Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 27 February 2014
Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform: Select Sub-Committee on Public Expenditure and Reform
Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013: Committee Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
If the Minister listens to my reason for this amendment he will see it is pure common sense. The purpose of the amendment is to change the payment from the party leader's allowance to the parliamentary activities allowance. The cheque comes from the Department of Finance or perhaps from the Minister's Department. It comes from the Central Fund. It should not come from the Central Fund, nor should it be made payable to the party leader, for instance, Deputy Éamon Gilmore, Deputy Micheál Martin or Deputy Enda Kenny. It should be payable to the party. Up to now the allowance is deemed to be the party leader's allowance and the payment is made payable to the leader. It will now become a parliamentary activities allowance and it is only logical that the payee should be changed to the party name in the case of a party or to an individual Member where applicable. The payment should not be paid to the leader personally. The Minister may supply a more precise wording but I will return with a more precise wording on Report Stage. This amendment may be changed because I was caught for time when tabling it.
In page 3, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
“2. Within 30 days of the commencement of this Act the Minister shall, by way of regulation, introduce a provision whereby the parliamentary activities allowance payable to the leader of a qualifying party shall be paid to that qualifying party.”.
I understand the Deputy's point and he made it forcibly on Second Stage. I have no resistance to the point. The allowance is for the party and not for the party leader. My job is to ensure the payment is accountable. The legislation contains accountability measures which make the party leader responsible. A person must be designated to be accountable and it needs to be the person who gets the money. It cannot be payable to some other individual who might be a temporary officer of the party and then have someone else accountable for it. While it is a parliamentary activities allowance for the designated activities as set out, the party leader - in the case of Fianna Fáil, uachtarán Fhianna Fáil - is the person responsible for accounting for it.
For the sake of neatness and clarity, the recipient must be responsible for accounting for the money and he or she will also be the person who will furnish the accounts in the way that is set out under the new regime that will apply to everybody who receives funds from the parliamentary activities account. I am happy with the principle of it but I do not want to dilute the accounting base by putting in place a different nexus. The term "payable to the Parliamentary Party" is too broad. In such circumstances, would the funds be payable to the head office of a particular party? The latter is not the way it should be because we are concerned here with parliamentary functions. Would they be paid to the chairman of the parliamentary party? We need to designate someone and it seems simple and clear to me that the leader of the party would be the designated recipient and the person charged with being accountable for ensuring that the money is properly expended in the way set out in the legislation.
I understand what the Minister is saying. However, accounting officers operate in every area of the civil and public service. In that context, cheques that are presented to Departments, for example, are not made out to the accounting officer. I am sure cheques from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the Estimates are addressed to the other individual Departments and not to their accounting officers.
That is the whole idea behind the legislation. The money involved can only be expended in respect of definite issues and those who spend it must be accountable for it.
I move amendment No. 2:
I raised the matter to which these amendments relate on Second Stage. I hope the Minister will be able to support what I am seeking to do. I am moving in the same direction as he is in respect of this issue. He has expressed sentiments to the effect that he wants to reduce State funding of politics during periods of recession. One of the things the Bill does, which I support, is to reduce the leaders' allowance by 10%. The other major source of funding for political parties is the Exchequer. I do not know the exact amount of such funding but it is significantly greater than that which comes in the form of the leaders' allowance. These amendments propose to do in respect of Exchequer funding exactly what the Bill does in respect of the leaders' allowance. I do not need to state the reasons for what I propose because the Minister outlined them very well on Second Stage in the context of the need to reduce political funding.
In page 3, line 25, to delete “€64,368” and substitute “€57,931.20”.
The amendments, if accepted, will lead to Exchequer funding to political parties being reduced by 10%, which is exactly the same as the reduction being introduced in respect of the leaders' allowance. If we assume that Exchequer funding amounts to approximately €7 million per year-----
No, parties receive funding from two sources. They receive the leaders' allowance and then they get something which is referred to as "Exchequer funding". The latter is significantly more than the former.
That has nothing to do with this legislation, which deals with the leaders' allowance. The Deputy is proposing that the amount of money per Deputy should be reduced further. The Electoral Act is not being amended by the legislation before the committee. I am proposing a 10% reduction in the amount of money payable under the leaders' allowance. The impact of the amendments tabled by Deputy Donnelly would be to increase the reduction by a further 10%.
That could not be done under the Bill before the committee. It would be a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to agree to such a reduction and to amend the Electoral Act accordingly.
I move amendment No. 12:
This amendment is both simple and straightforward. Again, I am of the view that the public would be happy with what is proposed. The amendment states that "The fund into which the parliamentary activities allowance is paid shall be obliged to produce an annual tax clearance certificate." In general, everyone who stands for election must produce a tax clearance certificate before entering the Houses of the Oireachtas. I presume that, following a general election, a Member would have to produce a tax clearance certificate before he or she could be paid. It is not that difficult to obtain a tax clearance certificate. Millions of euro go through the Oireachtas. Those who carry out even the smallest jobs in local schools or for local authorities or the HSE are required to produce current tax clearance certificates. The idea that someone could go for four or five years without being tax compliant and would not require to be so is not really acceptable. I accept that what I propose might create difficulties for individual Members but so be it. Parties that are receiving millions of euro each year should be required to be tax compliant.
In page 4, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:“(2) The fund into which the parliamentary activities allowance is paid shall be obliged to produce an annual tax clearance certificate.”.
Voluntary organisations applying for sports capital grants from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport during the past month were not only obliged to supply tax clearance numbers, they also had to produce copies of their tax clearance certificates before their applications could be considered valid. The tax office was quite busy in the past couple of weeks dealing with organisations which knew themselves to be tax compliant but which did not have tax compliance certificates. Local girl guide troops, hockey clubs or GAA clubs that were seeking grants of €10,000 or €15,000 are obliged to produce up-to-date tax clearance certificates. There is a need for consistency of approach in respect of this matter and it would be wrong for money to be continually handed out to those involved in the political process over a five-year period without their being required to produce tax clearance certificates.
I am sure the Minister sees the consistency in what I am seeking to achieve here. Let there be - as should be the case - an administrative burden on those who are in receipt of the money to which I refer in the context of producing tax clearance certificates. The latter cannot receive money year in and year out without tax compliance certificates being requested from them. I presume the amendment will be accepted, particularly as I cannot understand how a Government that would ask a local girl guide or boy scout troop to produce a tax clearance certificate in order to obtain a lottery grant would not request the same of Members of the national Parliament. There cannot be one standard for voluntary and community organisations and every contractor that works for the State and a different one for the Members of Parliament. I think the Minister will see the merit in what I am saying.
I have no difficulty at all in saying that everybody should be tax compliant. My difficulty lies in the fact that we are seeking to enact legislation here. The amendment states that "The fund into which the parliamentary activities allowance is paid shall be obliged to produce an annual tax clearance certificate." To what fund is reference being made in this regard?
Let me tease this out. A fund cannot apply for tax clearance certificate, so it is the parliamentary party or the individual members. The Deputy needs to be specific in who is applying. My own party obviously publishes annual audited accounts. I think ours is the only party to do that and we are happy to do that. Each Member of the Oireachtas is obliged, within 90 days of election, to provide a tax clearance certificate to the Standards in Public Office Commission under the Standards in Public Office Act. I have no difficulty with any mechanism to provide further clarity in regard to people's tax compliance but the proposal that the fund would be required to be tax compliant would be meaningless. A fund cannot be tax complaint. Would it be the individual account holder, the chairman of the parliamentary party or the leader of the party? We need to tease it out a bit more and it needs much more clarity in terms of acceptance for legislative purposes.
