Wednesday, 1 December 2010
Ceisteanna - Questions
As the Deputies will be aware, the Government established a working group on Dáil reform in 2009, comprising the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, Senator Dan Boyle and my predecessor as Government Chief Whip, the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey. Following a number of meetings, this group submitted a set of proposals to the Cabinet for discussion and agreement.
The proposals agreed by the Government were brought before the relevant forum of the Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges's sub-committee on Dáil reform. The proposals included longer Dáil terms, consolidating the time that the Taoiseach and Opposition leaders spend in the House, starting Dáil sittings earlier each day and ealing with promised legislation only once per week. The proposals addressed to a certain degree some of the issues which relate to the Dáil being perceived as not being family friendly and not reflecting the pressures which young parents experience in today's Ireland.
As the House will be aware, a general agreement and consensus was not possible on the proposals tabled by Government. In this context, I am continuing my engagement with the various party representatives on the sub-committee with a view to achieving the highest possible level of cross-party consensus on the proposals for the reform of Dáil procedures.
I hope to have my first opportunity to discuss these matters with the new Fine Gael Deputy Whip, Deputy Joe Carey.
In a recent Private Members' motion debate, Fine Gael's previous representative on this topic, Deputy Stanton, made the assertion that the Government had failed to make proposals in this area. I was glad to see the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, clarify the situation and point out that proposals had indeed been made. Upon inspection, I noted that Deputy Stanton was listed as being present at that meeting according to the relevant minutes. Deputy Stagg from the Labour Party was also present. The reality is that the Government made proposals, but that consensus was not achievable. It is due to this inability that I have embarked on an attempt to identify on a bilateral basis areas where there is broad political agreement.
In addition to the draft package of reforms tabled by the Government on reforming the procedures of the Dáil, I would like to take this opportunity to update my colleagues in the House on an issue which I know is of concern to Members on all sides. It is also a matter which has been raised Fine Gael and Labour in their proposals on Dáil reform, namely, greater parliamentary accountability for State agencies, in particular the Health Services Executive, HSE. At my request, I have twice met with the CEO of the HSE along with relevant officials from the HSE and the Department of Health and Children, first some weeks ago and then again last week to receive an update. At both meetings, I set out the concerns of Deputies regarding access to information from the HSE. I also outlined the concerns, which are often aired in the Chamber by Deputies, about the timeliness with which our inquiries are dealt with by the HSE. There was full recognition by the CEO and his officials that their performance in answering questions from Deputies must be improved. At last week's meeting, they set out how they were addressing the situation and how their response times were improving. I impressed upon them the need to continue to progress these improvements so that the quality and speed of their responses reflect modern parliamentary demands.
At last week's meeting, the officials from the HSE also set out their plan to have an improved ICT system for processing and tracking queries and submissions that Deputies make on behalf of constituents. They also advised that a dedicated page on their website is being developed for Oireachtas Members. It will provide access to health information, reports etc. It will be available on the website shortly. I look forward to these becoming a reality in the near future.
When was the last time the sub-committee on Dáil reform met formally to discuss anything? Is it not true that it last met well before the summer recess and that, despite repeated requests from this side of the House, the Government has refused to engage positively? Does the Minister of State agree that it was understood we would have incremental reform and that an overall package of reforms, which has been the attempt for decades, would not work? Has the Minister of State any concrete suggestion for the House and the public regarding the Government's proposals on Dáil reform? The sub-committee should meet in public in future, not in private, so that members of the press could see what transpires.
Will the Minister of State publish the Government's proposals on Dáil reform that he mentioned so that the public can see them? Does he agree that the procedures under which we work are outdated and inefficient and that longer sittings or more days of more of the same will not help anything? We need fundamental reform of the procedures under which the House operates so that the Executive can be held to account. Does he also agree that the Parliament is one of the weakest in Europe vis-À-vis the Executive and that the latter controls virtually everything that is done in the Houses, from when we sit and what is debated to how long those debates are and when they are held? It also decides whether there will be votes. All of this is fundamentally undemocratic and demands major change.
