas, many of which are outlined in the renewed programme for Government. The Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, has comprehensively addressed all of these issues in his statement. I wish to address a number of these issues now.

As the Minister of State outlined in his statement, as part of a commitment in the renewed programme for Government, the provisions of the code of conduct for civil servants in regard to the acceptance of outside appointments or consultancy engagement following resignation or retirement will be extended to all public servants in designated posts. This is a welcome development. It will ensure that public servants cannot accept an offer of appointment from an outside employer where it is deemed to create a conflict of interest or accept an engagement in a particular consultancy project, where the nature and terms of such appointment or engagement could lead to a conflict of interest, without first obtaining approval from the Outside Appointments Board.

The Labour Party motion as proposed by Deputy Howlin also makes reference to the issue of the roles and responsibilities of Ministers and Secretaries General. It states the responsibilities of Secretaries General be strengthened by assigning to them authority and accountability for ensuring that the Department and its officers perform their functions in a non-political and impartial manner, in accordance with law, the highest ethical standards of conduct and integrity and any prescribed code of conduct.

I agree with the Minister of State that it is critical that we maintain an appropriate balance between the two in respect of policy and administration. The issue has been addressed in the Public Service Management Act, which formed a key element of the drive under the strategic management initiative to improve performance and accountability.

As we all know, the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes was established by the Government to examine critically and assess all areas of Government expenditure. It was chaired by economist Colm McCarthy and became more commonly known as an bord snip nua. Its report was published by the Government in July 2009 and proposed a reduction of 17,300 in numbers and specific savings measures of €5.3 billion.

It is a thorough and detailed examination of all departmental spending, examining in particular what is intended to be achieved by each spending programme, whether it has been achieved and whether the level of spending is justified in current resource-limited conditions. As we all know, on the basis of its analysis, an bord snip nua presented some difficult policy options. These are the choices that we as a people, and not just as public representatives and Government, will have to face up to in order to get this nation back on track, create jobs, meet public needs and promote fairness, which we have proved we can do as a society over the past 20 years.

The Government has moved to implement many of the measures recommended in that report and continues to consult its proposals, especially when considering structural reforms within the public administration system.

A progressive reform of the cycle of Estimates has also been effected by the Government in recent years. The publication, in 2006, of a new autumn pre-budget outlook document enables the provision of a full range of information on the public finances in advance of budget decisions. Since 2007, the Estimates of expenditure have been determined and presented alongside the annual tax decisions on budget day. This unified budget approach has facilitated the Government in making all of the necessary budget decisions in a coherent and integrated manner.

The rapidly emerging and evolving economic and budgetary issues have necessitated altering and adapting the established budgetary framework over the past two to three years. In common with all other member states, Ireland's budgetary timetable will have to be reviewed to take account of recent agreements among all EU leaders on the new European semester that will come into effect in 2011. All Governments are required, under this new arrangement, to publish a stability programme update by end-April. This update must reflect the overall macro-economic view set out early in the year by the EU Commission and be released well in advance of the subsequent budget. All member state's draft proposals for the following year's budget will be considered and the views of the Commission and the EU Council will be advanced. It is true, as the Minister stated, that the details of this arrangement will have to be considered carefully, but as a general principle we are in favour of a restructured approach to budget formation that allows greater space for the informed views of the Oireachtas and of our EU colleagues to be taken into account.

I agree with the Government's amendment and its recommendations.

I wish to share time with Deputies Stanton and Hogan.

Is that agreed? Agreed. How is the time to be divided?

Ten minutes each.

I welcome the Labour Party motion before the House tonight. No doubt there is a good and decent set of proposals contained in the motion but if we are to change politics in Ireland, this must go much further.

Since I entered Parliament in 2002 there have been few changes in the way it works, in the way Deputies work, in the committee system and in the workings of Irish politics. As we approach difficult economic times where there will be cutbacks across every sector of politics, the public sector and every Department, politicians must lead by example. If we are to do that, there must be major changes within the political system.

Fine Gael has come up with a strong and radical set of proposals in its New Politics document which was launched more than a year ago. At the time, that document proposing the abolition of Seanad Éireann and a reduction of 20 TDs in Dáil Éireann caused much debate up and down the country. As a party, we share many of the views and aims mentioned in tonight's motion.