I have listened to what the Minister said. The wording should have been "The qualifying party or the member to which the parliamentary activities allowance shall be obliged to produce an annual tax clearance certificate". I will table an amendment with that wording on Report Stage because the payment is made to qualifying parties. "Qualifying party" is the phrase used in the legislation and it goes on to say or to a Member if he or she is not a member of a qualifying party. I understand the Minister picking me up on the use of the word "fund".
That is the word I have used. I am sure that a fund could get a tax clearance certificate but to be clear about it, I will bring forward an amendment on Report Stage that will include the wording "the qualifying party or member".
The Deputy would have to be specific on this. Is it the individual members of a parliamentary party because the collective parliamentary party does not-----
The essence of what I am saying is that the qualifying parties - that is the phrase in the legislation - should produce an annual tax clearance certificate. It would be good practice in any event regardless of publishing accounts. People publish accounts without being tax compliant and then the-----
Does his parliamentary party have a separate legal existence from the party, or are the press office employees of the party or of the parliamentary party, or does he know?
The Deputy has gone into a very complicated issue in terms of whether he is referring to the entire party producing a tax clearance certificate for each individual member, a series of tax-----
The parliamentary party might not have a legal existence. I am anxious to have as much transparency as we can but we have to have something that is practical and I do not think what the Deputy has suggested is operable.
I can consult the Bills Office but the essence of what I am trying to achieve could not be simpler. I would have thought the Minister would be the one offering to come forward with the clear wording on Report Stage given that he was not happy with the wording of my amendment. The essence of what I am saying is that if millions of euro of taxpayers' money is going to political parties and some of it is going to Members of the Oireachtas who are not members of political party, the least the public would expect is that tax certificates should be produced in respect of whoever or whatever entity is receiving that money.
I expect every Member of the Oireachtas, and clearly one must be a Member of the Oireachtas to benefit from this, to be completely, wholly and totally tax compliant. There is an individual obligation on every Member to so be.
It is purely for the purposes of the Electoral Act. It is not analogous to the type that would be produced by the girl guides in the example the Deputy gave. It is a different type of tax clearance certificate. It is primarily an issue for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government in terms of the regulation and registration of political parties to do these things rather than this item of legislation. I will reflect further between now and-----
I do. The worst thing in the world is to have legislation enacted that nobody knows how to implement, or is too complicated to implement or is frustrated in its implementation. I am not going to accept an amendment that I do not know is practical. I will think further between now and Report Stage and if the Deputy has any further refinements I will happily have a look at them and I will talk to Revenue as well.
I understand entirely from where the Deputy Fleming is coming with his amendment but perhaps the Minister could shed light on his understanding of whether the leaders' allowance, or as it is to be called-----
In practice, does that mean that all payroll activity, etc., is done entirely separately from the political party in terms of, as Deputy Fleming said, issuing P45s, tax numbers, etc.? Is it entirely separate to the activity of the political parties, or can it be joined?
I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their attendance. I get the feeling going into the algebra of this Bill that perhaps we should take a clean slate approach to this and start defining exactly what these parliamentary activities allowances should be and build from that, from page 1, rather than trying to do sticky-plaster amendments or codicils to an existing framework. Questions arise about the status of a Member of the Oireachtas throughout the course of a Dáil or a Seanad, a Member's status can change and yet the work as a parliamentarian representing the whole people is very much there. To take away resources from doing that representative work for all the people is undermined by the way the architecture of these allowances - even though they are going to be renamed - will continue. That is not satisfactory. It is not transparent or clear. This should be capable of being presented on one page, in words and figures, which should then be stamped "Agreed". That is what is done in business. It makes sense and one would put a note down opposite-----
Sometimes they do. The consolidated balance sheet is on one page, the consolidated profit and loss account is on one page and the consolidated fund statement is one page, and there are notes supporting it.
However, the architecture is there and that is what we should have. We should have it that there are 166 and 60 Members of the Dáil and Seanad, respectively, and in columns and graphs should be able to show on a single page what are the allowances. There should be a note underneath stating the purpose for those allowances and a subsidiary note stating they attach to the representatives throughout the lifetime of the Seanad or the Dáil and it does not matter into which party they go into or from which they come.
No, but this is the benefit of looking at things afresh from scratch. One does not start adding and subtracting wings, chains or wheels to the first aeroplane or prototype that did not fly. One goes back to the drawing board with one's theory and then with one's practical application of theory and one tries it again. I believe we have reached that stage. As Deputy Fleming has proposed, one starts off with one's tax clearance certificate as one's initial political and financial health screening. I believe the point he was trying to make is there should be a continuing good health certificate tax-wise each year for everyone who is a direct or indirect beneficiary. People benefit indirectly if it is through a party and directly if it is through an individual. If someone leaves a party, the amount of money that is dedicated towards his or her parliamentary activities allowance arguably should be increased because he or she has fewer resources. Such people lack the resources available to a member of a party in government for which additional departmental resources are available. Consequently, I invite the Minister to start thinking again afresh. It is not that difficult, it is easier than trying to argue and validate amendments to an existing framework that is somewhat leaky.
I am unsure about this proposal regarding tax clearance certificates. I have no difficulty with Members being tax compliant, as they absolutely should be. Moreover, things should be vouched and open and there should be proper oversight and so on. However, my understanding is no individual receives funding in this way and only political parties actually receive any kind of funding under the Electoral Acts from 1938 onwards. I believe one must get 2% of the first preference vote to qualify.
Yes. While I hope I can remember all the points, an important point was made by Deputy Creighton. The whole idea of this is that at the time, there was huge controversy regarding the nexus between business, developers and politics. Chunks of money were going into political parties that were not accountable. That was all changed and it was agreed that different funding mechanisms would be put in place, some of which would be State funding for the political system and for the parliamentary activities element thereof. This particular system predates all of that because this goes back to the 1930s.
It always has been felt that we organise our political system, by and large, through party politics. I acknowledge there also are many individuals, but it is through party politics in the main and party politics had to have a structural base to operate. Consequently, that system has been in place since the 1930s. I disagree completely with Deputy Mathews that this is a sticking plaster. I listened last night again to Deputy Mathews's view on these matters. He has a view that once he makes a determination on a matter, that is wholly true, right and righteous and therefore, everyone else must-----
Please. Everyone and everything else must go back to the first base because regardless of whether it was 1938 or 1998, a new dawning means there is a new insight and that one is a lesser mortal if one does not see it through the same prism.
I wish to respond with an open debate and we can spend as long as we like at it. I suggest to Deputy Mathews and colleagues that the net issue in this simple legislation is to reduce the funding to the party leaders, as was the parliamentary activities allowance, by a factor of 10%. It is analogous to the reductions the Government has made across other areas of public expenditure.
I make this point to everyone. I am going to insist on people sticking to the amendments if this sort of toing and froing is to go on. It is not going to happen as this is Committee Stage and will remain as such.
I will speak to the three broad-ranging contributions, two of which concerned the Electoral Acts that are not before the select committee at all and I will respond as I can. Following strong contributions that were made during the Second Stage debate, I am familiar with the views of members of the select committee. However, I also am entitled to a view and to have it heard, even if it is not in accord with those of others. In essence, the two net issues are first, to reduce the total funding by 10% and second, to have a much more accountable audit system for everyone who is in receipt of parliamentary activity funding. This will include the Independents for the first time and I believe that is broadly welcomed by everyone. The net issue in respect of the amendment before the select committee is the issue of tax compliance. Every Member of the Oireachtas is in receipt of State funding, be it his or her salary or in some other way, such as travel allowance or whatever. Each Member should be legally obliged to be tax-compliant and I am very happy to consider any proposal that underscores or enhances that in any way.
