I welcome the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, to the House. Before we commence, I remind Members that a Senator may speak only once on Report Stage, except the proposer of the amendment, who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. On Report Stage, each amendment must be seconded. Amendment No. 1, in the names of Senators Bradford and Healy Eames, arises from committee proceedings.
Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013: Report and Final Stages
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:
"(2) Where a member of a qualifying party ceases to be a member of the Parliamentary Party of that party, no allowance shall be payable in respect of that member and the allowance payable under this section shall be reduced proportionately.".
I welcome the Minister to the House. This is the fourth time he has come before us to discuss this Bill. I do not believe he has climbed a high mountain or discovered new thinking in the Himalayan air in the meantime. It is inappropriate that approximately €500,000 will be handed over to the political parties in the coming three years based on calculations that are no longer valid. Previously, when making this point, I referred to former members of parliamentary parties and the Minister was disinclined to accept my argument. It is clear, however, that the calculations being used no longer stand up to scrutiny. This is an example of improper practice and it sends out the wrong signal about politics, politicians and political funding.
In the period leading up to the next general election, which we are informed will be held in March or April 2016, political parties will receive approximately €500,000 from taxpayers to which they are not entitled. I have made my case in previous debates on this legislation and I hope the Minister will at least reflect on the arguments Senators have made in this regard. If he chooses not to change this unfair interpretation of the law, I ask him to at least keep the issue in mind for future discourse and legislation.
I second the amendment.
The Minister will be aware that Senator Bradford and I have spoken at length on this issue. We strongly believe that an allowance of €21,045 that has been allocated to us should no longer be paid to Fine Gael, a party from which both of us have been expelled. This money is made available to fund the political system. As parliamentarians who work on behalf of their constituents, Senator Bradford and I are still members of that system. As a mark of honour, we do not ask that the money be paid to us or the reform alliance. Instead, it should be returned to the Exchequer as there is no basis for paying it to the Fine Gael Party. If it is not returned, the Minister, as the occupant of the key reforming financial Department, will have elected to endorse the status quo and an insider job.
People have repeatedly stated they want reform of the political system and accepting this amendment would be a small step in that direction. The Bill is not about funding elections or saving staff. We cited examples in last week's debate of staff who were let go mid-term because they had no protection when Members fell out with their parties. The purpose of the payment of this allowance to the political parties is to fill party coffers in a disingenuous manner. I ask the Minister to support us and allow the amendment to be a mark of change. He has shown great intent as a reforming Minister in many other areas. The amendment presents him with a flag to fly in that regard. I look forward to his reply.
The House has had exhausted debate on this issue. I remind the Minister that there is a precedent in this regard. When an Independent Deputy joined the Fianna Fáil Party in the previous Government, she was advised legally, as I am sure Fine Gael and the Labour Party are currently being advised, that she was entitled to keep the money under the legislation. Incidentally, the Minister has not made any changes in this regard in the Bill. Considerable political pressure was applied on the Independent Deputy in question, both by the then Taoiseach, Mr. Brian Cowen, and Opposition parties, to give up her independent allowance. She subsequently and properly decided to give it up, notwithstanding the absence of any legal obligation on her to do so. Similarly, the Fine Gael Party and Labour Party will not be legally required to give up the relevant allowances if the amendment is not accepted. The parties should be consistent with the arguments they made at the time. The then Taoiseach clearly stated that the Independent Deputy in question should give up her allowance. The legal advice from the Oireachtas, however, was to the contrary as the position was very clear in the legislation. It is essential that the Minister accept the amendment. To do so would be consistent and fair.
I repeat that Senators Healy Eames and Bradford are not seeking to have the money paid to them but to be returned to the taxpayer rather than used by the Fine Gael Party for political purposes.
It is worth emphasising that there is nothing selfish or partisan in this proposal. While the amendment tabled by my two colleagues affects their own case, they are not seeking any aggrandisement or financial reward for themselves but addressing the principle that the labourer gets paid for his or her hire. It is daft that a political party or an organisation should be paid for the work done by somebody who has disassociated himself or herself from that organisation or party.
I had forgotten about the precedent to which Senator Byrne referred. It appears that this was merely counsel's advice. I wonder if my colleagues, Senators Bradford and Healy Eames, would consider taking this matter before the courts to obtain a ruling. There are legal implications to this important constitutional point. It is likely that in these circumstances a court would avoid embarrassment for the Minister and two individuals involved and would lay down a principle that would continue and would, I hope, be unlikely to cause any great financial burden on the two Senators in question. This is a matter of considerable constitutional importance and in such cases the court usually waives legal fees. Perhaps the Senators will think along these lines.
As I stated, the proposed amendment sets out an honourable course of action. It is not as if the political parties are destitute of funds. It is revealing to learn how much they receive. The loss of the money intended and specified for the two individuals involved would not bankrupt the Fine Gael Party as it has adequate resources.
