Thursday, 23 January 2014
Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Since taking office, the Government has consistently shown it is committed to the rehabilitation and stabilisation of the public finances and the recovery of economic sovereignty. All Members are aware of the enormous impact of the difficult decisions the Government has been forced to take due to the parlous state of the public finances that it inherited. These actions were necessary for the very survival of the State and these decisive actions have been used by the Government to stabilise the deficit. Moreover, Ireland was able to exit successfully the troika bailout last December because of those decisions.
No public servant has been immune. The Members of this House themselves have seen large and necessary reductions in their pay and other supports necessary for the democratic machinery of this country. In line with this reform agenda and as stated in the programme for Government, there also is a clear need for change in our political system and for those in authority to lead by example. The Government has done so. Significant reductions have been effected to the pay and allowances of Members of the Oireachtas through a number of measures since 2009, most recently through the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act 2013, which came into effect on 1 July last year. The Government has imposed a policy of strong pay reduction and restraint since taking office in March 2011, with the pay of all members of the Government voluntarily reduced from its first day in office. The cumulative effect of the reductions applied is that, in a point that often goes unnoticed or at least without comment, the net annual salary of the Taoiseach, that is, the salary following the implementation of the various Financial Emergency in the Public Interest Acts, has been reduced by more than 40% in the period since 2009 and that of the Tánaiste and Ministers by more than 35% in the same period. The pay cuts that have been applied will of course follow through into a reduction in the pensions that will be payable to each of them when their time comes to claim such pensions.
As every Member present will be aware, the system of allowances paid to Members of these Houses was substantially overhauled by the Government in 2011 on taking office. The rates of allowances payable to specified positions in the Dáil and the Seanad, to Chairmen of Oireachtas committees and to commission members all have been reduced. In addition, the number of committees has been reduced. The estimated current cost of these allowances is now less than €300,000, compared with a cost in 2008 of €1.436 million, which is a reduction of nearly 80%. The new Oireachtas expense allowance system began on 1 March 2010, replacing 40 years of legislation with a single parliamentary allowance system to cover the parliamentary and representation costs of Deputies, Senators and Ministers. This major reform was in addition to the reductions imposed on Oireachtas Members' expenses in 2009. It was not, however, transparent enough and I changed the system further from 1 January 2013. I reduced the travel and accommodation allowance by an average of 10%, with a higher cut of 25% for Dublin-based Members. The expenses paid under the public representation allowance are now vouched, in a reform long overdue, and the limit reduced by an average of 20%. The secretarial allowance scheme also was amended to require evidence of all expenditure. In overall terms, the most recent changes I introduced will save about 11% or approximately €1 million per annum on the overall cost of expenses.
This Bill is an important further step in the reform of the supports provided to the parliamentary leaders of qualifying political parties and to Members of the Oireachtas who were elected as independents. The Government is determined to ensure greater transparency and accountability is associated with political funding, as the people should be able to see that the money they provide is used in an effective and proper fashion. With this in mind, this Bill also delivers on the Government's commitment to abolish severance payments to certain ministerial and parliamentary offices. Current and future holders of such offices, including all the members of the current Government, no longer will receive severance payments at the end of their term of office.
A key objective of the Government is to rebuild public trust in the State through a comprehensive programme of political and legislative reforms. It has been pursuing a wide range of reforms aimed at delivering open, accountable and ethical government, underpinned by a transparent, efficient and effective public system to help rebuild trust in government and the institutions of the State. Many of the commitments in the area of political reform set out in the programme for Government and in the public service reform plan published in 2010 are now in delivery phase and real progress has been and continues to be made. This ambitious programme of reform consists of a number of significant legislative initiatives which, taken together, comprise a suite of openness, transparency, accountability and public governance measures that I believe will strengthen good government across the system. This is being delivered on several different fronts, including, as Members will recall, the extension of the Ombudsman's jurisdiction and powers through the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012. This legislation came into effect last October, resulting in the most significant expansion in the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman in the 30 years since the original legislation created the office. As for provision of a detailed legislative framework for parliamentary inquiries, Deputies will recall the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act was enacted in July and commenced on 25 September 2013. This legislation enables a comprehensive statutory framework for the Oireachtas to conduct inquiries within the current constitutional framework as determined by the people. In respect of the regulation of lobbying, Deputies again will recall the general scheme of the regulation of lobbying Bill 2013 was submitted for pre-legislative scrutiny to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and its report recently has been received by my Department. The drafting of the Bill has commenced and the views of the aforementioned joint committee will feed into this drafting process. It is anticipated that the Bill will be published in the first quarter of this and hopefully will be enacted in its second quarter.
There will be extensive reform of the freedom of information, FOI, legislation, through proposals that currently are before the House, thereby consolidating and modernising it to improve the functions of the Act and to improve the structure of the legislative framework around freedom of information. In tandem with the drafting of the FOI Bill, work is well advanced in developing what I consider to be really important, namely, a code of practice to support the implementation of the new Bill once enacted. On the introduction of legislation protecting whistleblowers, the Protected Disclosures Bill 2013, which passed all Stages in the Seanad last November, will be introduced into the Dáil in early February. I believe the Bill, which reflects best international practice and addresses a significant gap in Ireland's anti-corruption framework, will provide comprehensive protection to whistleblowers in all sectors of the economy. The overhaul of the ethics legislation is being progressed and is aimed at supporting and promoting ethical conduct and creating an environment in which ethical issues and conflicts of interests are managed effectively, while corrupt and unethical conduct is severely discouraged.
The programme of reform will also include the publication of a consultation paper on strengthening Civil Service accountability and performance. An extensive public consultation process has been initiated, led by the independent panel on accountability that I have established. The aim of this process is to bring about change and reform to the current accountability arrangements. I invite Members to make submissions to that expert review because it is important we get political, as well as cross-societal input into that process. The publication of this paper begins an extensive public consultation process on the key issue of who is accountable and answerable and who is responsible for what in the Civil Service.
My Department is also leading on the Open Government Partnership, OGP, which serves to complement these existing objectives and provides an important international complement to national reform efforts. The intention, as I have previously indicated to the House, is that Ireland will become a full member of the OGP in May 2014. Membership of the OGP will reaffirm Ireland's commitment to governmental transparency and reform. This Government embraced reform from the very beginning, demonstrating a strong commitment to facilitating open, transparent, responsible and, I hope, accountable governance. These are just some of the areas in which we are working to restore faith in our political and administrative systems.
The reforms we are undertaking in this legislation fit firmly within these two aims of democratic reform and fiscal efficiency. The allowance governed by this legislation, what has been called the party leader's allowance, first came into being in 1938, approximately 75 years ago. It was born from the recognised need for the State to support the political system and the democratic process, and introduced the provision of funding to Opposition parties. Over time, and through changes introduced by a number of Governments of all political colours, the allowance provided through this legislation has changed and evolved to become a significant source of funding and support for all parties and Members in this Parliament. The main goal remains the same, however - that is, to support the proper functioning of our political system.
I have already made it clear that no aspect of political funding can remain immune from the financial corrections and savings that have necessitated the changes I have outlined. With this in mind, this Bill will reduce the rates of the allowance paid to both parliamentary leaders of parties and Independent Members by 10%, a measure that will result in a direct saving of approximately €840,000 in a full year. It does not sound like a lot of money, but it is important that everybody is seen to carry the burden. As I have already stated, the scope of the allowance payable under the existing legislation has grown over time. What was once an allowance purely for the leaders of Opposition parties to spend as they saw fit is now an extensive support provided to parliamentary parties, as well as Independent Deputies and Senators, for use exclusively in their parliamentary activities and research. To reflect the evolution of the allowance, and following a suggestion by some of the Independent Members of the Seanad during the consultation process preceding the drafting of the Bill, the Bill renames the allowance as the "parliamentary activities allowance" to better reflect its true purpose and intent.
The Government has already implemented significant reforms to political funding through the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012, which was brought before the Houses by my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. That Act brought into force restrictions on corporate donations and considerable reductions in the maximum amount that a political party or an individual can accept as a political donation. This Bill builds upon the changes to the Electoral Act by improving the transparency and accountability for the money from the public purse received by parties and Independent Members for parliamentary activities.
The most recent primary legislation on this allowance was passed in 2001. Following public concern about how the allowance could be used, that Act introduced a limited requirement for leaders of political parties to account for the money spent from the allowance received in a statement of expenditure, to have that statement audited and to submit these documents to the Standards in Public Office Commission for consideration. Under this Bill, the commission will be given more extensive powers to examine the statements of expenditure provided in respect of the allowance and to offer guidance on its use. By allowing for the publication of guidelines, those in receipt of the allowance will be given certainty as to what they are permitted to use the funding for. This should ensure that all money received is spent in an appropriate and proper manner.
Up to now, Independent Members of the Oireachtas in receipt of this allowance did not have to account for the funds received. In the current climate, and with the increased scrutiny on all public expenditure, this is no longer acceptable. The Bill provides that Independent members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann will be subject to the same reporting requirements that apply to party leaders and significantly enhances the level of accountability for those in receipt of the money.
With the permission of the Chair, I will go through the provisions of the Bill in some detail. Section 2 is based on current provisions and provides for the payment of the allowance to parliamentary leaders of qualifying parties and to qualifying Independent Members. It sets out the criteria for entitlement to the allowance and provides for a reduction in the current rates. It clarifies that the amount of an allowance payable to a parliamentary leader of a qualifying party is calculated on a tapering basis rather than a flat rate being applied to the total number of that party. The allowance may be used to fund the parliamentary activities of the party, such as policy formulation, the procurement of technical advice or support services, or for research and training. The main restriction on the use of the allowance is that it cannot be used for, or to recoup, electoral or political expenses on elections.