Correct, but to try to understand whether Deputy Fleming's amendment is valid or can be applied or whether a new wording can be found that might be acceptable to the Minister, I am trying to establish what is a very important point. The funds are clearly specifically designed for parliamentary activity. While I understand that completely, it is not clear to me that they are paid separately to a parliamentary party as distinct from a party. My hunch is that it is paid into a general fund, which is administered by a party, presumably largely in compliance with the legislation used to pay salaries for research and parliamentary activities. However, can one be certain of this? Is that actually spelled out? Is the Minister satisfied that the main political parties in the State actually spend it that way, that is, that they spend it separately and distinctly from all the other moneys that either are raised through fund-raising or through the Electoral Acts and so on? Do they have two distinct vehicles, if one likes, for expenditure of these moneys, one in compliance with this legislation and one in compliance with their other obligations under the Electoral Acts? I am not clear in this regard and that is the essence of my question. I am not making a speech but am asking a question.
I am happy to answer that question as far as I can. Yes, I am satisfied that the moneys allocated to the parliamentary activities allowance to be, that is, the party leader's allowance up to now, can only be expended for the specific purposes designated in the Act and they are set out in the Act. As to whether other funds that are generated elsewhere can be used for the same type of activities, of course they can, if a party generates separate funds for that purpose. However, this funding is for the designated parliamentary activities and the party must be accountable for every euro that it is properly and appropriately allocated. Moreover, the Government is now broadening that accountability to people who received funding under this heading previously but who were not required to make such declarations and to submit those reports.
I note the Minister made reference to the Labour Party being the only party that has its accounts audited as such and published. Should there be some element of a requirement for separate accounts to be kept for this funding and for it to be audited?
I move amendment No. 13:
Judging by the colleagues here at the meeting, they will have far more to say about the amendment than I do. They should start by thanking me for putting down this amendment.
In page 4, between lines 18 and 19, to insert the following:"(2) Where a member of a party elected to Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann ceases to be a member of that party, the percentage amount of the allowance paid in respect of him or her to his or her former party shall be paid to such former party member and such amount shall be deducted from that party’s parliamentary activities allowance.".
It is great that there are so many here.
My amendment, which is written in plain English, states that where a member of a party elected to Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann ceases to be a member of that party, the percentage amount of the allowance paid in respect of the member to his or her former party shall be paid to such former party member and such amount shall be deducted from that party's parliamentary activities allowance. It is straightforward. If somebody leaves a political party for whatever reason or is expelled, the party should not continue to receive the funding in respect of him or her as he or she is no longer a member of it. There is a pure natural justice issue here and the allowance should be for the member.
When I raised this on Second Stage, the Minister's reply was along the lines that when those Members stood for election they had the name of their political party on the ballot party. As we all will be aware, that is the case. It was not the political party that was elected; it was the individual. No returning officer stands up in a constituency and states that the results of the election are as follows: Fine Gael, one seat; Fianna Fáil, one seat, Independents, one seat. He or she stands up and gives the names of the Members elected.
The returning officers give the names of those elected and the Members come in here and sign the roll in Leinster House after the election. The Member signs it. There is a pure natural justice issue here.
I will be straight about it. This issue will probably affect more the parties in government than the parties in opposition. Historically, most Members who leave parties tend to leave government parties over particular issues. I am sure Members have left Opposition parties when issues arose as well but it probably affects on balance government parties more often than Opposition parties. It is a matter of natural justice.
I think the members on both sides of me will have something to say on this amendment.
We have had hours of debate on this issue in both Houses. There were long presentations on Second Stage. As I stated, I fully respect the point of view of every Member who feels that the allowance should be portable, that it should not be determined in the immediate aftermath of the election and apportioned out to support the parliamentary activities as determined by the electorate at a point in time, and that if Members move their political allegiance for whatever reason, following expulsion or voluntarily, that allowance should be portable to some degree with them.
There are different amendments to it. Some have proposed that the allowance should migrate with the Member. Some have suggested a proportion, as has this amendment, analogous to the division that would be the Member's due as a member of a defined parliamentary party. Others say that it should be foregone completely and kept within the Exchequer. These all are valid perspectives.
I argue - it is my view which that has been endorsed by Government - for the traditional way that this is done, that this is determined subsequent to the vote of the people after a general election and that it is not a portable allowance to be determined by the individual Member thereafter, either to migrate in or out, as some Members have. Some Members have temporarily left a party. An allowance is not portable to go with them. It is determined in a snapshot after the general election and that is the valid snapshot, unless there is a by-election where it applies between then and the next general election, until the people have their say again. I note Members have different strong and honourably-held views, but that is my view.
I disagree entirely with the Minister. We cannot respect the will or intent of the electorate on the basis of trite snapshots after an election.
It is particularly telling that those snapshots are quite moveable in the event of a by-election from the point of view of the prevailing perspective in government and, indeed, the Minister's perspective. Frankly, that is convenient. It does not add up. It is not consistent with the Minister's overall point.
It is astonishing for a number of reasons. The financial supports for Oireachtas Members are hugely important. I can assure the Minister that when one is thrown out into the cold through no fault of one's own for upholding pre-election commitments, it is a stark and shocking position to suddenly find that the might of a political party can be used in one's name for research purposes and whatever other purposes that party determines to be appropriate. The David and Goliath factor is one aspect.
There is a much more fundamental issue. When I speak to friends from parliaments in other parts of Europe, they find it extraordinary that there is not equality between Members in this Parliament, that there are 166 Members who are elected to the Lower House on a range of bases, such as manifestos and pre-election commitments, to represent the people in their constituencies and the people of the country and they are treated differently. Some are treated with great privilege, support and resources and some are treated as poor relations, not only in terms of the resources, but in terms of speaking rights, seating rights, participation in Oireachtas debates, the right to table Private Members' legislation, etc. It is unheard of in any other parliament that I am aware of across the European Union. It is a serious issue. In my view, it is unconstitutional. Not only is that my view, but I have sought the opinion of senior counsel and I will furnish that opinion to the Minister. It is unacceptable under constitutional law, not to mention natural justice to which Deputy Mathews has already referred. It is completely incompatible with the constitutional protections to state that certain Members of the Parliament can be treated differently, with less equality and less respect, than other Members. We all are elected equally and we all should be supported equally with the resources of the State.
As elected representatives of the people in our constituencies and across this country, we have been treated contemptibly.
I refer to us not as individuals but as representatives of those who voted for us. The Minister is very well aware of the commitments made by the two Government parties, the Labour Party and my party, Fine Gael, and explicitly by the Taoiseach who committed to a so-called democratic revolution after the general election. No such revolution has happened. What we are seeing is centralisation and a tightening of the grip on power.
I must repeat what I said on Second Stage, namely, that in a national Sunday newspaper a senior Cabinet colleague of the Minister, sadly from my party rather than the Labour Party, was threatening that the resources available to my party - I am still a member - would be used to destroy me in my constituency and my colleagues in theirs around this republic. As we approach the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, I find that quite disturbing. It is profoundly anti-democratic and absolutely unconstitutional and I am very exercised by it. It shows complete contempt for democracy and the concept of representation of citizens. I have no doubt that it is unconstitutional. If the Minister and the other members of the Government continue to refuse to acknowledge this, unfortunately, we will be left with no alternative but to go to the courts and vindicate the constitutional rights of citizens.
