Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Ceisteanna (5, 6, 7)

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

5. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [25247/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit of his Department. [25591/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the parliamentary liaison unit. [26758/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (12 contributions) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 7, inclusive, together.

The parliamentary liaison unit, PLU, was established in 2016. There are currently 3.5 whole-time equivalent staff working in the unit: one principal officer, 1.5 higher executive officers and one clerical officer.

The make up of this current Dáil and the new procedures that have come into place as a result of Dáil reform have resulted in the Government doing its business in a different way to previous Governments. This has also meant an increased work load for Departments particularly in relation to the volume of work related to Private Members’ business.

The parliamentary liaison unit was set up to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil.

Its role is to facilitate the enhanced relationship between the Government and the Oireachtas and in this regard its work is complementary to that of the Office of the Government Chief Whip helping to ensure the implementation of the Government’s legislative programme.

The unit also liaises on a regular basis with advisers and Departments with a view to ensuring that they are aware of Oireachtas issues and to assist them in engaging with the new procedures arising from Dáil reform.

In addition, the PLU works closely with Departments on their input to Private Members' business in both the Dáil and the Seanad. In the current Thirty-second Dáil, 11 Private Members Bills have been enacted, which is a record. In the previous four Dáileanna, going back to 1997, just seven such Bills were enacted.

The PLU will continue to provide guidance and advice for Departments on parliamentary business.

The parliamentary liaison unit meets "on a regular basis with advisers and Departments with a view to ensuring that they are aware of Oireachtas issues and to assist them in engaging with the new procedures arising from Dáil reform." One of the most controversial aspects of this new politics and the new parliamentary arithmetic is the use by the Government of money messages to stall Opposition Bills. To date 55 Opposition Bills are stuck awaiting a money message. It is increasingly seen as a tool simply to prevent opposition Bills from advancing despite discussions we had at the outset of this Dáil that we would try to equalise the capacity of every Member of this Dáil to bring forward legislation. Obviously, it would have to be up to a standard, be appropriate and so on.

Alongside the money message delaying tactic, the Government has adopted a new strategy of bringing in parallel Bills on matters of public interest where the Opposition has already tabled Bills. Recent examples are Government Bills promised on tips, fur farming and on the gender pay-gap, on which the Labour Party has tabled legislation. This is instead of working in the spirit of new politics with the Opposition on Bills on the Order Paper.

I am sure the Taoiseach has seen the opinion of law lecturers Dr. Eoin Daly and Dr. David Kenny in The Irish Times last week outlining how the abuse of the money message provision is constitutionally dubious and could precipitate a constitutional crisis. They say:

Article 17.2 exists for a specific and narrow purpose: to prevent the Oireachtas from pursuing a conflicting fiscal agenda and undermining the coherent management of State finances.

The phraseology is also quite specific: it refers to laws “for the appropriation of revenue” which suggests it refers to laws whose purpose is to spend, and not laws which may have the effect of incurring some expenditure.

Whether it is in the Oireachtas itself or in Departments, a much broader interpretation has been taken of the money message rule than is clearly intended in the Constitution.

Will the Taoiseach reflect again on this issue? Is it his view that the money message issue should be resolved so that, even in terms of perception, it is not seen as a device to be used to stop the advance of Opposition legislation.

Last week, I accused the Government of sabotaging the democratic and legislative process because of the use of money messages on 55 Bills. I am glad that generated quite a significant debate in the following week. People Before Profit seems to be particularly hard hit by this and I do not believe it is a coincidence. Our climate emergency measures Bill, medicinal cannabis Bill, Anti-Evictions Bill and objective sex education Bill were all money messaged. Quite a way back, we introduced the first Bill to ban fracking in this country and, as Deputy Howlin indicated, lo and behold, shortly afterwards a Fine Gael Bill to ban fracking was published, although it permitted offshore fracking to continue.

