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

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Frank Feighan: Information on Frank Feighan Zoom on Frank Feighan] More should be done to reduce this expenditure. I welcome any submission or suggestion to achieve this. As members of the commission and as Members of this House, we should try to lead the way in reducing the cost of running the Oireachtas. Given the constitutional role of the Houses in holding the Government to account, the allocated figure is a small fraction of the projected overall State expenditure of €56.2 billion for 2013. However, we should always try to reduce costs.

Members have seen significant cuts to their allowances and salaries. There is a misconception that since the commission's funding covers the payment of allowances and salaries to Members, it has a say over them. This is not the case. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is the legal regulatory authority for setting allowances even though the payment thereof is made and accounted for by the commission.

It is only correct that the commission cannot set Members' allowances but is it appropriate for the Minister to deal with allowances unilaterally at budget time? The commission has made suggestions as regards reducing costs. The Committee of Public Accounts recommended that an external body should do this work, allowing for a more transparent and measured approach to comparisons with Members of other parliaments. We must be up front in terms of how to reduce our costs.

The commission's stewardship of the finances allocated has been exemplary since its establishment. It is not well known that, due to the constitutional and statutory position of payments, only 6% of the money drawn down by the commission from the Central Fund is discretionary, with a very small "D". This figure will reduce to 4.7% thanks to the savings achieved this year to date by the commission.

The commission's annual report provides useful international comparisons in respect of the ratio of staff to Members. Ireland is ranked 12th out of a total of 21 parliaments studied and tenth out of 18 in terms of political staff. We should improve and strive to be in the top three in each case. The conclusion to be drawn is that Members are far from being at the top of the league when compared with the parliaments of other well developed democracies. Any review of allowances should be benchmarked against other parliaments to ensure that Members remain financially independent and above reproach in carrying out their constitutional duties.

Being on the commission gives me an insight into how the Houses are run by the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. While there is always room for improvement, I have been impressed with the dedication and efficiency across the entire span of activity, such as the Library and Research Service, which every Deputy uses, in support of sittings and Members as we go about our business in challenging environments.

Since the commission came into operation in 2004, the service has needed to adapt to its new role in supporting an independent corporate body, effectively known as the commission, while managing the everyday activity of sittings of the Houses and supporting Members. The span of activity undertaken by the service covers far more than sittings and supporting Members, as important as these are, and reflects the demands of a public sector corporate body. The commission's financial and corporate governance has a primary role in ensuring that financial probity is guaranteed as far as possible in this high-profile area.

The annual report, which is largely forgotten in the overall scheme of Leinster House, gives a good account of the range of work being done. That work is not always as widely appreciated as it should be, given the challenging environment presented by the state of the public finances.

None of this could have happened without dedicated staff in the Oireachtas service being committed to change and modernisation. This must be encouraged by the commission. For this reason, I welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce legislation to amend the Staff of the Houses of the Oireachtas Act 1959. I also welcome the fact that the pressure for change is coming from the Civil Service itself.

I thank the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, for his work in the past 18 months. He worked closely with members of the public service to try to bring about change. An interdepartmental group comprising officials from the Minister's Department and the Oireachtas service is also involved. I look forward to the changes that the Minister will propose and I hope that this public service is reformed as quickly as possible.

Deputy John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan I wish to make a few points on the Bill. Although Deputy Sean Fleming's colleague is present, I am sorry that he is not. I was struck by his contribution, during which he referred to today as being Christmas Eve no fewer than 12 times. I would hate it if he woke up tomorrow morning and there were no presents under the Christmas tree. He believed that today was Christmas Eve, but that is actually next Monday.

In the Minister of State's concluding remarks, he might clarify the reason for discussing this legislation so close to the deadline. I assume that the changes announced by the Minister in the budget must be reflected in the legislation on the budget for the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission.

I am also a bit miffed about Deputy Sean Fleming's comments on Dáil reform, his notion of which is the Dáil sitting an extra day per month. When the Deputy was the Chairman of an Oireachtas committee in a previous existence and under a different regime, we would have finished for Christmas in the first or second week of December and the Oireachtas might only have returned in the final two or three days of January. This was how the Oireachtas was run. The significant reduction in our recess periods reflects the fact that much more is being done in terms of legislation and discussion.

This is not to say that all of the necessary changes to how legislative debates are held in this House have been introduced. I am unhappy with the lack of discussion on some important Bills. However, it is important to point out that, when the Oireachtas dealt with one of a number of significant Bills last week, a couple of hours were lost due to the Opposition's usual messing. Reform must involve all sides of the House. We have a way to go in terms of reforming how the Oireachtas handles legislation. The Houses are sitting twice as often as used to be the case. This is my 11th year as a Member and I remember Christmas and other recesses being lengthier than is now the case. It is patently wrong to claim that the only change has been an extra day, or one Friday, per month.

I also wish to ask the Minister of State about the matter on which Deputy Sean Fleming showed mock indignation, that is, the lack of a banking inquiry. Last week, I may have heard the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform refer to the publication of new legislation on Oireachtas inquiries. In November 2011, the people decided in a referendum not to extend Oireachtas committees' powers of investigation. The Minister of State may be able to outline the status of the legislation on the changes required to allow committees to hold important inquiries.

I am intrigued by Deputy Sean Fleming's eagerness to have the Seanad abolished. I was of the belief that Fianna Fáil was opposed to abolition.

Deputy Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris This week.

Deputy John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan Indeed. The Minister of State might-----

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley The Deputy should not wind me up.

Deputy John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan There was a time, Deputy Dooley, when we were all there. The Minister of State might refer to the position as regards putting the issue to the people in a referendum.

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