I agree wholeheartedly with Deputy Lucinda Creighton. Before I ran for election, I knew very little or nothing about this Parliament. I was talking to a man who had been around the Dáil for years, although not in an elected capacity, and he assured me that irrespective of how bad, dysfunctional or cynical I believed Dáil Éireann was, it was much worse. The stance the Minister is taking on this issue, that is, to penalise Independent Deputies and Senators who receive a fraction of what party Deputies and Senators receive and also Deputies and Senators who, for whatever reason, leave their parties, is extraordinary. It makes a mockery of the so-called democratic revolution. There are three Deputies present for whom the Taoiseach will have received €500,000 in public funding between the time they were kicked out of their party for standing up for a party promise and the next election. How can anybody in a modern democracy stand over this? I have examined the numbers. For all the Deputies who have either left or been kicked out of his party the Taoiseach will receive over €1 million. The Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, will also receive over €1 million. Between them, they will receive €2.2 million. The Taoiseach is paid approximately €65,000 per Deputy. For the three Deputies in question who are present, he will receive approximately €500,000 over a period of two and a half years. It is astounding that the Government would stand over stating the Taoiseach should be paid €500,000 of taxpayers' money for these three Deputies since they have been kicked out of his party. I agree wholeheartedly with the amendment. It is a version of my amendment that was ruled out of order. I support Deputy Sean Fleming's amendment and the points made by the other Deputies, including Deputy Lucinda Creighton. It is an outrageous use of public money and outrageous discrimination against elected Members of Dáil Éireann.
It is an analogy. A doctor looks at symptoms to identify a disease. Deputy Lucinda Creighton has described the symptoms of the disease that is this Parliament, the Oireachtas. It is shameful. I am more than on the back foot; I have been nearly knocked out by the Minister's earlier remarks made to me. I do not pretend to know everything, nor do I pretend-----
The Minister is framing it that way in not wanting to be fair. The Bill is framed in a way that is unfair. Deputy Stephen Donnelly has demonstrated how this is the case. After having been kicked out of the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party and having heard nothing for three months, I resigned from the party. Let me give an example of my experience having been chucked out of the party.
My website stated "Peter Mathews TD". Fine Gael owns it and I cannot use it. It receives the parliamentary activities allowance, which is to be approximately €120,000 plus for the remaining two and a half years. The party’s coffers are filled and it holds on to the website that uses the wording "Peter Mathews TD". I have had to find another title, www.petermathews.ie. Everything is affected. Over a weekend during the recess, after having been chucked out of the parliamentary party, my papers from my original office were taken without my permission. The office was cleaned out.
When the Deputy was a member of this committee, I had an awful job in chairing him. When the Chair speaks, he must stop. That remains the rule, although the Deputy is no longer a member. I ask him to stick to the amendment and not create an atmosphere in which people become annoyed with one another. I ask him to tone down a little and stick to the amendment.
The amendment tabled by Deputy Sean Fleming is to correct this position, which is why it is very good. It is fair and transparent. Even the Minister for Health talks about money following the patient. Money should follow the Member of Parliament to do his or her work; it is very simple. I want the Minister to apply the Government’s own principles and my colleagues would agree.
A snapshot was mentioned, but we do not live in snapshots. Circumstances in work and life evolve and there is a concept called fairness that should obtain all the way through life. If the Minister wants to have a snapshot dating from 9 March and stick everybody in cement from that point, we will have a very suspect environment in which to live. We are in a breathing, living society and fairness is what should obtain. This is simple-English stuff.
I thank Deputy Sean Fleming for tabling the amendment. I am disappointed with the response of the Minister considering all of the points made in seeking change in this area. The legislation is ethically unsound.
Any member of the public who has had this issue explained to him or her has sympathy for Members who find themselves expelled from their political party while these moneys still go to the former party and are used against them. This is extremely anti-democratic. What legal advice has the Minister received that states the Constitution is not being breached in this regard? Has he properly explored it? Can he constitutionally stand over not accepting the amendment? It is disappointing that he is not open to examining this issue.
I echo the comments made and support the amendment. There is no justification for political groupings in this House receiving €2.5 million, based on Deputy Stephen Donnelly's figures, over the lifetime of the Government for Members who are no longer in their groupings. We are talking about one tenth of the Dáil’s membership, not one or two Members.
I know the Minister’s argument is that this allowance is based on a Member’s designation on polling day. He has made the argument that people vote for a party, not an individual. That is not the case in Ireland, a point I made clearly to him on Second Stage. He cannot argue that in 1997 when he, Deputy Willie Penrose and others were elected, that it was people voting for the Labour Party. They were voting for him, based on his record. It was the same in 2002 when there was a meltdown in Fine Gael. It was about the individuals who went before the electorate. It was the same in the last general election with Fianna Fáil. It is a significant criticism of the political system that people vote for individuals. Even when one looks at the ballot paper, the majority of the space is taken over by the photographs of the candidates, the candidates' names and addresses, not their party affiliations, which are only a small part of it. It is not fair or right to allocate funding on that basis.
Like Deputy Lucinda Creighton, I also believe it is unconstitutional to discriminate against Members on that basis and that we will be vindicated in the courts, but no one wants to go down that road. This is a sensible amendment. The argument the Minister makes is that polling day or the day on which the House first sits is sacrosanct in determining this allocation. If that is the case, there is a weighting in how funding is distributed between the Government and the Opposition because the Government has more resources available to it. What happened between 1992 and 1997 was that Fine Gael went from being in opposition to being in government, while Fianna Fáil went from being in government to being in opposition. Did Fine Gael hold on to the same funding stream during that time? No, it did not. Fianna Fáil then received a larger proportion. The position does change between elections; it is not based on what happens on polling day. Changes do occur between elections.
I have known the Minister for a long time and he is a fair-minded individual. Will he examine this issue between now and Report Stage? Will he discuss it with the Attorney General to come forward with an amendment that is fair to every Member and to ensure they all receive similar treatment? It is not in anyone’s interest to have this issue dragged out in argy-bargy on Report Stage and to have all of us ending up in the courts to have this legislation changed. Will the Minister examine this amendment sincerely?
We have a very strong Executive. It is not just the Opposition’s role to hold the Government to account but also that of Government backbenchers. The culture that has developed is a consequence of it being all stick. If a Government backbencher votes against the Government, not only is he or she excluded from his or her political party, there are consequences for his or her access to funding and resources. That to me is not in keeping with the Constitution. The Oireachtas has a much stronger role in the Constitution, but the way we have organised resources, Standing Orders, etc, is not in keeping with this. That is the point we have to keep to the fore. This should not be about the five individuals who have lost the Whip, rather it should be about the principle at stake. Deputy Stephen Donnelly and I argued about this two years ago on the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill and it was rejected at the time by some of the very Members who are now arguing for it. It is only when a Member experiences this that its full import is understood. I support the amendment.
I fully understand the sincerity of the views expressed. I do not say that in any light fashion, but I happen to have a different view which is honestly held. I ask members to simply respect that there can be a different perspective honestly held.
Deputy Lucinda Creighton made an impassioned contribution. Starting off with my characterisation of a snapshot, there has to be legitimacy about it, but that is a point of contention. I have said the legitimacy comes from the decision of the people in a general election. They determine the composition of the national Parliament. I know it has been conflated with other issues such as electoral funding by Deputy Stephen Donnelly which I will deal with separately. What we are discussing is the support of parliamentary activity and how it is determined.
