Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Ceisteanna (6, 7)

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the decisions his office recently made with regard to allowances or services available to former taoisigh. [47380/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the supports provided by his Department to former taoisigh. [48730/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.

The provision of assistance to former taoisigh ceased in March 2012 following a decision by the then Government. I have since approved the provision of some services by my Department to former taoisigh to assist them in carrying out work associated with their former role that continues after their period in office has ceased. The services currently available on request to former taoisigh from 2019 include access to briefing material on the Government's policy position on matters of public debate; assistance, when required, from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the use of private facilities at Dublin Airport when travelling abroad to carry out work associated with their former role; and the invoiced cost of secretarial assistance to assist them to carry out work associated with their former role, excluding any associated office costs. The provision of secretarial assistance is linked to willingness to assist the Government if requested in the future, and secretarial assistants may not engage in constituency work or party political work. Former taoisigh have been asked to assist with the UN Security Council campaign, Brexit and EU affairs, and Northern Ireland issues. Services also include the provision of transport to a limited number of events associated with the former role of former taoisigh, including official State functions.

It is entirely a matter for each former Taoiseach as to whether he wishes to avail of any of the services available to him, now or in the future.

The staggeringly high and generous pension entitlements of former taoisigh and Ministers stick in the craw of people in a major way. I refer in particular to those elected to Dáil Éireann under the regime before 2012, because there were changes made in 2011 and 2012 owing to austerity measures. It is quite extraordinary that the Taoiseach would add to this by granting very significant amounts of money to former taoisigh, in addition to the pensions, for secretarial support. What possible justification is there for reinstating the supports? Does the Taoiseach not believe the former officeholders are already in receipt of extremely generous pension packages? Hundreds of thousands of euro have been given to the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in secretarial support. I just do not see how the current Taoiseach could possibly justify that. It really sticks in the craw of people who are struggling to pay bills, mortgages and rent that excessively generous pensions are topped up with hundreds of thousands of euro in secretarial assistance and VIP treatment at airports. It is just not acceptable.

In general terms, I do not have an objection to the supports being given to former senior officeholders. If I have a complaint in that regard, it is that we do not utilise former taoisigh, tánaistí and other such officeholders in a way that other countries do to promote themselves. The Taoiseach said former taoisigh have been involved in campaigning for our seat on the UN Security Council. That is a good idea. There are other roles former officeholders can play, not as active politicians but as experienced former politicians, particularly in their family groupings within the European Union. I have no difficulty with any of that. All the supports given to anybody from the public purse should be transparent. That was always the way it was.

Up to 2016 a detailed breakdown of what everybody earned, including former taoisigh, in terms of pension, allowances or any supports was routinely published by the Department of Finance. The Government decided to end the practice in 2017, citing the right to privacy outweighing the right of public interest. The entire thrust of public policy for the past two decades and more has been for openness and accountability for every cent of expenditure that falls to the taxpayer. I do not understand why that would not be completely transparent. Public scrutiny, transparency and maintenance of standards are something we expect when it comes to the public domain. If there is a continuance of payments to anybody, that should be a matter of public knowledge. Will the Taoiseach restore the automatic full disclosure of all issues concerning anybody who is getting emoluments or funding of any description from the public purse? It may be completely and entirely justifiable in every instance, but we need to know. Otherwise, there is a feeling that undermines public confidence in the transparent expenditure of public funds.

It is the near universal practice in democratic states that former Heads of State and Heads of Government receive continued support and protection after leaving office. That reflects the fact that they continue to be a potential focus for people who might want to cause harm. They also have ongoing calls from the public both here and internationally. They do not suddenly disappear from public life when they leave office.

I thought the decision of the previous Government to withdraw nearly all support without notice in 2011 was both unfair and damaging, in particular to the late former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, and to the late former Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, who at an advanced stage had to make alternative arrangements almost overnight. Given that both held the office of Taoiseach at times when paramilitaries were actively seeking to undermine the State, there had always been an acceptance that basic, ongoing security was reasonable. People might forget, but they were quite dangerous times when one needed a bulwark for democracy to stand up to those who were clearly intent on undermining the authority of the State and very tough and hard decisions had to be made by officeholders.

Instead of making up policy on the run, does the Taoiseach not think it would be better to undertake a process of looking at international practice and then setting up our policy accordingly? In particular, some form of review of the ongoing public contacts and engagements of former Presidents and taoisigh should be undertaken. For example, I am struck by the work of former President Mary Robinson in terms of climate change, which I think reflects very well on this country. Given that we are an outward looking country, we are global and internationalist, the fact that we have former officeholders who can participate on fora all over Europe and globally on international issues concerning security, climate change, energy and a range of other political issues is advantageous to the country and it is something we should support not undermine.

