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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 Sean Fleming: Information on Seán Fleming Zoom on Seán Fleming] Almost all get voted down or long-fingered. Very few of the Bills that have gone through, that have been published by the parties and dealt with on the Friday sittings, have been enacted. It is a bit of a sham the way it is operating.

One of the most important roles of Dáil committees is dealing with the Estimates process for the Departments. We all will be aware that the Estimates for the line Departments will probably appear at the committees in April or May next, or some time during the course of the year when half of the funding is already spent and most of the balance is already committed. It is becoming a pointless exercise. We need to have a meaningful debate in the Dáil and at Oireachtas committees on expenditure before it is spent, and we did not have that this year in the case of the Estimates of expenditure for the coming year. In fact, the Government acted in a retrograde manner. In the past few years we were moving to separate the expenditure in the Book of Estimates which would be published in advance of budget day and now we have them all on the one day where the estimates of expenditure get caught up in issues such as child benefit cuts and the family home tax, and those issues do not get properly dealt with.

The Government promised - it was one of the parties' proposals prior to the election - to reduce the number of guillotines. This legislation is being guillotined today. Second Stage, Committee Stage, and Report and Final Stages are being taken in one sitting on the eve of Christmas, and that is Dáil reform. The amount of guillotines that have been introduced here is not necessary. There is no reason this legislation could not have been taken at the select committee last week, the previous week or the week before that; it should not be coming in here at this stage.

We were promised changes to the committee system. The reason I highlight these points is the public wants to know for what is this €324 million. They voted for the Government on the basic that there would be Dáil reform. The committee system has actually deteriorated. There are now some committees with 27 members. The Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, chaired the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, of which I am a member, before he was promoted to Minister of State. Having 27 members on one committee is a joke. The result of the joke of setting up what are, on the face of it, a smaller number of committees is having a plethora of sub-committees that are unwieldy and on which there is little focus. There are more committee meetings in this House than there ever were in any previous Administration. Some of them are being called sub-committees but they are actually committees. Taking the major committees and the sub-committees, there is much less focus in committee work.

This Government promised that the Dáil would hold a banking inquiry and two years into office, there is no sign of this happening. There is a possibility of legislation to allow some Oireachtas inquiries but that has yet to be agreed. I would safely say we will adjourn for the summer with no banking inquiry. That was a fundamental promise to the people of Ireland by the parties in government and it is not being delivered in terms of Dáil reform. If the Dáil was really meaningful, there would be a banking inquiry up and running by now but for some reason the Minister is holding back.

The main party in government, Fine Gael, promised that when in government it would cut the number of Deputies by 20. Because of the increase in population, in line with the Constitution, the number can be reduced only by eight, to 158, which is what will happen. It was known in advance that there was an increase in population. It was a false promise to the Irish people that it would cut the number of Deputies. The promise was made in the full knowledge of the main party in government that it was not remotely possible within current constitutional limits to keep it. As the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, stated on television, "isn't that what you tend to do during an election?" - nobody expects one to hold true to one's promises. That adds to the cynicism in public life.

The Taoiseach promised abolition of the Seanad. I do not see anything about this. If we are agreeing a budget for the next three years, there should be something in it about where we stand on the Seanad. It has been promised repeatedly. Promises were made and votes were won on the basis that they would cut the number of Deputies by 20 and abolish the Seanad. That is not reflected in this figure where the Minister of State is coming in here on the eve of Christmas looking for €324 million so that we can open up the building after Christmas. The Bill is being brought in here almost under the cover of Christmas week in the hope that the people will not see what is going on.

Finally, the Oireachtas has not fully engaged in proper explanations of the Government's approach to the various European summits. The Government has the stock answer that it cannot disclose its hand because others might see what it is looking for beforehand, but that happens in other parliaments. Apart from coming in to look for €324 million for the next three years when the Houses are breaking up for the Christmas period, the Government is guillotining this legislation, with all Stages to be taken here in one session. There has been no meaningful Dáil reform. One can trot out the PR about the extra sitting day, but I pointed out how meaningless that is. Those are not proper sitting days and by and large the Government has not adopted the Bills taken here on Fridays into legislation. Off the top of my head, I can think of two Bills out of 42 from my party, the main Opposition party. There has not been proper Dáil reform, in terms of the committee system or of the Estimates process. The Estimates should have been discussed calmly in committee in the cold light of day. We should be seeing the plan of services for Parliament over the next three years. This should be in the legislation, not a promise to review it next year. The review of the role and function of senior management structures of the Oireachtas, which is promised for next year, should have been done this year in advance of this budget being approved. On that basis, my party cannot support this slapdash approach by the Minister on the eve of Christmas.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald I am disappointed that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, is not here for this debate. Whatever about my personal disappointment, it reflects the fact that the Government's approach is slapdash on the legislation and cavalier in respect of the sums of money involved. Essentially, we are being asked to put through a budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas for the next three years to the tune of €324 million, which works out at €108 million each year. I need not say, certainly, for anyone who might be watching this debate and who watched the budgetary debate over the past number of weeks, that €108 million per annum is substantial funding. At a minimum, Deputy Howlin should have been here. Meaning no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, the Minister should have been here to present the case and the argument on two fronts: first, to give an account as to why €324 million is required over the next three years and to substantively defend that sum; and second, to explain, as has been previously stated, why we are dealing with this matter at the 11th hour.

Why is it that this matter is put before us just as we are coming to the finishing line of this Dáil session? It strikes me as a sneaky move. It strikes me, rather than have all of the issues around what it costs to run the Oireachtas, including in respect of Deputies, Senators, advisers, upfront and centre in the mainstream debate on budgets and cuts, that the Government somehow wants to deal the heavy blows to the citizens in its cutback packages and increases in charges and then have a separate discussion to hive off the issue of the cost of the Oireachtas and legitimate public issues that arise around the pay of politicians, the allowances enjoyed by them and the issue of political advisers because it does not want those matters to enter into the broad discussion of the budgetary position. Of course, the problem for a Government so minded is that the people are not fools.

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