There is a view that once a Member is elected to the Dáil or the Seanad, he or she has ownership of the resources allocated. I contend that is not the case. I sought a nomination in my party and contested it. There are many people in my constituency who will vote for a Labour Party candidate, irrespective of who it is. The same goes for Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and so on. They are entitled to have their determined decision on polling day vindicated. It is not Brendan Howlin’s mandate alone because I sought a mandate on a party platform.
One can argue about the internal party machinations of Fine Gael. However, I do not want to go into them because it is none of my business. Once the people have made that determination, we want to support the activities of parliamentarians. Deputies Lucinda Creighton and Denis Naughten have said that, on occasion, it can be a moveable feast with, for example, by-elections. The difference with a by-election is that, again, the people are consulted.
It is not individuals saying that they are either being thrown out or making a personal decision to leave their political party for whatever good and valid reason. It is the people in a by-election making that determination so there is a fresh snapshot of the people who made that decision.
Deputy Creighton forcefully argued about equality, which links into Deputy Naughten's point. It is fair that we are not all treated equally. Government support from parliamentary funding is less than that for the Opposition because the Government by definition has a support base that is inherently better than the Opposition through the Civil Service so it is disproportionately in favour of the Opposition. We will deal with that by way of another amendment because people want to extend that differential. People who are arguing for equality here want to extend that differential when it comes to Government and Opposition so that is a moveable argument as well. It is also moveable by way of size of party because that makes sense. If one has a research department or press office, there is a scale issue. The same cohort of people can tend in a research capacity for 40 Deputies as perhaps for 30 Deputies so there is a sliding scale. The smaller the number of Deputies in a political party, the greater per capitasupport given to that party. I think that is fair. It might not be equal but it is fair. A small party gets proportionately a bigger slice per capitaand as the sliding scale goes up, the larger party gets less per capita. Those are two levels of inequality - one relating to the Government and Opposition and the other relating to the size of the political party. They have been embedded in the system for very good reasons and I do not propose to dislodge them. I reject the argument that all Deputies should get the same funding simpliciterbecause the very large parties would be hugely advantaged to the disadvantage of very small parties. I do not think that is fair. If I was to do that, I would hear a very strong argument against it from small parties in this House.
The other point relating to equality was made by Deputy Creighton in terms of access. Access to parliamentary time and committees were the two points she made. In terms of access to committees, she does not need to look further than this room to see how disadvantaged she is. The bottom line is-----
In terms of access to committees, it is clear that any Member can turn up and speak. However, the vote must determine the composition of the Parliament so it would be fundamentally undemocratic if it did not. In terms of access to speaking time, there is a much larger complaint from the large parliamentary parties - the Labour Party and Fine Gael - where backbenchers do not get speaking time. It is much easier in the Opposition because it is disproportionately given to those groups. A simple check of the record of the House in terms of the volume of speaking time would copperfasten that point.
In respect of the final impassioned point made by Deputy Creighton about the democratic revolution, I know Deputies sometimes do not want to acknowledge things. That is fair enough. However, I need to put on the record the suite of measures this Government is introducing relating to the reform of freedom of information include undoing the damage done by Fianna Fáil the last time, the whistleblowers' legislation which passed Second Stage without opposition yesterday in the Dáil and passed the Seanad, the inquires legislation to strengthen the hand of inquiries and the register of lobbyists that will come is fundamental in terms of changing the democratic structure and openness. To drive that along with the open Government agenda we have, the open data project I am pushing is a real improvement. Objectively, people acknowledge that. Perhaps on a partisan basis it cannot be done but it should be said.
Deputy Donnelly talked about how he had spoken to somebody before he came into the House who told him that however cynical he was, he would be more cynical once he got in here and that however dysfunctional he thought it was, it was worse. That can be a point of view. I have been here 30 years and have respected all sorts of views. I have faced trenchant opposition within and outside my party. One can present that cynical perspective if one likes or one can present a positivity about it because one does not agree with everybody. The Deputy mentioned the issue of funding. He talked about a sum of money that will be available to political parties on foot of a variety of funding mechanisms including the Electoral Act. The Electoral Act is not related to individual Members who are elected. It is related to first preference votes received in the last election. There are parties funded from the Electoral Acts who have no members in Parliament because that is the determination of the people. That is not the Deputy's personal money to hawk around and push back when he likes. That is determined by the vote of the people on election day to parties represented in the Dáil and those who do not get people elected to the Dáil on the decision of the people on election day. I pointed that out last time but the Deputy resurrected it again.
Deputy Mathews spoke about the fairness of the snapshot. We have a point of view in respect of that. The Deputy says that we are not hidebound by that day in February 2011. We are actually because this Parliament and Government have a mandate under the law and Constitution that lasts until the next election when the people are asked to vote again. So that is set in aspic.
Until such time as the people speak again, the mandate of this Parliament and this Government will continue.
Deputy Terence Flanagan asked a very direct question about legal advice. By way of convention, I will explain. It is not possible for a member of Government to present legislation to the Oireachtas without being advised by the Attorney General that it is fully compliant with the Constitution. The Attorney General is the chief law officer and adviser to the Government and is, obviously, required to formally stamp draft legislation as being approved by her legally.
I accept that the amendment to that is a political judgment. I do not know whether the amendment is constitutional or not. I am not accepting it. I am saying that the law as drafted is constitutional in the view of the Attorney General and the Government.
Deputy Naughten again talks in terms of parties or individuals. It is a fairly fundamental philosophical discussion. We organise our political systems in parties. It is a point made by Deputy Catherine Murphy as well in terms of opposing the Whip system. I can honestly say that we came into Government three years ago and faced a set of economic challenges that were virtually unprecedented, certainly in my political lifetime and probably in anybody's lifetime. We had to make a series of decisions that were enormously difficult and usually unpopular. If everybody could parse and analyse every one of those decisions and have a free vote, would we have made progress? I believe in the party system, internal debate, majority decision and a Whip process that will get the matters done or not.
People may philosophically object to that but it is a very important principle. We would not have got through the last three years without having that discipline to make the corrections we had to if every individual could, on a case-by-case basis, talk about the things that affected their constituency and make a decision on that or absent themselves from a provision they did not particularly like. That would be difficult.
I agree with Deputy Catherine Murphy on the requirement to have a good balance between the Executive and Parliament. I have argued this point for most of my political life. We have made much progress in recent times because the committee system, as evidenced by the lack of attention from the media for our debate here, is working much better. We need to continue to restore that balance to ensure we have the capacity within the Dáil to hold the Government to account as provided for in the Constitution and within the Oireachtas to ensure the business of the people is done fairly.
Regarding Members leaving a party and the allowance remaining with the party, I understand what the Minister said regarding the snapshot, the fact that the people spoke and that is how it should be reflected in the Parliament. However, this section we are dealing with in this legislation does not fully back up what the Minister has just said. At the bottom of page 5 of the legislation, subsection (12) refers to the same topic and says if the members of a party elected to Dáil Éireann decide to dissolve their party and join another party, their entire allowance can transfer to a party to which they were not elected. For the last half an hour the Minister has been telling us the snapshot of the general election holds unless the people are consulted in a subsequent by-election or whatever. I will be polite: it does not stand up at all based on the section we are discussing.