In anticipation of an argument that the Minister may feel inclined to repeat, namely, that they were elected as members of Fine Gael, how can we know this? We cannot know what is in the minds of all the people in the electorate. I regularly hear people in my area say they voted for the person rather than the party. They vote for the person they trust to represent them adequately. The argument falls because one can assume that at least a reasonable proportion of the people who voted for Senator Paul Bradford, even though they were merely Members of Parliament and county councillors rather than real people, had a good idea of what they were doing. The Minister's position raises the spectre of the mediaeval system that obtained when I was first elected to this House, whereby Members electing persons to Seanad Éireann were dragooned into their parties' rooms, told where to mark their "X" and stood over while they voted. That was not particularly democratic.
The argument was made by the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White.
It was rather daft whoever made it. There is a lot of daftness around.
It is the human condition.
I am afraid it is.
Senator David Norris to continue, without interruption.
I do not mind being interrupted. As I am a bit of an interrupter myself, what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
The Chair will not tolerate it.
I am sure the Minister is going to be involved in discussions on Seanad reform. I have outlined my reservations about the way in which reform is being pursued. As Minister with responsibility for reform, it is important that he put the entire Seanad under review rather than single out what is possibly the most vocal group. The Government estimates that there are 750,000 university voters - that is a big wallop of voters. Senator Martin Conway made a good point about blind people being allowed to use computers, but everybody should be allowed to do so. Six Senators will be elected from the universities by 750,000 voters; 43 will be elected by fewer than 1,000 voters, while the remainder will be elected by the Taoiseach through the glory of the single voter electorate. It can be similar in other elections. I recall the last by-election, in which there were only 237 votes for technical reasons. We have to equalise and democratise the system. I know that was a bit vague, but I want to pay a compliment to my colleagues who have not done anything in a selfish way.
This is an interesting amendment. People will be surprised to learn that there could be such a scenario. One could approach the issue technically by providing that someone elected on 1 July for a particular party could become an Independent on 2 July. This individual would de facto be an Independent Member for his or her full five year term, with the exception of one day. That may have happened in the Labour Party after a previous by-election. I understand why my colleagues have tabled this amendment. It makes considerable sense, although the Minister may have his reasons for being unable to accept it.
The funding of political parties is extremely important. The State should totally fund political parties. That would provide transparency and accountability because the funding provided would be vouched for properly. We would not have the spectacle of politicians standing at church gates or the other nonsense that occurs such as politicians trying to sell raffle tickets. Our democracy is worth much more than this and political parties should be properly funded. Similarly, Members of the Oireachtas should be properly supported. This House has the freshest and latest mandate of all in that the referendum on its abolition was defeated. Nonetheless, I have to pay for my own office in County Clare. I choose to do my business in County Clare because that is where I happen to live. Members of the other House have offices that are funded by the taxpayer. Either nobody's office should be funded by the taxpayer or else all of our offices should be so funded. Either we believe in equality in our democracy or we do not. Given that we represent Ireland, we do more travelling than our colleagues in the Dáil. I attend meetings all over the country to discuss disability issues. I have travelled from Belfast to Cork to speak to various groups, including parents of children with disabilities. I am happy to do this work, but we need to have a mature debate that will offer realistic options when it comes to providing support for Members of the Oireachtas. Deputies and Senators should be on the same salary. Deputies should not be on a higher salary than Senators. They could well survive on our salary. Senators work equally as hard as Deputies. In the aftermath of the referendum, the Government will have to reflect on the support structures available to Members of the Oireachtas and consider how they can be treated equally.
I am delighted to be back in the Seanad, to which I have become a frequent visitor. I should get mileage points. I have learned from my visits to this House that its debates are eclectic and broad ranging, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The purpose of the Bill is simple. It implements our commitment to reduce the party leaders' allowance, as it was then called, or the parliamentary activities allowance, as it will be known henceforth, for all recipients. At the same time, it is being used as a legislative vehicle to end severance payments for Ministers which many people found anomalous. Once an individual had left office as a Minister, he or she received a top-up payment, even if he or she remained a Member of the Oireachtas, to ease him or her back to normality.
Was the Minister anomalous in the 1990s?
I never received such a payment. Such payments are anomalous in terms of the pressures we are facing and we need to abolish them. We are doing a lot of things we did not do in the 1990s. Perhaps we should have done them at that stage. A number of policies were wrongly bolted on during what were purported to be the boom times. At one stage, all but two Fianna Fáil Members had an allowance for something. The public reacted badly to this and we need to address the issue. I am also minded that we should avoid the other extreme. Politics should not be for those who can afford to practise it as a hobby. One of the first demands of the British Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century, when it first elected representatives to the UK Parliament, was to have parliamentarians paid. Until then it had been a gentleman's club to which people moved from the law library or the shires. For ordinary people to do a job, there is a rate that should be paid. I am conscious of this as a former trade union official.
I have listened with care and noted the passion - I use the word advisedly - with which the proposers of the amendment, Senators Paul Bradford and Fidelma Healy Eames, have made their arguments.
I said on the last occasion that I believed they were motivated by honourable beliefs to table this amendment. I have a different view on it, as I have explained at length.