We should start with the small stuff. For example, Deputies are not allowed to ask supplementary questions on the Adjournment debate whereas Members of the Upper House can. Does this not lead to a situation in which we are just reading scripts at one another? Ministers attend the House with prepared answers, which they read out without having heard the cases being put by Deputies from the other side of the House? Is this also not bizarre and fundamentally wrong? It is called a debate.
I am completely in the Ceann Comhairle's hands. I have tried to ask a question each time and I will continue to ask questions
To rephrase what I have already said, I shall gladly do so. Again, would the Minister agree that section 32, as currently framed and used, is bizarre and needs to be reformed? Would he also agree that Members come in here in the morning totally frustrated at not being able to raise issues with the Executive? It is very difficult to raise serious current issues when they need to be raised.
Finally, will the Minister say when we are going to have the next meeting of the sub-committee on Dáil reform? It will probably not be before the general election, at this stage.
Without being smart about it, unless the election is going to be called very quickly, I intend to have that meeting before the Christmas recess. I want to go back on a number of issues-----
No, we shall do some business. I want to be serious for a moment, however, and go back. I agree with much of what Deputy Stanton said. He went into considerable detail about the Adjournment debate and the significant difference between this House and the Seanad. Before I became Chief Whip I was Minister of State in a Department where I was frequently asked to do Adjournment debates. I make no secret of the fact that when going to the Seanad it was not a question of just reading the script. One had to know what the issue was and understand it.
While I substituted for Ministers and Ministers of State at times in areas that were not my direct responsibility, it called for a degree of preparation and understanding, and I acknowledge that. The purpose of Adjournment debates, often, is not to be confrontational but to elicit information. Sometimes it happens that the manner in which the debate is put down is not very clear, so that one does not know what Members are trying to get at. I believe the Adjournment debate has much more potential from that viewpoint, as regards the structure of the question - remember, the answers will have been prepared - and the delivery of the answer. Having seen the performance of the Adjournment in the Seanad and the manner in which supplementaries are handled there, in contrast to the Dáil, I agree with some of Deputy Stanton's comments in that regard.
He talked about making change in an incremental manner. That has not been possible because there has not been consensus in this regard. However, I make this comment seriously in the light of the last point raised by the Deputy. I am in this position about six months, Members get set in their ways whether one likes it or not and it is difficult to get consensus on agreement to change. A new Dáil session is imminent and I believe we should be looking at those areas where agreement has been reached on change, which could be incremental. I know Deputy Stagg disagrees with this, because he has drawn some lines in the sand to the effect that if we do not go beyond certain proposals, we make no progress whatsoever.
Deputy Stagg has indicated previously that matters such as parliamentary questions or State bodies or Leaders' Questions on a Thursday were, in effect, his lines in the sand, whereas Deputy Stanton on the other hand, is talking about making different incremental changes along the way.
I understand the sub-committee does not sit in public, but Deputies might advise me in that regard. However, I intend to have a sub-committee meeting the week after the budget.
The Minister of State in his reply made reference to representations either to the Department of Health and Children or through it, to the parliamentary affairs division of the Health Service Executive, regarding the speed of response to parliamentary questions tabled by Members. I am awaiting replies to parliamentary questions I submitted to that Department in early to mid-June this year, which were referred to the parliamentary affairs division of the HSE, and I have received no response to date. It is now almost six months since the tabling of those questions, and it is incredible that such a time delay could apply.
The bulk of these questions are very important and refer to issues associated with children in care within the State system. I cannot for the life of me understand or accept the parliamentary affairs division's indication that it is progressing the preparation of its responses. Will the Minister of State note that there is a further complication to the effect that the referencing system for parliamentary questions tabled to the Department of Health and Children involves new reference numbers being applied to the parliamentary questions, with the result that one is not able, at first sight, to identify what the question was? I have had a number of exchanges with the division, in trying to expedite responses that I am seeking. That is a somewhat technical issue that might be addressed with some care and attention.
