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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 Simon Harris: Information on Simon Harris Zoom on Simon Harris] Members of the public can queue outside the Westminster Parliament and gain access to the building. It is regrettable that if my constituents want to access this building at short notice, they need me or another Member to sign them in, or to go through a booking process. I have corresponded with the Ceann Comhairle and with officials of the House on this matter and I got a comprehensive answer. I understand about staffing, security and all that sort of stuff. This is something that needs to be looked at. I have often seen people come up to the reception area in Kildare Street and ask how they can come in. That is a bad physical barrier to have but it is not something we will rectify today or tomorrow.

The tours of the House are superb. Any group I have brought in have gone away massively impressed with the depth of knowledge of the staff of the House and the courtesy they extend to visitors. That is something I value, as a Member of the House. It is, however, regrettable that, because of the economic situation, there is no longer the possibility of evening tours. A significant catchment of our constituents would like to see the House and watch it in action but cannot do so during the day.

I place these as my general thoughts on the issue. We are discussing issues of cost. We all need to be cost conscious and make savings in the cost of our institutions. We do that in the Bill and we did so in the budget. We also need to ask what we are getting for the money. We must not simply debate the number of euro spent but also whether we are getting value for money and a "bang for our buck". These are my suggestions, for what they are worth.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Deputy Alex White): Information on Alex White Zoom on Alex White This has been an interesting discussion. As colleagues acknowledged, the Bill is of a technical nature and, although important, is limited in scope. Many of the issues raised in the course of the debate are, of course, worthy of public debate and elaboration and Members, in their normal ingenious way, have taken the opportunity afforded them by this relatively limited Bill to engage in that broader debate. It is appropriate that we have a constant engagement on the question of reform of the manner in which the Houses do their business and on the broader reform agenda which the Government is pursuing in an impressive manner, from constitutional reform through the convention to matters such as reform of freedom of information legislation, the lobbying regime, election funding and so forth. Other instruments are being considered in various legislation. Considerable reform is proceeding all the time.

The Bill, however, is limited. I do not criticise any of my colleagues, far be it from me to do that, when I say I am struck by how little reference was made in the course of the debate to the contents of the Bill itself. The Bill, if passed, will ensure that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission can continue with its work and will have funding to do so.

Deputy John Paul Phelan dealt quite well with Deputy Sean Fleming's opening remarks. Deputy Fleming reminded us that this is the eve of Christmas and said there was a sense in which things were being rushed through. Deputy McDonald used the expression "sneaking through", if I am not mistaken. One or two other people said the same. This is a working day in the Houses of the Oireachtas. We are working today, doing the people's business until eight o'clock tonight. There is nothing sneaky about any of the business we do, today or any other day. This is just as important a day of work as any other. The notion that the Bill's being debated on the last day of the session constitutes sneaky behaviour on the part of the Government or anyone else is nonsensical. The media and everyone else have the same gaze and visibility on what we do in the Houses until business closes this evening. I reject out of hand any suggestion that because the Bill is being taken on the last day of the session it is being pushed through in a manner that is sneaky or seeks to avoid the public gaze or scrutiny. That is not the case.

The amounts of money to be dedicated to the Houses of the Oireachtas, and contained in the Bill, have been known since last October. The Estimate was presented in October of this year following detailed consideration by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. There is no lack of clarity or transparency in the process or the sums of money involved. I reject any suggestion otherwise.

Deputy Phelan also made the point that the decisions made in the budget are of relevance. The alterations and adjustments made in the Budget Statement are of relevance to this and they came only two weeks ago. There is pressure of legislative business. The Personal Insolvency Bill, for example, was passed by the Houses last night. A great deal of legislation is going through the Houses. Members will recognise that. Much of the legislation is troika related and must be dealt with. It is being dealt with, if I may say so in the presence of the Chief Whip, in an expeditious and efficient fashion by all concerned, including the staff of the Houses and of Departments, who have a huge amount of work to do on legislation across the board.

I said many of the issues raised are not strictly relevant to the Bill and if I were consistent I would remember that and not respond to them. I think I can, however, have some indulgence for a couple of minutes and refer briefly to a couple of the points made. There is a reform agenda and the Government is pursuing it vigorously. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan and others raised the importance of committees and difficulties regarding the passage of business and the efficiency of committees. We should constantly address our minds to this. I was chair of a committee prior to my current appointment and I believe strongly in the committee system. It can work, has been seen to work and can be made work. This involves the co-operation and support, not only of the Government but of all members so that committees work in the methodical efficient way they are designed to do. We have seen progress in that regard. When people work together in a committee type environment we can make huge progress in dealing with legislation and with other issues.

We now have a system of pre-legislative scrutiny. Before a Bill is published there can be pre-legislative discussion in a committee. I was privileged to be involved in some of that work in the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform on credit union legislation, whistleblower legislation and so on. This is happening at present. I understand the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform has been examining the proposals by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform for legislation on committee inquiries. The preparation of legislation to allow for the holding of inquiries by committees has been already approved by Government. These will be general inquiries and will not be confined to banking. The committee is having an opportunity to deal with that prior to the legislation even being finalised by the Minister. That is an important advance. There is a feeling that once legislation is published there is a sense of finality about it and a reluctance to change it. Here is an opportunity for genuine engagement by parliamentarians before legislation even reaches the publication stage. That is important and progressive.

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