A snapshot in time, namely, the day of the election, determines the parliamentary provision we provide. As to why we provide any parliamentary provision from the public purse, we do so to address the issue about which all of us are deeply concerned, namely, that everybody is entitled to operate within the political system, of which parties are an essential part, although they are not formally recognised in the Constitution. They run press offices, conduct research and support their members. Traditionally, that was done through the leader's allowance and it will now be done at a reduced rate through the new parliamentary activities allowance. It is available to both party members and Independents, as determined by that snapshot in time when the electorate, whether it be the confined electorate for this House or the broader franchise for the other House, determines the distribution of the money. The essence of the argument being made is that this should be a variable and cover a situation where people move out or in of a party, but that is highly problematic for all the reasons I have given.
To put this matter in its context, the backdrop is the reforming of the political funding system whereby one would had to be beholden, either at the church gate or, bluntly, more alarmingly at the Galway tent, to people with deep pockets; of course, they were not giving the contributions to influence policy and they were giving it, I am sure, for the best of motivations, but the perception is that if people with deep pockets give very large contributions to political parties or individual politicians, they could be influencing decision-making and policy-making. That is the reason we moved in the electoral Acts and the Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act which we are now amending to bring forward a different support mechanism which, obviously, we have to keep under constant review.
The point I will make in response to Senator Thomas Byrne's point on people leaving and surrendering their allowances is that it does not get away from fixed point decision-making. In my judgment, it would be very complicated were it to be a moveable feast. I gave the example of Deputy Willie Penrose in my own party who had left the parliamentary party and then rejoined it. Are we supposed to constantly adjust for those who are in and out on the basis of having a proper support system and so on for parliamentarians?
I am uncomfortable with shifting the vote in the people's determination of who should be elected and an individual's decision to move from a party position. I am much more comfortable in determining it on the day the people vote, rather than somebody deciding, for whatever good and noble reasons, to walk away from a party, as the people voted for that person in that snapshot in time.
If Senator David Norris were to join the Labour Party today, where should his allowance go?
If I may finish on these points-----
Senator Thomas Byrne should allow the Minister to conclude, without interruption.
The bottom line is that it is a snapshot in time on that day. As Senator Thomas Byrne who asked the rhetorical question knows, Senator David Norris's mandate is as an Independent from his electorate of university voters in the university of Dublin. He would retain the allowance as an Independent. If he were to join the Labour Party, Fine Gael or any other party, he would still retain his Independent status because that was the determination in the snapshot in time.
I would not give it up.
That is not what the Minister said when he was in opposition.
That is what I am saying now and I do not believe the Senator can quote me as ever having ever anything different. That is my view.
This is a simple enough Bill designed to do two things, first, to reduce the supports available under what was the party leader's allowance and, second, to abolish severance payments for Ministers. There is also a third element that I should have mentioned; the Bill seeks to broaden the arch of accountability from what now applies to parties to Independent Members also. There is an anomaly in that there is no accounting for the sums of money given to Independents and the public require such accountability at this time. That is the nub of what is captured in the Bill, but we have spent 90% of the time dealing with an issue which is not an essential part of it. It is something no doubt which we will return to debate at another time, but I am anxious to have the essential parts of the Bill enacted in order that we can bring it into force in the new year.
In terms of what I spoke about, namely, equality for both Houses in terms of the back-up supports-----
I do not want to awkward, but the Senator can only speak once on Report Stage.
I was just looking for clarification of that aspect.
The only Member who can speak after the Minister has replied is the proposer of the amendment.
To be helpful to Senator Martin Conway, I advise him that my second series of amendments would offer the appropriate vehicle for him to pursue that interesting, welcome and well argued proposal.
It is somewhat different from the argument reported on during the referendum debate, namely, that Members were all going to work for nothing.
I think some of our colleagues believe they should work for nothing.
That is not my view, as the Senator has heard.
In fairness, it is not the Minister's view; he did not wish us to work at all.
Please allow Senator Paul Bradford to conclude on the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response and my colleagues for their comments. The more one listens, the more one learns and the more one debates, the more angles that emerge. To use the analogy of Inspector Clouseau, I was waiting for the one statement, the one comment or the one obvious line in the debate that I had missed which might have drawn it all together. The Minister has said, as he has said heretofore and it has been my difficulty how to address it, that we must respect this snapshot in time, that the starting point must be the general election. I discussed this issue with a colleague at the weekend as to how I would address the point about the snapshot in time, that it was the silver bullet. If I want to be genuine in pressing my amendment, I must be able to respond to the Minister's snapshot in time argument. The answer was staring me in the face all along, but I did not see it. I refer my colleagues to how the legislation is framed and how the calculation is to be arrived at. As per the Minister's legislation, a paragraph in the section reads, "members of that party elected to Dáil Éireann at the last preceding general election or a subsequent bye-election". Therefore, there is no single, once-off snapshot in time in respect of those elected to Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann or those elected in a subsequent by-election.
It is determined by the electorate, not by the individual. That is the point.
Tragically, during the terms of various Governments there have been three, four or five by-elections.
It is the people who will get to make the determination.
Therefore, there have been multiple snapshots in time.