The situation on the matter I raised yesterday with the Taoiseach vis-À-vis the need to introduce legislation - in the area of Dáil reform - to allow for a short but appropriate period of time to elapse before a vacancy occurred in a constituency for a Dáil seat and the by-election is interesting. The Taoiseach's reply yesterday, as before, was to the effect that such by-elections must await the outcome of the Supreme Court appeal, but that is absolute nonsense. That is only to address a specific query as to whether-----
-----the High Court's was indeed the appropriate reply and, in the event, if there are questions to be addressed. The issue for us as elected politicians is to ensure, by consensus here, that we will not allow a situation to obtain in the future where the Government of the day can delay the exercise of the democratic right of any constituency to fill a vacancy, in order to suit its particular interests. As part of Dáil reform, will the Government bring forward proposed legislation to allow for a reasonable period of time, whether three or six months? There have been recommendations in relation to both periods from Oireachtas committees on the Constitution as far back as 1996 and again this year. Will the Minister of State raise this with the Taoiseach and his Cabinet colleagues in order that the matter can and will be addressed? We do not have to await the outcome of the Supreme Court appeal.
My last point is in the context of Dáil reform, namely, the recent announcement of a reduction in the minimum wage by €1 per hour. People are not really examining the impact of this.
This is relevant and tiresome. Allow me to finish my point.
This reduction translates to a €40 a week reduction in pay for a 40-hour week, which most people work in the services sector. In the context of Dáil reform there is nothing at all in the proposals presented, and this is causing enormous and understandable anger across the country about ministerial salaries and the arrangements for pensions for Ministers and what have you. It was very much focused upon in this morning's newspapers with the announcement of the departure of the Minister for Justice and Law Reform.
Deputy Ó Caoláin has raised a number of issues. The Deputy specifically asked if I would raise with the Taoiseach the issue of the introduction of legislation in regard to the filling of a vacancy in a by-election. While I can do that the Deputy has previously raised the question with the Taoiseach on the floor of the House and he has clearly indicated that legislation will not be dealt with until after the outcome of the Supreme Court hearing, which decision is imminent given the court's indication that a quick review would take place. This does not necessarily indicate there will be any undue delay. The Supreme Court has indicated it will deal with this matter fairly quickly and as such it should not cause a problem. However, I will undertake to raise with the Taoiseach the specific matter raised by Deputy Ó Caoláin.
On the issue of the HSE, as Chief Whip I am regularly in the House for the Order of Business and have heard Members of the Opposition and some of my colleagues express their frustration in regard to obtaining accurate and timely information from that agency. Deputy Ó Caoláin specifically asked about reference numbers on parliamentary questions and so on and I will raise that matter with the HSE at my next meeting. It is my intention to meet on an ongoing basis with the HSE until such time as we reach a stage where the standard of reply and information coming from it is acceptable to all Members.
Deputy Ó Caoláin stated he had not received a response to a parliamentary question he submitted in June.
While that is bad, there are worse cases. I was shocked by some of them. To be fair to the HSE, it made some degree of progress between the first and second meeting. To put this in context, responses to 139 parliamentary questions of all questions submitted in 2009 remained outstanding in August. That figure has since decreased to six. I am not saying that is acceptable. We need to map out what the issue is and try to address it by meeting on a regular basis with the HSE to try to improve the standard. I acknowledge that in Deputy Ó Caoláin's case a response is outstanding since last summer. It is important we get the system up to date, which unfortunately is not the case.
Will the Minister of State agree that we table parliamentary questions to the relevant Minister? That is being lost here. Will he agree that when one tables a question to the Minister for Health and Children, the Minister should get that answer from the HSE and supply it in her response to the question? The thinking appears to be that when we table a question it is of the Department we are asking it. We are asking it of the Minister. That is the issue that has been ignored here for the past number of years. To say that one cannot get a reply from an agency is unacceptable. We ask questions of the Minister and not the Department.
