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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 Catherine Murphy: Information on Catherine Murphy Zoom on Catherine Murphy] Not only are major pieces of legislation heavily guillotined - such as the Social Welfare Bill, the Finance Bill and the property tax legislation - but also they are timetabled in such a way that, for example, Committee and Report Stages, where some amendments will be debated in detail, happen late at night so that there will be the least amount of scrutiny. Democracy itself is being circumvented by the way in which this is happening and it is no accident.

The budget is clearly set to cover such items as salaries, wages and allowances in respect of staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas, IT services, televising proceedings, library and research services, which are all very necessary. I have no difficulty with that.

Section 3 provides for salaries of Members, including officeholders and chairpersons of committees. I do not believe that, at this time, payment should be made for chairing Oireachtas committees or indeed for Whips' allowances or those sitting on the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. The committees are overloaded with work. The intention was to try to reduce the number of committees, not because that was a better way for them to function but because it would reduce the need to pay a person to chair them. That seems to me to be making a decision for all the wrong reasons.

Many of us would argue that the committees on which we sit are not dealing with the breadth of work they could because one is trying to push a couple of Departments together. Decisions are being made for the wrong reasons but that would change if we stopped paying chairpersons. It would provide for decisions to be made for the right reasons. These are hard decisions because they will be made by the people they affect. We should be making these kind of decisions, however, because it shows leadership.

When we knocked on doors in 2011, there was an expectation of change. People also expected that many of these matters would not be a feature of this Government, yet vulnerable people are being exposed to major economic impacts due to the decisions that are being made.

There were some changes in the recent budget, including a reduction in the travel and accommodation allowance element with a 25% reduction for people in the Dublin category or those living within 16 miles of the Dáil and a 10% reduction for bands outside that. The reduction should have gone much further. I have no difficulty with costs being paid to cover the legitimate overnight expenses of people who must spend nights here on Dáil business, or costs for those travelling long distances. Such allowances should all be vouched. In addition, the number of bands should be reduced to maybe three or four, whereas there are currently a dozen. The system should be entirely transparent, which is why it should be vouched.

I would question why there is a payment for those who live within commuting distance of the Dáil. I live in what is know as the commuter belt where it is not unusual for people to travel 30 or 40 miles to work every day. Yet the banding system allows for those people who live as close as 17 miles from this House to claim an overnight allowance. The difference between the Dublin band - which was €12,000 but has now gone to €8,000 - and the next band, between 16 and 25 miles, is €16,000. It is shocking. No one who lives that kind of distance from the city would expect to spend an overnight here on legitimate work.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission has been tasked with considering further reforms, but it is a closed shop. It includes Fine Gael, the Labour Party and Fianna Fáil, while Sinn Féin and the Technical Group are excluded from any kind of deliberations. Any review should be independent and we should be benchmarked against other parliaments of similar size if we are going to have any credibility.

How we fund politics also sustains the kind of political system we have. These allowances started in 1938 under a de Valera Government and they have been added to and evolved with major changes over the past two decades. It is difficult to track the various ways in which politics is funded because there is such a disparate range of means of providing for it. We have to question our entire approach to political funding in Ireland, which means reforming both private and public funding. There should be an even playing field for all those who participate in politics, or those who may wish to do so. For example, if a new political entity emerged now it could not find any means of funding until a general election was held. It is an impediment to new political entities.

We need to challenge the debate on political reform. The public expected that waste and excesses would be taken out. In addition to funding provided by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, further funding is provided under the Electoral Act 1997. According to the Bills Digest, this funding is a contribution to parties' annual running costs under the Act. Each of the qualified parties receives a basic sum of €126,000 plus a proportionate share of the fund of €4.9 million - that was in 2010. That is not related to the number of seats won.

Independents are excluded from this funding stream because we are not a qualifying political party under the terms of the legislation. However, 17% of people decided that they did not want to vote for the political parties on offer. There was no discount of that fund, however, and the money was not returned to the Exchequer. It was shared among the political parties that did qualify. That is something like €4 million over the lifetime of the Government. That is plainly wrong and it is an offence to the people who decided that they were not going to elect people from the political parties on offer.

There is another aspect that needs to be examined and the Bills Digest went into it. A key problem with the current political finance regime in Ireland is that it has been relatively easy for parties to raise funds from private sources without disclosing them, thereby defeating the purpose of the regime in the first place. According to a 2008 report, despite parties declaring more than €10 million in campaign expenditure for the 2007 general election, just €1 million was disclosed in donations. None of the three main parties disclosed any donations in 2009 or 2010 despite the fact that there were local elections in 2009.

The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission provides salaries for support staff for each Deputy. However, what is not appreciated is that the political parties also receive additional resources which constitute a secretariat to run the business of the Oireachtas. An additional allocation of 0.8 per Member in secretarial grade staffing is provided to parliamentary parties. That does not mean, however, that a group like the Technical Group is accommodated in that regard. I do not dispute that there is a need for such group staffing, but I do question the extent of the allocations. I also question how the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, in its standing orders, allows for the formation of a Technical Group, but excludes such a group from receiving a staffing allocation.

For example, our group has 16 Members, yet we get no resources whatsoever to co-ordinate our activities. If one looks at the numbers, Fianna Fáil gets 23 people, while Fine Gael gets 26, which is discounted because it is in Government. There are 78 staff members.

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