No, it is the people who will make the determination.
I ask the Minister to reflect on what he has said. He has said that there is a single snapshot in time and that the allowance is determined on the basis of how people voted at the time of a general election, but the formula and language used in the legislation providing for this refers to when a person is elected in a general election or subsequent in a by-election; therefore, there is no single snapshot in time. A by-election changes the allowance calculation. I argue that a person leaving a political party, voluntarily or otherwise, equally changes what the calculation should be. On the issue of the fixed point decision, we can see that there are multiple fixed point decisions.
It is up to the individual.
There have been times when people joined and left parties.
There have been times when Governments have been brought down by the vote of one person who was elected on a platform of support for the Government.
Calculations have been reflected on and, obviously, we are not going to agree. It is becoming more of a political argument than one based on interpretation and the law. The suggestion of the Senator that this is something which should be challenged legally is worthy of deep consideration because it is not the party's but taxpayers' money about which we are speaking.
It is taxpayers' money.
It amounts to hundreds of thousands of euro per annum, €1 million plus between now and next general election; that is a great deal of money.
We can return to Senator Martin Conway's point when we come to deal with later amendments. He has stated his view that parties should be funded directly by the taxpayer or the State. It is an interesting argument, one that has been made previously and there are pluses and minuses.
In recent weeks commentators have felled many trees and printed many column inches on new political parties. Ironically, on the right hand side of today's edition of The Irish Times there is a story about the possibility of a new left-wing party being established. If that is the case, so be it. We will have to reflect on the question of funding of parties in that regard. To a large extent, the current law makes it difficult for new groupings to emerge. It is as if taxpayer's money is being used to corral the political system as the preserve of a number of parties, with all of them, not surprisingly, going happily along with that concept and stating there shall be no new beginnings. We will have to discuss that issue into the future.
I thank the Minister for his engagement. On the first day we debated the legislation his line of argument was that we should resign and how dare we leave a party, etc., which he has fine-tuned to talk about the staffing of parties. He elaborated on this to refer to formulae and calculations and now he has raised the issue of a fixed starting point. By making provision in the legislation for by-elections, we are accepting circumstances can change and, tragically, in the case of by-elections, they do change. When a by-election occurs, the financial calculations and allocations are changed. Where five, ten or 15 people are nominated and elected on behalf of parties and they are no longer members of these parties, it is politically and morally wrong and sends a strong and bad signal about politics to the public if we do not say the moneys should be returned to the taxpayer.
On a point of order, I thank the Minister for having the debate.
That is not a point of order.
The amendment was tabled in good faith and is a no-brainer. It is clearly unfair that this practice is to continue. I ask the Minister to reflect on the matter again before we consider where we take it next.
That is not a point of order.
- Barrett, Sean D.
- Bradford, Paul.
- Byrne, Thomas.
- Crown, John.
- Cullinane, David.
- Daly, Mark.
- Healy Eames, Fidelma.
- Leyden, Terry.
- MacSharry, Marc.
- Mooney, Paschal.
- Norris, David.
- Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
- O'Brien, Mary Ann.
- O'Sullivan, Ned.
- Quinn, Feargal.
- Reilly, Kathryn.
- van Turnhout, Jillian.
- Walsh, Jim.
- White, Mary M.
- Wilson, Diarmuid.
- Zappone, Katherine.
- Bacik, Ivana.
- Brennan, Terry.
- Burke, Colm.
- Clune, Deirdre.
- Coghlan, Eamonn.
- Comiskey, Michael.
- Conway, Martin.
- Cummins, Maurice.
- D'Arcy, Jim.
- D'Arcy, Michael.
- Gilroy, John.
- Hayden, Aideen.
- Henry, Imelda.
- Higgins, Lorraine.
- Keane, Cáit.
- Kelly, John.
- Landy, Denis.
- Moloney, Marie.
- Mulcahy, Tony.
- Mullins, Michael.
- Naughton, Hildegarde.
- O'Donnell, Marie-Louise.
- O'Keeffe, Susan.
- O'Neill, Pat.
- Sheahan, Tom.
I propose an amendment to the Order of Business that we will conclude this debate at 1.30 p.m. We will extend the time allowed so that Members can finish this Bill. We were due to finish at 12.45 p.m.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, to delete lines 36 to 40, and in page 5, to delete lines 1 to 5.
I thought the amendments would be grouped together but apparently it is only amendments Nos. 3 to 6 that are being grouped.
No, amendment No. 2 is not part of a group. Amendments Nos. 3 to 6 are grouped.
You said No. 2 is on its own, a Leas-Chathaoirligh.
Yes, No. 2 is not part of a group.
The amendment is about recouping election expenses. It seems to me it is a perfectly reasonable thing to expect. I also made the point that people who are running for the first time should get an allowance proportionate to the amount of votes they got. This will be particularly important when the reforms go through and there are constituencies of 750,000 people. How could a young person run? He or she would be standing against people with a high public profile. They would find it very difficult. They would get one mailshot and I do not think that is enough.
