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 Header Item Land and Conveyancing Law Reform Bill 2013: Report and Final Stages (Continued)
 Header Item Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2012: Report and Final Stages

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 809 No. 3

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  6 o’clock

Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2012: Report and Final Stages

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Michael Kitt Zoom on Michael Kitt Amendments Nos. 1 to 13, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together by agreement.

Deputy Sean Fleming: Information on Seán Fleming Zoom on Seán Fleming I move amendment No. 1:

I welcome the opportunity to move amendment No. 1. We are discussing amendments Nos. 1 to 13, inclusive, as part of this overall topic. We discussed it at length on Committee Stage. It is the same amendment, by and large. Some of my other amendments might be slightly different. This amendment is a repeat so I will go through it to the same extent.

  There is merit in a number of these amendments. I can understand how the Minister might have a technical issue with one or two issues. The essential issue is that each year when we come to discuss our voted Estimates in the Dáil, we only discuss the Estimates that come before the line Minister for voting. This can equate to somewhere in the order of €40 billion per annum whereas there is approximately another €10 billion per annum which does not come before the Dáil as part of the annual Estimates process. The fact that the national Parliament does not discuss the full range of Government expenditure each year is a flaw. In a way, some of the money is kept away from the full level of public scrutiny one would have during the normal Estimates debate. We could discuss the Estimates debate and I must be critical of my colleagues in the House because they do not give sufficient time to the Estimates debate in respect of line Departments. I know some of them must still go through the House for this year. We all know that most of the money is already spent and committed and we are still only voting on the Estimates.

  That said, many Members of the House will give scant regard to the actual Estimates debate. I want all these items to be brought into the Estimates process and voted expenditure. We can have many Departments with budgets of €8 billion, €9 billion and up to €12 billion and €13 billion going through each year and the Estimates debate can take an hour or two. When one takes out the set pieces - the opening statements - very little real detailed scrutiny takes place and I would welcome greater scrutiny for the Estimates across the House.

  That said, the purpose of these 13 amendments is to take out items from the Central Fund that should be brought into the Estimates debate. I understand there is an issue with the question of the servicing of the national debt. The Minister's official spoke nicely to me after Committee Stage to say that many countries might not want to lend to a country if they felt it could be caught up in a political wrangle over whether it pays the interest each year. I accept that point. Essentially, the next Government is bound by whatever is agreed now and it cannot be changed by way of an Estimates debate or a Government having a slim majority or no majority on some occasions. There is merit in that point but a halfway house can be found and a proper debate on that issue held in this House in parallel with the Estimates debate. As part of the Estimates debate, there might be an addendum, appendix or complementary note added to it involving items relevant to that Minister's Department, for example, the Department of Finance for payment of the national debt, which will not be voted on but the process of having the debate should happen each year. There is a case to be made for doing that.

  My real concern related to when I went down through the list of items. The second item, which is amendment No. 2, relates to a contribution to the EU budget. I know somebody will give me a reason that the Oireachtas should not be allowed to discuss that each year but I am sure-----

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform (Deputy Brendan Howlin): Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin It is a treaty obligation.

Deputy Sean Fleming: Information on Seán Fleming Zoom on Seán Fleming I am sure the same treaty obligation put an obligation on EU institutions, yet consider the discussion we had in recent months about agreeing its budget. The European Parliament gets to discuss the EU budget - what it takes in and receives from us - but we do not have an equivalent and reciprocal debate, yet we are governed by the same treaty. If the same debate can be held at European level, it should be possible to have it here.

In respect of payments to the ESM, I know there are very large amounts of money but I suspect that very few members of the public are aware that those payments are going through because they are not being discussed here. There is no reason that items like the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission and election posting cannot be included in the Estimates and if, for example, there is to be a referendum that was not planned, a figure could be included as part of the Estimate that would be brought forward to cover the actual referendum.

The Minister understands my point. He will probably not accept these 13 amendments. He did not accept them on Committee Stage and I do not expect him to accept them here. It is a point we will wish to revisit separately from this legislation because €10 billion should not be spent each year on behalf of the Irish taxpayer without a debate in the Chamber. Perhaps it would not happen in the voted expenditure mechanism about which we are discussing but there should be a debate. A payment of €8 billion or €9 billion should not be made each year in respect of the national debt as if the Members of the Dáil and Seanad could not even have a discussion of the matter. They may not have the power to amend it but I think they could.

The Minister refers to international obligations and legally binding agreements. In respect of the promissory note, every known agreement that we draw down is always subject to renegotiation if the NTMA can source other funds and perhaps re-finance it in a better way. That is what the NTMA does every day of the week. It tries to re-finance some of the existing loans in a better manner so there is an ebb and flow in these matters each year, yet we are not allowed to have that debate. The Minister knows my views well.

Deputy Brendan Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin Deputy Fleming is right. We had a comprehensive debate on these matters on Committee Stage. I do not disagree with the argument that we should always be pushing out the boundaries of scrutiny to ensure that we can take full account in this House and make officers of the State, particularly the Executive, amenable to Dáil oversight.

As I previously stated, non-voted expenditure represents expenditure which the Oireachtas has declared by law to be paid from the Central Fund without annual reference to the Dáil. These are items that are a permanent charge on the State's revenues. They represent those services that are payable out of the Central Fund - many of them are listed in the amendments tabled by Deputy Fleming - by the continuing authority of statute law. We debate them when we pass laws here that this is an ongoing charge that should be paid from the Central Fund. Therefore, they are not subject to the normal annual voted expenditure-type process.

The Central Fund activity is regularly reported. It is in the public domain through the monthly Exchequer statements that the Department of Finance and my Department publish. In addition, the Department of Finance publishes detailed annual accounts of the Central Fund for the previous year, known as the financial accounts. As I explained in some detail to the committee, these accounts contain detailed analysis and classification of receipts and issues of the Central Fund, as well as details of the national debt. In the presentation of the Exchequer figures for this period published this week - I do not know whether Deputy Fleming had a look at them - we disaggregated out the debt servicing elements of it, which was a suggestion of the Deputy, so that it is much clearer.

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