During the passage of the Bill through the other House, it became apparent that there was a misconception as to the meaning of this section, particularly the calculation used to determine the level of funding that should be made available to each political party. The figures used for calculation purposes are not allocations for individual Members of that party and do not have to be spent in respect of any particular Member at any stage. Rather, they are part of the metric by which the funding of parties, which form a vital part of our political system, is determined, and which takes into account the views of the electorate as expressed at the ballot box. It is for parties to determine how they will use that money, within the categories permitted, and it is parties that the funding is to support, not the individual Members who comprise that party.
It has been suggested that in the event that a Member of a party loses the party Whip, the parliamentary party should have its funding reduced. Not only does that suggestion miss the point that the money given to the party, reflecting the wishes of the electorate, is not the individual's and was never theirs to control or spend in that fashion, it would also have negative repercussions for those employed on the understanding that the funding would be available, and could cause legal and contractual issues for political parties. Such a measure could disproportionately affect smaller parties, for whom the tiered calculation is designed to provide additional support. A reduction of €25,754 to a party with more than thirty Members has a very different effect than a €64,368 reduction to a party of only two or three Members.
The section includes two new provisions. The first new provision provides that qualifying expenses arising out of parliamentary activities will only be regarded as qualifying expenditure where such expenditure is not otherwise reimbursed or provided for. The second new provision provides that, in view of our obligations to the Central Fund and for administrative efficiency, where an allowance is due and payable and a period of six months expires without the parliamentary leader or Member having claimed the allowance or part thereof, the part of the allowance for that period in excess of six months shall no longer be payable.
Section 3 inserts eight new sections, 10A to 10H, into the Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices Act 1938. I will deal with section 10B first as it contains the provisions whereby leaders of qualifying parties and Independent Members in receipt of the allowance must provide a statement of expenditure and accompanying auditor's report to the Standards in Public Offices Commission. This section also outlines the procedure when a change in party leadership or the death of a party leader or Independent Member in receipt of the allowance occurs.
Section 10A provides that a recipient of the allowance who fails to provide the required statement of expenditure and auditor's report within the required deadline of 120 days after the end of the financial year to the commission will receive no further funding from the allowance until such time as those documents are provided.
The section also provides that should the commission find that the statement of expenditure does not comply with the legislation, the allowance will not be paid to that recipient until such time as the issues underlying that non-compliance have been addressed to my satisfaction.
Section 10C provides for the retention of documentation by party leaders and Independent Members in support of the statement of expenditure provided for the commission. Section 10D provides powers for the commission to examine and assess the statements of expenditure provided to it and to make inquiries as necessary to do this. The section also outlines the process by which the commission may report its findings in regard to the statements of expenditure received by it. Section 10E allows for the setting of a date when these provisions will come into effect for Independent Members and for party leaders. This is in recognition of the fact that the necessary documentation may not have been collected prior to its being required by this legislation, and that some advance notice of these requirements is necessary.
Section 10F provides that in the event that a party or Independent Member of the Oireachtas in receipt of the allowance loses its, or his or her, entitlement to the allowance, any unspent amounts received must be repaid within 120 days of the end of the financial year. Section 10G provides that the commission may formulate and issue guidelines in regard to the allowance and the statement of expenditure to be prepared by those in receipt of the allowance. This provision has been requested by the commission for some time, as there was previously no formal advisory role given to the commission in regard to the allowance. By allowing for the publication of guidelines, those in receipt of the allowance will be able to ensure that the money received is spent in an appropriate and proper manner.
Section 4 amends the existing legislation so that any general round decreases which apply to the Civil Service will also apply to the rates of the allowance. Previously, only general increases could be applied. This was not due to design, but the fact that at the time of drafting the existing legislation, it was not envisaged that decreases would be implemented.
Section 5 delivers on the Government's pledge to abolish severance payments for specified ministerial and parliamentary officeholders. These officeholders include the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, Ministers, Ministers of State, the Ceann Comhairle, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Leader of the Seanad and the Attorney General. The abolition of these payments will apply to both current and future holders of the offices in question. There are currently no persons in receipt of these payments.
The Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013 is a short Bill and its provisions are in keeping with the Government's objective of continued stabilisation of the overall cost of the public service. As part of this objective, it provides for a reduction for the first time in the rates of the allowance and for the abolition of severance payments. Greater transparency and accountability in the use of expenditure from the allowance will also be achieved and the money received from the allowance will not only be spent appropriately but will be seen to be so. At the same time, the Bill sets out an agenda of reform for the future, ensuring the transparent and accountable use of funds provided by the Exchequer to support the democratic process.
I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to hearing the views of Members on it. I will consider any ideas proffered.
I wish to share my time with Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Oireachtas (Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices) (Amendment) Bill 2013 and have a number of points to make on it. We welcome the Bill and I doubt anybody in the House will have a problem with it. The Bill is designed to provide for a reduction of 10% in the rate of allowances payable and this is in line with changes that have occurred across society. Perhaps it is even a little more than agreed in recent pay agreements, but we must lead by example. The Bill also provides for the auditing of the parliamentary leader's allowance for Independent Deputies and Senators.
The issue of this allowance came to light some time ago when the Committee of Public Accounts was examining allowances across the public service, and of course it looked at the Oireachtas. It was never a secret that these allowances were paid to Senators, but it was not well known. Few people knew of it, including many Members of this House. I expect those in receipt of the allowance were fully aware of it, but I doubt they broadcast it too loudly. The system was in place, and it is only right that it should be included under the general rules and guidelines and that the moneys be properly accounted for, audited and reported to the Standards in Public Office Commission. I welcome the Bill and Fianna Fáil will support Second Stage. However, we have a number of questions to raise and will probably table some amendments. I am sure the Minister will understand my thinking on these, though he may not agree on all of them.
We support the principle of the legislation, but would like the Minister to clarify some issues in his summing up. The party leader's allowance is being renamed the parliamentary activities allowance, but whose name will be on the cheque and who will be the payee? I suspect that formerly the name of the party leader was on the cheque, but who will be the payee now? Second, I intend to propose an amendment in regard to the parliamentary activities allowance, as the Bill provides that the allowance be made from the Central Fund to the relevant party leaders and Independent Deputies in respect of categories of expenses arising. I do not believe this allowance should be paid from the Central Fund. It should come through voted expenditure, like all other expenditure that comes through this House each year. I have raised this issue several times. The Government will spend approximately €50 billion this year. Some €40 billion of that is voted expenditure, through the line Departments and various State agencies. However, €10 billion of expenditure is not voted through this House at all. It is not discussed in the House and there is no formal mechanism for discussing it here. The Government may say that it or the Opposition can choose to initiate a debate on the issue, and perhaps we should.
It is wrong that €10 billion of taxpayers' money is spent each year without discussion or being voted on in the House. The main element of the €10 billion is the payment of interest on the national debt and we understand there are complications in that regard. We understand that when the NTMA, on behalf of the State, borrows at a particular rate, the people who lend us money may not be comfortable if the annual interest owed to them may have to be voted through the House of Parliament, especially in difficult times. I understand the complication in this regard. However, in regard to other payments, such as the payment to politicians, it is wrong that they should not be voted through in the House each year. It is wrong that these payments are put through the Central Fund and that this expenditure is not brought to the House to be voted on. It is wrong that payments to judges are not part of voted expenditure. I understand the independence of the judges and the Constitution has been well tested in that regard. It is within the competence of this House to vote on the costs of administering the system.
Certain other payments under the electoral Acts, including the free postage scheme and payments to returning officers for various elections, are paid through the Central Fund. This expenditure should be voted through the House. It is wrong that there appears almost to be a slush fund that is not discussed here. The Central Fund is not under the remit of the Minister for Expenditure and Reform but that of the Minister for Finance. I suggest that all of these moneys, other than the interest on the national debt, should be under the remit of the Minister for Expenditure and Reform. I believe it is his job to be answerable for expenditure relating to the political system, payments to the courts and other payments.
Payments we must make to the European institutions and our contribution to the EU fund also come through the Central Fund account each year. I know the contribution is set, but if, for example, we have to make a payment of €1.5 billion, there would be nothing wrong with putting that figure in the Estimates each year and discussing it, and if the figure rose or fell during the year that could be dealt with. Whatever the case, we should have a debate on the payment.
We have debate after debate here and in committee rooms about payments, schemes, Pillar 1, Pillar 2 and single farm payments, but we do not debate the amount of money paid out by the Irish taxpayer to European institutions. There is a one-way debate because the money we pay out is never voted through a line Department. It does not even go through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. This is an anomaly as not all of the money is due through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; some of it could be for the Structural Fund or the Social Fund. The biggest amount is with regard to agriculture. The funds paid by the Irish taxpayer to the European institutions should go through the line Departments rather than through a central fund which is not discussed by the Oireachtas on an annual basis. Perhaps there is a halfway house, as we should have a formal debate on the Central Fund each year. I believe they should be voted through, but we should definitely have a halfway house. We should have a formal debate and perhaps as spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, I will initiate it. I have given the Minister a flavour of what is in the account. I am speaking from recollection, but I know from examining it last year that improvements could be made. It is not right that the funds should be paid without being voted through the House each year in the same way every other public expenditure is voted through. We will table an amendment in this regard.