In a sense, I consider politics to be a vocation but also a profession. It is work and if one takes it seriously it is hard work. I do not see any reason if it is a profession, work or business that one should not be treated on the same level as others who can write off business expenses. That would be one measure that would make it worthwhile.
I will not go on ad nauseam about it because I spoke about it previously and it is silly to be repetitive. The Minister has heard the arguments and I am just giving their bare outline. It would of value for the Government to look at this. If not in this Bill, perhaps it will look at it subsequently.
I second the amendment and welcome the Minister back to the House. In the Bill, the Minister will require a Senator to be amazingly abstemious and to take no part in saving the Seanad if a future Taoiseach proposes a referendum to abolish the Seanad. The Bill does not allow the funds to be used under the referendum Acts.
They cannot spend public moneys, no more than the Government can, on advocacy one way or the other.
I thank the Minister for the clarification and formally second the amendment.
We debated this at some length on Committee Stage. The amendment seeks to remove the restriction whereby the parliamentary activities allowance cannot be spent on electoral expenses. This has always been the position. As I outlined on Committee Stage, the advice is that to allow expenditure of the parliamentary activities allowance on electoral expenses would likely contravene the principles of the McKenna judgment set down by the Supreme Court. It has been determined that no side can spend public moneys in a referendum campaign.
For clarity, the McKenna judgment states:
Ireland is a democratic state. The citizen is entitled under the Constitution to a democratic process. The citizen is entitled to a democracy free from governmental intercession with the process, no matter how well intentioned. No branch of the government is entitled to use taxpayers' monies from the Central Fund to intercede with the democratic process either as to the voting process or as to the campaign prior to the vote.
This is an implied right, pursuant to Article 40.3 which harmonises with Article 5, Article 6.1, Article 16, Article 40.1, Article 47.3 and is in keeping with the democratic nature of Bunreacht na hÉireann.
The Minister did not refer to my suggestion to consider tax relief. The McKenna judgment is important and I agree it is important to have a level playing field, but it is instructive to see from the judgment that it is the Government that is precluded in that judgment.
It refers to public moneys.
Yes, public moneys, but the Minister referred to moneys expended by the Government. The Government was mentioned in virtually every sentence of the judgment.
That is because it was referenced in the particular case, but the view is that it is public moneys that cannot be spent. It would be bizarre if the Opposition and the Government could spend their moneys on election campaigns.
All right, but let us exclude parties and just provide that Independents can.
The principle is simple. Public moneys cannot be used, either as an individual or as a member of a party, to influence the normal flow of the democratic system, for an election, a referendum or presidential campaign.
I am happy to withdraw the amendment, but I would like the Minister to consider the possibility of a tax provision, including for unsuccessful candidates.
Amendments Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, are related and will be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 6, lines 40 and 41, to delete “or to an independent member”.
I regard the keeping of accounts as a curious bean counting exercise that is good for taking up a considerable amount of time and diverting us from our lives. I am not saying we should not be accountable for moneys; I believe we should. However, we are asked to comply with all the higgledy-piggledy announcements that are made here, there and everywhere. We should get rid of the whole damn lot of them. The Minister spoke about giving the rate for the job and said, with justifiable pride, that at the beginning of the last century the Labour Party had insisted that people be paid appropriately so that Ireland did not become an aristocracy of wealth. That is appropriate.
We would save ourselves significant bother by accepting this amendment. Every area of life is getting more bureaucratic. I went in to buy some prize bonds the other day and had to produce a bank account, personal photographic identification, a utilities bill and I do not know what else. The same occurs if one wants to open a bank account or remove money from an account. We are being smothered in this kind of red tape. With regard to the allowance of €12,000, this year I submitted a claim for €3,000 and I think I have already gone over that. Perhaps this a kind of cheese paring exercise to frighten people into not taking the allowance. I am seriously considering claiming nothing next year, because doing so is such a desperate waste of time. I am considering letting it accumulate for six years. I remind the Minister of his telling phrase - it was such a telling phrase I cannot recall it immediately - regarding the rate for the job.
I second the amendment.
We debated this issue at some length on Committee Stage. These amendments seek to remove the auditing requirements for qualifying Independent Members alone. They seek that those Independent Members in receipt of the parliamentary allowance would not, like the parties, have to comply with the auditing requirements. As I said on Second Stage, and repeated on Committee Stage, in the current climate and with the increased scrutiny on all public expenditure, it is not acceptable that Independent Members who receive funding should not be held accountable in the same way.
I am happy to withdraw the amendment, but I recommend my argument to the Minister that at some stage we should put this issue to an independent assessor and ask him or her to assess the rate for the job and for that to be paid. Then all this pettifogging with dozens of different amendments regarding irritating requirements would end. It is not that I want to avoid paying what is due. I have a good record in that area. I reported the approximate ten shillings a month I got from a sitting tenant in a little flat when I bought my house in North Great Georges Street. I always try to be scrupulous in these matters. My concern is the waste of time involved.
