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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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  12 o’clock

(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: Information on Mary Lou McDonald Zoom on Mary Lou McDonald] The budget introduced by the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform delivered cruel blows to many sectors across society. In a very mean-spirited way it took €26 million from the carers' respite grant. For the first time ever it taxes maternity benefit. Despite all the pre-election posturing it cut child benefit again. It set aside the PRSI income disallowance and placed an additional burden on low and middle income earners. That budget has been well-analysed by the public at this stage. Then it comes to us and people say, legitimately, that if Labour and Fine Gael are to preach the gospel of austerity and lecture carers, mothers, families and women on the need to cut their cloth according to their measure, if they are going to say to people who are struggling that they have no option but simply to take it on the chin and accept these cutbacks, what are they doing about themselves? That is a very reasonable question and one that is on the lips of the public.

When the Ministers took to their feet and announced the Fine Gael-Labour Government budget, one of the most striking public reactions as people tried to take on board all the different cuts and the increases in charges, was to ask what the politicians were doing about themselves. It was an obvious omission for the Taoiseach not to take a pay cut because he should not be earning €200,000. I doubt if anyone anywhere, including in this House and including the Taoiseach himself, would not concede that €200,000 is excessive. If we are going to have conversations about value for money or bang for one's buck, the public is quite entitled to ask whether they are getting €200,000 worth from this individual. The answer to that is "no". The broader answer is that whoever occupies that office should not be in receipt of a salary of that magnitude. He is not on his own because, equally, the Tánaiste, Ministers and Ministers of State are also overpaid.

A budget that could do so much damage to so many was accompanied by language of fairness on the one hand and, on the other hand, an assertion that the State is insolvent and in dire circumstances. Those were the two pillars of the narrative from Government - fairness and economic crisis. In a spirit of fairness the Government cannot stand over those salaries and in the context of economic crisis, they are obscene. Why were they not cut? We have not had an answer to that from anybody in Government. Ministers get a salary of €170,000 which is ludicrous and needs to be cut.

In that spirit, I submitted amendments to the legislation to do precisely that. The remuneration of the Taoiseach and Ministers should not exceed €100,000 in circumstances of emergency and hardship. A salary of €100,000 is a very fine salary for any individual. There are very many people in the public sector and private sector, which is often pointed to by Members of this House, who would be more than satisfied, indeed delighted, to receive a salary of €100,000. However, my amendment on that matter was set aside because I am told the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission does not set the rates of pay for officeholders, which is, of course, technically correct. That decision rests with Government and when this issue of obscenely high pay for politicians has been put to Government, it has simply given me and others the deaf ear. It is not open to that message. I am very frustrated and angry yet again that when an attempt is made to address this issue of pay, it is simply batted away and set aside.

On the issue of allowances, again my amendment was set aside. I was told the commission does not make those decisions, the Government does. However, the commission is, as the Minister of State, Deputy White, has said, almost the board of the Oireachtas, the administrator, the overseer. Therefore it has an involvement in these matters. My amendment proposed the withdrawal of a number of allowances we have. In a time of economic crisis, there is no justification for Members to get an allowance for a mobile phone. Other allowances proposed for withdrawal were those for the Ceann Comhairle, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle - with no offence to the personalities involved - Chairmen of committees, Vice Chairmen of committees, Leader of the Seanad, Whips and assistant Whips. All of these are additional baubles.

If we are serious about leading from the front, we cannot stand over these. I know I cannot and I believe the same is true for all Members of the House. I accept it has been custom and practice that these have existed in the past, but why can we not say that now in 2012 we will address these matters? They will not in themselves save a sufficient amount of money to set the economy to rights. I am not making that argument and I know that. However, they will give a very considerable and important message to the people we represent that we understand that even smaller sums of money are none the less significant sums of money, particularly from a Government that has let down carers, and vulnerable and struggling families. It is important that Government should not simply offer the rhetoric of fairness but demonstrate clearly that it understands the realities of life by making those types of decisions. I am outlining all this even though all my amendments were set aside.

For the record, I will detail how much would have been saved had my amendments been accepted and voted through. An emergency pay cap for all staff - not politicians - of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service would have saved €198,790. The combined saving from capping pay for the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers at €100,000, capping salaries of Deputies at €75,000 and capping salaries of Senators at €60,000 would be €4.3 million. The withdrawal of the allowances I mentioned would represent a saving of €754,879. I also tabled an amendment on capping the salaries of special advisers to Ministers at the first point of the principal officer scale, which is €81,000. That would realise a saving of €494,481. Of course, the Government had given a commitment to cap the pay of its special advisers, a commitment honoured more in the breach than in the adherence.

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