That Seanad Éireann calls on the Government to introduce legislation to cause, with immediate effect, the cessation of the payment of Ministerial pensions to members of both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, for his presence in the House to debate the motion, which is a simple and straightforward one that relates to the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting Deputies. I urge him to outline in his response the historical reasons ministerial pensions were paid to sitting Deputies who are no longer Ministers. Perhaps he could indicate also the origins and merits of the practice and what it was hoped to achieve by the payment of ministerial pensions to sitting Deputies.
There has been much discussion of the belief that to attract the best and brightest in society into politics, we must pay them significant sums of money. Before I consider that issue it might be worthwhile to consider whether pay and terms and conditions have a major impact on who gets involved in politics. For years politics was a poorly paid profession, yet it still attracted a wide cross-section of society. That has been the case since the foundation of the State. Complaints centred on the belief that it suited professionals based in Dublin to become involved in politics because they could continue their professional careers but that it was difficult for those outside the capital to travel to and from Dublin and that they had to give up their profession or job to work full-time as politicians. It also suited some public servants to get involved in politics because in many cases their jobs and pensions were protected. A large proportion of those who got involved in politics suffered a loss professionally and financially but they persevered. I do not believe money is always the motivation for people to get involved in politics. The majority of people were not motivated by money and their job security was precarious to say the least.
It is true to say individuals who have had a long ministerial career have often had successful careers after they have left the House. Ministerial pensions for sitting Members are a source of public anger. That anger is red hot and furious and is focused on politicians. The perception that politicians are cushioning themselves from the worst effects of the economic downturn is making individuals angry with the political establishment. In these difficult financial times there is an expectation that ministerial pensions should be a cushion for electoral misfortune or retirement, not a top-up for an Opposition or Government back bench Deputy who is still a Member of Parliament.
Whatever about the past, there is currently no public appetite for individuals of either House of the Oireachtas claiming a ministerial pension while a sitting Deputy or Senator. That message should have been sent clearly from both Houses of the Oireachtas by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, all other members of the Cabinet and the Government parties. That message was not sent and that is why the Government has contributed so much to the public anger we are witnessing. Those in receipt of a ministerial pension can be misguided owing to their own sense of importance or misplaced understanding of principles. The Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance should have stood up to that kind of misguided thinking and done something about it. It is clear they failed to do so.
The accusation has been made that the media are fanning the flames of public anger on the issue. That may be so but the public anger is real. The failure to acknowledge that anger is allowing the issue to become a major one in terms of the perception of the Government parties by the public. When the Minister of State gets an opportunity to respond, he will no doubt try to evade the moral responsibility by outlining the constitutional argument or by using legalese. If he has received proper legal opinion, he will be aware that there is little defence for the constitutional argument that the pensions are paid for and therefore they are an entitlement for the remaining Fianna Fáil trio who insist on keeping them.
If legal opinion is available, it should be published. When we discussed previously in the Seanad the reduction of ministerial pensions, we were told the opinion of the Attorney General was that we could not reduce or get rid of pensions completely for sitting Members. That opinion has never been published even though it would be of extreme interest not just to the legal profession but to ordinary men and women in this country as to why former Ministers must be treated in such a different fashion from the rest of the country when it comes to cutting their pay and conditions, as has been proposed for almost everyone in society. Debate has focused on the destruction of pensions. The legislation that was passed last year was not opposed by the three individuals who were Members of the Lower House at the time and who maintain that their entitlement will end anyway within two years. There is no retrospective element to the legislation. It simply applies from this point forward and does not equate to major losses for the individuals concerned compared with, say, the proportion of their earnings being given up by public servants. Just consider the number of people who lost their jobs and those who have contracts with the State. There is a major issue about this being a contract. Other groups that have contracts with the State such as pharmacists and dentists have seen their incomes slashed in the past 12 months.
Legislation passed by the Oireachtas blocked the long-service payments being made to a small section of its Members. However, the lifelong equivalent of what they have lost is very much the same as the amounts in pension payments this trio will receive individually in the next two years. I find it difficult to believe the Government can argue nothing can be done about this on constitutional grounds. Fine Gael has had legal opinion on the different shades of protection on offer for citizens under the Constitution. Nothing under the Constitution protects the Fianna Fáil trio. There is no absolute right to property, if pensions may be regarded as property, and there is certainly no absolute right in the context of having their pensions stopped completely at this time.
We would be very interested to know the Attorney General's advice is, just to get over the legal side of the argument being put forward by the Government. I believe the Government has relied too much on that rather than responding to what this is really about, namely, a moral argument. It is a moral argument to show leadership to the people, thus indicating that this behaviour has to stop. It may have been acceptable in good times for former Ministers to have pensions. There might even have been a reasonable argument for former Ministers being paid ministerial pensions as back bench Deputies or Senators and that this argument got lost in the fog of the Celtic tiger period, but we are in very different times. If there is one group of people that is expected to show leadership in the present crisis, it is the Cabinet, and it should percolate downwards from the top of Government to every single Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas. There is a sense that there is not this leadership. Instead a sense of entitlement continues.
The ordinary man and woman who are suffering do not understand this concept of entitlement, as expressed by the trio within Fianna Fáil regarding what they are entitled to having held ministerial office. The Government's response to the way these three individuals believe they are entitled to their ministerial pensions shows no recognition of the absolute hardship many people are going through. I hope when the Minister of State responds to this that he will express the anger of the Government at the trio still holding out and show that this Administration has the backbone to do something about it. I trust he will not hide behind a vague constitutional argument presented to the Government by the Attorney General and which he refuses to share publicly with the Opposition so that we too can question whether that argument can stand up in court.
If the Minister of State believes, as I do, that this is a moral argument, he should allow the legislation to come to the Oireachtas and let the trio involved challenge it. Let them take the Minister to court and challenge the law. That is the best way to check how strongly they believe in the principle of this issue. Members of the Oireachtas must show solidarity with everyone in the country at this time. If there are individuals in the banks and other organisations that have acted in a despicable manner in recent years and are seen to have got away with it, we cannot use this as an excuse. We must show we have the moral courage to lead the people and take the pain with them. That is the main thrust of what we are talking about in this motion and I hope the Minister of State will acknowledge that in his response.