The difference between the Independents and the parties is that the parties have structures and ways of accounting that Independents do not. I find it very difficult to tax my personal assistant, who is brilliant and does an amount of work and overtime. She is here the minute this place opens and often does not leave until late. She will also do work at home. Nobody could pay adequately for the superb assistance I have. I would feel very bad having to tell her that she must keep dozens of receipts for this, that and the other for six years. That is a waste of our time. I do not believe we are supposed to spend time doing that. We should we treated with respect as parliamentarians. The best way to do this is to abolish the whole bloody lot of this, decide on a rate for the job and then off we can go and tax everything.
I will withdraw the amendment, but I hope the Minister will consider what I have said. I apologise that I must leave. I understood we would finish at 12.45 p.m. and have an engagement to meet some people. I will return later.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 12, after line 42, to insert the following:
“Amendment of Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 2009
4. Section 3 of the Oireachtas (Allowances to Members) and Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 2009 is amended by the substitution of the following subsection for subsection (3):
“(3) The Minister may, in applying the parliamentary standard allowance to a member of the Oireachtas —
(a) by regulation revoke any regulations previously made under this section,
(b) determine in regulations made under subsection (4) the rates and amounts payable to a member or members of the Oireachtas, to be applied to the same category of allowable expenses by a member of Seanad Éireann as may be applied by a member of Dáil Éireann,
(c) to be applied as appropriate and as determined by the Minister, to the categories of expenses as included in the definition of ‘expenses arising from parliamentary activities, including research’ in section 10H of the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Act 2001, as inserted by section 3 of the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Act 2013.”.”.
Truthfully, I moved this amendment to generate some debate with the Minister on the broader subject of expenses. I am not so much concerned with the amount Senators receive. I respect the fact these are difficult financial times for taxpayers, the Government and the country. The maximum allowable expense for Senators is €12,000, compared to €23,000 or €24,000 for Deputies.
It is probably fair and balanced and I am not proposing any changes which would allow Senators to receive more than they are currently entitled to legally receive. Will the Minister reflect on the categories of what are determined to be allowable expenses for Seanad purposes, however?
While we have had many discussions on this matter with the Minister and his officials over the past 24 months, last week an anomaly came to my attention which highlights the need for these categories to be changed. A Member of Dáil Éireann is entitled to an office allowance, a constituency office and other entitlements which Senators do not have. As part of these allowances, a Dáil Member is entitled to purchase an iPad yet a Senator, who is not entitled to a constituency office, is not allowed the purchase of an iPad as an allowable expense. When one of my colleagues said this to me last week, I assured her she could not be correct but it turns out that is the rule.
There are 15 categories of allowable expenses for Deputies with only five categories for Senators. We are not children of a lesser political god but fully fledged Oireachtas Members. We were also fully approved, unlike the Dáil, in a recent referendum by the people. As well as being members of various committees, under the Leader, Senator Cummins, we meet as many days as the Dáil does. We tend to be busier from a parliamentary perspective. If the records were checked, it would be noted every Member of the Seanad contributes more by way of debate. I am not sure of the value of our contributions sometimes, but there are more contributions by all Seanad Members on the floor of this House than by Dáil Members in that Chamber.
Will the Minister re-examine the categories of expenses? I have no difficulty with the fact Senators receive less than half the financial expenses a Dáil Member gets. An argument could be made that it should be balanced. Senators receive a maximum €12,000 for vouched expenses. However, the categories which we can vouch for are extremely limited and narrow.
The party allowance available to Independent Members is important for them for research, training, policy formulation, hiring staff, conducting public opinion polls and purchasing support services. The Minister should examine the possibility of a single list of fair and reasonable categories to apply under the party leaders’ allowance, public representation and Independents. There is the anomaly in the concept that a Senator is not entitled financially to have an office. The vouched leaders’ allowance system with the €20,000 available under it allows an Independent Senator to have an office, however. Senators Crown, Barrett and Norris can open an office if they so wish under this Bill yet the other 57 Members cannot. That is two Houses within the one House. It is a good time for the Minister to look upon these anomalies as the Seanad referendum is over. There was an erroneous, possibly deliberately leaked, silly made-up story that Senators were looking for €4,000 more in expenses.
It did not work.
Whether it worked or not, it was a falsehood. We appreciate that we are fortunate, honoured and privileged to be in this House. By virtue of a salary of €65,000 we are well paid with the entitlement to claim €12,000 per annum in expenses. That should be payable under fair and achievable categories. Deputies have a much better salary, entitled to two staff and funded constituency offices compared to us. It is unfair that Senators should only have five allowable categories under which they claim expenses while Deputies have 15. Allowable expenses under the parliamentary allowance include general administration, technical or specialist advice, research and training, policy formulation, the purchase of support services, payment to another person arising from activities in a parliamentary party and such other matters as may be prescribed by regulations made by the Minister. I hope the Minister will accept my view.
At a time when the country is still a long way from being as well off as we would wish it to be, we cannot look for extra moneys or expenses. My amendments are simply asking that the moneys we are entitled to claim can be used most effectively for political purposes. For public representatives to employ people to do opinion polls or other political activity is good for the body politic. The Minister earlier claimed his party’s first cousin, the British Labour Party, brought in the idea of paying politicians so politics would not be a wealthy person’s club. We must aspire to ensure that every politician uses his or her talents and supports for the country’s best. These moneys should be used for good political purposes. We are all on a vouched system with no one receiving improper moneys. However, we need to be realistic about the categories. Why can they not be extended to all Oireachtas Members?