I understand the point the Deputy makes. However, in regard to the HSE, there has been a programme and agreement put in place. The problem is that the level of reply and timeliness agreed has not been delivered upon.
It is the issue for most people because they want accurate information in a timely manner and this is not happening. In other agencies and bodies where information is readily available and accessible there are probably fewer parliamentary questions going through the system. Oireachtas Members by and large want timely access to accurate information.
This arrangement was put in place with the HSE which clearly, given Deputy Ó Caoláin's situation, has not delivered responses in the manner anticipated. I will provide some of the relevant figures for Members.
As indicated earlier, the 2009 backlog is almost cleared. Up to 24 November the HSE had received almost 2,300 parliamentary questions for answer. Some 83% of those questions have now been answered. From January to July 2009, 1,409 parliamentary questions were submitted for reply, of which 614 or 44% were answered on time. As we speak, 96% of parliamentary questions received in the first half of the year have been cleared. From September to November this year, the percentage cleared on time rose from 44% to 57%. While those figures are not satisfactory there is a level of improvement in this area. A time limit has been agreed but the HSE has failed continuously to meet it. It is my intention to meet regularly with the HSE to try to improve, track and monitor the rate of progress in this regard.
The Minister of State said that 96% of parliamentary questions received by the HSE in the first part of this year have been responded to. However, the 12 plus questions I have posed, covering a number of areas, including vetting arrangements in regard to those with responsibility for care of children in the State's control, remain part of the outstanding 4%. These are important questions dealing with matters of real concern. I ask that the Minister of State, in following up on that, reflect the importance of questions such as this, which need to be expedited.
My final point relates to the question regarding by-elections. Regardless of what response the Supreme Court gives to the Government's appeal, the reality is that it will and should have no bearing whatsoever on a political decision across this House to hold by-elections within a specific timeframe, as has been commended repeatedly and over many years by all party committees. There is no justification for a delay pending the outcome of that appeal.
Also, the Minister of State did not respond to the issue which I believe is a critical element of reform, namely, the inordinate level of remuneration enjoyed at some levels of public service in this House as against the serious impact of the reduction in the minimum wage on the lowest paid in our society.
On the minimum wage and ministerial pensions, I am not sure it is appropriate for me to address that issue. However, I would like to make one comment. In regard to pension arrangements, the Deputy will be aware that various changes were made a number of years ago in respect of new entrants. I am not sure if that question is relevant to Dáil reform per se.
On Deputy Ó Caoláin's question in regard to the questions tabled by him going back to June 12 months, 59 of all questions submitted to the HSE in the first part of the year, January to July, remain outstanding. I agree with the Deputy that this is not good practise and I will continue to pursue the matter.
The Minister of State will be aware that the Committee on Procedures and Privileges is the body which looks after our Standing Orders and is, therefore, in charge of Dáil reform. A sub-committee of the CPP sits in private. I agree that it should meet in private and disagree with my colleague on that point. That being said, would the Minister of State agree that the system of seeking consensus between sides that have conflicts of interests, namely, the Government and the Opposition, is almost doomed to failure before it can start? Will he also agree that achieving Dáil reform is bedevilled by changes in personnel and Government? During the time I have been involved in Dáil reform, a number of packages were almost ready when the Government or Whip changed, with the new Whip or Government having a different idea, or more regularly, no idea about Dáil reform. For example, a comprehensive package of Dáil reform put together by Deputy Seán Barrett, former Deputy Des O'Malley, the late Deputy Séamus Brennan and I never saw the light because of a change in Government. A new group then started the process from scratch and came up with a different set of ideas. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of this.
Is the Minister of State aware that to get over this continuing problem, the Labour Party is putting forward a comprehensive proposal-----
-----on Dáil and institutional reform? Is the Minister of State aware that the Labour Party is putting forward a comprehensive proposal on Dáil and institutional reform? Is he further aware that Fine Gael and the Labour Party published a joint document before the last election on such reform? If we get a mandate, is he aware that we will implement that Dáil reform programme without a veto by Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin in opposition? This is likely to be place we will be at.