What has happened in recent years is much to blame for current economic circumstances. In this Parliament no one could be held to account. Deputy Stanton will outline in his contribution proposals for Dáil reform, but I want to talk about the quangos and semi-State bodies where people got away with blue murder in recent years because there was no accountability and no one was brought in here to be questioned in the committee system. Had there been accountability in the political system over the past 15 years we would not face the economic circumstances we now face.

The Fianna Fáil policies caused the so-called golden circle of builders and bankers. The citizen, the main person who should have been looked after in this Parliament, was left to one side and the so-called golden circle of builders, bankers and developers were all looked after. That amounts to complete political failure and it lies at the heart of our economic collapse. It lies at the heart of government also because the Government was responsible for what happened.

Under the Fine Gael proposal, the New Politics document, we can reverse that culture. We must restore trust to the people. We must bring the citizen, communities and interested bodies into our political heart and into the political system and make them feel that this Parliament belongs to them as much as it belongs to the politicians who are elected to the House. We must make them feel that their input is appreciated. We must ensure that the citizen's voice is heard. The citizen's voice is something that has been lost within this Parliament. We want to tackle the weaknesses in the political system and create a credible parliament. Compared to the way other parliaments operate their political systems, the Irish Parliament is way down the Richter scale.

We must make Governments accountable. They want to pass the buck and make it somebody else's responsibility. There are numerous examples of that. When one sees Ministers setting up quangos to take on responsibility there is no accountability for the bodies set up. That has happened wholesale within this Parliament.

I will give two examples, the Freedom of Information Acts and the whistleblowers' legislation. The Minister outlined it, and it is in the programme for Government, and Deputy Scanlon spoke about it. In 1997, Fine Gael introduced the first Freedom of Information Bill. It was strong, and it was there for the citizen to find out information about decision-making and what was happening within Government, different Departments, semi-State bodies or whatever. The Government, in 2003, came back and took the Freedom of Information Act that we had enacted in 1997 a step backwards by placing restrictions on the citizen being able to find out information. It was a bad step to take.

The other area is whistleblowers' legislation. The Fine Gael Party and the general public believe that if there was strong legislation put in place to protect persons within the workplace we would not be in the circumstances we are in today. People would have felt that they would be protected if they wanted to highlight issues within the banking system and within Departments, especially within the area of banking. We must have strong robust legislation to protect the worker to give him or her the opportunity to come forward and highlight issues relevant to the Dáil and the Parliament, and to feel protected in doing so.

Many issues are raised with regard to wrongdoing in Departments. Employees who come forward to highlight issues do not feel protected. This has to change and a Fine Gael-led Government will make this a priority and will introduce a Bill to address the issue.

If people do not have an opportunity to highlight issues, they do not feel the Parliament is relevant and, as it stands today, this Parliament is not relevant. We need cost savings in the Parliament and to create a lean and more fit-for-purpose type of Parliament. This is lacking, which is highlighted to me by members of the public who state the Parliament we have does not work and needs to be more efficient and relevant. It is not enough to pay lip-service to what Members have stated this evening. I have no doubt that most Members want to see the Chamber and the Oireachtas being more efficient; we have to grasp the issue and take action. There is no use talking about it.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. It is good that we are speaking about how we do business as we do not do so half often enough. I wish to draw attention to something the Minister of State said. He probably received a script, which is typical for Ministers and Ministers of State, and he probably read it for the first time when he spoke here. He stated, "As regards Dáil reform, proposals agreed by the Government last year were brought before the relevant forum of the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges, namely, the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform". I am a member of that sub-committee but it did not happen. The Minister of State should check his facts before he comes here and reads them out. The Minister of State also stated, "Consensus has not so far proved possible on the Government's proposals". If we could discuss them it would be useful. However we have not seen them. We have not had a meeting since last April while the sub-committee has met once this year.

If the Government is serious about Dáil reform, the Minister of State should not come to the House this evening and imply, by stating that consensus has not so far proved possible on the Government's proposals, that the Opposition did not agree. This is disingenuous. The Minister of State should do his homework before he comes to the House and makes such a statement. We have been trying very hard to get the Government engaged on Dáil reform. Time and again, I have tried to engage the Taoiseach in the House. He states it is a matter for the Chief Whip and the sub-committee. The sub-committee will not meet. What can we do? How can we have a debate and discussion on Dáil reform when the Government will not engage and does not seem a bit interested in it?

