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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 John Paul Phelan: Information on John Paul Phelan Zoom on John Paul Phelan] The last I heard was that a proposal in this regard will be forthcoming in 2013.

It is important to acknowledge the significant reductions that have been achieved in the cost of administering the Oireachtas. As finance spokesman for Fine Gael in the Seanad in 2006, I recall a discussion regarding the funding of the Oireachtas Commission, which in that particular legislation was set at just shy of €400 million. By contrast, the amount proposed for this purpose for the next three years is just over €320 million. This represents a substantial reduction which is certainly in line with, if not ahead of, the reductions in the cost of administering other Departments and agencies. In fact, the reduction in expenditure on the operation of the Houses of the Oireachtas is approaching 20% in the past four years.

In recent years we have seen a 10% reduction in staffing levels in Leinster House. Many of the visitors I bring to the Oireachtas are struck by the number of people who work in these buildings who are not politicians. The staff include secretarial assistants, parliamentary assistants, committee staff, staff of political parties, ushers, staff in the various ancillary facilities and so on. The newly extended library and research unit is a particularly positive initiative. For a long time the former head librarian of many years standing and who is retired several years - an elderly gentleman named Patrick whose surname I cannot bring to mind just now - and his colleague Seamus Haughey were the only staff in the library. In fact, it was effectively just a reading room. The service provided by the library and research unit, particularly its function in reviewing legislation and offering Members briefings on Bills coming before the House, is a huge advance on what was previously available.

I will conclude by referring to an issue that has been something of a bugbear of mine for some time, namely, the proposal for the provision of free iPads to all Members. Following concerns expressed in this regard by me and by others, it has now been proposed that Members should use their vouched expenses to cover the cost of a new iPad. This is certainly a more acceptable proposal than the appalling prospect that each Member would receive a free electronic device at a time when families throughout the State are suffering significant hardship. I would go further, however. I might be misinterpreting the information we have been given, but it seems to be saying that it will be optional for Members to claim for a new iPad under their vouched expenses. I urge the commission to specify that it will be mandatory for such purchases to be included under vouched expenses. Moreover, this facility should only be availed of by Members who do not already possess one of these devices. Even though I am not especially technically literate, I have had an iPad for several years and have no need of a second. I understand the Oireachtas information technology service is in a position to offer support to Members who already use an iPad, which would be most helpful.

In this context, I welcome the change in thinking that seems to have taken place in regard to the provision of these important and necessary items. To clarify, I am not a Luddite. On the contrary, anything that will reduce the cost of providing documents to Members is very much to be welcomed. I use my own iPad extensively in my work as a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. It means I do not have to print a small forest of documentation before attending committee meetings. Nevertheless, the original proposal that a free iPad be given to every Member is unacceptable in the current economic circumstances.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. While recognising that the Bill is limited in its function, it nevertheless affords us an opportunity to discuss the broader issue of reform within the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is an issue about which I have strong views. Like Deputy John Paul Phelan, I started out in the Seanad 11 years ago. As part of the work of that Seanad, we contributed to the compilation of a significant report on reform of the Upper House. Our enthusiasm, although noted and commended by our wiser, more experienced peers, was nevertheless tempered by their word of caution that this particular report, like others before it, would most likely be left on the shelf.

Deputy Alex White: Information on Alex White Zoom on Alex White The Deputy's enthusiasm has not waned.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Timmy Dooley Zoom on Timmy Dooley Thank you, Minister. Unfortunately, those warnings proved accurate and the report was indeed left on the shelf.

I do not wish to be partisan on the last day of business in the House, but I must point out that the only movement we have seen from the current Administration in the area of parliamentary reform was the effort before the election to garner votes on the basis of a commitment to abolish the Seanad. In fact, that became the tag-line for parliamentary reform for the Government, the be all and end all of its ambitions in this area. That was most disappointing at the time and I suspect that disappointment might well now be shared by many of my colleagues on the other side of the House. It was certainly an eye-catching slogan which attracted a great deal of media attention in the run-up to the election. I am convinced, however, that the abolition of the Seanad would not enhance democracy in this State. We should bear in mind that if a referendum were put to the people at this time to abolish the Dáil, it would probably succeed. We must be careful and considered in our approach to reform and any action in this area must be strategic. As others have said, we must consider best practice in other jurisdictions, while also heeding the positive aspects of our own culture and developed parliamentary practice. That tradition has served us reasonably well, notwithstanding some considerable failures along the way. In that context, I hope there will be a more broadly-based approach in respect of efforts to reform how we do business in these Houses.

The Oireachtas Commission has done important work since its inception, but a great deal remains to be done. Likewise, there is further work to be done by the parliamentary service reform group that was involved in bringing forward proposals for this particular Bill. The Minister of State has indicated that there will be further amending legislation relating to the modernisation of senior management. Everybody who works in Leinster House recognises the need for new structures suitable for the modern era. These Houses could very easily become bedded in the past rather than looking to the future. We must keep pace with technological developments, which requires having people with expertise in that area. There are fantastic individuals working in the Oireachtas who have sought external support in modernising the workings of the Houses. Whatever the Government is prepared to do in this regard will be most welcome.

We have a very dedicated staff in the Oireachtas who have worked tremendously well against very difficult deadlines. Many people do not appreciate that when parliamentary business runs late into the evening, certain staff are obliged to stay on to prepare amendments and so on. That is often lost in the commentary about the cost of operations of the Oireachtas, which can look high when consolidated over a three or five-year period. These are fundamental aspects of the running of a democracy. There is certainly scope for tightening up, perhaps through a greater emphasis on technology. That is something we all support. It is important, however, not to undermine or detract from the phenomenal work done by Oireachtas staff.

There is an onus on elected Members, both in government and opposition, to find better ways of doing our business. Observers of proceedings in the Oireachtas who are sometimes irked to see only three or four Members in the Chamber at a particular time may not understand how business is ordered on a daily basis.

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