The big issue referred to by the Minister in his opening comments was that the payment was calculated on the numbers elected in the preceding general election, which brings us straight to the crunch issue about Members who leave a political party. We will propose an amendment in this regard. On the one political point to which he did respond, the Minister stated this suggestion missed the point entirely because the money given to a party which reflected the wishes of the electorate was not an individual's and was never theirs to control. The party did not stand for election; the individual did. He or she might have been a member of a registered party, but it was the name of the individual which was on the ballot paper. We do not have ballot papers with Fianna Fáil in two spots, Fine Gael in another and the Labour Party in another. As names are attached to the ballot paper, the fund should attach to the people concerned. The legislation provides for a halfway house on this issue, while section 2(12)(a) on page 5 deals with a party dissolving. The legislation includes arrangements for the establishment of a new party after the dissolution of a party and amalgamation is agreed, whereby members of the previous party are now members of the new party. The principle of money moving to a new organisation, whether a party or another mechanism, is provided for in the legislation and the same should apply in this case. It is not right that Deputies who fight an election campaign are forced out of their party for abiding by that election campaign. When one considers the votes received in an election, the individual must be considered.
It is proposed that the combined allowance for parties in government be reduced by one third. This is a long-established mechanism, but just because it has been in place since 1938 does not make it right in 2014. This reduction is not sufficient in this day and age. Not only does the Government have the support of the entire Civil Service, press offices in Departments and specific allowances covering transport and the allocation of staff in parliamentary and constituency offices, but Ministers also employ special advisers, many of whom receive payments above and beyond the normal payments in the public service which were personally approved by the Minister. On top of this, a huge amount is paid through the parliamentary allowance. I consider this extra payment to be a top-up for Ministers. It is not enough that they have the full Civil Service and special advisers, but they also want a major top-up from the allowance. There should be a substantial payment for parties in government and by definition parties in government will always be the biggest parties because they would not be in government if they did not have a majority. I propose that the amount be reduced by 50% rather than the 33% proposed by the Minister in the legislation. He agrees with the principle of a reduction for Government parties, as I do, but I am being more specific.
I understand the issue regarding the allowance not being subject to income tax, but I do not see anything in the legislation whereby the fund into which its is paid should produce a tax clearance certificate each year. This is an important issue. Those of us who stand for election obtain a tax clearance certificate when we are elected, but for each of the five years in between elections one is not required to produce a tax clearance certificate. I do not suggest we should do so, as we go before the electorate and must do it again at the next election, but there should be a mechanism whereby the fund has tax clearance. It should be a straightforward procedure.
I am not sure about the arrangement which applies when a person who is elected as a member of a political party then becomes the Ceann Comhairle. Is the amount for that person deducted from the payment to the party? It should be because it is nonsense. Let us clear this anomaly. Perhaps the Minister might clarify the position. With no disrespect to the current incumbent, if the Taoiseach receives tens of thousands of euro in respect of the membership of the Ceann Comhairle who was elected as a member of the Fine Gael Party, it is ridiculous, absurd and not right. Any reasonable person will accept if it is the case, the practice must cease forthwith. I hope the Minister will accept what I state in this regard.
We will discuss the points I am making on Committee Stage. Section 10G(5) states that when the commission comes forward with its proposals and guidelines, the Minister may refuse to approve them or may amend them. Essentially, the commission is the puppet of the Government and if it does not do what it is told, the guidelines will not be approved. The Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, is a trustworthy organisation and we had a good discussion on it yesterday. A new chairman has been appointed and it has respected members, including senior officers such as the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Ombudsman and the Clerk of the Dáil. They are absolutely impartial and nobody could question this. If we stitch into the legislation that if this body comes up with something and for political reasons a Minister chooses to refuse to adopt the guidelines, the power should be taken away from the Minister because he or she would be meddling in an area in which everybody would agree SIPO should be the competent authority. The Minister should not be able to get back at it on such an occasion.
I made the case on Independent Members having to be audited and everybody accepts this. Will the Minister clarify the issue of the 120 day timeline? If an election is called in April, people will be on the hustings and a party could have a new leader by June or July. It might be difficult in a general election year to get the accounts in on time.
I appeal to the Minister, as I did yesterday, to find a mechanism to have a gender balance on the Standards and Public Office Commission. It has six members, five of whom happen to be gentlemen; there is one lady. I realise some of them are set offices, but there was an opportunity to appoint a former female member yesterday instead of the former male member, given that it had so few lady members. It is something the Minister should consider.
I accept that increases or decreases should be in line with those of the public service, but will the Minister specify what type of increase would be involved? Under the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Act, FEMPI, this year will see a different range of increases or decreases. It starts at 4% at €62,000, with a larger cut at €85,000; the higher the amount of money, the bigger the cut. The Minister has not stated where will this fit into the threshold. General increases in payments in the Civil Service depend on FEMPI. Does this mean that when FEMPI no longer applies, the decreases will be paid back?
At the end of this month we must all fill in forms and depending on whether we have nil or actual donations, some forms go to the Clerk of the Dáil and some go to SIPO. Will the Minister, please, make life easy and have all the forms go to one place? I must scratch my head in figuring out whether a form goes to the Clerk of the Dáil or SIPO.
I am very pleased. It is a practical issue. Will the Minister tell us about the commencement date?
What happens on the death of a Member? Is the allowance reduced for the political party until the seat is filled? Does the balance go to the other parties until it is filled? I have raised a number of practical issues. I support the Bill in principle and I support most of its provisions but improvements could be made. I look forward to useful engagement on Committee Stage. The Minister has the gist of most of the amendments I will table.
I commend the Minister for bringing formally to the House the decision to abolish severance payments. At the end of the previous Government, it was decided that former Ministers who were sitting Members should forgo the allowance. That should form part of a more general reform that is not provided for in the legislation. I was surprised on the first occasion I was appointed Minister of State to find I had two employers - the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Department in which I served. I was paid two different salaries and I received two P60s. Ministers are appointed by the Taoiseach but the appointments need to be approved by the House. There might be a good historic reason for Departments footing the bill for ministerial salaries but it has never been apparent to me. When I explained to people that I received an Oireachtas allowance and a separate ministerial salary, they were surprised.
In the interests of transparency, when information is provided regarding the salaries of everyone in the House, many people are surprised to find, for example, that the Minister earns the same salary as every other Member but they know that is true. They do not realise they should have asked a second question about the salary from the Departments. To tidy up this procedure, ministerial allowances should be part of a Member's salary. When one is appointed to office, one's Oireachtas salary should increase and Ministers should have one employer.
I refer to an amusing incident a number of years ago. I was not amused when I received the letter but it was amusing that a Department could make this mistake. When I ceased being a Minister, later that year the tax man wrote to me to say I had underpaid the USC. I have never checked the calculation of the charge in my payslip. The Oireachtas had not spoken to the Department or vice versa and the 4% USC rate that applies to the lower portion of a salary had been applied by both the Oireachtas and the Department without me realising it and, therefore, Revenue asked for a refund. That highlights how bizarre the system is, given two Departments could not get right. The notion of two employers and so on creates unnecessary complications and the next time the Minister introduces reforms, he should amalgamate these payments under one Department. He will no doubt be given 50,000 reasons not to do anything because that is always the case. Civil servants provide various explanations as to why something cannot be done and so on. It is time that we did things in a way that is intelligible to ordinary people who are not familiar with the more complicated ways everything works in the bureaucratic system. That would be a small but visible change.
If somebody asked the Taoiseach's Department what is his salary, he could honestly answer he was in receipt of a modest salary because it would not include his Oireachtas allowance. This system is open to misunderstanding and unnecessary duplication. The legislation is an attempt to simplify the system and refers to shared services, etc. I am sure the Oireachtas would be more than happy to write the foot the entire bill for each Member
I have not had an opportunity to examine the Bill in minute detail but I presume some Members will still be worth more than others under the Leader's allowance provision.
This allowance is primarily used for research and press functions. My experience as a Minister was that these functions were taken care of by the Department and everything was looked after. I never used party press services as a Minister and I did not to have use party researchers.
The rate per Member should be different for Government Members than for Opposition Members but the rate should be equal for all Opposition Members, otherwise it is a disincentive to people working together in a co-ordinated fashion in the Oireachtas to achieve political change.
The Minister referred to the wishes of the electorate as a reason for change to the leader's allowance and he said it was never intended that it could be controlled or spent in any fashion. However, it is collectively ours to spend and that is why I am delighted with the change in the title of the allowance because this money is not paid to a party. The idea of a democratic party such as Fianna Fáil, as opposed to a democratically centralised party such as the Labour Party, is that we collectively get to spend the money in a co-ordinated fashion rather than each of us-----
It makes a great deal of sense to pool the money allocated for research, press offices and so on but I do not understand why the Minister said the electorate votes for parties under the PR system. This is not true because many people vote across party lines. There were 17 candidates in my constituency the last time and electors could ignore the party system and vote along personal lines. That happens at every election and, therefore, people vote for a series of people who go before them and not for a party. The logic is that the money should follow the Member. If somebody dies, the funding will cease under the legislation. I refer to the notion that this could not be done because it might have had negative repercussions for those employed by Members.