Now that the leaders' allowance for independent Deputies and Senators is becoming vouched, those independent Deputies and Senators will be operating on a different stream from us in this House because they are legally entitled to have an office and staff, and we are not.
The Minister is thinking about this on an ongoing basis. I appeal to him to re-engage with our political leaders in this House. We are all coming from a starting position of respect for the fortunate position we are in, acknowledging the fact that our salary is good and that until times get much better our salaries and allowances cannot and should not increase. However, the payment of that allowance should be under a fair system of categories and there should not be this dramatically disadvantaged position for a Senator versus a Deputy. Why can a Deputy claim expenses under 15 different, admittedly vouchable, categories while a Senator has only five such categories? Why can my colleague in the Dáil use his or her money from the taxpayer to purchase an iPad and other computer equipment while I cannot? I find that very difficult to understand. It is among the anomalies that must be reflected upon.
I second the motion. It is important that the Minister examine broadening the range of categories that qualify for Senators to claim within the €12,000 cap. There is no request for any extra money. It is just a request to broaden the categories for which Senators may claim. I will give some examples. I am based in Galway and have one assistant, supplied by two people who job share. Under working rules it is my duty to provide a place of work for my assistant. I provide an office attached to my home, with light, heat and a land line as the mobile coverage is very poor. That office space cannot be claimed for within the allowance for Senators. That is fundamentally unfair. It is a cost for Senators in this position. I ask that a credit be allowed for the use of an office space, be it attached to one's home or elsewhere, within the €12,000 allowance, nothing extra.
Theoretically, we are told, the Senator's constituency is the country. Constituency travel is allowed for Deputies within their Dáil constituency, which is a much smaller geographical area, but not for Senators. I strongly support what Senator Bradford said about the unlevel playing field that will exist for Senators. The Senators who came in on day one as Independent Senators are allowed to claim a leader's allowance and now, because that must be vouched and justified, they can feasibly fund an office and an assistant. The Minister will speak to that. We need to ensure a level playing field across the House. We have spent three weeks speaking to the Minister about the unlevel playing field addressed in our previous amendment.
I have been a member of the Oireachtas committee on education. Last year a decision was made that six members of the committee would go to Finland to study the Finnish education system. Members will know it has got much acclaim for being the best education system in the world. The outcomes, Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, reports and OECD studies show that. Seven members wanted to go. I was unlucky and was not one of the members drawn out of the hat but decided I was willing to pay to join the group to get access to all those important meetings and learning opportunities. I wanted to be a better parliamentarian, return here and share my knowledge and maybe bring forward a Bill or policies to enhance the education system, something to which I am committed all my life. I went to the one stop shop and found that if I paid for it myself I could not get credit for it under the current system. I was not seeking the money back, but wanted to know if I could use that within the €12,000 party allowance.
We are cutting off our nose to spite our face. When it is to do with our work, something that is good for parliamentarians can be good for the State. While any conference fee would have been allowable, the travel and subsistence costs would not. I am very careful to state that we do not seek any more money than the €12,000 already allowable but ask that the Minister come up with a single list for all parliamentarians in both Houses that would offer fair and achievable categories and, in our case, broaden the range of categories so we can have a bit of decency in doing our work.
How can I possibly run a home office and have an assistant who has no place of work? She must have a place to work from. She does not wish to work from Dublin. She is based in Galway, wishes to work there and I am glad to have her. I will be happy to hear the Minister's responses but above all that he would take time in the coming weeks and months to reflect on our request. I have heard through the grapevine that the Minister is very open to our arguments about examining a credit within the €12,000 allowance for an office based around one's home.
The Members make their point well. We have raised this with the Minister on a number of occasions. The guidelines for Senators are extremely restrictive compared with those in the Dáil. In some instances there are genuine reasons for that but in others, such as the purchase of an iPad, Members of the other House can claim from their allowances but Members of this House cannot. Members of this House have their office space, the same as everybody else, or they can rent a room for clinics on a Monday or Friday, but we are told we cannot even mention clinics if we are claiming for a room. There is an anomaly that must be addressed in the very near future.
This House has a fresh mandate from the people. We do not seek parity of esteem in everything we do because Members of the other House have additional expenses in some instances, but the restrictions for Senators are very limiting.
The point has been made that Senators are not looking for more money, but the guidelines certainly need to be looked at in a matter of weeks rather than months to put some fairness back in the system as it is not there at present. I am not sure whether these amendments will address the problems. I know the Minister is very sympathetic in this regard and I hope we will see some progress in the very near future.