We will change the system of making decisions and we will get a mandate from the public to do that. Is the Minister of State aware that at the last full meeting of the Dáil reform sub-committee, chaired by then Government Chief Whip, Deputy Pat Carey, at which all parties agreed a limited package of reform to better use our time, Deputy Carey had to tell us-----
I am asking if he is aware of this because on the basis of what he read out, he is not. The Government Chief Whip on that day had to tell the Opposition Whips that he was vetoed by the Taoiseach. He could not proceed any further and that was the end of Dáil reform. The Taoiseach vetoed progress. Deputy Curran should not bother with another meeting of the Dáil reform sub-committee before Christmas unless he wants to have a goodbye party for it with him as chairman.
I am waiting a long time to contribute. Will the Ceann Comhairle give me an opportunity?
Does the Minister of State agree that creating 1,000 quangos over the past 15 years has reduced to the House to a nonsense? Our power is given to us by the people and we have transferred that power from the House to 1,000 nameless so-called independent quangos.
I will finish with this question. Does the Minister of State agree that the HSE is the only quango about which one can ask a question, even though it might take six months to get the answer? When we had health boards, questions had to be answered within three days. Fellows in charge of the health service are paid millions of euro in wages and they cannot answer a question for six months, if they feel like it, or officials might ring one up and give one a bit of hot tongue for asking the question in the first place.
I was criticised by the Minister of State for making this a red line issue but we need to return power to the House in order that we can give it back to the people. Powers must be taken back from the quangos. There are 1,000 of them. They all have chief executive officers, chairman, boards and spin doctors to tell us the great job they are doing and we want to take the power back from them, county managers and the whole lot of them and put it back into the House.
I note the Deputy comments on the meeting. I outlined the Deputy's position and I was being factual, not critical. However, he made an interesting point at the outset of his contribution. When we sit down to discuss Dáil reform, there is conflict because everybody wants something different and trying to reach a consensus can be difficult. If the outcome of the election is as he predicts, so be it but he clearly indicated if there is a different Government, it will implement reform-----
-----if it carries the numbers in the House on the day. That is not an option we have tried. We have tried to implement reform on the basis of consensus.
This Dáil is coming towards the end of its life and there will be a new one. In that context I thought people would view some of these issues in a slightly different way and it might be possible to have consensus before then but if Deputy Stagg is saying he does not want to meet and, following the next election, he will implement his own programme, then so be it.
I will ask the Ceann Comhairle a question but he might not be able to answer it. He has a responsibility to the House. When we table parliamentary questions, sometimes he refers them elsewhere. As Chair of the House, he does a good job and he is very fair and honest but I believe he should have a role so that when questions are tabled, for example, to the Minister for Health and Children, and a reply is not received his office can take that up. Deputy Stagg is right and I have been saying this for 15 years. The problem is Ministers think "Morning Ireland" is more important than this House. All legislation should not be published first thing on "Morning Ireland". It should be published in this House and a Minister who does not publish legislation in the House should be sanctioned. That is one reform I would like.
It is outrageous what Fianna Fáil and its partners in government have done over the past 15 years regarding the HSE, the National Roads Authority and local authorities. In debates on every Bill that has come into the House, I have been the very one who asked that responsibility remain with the Minister. I saw the Minister for Health and Children rubbing her hands the day that the HSE - the greatest monster that was ever created in this State - was established. Is it not a sad thing that I cannot write to the Ceann Comhairle and I have to write to the Ombudsman to get replies from local authorities and health boards? I am elected to the House and Ministers will not answer me. Whatever about parliamentary questions, I have copies of letters in my office for six months that were written to the Ministers for Education and Skills and Health and Children. People are dead when I get the replies and that is not acceptable.