The reality is that the money can change halfway through and all of us have to employ people on contracts providing that the job ceases if the money is no longer available. As there is no guarantee as to how long a Dáil lasts, every party leader's contract with his or her staff provides for a sudden termination in the event that the money dries up when an election is called and a Member is not returned. The arguments in this regard are ridiculous. There should be one rate for Opposition Deputies and a lesser rate for Government Deputies. Ministers do not need this money at all because they are well looked after. The money should follow the Member and if it is signed into a party fund it should remain there until such time as the Member ceases to be a member of that party. If he or she becomes an Independent Member, the money should follow. That would be a fair and equitable system. If a voluntary organisation lost half of its members, it would not expect to receive their subscriptions on a certain day in five years time. People would be screaming that it was not democratic or accountable. Further debate is needed on the provisions of this Bill and I hope there will be genuine engagement on Committee Stage with a view to developing a system that is fairer and more equitable.
It has become fashionable to cut the financial supports we need to do our job. If we do not have a well resourced Oireachtas we, who are trying to hold the Government to account, will not have the resources and back-up we need to carry out research on legislation and other issues or to make meaningful contributions. I do not go along with the idea that there should be further cuts to resources for operating this House. For example, the support given to committees by the Library and Research Service is vital. The idea that the Oireachtas could hold the Executive to account without adequate resources is penny wise and pound foolish.
While we question the assertion by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform that the Government is delivering fundamental change in democratic and public governance, we none the less welcome the introduction of this legislation. The Bill deals with a number of anomalies in the political system relating to pay, State funding of politics and accountability. State funding of political parties is part and parcel of a functioning democracy, as are the mechanisms built into the system to account for such funds. Independent Members should be subject to the same scrutiny as political parties and the rules of accountability should apply to all Members of both Houses.
In the past six years citizens have been subject to drastic reductions in public services, but the human cost has yet to be properly quantified. While the scale of the cuts and those targeted to carry the heaviest burden is a debate for another day, it is the context within which the Bill is framed. We welcome the Minister's decision to reduce the leader's allowance. Sinn Féin's budget proposals for 2014, which were published in advance of the Government's October announcement, included a measure to cut the leader's allowance by 10%. As politicians, we cannot propose reductions in expenditure without first looking to ourselves. We would like to see the withdrawal of the committee chair allowance. Participation in Dáil committees should be made compulsory, with no additional allowance, because it is an intrinsic part of the role of Deputies and Senators. These moneys should be redirected to resourcing the committees with additional staff and expertise. The committee system is one of the positive parts of our parliamentary system and it adds real value to our work. I believe citizens have more faith in this aspect of our work. Leaders' Questions Time frustrates citizens and is often viewed by the outside world as little more than a set piece. The Topical Issues debate follows an even more rigid format and Ministers have thus far failed to live up to their commitments of 2011 in this regard.
This legislation should also deal with ministerial pay, which remains high in comparison to our European counterparts. Sinn Féin proposed a package of pay reductions for the Taoiseach, Ministers and Oireachtas Members which would have saved an additional €3.7 million and brought salaries in line with those in comparable European states. Office holders often justify their salary scales with comparisons to the private sector, which of course is not the correct comparison. If one's wont in life is to maximise one's earning potential, politics is not the right career. Politicians and office holders are paid well for the service they give and it is my party's view that their salaries could be reduced. We would like the Minister to go further in this regard.
Independent Members will now be subject to the same reporting requirements as party leaders in that they will have to prepare a statement of expenditure on the moneys they receive, have the statement audited and provide documents to the Standards in Public Office Commission. I studied with bemusement the amendments submitted in the Seanad which argued against this measure. The proposition that any Member should be subject to less scrutiny than his or her colleagues makes little sense. For a number of years Sinn Féin was the only political party in this state to make public our audited annual accounts, as we do in the North. For some time in the North political parties have been required under law to provide a full annual financial statement of income and expenditure to the electoral commission. We have always commended this requirement and called for the same in the South.
Much of the mistrust of politics is because of the public perception that politicians get an easy ride. The leader's allowance and other payments are, as the Minister stated, used for parliamentary activities, but until there is a completely transparent mechanism to make public all revenue and expenditure data relating to political parties the mistrust will remain. However, while the Government has a way to go before we even come close to an open data culture, this legislation is a small step forward. Expanding the role of the Standards in Public Office Commission is the right decision but it must be complemented by increased staff numbers and training. Introducing legislation to enhance oversight of public moneys will be meaningless if these same oversight bodies are not fully resourced. My colleague Deputy Mary Lou McDonald has raised this matter repeatedly with the Minister as he was overseeing a significant further reduction in staff numbers. I cannot emphasise enough the need for adequate resourcing and training of the bodies to which we entrust oversight.
Abolition of the severance payments to Ministers and parliamentary office holders is welcome, and it is long overdue. It is a shame the Minister has not shown the same enthusiasm for dealing with the gold-plated pensions that continue to be paid out to former Taoisigh, Ministers and office holders. Sinn Féin's budget proposals to deal with these pensions would save the state €14 million annually. The majority of former public sector workers receive modest pensions for the service they gave but a small cohort still enjoy very generous packages. The vast majority of Secretaries General and city and county managers will receive additional lump sum payments and up to ten added years on retirement. It is not good enough for the Minister to state this is their entitlement; nor is he correct to say property rights act as a barrier to fundamentally reforming pensions for those at the top. This is the same argument used by the board of CRC to justify its former CEO's pension package that has outraged the country, as well as many Ministers.
It is also disappointing that the Minister has not used the Bill as an opportunity to introduce a fully vouched system for all Oireachtas Members' expenses. It would be a welcome development if the Minister gave us a commitment today that this is something he intends to do during the lifetime of the Government.
The Bill before the House has three aims. It aims to reduce the Leader's allowance by 10%; to introduce auditing and vouching of the leader's allowance; and to abolish severance payments for Ministers. I support all three of these aims. The leader's allowance should be reduced. It should be subject to auditing and all expenditure should be vouched, and severance payments to Ministers should be abolished.
It is unclear why it has taken three years to bring this Bill before the House, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be because certain Government backbench TDs enjoy heckling Independent TDs about the leader's allowance. Of course, what most of them probably do not know is that the Government has twice voted against reducing the leader's allowance and making it vouched. It voted against it in the Seanad when an amendment was tabled by Independent Senators and it voted against it again in committee, when Deputy Catherine Murphy and I tabled an amendment to reduce it and to make it vouched.
While I welcome the purpose of the Bill, the problem for me is that it is unambitious. Why a reduction of only 10%? Why a reduction to only the leader's allowance? Why will there still be limited transparency on how public funding of politics is spent?
Why not fix the situation in which party leaders continue to be paid handsomely for TDs who have either left or been kicked out of their parties?
The leader's allowance is a problem, and this Bill goes some way towards fixing it, but it is far from the only problem. The truth is that political funding in Ireland is funding for the parties, by the parties and because of the parties.
Let us look at the numbers. There are three sources of political funding in Irish politics: Exchequer funding, the leader's allowance, and additional party staff. The total funding for all parties and politicians after this Bill is passed will be almost €16 million per annum. This funding breaks down as follows: Fine Gael will get 34%, or €5.4 million; Fianna Fáil will get 23%, or €3.5 million; the Labour Party will get 22%, or €3.4 million; Sinn Féin will get 13%, or €2.1 million; and Independents and non-party TDs, who are far greater in number than either Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, will get €855,000.
Once this Bill is passed, the average funding per TD will be €84,000 per year. Each Independent TD will get €37,000, or approximately half the average, while €65,000 will be provided for each Fine Gael TD, €80,000 will be provided for each Labour Party TD, €140,000 will be provided for each Sinn Féin TD, and Deputy Martin will get €166,000 for each Fianna Fáil TD. In spite of all the talk about the Independents' and leader's allowance, the reality is that public funding for Independent Deputies is a small fraction of that for party TDs. Even though the Tánaiste and Taoiseach have the full resources of the Government and the public sector at their disposal, the Taoiseach will get three quarters more per Fine Gael TD than Independent TDs get and the Tánaiste will get, per TD, over twice what Independent TDs get.
In opposition, Deputy Adams will get, per TD, over four times what is provided to Independent TDs, and Deputy Martin, as leader of Fianna Fáil, will get, per TD, four and a half times what is provided to Independent TDs.
The Government reminds us ad nauseam that Fianna Fáil destroyed the country, but it stands over giving that party, per TD, four and a half times what is provided to Independent TDs. Why is that? Is it not because the Government thinks they are worth it. How is this democratic? How is this healthy? How is it a fair and proper allocation of funding to Members of Dáil Éireann?
We tend to hear that it costs money to run a party and, therefore, Deputy Martin should get per TD four and a half times, over €160,000, what is provided to Independent TDs. When, in committee, we have asked what is this for, we were told it is for research, policy development, training and administration. Independent TDs carry out all those functions too, yet we are asked to do it for four and a half times less than party TDs, without any of the economies of scale that parties have.
Let us not forget that this funding goes to and stays with the parties even when members of those parties leave or are expelled. I have run the numbers on the Labour Party Deputies and Fine Gael Deputies and Senators who have left or been expelled from their parties, and it turns out that the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach will get approximately €2.2 million over the course of this Dáil for TDs who are not in their parties. That is easy money. I would say there are many businesses out there that would like to know how they can get €2 million from the Exchequer for staff whom they have had to let go. In his speech, the Minister addressed this. He stated:
It has been suggested that in the event that a Member of a party loses the party Whip, the parliamentary party should have its funding reduced [Deputy Catherine Murphy, myself and many others have suggested exactly that]. Not only does that suggestion miss the point that the money given to the party, reflecting the wishes of the electorate, is not the individual's and was never theirs to control or spend in that fashion...The Minister and I have debated this previously and we have fundamentally different views on it, but I put it to him again that the electorate does not vote for parties.