I commend Senators Bradford and Healy Eames on tabling the amendment. I note Senator Bradford stated it was mainly for discussion purposes, but it is a very important issue for Members of the House. We all know the Minister inherited this issue and it has been going on for decades. We all know the reality is Deputies do not want Senators functioning to their full capacity. They think if Senators are to function to their full capacity they can bloody well pay for it themselves and they will not facilitate them in carrying out their constitutional duties as Members of the Oireachtas. Along with the other Whips in the House I put my signature to a letter calling on the Minister to rectify this situation.
While I accept, as Senator Healy Eames stated, the Minister is minded to resolve the difficulty, he is being prevented by doing so by somebody. I can only imagine if I were fortunate enough to be in his position and I was minded to do something which was legally possible I would do it. Since becoming a Member of the House I have been amazed by Ministers, primarily from my party, stating he or she would like to do something and to leave it with them but one never hears from them again. If they would like to do it they should go and do it unless it is against the law. If there is a difficulty in doing this the Minister should tell us what it is, and that we will not get it because he does not want to give it to us. It is akin to being a member of a swimming pool with 166 or 168 members able to dive in at the deep end and swim to the other end without any difficulty while 60 members, who are told they are equal members, have an arm tied behind their back and a weight on one of their legs.
On 4 October the people of the country, against the wishes of the Minister and his colleagues, decided the House was to remain. It was to be reformed but it was to remain. We are here now whether they like it or not because the Irish people decided we are here. We are not looking for more money and the least we can expect is a level playing pitch on which we can carry out our duties constitutionally without being impeded. If the Minister is minded to do it he should go ahead and do so this evening before he goes home.
I will not repeat what I stated earlier. I thank Senator Bradford for tabling the amendment. I must confess I did not study it in advance so I was effectively speaking on the wrong amendment. We are speaking about reorienting the €12,000 to make it workable and ensure it assists us in our democratic and parliamentary duty, which is reasonable. Others have reflected on the fact the referendum campaign and the poll on 4 October, the famous day in the life of the Seanad, has given democracy and the Seanad a mandate. As such we can deal with the cheap tabloid headlines with a renewed sense of confidence, because the real people spoke and retained the Seanad. They did not buy into the concept of saving €20 million. The bottom line is they voted to retain us and sent a clear message that the tabloid headlines which appear every so often are not reflective of the true views of people. I was quite surprised because I thought the House would go and the people would vote to get rid of us.
I ask the Senator to speak to the amendment. This is more like a Second Stage speech.
I am speaking on the amendment.
Time is tight.
The points I am making are very clear. Something needs to be done so we have fairness and the opportunity to play a role in the democratic process. I have no doubt about the Minister's bona fides in this regard.
I will be brief and I know the Minister is very patient in this regard. Those elected to the previous Seanad state this Seanad is very hard-working and its Members are very dedicated. Asking for this expenditure to be realigned is evidence of our desire to work harder and be more effective. With more people doing more with less we are asking for this to be taken into account in the spirit of reform which the Minister has brought very clearly to his Ministry, and we would appreciate if he might consider it.
A number of passionate contributions have been made on the amendment. Most of the contributions were well beyond its scope and impact. I acknowledge Senator Bradford tabled it for debate purposes. I am very mindful of the time. I listened to Senator Wilson, who spoke as if all history started yesterday.
I made a point. To be fair, if the Minister was listening, that is not what I said.
The bottom line is-----
That is not what I said. I ask the Minister to be fair.
The Senator can shout me down if he likes.
If the Minister wants to do something he can do it properly.
The notion I can change a law by this evening before I go home is simplistic nonsense. I will deal with the issues.
The Minister has had more than two years to do it. What has he done about it? He certainly has had 12 months.
Allow the Minister to speak, please.
What have I done?
Bluntly, saving the economy of the country that the Senator's party put in mortal peril. This was a higher priority than looking at the expenses of Senators-----
Stick to the amendment.
-----and the Senator will excuse me for this.
Stick to the amendment.
I will not be bullied by anybody.
I most certainly am not bullying the Minister.
If anybody knows me the one thing I will not be is bullied.
I am not a bully and I can tell Minister this.
Fair points were made by most people who made a contribution to the debate. It is true the people voted to retain the House, and this is an important constitutional point to be acknowledged, but they did not vote to replicate the Dáil. It would be a fundamental mistake for people to state we want to mirror the Dáil now in all its functionality. This was not the result, in my judgment, and we must drill down into the people's wishes. We need to support the Seanad to perform the role it should perform, not as a mirror image of the Dáil but with a different set of supports.
The support packages put in place over many years for the two different Houses reflect the different traditional views of each House. Over time we need to modernise this and reflect it differently. I am very keen to hear the views of Senators on this. Very coherent rational comments were made by people on these matters and I will do this over time. As I stated, it will be done on the basis of bringing the support of the people with us step by step and not stating it all has to be done overnight or before I go home.
In truth the purpose of the Bill is to bring more accountability and to reduce in real terms the quantum of money paid to Senators and Independent Members who receive a parliamentary allowance and to all political parties and Deputies who are Independents.
That is a good thing, in tandem with reduction in the severance payments. I will not accept this amendment now, but I have heard the arguments made.
I thank the Minister. As I said, my motion was for debating purposes, so I will now formally withdraw it.