I have one caveat to make. I note that in his reply the Taoiseach said the secretarial allowance is dependent on a willingness to assist the Government. That is a danger in that former officeholders cannot become appendages of the Government. I do not say all of them would anyway, but they must be allowed independence of thought and mind and if they disagree with the Government line on Northern Ireland, for example, or on other issues, that should not be a basis for not giving a secretarial allowance to assist with their work. By and large, I favour the utilisation of former Presidents and taoisigh on international fora in particular, which can help influence matters to a certain extent to the benefit of the country. We should not always seek to undermine politicians. There is a great tendency to do that in public debate. It is the easiest thing in the world just to have a go, but politicians do some good work too. Democracy is in retreat, big time. One only has to look at the geopolitical state of the world to see that. It is evident even in Europe when one looks at what is going on in Hungary and in Poland, not to mention other places.

I agree to a certain extent with all speakers. We are all aware that democracy has a cost attached to it. It is not for free and it must be paid for and looked after. People deserve to get a remuneration reflective of what is required for them to live their lives normally. Dr. Garret FitzGerald was mentioned. I remember being with him in Glencree when the peace negotiations and discussions were ongoing. He was a vital participant. He had a particular perspective with which I did not always agree but he was part of the process. Many others who had previous political involvement played a role at that time and since then, which is vital and it must be appreciated, recognised and acknowledged. However, we also have the other side of that. For example, the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, receives a pension of more than €135,000 a year. Most people out there who are struggling in their lives feel that is hugely excessive and we must acknowledge that also.

Tens of thousands of families remember the austerity years and the Government which presided over the mismanagement of the economy and it jars with them that they had to endure such problems and their children had to emigrate and yet they see senior people from that time getting very handsome remuneration in the form of a pension etc. It also jars with them that post-2012 many senior civil servants were given golden handshakes and large lump sums to retire and then they were re-employed, sometimes even within the Civil Service. There are many things with which we all have huge problems. My colleague, Deputy Ó Broin, recently discovered in a freedom of information request that the former Minister, Ray Burke, received €48,850 in a pension this year while the same man went to prison for tax evasion and corruption. The public have a problem with large sums of money going to politicians they perceive as people who did not do everything in the best interests of the public. That is something that needs to be acknowledged and on which we need to work. Is there any action the Taoiseach could take to restrict some of that and to rein it in to some extent? If he were to do so, it would be extremely popular with the vast majority of ordinary people who are struggling to manage on a day-to-day basis.

I thank Deputies for their questions and contributions. Former taoisigh and presidents have an ongoing role. It was mentioned that such an ongoing role can be beneficial to the country. The former President, Mary Robinson, was mentioned, for example, for her role in climate action and climate change. That is not just good for the world, it also reflects well on the country and we should be cognisant of that. It makes sense that if we have former officeholders - former taoisigh and presidents - we should ask them to assist the country. They are people who are generally held in good standing internationally, who have good contacts, who know things and have great experience. We should see them as an asset to the country, not to the Government, if they are willing to continue to do things for the country. I should point out that they are also members of the Council of State for life so they do have a formal role under the Constitution. Being a retired Taoiseach is not a formal role but being a member of the Council of State is. Former officeholders continue to receive a significant amount of correspondence, media queries relating to their work, queries from historians and even queries from inquiries. They receive a huge amount of correspondence and queries, even unwanted correspondence and queries. They have been asked to assist in our UN work, in particular in the campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council and on European issues such as Brexit, to explain our case and issues in fora around the world and also, on occasion, in Northern Ireland.

The former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, has a role in monitoring the referendum in Papua New Guinea. It is a really important role and we should be supportive of him in that. I had a very brief phone call with the new Prime Minister of Australia and one of the first things he mentioned to me is that our former Taoiseach is involved in the referendum in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

It was not something I brought up. It was something the Australian Prime Minister was aware of and volunteered. That just gives an example of the benefit of that sort of soft power of having our citizens around the world doing this kind of work. The former Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, has a role with the EU around human rights which has been very effective. While it is an EU role, the fact it is being done by an Irish person reflects well on us. Everyone will be familiar with the ongoing engagement of the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, in European affairs and US relations, given his role as EU ambassador to the US in the past.

I know there was mention of large amounts of money and hundreds of thousands of euro. I would say once again that the secretarial assistance is vouched and the total cost of this scheme so far this year has been €21,190 for all officeholders combined. The previous scheme, which was abolished in 2012, cost about €168,000 to €183,000 a year. It really is very modest compared to what was there before. All four former taoisigh were contacted to make them aware of the assistance available, the rules and specifically that any work had to be associated with their former role. The decision to avail of supports is entirely at the discretion of each individual and they are under no obligation to make use of it. So far, only one former Taoiseach has elected to recruit a secretarial assistant and the same individual has made one request for detailed briefing material on Brexit.

I take Deputy Howlin's point on transparency and I am absolutely willing to be as transparent as we possibly can but the general data protection regulation, GDPR, did actually change things. Our privacy laws in Ireland are different from what they were a few years ago. While it was possible in the past to disclose, for example, how much every individual officeholder got in terms of his or her pension and so on, under the GDPR there are new privacy rights that apply to every citizen. It is no longer possible for a Government to disclose what any individual public servant gets paid in terms of their pension or salary. We could remove that for everyone or no one but that previous system where it was transparent for some and not others no longer applies. The GDPR has changed that.