-----or if the people it elects choose to leave those parties, those elected Members of Dáil Éireann still have political functions with regard to research, with regard to training, with regard to all the matters that Independent TDs must do and with regard to all the matters the parties must do.
It is preposterous to say to the voting public, "When you vote, be aware you are not voting for this person; you are voting for their party. If this person, for example, makes a stand and defends an election promise we made, but we change our mind and kick them out-----
-----we will keep their funding." That is preposterous. I do not believe any member of the voting public would say "I absolutely agree. I am not voting for this person; I am voting for this party. Therefore, it does not matter who the person is."
The Minister and I have debated this. I know I will not change his mind. However, I want to put it on the record that I fundamentally disagree and point out, as the Minister will be aware, that the Constitution does not mention political parties.
It mentions Members of the Oireachtas.
This Bill only reduces the leader's allowance, and that is the only source of political funding that Independent TDs have. As I laid out, parties have three sources of funding, two of which have been completely ignored by the Bill. Whilst I agree that the leader's allowance should be reduced and have previously tabled amendments to have it reduced, the other sources of funding should be reduced as well. There are two reasons for this. First, it will save the Exchequer money at a time when there is very little public money available. Second, by reducing only the funding available to non-party TDs, the Minister has increased the disparity between what party leaders get for each of their TDs and what Independent TDs get.
In his response, the Minister might address the following questions. Why is total political funding not being reduced by 10%?
Why is Exchequer funding not being reduced? Why are Oireachtas resources to parties not being reduced? Why is it only the leader's allowance that is reduced and why is it only being reduced by 10%? Could we not go further and reduce it by 15% or 20%? Why will ex-party TDs not be given funding? I believe it is because this Bill is a sop. It is like a lot of other so-called political reform, it is pretend reform because it is political expedience, it is cynical and it is box-ticking. In spite of all of that I am going to vote for the Bill because it goes a tiny fraction of the way that we need to go in upgrading political funding, but if this is the only real change we are going to see in political funding from now on, it is very disappointing.
This Bill serves to protect and strengthen the existing political cartel. In its lack of ambition it has failed to create a fair, transparent, cost-effective and fundamentally more democratic funding of politics in Ireland. Perhaps the Minister will take on board some of those points, although I doubt it, and bring them forward as amendments on Committee Stage.
I will also be supporting this legislation. I support the reduction of the leader's allowance and absolutely support the vouching of moneys spent. It is wrong, and has been wrong, that the spending of public moneys is not properly vouched and that the process is not transparent. I put forward amendments to other legislation in recent years to try to achieve that but they were not accepted by Government, and I was surprised about that. I can present the Minister with the amendments and the legislation concerned if need be.
It is right that we have to account to the Standards in Public Office and that records are kept. It is right also that the severance payments to Ministers is discontinued. Those are the broad elements of the legislation and I am supportive of them.
I will try not to cover much of what has been said. The way political funding is allocated requires a substantial change. The Electoral Acts date back to 1938 when de Valera was Taoiseach. Such funding was about providing something like a first-class ticket on the train; it was very modest and that is from when it dates. It was only in the 1990s when the economy was perceived to be doing very well that there was a change in respect of the amount of money that began to be allocated to the political system and it increased considerably. I support the idea that a large part of politics must be funded publicly because we have seen that we pay a price for relying on, for example, donations from particular sectors and where one or two sectors had a disproportionate impact on public policy by virtue of the relationship between political donations and the decisions that were made.
I was amused by what Deputy Ó Cuív said about the leader's allowance because I do not believe he has not researched how it works for Fianna Fáil which does very well out it by virtue of its size. On the leader's allowance alone, it would average in region of €64,000 per TD, Sinn Féin does better with €67,000 per TD and there is a one third discount for the parties that are in government. What is provided to Independent TDs is substantially below that. The spending of the allowance should be vouched and it should be spent on areas that fall within the various categories, for example, developing policy, communications and a range of other areas that comprise normal parliamentary activity.
Another issue needs to be addressed and I referred to it yesterday when I spoke on the motions on the nominations to the Standards in Public Office Commission and obviously some of us strayed from speaking about the individuals who had been nominated. I refer to the issue of how political parties are not declaring the donations they are coming in. A Bill's digest for another item of legislation last year stated:
A key problem with the current political finance regime in Ireland is that it has been relatively easy for parties to raise funds from private sources without disclosing them, thereby defeating the purpose of the regime in the first place... In spite of parties declaring over €10 million in campaign expenditure for the 2007 general election, just over €1 million was disclosed in donations.That is according to a SIPO report of 2008. That Bill's digest goes on to note that "none of the three main parties disclosed any donations in 2009 in spite of the fact that it was an election year". None of the three main political parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party, disclosed any donations in 2010. The SIPO report on expenditure in February 2011 revealed electoral expenses of €9.2 million disclosed by candidates and parties. The three main parties were the biggest spenders, with Fine Gael at €3.1 million, Fianna Fáil at €2.1 million and the Labour Party at €1.9 million. The Irish Independent produced a comparative report fairly soon afterwards under a headline referring to the cash political parties did not tell people about, and reported that €5 million has been handed over in the past decade. The resourcing and ability of SIPO to investigate seems to be constrained. These needs to be a change in that respect. It cannot be a question of forever pushing that off into the future.
An area that is rarely mentioned in terms of the funding or resourcing of political parties is that of staffing. That comes under the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. I have talked to the Minister about this on a number of occasions. Some of the staffing is allocated on that basis of parties that would have common policy platforms. I do not have an issue with that and that is work that needs to be done. Some of the work involves the co-ordination that must take place for this House to function in an effective way. The Technical Group is a recognised group in the context of Standing Orders, yet its ability to function as a technical group is not provided for by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. For example, I act as the Whip for the Technical Group and I deal with the Bills Office, the questions office, the committee secretariat, the Journal Office and the Superintendent. Various Ministers ring from time to time and to avoid having to ring 15 or 16 people, my office is where the telephone call is made. We collectively hired two people to do that. It cannot be done with any fewer and it is really right at that. Such work is about the normal functioning of this House, yet no provision is made for it because it requires a change to primary legislation in order that the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission can then provide for it. I will be putting forward an amendment in that respect to this Bill and I hope the Minister will accept it. Matters such as continuity planning require us to engage and it is not fair to ask any one of us to do that internal work without someone to assist with it.
It requires us to have an accountant to work out taxation. The contracts are less advantageous to the people we are hiring than those doing exactly the same work as Members of the Oireachtas. There is a good argument that the resources available should be shared in a way that allows the Houses to function. I am not making the argument that it should be on a par with parties because it is not a policy platform and merely concerns the functioning of the House. We are a large group, amounting to one third of the Opposition. It is one of the basic things required.
Although something has been done about the category of travel and accommodation, I do not take a travel allowance. I can get the bus or the train into town and I have a car park space provided. If I was working anywhere else, I would not expect an allowance to turn up to work. I have no difficulty with people receiving allowances where they must travel significant distances and provide accommodation away from home. It is entirely different but people find this arrangement incredible. There are several different travel categories. Living 20 miles from the Dáil, one can claim an unvouched sum of €26,000. That is wrong and it needs to change, as do some other allowances. If Members are in here, they are not doing two jobs as there are only so many hours in the day. For example, I see no reason why a separate allowance is paid to Members who act as Whips. We are not provided for in this respect, nor am I looking for it, but I do not see why it should be paid. People understand these things and while there is criticism about the extent of the salary, much of it is taken care of through taxation. The other moneys on top of salary are what people find difficult to comprehend and accept.
Yesterday, during Leaders' Questions, Deputy Joan Collins spoke powerfully about an individual whose contributory widow's pension had been withdrawn because a review was being carried out by the Department. She had a legitimate expectation of the widow's pension but the only people with a legitimate expectation are those with the wherewithal to go to court. In respect of excessive pensions in the past that have been reduced, people do not understand why they have not been reduced further and why the legitimate expectation argument is not used in that context. It is used because they have the money to go to court. The courts are not available to those on a widow's pension or social welfare payment because of the cost of going to court.
A number of things must change. It is right and proper that public money must be accounted for and open to scrutiny. Independent Members should be no different to any other Member. Not only have I said that, I made an effort to change it by tabling an amendment to legislation. I hope there is some element of understanding in respect of the nuts and bolts of the running of the House. The Houses of Oireachtas Commission should not be precluded from a fair allocation of resources. Some 78 people are employed under that heading and none of them are provided to the Technical Group. It concerns allocating speaking times and doing the things that ensure the House functions properly. It does not stray into the policy area and it is reasonable to seek. I will seek it in the context of an amendment to the legislation, which I support.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the legislation before the House, which is short and relatively straightforward but long overdue. I have raised this with the Minister for a considerable period of time and I thank him for the manner in which he addressed it. The concept of a leader's allowance has been knocking around since the foundation of the State and is, without fear of contradiction, one of the most abused forms of payment anyone has had the pleasure of receiving. It was used as a form of patronage when a certain party in the House could not cobble together a majority. Before we knew where we were, every Member was in government, every Member was a leader and every Member was an equal partner. Some were given secret deals and some deals were so secret someone managed to leak the terms of the deal to constituents in Dublin North-Central. When push came to shove, the occupant of the Taoiseach's office from Dublin Central was no longer flavour of the month and the Member walked away from him but the leaders allowance remained. It is mind-boggling that in 2010, an Independent elected to this House received €41,152 into the hand and Independent Senators received €23,383 into the hand without any receipt. Likening it to net income, it amounts to almost €80,000 gross income, in addition to a Member's salary, for the benefit of being elected as someone not within the party. The concept of the allowance has been totally abused and has gone out of control.