The Members were elected by a party. That is the party the people voted for. We will clarify that subsection and I am sure Deputies here will want amendments to it on Report Stage. What is most interesting is that it goes on to state that the allowance for those Members can be transferred to a different party from which they were not elected, and which they probably bitterly opposed during the election campaign. Nevertheless, the money can travel with them to another party. The same section states that if some of those Members leave their party and do not join another party, there is no provision for their allowance to travel with them. It appears to be lost back to the Exchequer. The only option this section allows is that if members of a party, en masse, dissolve a party and move to another party, the allowance can go to the new party. If some of them do not go, the allowance is lost back to the Exchequer. Finally, subsection (13) states, "The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission may make regulations for the purposes of subsection (5)”. That does not synchronise 100% with what the Minister has been saying. This is a clear exception. We will call it an exception to the general rule the Minister has been arguing.
I will make three very brief points. First, I asked a question about Governments changing mid-stream. It does not always take an election to change a Government. This Government does not have a mandate for five years, but for as long as Parliament gives it that mandate. As we saw between 1992 and 1997, Parliament gave a mandate to a new Government. The figures shifted, so it is not set in stone on polling day. This counteracts the Minister's argument.
Second, I have no difficulty with parties receiving funding. I agree with the Minister on that. That is why we have provision in the electoral Acts specifically for parties to receive funding based on their performance in the election. My difficulty is that all of the subsequent funding for the operation of parliamentary duties is based on that result on polling day and this excludes 10% of the Parliament from having basic information so they can actively participate in a lot of debates.
My third point is on access to committees, because I would not like this to go unchecked. The Minister is correct that there is nothing to stop me from coming before any committee. I would come in at the tail end of the committee. That is the process and I understand that. However, the major difficulty with not being a member of the committee is that one does not have access to the committee documentation. For example, this week I was at the health committee. Three presentations were given. Every member of the committee had that documentation and I was trying to participate in that debate blind.
This is the fundamental argument I have with this amendment. Members of Parliament who are denied access to information cannot participate to the same level as Members who have access to information. When one is outside the party structure one does not have that research capability and access to that information. The library and research service helps to fill some of that void regarding basic information, but much of the information as legislation goes through the House and issues are debated in committee is denied to non-members. That is the fundamental problem. The Minister is ensuring that 10% of the Parliament are trying to participate in the passage of legislation or Government policy decisions with one arm tied behind their backs.
This goes to the very core of the legislation and it is relevant. I appreciate that Oireachtas Members are elected on the basis of how they present themselves at election time, whether as members of a political party or not. However, they are also individually selected. The two go hand in hand so the Minister cannot say the party brand supersedes the individual. Perhaps we will have an answer to that at the next election. It is important that the Minister acknowledge that a party is more than just a logo. It is not just a name and a brand after one's name. It is about what the party stands for and what platform it stands on at election time. A number of Members have spoken of some of us here "leaving" our parliamentary party. We did not leave our parliamentary party; we were kicked out for a very specific reason, for upholding a pre-election pledge. If one wants to drill down into the essence of this, what are the sanctions for political parties that do not honour their pre-election platforms?
This is relevant because the Minister has made the point that we are elected on a platform before an election and that if we walk away from that it is tough luck. In fact, it is not that simple. The individuals are punished through this legislation while the political parties get a bonus for reneging on pre-election commitments because they have fewer people on whom to spend the funds. When a party presents itself for election and individuals present themselves as candidates for that party, it is about a lot more than simply a logo.
Deputy Naughten made a very valid point about the changes that occur if a party leaves Government and the composition of a Government changes mid-way through its term. It puts paid to the Minister's argument that this is on the basis of a snapshot on polling day, because clearly it is not. It can change. There is movement, flexibility and fluidity. This legislation tries to deny that but then goes on, in section 12, to acknowledge it, so it is completely inconsistent, as Deputy Fleming has pointed out.
My purpose in saying that Oireachtas Members should be treated fairly and equally is not to say that everybody should be treated exactly the same way. I appreciate that in a democracy there is a value in supporting smaller parties - I advocate that. I appreciate that when parties are in government there is an argument for having a lower amount of funding than for parties in opposition. However, I fundamentally object to the complete and abject discrimination against Members, which is what this legislation copperfastens and enshrines in the Statute Book. It is complete discrimination, which suggests that certain Members are lesser beings and have no right to any support under this legislation as a sort of punishment at the whim of the Government. That is essentially what we are talking about.
I agree that the composition of committees needs to be proportionate and I have not suggested otherwise. However, it is completely disproportionate to exclude 10% of Oireachtas Members from committees. Applying any of the normal procedures in other parliaments, including the d'Hondt system and any other system, which reflect proportionality, no entire cohort of parliamentary Members would be excluded completely from participating, voting, speaking, receiving documentation, etc., on committees.
My final point is very relevant to the Minister's party and his colleagues in government. Approximately six weeks ago the Minister, Deputy Rabbitte, on behalf of the Government, answered a series of questions on the matter. When he was asked what happened to Democratic Left when it left the Workers' Party, he explained that it was a merger process. It was a merger process that took eight years, the longest merger process known to man. In the meantime Democratic Left was recognised in this Parliament. Its Members had the right to join committees, the right to speak in Parliament, and the right to table motions, Private Members' Bills, etc.
So what is the difference between Democratic Left and those of us who have been excluded from our parliamentary party? There was a difference of opinion, some chose to leave and ultimately in seven or eight years joined the Labour Party. However, for those seven or eight years they were not discriminated against. Although I was quite young at the time, I vaguely remember Members, including the now Tánaiste, objecting and jumping up and down on the floor of the Dáil until they got speaking rights and recognition in the Parliament. I would nearly hazard a guess that they got their entitlement in terms of State funding also. It is an extraordinary lapse of memory. Given that some of those Members are in senior positions in government, it is extremely sad.
The two sources of State funding are through the Electoral Act and through the leaders' allowance. One is paid per Deputy; the leaders' allowance has a sliding scale. As the Minister pointed out, the Exchequer funding through the Electoral Act is paid per vote. Whether it is paid per Deputy or per vote, it does not take a great leap to say that the Deputies present today got the votes for which Fine Gael is getting the money. It is certainly not a great leap to say that when considering the money that should move with a Member of the Oireachtas, one can consider the money that goes for his or her seat and the money that goes in some proportion for the votes he or she got because both amounts of money are directly linked to those Deputies.
The Bill renames the leaders' allowance the parliamentary activities allowance. It would provide that for three Deputies present and other Deputies and Senators the funding provided by the voter for parliamentary activities of Deputies will not be given to Deputies who are kicked out of their parties. That is an extraordinary thing to say to the voter. It is saying that the voter will pay for my parliamentary activities as well as those of Deputies Fleming, Murphy and Humphreys, but not for the parliamentary activities of these three Deputies. That is an extraordinary position.
Do they not have parliamentary activities in which they need to engage as Members of the Dáil in the same way that the rest of us do? The direct implication of not giving taxpayer money for parliamentary activities to a Member, who is kicked out of or leaves his or her party, is that the Member does not have the same parliamentary activities to do that the rest of us have to do. I ask for the Minister's opinion on that. That seems to be the inference of not giving them the money, which seems bizarre.
I echo other Members' comments. We are talking about taxpayers' money. It would be very unfair and unethical for the Minister not to accept the amendment. I again ask him to reconsider the matter on Report Stage to see what progress can be made. I ask him to seek legal advice from the Attorney General regarding the issue.
Deputy Naughten mentioned the committees. I am not a member of any committee. We are not entitled to table amendments unless we are members of a committee.
We have had a very wide-ranging discussion that goes well beyond the scope of not just the amendment, but of the Bill. I will respond as best I can.