Deputy Kehoe rightly maintained that the economic mess we are in at present could in some way be attributed to the fact that this House does not work as it should. The Executive completely controls what goes on here. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that in the UK and Ireland alone, the Government determines the plenary agenda almost completely. In other European countries, such as the Netherlands and Italy, the Chamber decides the agenda. In Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden, the Speaker or President — depending on the office title — is very much engaged in the agenda of Parliament. However, we cannot discuss these matters in the House because the Government will not engage.

The legislative process in other countries is done in a completely different way. Here, this Chamber is a rubber stamp for the Government. Legislation is brought here more or less as a fait accompli. In other countries, the heads of a Bill are brought before the Parliament and the ideas are discussed before it goes back to the Department and the Government for the final document to be produced. This does not happen here. More and more, we see amendments coming forward at the last minute on Report Stage and the guillotine being used excessively with no debate. This is dangerous and wrong.

In a few minutes we will have the Adjournment debate; a major set piece where Deputies come in and read scripts. A Minister or Minister of State, very often not involved in the relevant Department, will take out of his or her pocket a prepared script that anticipates what the Opposition Member or Government backbencher will have stated and reads it for the first time. This is called a debate. Who are we codding? Recently, I watched a similar procedure in the UK Parliament. There, the Minister invited questions from the Member of the Opposition. In this Parliament during such a debate we are not allowed to ask questions. We tried to change this. Fine Gael proposed four or five very small technical amendments to procedure that would have made a big difference but the Government would not engage. The Government will not discuss or make any change even though on his first day in office the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, spoke about reform. However, he will not do so, indeed he has been an obstacle to reform of any type.

Last week, we were criticised in the media for script reading. This is what the Chamber has been reduced to. Instead of being a battleground of ideas, we script read at each other. This is not good enough. There is no debate or interaction. We have not seen the Government's Dáil reform package but I would like to see it. I am a member of the sub-committee and I ask the Minister of State to show it to me. I have been asking for it for the past two years.

People are frustrated. Members try to raise issues using parliamentary procedure such as Standing Order 32. It is a joke but it is the only way people can mention in the Parliament serious issues of concern that need to be addressed there and then. In other European Parliaments, one can stand up in the morning and raise an issue and the Minister does not feel attacked. Very often, the Minister will thank the Member for raising the issue and for bringing it to his or her attention, state he or she was not aware of it and that he or she will communicate with the Member later in the day. Here, a Minister looks on it as a personal attack if one tries to ask a question. This needs to change. It is not good enough for a Minister or a Minister of State to come in here and read out drivel which he or she has probably never read before. It is wrong in fact and in spirit. People are very frustrated.

Quangos have been mentioned. Every time the Government wants to hide behind something it sets up a new quango. Recently, I tried to find out about the closure of the courthouse in Cobh. A diktat came from on high. I was told the Minister is no longer responsible and that responsibility now lies with the Courts Service. I asked the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Women's Rights to write to the Courts Service to find out why the courthouse was shut because the people want to know. I am still waiting for a response. People were not consulted, they were not told or asked. It does not matter how inconvenienced they were, the Minister hides behind the quango. Other quangos include the National Roads Authority and the HSE, which is the biggest of them all. What are we doing here? One cannot get answers to anything. All these bodies spend public money. We are sent here to somehow make them accountable for the people but we cannot do so.

This Parliament is totally controlled by the Executive. This is wrong and dangerous and needs to change. The Executive controls the plenary agenda, decides legislation, decides what is debated, how it is debated, when it is debated and, very often who debates it and for how long. People are frustrated and, as Deputy Kehoe stated, this House is seen as almost irrelevant at this stage.

We had the cosy consensus of social partnership where people went into a room and, behind closed doors, decided what should be done. This is Parliament, where we debate in public so that people can see what we say. Why is it that the Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform, when it meets once a year, meets in private? It should meet in public.

We are still waiting for proposals on an electoral commission which we are told might bring some of these things forward. I would like to see major changes in how the House operates but I know this will not happen so I brought forward five minor changes. Let us have supplementary questions on Adjournment debates. Let us get rid of Standing Order 32 and allow Deputies to ask questions for 30 seconds. Taoiseach's Question Time is the most boring time in the House. Very often, something that happened six months ago is discussed. It is a waste of the Taoiseach's time and our time. The Government will not engage with us. I ask the Minister of State to engage with the House on this matter.

Debate adjourned.