In response to this, the Taoiseach said the Ceann Comhairle made the decision and it had nothing to do with the Government. That is not true when it comes to the climate emergency measures Bill and this needs to be said very publicly. Last February, after it passed Second Stage, the Ceann Comhairle stated the Bill to keep fossil fuels in the ground did not need a money message. Subsequently, on Second Stage and during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, the Government did not raise any suggestion there was a charge on the Exchequer, not even incidental costs, because it thought it could stop it another way, which it attempted to do by holding it hostage at the joint committee. We voted to get it back to the committee and just a few days before it was due to go to the committee for scrutiny, the Minister contacted the Ceann Comhairle and said that by the way, 18 months later, there were a few costs through the return of licensing fees and potential legal action. None of this is true. We have a legal opinion from barristers to state they are made up costs.

The Government has misinformed the Ceann Comhairle because there are no licence fees to be returned. The terms and conditions for licences for gas, oil and exploration are explicit. They explicitly state the Minister cannot have any actions taken against him or her. He or she can vary the licences, withdraw, cancel or delay them and do what the hell he or she likes with them and this is set out clearly in the terms for issuing licences. The Government has misled the Ceann Comhairle in a desperate last-minute effort to apply a money message to a Bill that even it did not suggest needed a money message before and where the Ceann Comhairle had previously concluded it did not need one. There could not be a clearer example of the subversion and abuse of the democratic and legislative process than this. This should stop. The Government should withdraw the suggestion there are costs related to the Bill when they do not exist.

I remind Deputies only six minutes remain in total.

Committee Stage of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2016 has been deferred and I want to raise a number of concerns relating to the Government's treatment of adopted people in the context of the Bill. Last week, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, told Senators that she met advocacy groups, lawyers and social workers only the night before to listen to their views on controversial amendments to the Bill. Adoptees and their advocates were not consulted in the drafting of any of the amendments or before they were circulated to Members. It is not enough just to listen to and hear arguments against limiting adoptees' rights to their own information. The Government must now reshape the legislation. The Minister has committed to delivering a culture of transparency and openness for adoptees but that is not what the Bill provides. The Adoption Rights Alliance warned that if the legislation proceeds as it is, the Minister will facilitate an egregious step backwards in the era of progressive social change. Information and contact are two completely different matters and the balancing of rights arguments behind which the Government and Attorney General have hidden are ill-placed and ill-judged. Why, in 2019, is the State's instinctive response to issues such as this still to be secretive and paternalistic? How does the Government intend to proceed with the legislation, given that it has been deferred? Will the provisions of the Bill dealing with access to information be revised and when will this be completed?

I agree with what Deputies Howlin and Boyd Barrett have said on the money message. At the beginning of this Dáil there was a general view it would be a new era in terms of utilisation of the money message and that it would not be abused. In fact, the Standing Order subsequently adopted goes further than the Constitution and restricts legislation even more. The Government has shamelessly abused the money message. Deputy Boyd Barrett need not develop a victimhood because it has happened to all Bills.

A Bill from Deputy Jack Chambers on thalidomide victims was money messaged. Deputy Jim O’Callaghan's judicial appointments Bill was money messaged because the Government had to look after Deputy Shane Ross and his persistence and vendetta against the Judiciary. There are many more examples. There is a need to amend the existing Standing Order and Deputy Jack Chambers has tabled a motion to do so to circumvent the abuse going on.

The political liaison unit has come up at various times in the past and we are slowly getting a picture, which is a lot more complex than the Taoiseach originally informed us. His opening position was that the unit was there to make sure the entire Oireachtas was consulted. Eventually, he said the unit is there to liaise only with Deputies who support the Government and is not a general aid to all Deputies. This raised questions because some Deputies who do not have public deals with the Government appeared to have some formative arrangement with this unit in the Taoiseach's office. A number of Deputies raised this with the Taoiseach and demanded the full list of Deputies receiving preferential treatment be published, as it had been in every previous Government supported by Independent Deputies. The Taoiseach said he had no problem telling us who is helped by the unit and on what basis they receive this help but we have still not received this information and there appears to be a refusal to provide it. Will the Taoiseach explain why this information is being withheld? It is fairly simple. Which Deputies who do not have a published arrangement with the Government receive support from the Taoiseach's special unit for helping some Deputies? We could take this down the route of a freedom of information request but it would look very suspicious if we were forced to go that far to drag this information from the Taoiseach.

