Tuesday, 12 February 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions
Programme for Government
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.
There are no arrangements of the nature suggested by the question with members of the Independent Alliance. The Programme for a Partnership Government sets out the agreement between the party groups and Deputies who are participating in, or supporting, Government.
My Department, as outlined in the strategy statement, provides assistance to the Taoiseach and the Government, including the Independent Members of Government, through the Government secretariat, the parliamentary liaison unit, the programme for Government office and the Cabinet committee structure, to ensure Government business is managed to the highest standards.
The chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in government are also based in my Department.
The Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for the Taoiseach and the Government and is assisted by the press office in his role of co-ordinating the media relations of all Government Departments. The deputy press secretary, who is also based in my Department, is tasked with co-ordinating communications for all the Independents in government.
When this issue arose in the past the Taoiseach said he had no difficulty in being transparent and that there was nothing unusual in the arrangements for dealing with Independent Deputies. That being so, will he list the Independent Deputies who have been assisted by his Department's liaison unit in regard to matters dealt with by other Departments? If not, will he explain why not?
Last Tuesday, the Taoiseach outlined the political staff who report to him. I understand that in his eagerness to claim to have fewer staff than his predecessor he made an error and that he in particular failed to note the one staff member is a seconded civil servant and, therefore, is in a different position. The Taoiseach also stated that the Independents in government are serviced by their own political staff and three people in the Department of the Taoiseach who hold the titles, deputy government press secretary for the Independent Alliance, chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and political co-ordinator for the Independent Alliance. Their role is to co-ordinate the work of one Cabinet Minister and four Ministers of State. The Independent Alliance currently has no backbenchers and so has no need to co-ordinate with a parliamentary party. Smaller groups and parties in government also always receive disproportionate support but is this not more than a bit excessive, particularly given that their ministerial staffing is in addition to this staff? Will the Taoiseach outline the process he went through in determining why this is a proportionate level of support in his Department for the Independent Alliance?
In regard to the other Independent groupings, the Taoiseach indicated previously in the House that he has a number of channels of communication with, for example, the Rural Independent Group. My understanding is that Deputy Harty is the point of contact for the Taoiseach and the Government with the Rural Independent Group on specific issues. Can the Taoiseach confirm this and can he indicate whether there is a specific arrangement with Deputy Lowry in terms of particular issues that occur in his constituency because there is always a tremendous degree of coincidence around issues raised in the House and prepared replies pertaining to initiatives in that Deputy's constituency? I am interested in an update on these matters.
I have a couple of questions for the Taoiseach. Is there a formal voting arrangement between the Government and Deputy Naughten? What Independent Deputies who are not Ministers are in a formal voting arrangement with the Government? I ask the Taoiseach to list them and to outline what supports or liaison measures are in place in this regard.
As Deputy Micheál Martin said, the Taoiseach's Department employs three senior political staff to work with the Independent Deputies in government, including the deputy Government press secretary, a chief strategist and a Mr. Dónall Geoghegan, a political co-ordinator for Independent Ministers. Now that there is only one Independent Minister, Deputy Zappone, is Mr. Geoghegan employed exclusively as a support for her or does his duties now extend to the Minister of State, Deputy Canney?
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, is a member of the Independent Alliance. Many of our citizens, unfortunately, had to emigrate to secure employment or better wages, nurses being a typical example. Emigrants with particular skill sets are being encouraged to return home, and rightly so. However, on their return they face considerable obstacles settling back into society. For example, they face discriminatory and costly motor insurance premiums. In recent times, I have been dealing with cases on behalf of returning emigrants who have been quoted exorbitant car insurance prices. This is ridiculous. These obstacles will not encourage people to return to Ireland. Rather, they will be another reason not to do so. This matter needs to be urgently rectified if we are to encourage emigrants with much sought after skills to return home. Legislation needs to be brought forward to remove such discriminatory practices in the case of returning emigrants. The Taoiseach should use his influence and instruct the Minister, Deputy Ross, to review this issue.
