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Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Continued)

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Alex White: Information on Alex White Zoom on Alex White] The proposed funding continues this trend, reflecting the current very constrained budgetary situation while taking into account the needs of the commission over the coming three year period. To keep its spending within this reduced figure of €324 million, the commission is committed to ensuring funds are only designated to essential expenditure. I must also add that this reduced three year figure takes account of the decrease in Members' allowances announced by the Minister in his budget speech of 5 December last.

In regard to the curtailment of expenditure, I draw Members' attention to the fact that, under the terms of the Oireachtas commission legislation, the commission determines its own staffing requirements, with the exception that for senior appointments, the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is required. However, since 2009, the commission, while not obliged to implement the staffing moratorium which has been in place in the Civil Service, has in fact mirrored it, and authorised staffing levels for public servants in the Oireachtas have been reduced by 10% in the period. This fact, and the efforts of the commission over the years to economise, may not always be widely known to the public. Indeed, in the course of last week's proceedings in the Seanad on this Bill, reference was made to the advisability of the commission's communicating the efforts made to curb expenditure in its sphere of operations to a greater extent than it has done to date. In other words, there is a good story to tell here and it should be told vigorously.

Looking ahead, I am quite sure Deputies will agree that the €324 million target is a challenging one and will require substantial economising by the commission over a three year period. However, it will be no more difficult than the regime to which Department and offices will be compelled to adhere and the Oireachtas must show the public it is ready, able and willing to participate in the general reduction of administrative costs, as it has done to good effect to date.

In addition to the financial provision, the Bill provides for a revised format to the manner in which the Commission's accounts are presented. The existing format does not take account of changes to the structure of the service since the establishment of the Commission, that is, the establishment of the library and research unit and the communications unit. Alterations are also being proposed in the lay-out of the accounts, including the deletion of references to receipts no longer received.

The third and final provision contained in this Bill refers to the retention of receipts by the commission. These receipts will be offset against the Exchequer allocation and will be accounted for in both the annual Estimate which the commission presents to the Dáil and the appropriation account, which is audited annually by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The commission has requested this initiative on the grounds that, up to now, receipts generated went straight into the central fund. This gave no incentive for efficiencies in the provision of services. Under the new proposed arrangements, there will be heightened awareness of the need to maximise the extent of receipts.

I also wish to advise Members that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform intends to bring forward legislation early in 2013 to ensure the modernisation of the senior management structures of the Oireachtas service. These are specifically recognised in the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. It is accepted that the configuration in that Act, particularly in terms of senior management structures, needs to be modernised. Indeed, this was flagged in 2009 by the then Minister for Finance when moving the Second Stage of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Bill in the Dáil. While it is recognised that significant modernisation has taken place, the statutory framework in the 1959 Act does not reflect this and needs to be modernised. In this regard, the Minister is committed to ensuring, in co-operation with the Commission, that the administrative structures of the Oireachtas do not become out of step with Civil Service norms in terms of adapting flexibly to the needs and demands of modern management practices.

In summary, the Bill is designed to allow funds be made available to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to continue to provide the services that facilitate both Houses in the carrying out of their work. I am sure that Deputies will support this very worthwhile aim.

Deputy Sean Fleming: Information on Seán Fleming Zoom on Seán Fleming I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which I will be opposing for a variety of reasons. We are here on 20 December, and the Dáil is adjourning in a few hours and unless this Bill is passed, there will be no budget to spend on 1 January. That is a shambolic way to run any organisation. If this place caught fire today and we could not pass this Bill, the Oireachtas and its staff could not return on 1 January. There is now a Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform but we are still here on the last hour of the last sitting day of the year to address the situation where there is no budget for 1 January 2013. That is an indictment of that Minister.

The Minister of State acknowledged in his speech that there must be changes in the senior management structures of the Oireachtas and stated that this matter would be dealt with in 2013. This should have been done as part of this legislation on a properly planned basis over recent months, not on the last sitting day, when most Members are properly leaving the House, although I hope they have not all left because there will be a vote on this during the passage of the legislation.

This Government was elected on a mandate of Dáil reform. Is this the Government's definition of Dáil reform, coming in on the last sitting day, when the whole country's focus is moving away from events in the Oireachtas, to pass the budget to allow the building to open on 1 January? Unless this Bill is passed, it would not be possible to even pay the electricity bill. That is no way to run business. We are talking about a mammoth amount of money, after the Government inflicted a lot of pain on people in the budget through cuts to the respite care grant and child benefit. The decreases included in this Bill are not on that scale at all and although there have been budget savings in individual Members' own expenses, that level of reduction is not being mirrored across the entire Oireachtas.

I do not understand why this cannot be part of the normal Estimate process each year. A significant portion of total Government expenditure is not being voted upon in this Chamber. We get the departmental Estimates each year which are published on budget day but billions of euro in interest on the national debt, payments to the Central Fund, for the Houses of the Oireachtas and for pensions for retired judges and politicians are not voted on as part of the normal Estimates process. There is a mechanism for non-voted expenditure. All of that should be centralised because if this is the national Parliament and the Minister is serious about reform, approving expenditure in advance should be done in this House.

There should be provision to discuss the programme of work so that when a committee is discussing its estimated expenditure for the year, it has a line of activities that must be matched with those of the Department. There is none of that today. There is just a request for €324 million so we can go away for Christmas and resume again on 1 January. That is what this Bill is about and it is no way to do business.

If the Government parties had campaigned during the last election saying they would carry on without any change, I would understand this approach. The parties in government, however, were elected on the basis of change and we have seen the worst form of it here. Doing this on the last sitting day before the Christmas recess adds to public cynicism.

Apart from the financial side, I also oppose the legislation because it allows the Oireachtas to continue in the same old way. We were told there would be Dáil reform, that it was fundamental to both Fine Gael and the Labour Party before the election, and fundamental to the Government. The Government claims to have increased the number of sitting days and we have seen public relations and spin on Dáil reform but not substance. There are Friday sittings but they are not proper sitting days with an Order of Business; they are simply designated for Private Members' Bills. That is a sop to show the Dáil is sitting more hours. Fianna Fáil has put forward 42 Private Members' Bills in the past 18 months and two, at most, have been accepted.

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