Deputy Sean Fleming spoke about a dissolution as mentioned in section 12. It is plainly the fact that the will of the people as determined in a general election cannot be fulfilled where the party ceases to exist. We cannot pay for the parliamentary activities of a non-existent party so provision must be made for that. If an amalgamation of parties were to take place, it seems reasonable and sensible that we would have provision in law for that amalgamation to be supported in its parliamentary activities.
In response to Deputy Naughten's points, I did not mention the issue of changing in mid-stream. I dealt with that in covering the equality issue. Where it is understood that there is a proper - I believe Deputy Creighton agreed - rebalancing to be made between the supports for parliamentary activities to be given between Government and Opposition, I have heard nobody resile from that principle. Obviously, where the structure of Government changes in the course of a Parliament, that tipping in terms of equality must take place and did take place at the time of the change in Government in 1994. That is the norm in terms of-----
If we determined that there was a different Government, we could not give the parliamentary support for the Opposition to the Government, and the parliamentary support for the Government to the Opposition when that had changed. It seems reasonable and logical that this would be the outcome of that very unusual - I believe unprecedented - change within a Parliament.
The Deputy made a compelling case on committees and one with which I have absolute sympathy. My view is that every Member of this House should be entitled to every document that is generated for every committee. That is a matter that should be taken up with the CPP. I have no difficult with that, but it is not germane to this legislation, good, bad or indifferent. However, the Deputy made a very valid point. He should be equipped on an open data basis to participate in any committee he chooses, as should I and any other elected representative. However, on the voting, the majority, as determined in the House, has to be reflected in the committees for obvious reasons.
Deputy Creighton came back on a number of points. She made charges against her own party that I will not get into, including that they are being punished at the whim of Government and all the rest. I understand the angst that underscores that and the genuine feeling, but it has nothing to do with the Bill. It is not for the discussion here and it is to be taken up elsewhere.
Let me now respond to Deputy Donnelly. How does one determine the contribution per vote? In my judgment, a vote is not owned, but we can disagree on that. Deputy Donnelly as an Independent Member can claim that those who voted for him gave him their votes. When people vote for those with political party allegiance, the funding accrues to the party and the elected Member cannot take it wherever he or she wants to go without asking the people again. Personally, I do not think that is fair.
I reject what Deputy Flanagan said about my proposal.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 4, line 21, to delete “one-third” and substitute “one-half”.This amendment follows closely on the question of the proportionality of the allowance per Member and the difference between the allowances payable to parties in government and parties in opposition. Everybody recognises and the original legislation recognised that there should be a reduction by one third of the allowance payable to parties in government. My amendment would change the reduction from one third to one half on the basis that when the original legislation was introduced 50 or 60 years ago, we probably had a much more streamlined government and public service at the time. We now have more special advisers and others in ministerial offices. We have greater press offices attached to all Ministers' offices. There is a substantial Government Information Service. The level of State support through the civil and public service available to the Government has increased over the decades since the one-third reduction for Government Members was introduced. A reduction of one half would be reflective of the greater level of support the Government now receives from the Civil Service than it would have received heretofore. Because the principle was recognised from day one, since the original legislation was passed, and the functioning of government has changed quite a bit, we should revisit the proportion of the reduction for Government parties.
The Deputy is not right in saying it was reflected from the start; it was not. For most of the operation of this system, the Government and the Opposition were supported equally. In 1996 the then Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, determined to rebalance the system when in government. There was no enthusiasm on the part of Deputy Sean Fleming's party in advance of 1996 to make the adjustment and no enthusiasm subsequent to 1996 to enhance the rebalancing introduced by the then Minister. My judgment is that it is about right. There is a requirement that Government Deputies be supported in research and so on. On our previous discussion, there will be instances when Members on the Government side will have searching points to make and they should have the support of research and so on. Obviously, they will also need access to present their views to their electorates through a press office. They will certainly require support and I believe the balance is about right.
I will not prolong the point. We are talking about the level of the reduction. I did not know it had been introduced in 1996. Approximately 30 Government Members are Ministers or Ministers of State. By definition, they do not need the party's research to quite the same extent. I know they require it for political purposes or whatever else, but they have a lot of advice. However, most of the time of Ministers and Ministers of State is spent on their ministerial roles, for which they receive ample support from the public service. I accept that Government backbenchers should have facilities to draft Private Members' Bills, Topical Issues and so on. In view of the level of support available to the Government, I would have thought a reduction of one half would be more reasonable.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 4, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:The Minister has heard me talking about this issue before. I have a later amendment on the broader issue. The Minister spoke about open government. There is no reason for the parliamentary activities allowance not to come through the Minister's Vote every year. I know it is not germane to his Department. However, we need to have some mechanism for us to have a debate each year in the Dáil. There is a debate on every other Estimate of Government expenditure apart from a handful of items. I do not know why the political system is so sensitive about it - historically it has been. This is paid from the Central Fund to the parties. Is it paid by the Department of Finance or the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform? I suspect it is the Department of Finance if it comes from the Central Fund. This is not quite right. The Minister is the sponsoring Minister for this legislation, yet the payment is not coming through his Department but through the Department of Finance and the Minister, Deputy Michael Noonan. Even though this might be a difficult debate, it would be healthier for democracy if we had a brief debate on this issue each year as part of the Estimates process through some mechanism. I am always opposed to any of these payments going through the Central Fund because that bypasses the entire Oireachtas every year and there is no Estimates debate on it.“(3) The parliamentary activities allowance shall be paid from voted expenditure not paid from the Central Fund.”.
I heard what the Deputy said on Second Stage and I am not opposed to the principle set by him. He might be able to throw light on this issue. The Oireachtas was traditionally funded in the normal way of voted expenditure, just like everything else. That was changed in 2003 by the Government led by the Deputy's party-----
----- when it introduced the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003. That legislation determined that the funding of the Oireachtas should come from the Central Fund, not as line voted expenditure on an annual basis. It is now done through legislation and there is usually a three-year envelope of expenditure through a Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (amendment) Bill. The Deputy might recall that we enacted such a Bill at the end of last year.
No, this is part of general payments made from the Central Fund. I do not want to dislodge it from general fund payments. The next time we deal with Houses of the Oireachtas Commission legislation we can consider whether all of the funding for the Oireachtas should come through the normal way. However, we should not make fish of one and fowl of another in terms of the component parts of the funding for the Oireachtas.
I need to make two changes to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission legislation.
One relates to the Ministers and secretaries Act, and that is the appointment of the Clerk of the Dáil. That is currently before the committee. I want to introduce broader legislation and it is something I would consider in that context.
The Houses of the Oireachtas Service budget was laid before the House on the last day before the Christmas break. I know because I tried to raise the matter. It is very unsatisfactory that the issue is dealt with in that fashion as there is essentially no time allocated to debate. It is a pretty meaningless way of scrutinising the issue. Although it is possible to do it, the process is very obscure.
I move amendment No. 16:
This is connected to our discussions on proportionality and the resources available to Government parties. It also comes in light of general debate about top-up payments. The amendment indicates "The combined parliamentary activities allowances paid to a party under this section, shall be reduced by the amount of any payment, that is in excess of public sector pay guidelines, paid to any person working for a Minister who is a member of that party.". Everybody would see merit in that. Ministers may have special advisers, as that is the way the system works. Where the payments to advisers working for Ministers are in excess of public sector guidelines, it amounts to the equivalent of a top-up payment to a special adviser. There is merit in reducing the payments under the parliamentary activities allowance by the amount of the top-up. It might help Ministers refrain from seeking such payments for special advisers above public sector pay guidelines.