From 2001 to 2013, figures released as an answer to a parliamentary question show some €4,190,854.83 was paid to Dáil Members. Some €1,691,944.25 was paid to Senators, amounting to a total of €5,882,799.08 without a single receipt. In the context of what the country has gone through over the past years, having that system in operation was a scandal. The Minister's Bill will go a long way to addressing it. People can huff and puff about how they tried to raise it with the Minister and tried to get the Minister to introduce legislation but, of the €5,882,799.08, I do not think any of it was returned or refused.
The Minister touched on a number of key points, one of which was vouching. The public will no longer accept Members being in receipt of public moneys without vouching. The difference between the leader's allowance for parties in contrast to Independents is that there is a vouching system for parties. They must, rightly, vouch for the money to the Standards in Public Offices Commission, SIPO. That does not exist for Independent Deputies and Senators and the money can be spent on anything. Theoretically, it is supposed to be used for political work but in Westminster MPs use it for draining moats and installing PVC windows. The sum of €41,152 could be used for anything, which is wrong. This week, Members received notifications from the Oireachtas one-stop shop and SIPO about 2013 expenses incurred and the register of our interests. This is right.
This is the last edifice of the culture that must be eliminated. It was the type of issue that gave politics a bad name. I have no problem with people being well remunerated or paid a good salary as, in fairness, everybody in this institution - be they Deputies, Senators, staff members or clerical officers - works hard and deserves to be paid appropriately. In 2014, we cannot justifiably retain a system where a person would retain in excess of €40,000 without a single receipt being presented. That is unacceptable.
In his speech the Minister referred to what would happen within 120 days of the end of the financial year, and if there are issues of non-compliance, the Minister can arrange to have the leader's allowance suspended until the issues are rectified. As the Bill moves through the House, will the Minister consider the matter in more detail? What happens if there is an absolutely flagrant abuse of the allowance? If somebody were to drain a moat or buy new gutters or PVC windows, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform should have some mechanism of clawback either in salary, the parliamentary representation allowance or other mechanism. After what we have seen in the past three or four weeks with certain individuals in the charities sector, we know a rigid procedure should be put in place. There should even be the possibility, if the process is abused beyond the guidelines as outlined by the Department and the Standards in Public Office Commission, of criminal penalties.
Ultimately we are trying to achieve absolute fairness. The political process should be adequately funded so people should not feel they must go out with a begging bowl to ensure they can adequately perform in their job as a Deputy or Senator. By the same token, if allowances are used for purposes for which they are not intended, there should be retribution in the form of penalties. The best way of enforcing a penalty in this regard is by taking back the money.
The Minister also indicated he is standing over the basis on which people can find themselves as Independents having come from a political party, and I agree with those sentiments. There cannot be a system in politics like we could have in the HSE, where money would follow the patient. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that a person could be elected to party A before winding up as an Independent, going to party B and perhaps falling out with that party to become an Independent again. The accounting mechanisms required to follow such a pattern would be too onerous, and the process would not reflect the wishes expressed through the ballot box of the people who elected the individual in the first place. There is no way of knowing how people will end up politically when we vote for them but we must trust our instincts. If people vote for a person in a political party, there is an expectation that although the person might not wind up continuing in the party, the funding stream should remain with the party. Staffing levels, research facilities and all the structures in place cannot operate on the idea that "they come and go", as it would be grossly unfair to staff. None of us knows when this may affect us but if we are realistic, if a person is elected as a member of a party to which funding is allocated, it should stand as such. Otherwise there would be a mentality of "they come and go", which would do nothing for staff members or in trying to instil some financial discipline in the area.
Deputy Catherine Murphy made some comments regarding the Technical Group, and some of the reports in yesterday's Irish Independentare quite worrying. If, for argument's sake, a person is essentially kicked out of the Technical Group and removed from a committee because of a failure to provide payment in respect of services provided by the Technical Group, it is a worrying development. What differentiates the Technical Group from parties? Members might argue that it is not a party but if it quacks, walks like a duck and looks like a duck, it is a duck. There is obviously a whip system in force in the Technical Group, meaning that people can be kicked off committees. A person can be unfortunate enough to sit in this Chamber and vote himself off a committee; that is the first time I have seen such an act.
This indicates there is a bit of work to be done in defining what is an Independent Deputy and the Technical Group. I have brought the matter up as a Topical Issue and in oral questions to the appropriate Minister, who has always been up-front with his replies. We must be honest with people. The Technical Group has leaders, whips, people who could be considered spokespersons and slots on committees. It also has a levy placed on members to fund its activities. That is a party, and the Minister should examine the mechanism for registering the group with the Standards in Public Office Commission. That is if the reports in yesterday's newspaper are correct and Members are expected to pay €260, as I am only going by what I read, and not everything in it may be accurate. People have a right to know where the money is going, to whom it is going and its purpose. If a person wants to know anything about Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour or Sinn Féin, he or she only needs to go to the Standards in Public Office Commission to get chapter and verse of everything that a party does, including staff numbers, costs, where people are based, the names of general secretaries etc. That is the way it should be.
It is different if a person is kicked off a committee or votes to kick himself off a committee because he did not pay €260 for a service. Nobody on this side of the House knows what the Deputy is getting for that, and perhaps it was right that he was kicked out. I do not know. There should be an accounting mechanism for those kinds of activities. If a person is an Independent, that is fine, but if a person is pretending to be an Independent while part of a party called the Technical Group, it should be clarified. The Technical Group should operate on that basis, and the structures of the House should reflect that. It is not happening now, which is regrettable. The Technical Group has had clear issues with leadership, which is its own matter. It is different if a person is kicked out and removed from a committee. There are serious questions to be asked in that regard and there may be an opportunity for some of the people from the group who have already spoken or will speak to enlighten us on what the €260 per month, as reported in the Irish Independent, is used for. As the Minister knows, the report may not be accurate.
I welcome this Bill, which is timely or perhaps long overdue. There was a time when patronage had crept into Irish politics to a degree. We saw this with convenors or assistant convenors of committees and chairpersons of sub-committees. There was a time when everybody on this side of the House had a job, except for two unfortunate Deputies in the Fianna Fáil Party who seemed to fall out of favour with a certain individual. It is not a bad thing that this practice has stopped. We have a way to go and further improvements must be made.
Deputy Stephen S. Donnelly is correct in that the 10% figure may not be sufficient. Given the unvouched amount that currently applies, the Minister could go a bit further. I welcome the process will be vouched from now on. The Minister might reconsider the penalties, rather than just suspending the allowance for failure to comply with regulations and guidelines set down by the Minister or the Standards in Public Office Commission. If a person knows the money will be clawed back or there will be another adequate penalty, he or she will consider the process in a different guise.
I welcome the Bill. I know there will be minor amendments to be made throughout the course of its passage, and in the Seanad there was a suggestion to change the name from the leader's allowance to the parliamentary activities allowance. That is a good idea and some of the Senators, in particular, made some good contributions. I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this legislation and I welcome its principle. There are many good aspects to this, and it will bring about additional accountability in how public funds are distributed and accounted for.
That is extremely welcome. I welcome the principle of the Bill on that basis.
A number of issues arise and I hope that during this debate, each party leader will answer to the House on the funding he has been receiving in recent years. I would like to know from each party leader whether staff have received pay increases from public funding since 2007. Have any of those staff received top-ups or bonuses in that period? We have seen problems with charities in receipt of public funds. Not all the money is obtained from public sources, as some money is raised through charitable donations. This is the case with political parties in that they receive both State funds and contributions from members of the public. I hope every party leader will clarify whether all of his staff are in compliance with Government pay guidelines. This is a basic requirement. I hope every party leader will put on the record his position on the moneys his party is receiving. I hope we see fully audited funding of all political groupings and parties where State funds are involved. If an organisation receives even €1 in State funds, all the funds it receives should be accounted for.
I, as a democratically elected Member of a sovereign national Parliament, am denied the right to sit on an Oireachtas committee because I happened to stand up for a clear commitment concerning my constituency given by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister for Health. That commitment was rescinded by them six or eight weeks later in the Parliament. The way that some members of this House are being restricted from sitting on parliamentary committees and receiving basic access to independent funding for research to carry out their role as parliamentarians is unconstitutional. It is not right that because I happen to have been elected as a member of a political party, I am not entitled to access to independent research in order to contribute to this and every other debate in the House.
Every single Member, whether he is in a party or not, should be concerned by the article in the Sunday Independentby Niamh Horan and Fionnan Sheahan on 19 January. Members will know that Fine Gael and the Labour Party are allocated significant public funds on the basis that I and my non-aligned colleagues were members of the party at the time of the general election. It is important to highlight this matter because it indicates the attitude within Government parties. Quoting a senior Fine Gael source, the article states that the party is making every effort to replace Deputy Creighton for the next general election. It is stated that every assistance and resource will be provided. The reality is that, in practical terms, public funds are being used in this regard. They should be returned to the Exchequer. Not only are they being denied to me but they are being used to undermine my constitutional role in the Parliament and the work I do on behalf of my constituents. That is fundamentally unconstitutional. I ask the leaders of Fine Gael and the Labour Party to follow the example of their colleague on the Opposition benches, Deputy Joe Higgins, who handed back the party funding he received on behalf of Deputy Clare Daly, who has left the political grouping.
