Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Ceisteanna (95)

Gerald Nash

Ceist:

95. Deputy Ged Nash asked the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform his views on the appointment of ten special advisers for Ministers of State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26735/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (8 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Public)

Ahead of the announcement of the July stimulus, the Government decided to appoint teams of special advisers to the offices of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I described it at the time as the Government parties' very own job creation initiative, or a July stimulus for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party. In the week that the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is being cut, the Government, with the sanction of the Minister, Deputy Michael McGrath, as the Minister in charge of spending, gave the go-ahead to appoint ten new special advisers to Ministers of State. Does the Minister believe this is the right thing to do? Will he, as Minister responsible for reform, establish criteria for such appointments? Can he inform the House as to the total annual cost of the 64 advisers appointed to date? Finally, will he confirm that he will not sign off on the appointment of any additional ministerial advisers during the term of the Government?

The appointment of special advisers by Government to assist Ministers and Ministers of State is provided for under section 11 of the Public Service Management Act 1997.  

Special adviser appointments were initially considered by my Cabinet colleagues and me at the Government meeting of 4 August last. At that meeting, the Government approved the proposed guidelines setting out the process for the appointment of special advisers to Ministers and Ministers of State of the Thirty-third Dáil, as well as the terms and conditions applying to those appointments. The guidelines were published by my Department on the gov.ie website and are broadly consistent with those applying under the Thirty-second Dáil, both in terms of the number of appointments and the terms and conditions on appointment.

The appointment of special advisers to the Ministers of State in question, which the Deputy refers to, was considered by the Government meeting of 22 September last. These appointments are being made in accordance with the existing guidelines that I mentioned.

In considering proposals to appoint special advisers, my Cabinet colleagues and I had specific regard to the scale and complexity of the portfolio, the budgetary responsibility and programme for Government commitments.

I reassure the Deputy and the House that my colleagues and I in the Government are fully committed to transparency for all such appointments. As with the previous Government, once the formal appointment of all special advisers is concluded in the coming weeks, my Department will publish a list of special advisers to the Thirty-third Dáil. This list will include their names, the Departments to which they are assigned and their respective rates of pay. Additionally, as the Deputy will be aware, a copy of each special adviser’s signed contract of employment must also be laid before the Oireachtas by Ministers within 60 days of each special adviser’s formal appointment by Government.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. I assure the Minister that I am not throwing cheap, political potshots at the Minister and his Government colleagues on the appointment of a raft of special advisers for junior Ministers. I do not believe it is in my nature to do so and the Minister may know this. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Ossian Smyth, correctly pointed out on "The Week in Politics" this week that I enjoyed the support of two special advisers during my own short spell as a super junior Minister. I am old enough to remember when Government only merited one super junior Minister at the Cabinet table, and the two special advisers that the super junior Minister is entitled to have. This time around we have three. The only reason we have three super junior Ministers is not because of any particular policy focus in Government that would require the support of three particular voices at Cabinet with specific expertise, it is to keep the three Government parties sweet. This is what it is all about, nothing more and nothing less. I am not convinced or persuaded at all of the merits of appointing almost double the number of special advisers that the 2011-16 Government merited. That was a Government that was in the mire and in battle to try to save Ireland's economy, as this Government is doing. I am not persuaded by the Minister's response and I am not persuaded of the merits of appointing a raft of special advisers to junior Ministers. I am not persuaded whatsoever.

I should point out that special advisers are appointed under section 11 of the Act. It would be helpful to set out what the functions are. The Act provides that a special adviser shall assist the relevant Minister by providing advice and by "monitoring, facilitating and securing the achievement of Government objectives that relate to the Department" and "performing such other functions as may be directed by the Minister" provided this does not involve the exercise of any specific powers conferred on the Minister or any other officeholder under the Act.

The Deputy's question related to the special advisers appointed to the Ministers of State. For the information of the House, special advisers to those Ministers of State who do not regularly attend Cabinet are to be placed on the assistant principal officer standard scale, which is currently a number of points between €67,659 and €78,816. That is the cost of that particular decision.

Will the Minister clarify for the record that he does not have any plans to sanction the approval of or appoint any additional advisers? I believe that 64 is more than enough. During the 2011-16 Government the country was in the mire and battling for its very survival and it had 30-plus advisers. For a country with 15 Cabinet Ministers, a Chief Whip, a super junior Minister and probably the largest majority we have ever seen in the history of the State, I am open to be persuaded but remain to be convinced of the merits of appointing this number of special advisers.

I am a fan of good government and good governance, and anything required to deliver that should be supported. While I do not want to individualise this in any way, given the raft of cock ups we have seen over the last few months and weeks since this Government has come into office, all of the evidence so far suggests that the support being provided by special advisers may leave a little bit to be desired. This is not about seamless Government and delivering better outcomes. It is about keeping the parties in Government happy. It is as simple as that.

Ultimately the Government will be judged by its performance on the key issues: managing the pandemic; ultimately bringing about economic recovery; and on addressing the pre-Covid challenges. Those challenges are still very much there and will become even more acute if we do not address them. They include the housing crisis, the long-term structural reforms needed in our health service and the existential challenge of climate action. That is ultimately how we will be judged. I am the first to acknowledge that the appointment of special advisers is a sensitive issue. As Deputy Nash has acknowledged, he has benefitted from the services of special advisers-----

As a Minister of State, not as a super junior Minister.

Yes, absolutely. The Deputy has put that on the record and acknowledged that fact. I assume they provided a good service and were valuable to the Deputy.

I shall now turn to the numbers. Once the process has been completed - and it has not been completed at this point, even on the numbers the Deputy has speculated on - all details will be published in an open and transparent way.