In page 4, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:"(3) The combined parliamentary activities allowances paid to a party under this section, shall be reduced by the amount of any payment, that is in excess of public sector pay guidelines, paid to any person working for a Minister who is a member of that party.".
The issue arose in the other committee which I should also be attending now, the Committee of Public Accounts, with regard to Rehab and other organisations which had top-up payments. The HSE recently made it very clear that it would not tolerate paying taxpayers' money to organisations substantially funded by the State which are paying out topped-up salaries to staff. The HSE even threatened a 20% reduction in order to force those organisations to eliminate the top-up payments. If it is good enough for the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, to act on section 38 hospitals and organisations, the same logic should apply here.
A principled approach has been taken on the issue of payments in excess of public sector pay guidelines by the Department of Health with regard to organisations making payments above those guidelines. These organisations have been told that funding will be reduced unless payments are brought into line. The principle being espoused by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, should be reflected in this legislation as well. It would be very wrong if the message went out from here that the Government or the Oireachtas was opposed to people in receipt of substantial amounts of State funding having a top-up salary but had a different opinion on parliamentary activities allowance, with such payments being made regardless of top-up salaries over and above public sector pay guidelines. There is a clear political point in this amendment.
The notion of pay to special advisers is clearly nothing whatever to do with parliamentary activities and the notion that activities supporting parliamentary parties should be conflated with this is bizarre. Nonetheless, I will deal with the issue, about which I have strong feelings. I have had the privilege of holding a ministerial post in three Departments, all of which were challenging. They were in the areas of health, environment and, in the past three years, public expenditure and reform. Every parliamentary democracy that I know of, where an executive is elected, has parliamentary advisers who are akin to the political thinking of the Minister. It is absolutely essential for the efficient working of the Government. We all know that, and when we are in Government we need such a service. There is not enough of it, to put it bluntly. It does not matter how many civil servants we have, and there can be any number at any rate of pay; if we have two non-civil servants, however, this seems to be a bone of contention. We should get off that hook.
With regard to rates of pay, as a result of the dire circumstances we were in I determined a guideline level of pay, which was the principal officer standard rate. That pay rate was well below the rate paid to special advisers in the previous Fianna Fáil Administration. To put it bluntly, implicit in that decision was that where suitable and really good people were to be coaxed into the public service on a temporary basis, we would at least pay them what they received before they came to the public service. He would kill me for saying it, but I could quote my own special adviser. I rang a guy whom I absolutely wanted to work with me with an offer. I asked him to give up his current full-time salaried permanent position and work for me. I did not know how long that would be for, as I did not know how long the Government would survive. It could have been a month, a year or five years at the outside. I asked him to take a pay cut and understand that everything he did would be in the public domain. I asked him to work all the hours God would send. Foolishly, he said "Yes" to all those questions.
The notion that we can get people of calibre but not pay them a rate for the job - while asking them to work all the hours God sends with no security - means that we would not get a throng of good people, unless there are people with an extraordinary view of the public service. Most of the people working with Ministers of all persuasions are imbued with that sense of public service. We need a broader narrative in this regard.
I know I am straying well outside the confines of the amendment. We should appreciate the work done by the political adviser system, which is the norm in public administration everywhere else, and value rather than diminish it.
I support the Minister. We have been at odds on many issues today, but this is a really important point. I strongly support any initiative in the Government to establish a cabinetsystem whereby senior officials in Departments would be linked to the tenure of a Minister. There should be equal numbers of external advisers adding value and bringing expertise from outside and the existing expertise, of which there is much, in many Departments. I do not want to take from that. The pay of special advisers should be very much linked to the grade of assistant secretary or Secretary General if there is a choice. I know the Minister went "outside the box" in his choice. If a political agenda or programme for Government is to be implemented, this is the way to do it. That is the way it is done in a range of modern democracies and we are very archaic in how we run Departments. There is an hostility to outside expertise, which is bizarre and nonsensical. The Government nevertheless created a hostage to fortune by portraying the issue as if caps were in place; perhaps a lesson has been learned from that. We should value expertise and make it appealing for people to be part of the Government for two, three or five years.
To make a final observation, I have no objection to anything the Minister or Deputy Creighton said. We agree there should be support and the taxpayer is paying for that. My only objection is that this is effectively another top-up payment, on top of that, from the taxpayer for parliamentary activities.
I wish to make one point on the section and I intend to table an amendment in that regard on Report Stage. It is slightly unusual and relates to the Ceann Comhairle. Subsection (8) provides that the parliamentary activities allowance payment shall not be paid in respect of the Ceann Comhairle. The Ceann Comhairle is usually elected as a member of a party. It shall not be paid in respect of the period of office of the Ceann Comhairle as a Member of Dáil Éireann: "(a) other than as a member of a qualifying party, or (b) as a member of a qualifying party but was the only member of the qualifying party so elected." It appears that if the Ceann Comhairle is elected as a member of a party, that party will continue in the lifetime of the Dáil to draw the allowance for the Ceann Comhairle even though, by definition, his post should be above party politics. There is something not quite right in the Fine Gael Party, in this case, being able to draw a parliamentary activities allowance in respect of a person who has been elected by the Dáil to be absolutely neutral. The amount is not phenomenal.
The provision goes on to refer to where the person was a member of a qualifying party, but was the only member. My reading of that is that if a Ceann Comhairle was an Independent Member or non-party Member of the Dáil, no allowance would be paid as he or she would now be Ceann Comhairle, so the money is lost. If there was a tight situation in the Dáil and the Government had a very narrow majority and it picked an Independent Member to be Ceann Comhairle, no payment would be payable under the parliamentary allowance system for that person, but if the person elected Ceann Comhairle is a member of a party, the allowance is paid. Given that we accept that if the Ceann Comhairle is an Independent Member or non-party Member no allowance is payable, it would be better for the independence of the Ceann Comhairle if the same principle applied if the Ceann Comhairle is a member of a party. It is the Fine Gael Party now and it could be our party, hopefully, or any party some time in the future, but I do not consider it right that an allowance of €60,000, or whatever the figure is, can be drawn down in respect of the Ceann Comhairle. The Ceann Comhairle should be removed from the equation.
Does the Minister understand my point?
It is a point I have not reflected on, to be honest, because it is the status quo. The current Ceann Comhairle was elected as a member of the Fine Gael Party and is included in the calculation. He received the office subsequently. The Deputy makes a fair point. Perhaps he would let me reflect on it between now and Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 19:
I made this point on Second Stage regarding the guidelines in respect of the operation of the legislation. Draft guidelines will be submitted by the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, to the Minister for his or her approval. We should trust the Standards in Public Office Commission to do this. We have an independent Standards in Public Office Commission, but on the other hand the Minister of the day is saying he wishes to approve its regulations. That is not right. Elsewhere in the legislation we are allowing the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to draw up regulations under the legislation. We should trust SIPO. The idea of having an ombudsman or independent commission while, at the same time, the Minister holds a rein on it to ensure he or she is happy with what it is doing is not right. We should remove the ministerial approval and trust SIPO. We are entrusting it to oversee the various legislative measures relating to standards in public office so we should trust it to draw up these guidelines without reference to the Minister. It is about the independence of SIPO, rather than it having to refer back to the Minister for approval.
In page 10, to delete lines 33 to 39.
I do not agree with the Deputy. We must have a parliamentary and democratic oversight of this. The Minister should be able to look at and make observations on the guidelines as there might be occasions when the Minister will have something to say about them. For proper democratic oversight, it should come back to an elected person.