The system of public funding of the political system represents a cartel that is being controlled by the political parties. It does not make any difference who is in Government. The Government in power can do no wrong, and the Opposition is of the view that everything is wrong. If adversarial politics were so good in this country and if the Dáil worked, why would 100,000 people be leaving this island every year because they cannot get a job here? Political debate should be seen as good and it should be ensured that every Member of this Parliament has an equal capacity to contribute. This should be not only allowed but encouraged.
The figures presented and published by Deputy Stephen Donnelly are interesting. Fine Gael and the Labour Party are receiving more than €900,000 per annum in public funding for Members who are no longer in their parties. This is far more than Mr. Paul Kiely received in a lump sum from the Central Remedial Clinic. His was a once-off lump sum but in this case there is an annual payment to the leaders of the Labour and Fine Gael Parties. This amounts to more than €2.5 million in the lifetime of the Government. Let me put that in context. It is the equivalent of more than 2,500 medical cards, which are currently being denied to sick children across the country. These children could have medical cards if the money went back into the Exchequer rather than being absorbed by the political parties. It should rightly be returned to the Exchequer to support vulnerable and sick children.
The structure of party funding has been commented on by a number of eminent people, two of whom I will quote. Political party funding of €14 million is not fully accounted for or transparent, but it should be. Professor David Farrell in UCD has described the current structure in the country as "a functioning political cartel". If that is not a damning indictment of the system in place, I do not know what is. A former colleague of mine and former member of the Government, Mr. Ivan Yates, calls it “an insiders-only rule”. He said:
It's farcical that Fine Gael and Labour are still drawing down cash on the basis of TDs who have left their party since the election. These TDs are denied the €41,152 allowance that independents get paid annually... They seek to operate a closed shop more effectively than any trade union or cartel.The members of the Government, particularly the party leaders and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, should reflect on those comments.
The Minister will argue that funding must be based on the date of the election, but that principle is broken in this legislation. Section 2 introduces a new section 10, subsection (12), which contains amending legislation covering the Workers’ Party and the Progressive Democrats. This amendment, being proposed by the Government, breaks a principle and allows for funding to be switched with a group if the party in question is dissolved.
It is an illusion that people vote for political parties, as the Minister argues. What a load of rubbish. The vast majority vote based on the candidate on the ballot paper. The majority of the space on the ballot paper is devoted to the candidate and his or her profession and address rather than his or her ideology or political party. Can we justify the argument that Deputy Penrose is elected because of the Labour Party vote in Longford-Westmeath? I doubt it. I do not believe a Labour Party Deputy had been elected in that constituency prior to his election, and there probably will not be one again, because the vote was a personal vote for Deputy Penrose. Can one argue that the Labour Party Deputies elected in 1997 were elected based on the Labour Party vote? They actually went against the trend and were elected to the Parliament.
The same is true in my own case in 2002. Had I relied on the Fine Gael vote in 2002, it is outside this House I would be sitting, not inside it. Every other Fine Gael Deputy who was elected on that occasion bucked the political trend at the time. It is the same with the Fianna Fáil Members of this Dáil who were elected in 2011. They were not elected on the basis of the Fianna Fáil vote.
On a personal level, I find that comment derogatory. In my own case, the Fine Gael vote is a relatively small percentage of the overall number of votes that I get. In fact, any literature I have ever distributed has had a very small Fine Gael logo on it, either during a general election campaign or between elections. I pride myself on representing every single constituent, regardless of his or her political persuasion. If I can help someone, I will. I have had card-carrying members of Fianna Fáil come to my constituency office who will go out and canvass against me in a general election, but if I can facilitate or help them, I will do so. I believe I have a constitutional obligation to represent them and their views in this Parliament. I take that very seriously and that role is recognised in the Constitution. I have a role as an individual among 166 individuals in this House. For the record, when the Taoiseach came to open my constituency office and announce the closure of the accident and emergency department at Roscommon County Hospital, there was no Fine Gael logo because I pride myself on representing every individual. To say I should not be entitled to independent research because I was elected as a Fine Gael Deputy and that the people of Roscommon and south Leitrim voted for me because I was a Fine Gael candidate is insulting. The people voted for me because I am prepared to stand up and call a spade a spade, which is what I did and now I am being penalised for it.
It is not right that money is going to the Fine Gael Party for the Ceann Comhairle who is supposed to an independent arbitrator in the Chamber. He is an independent arbitrator and it should not be the case that funding is going to the Fine Gael Party because he was elected as a Fine Gael Deputy. He does not have access to the funding put in place and that is not right.
Most Deputies in this House would honestly agree - although they might not say it - that the biggest problem we have in this Parliament is the Whip system.
Everything is subject to a three-line Whip. One never hears about a two-line or a one-line Whip in voting on certain issues in this Parliament. Admittedly, there must be a three-line Whip in government on issues of economic stability, confidence in the Government and so forth, but a very interesting incident happened here yesterday when legislation was being brought through the House. The legislation in question was the Local Government Reform Bill and an amendment tabled by a Fine Gael Member and a Labour Party Member was taken on board by the Minister. That is virtually unheard of in this House because people are afraid of the Whip system. Every single Member, regardless of party-political persuasion, should be actively participating in the enactment of legislation and making changes, as is standard practice in every other parliament in the world. However, because of the Whip system, Members are afraid to actively participate in debates and table amendments to legislation. That undermines the power of the Dáil and weakens government because Ministers are relying on their independent researchers and do not have to justify decisions here in a proper debate in the House. Members who happen to stand up on a particular issue, whatever it may be, and say, "No, this is not the right way to go," are penalised. The Minister for Health came in and blatantly misled the House with figures. He has consistently refused to come back in and correct the record, even when the matter was brought to the attention of the Ceann Comhairle. He used the information to close an accident and emergency department and because I was not prepared to stand by the untruths in this Chamber and turn a blind eye to them, I have been denied the ability to actively participate in debates on an equal footing with every other Member.
We should be encouraging debate. Almost 60% of people did not vote in the referendum on the Seanad. In the last general election 40% did not vote. Surely it makes far more sense to encourage political debate rather than undermine it. In recent weeks I have been asked on numerous occasions about the Reform Alliance and whether it is a political party. I am blue in the face saying, "No, it is not." It is a group of like-minded politicians and Members of this House who are coming together in order to be able to have a voice in this Chamber because we have been deliberately blocked by the Government. Thankfully and thanks to the Ceann Comhairle, we have been given speaking rights. I would not have had the opportunity to speak in this debate were it not for the intervention of the Ceann Comhairle who ensured we were given speaking rights.
It is wrong that I do not have a role in parliamentary committees. I stand by my record in parliamentary committees and defy any other Member to say I did not actively contribute to the debates and the work of any committee of which I was a member since I was elected to this House. In fact, if one looks at my parliamentary committee record, one will see that it would shame many Members in the context of attendance, never mind participation, yet I am not given the right to speak at committees. However, tt is not just me who has been affected. A full one tenth of the Members of the Dáil are denied speaking rights in the parliamentary committee system. Various Ministers and members of the Government have said the committee system is the way forward. They have said they are giving the system the teeth and the resources it needs, but at the same time, they are denying one tenth of the Members of the Dáil the right to participate on an equal footing with their colleagues. That is not right and no one should try to defend it.
All we are looking for is fair play. Money, far in excess of the amount given to Mr. Paul Kiely on a once-off basis, is being given on an annual basis to the Government parties. That money should go back into the Exchequer and be spent on sick children in order that they can have a medical card; that their parents do not have to fight tooth and nail and literally sweat blood to get a medical card for their terminally ill child. That would be a far better way of spending the money. Representatives of every political party should come into the House and explain how they are spending it. They should tell us if they have given salary increases or top-up payments to some of their staff from the €14 million they receive in public funding. They should also tell us if they have given top-up payments from moneys raised through fund-raising activities, over and above the public funds they receive. The same questions that arise in relation to charities also arise in relation to political parties. If it is good enough for charities to have to come out and explain what is going on, it is also good enough for political parties to do the same.
Just because we want to work as a group to try to maximise our contributions to this Parliament and our participation in debates, we are being ridiculed by members of the Government. I could not care less what they think because I have been given a constitutional role to speak on behalf of the people who elected me. When I say "the people who elected me", I mean every single person in my constituency. I also have a responsibility to the people of the country as a whole. I take my constitutional role very seriously and do not believe it is right or legal for any Government to undermine that role and my ability to participate in this House. I urge the Government to look at this issue seriously and bring forward an amendment to the legislation on Committee Stage. Let us treat every Member equally and give every Deputy an equal opportunity to speak in this House in informed debates. Let us bring back relevance to this Chamber. Let us bring back pride into it and have real political debates. Let us make decisions that benefit the country and young people that will enable them to find a job here.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate.