Following the last election, there were three, at least, career civil servants who were in the Department of the Taoiseach and formerly had been working in the office of the Tánaiste in the context of the Department of the Taoiseach. They were allocated to assisting in a Civil Service manner. The Taoiseach referred to them on several occasions and to the work they were doing in terms of new politics, the Dáil and, specifically, in regard to Independents who were inclined to support the Government. Are those three civil servants, one of whom is in a senior position, still in post and are there more people working in this area? Also, will the Taoiseach tell us if these staff are in addition to the people referred to by my colleague, Deputy Howlin, who are more traditionally Government advisers who have come in as external advisers from media careers and have previously been advisers to different Governments at different times?
I do not believe there is a list of Independent Deputies supported by the Department. However, Independent Deputies of all hues are welcome to contact my Department and we are happy to assist them on request if we can.
This includes Independent Deputies who do not regularly vote with the Government, including, for example, Deputies Harty and Michael and Danny Healy-Rae. If they contact the Department, we of course try to assist them as best we can even though they more often than not vote against the Government.
I think they voted for the Government on some key occasions in the past. I was obviously intrigued by that because they tend to make loud noises from time to time, particularly in respect of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, while at other times, they are quite acquiescent. The Taoiseach said the last time that Deputy Harty was the contact point for them.
There is no written or formal agreement but if an informal agreement means that Independent Deputies are welcome to contact my Department for assistance then there is such an informal agreement. That does not mean that they always vote with the Government. Many of them usually do not vote with it, as Deputies would acknowledge.
There is no formal voting arrangement with Deputy Naughten. However, he is a former Government colleague and my Department is happy to provide assistance to him should he request it. Again, there is no formal agreement with Deputy Lowry but he will often give us advance notice of questions he will raise during Leaders' Questions thus allowing us to prepare a better reply. Other Deputies also do this, including Deputies Healy-Rae, Connolly and Wallace. If Deputies provide us with advance notice of questions they are going to raise in the Chamber, it obviously enables us to give a higher-quality reply and I would like to extend this courtesy to any Member of the House if he or she wishes to give 48 hours' notice of the questions he or she is going to ask.
The role of Mr. Geoghegan is to assist the two Independent Ministers who are not members of the Independent Alliance, namely, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, although I understand he mainly assists the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It is useful to have him in the Department because it helps to ensure that Independents are fully aware of things that are happening across Government, not just in their own Departments, and facilitates the flow of information.
As the arrangements that were set up to support Independent Ministers and the establishment of the parliamentary liaison unit, PLU, preceded my time as Taoiseach, I do not know exactly how those arrangements came about but they have not changed in the past year and a half. In terms of the PLU, the make-up of the current Dáil and the new procedures that have come into place as a result of Dáil reform have resulted in Government conducting its business in a very different way. They have also resulted in an increased workload for Government Departments, particularly with regard to the volume of Private Members' Business.
The PLU was set up to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. One of the main functions of the unit is to provide assistance to Ministers and their Departments on Oireachtas matters with particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. The proportion of Private Members' legislation in the Oireachtas has increased significantly and Departments' engagement on Private Members' legislation has also had to change. The Government's engagement with this process has also had to change so the unit provides Departments with detailed information on the rules and procedures with regard to Private Members' business. It also provides real-time information on the progress of Private Members' Bills through the Dáil and Seanad.
The unit will be working with Departments to ensure the Government plays its part in implementing the memorandum of understanding between Government and Dáil Éireann on Private Members' Bills. It also raises awareness of Dáil reform and new responsibilities of Departments by holding meetings with the Departments. It liaises on a regular basis with advisers to ensure they are informed about Oireachtas issues and assists them in engaging with the new process arising from Dáil reform. In this regard, the unit provides detailed information on upcoming matters in the Dáil and Seanad and highlights any new Oireachtas reform issues.
The unit was established to perform a liaison function to help ensure that Ministers and Departments are properly informed of the new responsibilities and procedures in the Thirty-second Dáil. In this regard, the main focus of the unit is to liaise with Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters, with a particular emphasis on assisting Departments with Private Members' business. In performing its functions, the unit is happy to engage with any Member of the Oireachtas, where appropriate. It is not the function of the unit to ensure the support of Deputies in the House. That is a political function. The unit is there to provide factual information on Dáil and Seanad issues and Dáil reform. The unit primarily assists Departments and advisers on Oireachtas matters.