Can the Minister of State, as Chief Whip, not instruct his Cabinet colleagues to at least answer Members of this House in regard to correspondence? The media say a parliamentary question costs €250. I do not know how it can cost €250 when I get a reply stating "no responsibility". If that costs €250, it is no wonder the country is in the state it is in.
Does the Minister of State agree the most important opportunity a member of any democratic parliament has is to ask a parliamentary question? Does he recognise that fact? If so, does he agree the service we are being provided with is nothing short of scandalous? Does he also agree the lottery system is a failure in that we manage to get through only six or seven parliamentary questions each day, which is a disgrace? Does he concur that tens of millions of euro could have been saved over the years on inquiries and tribunals if proper information had been given way of reply to a parliamentary question?
Does he also agree that when a Deputy asks a question he asks it of the Minister, not the Department? The Department of Health and Children has more than 500 staff. Does he accept there would be nothing wrong with the Minister allocating a small number of them to answer parliamentary questions with them having secured information from the HSE? That is the issue at stake here. Ministers must respect the right to ask a parliamentary question and the responsibility to give a full and comprehensive reply. Would the Minister of State agree that it is very noticeable that the reply to a question that comes up at No. 23 in the lottery is far shorter than the reply to a question that comes up at No. 2 in the lottery? That shows that this is an abuse of parliamentary democracy. Regardless of whether we have reform in the Dáil, it is a matter for the guardians of democracy in this country, namely, the Executive, to ensure that proper answers are given to parliamentary questions. Would he agree that there is a moral obligation on every Minister to supply a proper answer to a parliamentary question? Would he agree that this is not the case at present?
I have a number of questions I want to ask the Minister of State, and it is not fair on him because he was not here when previous regimes applied and it was a serious offence for any Minister not to answer a question directly and in great detail. A Cheann Comhairle, you will remember those times. Does the Minister of State recognise that a number of Departments are spectacular in their avoidance of an answer to a parliamentary question? I can name them if necessary, but every Member of the House knows them. We know who they are.
I know. Notwithstanding the subordinate bodies or quangos that have been set up by the Government over the past few years, is the Minister of State aware that previous Ministers answered the questions relative to those Departments and there was no need for Dáil reform for that to happen? Would the Minister of State consider it useful, important and courageous to revert to that good old practice whereby for every single euro approved by this House, and allocated to whatever subordinate body there may be, there is a responsibility of the Minister to answer for it here? Attempting to avoid that is a negation of public duty.
In the past few days, failure to answer Dáil questions came to a sudden halt at the negotiation that took place in Brussels. A small bit of information made available to the Members of the House would have alleviated much of the stress and worry that has now befallen the Irish people and would have asserted this House of Parliament as a real parliamentary assembly and not just the rubber stamp that it has become.
It is hardly my fault that we did not get to Question No. 4. I was responding to the questions, not asking them.
We need a bit of clarity because questions are asked where line Ministers do not have direct responsibilities. Some of those third party agencies mentioned by the Deputies are subsequently questioned, or come under the remit of the Committee of Public Accounts and so on. Just because a direct question may not be asked or answered on the floor of the House by means of a parliamentary question does not mean that the funds given to those organisations are not accounted for thoroughly. That is an important distinction to make.
Deputy Ring asked specifically about replies from Ministers and whether I would bring it to their attention. I can do that, but his question was a separate issue to Dáil reform. Deputy Stanton asked about the proposals that came from the Government at the time. Without going into the full list - they are included in the minutes of the sub-committee - the proposals envisaged the Taoiseach and the Opposition leaders spending less time in the Dáil but that their time would be consolidated; the Dáil would sit for longer periods throughout the year and there would be earlier sitting times; the Taoiseach would answer parliamentary questions only once a week; and the Chief Whip would handle questions on promised legislation on Thursday. The full context of those are in the minutes from the sub-committee. There is a difference on whether the sub-committee should meet or not, and I will discuss that privately with the Deputy afterwards.