It is a bit odd that so few Government Members are offering and, likewise for Members of other parties, because in many ways the Bill goes to the heart of what politics is about and touches on some of the problems that are dogging the political system in this country and creating a situation where there is widespread disillusionment with politics as it is practised. Such disillusionment is felt right across the population but it is particularly the case among younger people, who are witnessing the kind of stuff we have heard in recent times such as the Irish Water debacle, the CRC, St. Vincent’s University Hospital and going back to the Kevin Cardiff situation and the Anglo tapes. All of those cases show up this country in a bad light and hold up a mirror for us which shows the scale of the problems affecting what is supposed to be a modern democracy in this country, and the fact that we have a very long way to go to have an accountable and transparent democratic system. That in itself is very demoralising for many people and it is certainly disillusioning for many. The most concerning aspect is the sense that there is no indication that the culture will change. That underlies part of the reason so many young people have left good jobs in this country and have gone to live abroad. The big challenge for us in the future when jobs come back on-stream and the economy eventually takes off again will be to try to create the type of country that our young emigrants will want to come back to. The main thing that sickens people is the lack of accountability in this country and the fact that we still have a very healthy cronyism that permeates all aspects of life. That is such a turn-off and is so demoralising for many Irish people.
The legislation is supposed to be about introducing reform to the political system and the way in which we fund politics and there are elements to it that cannot but be welcomed. I refer to the arrangements for improved auditing of the party leader's allowance, the reduction of 10% in the allowance, provisions for inspection powers for the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, arrangements for the return of unspent moneys and other technical changes and the elimination of severance payments. However, they indicate a mere scratching of the surface. Another speaker referred to it as a box-ticking exercise for the reform of politics and the funding of politics. It is literally only to say that the task has been completed and the Government introduced the Bill when we know that what is contained in the legislation does not go anywhere near what is required in terms of restoring confidence in the political system. The Bill is exceptionally unambitious. It is really a pretence of reform. It only deals with one element of the political funding system. There is no reference to the whole question of State funding and the need to reform that area or the staffing allowances which are very much stacked in favour of the political parties. It is a far cry from the notion of any kind of democratic revolution or reform of Irish politics.
The Bill predominantly deals with the party leader's allowance, which will be renamed as the parliamentary activities allowance. That is a more accurate name. I will return to that. The party leader's allowance is costing taxpayers approximately €5.5 million per year. It has been at that rate since approximately 2008. The figure has not been reduced throughout all of the period of the recession. Everyone, across society has had to make reductions in their personal spending. Family incomes have experienced severe austerity but the reality is that there has been no austerity at all for political parties because their substantial funding has not been reduced throughout the period. I venture to suggest that it is only now at this point when the parties in government are making strenuous efforts to try to restore some respectability to their activities that they are coming up with this figleaf or pretence at some kind of reform. The basis on which we were told the party leader's allowance increased up to 2008 was that it was to keep in line with Civil Service remuneration but when it got to 2008 it remained at that level up to the present even when Civil Service remuneration was being reduced during the recession the party leader's allowances were not reduced.
The second serious problem I have with the party leader's allowance is the manner in which the weighting system operates. The weighting system remains the same. There is a weighting in place for Government Deputies and it has been reduced by 33% but that is too little. I support the proposal made by Fianna Fáil that the reduction should be increased to 50% for Government Deputies in order to reflect the huge armoury of the State in many respects as the Civil Service works with the Government in the Departments. In addition, there is a separate system of political advisers. They are paid from the public purse and in most cases get a top-up, which calls into question the mock outrage we heard in recent times about organisations such as the CRC and so many others that are paying top-ups because, in effect, many of the current Ministers pay top-ups to their advisers. A pay limit is supposed to apply to ministerial advisers and a lot of noise was made about that when the Government was formed but that has been honoured in the breach rather than in adherence to it. It is interesting to look at those figures. Many Ministers have no credibility when it comes to talking about the need for people to tighten their belts and to live within the guidelines and the rules because they have made cases for their own political staff to receive top-ups. The Government parties have the Civil Service and the whole ministerial advisory system at their disposal and for that reason it is only reasonable that there would be a stronger weighting for Government Deputies, which should be at 50%. I would be supportive of amendments in that regard.
There is huge variation in payments among Opposition Deputies. The way the system currently operates is that for each of the first ten members of a party, the party leader gets an allowance of €71,000. Even with the weighting, the allowance for each of the first ten party members who are Government Deputies is €47,680. Independents get €41,000. I do not know the justification for that other than to bolster the strength of the parties and to weaken the influence of Independent Members. Again, it is fundamentally undemocratic to have a funding system that operates in such a manner. Everyone who comes into this House is honoured to be elected by his or her constituents.
Every Member has an equal mandate and should be treated equally when it comes to supports for performing their parliamentary duties. To do otherwise is fundamentally undemocratic in my view. We have a system that does not treat Members equally. Some get an opportunity to play a fuller part than others because the House is dominated by parties.
The idea people vote for some candidates because of their party membership is nonsense. It is very far from what is on people’s minds when they cast their vote. We have seen that where in spite of a big swing against a particular party, individual candidates from the very same party have held their seats comfortably. The whole point of Independents being treated unequally is wrong and needs to be dealt with. I will be tabling amendments to that effect on Committee Stage.
There are some Members who were elected under a party banner but who, for various reasons, resigned from both their parliamentary and political party to become Independent Members. These Members, including myself and my colleague here beside me, Deputy Mathews, have been disgracefully treated in that the funding provided, in theory, to support us in our parliamentary duties and responsibilities has been withdrawn. I do not know the basis for this move or how it could stand up to any legal challenge, given all Members have an equal mandate. Why does the funding system favour certain Members while completely disregarding others?
When the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, was challenged on this, he said there were important principles involved. He suggested some Members missed the point because this funding, designed to support parliamentary activity, should reflect the wishes of the electorate. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that it should reflect the wishes of the electorate. Some of us, however, are now Independent Members, ex-party Members, because of our determination to reflect the wishes of our electorate.
In my own case, part of the reason people voted Labour in the last general election, was because the Labour Party at that point stood for the allocation of resources on the basis of need. When this principle was completely disregarded and trampled upon in the Department of Health, to be fair to the people who elected me, I believed I had no choice to resign from my ministerial position and, indeed, from the Labour Party. I was very much reflecting the views of the electorate. Other Members who find themselves in a similar situation would argue the same point where they stood by commitments given by their erstwhile parties but now find themselves excommunicated, unable to play a full role in this House. That is fundamentally undemocratic and unfair. It is wrong and the Minister knows that is the case.
Even if one were to go along with the Minister’s argument about the principle, it can be thrown by the wayside because of some of the principles of the new provisions in this Bill. For example, if Members of a party that was dissolved form a new party, the funding of the dissolved party can be restored to the new entity. Accordingly, there is a recognition that the status of Members can change during a Dáil. Deputy Donnelly provided some interesting figures during his contribution. He made the point that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, through the leader's allowance, are in receipt of approximately €80,000 per annum for each one of the Members who had left or had been expelled from their parliamentary parties. There is no basis for those public moneys continuing to go to those party leaders. I call on the party leaders to return that money to the Exchequer.
It is wrong they continue to receive it for people who are no longer Members of their parties. As Deputy Naughten said, that funding is actually being used by the two parties to undermine the role being played by these Independent Members. These Members are serious about carrying out the mandate they received from the electorate and playing a full part in the House’s business but there are party workers working away to undermine this. It is fundamentally undemocratic to continue the payment of this allowance. I call on the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to refund these moneys to the Exchequer because they are receiving it under false pretences. That is wrong and those moneys should be returned forthwith.
The failure to have a system in place that recoups these moneys from party leaders is unhealthy. It raises fundamental issues about the nature of our democracy and the Whip system. The threat of removing the kind of research, technical and press supports, supports on which all Members depend upon to fulfil our roles in this House, which are available as result of this funding is part and parcel of the three-line Whip system. It is all or nothing. It plays into that threatening and bullying culture that exists in this House, operated by some of the party Whips. It is a case of doing it their way or one will find oneself out on a limb with no supports and they will make life really difficult. That is the message given to Members who have the temerity to stand up to their party leaders and go against their parties, acting on their own conscience as to what they believe is right and elected to do. This culture undermines the democratic process in this House. It is wrong and should not be tolerated. It is a glaring omission in this legislation that needs to be addressed. If we are serious about restoring confidence in the democratic system in our Parliament, I believe we have no choice but to change that arrangement and introduce a system that treats every Member equally and fairly, equally recognising the mandate each of us has.
I commend Deputies Shortall and Naughten on their clarity and courage of conviction and of truth. There is a feeble attempt at something in this legislation, and while I do not wish to sound dismissive of an attempt in any way, I must be honest and state it is a feeble attempt. I wish to speak in the language I would use with my family, whom I respect, about these matters. This is my mandated and serious family of 166 people. I am not in the business of playing with words, but I am here because I put myself forward as honestly as I could as a candidate for Dáil Éireann. The mode of conveyance was the Fine Gael party, which I thought still had the remnants of The Just Society and all that went with that, but my experience has been disappointing. I did not seek trouble but was hoping to help mend the mess in this country because of the dark clouds of what one can only describe as occult behaviour that are coming across one's horizons at present in little glimpses. I refer to the Central Remedial Clinic, Rehab and so on, but as Deputy Shortall mentioned them all earlier, I will not go through them. However, it is shockingly disappointing. Were Members serious about reform in the area of this Bill, they would start with a clean slate. They would ask what they wished to do in this regard. Members would note the House has 166 people who are dedicated to parliamentary arrangement and work for the people of Ireland, would note that they need resources and would start from scratch. Instead of this, Members are tinkering with stuff dishonestly under a pretence. Deputy Naughten put in more hour power on the Joint Committee on Health and Children than anyone else. While on the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, I-----