I call the Taoiseach to make the best of two minutes.

I will do my best. I do not have any direct involvement contact with the parliamentary liaison unit but I understand its main involvement is with Ministers rather than Deputies. It was established to perform a liaison function to help Ministers to be properly informed of the new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. In this regard, the main focus of the unit is to liaise with Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters, with particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. It is not the function of the unit to ensure the support of Deputies in the House; that is a political function. The parliamentary liaison unit provides factual information on Dáil and Seanad issues and on Dáil reform. Primarily, the unit assists Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters.

With regard to Private Members' Bills, as I said previously, perhaps yesterday, it is the Ceann Comhairle's function to decide whether a money message is required and it is entirely within the prerogative of the Ceann Comhairle to make that decision at whatever point he deems appropriate. Whether they are issued is, of course, a matter for the Government. In doing so, we always want to make sure the legislation is properly costed in terms of the direct effect on the Exchequer and an effect on the Exchequer that may occur down the line as a consequence of the legislation. We also need to assess whether those costs are budgeted for and whether the Oireachtas has voted money to meet those costs. A protocol on money messages has been in place for approximately six months. It is working relatively well but we agreed to review it at the end of the parliamentary session and perhaps we should do so in the coming weeks or before the next session begins.

As I mentioned earlier, 11 Private Members' Bills have been passed by the Dáil in the past three years. Only seven were passed in the entire 20 years before that. We have seen a step change in the number of Private Members' Bills that have become law.

The 11 do not include legislation superseded by Government legislation with the same objective. It is much higher if they are added. Article 17.2 of the Constitution requires a money message for any vote, resolution or law to be passed by the Dáil involving the appropriation of revenue or any other public moneys.

The memorandum of understanding, MOU, between the Government and the Dáil on Private Members' Bills provides a framework for decisions to be made by Government on the issuing of money messages. The MOU acknowledges the role, responsibilities and accountability of the Government under the Constitution regarding public expenditure. The MOU between the Dáil and the Government states:

The Government has a constitutional role in managing the fiscal and executive affairs of the State and is accountable to the Dáil under Article 28. The Government has absolute prerogative under Article 17.2 of the Constitution as to whether to grant a Money Message or not.

The MOU puts in place a procedure where Private Members' Bills will undergo detailed scrutiny in exchange for a response from the Government on whether a money message will issue or not. Scrutiny is undertaken by the relevant committee after the Bill has passed on Second Stage. It constitutes a separate course in advance of Committee Stage. The Order for Committee Stage cannot be moved until that is completed. A scrutiny report will then have to be laid before the Houses and the money message is not requested until the Order for Committee Stage is moved.

The Government is committed to providing a response to the Oireachtas within six weeks of receiving the request for a money message. Currently, 68 Private Members' Bills have been referred to committee. Of those, 55 require a money message and the Government has provided a response to eight of those. Money messages issued for the National Famine Commemoration Day Bill 2017, Garda Síochána (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2014, Electoral (Amendment) (No. 3) Bill 2014 and Consumer Insurance Contracts Bill 2017, while reasoned responses issued for the Waste Reduction Bill 2017, Local Government (Establishment of Town Councils Commission) Bill 2017, Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2015, and Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill 2017.

Some 15 Bills are still under consideration and a number of committees and sponsors have been contacted by Ministers requesting more time to consider the proposed legislation. Another 32 Bills are either undergoing, awaiting or have completed scrutiny. Two Private Members' Bills have received a money message and completed Committee Stage but are not yet enacted.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.